Wednesday: changeover day in the Song Bar, and I’m here to collect the guru’s ceremonial robes. With the paraphernalia of the recent time travel week still cluttered around, an idea starts to take shape in my mind. “Er, Landlord. I don’t suppose you’ll still be needing that tardis for the next few days, will you?”
Armed only with a tattered instruction manual, I set the controls for 1972 and the Cross Roads district of Kingston, Jamaica, where producer Joe Gibbs has recently joined forces with sound engineer Errol Thompson to form the Mighty Two – who, with studio band The Professionals (featuring Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar), are cranking out a string of hit records.
The tardis lands shudderingly in the middle of a shuddering Dennis Brown recording session. I gingerly step up to the mixing console and shake Joe and Errol warmly by the hands. “Hey, fellas. I need your help. We’re going to take a little jaunt in time and space and you’re going to sprinkle some prime ingredients of reggae, rocksteady and ska on the music of the future. Or something like that. Just grab that 16-track, a handful of session musicians, and a few bags of your finest herb.”
Joe and Errol eye up the tardis suspiciously and tell me we can’t possibly fit all the ganja in there. “Um, it’s actually a lot bigger on the inside.” The Mighty Two still need some convincing to entrust their lives to a time-travelling Song Bar guru from the future. “Tell you what. Why don’t we start by visiting Elvis?” This rash promise does the trick, and we’re soon careering through some spatial-temporal hyperlinks, reaching a crashing halt in Pathway Studios, Highbury, London.
The year is 1976. Joe and Errol stare at a young man defensively clutching a Fender Jazzmaster, and he peers back through his Buddy Holly glasses. They all look pretty non-plussed. “Ah, yes, I may not have explained that very well. This is Elvis Costello – and that’s Nick Lowe over there – and you’re going to help them put the finishing touches to what promises to be a very fine number called Watching the Detectives.” The boys order an extra ounce of crash for the drums, inject just a little more space into that bassline, crisp up the guitar chops, and hey presto – a classic is born.
Next stop is Helsinki, 2011, where we welcome on board the singers Yona and Puppa J along with the Orkesteri Liikkuvat Pilvet, and all whoosh off to a supra-celestial ballroom to record Maantien Laitaa. Heavenly voices, lush strings and plangent trumpet swirl elegantly over an immaculately crafted pizzicato riddim. Irie!
The tardis is now burbling something about datapanik in the year zero, but I could swear we’re in 1977. Joe grabs a small item and strides off purposefully into the streets of Cleveland, Ohio. “Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that sonic screwdriver in your hand?” Ah, I get it, you’re tracking down an early Pere Ubu recording session. And yes, excellent, I can see what you’re doing now. A few precisely measured adjustments to the guitar line, a tweak to those David Thomas vocals. And, voila! – the small miracle that is Heaven. If you listen carefully, you can even hear the tardis warming up in the background of the recording.
As we hurtle forward to 2006, the tardis issues a Code 9 warning, which the instruction manual tells me denotes a space ape in the vicinity. Joe and Errol demand to know what a space ape is doing on board. I suggest that the ape might reasonably want to know what a Kingston recording studio is doing on a spaceship. But it turns out of course to be Kode9 and The Spaceape, the prodigiously talented Steve Goodman and Stephen Gordon, partners in dubstep. Curious channels trace elements of Augustus Pablo and Prince Far-I into beguiling spaceage rhythm and sounds.
I now tempt the Mighty Two with a visit to Abbey Road, but they know by now not to expect the Beatles. This is 1981, and we’re here to meet Angelic Upstarts, who are following in the footsteps of the Clash, the Ruts, the Slits and other pioneers of punky reggae. The band members are looking expectantly at Errol, wondering what technical wizardry he’s going to unleash at the mixing desk as they record I Understand. They obviously haven’t met enough time travellers yet. Errol has spotted a great big red button in the middle of the console, which is screaming out not to be pressed under any circumstances. But we know what he’s going to do – this’ll unleash the roots …
Run! We’re being chased through space by an army of cyberdreads, intent on stealing our master tapes. Or our stash. Or possibly both. Thankfully, Stevie Wonder turns up in the nick of time with a Master Blaster to zap them away. This prime piece of soul-reggae fusion is part ode to Bob Marley and part celebration of Zimbabwean independence in 1979. Sad to say (spoilers), the independence thing doesn’t all go so well. But, for now, Joe, Errol and I are just happy jammin’ along until the break of dawn.
We now have a French connection to make. Paris, 1991. Les Negresses Vertes are stoking up a chalice of chanson, flamenco, bossa nova and Algerian raï. The Mighty Two crumble in some positive vibration, channel the spirit of Don Drummond into the trombone part, and stir it all up into Belle de Nuit.
The story goes that Green Gartside asked Rough Trade Records to try to get Gregory Isaacs to record The Sweetest Girl (also nominated this week) with Kraftwerk. Gregory was apparently up for this, but Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider said they didn’t like reggae. So I figure it would be cool to give Scritti Politti the chance to record with Joe and Errol. It’s 1985, and the poppy, silken sound that is The Word Girl is soon floating up into the New York city skies.
It’s the year the two sevens clash, and we’re hanging out with John Martyn at Woolwich Green Farm, the country house of Island Records boss, Chris Blackwell. Listening to the tapes of Big Muff, Joe and Errol are pretty sure they can detect the influence, both musical and linguistic, of their compatriot Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. This means their work is already part done. But we don’t fire up the generators for our departure until the bass, courtesy of Gong’s Hanny Rowe, is locked in tight with Martyn’s echoplex and everything has gone nicely wibbly-wobbly.
Zoom forward to 2003, and Errol is charging round the basement of the tardis with Me’Shell Ndegéocello, looking for an echo chamber in which to lay down the woozy grooves of Love Song #1. Some splendidly time-warping stick work on this one. Later to be released on an album that one reviewer described as an extended session of foreplay in space. Well, they got the space part right.
Now then, let the Mighty Two meet … another mighty two. We step out of the tardis into a 1975 New York recording studio to cut a track with Steely Dan. Joe and Errol are generally delighted with the results for Haitian Divorce, but feel the guitar solo still lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. They disappear back into the studio with Walter Becker, a talk box and a special herbal mix, emerging 10 minutes later with wide grins on their faces.
Joe and Errol have enjoyed their musical marauding through time. But before they return home, they ask to visit somewhere in the future where more elemental roots reggae is alive and well and doesn’t need a sonic screwdriver to keep it functioning. Seems like a fair request. So, for our penultimate stop, we drop down to the suburbs of Paris, where Alpha Blondy from Ivory Coast is recording Afriki from the superb 1985 album, Apartheid Is Nazism, pitching his airy, plaintive vocals over some Marleyesque rhythms, tight percussion and more home-grown backing vocals.
Our final journey takes us to 1976 and Rockfield Studios in the pastoral setting of Monmouthshire, Wales. The engines are starting to fade, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to need a particle accelerator to get us moving again, so I send Joe and Errol off into the countryside to see if they can locate a Van der Graaf Generator. An hour later, I’m studying my watch anxiously – the Landlord is going to rescind my guruing rights if I don’t return that tardis by closing time – when the Mighty Two burst through the door with a baffled looking Peter Hammill, David Jackson, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans. Turns out it took a full 13 minutes of recording time to loosen the vibe and get the band to slip into the desired rhythm. But it’s worth the wait: Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild writhes and coils and stutters but doesn’t waste a second of its 20+ minutes. And it’s got enough emotional energy to relaunch the tardis, allowing me to drop my time-travelling companions back in Kingston, safely entrust to the Landlord the master tapes from our hyperspace odyssey, and get home in time for tea.
The Averting ‘Armagideon' A-list Playlist
Elvis Costello – Watching the Detectives
Yona & Orkesteri Liikkuvat Pilvet – Maantien Laitaa (ft. Puppa J)
Pere Ubu – Heaven
Kode9 & The Spaceape – Curious
Angelic Upstarts – I Understand
Stevie Wonder – Master Blaster (Jammin’)
Les Negresses Vertes – Belle de Nuit
Scritti Politti – The Word Girl
John Martyn – Big Muff
Me’Shell Ndegéocello – Love Song #1
Steely Dan – Haitian Divorce
Alpha Blondy – Afriki
Van der Graaf Generator – Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
(Note that the final song is spread across two Youtube videos of about 10 minutes each. The faint-hearted may want to skip to the second video to hear the reggae section of the song, which starts at about 2:50, but I recommend the full version!)
The Burning Down Babylon B-list playlist
Finley Quaye – Sunday Shining
Hollie Cook – Tiger Balm
The Ska Flames – Yanigawa Blues
The Internet – Girl (ft. Kaytranda)
B. T. Express – Herbs
Massive Attack – Five Man Army
Miles Davis – Don’t Lose Your Mind
Somo Somo & Mose Se Sengo – Kwele
Gilberto Gil – Toda Menina Baiana
Ska-P – Legalización
Madness – Uncle Sam
Paul Simon – Mother and Child Reunion
Robert Wyatt – Yesterday Man
Guru’s wildcard pick:
The only song I was surprised not to see nominated, though it may have been in deference to the zeddedness of Randy Newman’s original, is Nina Simone’s 1978 cover of Baltimore.
But my real wildcard is the band TootArd from the Golan Heights – and their song Laissez Passer, which blends reggae with Tuareg desert blues to pleasing effect.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Serene syncopation: songs influenced by reggae, ska and rocksteady. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.