|Trojan Presents: Boss Reggae - 40 Reggae Scorchers|
Reggae Hit The Town - The Ethiopians
A Live Injection - The Upsetters
John Jones - Rudy Mills
River To The Bank - Derrick Morgan
Drink Milk - Justin Hinds & The Dominoes
Rhythm Hips - Roland Russell
Sufferer - The Kingstonians
Reggae In The Wind - Lester Sterling
Strange - Dobby Dobson
Throw Me Corn - Winston Shand & The Sheiks
How Long - Pat Kelly
Worries (A Yard) - The Versatiles
Rich In Love - Glen Adams
On Broadway - Slim Smith
Love Was All I Had - Phyllis Dillon
Hang 'Em High - Richard Ace
Loving Reggae - The Maytones
Come Into My Parlour - The Bleechers
Walking Proud - Martin 'Jimmy' Riley
Liquidator - Tommy McCook & The Supersonics
Moon Hop - Derrick Morgan
Red Red Wine (Extended) - Tony Tribe & Boy Friday
Moon Walk - Sprong & The Nyah Shuffle
Reggae In Your Jeggae - Dandy
Music Box - The Big L
Too Experienced - Owen Gray
Black Panther - Sir Collins & The Black Diamonds
Jungle Fever - George Lee
Rocco - The Rudies
My Love And I - Millie
Dog Your Woman - Patsy & Peggy With The Cimarons
Ghost Rider - Musical Doctors
Pack Of Cards - Nat Cole
Revenge Of Eastwood Version 1&2 - The Prophets
Lead Them - Desmond Riley
Memory Of Don Drummond - Don Drummond Jnr
No More Heartaches - The Coloured Raisons
Then you Can Tell Me Goodbye - Gene Rondo
Queen Of The World - Lloyd & Claudette
Leave Pum Pum - Pama Dice
|Only a fool argues with the
The name says it all. Boss Reggae. People didn't use this term when this music was made, but the soundmen who played it would write the words on the records they cherished and knew would get the ravers raving: 'BOSS!' There it was in big felt tip with 'XXX' scored into the label next to it. Years later, picking them up second hand, the crafty collector might not know what the record sounded like or even what it was called if it was a blank, but he knew there was a good chance it was a killer tune if someone had bothered to scrawl 'BOSS' all over it. Here was a tune that could put you in charge of the dance.
As time passed, Boss Reggae became a term in itself, representing a particular kind of Reggae from a particular era. The era was 1968-1970 - when Reggae broke free to trample in heavy boots over the sweet rose garden of the Rock Steady era. This was the original heavy, heavy monster sound, the music that shook the dancehalls in Jamaica like nothing before or since. And it soon came across the water to the UK, where it tempted the kids who hadn't grown their hair long and put on paisley shirts. The working-class youths, whether still known as Mods, or Peanuts, or by the name that stuck, Skinheads, readily took to this new racket from Jamaica. Tough and uncompromising, yet youthful, fun and danceable, it spoke their language (even when they couldn't understand a word of the lyrics). Wearing the same fashions as their Jamaican neighbours and now sharing their music, there was a certain unity between Britain's black and white city kids. Whatever other kind of music was available, from white Blues bands to American Soul, for these kids Reggae was boss.
Reggae Hit The Town in 1968, hailed by the Ethiopians' single of the same name. The groove was designed to shuffle to, a simple dance that was easily picked up and expanded upon. Girls could dance it in a line, loafer-clad feet sketching repetitive patterns; the boys could face off, all bulbous biceps and bleached denim or Sta-Press-clad calves over Dr Martens, monkey boots or generic versions of what were know beyond the Skinhead generation as bovver boots. These kids looked scary to outsiders and the music sounded forbidding and repetitive unless you were into it: its rumbling bass was apparently inaudible to the untrained ear, which instead seemed only to hear the endless 'chink, chink,' of a metronomic choppy guitar. Ask someone who didn't like it why it was so popular and they'd shrug and say 'It's easy to dance to'. But there was more to it than that - much, much more.
Boss Reggae found a home from home in Britain, and eventually it came to address its new audience with records aimed straight at it, such as 'Moon Walk' by Spong & The Nyah Shuffle and Dandy Livingstone's 'Reggae In Your Jeggae' (both from 1969). There were also songs that drew inspiration from events in the wider world, such as Derrick Morgan's 'Moon Hop', which celebrated the Apollo 11 moon landing in the summer of '69 (the aforementioned 'Moon Walk' was not the only tune that followed its lead). But for the most part, Boss Reggae got on with speaking to and for its people, spreading the news about stuff that mattered to the residents of Jamdown. Derrick Morgan's 'River To The Bank', an update of an earlier Ska hit and Winston Shand's mighty 'Throw Me Corn' created built their lyrics around Jamaican folk sayings. The same applied to Justin Hinds' 'Drink Milk'. No matter: Reggae's Skinhead audience lapped this music up, despite its parochial subject matter. Of course, love songs were no problem for an international listenership, and though Reggae's sound may have been far more rough-edged, Jamaican singers and producers did not forget the intimacy that ruled during Rock Steady. Phyllis Dillon's chugging 'Love Was All I Had' expressed all the emotional inclinations that the Treasure Isle studio traditionally specialised in. Dobby Dobson's 'Strange' may have had a curiously busy rhythm that only the Boss Reggae era could have delivered, but over the top of it, the singer's baffles heartbreak ballad dated from an earlier era - it was a cover of a 1961 Patsy Cline hit performed in a style the crying Country crooner could never have imagined. The title of the Maytones' 'Loving Reggae' may have suggested an adoration of this new style of music, but the song was really titles 'My Love And I' and was yet another song about the upset triggered by a barney with your lover. It was no problem for the untrained ear to pick up the message in these tunes.
Yet, as previously suggested, it wasn't just the sort of lyrics that were blindingly obvious that were appreciated by Reggae's British audience. The Kingstonians' fearful 'Sufferer' didn't just kick up a rumpus on the dancefloor; it was a protest song about what it was like to be poor in Jamaica, and while no doubt some of those listening to it at the youth club in England didn't pick up all the verbal cues, some certainly did. In terms of its message, this was effectively Roots Reggae, the same lyrical content about those left behind or disdained by Jamaica's elite, that Bob Marley flogged to an educated Rock audience half a decade and more later. But here was a secondary modern crew of boot boys that not only danced to it, they instinctively understood it because they were have-nots themselves, about to enter a life of drudgery and sheer hard graft just to earn a living in the Britain of the early 1970s. The next day, at school or at work, they'd be back at the bottom of the pecking order, thrown corn and called fowl (or foul). But for a few ecstatic minutes, Boss Reggae made them the kings and queens of the scene, the ones who knew that their music ruled OK, that the majority of the world didn't remotely understand it, and that only they knew how to do the latest moves to it. In Jamaica and in the UK, in very different ways, Boss Reggae turned society's outsiders into insiders.
While Boss Reggae spawned its fair share of chart hits, there were some records that sold thousands without registering a solitary mark in the book at chart return shops. Pat Kelly's beautiful 'How Long Will It Take' was one such. Produced by Bunny Lee in 1969 and a massive underground 45 on Pama Records' Gas label, but it was barely available in many of the high street chains except on special order (although for some peculiar reason it was among the titles that Tesco flogged off as overstocks for 10p each some years later). Those who were lucky enough to hear it had to seek it out in the record stores that were enlightened enough to keep a selection of Jamaican music. 'A Live Injection', among the most exciting records of the same year, was intended to follow The Upsetters' 'Return Of Django' into the charts but failed to do so for reasons that remain unclear, although it shifted by the boxful in the Skinhead market. The Bleechers' 'Come Into My Parlour' was highly-prized on 45 and ownership was a badge of honour, a sign that you knew your musical onions. Those who never found an outlet for the single on the Upsetter label could content themselves with finding it on 'Tighten Up Vol.2', an album that was only kept out of the charts by the arcane rulings about compilations and price points. Even today, many among the Skinhead audience have built there knowledge and collections around the foundation stone of that album, regarded as a high point among the many original compilations that first took this music to the masses. The album's success, and its subsequent frequent availability, stands as proof that Boss Reggae has staying power. For example, the album's second track, Rudy Mills' 'John Jones', was massive among the Skinhead crowd. It remains so. The same people who bought this music in the first place stuck with it, much as the Teddy Boys of the '50s stuck by Rock 'n' Roll, and subsequent generations tempted by the same lifestyle and fashion choices still find Boss Reggae alluring. Meet the new Boss Reggae, same as the old Boss Reggae.
