Wednesday, March 5, 2014
The convergence of punk and reggae and punk and ska in the late 70's and early 80's resulted in some significant musical experiments in which punks and post-punk bands experimented with the sound of reggae and dub in particular: Most of the key 2-Tone bands played covers of 60's ska songs. The Clash played reggae covers and collaborated with Mikey Dread. The Slits worked with reggae producer Dennis Bovell (who invented Lovers Rock) and The Ruts recorded the reggae song "Jah War" releasing it on UK reggae band Misty In Roots record label.
While the punk adoption of reggae covers soon became a regular musical occurrence, one of the most interesting takes on reggae had to be the Scritti Politti song "The Sweetest Girl," which Rough Trade label head Geoff Travis described at the time as a “game-changer.'”
Starting out as a post-punk band with a left-wing political agenda (the band name means political writing in Italian and is an homage to the Italian Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci), they abandoned rock and a number of their band members for reggae, a genre Gartside heard on the London pirate radio station Dread Broadcasting Corporation. In 1981, Gartside wrote a lilting reggae ballad called “The ‘Sweetest Girl’ ” (note the quotes), which he intended to be recorded as a duet by Gregory Isaacs and Kraftwerk. (“I got a positive response from Gregory,” Gartside later said, “But I went to see Tito Puente with Kraftwerk in New York, and they told me they didn’t like reggae. So I ended up doing it myself.”)
If you've never heard the song, it begins with the hiss and whisper of a drum machine, and then the bubble of lilting reggae keyboards - played by Robert Wyatt - and bass bring it to life as Gartside's croon kicks in. The result is white boy lover's rock that descends into dub as Wyatt's organ notes begin to ripple and dub echoes ricochet through the mix.
What's the song about? That remains a mystery. At first it appears to be tribute to a sweet couple before Green goes off on a subversive tangent and sings one of pop music's most unusual couplets: "Politics is pride too, vagaries of science/ She left because she understood the value of defiance."
Released on the Rough Trade label, "Sweetest Girl" became Scritti Politti's first song to chart, peaking at #64 on the UK music chart, and was cited by The New York Times as one of the ten best singles of 1981. Madness recorded their own version of the song for their 1985 "Mad Not Mad" album.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
Wayne Smith, the reggae vocalist whose 1985 single "Under Mi Sleng Teng" reshaped Jamaican music by popularizing digital production of reggae, died in Kingston earlier this week at the age of 48.
Smith lived next door to producer Lloyd "Prince Jammy" James in Kingston, and began to record with him when he was 14 years old. The partnership yielded two albums' worth of material over the next few years, but none of it delivered a breakthrough. Then, in late 1984, Smith crossed paths with Noel Davey, a local youth who had managed to get hold of a simple Casiotone MT40 keyboard. Playing with its "rock'n'roll" preset – a mutation of Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else" – the pair created a rudimentary rhythm track. Smith, building on the lyrics in Barrington Levy's recent hit Under Mi Sensi, recorded lyrics professing his love for skinny marijuana cigarettes (Sleng Teng's) and his disapproval of the harder drug cocaine. Smith and Davey presented the idea to Jammy, who was initially unimpressed.
Here is the sound Smith and Davey presented to Prince Jammy on actual 1980's era Casiotone MT40 keyboard:
According to an interview with Prince Jammy from The Guardian:
"The initial stage of this rhythm was like a buck-up," Jammy says. "They brought a small Casio keyboard to me and started to play around, but it sounded crazy. It was too fast, no rhythm section, just drum and bass going at 100 miles per hour. So I said: 'I like the sound, but it's not the right tempo for reggae music.' I slowed it down to dancing mode, then we overdubbed some piano and percussion, and that was the beginning of Sleng Teng. I knew it was going to be successful because of the sound of the rhythm, but I didn't know that it would be so much of a big hit. A few days later Jammy unleashed the song at a clash against the rival Black Scorpio soundsystem. "We couldn't stop playing it," Jammy says. "People were loving it more and more, so I say: 'We've got to get some more artists on this riddim.' Then we started recording Johnny Osbourne, Tenor Saw, Sugar Minott and the rest of the artists, and that changed the whole music scene in the 80s. That was the riddim that computerised the reggae business, and up until today, people are using computers to build reggae music."
"Under Mi Sleng Teng" revolutionized reggae, but also changed the way the music was recorded forever. The demand for digital production took popularity away from traditional instrumentation in the music, and many of Jamaica's session musicians were put out of work.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Since their triumphant return to live performances in 2009, there have been conflicting reports surrounding the possibility of a studio album emerging from the group, but to-date, there has been no new music from the group.
The tour starts at Dublin Olympia on November 3, with dates in Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and more to follow, including two dates at London's Roundhouse on November 13 and 14.
As a lead up to the UK shows, Hall will be DJing at The Wolf House in London's Islington, on March 6th, April 3rd and May 1st. Golding is performing at South By Southwest on March 12th with reggae band Contra Coup.
Friday, February 7, 2014
Roddy Radiation, the iconic guitarist of The Specials, has announced he is leaving the band to focus on his band The Skabilly Rebels and other solo projects. A statement he shared exclusively with The Coventry Telegraph read:
"Roddy 'Radiation' Byers has left the band too concentrate on his solo career. He will be appearing as a special guest on Dave Wakelings 'The English Beat' UK tour in March."
The departure of Byers follows on the heels of frontman Neville Staple who left the band last year, leaving original members Terry Hall, Horace Panter, John Bradbury and Lynval Golding as the four remaining original members of the band. The Specials announced they will be appearing at the Isle of Wight Festival this summer.
Monday, February 3, 2014
I was very saddened to hear the news today that William "Bunny Rugs" Clarke, the husky-voiced lead singer of internationally popular reggae band Third World, had died of leukemia at his home in Florida. He was 65.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Third World and in particular for the beloved cult classic song '1865 (96 Degrees In The Shade) which is a dramatic and musically powerful retelling of the historical events of the October 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion, headed by Baptist deacon and preacher Paul Bogle who led an armed group against the British authorities in Jamaica with his attack against the town of Morant Bay.
The scene that the song dramatizes is such a central one in Jamaican history. The band identifies with Bogle, the main figure in the insurrection. Even though this is a song that looks at history, it achieves exactly what the best reggae songs do: it brings history home. The song is based on a historical fact, but it is never overt: at no point does it mention Bogle or Morant Bay. The year is the major clue to the poem’s meaning. The listener has to do some work.
Although the rebellion failed, as "1865 (96 Degrees in the Shade)" makes clear, Bogle's actions reverberated across Jamaican history, sparking further revolts until the island finally won independence. Bogle is considered one of Jamaica's greatest heroes and he is forever memorialized by the song which is among Third World's most popular..
Now for some important historical context. Slavery ended in Jamaica on August 1, 1834 with the passing of the British Emancipation Act, when exactly four years later former slaves became free to choose their employment and employer. On paper, former slaves gained the right to vote; however, most blacks remained desperately poor, and a high voting fee effectively excluded them from the franchise. During the elections of 1864, the ratio of black Jamaicans to white was 32 to 1, but out of a population of over 436,000, fewer than 2,000 were eligible to vote, nearly all of them white. According to a great post on 100 Songs From The Golden Age of Reggae:
George William Gordon (picture below) a wealthy bi-racial member of the Jamaican National Assembly, was the son of a black slave woman and a wealthy British plantation owner. Gordon's father, like many other British colonial elites lived most of the time in England also sired second surrogate families with native Jamaican women, unknown to their families back in Britain. Gordon was his father's common law heir under Jamaican law.
Gordon was considered a troublemaker by Edward Eyre, the newly appointed colonial governor of Jamaica because Gordon's high profile activities on behalf of disenfranchised newly freed slaves. Gordon had assisted a group of former slaves draw up and circulate a petition to Queen Victoria asking her to bequeath a small amount Crown owned land in the bush of St. Ann's Parish for the local landless farmer to cultivate as they could not find land for themselves. At least, the Queen's worthless land would produce some tax income for the Crown and provide a means of living to many wretchedly poor Jamaican citizens who had no other means of survival.
For the newly installed British colonial governor Eyre (picture above), it was unthinkable that a group of uppity "maroon negroes" would have the comeuppance to ask Queen Victoria's permission to cultivate a few hundred acres of the vacant undeveloped land in a remote colonial town 4,000 miles from Buckingham Palace. Eyre immediately regarded Gordon as a political enemy with a subversive agenda.
On October 7, 1865 a black man was put on trial and imprisoned for trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation, creating anger among black Jamaicans. The black man was nothing more than a squatter using part of the property of an abandoned plantation to plant a subsistence crop for his family's needs. When one member of a group of black protesters from the village of Stony Gut was arrested, the protesters became unruly and freed the accused man from prison.
Governor Eyres and the local constabulary suspected that Gordon and one of his proteges, Paul Bogle (picture above) a deacon at a local black Baptist church, were the key organizers of the protest and the subsequent prison break. Bogle soon learned that he and 27 of associates had warrants issued for their arrest for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police.
The historical record doesn't confirm whether either Gordon or Bogle were involved in any of the events up to that point but it's likely that Gordon wasn't involved and Bogle probably was. It's an undisputable fact that Bogle was firmly in command of a large contingency of protesters who marched on the Morant Bay courthouse, four days later.
When the group arrived at the Morant Bay court house, they were met by a small volunteer militia (ie.. vigilantes) who panicked and opened fire on the group, killing seven black protesters before retreating. The black protesters then rioted, killing 18 people (including white officials and militia) and taking control of the town. In the days that followed some 2,000 black rebels roamed the countryside, killing two white planters and forcing others to flee for their lives.
