On this outstanding new release, the core Specials membership of Terry Hall, Horace Panter and Lynval Golding is supplemented by a range of invited guests to cover twelve songs from across the decades. The sound is not confined to the ska/reggae tradition we associate with the Specials but reflects instead the band’s take on the songs they have chosen, and this varies widely. Following the album ‘Encore’ released in 2019 (see reggaemusic.org.uk 11th February 2019), ‘Protest Songs’ further cements the band’s enduring reputation: if the Specials didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them as they are our musical and political conscience. The choice of songs is not what we might expect, being pleasingly idiosyncratic. It ranges from the Staple Singers’ ‘Freedom Highway’ held together by a strong crisp drumbeat, Talking Heads’ ‘Listening Wind’, and, on more familiar reggae ground, an innovative arrangement of the Wailers’ ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. The treatment of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ makes it worthwhile to buy the album even without taking the other tracks into consideration. More!
The single rhythm album has long been a feature of the reggae music scene and has been assessed on these pages before (see ‘Let There Be Versions’ reggaemusic.org.uk September 2009). Here is a new collection from New York producer Adrian Hanson wherein an impressive gathering of reggae performers present their individual vocals upon the foundation provided by the driving freedom sound rhythm. Amongst the tracks are names including Mykal Rose (‘Give Me Love’) and Lutan Fyah (‘Fade Away’). Also included is the San Diego band Big Mountain (‘Hear That Sound’}, who charted in the UK with their cover of ‘Baby I Love Yor Way’ back in 1994 (and also released a great version of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ a couple of years later). The closing track, credited to Adrian Hanson, gives the basic rhythm room to breathe and lets us appreciate the underlying strength of the music here.
Adrian Hanson: Freedom Sound Riddim, release 17th September 2021
The word ‘legend’ is mightily over-used in the world of reggae but it is rightly applied to a select group of Jamaican performers who have generated the music and spread the word about reggae music – those such as the late Toots Hibbert, the unique Lee Perry and, in this instance, the enduring legacy of Jimmy Cliff. Now aged 77, Jimmy Cliff has popularised reggae music through the film ‘The Harder they Come’ (1972) and with songs such as ‘Many Rivers to Cross’, ‘Let Your Yeah be Yeah’ and ‘You Can Get it if you Really Want’, going right back ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Miss Jamaica’ in the early 1960s. These latter songs were firmly in the ska tradition, reggae having yet to develop into the music we know today. And they still sound good, an astonishing 60 years later.
Jimmy Cliff is now back with a new single entitled ‘Human Touch’ (from his forthcoming album ‘Bridges’, his first album for nine years). It’s not the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name, but a gentle song by Jimmy Cliff with words written some time ago but newly relevant today as pandemic and lockdown remind us of the pain created by the lack of closeness to others.
No, I haven’t got the year wrong: this is a new release from indie/surf-rock/reggae band Gecko Club. Its theme is last summer’s disappointment and despair during lockdown. As it’s now hot weather again this summer, even up here in the North of England, what better time to revisit our fears and hopes?
Musically, it’s a gentle, upbeat lilting reggae song with understated guitar throughout, reaching a rock crescendo before returning to the reggae beat. In different hands, it could almost be recast as a lovers’ rock tune from the 80s which is no bad thing.
Highlighting their thoughts on the track, Gecko Club say “We started writing this song in lockdown last year when we were all feeling pretty down about our plans for the year being cancelled. 2020 was supposed to be the year we set off on our first tour outside of the UK with our mates The Koalaz from Holland, as well as a strong list of festivals we were booked to play at. We kinda had a chat at the start of last year and with everything we had booked, we’re confident it was going to be a big one for Gecko’.
‘Boomtown is a big part of our summer together and the fact we couldn’t go this year was killer. We decided to focus the lyrics around the festival but really it represents something much greater than just the festival itself. We don’t really like writing depressing songs and we design our live sets to be a party, which is why the song sounds the way it does, you know, upbeat and easy to have a skank too. At face value it comes across as a happy feels song but listening deeper to the lyrics you realise, er well, we missed the summer and we’re cut up about it.”
It’s sometimes hard to grasp just how long UB40 have been around. Formed in 1978, their initial album ‘Signing Off’ (1980) was a strong introduction to their sound and the single ‘King/Food for Thought’ remains an excellent debut release, deservedly sending them into the mainstream charts and into popular acclaim. (By the way, the refrain of ‘Food for Thought’ is ‘Ivory Madonna’ not ‘I’m a Prima Donna’ although the frequent mishearing of that line might be a more accurate summary of the band’s subsequent evolution). Some very strong releases followed, including ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ (also 1980): well worth hearing even today in its 12” incarnation and, like the best of the band’s output, sharp and political.
Thereafter, UB40 moved closer to the pop/reggae mainstream which displeased some and is welcomed by others and were subject to some unreasonable criticism simply for being popular or, in a racially-tinged comment, for producing a ‘pastel’ brand of reggae. Latterly, the band split into two separate UB40s, with lead singer Ali Campbell (along with Mickey Virtue and Astro) going his own way after the kind of brotherly divergence we’ve seen with, for instance, Oasis. Some releases met with a decidedly mixed reaction including their foray into country reggae on ‘Getting Over the Storm’ (2013) (see reggaemusic.org.uk 12th September 2013).
