Wednesday, 21 July 2021

War ina Babylon - Black Ark Studios artists

These are artists whose major recordings were made at Lee "Scratch" Perry's legendary Black Ark Studios. They are, in order - Junior Murvin; Max Romeo; The Congos; The Heptones; George Faith and Candy McKenzie...

Junior Murvin - Police And Thieves (1977)

Junior Murvin was another of the Black Ark Studios roots reggae artists whose mid-late seventies albums are now so iconic. I have, unsurprisingly, chosen the one that includes Murvin's signature song to explore here. This is one of the legendary Black Ark studio's "holy trinity",
 along with Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon and The HeptonesParty Time (which is very difficult to source these days). Produced, of course, by the prodigious, inventive Lee "Scratch" Perry, it is a classic of the roots reggae genre that was so popular in the mid-late seventies. It is full of righteous Rastafarian messages, as you would expect, but it is also notable for its killer melodies. It is also dominated by Junior Murvin's uplifting falsetto vocal. As you would expect, Perry's production is archetypal Black Ark. You know it when you hear it, but it is difficult to describe. Sort of dense and murky, but with crystal clear, clashy percussion.
Roots Train is an absolutely infectious, punchy thumper of an opener, with a huge rumbling bass, tasty horns and that distinctive Perry jangling percussion sound. The title track, Police And Thieves, of course, is now iconic, not only because of The Clash's guitar-driven cover of it, but because of its sheer captivating atmosphere and Murvin's sublime falsetto vocals. Also, it is full of hooks, both musically and lyrically. 

Solomon again features that percussion groove, together with more excellent horn backing and another impressive Murvin vocal. Rescue Jah Children is a slow tempo, insistent piece of Rasta preaching, delivered over an appetising heavy bass line. Tedious is a mysterious, evocative roots skank with a totally speaker-shaking bass. It has some nice dubby parts near the end. False Teachin' carries a strong Rasta message about the ills of Babylon. As with a lot of this material, the "legalise it" message just washes over you, as the riddim and addictive vocals soothe you as much as any herb. 

Easy Task is slightly livelier in its approach, with a catchy refrain. It still tells us that being a devout Rastafarian is no easy task, despite its fetching lightness of sound. Lucifer continues to plough the same furrow. Perry keeps the material here pretty much in the same style. He can be more inventive at times, but here he sticks to the tried and tested regular beat, percussion and backing. Murvin indulges in some nice vocal harmonising at one point, improvising a little, however. There is something of Bob Marley's Exodus in the beat of this one. 

Working In The Cornfield has a heavy but equally laid-back feeling, if that doesn't sound too oxymoronic. Murvin's vocal is once again quite entrancing. I Was Appointed is a very typically rootsy number with some I-Threes-style "woo-woo" backing vocals and those vibrant horns again.

Along with 
War Ina Babylon, this album will make many "reggae top ten albums" lists, and with good reason. It is very representative of Perry's sound from the 1975-78 period. It never got better than this for Junior Murvin, however. This was his one classic album. Everything just came together.

** It is also worth getting hold of the deluxe edition which includes, among other things, the excellent alternative versions of the title track - Perry's Grumblin' DubJah Lion's toasting Soldier And Police War and Glen DaCosta's saxophone instrumental version of it, entitled Magic Touch.

Max Romeo - War Ina Babylon (1976)

Previously a "slack" purveyor of "naughty" pop reggae such as Wet DreamMax Romeo reinvented himself as a "conscious" roots artist, praising Jah instead of pum-pum and warning of the dire consequences of social deprivation. He teamed up with the already legendary producer Lee "Scratch" Perry and the result was a wonderful roots album, bristling with rhythm, heavy bass and righteous indignation. Perry's excellent "house band", The Upsetters, provide the outstanding backing. This is one of the great roots reggae albums and along with Junior Murvin's Police And Thieves and The Heptones' Party Time, this forms part of Perry's "holy trinity" of Black Ark studio-produced roots albums. Romeo released several more albums, but none had the hard-hitting, seismic effect of this one. It is a true reggae classic. Up there in the top ten reggae albums of all time, unquestionably. Classic cover too.

One Step Forward kicks off the album with a huge impact. Full of rootsy bass, intoxicating rhythm and a killer hook, it is one of roots reggae's most crucial tracks. Simply superb. The sound quality on the latest remaster is outstanding too - full, warm and beautifully bassy, as it should be. Uptown Babies Don't Cry has sumptuous horns, a melodic bass line and a yearning lyric about uptown, wealthy babies not knowing what it is like to go hungry. The light tuneful melody belies the song's message.

Chase The Devil is another roots stonking number that sees Max go all preacher-like and beseeching us to chase out Satan from our sinful lives. The backing has a deep bass and a Rastafarian, traditional drum sound as well as a lilting, infectious guitar riff. The title track, War Ina Babylon, should be on any respectable roots reggae or punky reggae party playlist. It is a true classic of the roots genre, full of typical Perry rhythms, addictive chorus and backing vocals. Excellent dub versions were done both by Perry and "dub master" King Tubby. I never knew quite what the refrain "sipple out deh" meant though.

Norman is an evocative, atmospheric, almost soulful groove, with a bit of an urban funk/soul feel to it, despite the heavy roots beat. It is a bit of an equivalent to 
William DeVaughn's Be Thankful For What You Got. It cooks, big time. Massive track. Stealing In The Name Of Jah is a catchy, singalong lively number with a lovely vocal from Romeo, but again it hides a darker message about religious hypocrisy. 
Tan And See has a captivating, rumbling bass line underpinning it, a great vocal from Romeo and impressive backing vocals. Smokey Room praises the "riddim" over a suitably quirky, upbeat groove, as it describes a room full of smoke from the weed. Smile Out A Style is a shortish anti-war number to end this solid, meaningful and highly recommended roots reggae album.

The Congos - The Heart Of The Congos (1977)

The Congos were beloved of music critics and hard-core reggae fans alike. I am ever so slightly ambivalent (comparatively) to them but there is no doubting that this was a fine and unique piece of roots reggae. As a long-time reggae aficionado, I have a strange relationship with The Heart Of The Congos. It is, for many people, "the best reggae album ever", and indeed is the reggae equivalent of Miles Davis's A Kind Of Blue in that it attracts non-reggae fans to praise it, as Davis's album did for jazz. They are possibly the only albums from those genres that some people own. While it is undoubtedly an excellent album, I have to admit that it is not my absolute favourite. I prefer roots material from the same classic 1975-78 era from The AbyssiniansThe Mighty DiamondsThe Gladiators and Israel Vibration. That said, (which is just a personal thing) of course, there are many, many good things about the album. It is still a classic of the great roots reggae era. No question about that, full of proper devout roots offerings - it sucks you in and demands repeated listenings, that is certainly not in doubt.

Like the material from those artists, what we have here is unsurprisingly pious Rastafarian "conscious" fare - praising Jah and warning of dire consequences for ignoring the word of Jah. The vocals  of Cedric Myton and Roy "Ashanti" Johnson are respectively high and low in pitch and beautifully harmonious. The musicians include Boris Gardiner on bass, Sly Dunbar on drums and Ernest Ranglin on guitar. Lest we forget, the production is the work of the mighty Lee "Scratch" Perry in his Black Ark studio. Surprisingly, Perry steps back from his trademark deep dub style and allows The Congos' lighter touch to prevail, their vocals taking centre stage, and the backing is also lighter, subtler and created to merge perfectly with the singers, as opposed to overwhelming them. Many heap praise on Perry for his production but maybe it is what he didn't do here that is the most important thing. He didn't bury it alive in dub and therein lies the album's strength. I guess it also showed Perry's instincts to be good ones and highlighted his versatility too.

Fisherman is an entrancing number, perhaps the group's best known offering. It is a song of religious praise, although this gives way at the end, during a dubby passage, to extol the virtues of "the best collie (marijuana) in Seaport Town...". 
Congoman utilises some typical Rastafarian drum-percussion backing and chanting-style vocals. It is intoxicating in its mysterious, deep, pounding rhythm. Excellent stuff. It is probably the most unusual, inventive track on the album, moving away from the traditional, steady skanking roots rhythm used on so much of the genre's material. Open Up The Gate is a lively song of praise, with a distinctive cowbell-driven rhythm and a mournful, sonorous vocal. Children Crying has a chugging but melodic skank and a killer, soulful, yearning vocal. It is indeed packed full of soul (and assorted animal noises too, something Perry liked using). A great track. 

La-La Bam Bam
 has a delicious bass line and that typical Black Ark Perry percussion sound. Its lyrics contain many Biblical references. Can't Come In is a light, airy, Abyssinians-style skank with a catchy bass line and lively, upbeat carefree feel. Sodom And Gomorrow is, as you would expect, a cautionary tale of warning of the "burning" of Jah's wrath. Humanity will indeed pay for its sins. Lots of fire and brimstone. It is one of the most overtly deep roots cuts on the album, a complete contrast to the previous track. 
The ambience lifts totally for the breezy groove of The Wrong Thing. It is still a pious song, but its vocals and melody make it supremely catchy. Ark Of The Covenant sees some more overt dubby passages in one the album's most rootsy numbers.

This new release contains both the remastered album and also, most interestingly, the previously unavailable 
Original Black Ark Mix. The latter has mainly shorter versions of the tracks, they are enhanced by a loose, stripped back rawness that makes them well worth several listens. They suffer, however, from an understandably inferior sound quality. It is a mono-sounding mix, with hiss here and there and simply not containing the fabulous clarity of the current remaster, which are nearly all longer versions of the songs, with more of Perry's inventive sound effects abounding, a richer, deeper bass sound and an all-over sharpness that sounds superb. This is the definitive version of the album. Check out the rhythm, bass and strange sounds at the beginning of Congoman. Wonderful. This expanded edition is definitely the one to get hold of. I have the download which includes the material from all three CDs, but the vinyl, for some reason does not include the original black ark mixes, which must be frustrating for many.

The Heptones - Party Time (1977)

The Heptones were a roots reggae group with a melodic, harmonious bent, and were one of those produced by the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry. Here is an album that is regarded by many as their best. The third in the "holy trinity" of Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced roots reggae albums from his legendary Black Ark studios (the other two are Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon and Junior Murvin's Police And Thieves). Although containing the same mid-pace bassy backing that characterised all Perry's productions, and that distinctive jangly percussion sound, this is a far lighter album than the booming, denser beats of the other two. Although it is still very much a roots reggae album in its overall sound, there is less of a "conscious" Rastafarian message to it and more love songs. It has the lightness of vocal touch of say an AbyssiniansMighty Diamonds or Gladiators album. The Heptones were known for their vocal harmonies, and this was not lost on Perry, who merged it successfully with a roots "riddim" to great effect.
Party Time
 is a cool, catchy groove with a soulful vocal and chilled-out good-time feel, while 
Crying Over You is a lovelorn lament, with a breezy, harmonious feel of Third World about it. Now Generation is a horn-driven number with another soul-style harmonised vocal. Mr. President is the first overtly political track so far that sees the group beseeching the President to do something about poverty over a typical Black Ark beat.

Serious Time is a rootsy but melodic number, while I Shall Be Released, a cover of Bob Dylan & The Band's song, shows how convincingly roots reggae could be used to cover music from other genres. This is an excellent, moving and evocative cut that gained The Heptones considerable "cross over" attention in the "punky reggae party" years of 1977-79.

Storm Cloud
 is one of the album's deepest roots numbers. Road Of Life, on the other hand, is a lively, melodious Third World-esque delicious laid-back skank. 
Why Music I is very much in the same vein, with a lovely bass line underpinning it. The album's jewel in the crown is the glorious, uplifting gospel-influenced anthem that is Sufferers' Time. The vocals are superb, the rhythm infectious and it is a real high note on which to end this slightly different roots reggae album. By the way, the only way to seemingly get hold of the album at present is as part of the Nightfood Ina Party Time compilation.

George Faith - Super Eight (1977) 
In 1977, having produced the seminal roots albums of Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon, Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves and the slightly lighter Party Time from The HeptonesLee "Scratch" Perry also dabbled in lighter reggae rhythms and lyrical approach. Firstly, he gave us an album from Candy McKenzie of disco-soul-influenced reggae and here, he had vocalist George Faith singing in a light, soulful, almost yearning lovers rock style over rootsy but gentle rhythms. There is no deep dense Perry dubby roots production here, it is a much lighter poppier type of reggae, while still retaining a bit of a roots skank under its appetising vocals. All the tracks are at least four-five minutes in length, some lasting longer. They all get into a groove and keep going on their melodic way, most appealingly.
I've Got The Groove is a deliciously melodic dare I say, groove. It sails on tunefully, highlighting Faith's nice voice. Opportunity has an infectious rhythm and another intoxicating vocal. Turn Back The Hands Of Time has a dub-influenced backing, but also some lovely melody, horns and a lovelorn vocal. Faith almost sounds like one of the great Motown vocalists on this. At a couple of points on the track, the horns sample a classic soul track, that, infuriatingly, I can't put my finger on. In fact, listening to it again, it is, I think, Ike & Tina Turner's Proud Mary.

Gonna Give Her All The Love I've Got/There's A Train
 is supremely soulful, Faith's voice is in total control, a gently persuasive lover over a lilting beat. Beautiful stuff. 
In The Midnight Hour/Ya Ya is a reggae-fied cover of the classic Wilson Pickett Atlantic soul song, mixed with a reggae number called Ya Ya. The track is over seven minutes long and has a dubby last passage.

George Faith has always been best known for the gorgeous number that is the sensual To Be A Lover (Have Mercy), where Perry perfectly merges skanking reggae with intuitively seductive soul. This is taking traditional pop reggae and pushing its boundaries. It is a true classic of its type. Unfortunately, the cover of Paul Anka's Diana veers to close to the "hotel bar" style of reggae covers of well-known pop hits. There was no real need to have done this one. 
So Fine returns to the feel of the previous numbers. There are, for the first time, a few typical Perry sound effects near the end. This album is an excellent forty minutes or so's listen. Anymore than that would probably be too much, but as the album gives us just the eight tracks, then that's fine. It is worth checking out.

Candy McKenzie - Lee "Scratch" Perry Presents Candy McKenzie (1977)

1976-1977 had given us Max Romeo's War Ina BabylonJunior Murvin's Police And Thieves and The HeptonesParty Time - all classic roots reggae albums. Here we had Perry "presenting" previously unknown London singer Candy McKenzie. Indeed, the title tells us just that. This is a slightly different reggae album from Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark Studio. It is nowhere near as "conscious" or "roots" as those afore-mentioned works and is quite a unique (for the time) reggae album, mixing disco, soul, lovers rock and pop reggae together with Perry's trademark, slightly murky sound production. It had apparently been "lost" in the vaults for years. It had been rejected by Island Records at the time.

Re-released here by the Trojan label, the sound is not as impressive as on those other albums, sounding a tiny bit muffled, less crystal clear and actually I am pretty sure it is a mono recording. It just doesn't have that percussion clarity of many of Perry's other productions strangely. I suspect that the only source Trojan had of the album was the original vinyl. This may well be a "needle drop", albeit a pretty good one.

Disco Fit is a first - an example of disco reggae. The beat is an insistent soulful groove and McKenzie's powerful voice soars all over it in the manner of a soul diva as opposed to a reggae singer. Someone To Love Me has a more regular upbeat, lilting reggae skank and a "lovers rock" feel to both the beat and McKenzie's airy, light voice. Breakfast In Bed is the reggae original of the appealing, mid-pace Eddie Hinton song made famous by Dusty Springfield and UB40/Chrissie Hynde. Walking In The Sun has a strong, bassy skank and another loaded vocal packed full of soul. 

Jah Knows is the album's one seemingly Rasta conscious track and has a suitably deep, chunky "riddim". McKenzie's female vocal gives it a bit of an air of Althea and Donna's material from the same era, although her voice is far more versatile and less deadpan. The song is unusual, though, in that it isn't a typical Rasta devotional song at all, despite the title. It is sung from a woman's point of view and is questioning of a male-dominated society. Ice Cream is a seductive but thumping soul-style number with a sumptuous big bass line. It goes without saying that the voice is superb. Sky At Night is a dreamy groove with a fetching "one-drop" backing rhythm. One of the best beats on the album. Keep Him Strong is a Sade-style number six years before Diamond Life. Once again, reggae meets sweet soul on a beguiling number. Tell Me A Lie is another prototype lovers rock song. When The Big Day has a deeper, denser beat, but is a bit muffled in its reproduction. The vocal once more owes more to soul stylings than traditional reggae ones, particularly in the "shoo-wop, shoowop" bit. This is definitely an unusual addition to my reggae collection, showing that late seventies reggae was not all about righteous Rasta and deep dub. Also, that female reggae singers were not just light, pop singers. Sadly this would prove to be Candy McKenzie's only album. I am unable to find out too much about her but I believe she passed away tragically early.

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