However, this music was not all about the popular and (at least potentially) commercially successful. There is as much, if not more, Reggae made as there is any other style of music. Not all of it heard, not all is properly distributed, not all of it had what it takes to fight it out with the productions of Mickie Most or Roy Wood in the charts. Hence Boss Reggae has more than its fair share of fantastic tunes that sold like stale buns rather than hot cakes. There are now the £100 'killers' and the £200 'one-aways' that litter eBay. Luckily this album is making them available without recourse to a visit to the bankruptcy court: there is only one 'Liquidator' involved here, and that's Tommy McCook's rare version of the Harry J All Stars' smash. Among these prized assets are Richard Ace's stunning interpretation of the theme music for 'Hang 'Em High', which was also produced by Harry J and blends Jamaica and the wild west in perfect measure. There's the otherwise unreleased long version of Tony Tribe's timeless 'Red Red Wine', taken from an original Trojan master discovered in the company vaults. And there are a couple of Clancy Collins' productions that would be guaranteed to get the finder unrolling a wad of £20 notes should they be lucky enough to discover the original pressings at a record fair - the mighty 'Black Panther' by Sir Collins and the Black Diamonds, and 'Memory Of Don Drummond' by Don D. Junior (aka Vin Gordon). They have all the attributes that make up a Boss selection, without receiving the necessary exposure to make them hits at the time.
Another rare gem on offer is 'Rocco' by The Rudies, a thrilling tune taken from Trojan's original master tape. There has been some confusion about this record. Although originally credited to Freddie Notes & The Rudies on their Unity album and also pressed on a UK white label 7", Lee Perry somehow got hold of it and distributed on white label in Jamaica because it was the kind of funky yet hard-hitting Reggae groove he could sell back then, what with Jamaica's dancers in the grip of not only the country's own music but also that of James Brown and the Meters. Perry put his own rubber stamp on the singles in case anyone wanted to know how to get hold of one. That led, decades later, to the single being credited as a Perry production in several books, and owing to the toasted introduction from what is presumably Count Prince Miller or Sonny Binns, it was assumed to have the title 'Rockfort Psychedelia'. The truth is far more prosaic: it was cut in a London studio, not some Kingston shack. It may not have been made by the mighty Upsetter, but it is proof that even as early as 1970, Britain's Boss Reggae players were as double heavy as their Jamaican counterparts. Several other British-recorded tunes on this album back up that assessment. George Lee, the saxophonist who made several great records on various labels during the Skinhead era, and who went on to make African-inflected Jazz Funk in the '80s, weighs in with 'Jungle Fever'. It was produced by Dandy Livingstone, who also oversaw Desmond Riley's 'Lead Them', the Music Doctor's 'Ghost Rider', and Gene Rondo's version of the Casinos' US hit 'Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye'. The Cimarons, aka The Hot Rod All Stars, bacl the otherwise little-heard Peggy on 'Dog Your Woman', and on 'Revenge Of Eastwood' they are disguised as the prophets. Presumably it is also the Cimarons lurking anonymously behind Claudette for the massive Skinhead hit 'Queen Of The World'. Nat Cole, the Coloured Raisins, and Millie, with her little-heard version of the aforementioned 'My Love And I', also offer British-recorded boss sounds of the highest order.
So what makes Boss Reggae? The rhythm. The attitude. The energy. Desirability. But above all else, its lasting authority. This music has retained all its attributes more than 40 years after Reggae Hit The Town: it still pulls a crowd. The people still love it and do its bidding: to dance, and to hear its message. This is Boss Reggae and it's still in charge. And only a fool argues with the Boss.
Ian McCann is the editor of Record Collector magazine
|All material © Trojan Records|