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Studio One Rocksteady (SJRCD277 - 2014)

Stars - The Eternals
Fancy Make Up - John Holt
Whisper to Me - Cecile Campbell
Party Time - The Heptones
Joy in the Morning - Gaylands
My Ambition - Marcia Griffiths
Love Won't Come Easy - The Heptones
Hurting Me - Alton Ellis
Row Fisherman Row - Wailing Souls
Home Home Home - Ken Boothe
Our Thing - Jackie Mittoo
When I Fall In Love - Ken Boothe
Throw Mi Corn - Larry & Alvin
Lick It Back - Duke Morgan
Me and You - Carlton And The Shoes
Easy, Take It Easy - Dennis Brown
Pack Up - The Classics
Moving Away - Ken Boothe
 
Ask most Jamaican's of a certain age what their favourite music was and they'll tell you, without a moments hesitation, 'Rocksteady!' Whereas Ska expressed the exuberance of the run-up to Independence in 1962 - and what's not to like about that? - Rocksteady was the music so many believed expressed themselves as Jamaican's. Which  was, on the surface, somewhat ironic.

Ska was never ashamed of its US connections - namely R&B and jump jive, via its predecessor JA Boogie - but by the time it emerged on to the Kingston sound systems as a genre-in-its-own-right it could, without fear of contradiction, call itself the first uniquely Jamaican popular music. This wasn't just about changing the beat from the 'up' to the 'down', but about adding Mento time signatures, Rasta drumming and instruments that came over on the slave ships - particularly the thumb piano and the bamboo sax. By contrast, Rocksteady contained very little that was musically homegrown and owed pretty much everything to the new American sound that was dominating the big Southern radio stations picked up in Jamaica - Soul.

Musically Rocksteady was slower, largely small group stuff, built around the very modern electric bass guitar, with hardly a horn section to be found. The key difference however, was it was all about singing, an approach that allowed so many more Jamaicans to participate in their own music business, bringing with them a wide range of expressed emotions and, crucially, the Jamaican accent. The classic Rocksteady vocal arrangement may have been lifted unaltered from Curtis Mayfield's Impressions, but Kingston trios like the Melodians, the Clarendonians or the Wailers made it their own to such a degree that this tight, constantly interchanging of the lead voice, became known as The Jamaican Style.

Sound system owner Duke Reid was the first to start recording huge amounts of Rocksteady, and his Treasure Isle studio and record label quickly became synonymous with the style. This made sense, the Duke was never as committed to Ska as his Kingston contemporaries Sir Coxsone or Prince Buster, and when it came to American music he favoured the sentimental (often overly-so), prizing melody and harmony above pretty much everything else. His Bond Street hit factory crafted such classics as Queen majesty, I'll get Along without You and The Tide Is High. Through Reid's meticulous attention to detail and constant refinement, tunes like these defined the genre, but they didn't really move it forward - the Rocksteady era only lasted two or three years, but pretty much any Treasure Isla tune could've been made during pretty much any time within that period. The real development was going on a mile or so further uptown in Brentford Road, at Studio One.

Coxsone Dodd , never had a genre profile the size of, say Reid or Sonia Pottinger or bunny lee, but he was always far more open to outside ideas and experimentation than his immediate rivals. you might not get so many established hits at one of his Downbeat sound system's dances, but that was kind of the point - you often had no idea what you were going to get. under the musical direction of giants like Leroy Sibbles and Jackie Mittoo, Coxsone produced some of the most forward looking and, at times, bizarrely experimental Rocksteady of those years.

Not that the Studio couldn't turn out the more conventional stuff, after all, Coxsone still had to keep his lawn dances happy: on this set The Gaylads' 'Joy In The Morning', 'Stars' by the Eternals or Roy C's 'Love Is A Treasure' are among the very best produced anywhere on the island. Its simply that Coxsone was a jazzman first and foremost, therefore as gorgeously smoove as so much customary Rocksteady backing was, it existed to do exactly that - back the singers, not start muscling in on their spotlight. Coxsone fully encouraged his arrangers subverting what was mostly a very straightforward state of affairs and adding their own flourishes and twists within the mix. If you separate the music from some of the vocals, you'll hear all sorts of things going on in Studio One arrangements you probably wouldn't find anywhere else, especially not Treasure Isle. This set's cut of the Heptones' 'Party Time' is a wonderful (quite literally, full of wonder) example of how things were working out at Brentford Road in the late-1960s. The vocals glide across the music rather than sit within it, keeping the Rocksteady groove and freeing the music to go in a seemingly disparate direction. The melody is constructed from a series of layered, interconnected largely rhythmic riffs, with the precision of the joins and spaces within the mix allowing for some pretty startling counterpoints to be dropped in. It shouldn't work, it's far too jagged an idea, but it's Rocksteady with a Jazz sense of whimsy, pushing the form on towards Reggae As We Know it.

this was in 1966, a couple of years before Reggae was officially acknowledged, but representative of what had been going on at Studio One for ages, as witnessed on this set by Cecile Campbell's 'Whisper To Me', the Heptones' 'Love Won't Come Easy' and Jackie Mittoo's 'Our Thing'. Indeed it's these last two artists that hold most of the key here, as two of the main factors in Reggae's evolution out of Rocksteady were the increasing prominence of the bass guitar in the mix and organ shifting to a shuffle pattern or a stabbing staccato style. The Heptones' Leroy Sibbles was probably Jamaica's best bass player at the time, and Jackie Mittoo was far and away the best and most innovative organist.

The other important factor in this musical transformation was a desire to return to an intrinsic Jamaicaness in the music after Rocksteady's blatant Americanisms. A young man at the studio, Lee Perry, was later crucial in this, as an unreconstructed country bwoy he determined, as he put it, to 'bring the earth, the trees, the mountains... to a music business that was all Kingston, Kingston, Kingston...' He re-introduced a Jamaican flavour to proceedings via Mento-ish phrasings and traditional rural folk music ideas, which Coxsone, a naturally curious man, was always happy to consider. These extra musical layers were largely unexpected but were also - to most Jamaicans -  subliminally familiar and gave Studio One's actual Reggae a depth seldom matched elsewhere. Featured here, 'Home, Home, Home' by Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown's 'Easy Take It Easy', Duke Morgan's 'Lick It Back' and John Holt's 'Make Up' are fine examples.

Coxsone's interest in things going on around him wasn't confined merely to music. Studio One was about the only established label (as opposed from the plethora of little ones that sprang up in the 1970s) to acknowledge that ordinary people were questioning the system, and that Rastafari was becoming a strong ghetto influence. Again unlike so many of his contemporaries, Coxsone would chat with the singers and musicians about more than just music and was always very interested in the ways of Rastafari and the goings on at a Rasta meeting house a few blocks away from his studio. He was always open to what was happening there, never turning Rasta musicians away - Burning Spear's seminal first, solo, acoustic recordings, for instance, were all done at Studio One. Indirectly, this had much to do with kick-starting the roots 'n' culture movement, as Rocksteady rarely reflected the island's politics or social situation, yet Coxsone gave voice to protest songs, shining a light on an important aspect of Jamaican life after Independence.

here, Marcia Griffith's 'My Ambition' is the sort of bouncy, optimistic late-1960s anthem for post-Civil Rights America had been turning out for a while by then (1968), while Larry & Alvin's 'Throw Mi Corn' was pretty confrontational on the subject of ghetto violence. The Heptones' 'Party Time', with the lyric standing aside from the music, comes across as more of a portent of post-Independence strife than simply a song about raving. Incidentally, 'Row Fisherman Row' by the Wailing Souls isn't an earlier cut of the Congos' 'Fisherman', it's a straightforward Rocksteady love song about a relationship gone bad.

Lloyd Bradley, author of Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King
 
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