Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reggae in your jeggae

Thanks to Matt Hembree, who plays bass in Pablo & the Hemphill 7 and let me borrow Lloyd Bradley's Bass Culture (a great social-political-cultural history of reggae), I'm now stalking Duke Reid's Treasure Chest, Prince Buster Fabulous Greatest Hits, and The Best of Studio One Collection on Amazon.

I don't pretend to be a reggae expert -- far from it. The Clash (their covers of "Police and Thieves" and "Pressure Drop," "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," and the dub tracks on Sandinista!) and the Specials' first album were my gateway drugs in the same way that the early Rolling Stones, Animals, and Yardbirds led me inexorably to blues. Live exposure to Peter Tosh (singing his anthem "African" to the KZEW Rolling Stones audience at the Palladium in Dallas in '78, then asking, "Is reggae music not a great music?" and receiving cheers rather than jeers in return) and more crucially, PH7 and Sub Oslo from 2002-2008 cemented my interest.

1) Bob Marley - Live and Natty Dread are the albums that mattered to me, even though they were post-Tosh and Bunny -- the former for "Trenchtown Rock" ("One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain") and the latter for "Lively Up Yourself" and "Rebel Music," which contains what may be my all-time favorite lyric from any song ("Three o'clock road block, and I've got to throw away my little herb stalk"), not just for the flow but for the way Bob draws out the words. Legend is the lazy man's choice, but one I still reach for when I want to hear "Redemption Song."
2) Steel Pulse - Handsworth Revolution. The sound of the Jamaican diaspora, UK edition. Listened to this a whole lot with Stuart Bell when we shared the bottom floor of the house at Collinwood and Sanguinet (now demolished) in 1979. It made me unreasonably happy the first time I heard PH7 play "Sound System."
3) Jimmy Cliff - The Harder They Come. I thought this film and soundtrack were kind of overrated, especially in light of the fact that the latter repeats two songs. But it's the first place I heard the Maytals, and the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon."
4) Bunny Wailer - Blackheart Man. As Bradley's book points out, Rastafari is a lot more than an excuse to smoke lots of weed; rather, it's a complex and open-ended approach to philosophical-spiritual inquiry. Bunny Livingstone epitomizes the country man vibe and aesthetic that roots reggae brought to Jamaican pop music. When I was stationed in Korea, I had this on a cassette tape Charles Buxton made me. On the other side was...
6) Burning Spear - Harder Than the Best. Maybe my favorite reggae. Every cut signifies. I wish I still had my copy of Social Living that my future ex-wife donated to Goodwill in Shreveport back in '89. But having this on vinyl again is rill nice.
7) Rockers. A film and soundtrack I dug a whole lot more than The Harder They Come, even though I wasn't previously a fan of Inner Circle. Horsemouth Wallace is an engaging character, and the sequence of Junior Murvin's original "Police and Thieves" into the Heptones' "Book of Rules" (Bradley's text reveals what a key player Leroy Sibbles was as singer-bassist-composer-arranger-talent scout) into Tosh's "Stepping Razor" into Jacob Miller's "Tenement Yard" ("best smile in reggae," Joe Vano says) always destroys me.
8) The King Kong Compilation. A collection of ska, rocksteady, and early reggae tracks produced by a Chinese-Jamaican record store owner who died in 1971, supposedly after Lee Perry put a curse on him. Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites" was played on NYC radio when I was 12, and was as culturally incomprehensible to me then as was Sir Douglas Quintet's "Mendocino." Some good Maytals here (I need to find a good comp on them, too) along with Ken Boothe ("UK pop reggae"), the Melodians, Delroy Wilson ("smooth operator"), and on and on.
8) Lee Perry - Arkology. A veritable bath of dub. There are a ton of dub comps out there, but this three-disc set is the one I reach for when I want to hear the masterwork of Scratch (although Joe Vano swears by the chronologically-sequenced, four-disc I Am the Upsetter, so take your pick).
9) Augustus Pablo - King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. A more concise dub statement, and the melodica master's name just happens to conflate the names of our late and current young cats. There are no coincidences.
10) Congos - Heart of the Congos. A sublime statement from a Perry-produced vocal duo. I need to lay hands on Culture's Two Sevens Clash as well.


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