Pickle is the Controller  

Posted by Wayne Bretski in

Welcome to the fifth installment of Pickle's Picks. The first four mixes under this name were the result of a three-week listening and tagging session with my music library's "R & B/Funk" heading. This mix takes its cues from both the re-organizing and tidying aspects of the original Pickle's Picks series, but switching up the genre to the Reggae Music umbrella.

The inspiration for this mix (not to mention the bald rip-off of a title), by the way, is a compilation put together by Jonny Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead among other pursuits. I bought Jonny Greenwood is the Controller on Amazon a couple of weeks ago and it's been a fairly lop-sided winner in the "CD Spun In The Car On The Way To Work And Driving Around Town" sweepstakes.

Mr. Greenwood worked closely with Trojan Records for the comp, and had access to an ass-load of high quality reggae records. I thought to myself that with what I've compiled so far from Internet forums, boards, blogs, and so on, I could make a pretty listenable mix of sounds that like my new favorite mix could serve as introduction, body, and conclusion to the sounds of Jamaica. I haven't confined myself to a particular style or studio, so it's a bit scattershot, but it was still a lot of fun to listen through all my reggae jams and make this little blog post.

Pickle is the Controller starts off with an absolute classic of ska music and a fire-starter for reggae. "Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir. So that every mouth can be fed", starts Desmond Dekker & his Aces' "Israelites", recorded in 1968. Desmond Dekker probably did more to showcase Jamaica and its music than any musician before Bob Marley, and was a major influence on countless reggae artists regardless of origin. This jam's a bit of a chestnut to reggae fans, but if anyone catches it here for the first time in their life, it was worth it.

Track 2 is called "Missiri", recorded by an Ivory Coast-born musician named Tikeh Jah Fakoly, and produced by a great originator in the reggae production scene, U-Roy. Mr. Fakoly released this album, "Francafrique" in 2002, and I found the whole thing remarkably consistent and entertaining. There is not much deviation from this kind of groove on the album, but it's a good one to get swallowed up in, much like anything with U-Roy on the boards.

Next up is the great dancehall toaster Barrington Levy. I'm not a huge fan of dancehall and ragga music in general, but every so often a track catches my ear in a different way from any of its influences like ska or hip hop. I don't believe this was found on an album by Mr. Levy, other than compilations of hits and that sort of thing, so I've listed "Here I Come" as being from the 'Broader Than Broadway' comp from 1990. It seems that the "broader than Broadway" line would be a subtle jab at the singer's hefty weight. This was a major hit in Mr. Levy's rise to stardom.

Track 4 stays in the same era of the early 1980s, although the reissued album wasn't released until 2002. "Who Me (Zim Zim)" was a major departure from the reigning sounds of the time, as can be determined by comparing the previous track with this one. Much more dubby and slow, Billy Boyo was only a teenager when he cut this track, full of confidence bordering on arrogance. Basslines aplenty here while Boyo toasts away at his own pace. This carved a bit of a niche for him, away from the slick Lover's Rock and the grittier dancehall popular at the time.

Another song that sounds about as far away from the time it was recorded as could be possible, "Panic In Babylon" thrust Lee "Scratch" Perry back into reggae stardom after nearly a decade of subpar and strange albums. While 'Panic' is no less strange, it's very well balanced by tough riddims and engaging sound effects. Seven and a half minutes of world-class dub here. Perry should need no introduction to reggae fans, and a quick Google search should satisfy a newbie's needs. 'Panic in Babylon' takes its backing from a Swiss reggae band named White Belly Rats, who do a great job keeping the focus on Scratch's half-insane intonations.

Wayne Jarrett, on the other hand, appears to require significant introduction. Although recorded in the '70s along with a host of other artists on Lloyd "Bullwackie" Barnes eponymous Bronx-based label, it took 25 years for a reissue, from a German label no less. 'Showcase, Vol. 1' appears to mainly follow the formula shown here on the first track, "Brimstone and Fire", which consists of powerful, slightly dubby riddims with some horns in the back, and the occasional goofy sound effect. The most important part to me would be Mr. Jarrett's fine tenor soaring above the fray. I just ordered 'Showcase' and Jarrett's other album 'Hot Chip' on Amazon and I'm excited to see if the whole oeuvre matches the promise of the few tracks I've been able to download.

