Monday, July 07, 2008

The Primer #2: reggae like it used to be

The full scale ridiculousness of a pasty bloke from Jesus Christ Superstar issuing a clarion call for old style reggae is that this was released in 1976, slap bang in the middle of what is now commonly known as 'the golden age of reggae'. What actually spurred us on to this, thogugh, was seeing a TV advert for something called Massive Reggae, posited as all the irie you need for your summer. And who have they picked off its tracklisting as its selling points? Shaggy, Shabba Ranks, Ini Kamoze, longtime Moyles punchline Chaka Demus & Pliers... basically Jamaicans influenced by hip hop to form a crossover version of dancehall, which was invented at the end of the 1970s and has a arm's length relationship with roots reggae. While roots is great summer music and none of the above really "reggae Beethoven" - thank you, Paul - it's misleading to throw them in as keepers of the Bob Marley flame. Indeed, there's far too many flames burning from the 'golden age' that aren't treated with such reverence, and it's time we had a look at them.

Quick timeline to start, because reggae certainly didn't intend to become the world's dominant Caribbean musical force. So first there was calypso, which originated at the start of the 20th century in colonial Trinidad, then there was Mento, which fused it with Jamaica's indigenous folk in the 1950s. When American rhythm and blues started ekeing in later that decade the sound system was invented, and when jazz came over the fusion invented ska. In truth ska is more our area of expertise, and we will come back to it one day. (Note to Universal: please commission a compilation entitled Maximum Ska which the TV advert for features No Doubt, Less Than Jake, the Holloways and Bad Manners so we have an excuse. Ta.) In the early 60s ska rhythms evolved to give space to vocalists, making stars of the likes of Desmond Dekker and Toots Hibbert, and that's where an Englishman called Chris Blackwell first made an impact. Blackwell was based in Jamaica as aide de camp to the island's governor and developed an interest in its indigenous music, so much so that he formed a label called Island Records in 1959 to record the emergent ska sounds. When he moved back to Britain in 1962 he continued selling his recordings, and two years later brought over eighteen year old bluebeat singer Millie Small and her version of R&B song My Boy Lollipop, a UK and US number two.

Even as Island later began signing white British acts the Jamaican spirit was still foremost in the label's priorities through the rise of the DJ and selector. The DJ in Jamaica is what we would know as an MC, and it was prominent DJs who invented toasting, which got taken back by the likes of Kool Herc to Bronx street parties where it developed into rap. The influence of Rastafarian culture led to the slower tempo and bassier version of ska that was given the name rocksteady, derived from an Alton Ellis song but not a universally popular term.

Where the term reggae comes from depends on who you talk to. Influential singer and producer Clancy Eccles claims to have coined it as an answer to the slang term streggae ("loose woman"), although Toots Hibbert clams he came up with it; hugely popular early 60s ska star Derrick Morgan says producer Bunny Lee used it as a term of onomatopoeia for the sound of the downstroke of the rhythm guitar in the form's development; others say it evolved from terms in Latin or Spanish. Whatever. Reggae in its early form was essentially rocksteady with more of a US soul influence and at an even slower pace - exotic smokes may have been partly responsible, we couldn't possibly say - with a greater emphasis on the organ and rhythm guitar ahead of the bass. Bunny Lee was the first producer to set this sound in stone, and among the first to make the crossover were a vocal trio who'd made their names in ska and continued through rocksteady, formed in 1962 by three friends who'd met through the vocal scene, Winston 'Peter Tosh' Macintosh, Neville 'Bunny Wailer' Livingstone and Robert 'Bob Marley' Marley.

The Wailers - Concrete Jungle

When the Wailers split in 1974 after British breakthroughs Catch A Fire and Burnin', put out by Island through the band's own Tuff Gong, Bob Marley formed Bob Marley and the Wailers with the Wailers Band, a backing outfit formed by brothers Aston and Carlton Barrett and featuring Bob's wife Rita as one of backing singers the I Threes, and became stratospheric with that year's Natty Dread, the accompanying tour and celebrated London Lyceum gig in 1975, plus chiefly 1977's Exodus and 1978's Kaya. The story is far too famous and elongated to go into in this format, but it was made possible by Blackwell's label and personal management, making the sound slightly more westernised through judicious overdubs to attract the overseas audience and frankly taking a chance on what was seen as, if not a novelty, then very much an underground thing at the time, a form of the earlier Jamaican imports beloved of skinheads and mods in the mid-60s where the only hits were novelties such as Max Romeo's Wet Dream.

