- Author Simon Lucas
- Published April 22, 2014
Why you should listen to… Reggae
Reggae is as danceable or as laid-back as you want it to be, it has a whiff of the exotic to a pasty European like What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision’s Simon Lucas, and at its best it’s as catchy as all hell.
There’s something almost literally irresistible about the best reggae, whether it’s nagging you to cut a rug or forcefully suggesting you put your feet up. Some of it has all the charm of the best pop music, some of it is as ambitious and self-important as any other art-rock you can think of. (But none of it is as wilful or difficult or exclusive as jazz.)
Although these days it’s a universal term for ‘Jamaican music’, reggae is really a specific style. Jamaican music, certainly from the 1950s onwards, is pretty diverse, and reggae is generally agreed to have grown out of the ‘ska’ and ‘rocksteady’ styles that dominated Jamaican nights out in the early and mid-sixties. Rocksteady slowed the frenzied tempo of most ska, and reggae took things down another notch, bringing the tempo to a last-dance snog-and-grind.
It’s all about the rhythm
The quintessentially Jamaican off-beat, two/four rhythms (the ‘skank’), along with reggae’s love of minor chords, gives it a loping, implacable, head-nodding momentum. These are characteristics that make reggae’s affinity with Rastafari (which considers marijuana a sacrament) all too understandable.
The same producers, the same record labels, the same sound-systems come up again and again in reggae. Coxsone Dodd, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Duke Reid, Studio One Records and Trojan Records (to name just some of the most visible movers and shakers) are deep in the story of the last 50 years of Jamaican music.
But it’s Chris Blackwell, who established Island Records in 1960, who is credited (by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, no less) as the individual who delivered reggae to the world. Chief among the reasons is the accessible, fully sophisticated, no-expense-spared exquisite hi-fi sound that Island Records brought to the songs of Bob Marley (whose material, charisma and looks meant Blackwell didn’t have to be clairvoyant to see he was a superstar-in-waiting).
But reggae was significant pre-Marley and, despite its ups and down, has remained relevant since. Like all successful musical genres, it has spawned its own sub-categories and movements – there are discussions to be had and playlists to be compiled in relation to lover’s rock, dub reggae, roots reggae… but the selections offered below can (fairly) confidently be described as ‘reggae’.
The Beltones – No More Heartaches (1968) Reggae in its infancy, and at its most cherubic: boy-band harmonies, brass-driven arrangement, melodically wide-open. The skank is fully in place.
Toots & The Maytals – Do The Reggay (1968) There are a fistful of superb Maytals recordings (this, for instance) but Do The Reggay makes it not only thanks to Toots Hibbert’s trademark testifying vocal but for being so cutting-edge no one had even firmed up a spelling for this music yet.
Scotty – Draw Your Brakes (1972) DJs often appropriated existing rhythms over which they’d vocalise (‘toasting’ is the catch-all), and here Scotty takes Keith & Tex’s Stop That Train and makes something altogether punkier in spirit.
The Wailers – Concrete Jungle (1973) From Catch A Fire, the album that established Bob Marley (the 1974 repressing of the album had a different sleeve and was credited to Bob Marley & The Wailers) and re-dressed reggae for the world at large. See if you can spot the overdubs Chris Blackwell added in London after the band had finished recording in Jamaica.
Max Romeo & The Upsetters – Chase The Devil (1976) The Upsetters comprise Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and numerous affiliate musicians, and here they make a complex arrangement sound simple and a tight performance sound loose. Max Romeo has plenty to say about race relations, religious themes and the state of the nation, plus the voice to sweeten the pill.
The Congos – Fisherman (1977) More politicised, religiously orientated consciousness produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, this time delivered in angelic harmonising falsettos. Perry’s production of The Congos is extraordinary: drenched in reverb, endlessly echoing, brittle… and what is that noise? Is that… cattle?
Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution (1978) Reggae is global by now – The Clash will talk of little else – and Birmingham’s Steel Pulse are as authentic a proposition as any Jamaican native. Owes a debt to Bob Marley, but then who doesn’t?
Simon Lucas is the Editor of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine.