Jimmy Cliff Sings “Many Rivers To Cross”

Jimmy_Cliff_-_Many_Rivers_To_CrossListen to this track by Jamaican soul singer, reggae innovator and sometime actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, a song of hardship and burden in a true gospel style as featured prominently on 1972’s The Harder They Come soundtrack.

This record is perhaps one of the earliest that served as a collection of songs featured in a movie that also turned out to be an essential addition to any respectable record collection while it was at it. It also had the distinction of having the star of the movie as one of the contributors to it; Jimmy Cliff himself. Read more

Prince Buster Performs “Whine & Grine”

whine-and-grineListen to this song by first wave ska innovator Prince Buster.  It’s “Whine & Grine”, a song which was not only a signature tune for Prince Buster, but would also inspire the British ska revival in late-70s Britain.

Before there was reggae, there was ska, developed primarily in Jamaica when the local folk music was applied to an attempt at creating a local take on soul music and Motown pop.  Along with Toots & the Maytals and Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster (born Cecil Bustamente Campbell in Kingston Jamaica, 1938) was a towering giant in Jamaican music in the 60s.  And of course, his influence would extend across the Atlantic to Britain by the 70s, when Carribean immigrants imported ska sounds, and further inspired young Britons to form bands of their own with reggae and ska as major ingredients to the music.

This tune is a Prince Buster standard, yet the first time I heard it was on The (English) Beat’s debut I Just Can’t Stop It.  Ska had become to British groups in industrial areas what American R&B music had been in the 1960s.  And full of the same sexual innuendo too, with “rough riders” and “smooth strokers” a-plenty. Above all, it’s dance music, party music, meant to amuse.  And in the late 70s Britain, a little bit of that was needed, with unemployment being at epidemic levels.

Prince Buster meanwhile would remain to be an active force in music, active today and venerated at the same time as one of the architects of reggae and rocksteady, and is considered to be one of the prime figureheads of first-wave ska.

For more information about Prince Buster, and more music, check out this article from The Guardian.


Bedouin Soundclash Spin “Until We Burn in The Sun”

bsc_street_gospelsListen to this track by roots-reggae-meets-dance-meets-pop-meets-Middle-East outfit from Kingston Ontario, Canada – Bedouin Soundclash.  It’s “Until We Burn in the Sun (The Kids Just Want a Love Song)”.  The song is taken from the group’s 2007 record, Street Gospels.

I think taking music from various traditions and melding them together into something new, while making sure the seams don’t show , is a tricky thing.  Pulling together music of different cultures often means a kind of cash-in, an obvious attempt to try to capture a niche. And sometimes, it comes off as sounding dishonest.  It’s a difficult trap to avoid, and then come off with something artful in the end.  But, on this track, Bedouin Soundclash have managed it with seemingly very little effort, evoking reggae and club music to great effect.

From the rubbery basslines, to the Beth Orton-esque vocal, this music is on the same level as Massive Attack and Primal Scream for moodiness and emotive sounds against a danceable beat.  And I think too, it mirrors something of a growing concern of the millennial generation for the state of the world, without being too heavy-handed about it.

Speaking of this last point, Bedouin Soundclash have made no secret as to their interest in environmental issues, closely working with the David Suzuki Foundation.

For more information about that, and about the group in general, wander on down to the Bedouin Soundclash Website.


UB40 Perform ‘Food For Thought’

Here’s a clip of Birmingham UK reggae octet UB40 with their 1980 track ‘Food For Thought’ as taken from their debut album Signing Off.  Among the bands coming out of the ska/reggae revivalist movement in the Midlands of England by the late 70s and early 80s, UB40 had the most commercial success, although it’s important to note that they were never officially a part of that scene.

Their were a lot of Birmingham bands that focused their songwriting initially on political topics around the time UB40 debuted. And the sociological similarities between UB40 and the Two-Tone scene are undeniable. For instance, the band formed in an economically depressed region of the country, is multi-racial, and drew from the sounds of the Caribbean for inspiration including Desmond Dekker, The Slickers, Jimmy Cliff, and Toots & the Maytals, among others. But these overarching elements are where any comparisons to their peers end.

I first heard this tune on the band’s 1983 Live album, a song about the disparity between the first and third worlds, with some references to the absurdity of religion in the face of human suffering thrown in.  I was 14 at the time, unaware of most of what was going on in distant places.  But the weightiness of this song, the stark imagery in the song’s lyrics, more than made up for that lack of awareness.

The lamenting sax lines from saxophonist Brian Travers, along with Ali Campbell’s plaintive vocal convey the sadness and the anger in this tune.  And the rhythm makes each line hypnotic, holding the attention of the listener. It’s always annoyed me that reggae has been sidelined as music to smoke pot to, especially when so much of the best of the genre is about paying attention, and not letting it wander.  And this was the strength that UB40 had on their early albums; they made reggae music that had something to say, like the music of those who influenced them.

UB40 were more of a purist reggae outfit when they started out, leaving behind the abrasive textures of punk which marked the Two-Tone sound which was another prevalent musical scene in Birmingham, Coventry, and the outlying areas. This is one of the major reasons why they are thought of as being separate from their contemporaries like the Specials or The Beat.  They would eventually leave the rootsy sounds of Jamaican reggae too,  and take it in a more AM radio pop-reggae direction by the late 80s and into the 90s, which diluted their sound to the band’s detriment.

But, their first few albums were very focused on their dual purpose as a band; play reggae and make money.  If this last bit sounds a bit on the mercenary side, it’s because these guys had all lost their jobs and formed the band as a means to make up the difference.  They even named the group after the UB40 form, which is the documentation needed to get their dole money.

After they gained an audience and rose in stature, they most likely had a more difficult time justifying their unemployment benefits.  Yet, at least in the beginning, they were giving voice to that audience by singing about what they perceived to be a crumbling society around them, as well as how the corruption of their government was affecting life in the Third World.  In short, they were a long way from reggae covers of Elvis tunes, at least for a while.


The (English) Beat Perform “Mirror in the Bathroom”

Here’s a clip of British ska revivalists The Beat performing their 1980 track “Mirror in the Bathroom” from their album I Just Can’t Stop It.

The Beat were a major part of the British ska revivalist scene in the late 70s and early 80s, centred in Birmingham and Coventry. Along with The Specials, Selecter, and Madness (a London band), The Beat took many of its musical cues from Caribbean music, most notably the Jamaican ska of Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, and others and infused it with the tense political edge that was common to the times.

The English Beat - Beat Girl

The band was comprised of both black and white members, some being immigrants from the islands, a large number of whom had emigrated to Britain at the beginning of the 60s. Their saxophonist, aptly named “Saxa”, had played with both Dekker and Prince Buster in the 1960s, adding a certain level of authenticity to the band. The group mixed the spikiness of punk with the jubilant energy of ska, and created a sound that was both aggressive and celebratory in equal measure.

The band’s sound and the thrust of the whole scene came off as a sort of musical fist in the air to Thatcherism and to the racial intolerance that existed particularly violently in urban centres of the country at the time. The band covered Prince Buster’s “Whine and Grind” and fused it to their own song, “Stand Down Margaret” which was a not-so-subtle commentary on the current Prime Minister.

The scene as a whole was short-lived, but The Beat would make the biggest impact overseas of all of the bands that were a part of it, championed mainly by anglophile fans, alternative rock radio, and supporting appearances with the Police and the Pretenders, among others. Of course, they’d have to change their name to “The English Beat” Stateside, as there was already a band called the Beat as led by Paul Collins, formerly of power pop lost legends the Nerves. But as soon as they had begun to crack the States, internal tensions led the band to split in two. Lead vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger left to form their own group, General Public who would have a smash hit in their lead single “Tenderness” as taken from their 1984 album All the Rage. Bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals with vocalist Roland Gift. FYC would have hits in ” Johnny Come Home”, a version of “Suspicious Minds” in 1985, and later their ubiquitous single “She Drives Me Crazy” in 1989.

The Beat would reform as an ongoing live act in 2005, without many of its original members, and is currently led by Ranking Roger and original Beat drummer Everett Morton. They remain to be a popular live band in Britain. Meanwhile, Dave Wakeling tours in his own “The English Beat”, based in the States, and also known to be an energetic live act.

“Mirror in the Bathroom” is one of my favourite songs by anyone, with an insistent bassline, and a sort of speed-fueled edge to it thanks to the prickly rhythm guitars and Wakeling’s rapid-fire vocal. And a saxophone has never sounded so menacing. The song is eminently danceable, defying you to stand still in fact. In essence, this song is the template of the band’s whole sound – the joyousness of Jamaican ska, with the anger and darkness of punk fused to it. It gives me the same rush now to hear it as it did when it came out!