This new release from the original UB40 (minus Ali etc) builds on the first ‘Baggariddim’ (1985) and this time features some strong collaborations with the likes of Tippa Irie and Inner Circle amongst others. The band are touring the UK in late 2021, and presumably this gives us the chance to hear some of this live. It’s fine confident reggae music: maybe ‘listen without prejudice’ is the best approach here for those interested in the music rather than interpersonal squabbles.
Previously featured on this site on 1st November last year, here’s Hungarian band Manaky with another fine reggae tune ‘Reborn’ from their album of the same name. It’s unadorned by the electronic and studio effects of 80s and 90s reggae and represents instead a return to the strengths of the traditional guitar/bass/drums reggae sound. As you may see from the video, it also features flutes and parrots which can’t be said for many releases these days.
With the passing of the reggae masters U Roy (February) and Bunny Wailer (March) it falls to a new generation to take the music forward. Here’s a release from Perfect Giddimani, intended as a tribute to producer and musician Drew Keys who also died earlier this year. It’s a mid-paced electronic rhythm with additions of melodica in the mix and Giddimani’s dancehall-influenced vocal over the top. It’s a sweet and gentle sound, dedicated to those we have lost.
Perfect Giddimani: Goodbye (Genna Genna), released February 2021 on Giddimani Records
Reggae compilation albums can be attempts to recycle well-known tracks at minimal cost, or they can be more thoughtful attempts to bring some of the best reggae sounds to new audiences. This ‘heavy roots selection’ from Pressure Sounds is firmly in the latter category, bringing us classic names including U Roy, Linval Thompson, Cornell Campbell and Johnny Clark in twenty-one tracks of excellent reggae music (including Bunny Lee & King Tubby’s Dubplate Special). Available as a double album on vinyl or as a CD this is a welcome release indeed.
“Me used to record every day in the 70s. Sometimes 7 days a week, day and night inna the studio, daytimes in the main studios and then nighttimes in Tubby’s til daylight come again, and just get an hour’s sleep and then back to the studio again. King Tubby’s Studio was really like my headquarters. Me record the backing track at the big studios, but then most times me voice and mix at Tubby’s. When Tubbs stop mix it was me and Philip Smart, Pat Kelly, then Jammys and Scientist. Them always ready fi work with me when I work, and most times that was nighttime when it quieter. Me love the 4 track tape cos it’s what we have at Tubby’s, even when most everyone else move up to 8 or 16. That one-inch 4 track tape was cheaper and smaller, so it easier to store and you can carry it overseas. And 4 tracks is enough when you know what you’re doing…
…And so Bunny Lee recorded a massive volume of remarkably consistent music in the 70s. This compilation brings together rare and unreleased cuts that put the listener bang in the middle of a typical recording session, complete with false starts and studio banter. Linval Thompson is represented by two unreleased tunes and is also heard in the runup to ‘Tommy’s Vibration’. Once the ‘flying cymbal’ sound had taken off, Bunny often recorded a ‘flyers’ and a straight version of the same rhythm: ‘Tommy’s Vibration’ is a classic but little known Tommy McCook instrumental on the flyers cut of Linval’s ‘Jah Jah A The Conqueror’. ‘Ethiopian Rock’ is a total scorcher, the only recorded tune by the deejay Jah Smile, before Bunny persuaded him to turn to singing and changed his name to Barry Brown. In a healthy spirit of competition, Bunny often tried out different singers on tunes that he thought would hit, hence Ronnie Davis’s soulful take on Johnny Clarke’s ‘Every Knee Shall Bow’, Johnny’s version of Horace Andy’s ‘Better Collie’, and Johnny and Horace sharing vocals on ‘No Man Is An Island’, all unreleased until now. ‘No Babylon Shall Escape In This Time’ has Johnny Clarke and ‘Bongo’ Herman Davis recorded over the original version side of Johnny’s ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement’. ‘Life Of My Own’ is a beautifully constructed lament by a singer who neither Bunny nor various expert ears have managed to identify: at Bunny’s suggestion he is credited as ‘The Raver’. ‘War Zone’ and ‘Keep On Running’ are examples of Tubby’s mixes that have had further effects dubbed on elsewhere; sound systems and foreign record labels occasionally did this to manufacture their own specials from existing mixes. ‘Jamaican Fruit Of African Roots’ has recently been the subject of the fascinating documentary ‘Shella Record: A Reggae Mystery’; the Lennox Brown cut here has only just been discovered. Also included are two stinging dubplates by Cornell Campbell: the first is aimed straight to the head of Arrows sound system, while the second, recorded in the early 80s, sums up the vital partnership of two of Jamaica’s musical giants:
“King Tubby’s are the dub organizer, King Tubby’s are the dub supervisor, Bunny Lee him are the champion producer, Bunny Lee him are the A1 manager.”
Here’s something upbeat and positive to cheer us through the hard times of pandemic and political uncertainty. This new album features reggae and dancehall artist Zulu Bob (from Antigua and Barbuda) with a batch of reggae tracks released by what the publicity describes as the “one and only reggae music label” in China, namely Chinaman Yard. The album also features Jamaican reggaeman Blvk H3ro (Harvin Bailey) and France’s General Huge. It’s good straightahead reggae music – no worries – so let’s hope it’s a sign of a good year ahead.
Zulu Bob: Road to ReggaeVille, released 22nd January 2021 on Chinaman Yard records