With the impending release of a new album from New York’s Easy Star All Stars, it’s the right time to take stock of their unique take on reggae reinvention of classic rock albums. Has it all been a joke, and, if not, is it any good?
Thus far the Easy Stars have chosen two classic British albums, and peculiar ones too. Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ are not just British, they are very English, rooted in the heart of Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire. This is the thoughtful sound of middle England, contemplative student rock from the 1970s and 1990s respectively. So what is an American East Coast reggae collective doing with this source material, and where has it taken it musically?
Dub Side of the Moon (2003) comprises Easy Star versions of all the songs originally included on the Pink Floyd album, in sequence, plus four dubs of individual tracks. It’s a rendition that is remarkably faithful to the mood and feeling of the original album, implausible though this may seem to people unfamiliar with it. The original is treated with the kind of respect that archaeologists lavish upon the artefacts of an earlier civilisation. Before this gets too serious, let’s note that along the way are several touches that suggest an element of humour resides in all this, for instance the asthmatic sounds effects that have replaced the clocks at the start of ‘Money’. In fact ‘Money’ is one of the least successful tracks, presumably because it’s pretty much impossible to render the unusual 7/8 signature of the song (before it reaches the standard rock 4/4 instrumental break) into anything resembling a reggae rhythm. Thus the track ends up sounding like a pleasant but unremarkable cover of the original. Elsewhere the album has some notably strong moments, for instance on ‘Time’, complete with Ticklah’s melodica and vocals from Ranking Joe. ‘Great Gig in the Sky’ is a sharply produced one-drop instrumental, while its excellent version – ‘Great Dub in the Sky’ of course – is arguably the best thing here. The sleeve notes from Lem Oppenheimer make it clear that the intention was deliberately to incorporate a number of reggae styles from rockers vibrations through Nyabinghi drums into the album. Against the odds, it works.
Tackling Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ in the same way – in the shape of ‘Radiodread’ (2006) – seems challenging. While reggae is at heart uplifting, joyful and optimistic music, Radiohead are not generally noted for their fun-loving, carefree, laugh-a-minute style. It also looks like a difficult project musically. As the sleeve notes to ‘Radiodread’ say “…with so many different time signatures, inscrutable lyrics, and countless chord changes, OK Computer was far more complicated to translate into reggae than Dark Side of the Moon had been”. Despite this, the Easy Stars’ treatment starts strongly, as the original does, with ‘Airbag’. This is followed by a version of ‘Paranoid Android’ which is almost cheerful to start with, before moving into the second, distinct, section of the song which is as emotional in the Easy Stars’ treatment as in the original. The power of these songs is, perhaps surprisingly, retained in the Easy Star reworkings, including ‘Exit Music (for a Film’) which evokes the feel of the original. Inevitably, it is uneven. It is probably impossible to try to produce a take on ‘No Surprises’ which stands comparison to the original. But when the Easy Stars get it right, they really get it right. Listen for instance to the version here of ‘Let Down’ where the ‘Easy Stars family’ expands to include Toots Hibbert. This is just about the perfect ska song. And, despite the lyric, it manages to make Radiohead uplifting.
Like ‘Dub Side of the Moon’, some extra dubs are included on ‘Radiodread’. A further dub from the Radiodread sessions (‘Dubbing up the Walls’) can be found on the Easy Stars’ ‘Until that Day’ (2008), an EP of six tracks that allows some insight into the sound of the band when they are playing their own music rather than reinterpreting the music of others.
Evaluating the music of the Easy Stars overall, cultural analysts would no doubt talk about the transposition of a rock style from an earlier era into the contemporary world of reggae, a doubly ironic move given that the later reggae style, from a 21st century recording outfit, is itself firmly retro, borrowing from the rhythmic roots of an earlier tradition which coincides, incidentally, with the classic rock era of Pink Floyd era. This is exactly what postmodernism claims to be about: the merging of styles, eras, traditions and genre. This is even more apparent in a live setting. Opening their set – in the UK in Autumn 2008 – with ‘Any Dub You Like’, the Easy Star set-list takes tracks from both albums, interspersed with each other, and with no guiding sequence. This is significant, because the ‘whole’ – so lovingly crafted on both of their albums in following the order and sense of the originals – now becomes a collection of songs and rhythms, arranged and rearranged as seems to fit. This forces us to listen to the individual live track, the separate song, in its own right, though presumably with some collective folk-memory thing that reminds at least some of us of the time we first heard this music. Looked at this way, this is an audacious thing to be doing.
But it works, for three reasons: first, the chords and rhythms in the original songs were amongst the best of their generations; second, the musicianship of the band is exemplary; and, third, the production values are excellent. And now? The third major release by the band is Easy Stars’ Lonely Hearts’ Dub Band. The title alone is, let’s face it, pretty good. With the received weight of a legendary album to address, it’s almost setting itself up to fail, but no doubt the Easy Stars figure they have pulled off the impossible twice already, so…
The first single release is With a Little Help from my Friends. In the original, it was arguably a fairly slight pop song that somehow found itself on an iconic album (albeit redeemed by that swooping bass line). From the Easy Stars, it resolves itself, notwithstanding the help of Luciano, into, well, quite an underwhelming reggae tune, but let’s be positive about all this. The first two albums shouldn’t have worked, but did. This will no doubt work out too – if only for the rare pleasure of hearing an NY reggae outfit tackling a Day in the Life.
Links to the Easy Star label and the Easy Star All-Stars band can be found at http://www.easystar.com