Eyre sent government troops to hunt down the poorly-armed rebels and bring Paul Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops were met with no organized resistance but killed blacks indiscriminately, many of whom had not been involved in the riot or rebellion: according to one soldier, "we slaughtered all before us… man or woman or child".
In the end, 439 black Jamaicans were killed directly by soldiers, and 354 more (including Bogle) were arrested and later executed, some without proper trials. Other punishments included flogging for over 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences. Bogle was lynched and hung without a trial, moments after the British troops took him into custody. Gordon, who had little - if anything - to do with the rebellion was also arrested. Though he was arrested in Kingston, he was transferred by Eyre to Morant Bay, where he could be tried under martial law.
Ever the politician, Eyre saw a public hanging of Gordon as a high profile opportunity to assert his authority as the newly appointed governor of Jamaica. A kangaroo court convicted Gordon of sedition and treason in two days, but Gordon wasn't informed of his sentence until an hour before his hanging.
Gordon was paraded through the streets of Morant Bay and led to the his hanging by a contingency of 10,000 soldiers. And presiding over the surreal and carnivalesque events was none other than the portly Governor Eyre dressed like a British dandy attending a night at the opera.
People from all over the island attended the grotesque spectacle and the narrator of the story in the song, '96 Degrees in the Shade' is none other than the condemned man, George William Gordon. The lyrics to the song are very close to the same final words of Gordon as he stood before Eyre. Gordon even began his remarks with a polite remark about the stifling humidity of the October day.Bogle's final defiant words to Governor Eyre as faithfully sung by Third World in the song were: "Today I stand here a victim but the truth is I'll never die."
96 degree in the shade,
real hot in the shade (repeat)
said it was 96 degrees in the shade
ten thousand soldiers on parade
taking i and i to meet a big fat boy
sent from overseas
the queen employ
Excellency before you i come
with my representation
you know where I’m coming from
you caught me on the loose
fighting to be free
now you show me a noose
on the cotton tree
entertainment for you
martyrdom for me
96 degrees in the shade
real hot in the shade
some may suffer and some may burn
but i know that one day my people will learn
as sure as the sun shines, way up in the sky
today i stand here a victim the truth is I'll never die
As sure as the Sun shine
Way up in the sky,
Today I stand here a victim -
The truth is I'll never die...
Friday, January 31, 2014
Ali Campbell's version of UB40 featuring Astro and Mickey Virtue are a making a brand new track titled "Reggae Music" available as a free download on their website. According to the band the song is a mission statement in their quest to differentiate themselves from their former band mates in UB40 as the keeper of the band's reggae bonafides.
Fresh from the studio, Ali, Astro and Mickey have produced a brass-laden call out to their fans in the form of this brand new track ‘Reggae Music’. The track heralds the triumphant return of UB40 and responds to the recent dialogue between the trio and their former members, by letting the music do the talking. This is just a sign of things to come. How about we let the fans decide?
Trumpeter and vocalist Astro publicly quit the group during a radio interview late last year and immediately connected with Ali Campbell and Virtue. The trio released a statement a few weeks ago announcing "the three founding members (were) back together, performing and recording as UB40 once more" and launched a new UB40 website which included dates for shows across the world.
The five remaining members of UB40 issued a statement on their website and Facebook page last week which indicates they will be taking legal action against Campbell and his band mates.
While the UB40 civil war is waged online and in the courtrooms you can download the track via this link: http://ub40.org/freedownload
Give the song a listen and make up your own mind. What do you think?
Monday, January 27, 2014
Fans of 2-Tone have spoken longingly and lovingly of a BBC Arena television documentary titled "Rudies Come Back" that aired during the height of 2 Tone. Until recently the 30 minute documentary had been impossible to find, but a version has popped up on YouTube.
"Rudies Come Back" is hosted by music journalist Adrian Thrills. It was filmed in 1979 and originally aired on the BBC on March 3rd, 1980. It remains the holy grail of documentary footage of the The Specials, The Selecter and the Coventry music scene and captures the 2-Tone movement at its peak.
The Specials interview at 2 Tone HQ (which at the time was Jerry Dammers flat in Coventry) is pretty amazing. The band's chaotic live shows captured in the documentary suggests they would be a pretty talkative and fun bunch and some of the footage shows them dancing and skunking around to an old classic ska record. Later, Dammers reveals the true DIY/indie roots of the 2-Tone label and its seat of the pants approach when he nonchalantly spills the contents of an old desk and contracts, booking agreements and cassettes hit the floor. Dammers jokingly calls the desk drawer “our A&R department.”
Interestingly, once Thrills begins to interview the band, many of the members seem tongue tied. Everything seems to revolve Dammers, who was the de facto label head, band leader and A&R man. For a short time over the next couple of years, the band and label were huge. Walt Jabsco and the 2-Tone logo were everywhere you looked. Watching this now, it comes as no surprise that Dammers and the band struggled with the mounting pressure that overnight success had created.
Without further ado, I present "Rudies Come Back"....