Leaving aside international campaigns, Marley's other mentor on the road to reggae Damascus was an altogether more complex character. The Wailers Band mostly comprised members of the Upsetters, who had been the studio band of Lee 'Scratch' Perry. Perry started as an associate of Coxsone Dodd's sound system and later his Studio One ska label and studio, described as "the Motown of Jamaica". After they fell out Perry formed the Upsetter label in 1968, his first single, People Funny Boy, seen as a key milestone in reggae's development. In these years he worked with many of the island's big names, developing innovative production techniques involving layering, sound effects and mike techniques as well as a singular character. In 1973 he built Black Ark Studios to produce the Wailers among others and creating a sound all of his own, also exhibited on a series of his own dub-heavy records. Eventually stress and outside influences took their toll and he supposedly burned the place to the ground in 1979, moving abroad to make a series of erratic records before a critical resurgence working alongside Adrian Sherwood and Mad Professor. He now lives in Switzerland, accuses Chris Blackwell of being a vampire and is soon to release an album produced by Andrew WK.

Lee Scratch Perry & The Upsetters - Dread Lion

It's not in chronological order, but let's go into a sidebar on dub now we've brought it up. Coming out of the practice of making instrumental B-sides, the dub sound was essentially the forerunner of the remix, manipulating the master tapes of recordings usually by removing or altering the vocals to emphasise the bass and drum 'riddim', usually using echo and reverb, using the mixing desk as an instrument. Perry, whose 1973 Blackboard Jungle Dub is widely recognised as the first proper dub-only album, vies for invention of the form with King Tubby, born Osbourne Ruddock, a former sound system engineer and radio repairer who made his name as the go-to guy when weather (or jealous rivals) affected the electrics. Becoming a leading producer, he stumbled across dub's building blocks when playing with the desk attempting to make instrumental versions for toasters and went on to use his electronical background make a living out of building studio equipment for the means to alter the recordings. Although it fell out of favour in Jamaica at the end of the 70s dub carried on largely in Britain and as well as the art of the remix has been cited as a major influence on post-punk, house, techno, drum and bass, trip hop, UK garage and latterly dubstep.

Harry Mudie & King Tubby - Dub For The Dread

So clearly there's a dual speed going on in reggae, with Perry and Tubby reshaping its sound while a group of singers infiltrate the mainstream. Jimmy Cliff was a Perry client who broke through as a ska singer in the mid-60s and signed to Island. 1970's Wonderful World, Beautiful People was huge internationally, clearing a path for the film in which he starred as well as curating the soundtrack, 1972's The Harder They Come, in which he portrayed a singer forced into lawlessness in his quest for stardom, giving him a westernised 'outsider' image, and which became a cult hit and is credited with launching reggae in America when released there a year later. Last year the title track was adopted as a personal anthem by David Cameron. It had previously been politically connected with Nicaragua's Sandinistas, who Thatcher was virulently against. You work it out.

Jimmy Cliff - The Harder They Come

In the mid-70s a new breed of toasters/deejays appeared, influenced by pioneer U-Roy. Alongside Dillinger and I-Roy was Big Youth, who teamed up in 1972 with Gussie Clarke, a teenaged producer who was seen as more in tune with Kingston at street level than most. This led to a string of domestic hits before 1973 album Screaming Target, utilising the then common practice of borrowing someone else's backing track, here the likes of Gregory Isaacs and Leroy Smart and on the title track No No No, KC White's cover of Dawn Penn's original which Penn would take top ten internationally in 1992. He continued having big hits and extending his range in both vocal and producer until his style was overtaken, but he's still going. Watch how this develops from a critique of a famous Clint Eastwood character to a plea for literacy.

Big Youth - Screaming Target

Eric Clapton's 1974 cover of Marley's I Shot the Sheriff is cited as reggae's first breakthrough into whitey's rockist world, but John Peel was already playing all forms of roots reggae on his own show. A particular Peel favourite was Burning Spear. Winston Rodney originally called his band after the nickname of the first independent Prime Minister and President of Kenya, but eventually it stuck to him alone. Working with Studio One's Coxsone Dodd - who, it should be noted, discovered the Wailers and was pretty much the leading figure in ska and rocksteady - he developed a style based on Rastafarianism, black history and social concerns based on the oratory of Marcus Garvey. Burning Spear is still recording and has been nominated for eleven Best Reggae Album Grammys between 1986 and this year, but it's his mid-70s work that stands up the best,

Burning Spear - Marcus Garvey

More roots stuff and another album high watermark, 1976's The Heart Of The Congos. The Congos were a vocal trio who hooked up with Lee Perry in Black Ark, reggae historian Steve Barrow referring to the result as "the most consistently brilliant album of Scratch's entire career". They never recaptured its spirit and Perry's dispute with European label Virgin affected its overseas chances - indeed it wasn't properly issued in the UK until 1980, and that only when The Beat decided to make it the first release on their own Go Feet imprint - but it charms most who hear it.

The Congos - Fisherman

If Chris Blackwell, and later Richard Branson at Virgin, were getting the records out in Britain, Don Letts was alongside Peel finding them an audience. A first-generation black Briton of Jamaican descent, Letts ran a clothes store in the Kings Road where the mixture of Vivienne Westwood-inspired gear and Letts' roots and dub playlist attracted the punk in-crowd, as well as Marley whenever he was over (the environment inspired his Punky Reggae Party). The shop's accountant opened The Roxy nightclub in Covent Garden, which attracted much live punk trade, and invited Letts to become resident DJ, and with little or no punk records to play he transposed his reggae records to the new setting. The bass-heavy sounds, social soundbite lyrics and rebel image struck a chord. It was in fact in the UK that the last few roots reggae-inspired shifts would take place - lovers rock was a variant of rockers reggae coined in South London as an apolitical, soulful version, taken up by Aswad and Janet Kay. Ska lay dormat throughout this era as a mod memory until lapsed punks such as Jerry Dammers picked up on its fast rhythms and developed 2 Tone.

A Letts favourite was Culture, a vocal trio chiefly centring on Joseph Hill's vocals who worked with the Mighty Two, producer Joe Gibbs and engineer Errol Thompson. Their first and best album Two Sevens Clash based its title and title track on a Garvey prediction that when the sevens met on 7/7/7 there would be apocalyptic chaos, a premonition that caught on so much that many Jamaican businesses and schools closed for the day. Culture were an embodiment of 'rockers reggae', a subgenre named after the sound system of melodica-toting dub legend Augustus Pablo and originated by the rhythm section of Lowell Dunbar and Robert Shakespeare, better known as Sly & Robbie. (See also: Gregory Isacs, Horace Andy, Junior Murvin, Dennis Brown)

Culture - Two Sevens Clash

Also often grouped as rockers reggae spearheads are Black Uhuru, who formulated a more harmonic, Rastaised form and domestically took over where Marley left off when he went off to conquer the world. Like the Wailers they were a tight vocal outfit backing a strong lead voice but were more directly attuned to Jamaican politics and the endemic street violence as well as Garvey and religion. Their key work was released at the start of the Eighties, when they also toured with the Clash and the Police.

Black Uhuru - Happiness

By the time Black Uhuru were striking big original reggae was on the downturn. Marley's sound had arguably been watered down for wider acceptance and aside from him the sound never really made the international breakthrough many had put their money on, instead leading to many cult hits and the odd one-off (Althea & Donna, anyone?), and when Marley died in 1981 labels downgraded their interest in Jamaican reggae. A lot of established producers left for the US and UK largely due to the rising tide of violence, and as Rastafarianism declined in influence the young people either looked to America for inspiration or got into 'slackness', a more directly crude lyrical form. Slackness thrived in dancehall, a style that developed largely through Barrington Levy's work, a faster, digitalised form which was taken overground briefly in the early 90s, shifted into a more upfront, sometimes violent form by the likes of Buju Banton, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man and had a mini-revival a few years ago with Sean Paul and Elephant Man. Meanwhile ragga was invented in the mid-80s and was an instant hit, more toasting-centric than the singing of dancehall but otherwise much the same. Shabba Ranks is ragga, Shaggy is dancehall. Write that down. Latin America turned dancehall/ragga into reggaeton with the addition of hip hop and its own indigenous dance cultures - Daddy Yankee's Gasolina, number five in Britain in 2004, was its only real international crossover, although it retains a fervent fanbase in areas of America. Meanwhile within Jamaica Luciano's conscious roots and Bob's youngest offspring, double Grammy-winning toaster Damien Marley (2005's Welcome To Jamrock an increasingly rare European radio crossover) are attempting to reinvent what came before. In whatever format, the original reggae remains timeless and of itself to this day.

Paul Nicholas is currently appearing in The Royal Today and has launched a community arts centre in Blackpool.

BUYER'S GUIDE: Two reissue back catalogues to devour voraciously are those of Trojan Records and Blood & Fire records. Trojan was there at the time, issuing the Upsetters, Desmond Dekker and Dave & Ansell Collins among many others. The imprint was bought out in the mid-80s independently, then this decade was bought by Sanctuary and in turn Universal, and brings out a good fifty tracks at a time every so often. Blood And Fire was started in 1985 by five roots enthusiasts, including leading reggae historian Steve Barrow with the aid of leading not-reggae singer Mick Hucknall and until stalling last year issued a lot of hard to find albums and cheapo compilations. For those we write about: Bob Marley compilations are ten a penny, and just occasionally they're even printed without Marley's name atop plain Wailers material - Gold is the best mix of family favourites and judicious cuts from the period in question. Our choice of track is taken from Catch A Fire. Super Ape by Lee 'Scratch' Perry will never go out of print, probably, although a good place to start with the madness is the three disc Arkology. As an introduction to the headspinning world of King Tubby dub Father Of Dub does the business; Harry Mudie & King Tubby In Dub Conference Volume One isn't on Amazon at the moment. The Harder They Come soundtrack includes just three Jimmy Cliff songs alongside the likes of Toots & The Maytals, the Slickers and Desmond Dekker. Some artist albums: Big Youth's Screaming Target, Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey packaged alongside follow-up Garvey's Ghost, The Heart Of The Congos, Culture's Two Sevens Clash in a title-defying thirtieth anniversary reissue (for further vocal/roots work of the time, try Firehouse Rock by Wailing Souls) and Black Uhuru's Sinsemilla. (Thanks to Bill for some touch-up advice)

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