“It all began in the summer of ’68...”

Retrospectives, especially of popular labels such as Trojan, can go one of two ways: marvellously well with nods and mentions in the right places and a true knowledge of what the label means to the people that buy the albums and love the label, or they can be hideously self aggrandising, exercises in vanity and grotesque, and that line can be a thin one. The recent Zounds retrospective, for example, encapsulated what Zounds meant to the people there and explained why they were the force they were, while the current £90 ‘immersion’ sets of Pink Floyd or the £150 SMiLE sessions go in the complete opposite direction.

However, Trojan seem to have always known their place and know their significant influence, based on previous output, and, if anything, underplay themselves. The most notable output from them in the last few years has been in re-releasing compilations – sought after but not cynically expensive or limited, their Trojan Dub comp for example, is as important as any other Dub artefact, and it’s readily available for under a fiver.

As Rhoda Dakar (The Special AKA, Bodysnatchers) puts it in her foreword, “as with Tamla Motown and later on, 2 Tone...if you saw a 45 on Trojan you knew you could buy it without hearing it first.” And the tradition of knowing themselves continues with this, their “story” box set. A 5 CD plus book and bonus collection contains 123 tracks, 87 of which have never been committed to CD before (some of which were completely unreleased) as well as some wonderful post card repros and a car sticker, which all together retails for about a third of the Pink Floyd set. Considering the weight of work and love that’s gone into this set, that’s pretty astonishing.

The car sticker shows exactly how much Trojan know about themselves. It’s subtle, understated (just a black logo) but to anyone that sees it, it means a lot. The iconic head means so much to so many that it doesn’t need rebranding or repackaging or updating or anything novelty – it’s as known and loved as the Rolling Stones lips or the HMV dog. Trojan know that their fans don’t go for novelty but for quality in aesthetics and, to their credit, they deliver excellently.

I don’t normally condone postcards in box sets because they’re tacky and pointless and a marketing con, but in here, the 4 double sided cards have a weight and an importance. They’re reproductions of adverts that will make some listeners nostalgic, some curious but all involved. They’re a token from the era (in the same way as the housing for the CDs is based on an old Ampex recoding reel sheet) that gets you immersed in the box itself. Listening to it, from opening the box, moving past all the tokens, books and bits to get to the CDs themselves puts you into the right mood and frame of mind before a song even gets played.

And now, the music itself. The first CD is perhaps superfluous – it’s a hit parade of the most popular songs. I’m not complaining, there’s not a duff track on there, but if you’ve bought this box set you’ll have almost all of them all already. Still, it’s a nice 25 track disc that’s perfect for a sunny afternoon. The second CD is perhaps my favourite in pure quality unheard cuts and great tracks. It’s dedicated to the 25 “reggae greats” on their label – Alton Ellis, Bob Marley, Big Youth etc. It’s got some amazing tracks there, and subtly picked to make a mood. It’s a mix CD done to theme in a way; it showcases some brilliant artists at their best while at the same time being a pleasurable listen, a trait that carries across all discs. It’s not just about showing completists the rarest tracks or impressing with the weirdest productions or cuts it’s creating a vibe from the extensive back catalogue that can be played for pleasure as well as for the interest. I love some of the weird stuff Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry has done, for example, but I wouldn’t want to listen to half of them more than once, whereas ‘French Connection’ is a simply genius track.

The third disc is where it gets interesting. Showcasing the producers in this way has not only allowed the set to become useful but now it seems essential, and once again, it’s mixed to perfection. Each and every track shows off the producer’s talents perfectly (though some producers – Horace Andy, Lee Perry etc. – could have a disc worth of individual productions themselves it could be argued). The idea of being able to get away with a whole disc of cuts to show off the producers is slightly gimmicky, but it works exceptionally well.

Disc four again seems a bit of a gimmick – all the Trojan labels together – but if you disregard the fact it’s never going to tell a story with each of these then you can appreciate the quality here. There’s a few brilliant tracks here – 'Shoot Me' by Earl Lawrence and 'Come On' by The Cables come to mind – but they’re all good, and there’s not a duff track.

Finally, the important last disc – the rarities. There’s some amazing stuff on here, and it’s all interesting, and once again the tracks are brilliant, the standouts for me being Anonymously Yours’ take on the American classic 'Stagger Lee' and the pairing of Ansel Collins’ 'Double Or Nothing' and Dandy’s 'Double Barrel Man' which shows just how often the label took their best tunes and worked them into something fresh and new before they made something great. There’s nothing too weird (there’s a few that’ll make you get up and think “...really?”) but it makes it flow better as a result. There are some truly peculiar dubs out there and some amazing covers and weird versions but once you’ve heard them once, you don’t want to hear them again. All of the tracks on this disc can be enjoyed over and over again with new bits to be discovered and enjoyed.

Along with the bonus 12 tracks you get when you register it with the Trojan appreciation society you get a hell of a lot for your money. Not many important labels like this would release this much archival stock this freely and for this price, but I’m grateful Trojan have. The beauty of each and every track here is that it can be intended for its original purpose – parties, dancing and/or being happy – but each can be studied and enjoyed from a collector’s point of view too, and that’s what makes Trojan so very special.