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Virgin Front Line Presents: Roots - 37 Classic Roots Cuts

CD1
House Of Dread Locks - Big Youth
Chalice In The Palace - U Roy
Crazy Bald Head - Johnny Clarke
Country Living - The Mighty Diamonds
Mix Up - The Gladiators
Tribute To Marcus Garvey - I Roy
Natty Dread A Take Over - U Brown
Rastaman Skank - Tapper Zukie
If You Don't Love Jah - Althea & Donna
Natty And The Root Man - Ranking Trevor
Created By The Father - Gregory Isaacs
Daughters Of Zion - Prince Far I
Jah Son Of Africa - U Roy
Keep On Trying (12" Mix) - Twinkle Brothers
Exodus - I Roy
Bodyguard - The Mighty Diamonds
Back Yard Meditation - The Gladiators
Free Africa (12" Mix) - The Twinkle Brothers
CD2
Satta A Massa Gana - Johnny Clarke
Satta - I Roy
Pocket Money - The Gladiators
Evil Doers - U Roy
Jah Will Work It Out - The Mighty Diamonds
M.P.L.A. - Tapper Zukie
Blackman Land - Prince Far I
Masculine Gender - Ranking Trevor
Stop The Fussing And Fighting - Culture
This Land Is For Everyone - The Abyssinians
Babylon River - U Roy
Struggle - The Gladiators
Set The Captives Free - I Roy
Jahoviah (12" Mix) - The Twinkle Brothers
Universal Tribulation - Gregory Isaacs
Let Jah Be Praised - The Gladiators
International Herb - Culture
Hill And Gully - I Roy
Jah Kingdom Come - The Twinkle Brothers

Flushed with success and a good deal of money thanks to Mike Oldfield's best-selling 'Tubular Bells' and Tangerine Dream's top ten album, 'Phaedra', Virgin boss Richard Branson was looking for new directions in which to take his Virgin label as the seventies approached their mid-point.

Branson, along with partner Simon Draper, had started out with a small record shop in 1972, Virgin Records & Tapes, offering beanbags and vegetarian food for his prospective record-buying clientele. They specialised in Krautrock in the tiny Notting Hill Gate building before moving to slightly better premises above a shoe shop at the Tottenham Court Road end of Oxford Street. It was from there that the label was established with the distinctive mirror image girl drawn by notable artist Roger Dean. The 'virgin' related to the fact that none of the participants had been involved in running a record label so were in fact 'virgins' in the music industry.

Come to the middle of the decade, Reggae was big business thanks to Bob Marley and the Wailers and Island Records who marketed their 'Catch A Fire' album with a gimmick Zippo lighter sleeve and heavy promotion in the Rock press. The heavy marketing  outside of the Reggae market gradually paid off with slowly building sales in the mainstream for what was once considered a niche music LP. Island boss, Chris Blackwell signed a good few other Jamaican acts as the decade moved along and Mr. Branson, always keen to seize a new opportunity, decided to follow suit.

Producers soon lined up, like 'Prince' Tony Robinson from whom Branson licensed one of Virgin's first Reggae albums: the Gladiators' superb 'Trench Town Mix Up'. He also picked up the Channel One-produced 'Right Time' from the Mighty Diamonds, with both long-players issued on the Virgin imprint, but by early 1978 the company decided to create a label dedicated to Jamaican music, with Front Line launched in the spring.

The name 'Front Line' had first been used by Virgin in 1976 as the title of the first of a series of budget album series, with each of the three volumes selling for the price of a 45 (69p) and highlighting a sample of tracks from a range of the company's full-price Reggae Lps.

By this time Virgin records were sold not only through their own outlets, but also by tiny back street Reggae shops as well as the mighty HMV and Our Price. Like Island, the company had cracked the post-Rock Punk market with their Reggae output and sales were strong. Their roster of artists assembled was impressive, as this CD illustrates: from the rural country-Reggae of the Gladiators to the Pop-hitting duo of Althia & Donna.

As Jamaican struggled under political bloodshed the music grew even more impassioned and none more-so was this evident than in the recordings of the Twinkle Brothers. Formed in 1962 as a hotel show band (hence the glitzy name) and comprising a nucleus of brothers Norman and Ralston Grant, Albert Green, Karl Hyatt and Eric Barnard, the band tried recording sessions for among others, Lee Perry, Edward 'Bunny' Lee and Arthur 'Duke' Reid. Nothing came of the work except a few minor hits for Lee, and they started to produce their own records around 1972.

Their album 'Rasta Pon Top' arrived in 1975 and was instantly acclaimed as a classic with its deep heavy rhythms matched by spiritual subject matter. Quick off the mark, Virgin picked up their subsequent albums as well as some 7" and 12" 45's, the best being the remixed and extended 'Jahoviah' featuring one of the wildest dubs on the back-end of any record released.

The aforementioned Gladiators (Albert Griffiths, Gallimore Sutherland and Clinton Fearon) were another group that had served a long apprenticeship before being scooped up by the Branson's company. Formed in 1967, they recorded a number of locally popular songs, but it was during the Roots era of the 70's that they came into their own. After teaming up with young producer 'Prince' Tony Robinson and signing with Virgin they cut one of the finest Roots Reggae albums of the decade, 'Trench Town Mix Up'. This updated some old works and added fresh new songs, popped min a Marley-style cover for good measure, resulting in a hugely satisfying collection.

A trio of excellent Front Line albums followed with 'Proverbial Reggae' (1978), 'Naturality' (1979), 'Sweet So Still' (1980), along with a number of impressive singles, among which were the highly regarded 'Struggle', but unfortunately their four-year spell with Virgin came to an end following the misguided funky crossover attempt, 'The Gladiators'.

Like the Gladiators, the Mighty Diamond vocal trio (Donald 'Tabby' Shaw, Fitzroy 'Bunny' Simpson and Lloyd 'Judge' Ferguson) had been around for some years before major label success arrived. Already one of the top selling acts from the Channel One studio with outstanding covers of Soul songs such as the Stylistics' 'Country Living', they moved into more socially aware works and continued to hit as the Roots era flourished. Their debut album for Virgin, 'Right Time' (1976) brought together their most recent chart-topping Jamaican singles and although many of the singles were readily available in the UK, the collection still became a massive seller for the label.

An unusual tie-in with New Orleans artist and producer Alan Toussaint in 1977 brought forth the 'Ice On Fire' album for Front Line. although the attempt to fuse Reggae and Soul sold poorly and soon after the trio headed back to Channel One where old glories were recaptured with 'Planet Earth' (1978) and 'Deeper Roots - Back To The Channel' (1979), which came with a 'free' dub album. A picture sleeve 12" mix of two tracks from 'Deeper Roots' was also issued: 'Bodyguard' backed with the equally compelling 'One Brother Short'. A brush with the Pop charts followed in 1981 when their 'Pass The Kouchie' was translated by Musical Youth into the top ten UK hit, 'Pass The Dutchie'.

Among the other notable groups who also had their music issued on the Front line imprint were revered vocal trio the Abyssinians (Bernard Collins, Linford and Donald Manning) whose 'Arise' album covered some recuts, such as the sublime Rasta anthem 'This Land Is For Everyone' and new works, including 'Hey You', an uplifting love song, something the very spiritual group very rarely recorded. The pair were issued back-to-back as a Virgin Front Line 45 in 1978.

Another trio who never strayed from the path of righteousness were Culture (lead vocalist Joseph Hill, with backing harmonies from Albert 'Randolph' Walker and Kenneth Paley). After a dramatic rise to fame with the 'Two Sevens Clash' 45 and follow-up album for producer Joe Gibbs, the trio were hot property and soon Branson's Virgin had them signed via Sonia Pottinger's High Note Records. Three superior albums subsequently saw issue: @Harder Than The Rest' (1978), 'Cumbolo' (1979) and 'International herb' (1979), with a fourth 'Black Rose', left unreleased.

It wasn't just groups who received the Virgin treatment. Ex-Wailer Peter Tosh signed on the dotted and youth singer Johnny Clarke had two outstanding albums released by Virgin, 'Authorised Version' and 'Rockers Time now', both of which were released in 1976. Clarke not only used new material but also gave many old favourite tracks the Rockers treatment, notably Bob Marley's 'Crazy Bald Head', and 'Satta Massa Gana', the song regarded as the crowning glory of label-mated the Abyssinians.

Established singer/songwriter Gregory Isaacs also moved onto Front line for a brace of fine albums as well as some 12" singles. The superb 'Universal Tribulation', lifted from his sublime 'Soon Forward' album, had a mesmerising rhythm produced by Riddim Twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

Veteran deejay U-Roy made his name deejaying over old Duke Reid Rock Steady recordings as the sixties swung into the seventies, but as the new sound of Roots dominated, his flame dwindled until sessions with Prince Tony led to a deal with Virgin Records. Soon after, his 'Dread Inna Babylon' album became a hit with both the Reggae buyers and the emerging New Wave listeners, with its popularity leading to more collections for the company: 'Natty Rebel' (1976), 'Rasta Ambassador' (1977), 'Jah Son Of Africa' (1978), and 'With Words Of Wisdom' (1979). Album covers pictured U-Roy, now with locks flowing and chalice ablaze, while lyrics fuelled with repatriation, Jah, and beating down Babylon, ensured his popularity with Reggae fans both sides of the Atlantic.

Other deejays signed to front line included I-Roy, U Brown, Ranking Trevor, Big Youth, Prince Hammer, Tapper Zukie and the gruff-voiced Prince Far I. The style was very popular in the live dancehall and translated well onto vinyl, and Prince Far I in particular not only caught the attention of the general Reggae buyers, but also the new listeners who'd found their way into Reggae from New Wave and Punk circles. Two of his albums were released by Virgin; 'Message From The King' (1978) and 'Long Life (1978), and these, along with a series of 'Dub Encounter' LPs sold strongly among UK record buyers. As a result, the DJ spent increased amounts of time this side of the Atlantic, where he regularly performed live, dressed in flowing robes and chanting down wickedness to a predominantly white audience. But just as it seemed his career was really reaching new horizons he was shot dead in Kingston, with his murderer never identified or caught.

At the lighter end of Front Line's releases was an album from one-hit wonders, Althea Forest and Donna Reid, 17 and 18 respectively, who hit the big time in the summer of 1978 with 'Up Town Top Ranking', an irritatingly catchy song sung in Jamaican patois. Its success led to a contract with Virgin for whom the pair recorded an album's worth of songs, including those with more Roots orientation, such as 'If You Don't Love Jah' and 'Make A Truce'. While the album sold moderately well, the girls never again entered the mainstream charts and soon disappeared completely.

As the seventies turned to the eighties, