Thursday, 12 July 2012

An A to Z of Early Reggae

This post is the playlist for a show that I prepared but didn't get to broadcast. For various reasons which I won't bore anyone with I'm having another break from internet radio DJ'ing, but wanted to do something with this playlist so here it is. I've uploaded YouTube videos for each of the tracks and you can play them in order by clicking this playlist link.

This is my attempt at an A to Z of early reggae (from ska, through rocksteady to the early days of reggae and dub). Please note the word I chose there: 'an' A to Z, not 'the' A to Z. The subject is too huge and my knowledge of it far too small for me to claim that this is in any way definitive or indeed anything more than a scratch at the surface made by someone who is a huge fan but certainly no expert. As this was originally intended as a radio show, the notes on each letter are brief - plus I get bored with typing very quickly! I'm sure some folks will question my choices for various letters; if you're one of them please leave a comment and a YouTube link to the tune you would have chosen. So here goes: my A to Z of Early Reggae:

A: Much as the alphabet begins with Alpha so does my A to Z: the Alpha School for Boys in Kingston, Jamaica. Run by nuns under the formidable Sister Ignatius, the school put a great emphasis on music tuition - particularly brass instruments. The old-boys list reads like a Who's-Who of the early Jamaican music industry. The list includes such massive talents as founder members of The Skatalites Tommy McCook, Lester Sterling & Johnny Moore, plus such luminaries as Rico Rodriguez, Theo Beckford, Cedric Brooks and the man who I've chosen the represent the school in this playlist, the great Don Drummond - Bellevue Special.

B: After leaving the Alpha School many of the boys eventually found there way to 13 Brentford Road, Kingston - from 1963 the home of the Jamaican Recording & Publishing Studio, or Studio One as it became universally known. The in-house band at Studio One throughout much of the 70's was known variously as the Brentford All Stars, Brentford Rockers, Brentford Disco Set and the Soul Defenders. The track I've chosen for the letter B for Brentford Road is The Brentford Road All Stars - Last Call.

C: Brentford Road was also home to our entry for the letter C: Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd. The visionary founder of Studio One, Coxsone's influence on Jamaican music cannot be overstated. A canny businessman who originally started by spinning his jazz records for the customers of his parent's liquor store, Coxsone went on to operate one of the two biggest sound systems in Kingston before moving into the production of records . The list of artists and bands that he produced is mammoth but I've chosen one of his earlier productions: Lord Tanamo with the Skatalites - Keep on Moving.

D: With Coxsone representing the letter C, it is only fit that his great rival gets the next entry: D is for Duke Reid. Reid was another liquor store owner who moved into music production. An ex-policeman and imposing figure, Reid had a no-nonsense approach to pretty much everything, including his rivals and his artists. Reid's Trojan sound system was the biggest rival to Coxsone's Downbeat sound but Reid really came into his own with the advent of Rocksteady. His Treasure Isle label produced some of the most wonderful Rocksteady tunes but I've chosen an earlier ska track by Roland Alphonso & Frank Anderson - Musical Storeroom.

E: A recurrent theme throughout the history of Jamaican music has been the island's inhabitant's historical and spiritual links with Africa and specifically Ethiopia. Despite a great deal of prejudice towards the emerging Rastafarian movement from much of Jamaican society, in music these themes were explored and celebrated right from the beginnings of the Jamaican recording industry. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia visited Jamaica in 1966 - the same year as the band I've chosen next were formed: The Ethiopians - Dollar of Soul.

F: The letter F was a bit of a sticking point in this list. Eventually I decided to celebrate one of the venues of the early Sound System dances. Kingston had a number of venues where the various sounds would hold their dances. The biggest venues could hold upwards of a thousand people and the more people they could cram in the better in terms of the real business of the dances - the sale of beer! Among the most famous and largest were Luke Lane, Wellington Street, Liberty Hall, Kings Hall and Forresters Hall which was immortalised in music by Prince Buster - Forresters Hall.

G: In any playlist I always try to pick some tunes that people may not have heard before, plus some that everyone knows and loves. Or occasionally a different version of a tune that everyone knows. Rather like my next choice. Everyone knows the Skatalites' Guns of Navarone - possibly the most famous ska track of all time, both in its original version and the wonderful cover on the Specials Live EP. This version is by a British blue beat band of the early 60's: Blue Rivers & the Maroons - Guns of Navarone.

H: It's impossible to claim that Guns of Navarone is the most famous ska tune of all time without also mentioning the other great rival for that title: Harry J's All Stars' stomping Liquidator. Harry Johnson started out as a bass player before moving into management and record producing. the All Stars were his session band and Liquidator was a top-ten hit in Britain in October 1969. As well as releasing records on his Harry J label in Jamaica, Johnson also released Harry J labelled singles in the UK as a subsidiary of Trojan and was also responsible for Bob & Marcia's wonderful Young, Gifted & Black. This selection is wonderful slab of skinhead reggae: Karl 'King Cannon' Bryan & the Harry J All Stars - Soul Scorcher.

I: I is for Instrumental and there really was only one choice of artist once I'd decided that! For me, one of the most wonderful things about Jamaican music is the artists' ability to take a tune by another artist and re-produce it in their own style - either by making dub versions or by re-arranging the piece to suit their own instrument, in the process creating something that is both familiar yet also new and exciting. An absolute master of this process was the fabulously talented keyboard player Jackie Mittoo. Mitto was a founder member of The Skatalites and is an absolute hero of mine. Earlier in the playlist we heard Lord Tanamo's Keep on Moving, this selection is Jackie Mittoo taking the same song and making something equally wonderful out of it: Jackie Mittoo - Totally Together.

J: All of the songs I've selected thus far have fitted comfortably into the stereotypical view many hold of ska and reggae - jaunty, infectious, eminently dance-able and maybe even frivolous. But Jamaica has also produced some of the most beautiful ballads (Many Rivers to Cross springs to mind) and reflective songs ever written (Redemption Song is another that fits the bill). Our next selection is a man with a voice that I could listen to for hours on end - and often do. J is for Jimmy Cliff. I watched him recently on Jools Holland's Later and at the age of 64 his voice still had me transfixed. My selection is from the 1973 Trojan LP Unlimited and shows his beautiful voice off to full effect: Jimmy Cliff - Be True.

K: There can really be only one choice for the letter K: King Tubby. Originally an electronics engineer and disc cutter, Osbourne Ruddock became King Tubby after cutting his musical teeth working for Duke Reid as a sound engineer. I think it's fair to say that Tubby revolutionised not just Jamaican music but recorded music in general. His attention to detail and pioneering recording techniques are still recognisable in music produced today. I came rather late to an appreciation of dub but once I'd discovered the depth and intricacy of much of his work, King Tubby became one of the artists I play most often. My selection is from the wonderful  collaboration between Tubby and Harry Mudie - In Dub Conference vol.1: Harry Mudie - Dub with a Difference.

L: Just as the letter K was an easy choice, the following letter also didn't require much pondering. L is for Lee Perry. Lee 'Scratch' Perry is quite simply a genius. And also completely mad. I once went to see Lee Perry in concert and he came on stage with a kettle on his head but then delivered a set that blew me away. He was mixed on that evening by Mad Professor: Dub Heaven! Perry was and remains a true innovator and has produced a variety and breadth of music that I find simply breathtaking. Despite being notoriously difficult to work with Scratch has collaborated with the greatest names in reggae and has the transform even the already remarkable into something truly wonderful. The Trojan box set of the complete sessions Bob Marley and the Wailers did with Perry is a good example - essential listening for the reggae anorak such as I am! I agonised over which track to choose for Perry; entailing listening over and again to hours of his music - bliss! The track I've chosen is the opening track of the Arkology box set: Lee Perry - Dub Revolution Pt.1.

M: At the risk of being predictable, no prizes for guessing that M is for Marley. The discography at the back of Timothy White's brilliant biography of Bob Marley runs to 66 pages. Starting with the first discs The Wailers made with Leslie Kong in 1961 through to material released posthumously it really is a goldmine for the reggae obsessive or casual Marley fan. Choosing just one record from that vast list is almost impossible, the sheer range and diversity of Marley's work is mind-blowing. I've chosen an early Coxsone recording, a loose cover of Curtis Mayfield's Talkin Bout My baby : The Wailers - Diamond Baby.

N: The letter N was another sticking point in my list - reggae artists and labels starting with N seem to be thin on the ground. So I decided to use the letter N as an excuse to include another Bob Marley tune in the playlist! N, therefore, is for Johnny Nash. Although an American-born pop singer Nash nevertheless has an influence on Bob Marley's early career  and also recorded a number of Marley-penned tunes. Nash and Marley also undertook what is possibly the most bizarre tour imaginable by two reggae artists - a tour of English Secondary Schools in the Midlands. The track I've put in the list is Johnny Nash - Stir It Up.

O: Another track form Prince Buster, for which I make absolutely no apology at all! O is for Orange Street. Buster grew up on Orange Street in Kingston and it was also the home of his Record Shack music store. There are many contenders for the title Most Influential Man In Reggae (I've even got a CD with sleeve notes that make that claim for Byron Lee, which is clearly bollocks!) but for me personally nobody had as much impact as Buster - I even named my son after him! Although not as prolific as some of his contemporaries and despite the fact that he didn't move into the production of reggae at the end of the rocksteady years, I truly believe that without Buster the whole landscape of Jamaican music would not have developed the way it did. The track representing Orange Street is Prince Buster - Earthquake.

P: Predictably enough given what I have written above, P is for Prince Buster. Born Cecil Bustamente Campbell and a talented boxer in his youth, Buster started in the music business as a bouncer for Coxsone's Downbeat Sound System before moving into making his own records and producing records for other artists. Buster was in at the very birth of ska, moved effortlessly with the times as ska evolved into rocksteady and even tried his hand at dub with his The Message - Dub Wise album. As rocksteady moved over for reggae Buster seemed to fall by the wayside but the back catalogue he had already produced is, in my opinion, without equal. I first became aware of Prince Buster on hearing and loving The Prince by Madness. Being an inquisitive type I decided to find out what or who the song was about; thus beginning an interest that became a passion and might even border on an obsession! Every radio show playlist I've made has included at least one Prince Buster track - this one has three, the third being the title track from The Message album: Prince Buster - The Message.

Q: Having had a Duke, a King and a Prince, it seems only fair to be even-handed and have a Queen as our next selection. Although early reggae was predominantly a male-dominated area - a notable exception being Sonia Pottinger - there are some wonderful records with female vocals or by female artists. Indeed the first major hit in the UK for a Jamaican artist was Millie Small's My Boy Lollipop (although personally I think it's awful). The link to the letter Q may be a bit tenuous if I chose a song by Nora Dean, Dawn Penn or Phyllis Dillon for example but I think I've scraped some alphabetical credibility by choosing Lloyd and Claudette - Queen of the World.

R: R is for Rocksteady. After the birth of the Jamaican recording industry and the often frenetic ska which ruled the dances in the early days there developed a taste for a more laid-back, gentler style of music. Thus was born rocksteady. There may have been a number of reasons for this; in his fantastic book Bass Culture Lloyd Bradley examines a number of the reasons for this change in pace. If you haven't read Bass Culture I can thoroughly recommend it - knowledgeable, comprehensive and well-written, it really is the finest book on Jamaican music I've read (and I've got quite a few). Among the possible reasons are the hot summer of 1966 making for a slower dancing style, the increase in tension at the dances due to the emerging Rude Boy culture, post-independence relaxation, the influence of American soul music or a combination of some or all of these. Either way, the music slowed down and became more melodic, opening the field to less brass-heavy bands and vocal harmony singing groups. The master of rocksteady in production terms was undoubtedly Duke Reid and much of his finest rocksteady was produced under the eye of guitarist Lynn Taitt: Lynn Taitt & the Jets - To Sir With Love.

S: Contrary to what many believe, ska music wasn't the main music of choice for the first skinheads. Whilst the re-emerging skinhead subcult that came with 2 Tone in the late 70's and early 80's took ska music as their theme sound (myself included), the original skinheads originated from the Mod scene and their preferred music was upbeat, Hammond-driven reggae. It's a source of great annoyance to me that in some minds the word 'skinhead' is synonymous with 'racist'. Whilst some cocks that adopted the look because they thought it made them look hard were racists and allied themselves to the NF and more recently to wankers like the BNP & EDL, any true skinhead takes their joy from black music and in my humble opinion should never miss an opportunity to point out that having a shaved head and looking well-smart does not make you a racist - being an inadequate, ignorant prick makes you a racist. Sorry, rant over - back to the music: S is for Skinhead Reggae and the tune I've picked is: Reggae Girls (aka The Ebony Sisters - Rescue Me.

T: Another King makes his mark on the playlist now. Being born with a facial deformity and the stutter that gave him his nickname never stopped King Stitt making it in the world of the Sound System. Working for Coxsone's Downbeat sound Stitt pioneered the art of the DJ talking or declaiming over the rhythms - Toasting. Billing himself as The Ugly One, Stitt developed a unique style that hyped up the records being played and led to many imitators getting on the mic. Although not as lyrical and without the clever patter of many who followed him, Stitt's style remains something that lifts a tune and creates a sense of excitement. The tune I've chosen is: King Stitt - Lee Van Cleef.

U: The letter U presented me with something of a dilemma: to choose Lee Perry's studio band The Upsetters or his Upsetter label. Perry set up his own label after falling out with Coxsone and named the label after his track I Am The Upsetter, which in itself was a musical dig at his former boss. Distributed in the UK by Trojan, Upsetter was home to some of the finest early reggae artists, all under the watchful eye of Perry and benefiting from his sheer genius with a tune; if you have a listen to the Complete UK Upsetters Singles CDs you will see what a wealth of music I had to choose from. In the end I decided to choose a tune by The Upsetters the band, on Upsetter the label - best of both worlds!: The Upsetters - French Connection.

V: V is for Version. In most genres of music, imitation results in a pale pastiche of the original article. Indeed, in the current ska scene I find much of the music being produced to be a less-than-satisfactory rehash of other bands' past glories. It would be nice to see more bands stop trying to be the new Specials  or Madness and concentrate on being themselves. As the recent Specialized album showed, it is still possible to re-imagine classic tunes in your own way and there's some great new ska and reggae around, but much of the good stuff today is buried under a fair bit of offbeat-dross. In early reggae though, the re-working or version of a tune often slapped on the B-side of a single was in many cases as good if not better than the original. The tune I've chosen is a good example of this I think; introduced by U-Roy on the mic & with Glen Adams on the organ, it's a version of Lester Stirling & Stranger Cole's Bangarang and although I love the original I don't think you can beat this version for energy and sheer joyousness: U-Roy & Glen Adams - Bangarang.

W: The next selection is both of a geographical nature and another excuse to play a tune off the Upsetter label. US 310 B is the B-side of The Upsetters' Man From MI5 and is by The West Indians. I know very little about the band; discogs lists Roy Ellis and Eric Donaldson as members and I only have two tunes by The West Indians but this one is an absolute belter: The West Indians - Oh Lord.

X: The last time I did an A to Z playlist (not for a radio show - I was off sick & bored) I struggled to find a track for the letter X. Artists and tunes starting with X may be few and far between but I'd missed out on a whole class of reggae right under my nose: X-Rated Reggae. Not the puerile pap a la Judge Dread but real reggae with themes and lyrics ranging from the slightly risqué to the full-blown filthy (pun intended). Performed by some of the biggest names in reggae some of it is hilarious; the titles speak for themselves: Rub & Squeeze, Push It In, Sex Grand National, and so on. I almost chose Nora Dean singing what seems to be a song about a man with a penis shaped like a scorpion but eventually chose one of the finest voices in reggae with his version of Max Romeo's Wet Dream: Dave Barker - Wet Version.

Y: Following one nicely from the entries for T and V is another DJ-style performer who took the art of chatting over a tune to a whole new level. Y is for Big Youth, the man who took the style introduced by King Stitt and refined by U-Roy and became a true superstar of reggae. Possibly the first man to take a motorbike into the studio (for S.90 Skank), Youth produced some of the finest DJ-style reggae ever made and fully merits his inclusion in my A to Z. The track I've picked is another Lee Perry production: Big Youth & the Upsetters - Keep On Moving (Moving Version).

Z: And so we finally arrive at Z but we also end up back where we started. I've chosen a cracking ska tune by another old-boy of the Alpha Boys School and one that sings of Zion, the place of peace, freedom and unity beloved of so much reggae music: Desmond Dekker - Mount Zion.

So that's my A to Z playlist typed out & stuck on YouTube too. If anyone has actually read this far I'd be not just a little surprised but also quietly chuffed! Hope you enjoyed the tunes and found my ramblings tolerable: any comments, corrections or suggestions much appreciated.

1 comment:

  1. What a great set list!!!! but you NEED to do this show!!!!!