The Continuing Digitization Project earlier this year went into the reggae section of my friend Ron’s Vinyl Vault. And after ripping four albums — three by Jimmy Cliff, one by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers — what I can’t get outta my head is, what’s with this music?
Back in the heyday of The Music, when I was living in Madison, Wis., and the area, you’d occasionally hear people advise you to check out reggae — it was going to be the next thing, they said. (People used to say the same thing about disco; that’s not a comparison of the two musical forms themselves, but a comment on the eternal Next Big Thing.)
But Jamaican music didn’t seem to penetrate the Mad City airwaves much. WIBA, where I mostly learned about new music, was veering away from its free-form experimental stage, into Classic Rock. Reggae maybe was being played on WORT, the public, non-Gummint Radio FM station, but that was kind of unprofessional and disorganized, and you had to wade through a lot of other stuff.
I eventually heard enough Bob Marley and the Wailers to develop an interest in the musical form he so popularized — probably because of covers like Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” — and picked up a best-of compilation. I enjoy it, and it’s integral to our Deck Party Music playlist — which otherwise includes Brazilian and Caribbean music and Jimmy Buffett — but it’s not a go-to album otherwise. And if I’m not that into that skimming of the cream, would I want to buy the cuts that didn’t make it?
Backing up a bit, where did reggae come from, other than Jamaica? From New Orleans and its rhythm and blues, which Jamaicans listened to over the AM radio, that’s where. The music of Fats Domino, etc., influenced the creation of a musical form called ska, one of the predecessors of reggae.
(Ska became popular in the U.K., where it was the in thing in the mid-60s. A friend I met through my Scottish clan, an Australian who was originally from the U.K, played saxophone for a ska band — the Amboy Dukes, something completely different from Nugent’s group — in a London club that was the hangout for members of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other up-and-coming rock bands.
(Moosh told me about a young vocalist who showed up at the Bag of Nails one night to sing, but didn’t have taxi or subway fare to get home, so they gave him a ride. His name was Rod Stewart, and he ended up making more than enough money to buy that club and the rest of the block, if he’d wanted to.)
Ska – which was faster-paced, like New Orleans jazz — and another Jamaican genre, rocksteady, evolved into a slower form, reggae, in the late 1960s. That’s later than I had assumed the genre had appeared, and explains why it was the “next big thing” in the early 1970s.
A number of different styles developed within reggae, and the artists that performed in the genre worked with different themes, from party music and love songs to social/political commentary and religious messages. The musical form spread beyond the island’s shores, particularly in the U.K, where it was adopted by groups like UB40 and influenced the Police, among others.
What really makes reggae different from other popular music forms, though, is the beat. The bass line dominates more, and the lead guitar and/or keyboards are used to put the emphasis on a different beat in the measure, the time signature of which is almost always 4/4.
That somewhat limits the versatility of the music, and perhaps explains why a lot of it sounds the same, at least to me. One of the things I like about The Music is the variety of approaches and themes — a thousand flowers have bloomed since the late 1950s, everything from country rock to folk rock to punk and progressive.
Maybe I haven’t listened to enough reggae. But if that’s the case, it was remedied somewhat while digitizing those four albums.
The verdict? I had approached the Cliff LPs with the thought, “He did ‘I Can See Clearly Now,’ and I liked that.” But the version of that song that I knew and liked was the original, by Johnny Nash; Cliff’s is OK, but it’s not on any of the three albums I ripped.
Otherwise, “Special” sounded pretty uninspired, almost mailed in; “Cliff Hanger” included a song that sounded exactly like one of those on Marley’s “Legend” compilation, and didn’t do much for me otherwise. Only “Hanging Fire” survived the cut and made it into my iTunes library permanently.
Ziggy Marley? If he’s trying to sound like his dad, he’s succeeding, at least vocally and instrumentally. But the lyrical content isn’t there, the album title and title song seem pretty trite, and the other tunes aren’t very distinctive, either.
Bottom line, with all due apologies to 10cc, I do like reggae. I just don’t love it.