Back to a big name: Augustus Pablo had the cockamamie plan of turning the marginalized melodica into a featured instrument. All Music Guide notes that this would be akin to having a "Lead Kazoo" in your band. (If you're not sure what a melodica is, just listen and it will be very clear.) Mr. Pablo had a long and fruitful career, despite or because of his uniqueness, mostly like this track focusing on longer-form dub explorations. Known as Rockers, this song was a 1987 reissue addition to 1980's 'Rockers Meets King Tubby in a Fire House'. King Tubby is the dub force behind much of Pablo's work (at least the good stuff), while Fire House refers to the Waterhouse section of Kingston, Jamaica, where King Tubby's studio was located.

And back to a very small name, or at least an obscure song and album. The information I found online was that this song was by a man named Bunny Clarke, and many people on the Nets refer to Mr. Clarke as William "Bunny Rugs" Clarke, the second lead singer for Third World, whose popular and rootsy jams were a bit too polished to bear inclusion here. I don't think that this information is true, so I'll note that a certain Bunny Clarke released a 7" album titled 'Love Time', featuring this dubby version of the title cut.

Dennis Brown is widely considered to have one of the finest collections of work in popular reggae. Nearly every album and single was well received and widely heard. Growing up in the Orange Street section of Jamaica that was also home to several prominent soundsystems, Mr. Brown was blessed with a soulful voice that translated well to a public that was being influenced by R & B heard over American radio stations broadcast in Kingston. "Westbound Train", cut by producer Niney Holness with the Soul Syndicate backing band is one of those classic sounds, incorporating a steady rhythm, good bassline, and dub touches. Released as a single in 1973, this was also on 1975's 'Just Dennis' album.

Big leap here, from the smoothness of Dennis Brown to the entrancing, menacing sounds of nyabinghi drumming at its finest. One of a few initial practitioners of the spoken word-plus-hand drumming style, Count Ossie's tunes found themselves on a couple of albums, including "Wicked Babylon" from 1994's 'Tales of Mozambique'. Probably recorded in the early '60s, Count Ossie and his band the Mystical Revelation of Rastafari influenced disparate circles of jazz through it's Afro-centric, simplistic approach to music making. You can hear strains of nyabinghi on period records by Sun Ra, a bit later with John Coltrane's freer jazz records, and certain Art Ensemble of Chicago albums.

To continue with the dub exploration here, I pulled this track from Trojan Records 'Box Set: Dub' release. The band, Velvet Shadows, appears to be quite obscure, with very little available information online, and virtually nothing on Trojan's website. "Dubbin' and Wailin'" is classic dub, with its heavy bassline, echoing guitar riffs, and ghostly vocals.

Lutah Fyah originally went off to play professional soccer after high school, but eventually his musical heritage caught up to him. His grandfather had owned a soundsystem when he was younger, and influentials including Dennis Brown had given young Lutah a lesson he couldn't escape. 2006's 'Phantom War' mostly avoids modern reggae's anti-homosexual/women are untrustworthy tropes, while hewing closely to the fire and brimstone of reggae's formative years. Nice toasting with a polished but inviting beat.

Another modern artist here. I Wayne's 2005 album 'Lava Ground' is derivative and repetitive, with many of the above-mentioned stereotypes. "Living in Love" mostly ignores these themes and sticks with I Wayne's best work, which is organic, Johnny Clarke-style, Lover's Rock-tinged roots.

"A Weh Dem a Go Du" is a mysterious track by Yellowman and Josey Wales, two superstars of reggae's second wave. I can't seem to find official literature for it, but apparently it's on an album cut by the two called "King Yellowman Meets the Mighty Josey Wales" from 1983. It's classic Yellowman, with his staccato toasting layed over a bouncing rhythm. Unity is a time-honored reggae theme, explored here.

One reggae theme that was more popular among Jamaican ex-pats in Britain was the rude boy, a slang term for a black gangster. Dandy Livingstone didn't produce a lot of music, but this bouncy little rock steady jam, backed by vocal great Pat Rhoden turned into a skinhead anthem in London and achieved some success in Kingston as well. It would appear that rudies ignored the lyrics, however, urging them to settle down and quit causing mayhem. "Rudy, A Message to You" wasn't included on any album offerings. Released in 1967, it is available on 'Suzanne, Beware of the Devil', a Livingstone hits compilation.

Johnny Clarke. Another super-popular reggae star, Mr. Clarke was blessed with a ridiculous voice, and pursued his talent for many years. On 1975's "Enter Into His Gates With Praise", Clarke extols the virtues of the Rasta faith. This cut, "None Shall Escape the Judgement", was originally recorded by a vocalist named Earl Zero for producer Bunny Lee, but the original masters were lost and the unknown backing vocalist Clarke was called back to re-record the vocals. This was Clarke's first hit, and the first in a string of hits for Mr. Lee, who earned the nickname "Striker" a few major successes later. Lee's signature cymbal-driven sound was developed on this song by Soul Syndicate drummer Carlton "Santa" Davis, and used for great commercial success.

Back to ska-Rock Steady for a second here. King Sporty had a string of minor hits in Jamaica before moving to Miami and dabbling in electro and booty bass in the '80s. "A Year Full of Sundays" is very early in his career, and available on a comp called 'Deep Reggae Roots' from 1976. Sporty is best known for co-writing the Bob Marley hit "Buffalo Soldier" and/or being married to American soul singer Betty Wright.

Derrick Harriott's sad-sack anthem "The Loser" is another classic gem that helped propel Jamaican music to international attention. One of the first artists to also control the boards, Harriott was one of the major Rock Steady stars of the day, and also anticipated Lover's Rock in many ways, with his soulful, romantic production. "The Loser" was included on 1981's 'Songs for Midnight Lovers', and was a major hit for Mr. Harriott.

The Mighty Diamonds were a three-piece soul outfit from Kingston, specializing in romantic roots reggae. Backed here by The Revolutionaries, "I Need a Roof" is a very unique musical patchwork, with the refrain sampling another Diamonds track "Right Time" while the horn section solos on "Ol' Man River". Bassfully soulful, the Mighty Diamonds hit commercial success with this smooth recipe on 'Right Time' from 1976.

The Skatalites were major players in the early Jamaican music scene, when ska took over from calypso and other Caribbean styles such as soca. By 1984, they were considered passe, and 'Return of the Big Guns' was released to deafening silence by critics and the public. "Reasoning" is an instrumental track that I feel showcases the Skatalites strengths nicely: a swinging rhythm section forming the backbone of a fleshed-out, tight orchestral jam. Most of the popular Skatalites works you can find are from the '60s or '70s, usually with somewhat tinny production and antiquated sounds. Not to take anything away from musical pioneers, mind you. I just happen to dig this track.

Tenor Saw is an oft-ignored roots band that put out some kick-ass tunes in their day. "Ring the Alarm" was recorded after their hit record 'Fever' in 1985, but the Saw never connected the same way again. I love this song, with its hugely catchy refrain and bare-bones, classic reggae one-drop production. 'Fever' would definitely remain my go-to source for Tenor Saw material, but damn if this one wasn't hit out of the park, with its echoing vocal touches and Saw's melodious toasting.

Max Romeo co-wrote a lot of material with Lee 'Scratch' Perry, including this gem that re-uses a Perry classic riddim. "Chase the Devil" is insanely catchy, and caught the island population by surprise, as Mr. Romeo was best known for lewd pop songs like "Wet Dream" before releasing 'War Ina Babylon' in 1976, with Perry's house band the Upsetters on backing. With Scratch on the boards you know there's going to be solid work done, from the scratching effects and stitch-tight rhythms to the Babylon-destruction thematic lyrics. Younger heads may recognize this as the interpolation used by Kanye West in the Jay-Z track "Lucifer" from the 'Black Album'. Scratch Perry also has a classic dub version of this song called "Disco Devil, included here but not on the mix.

Chase the Devil:

Disco Devil:

Well, there's my introduction to reggae music. I hope you enjoyed it, or at least read most of it. In addition to all the songs I've uploaded in the post for you, there's the whole mix available in zip form, if you'd prefer to get all these out at once and put it on a CD to bump around town, giving me the royal treatment just like Jonny Greenwood. Right?

Tracklisting in the photo:

Download 'Pickle is the Controller' by clicking here.

All photos used under Creative Commons license.


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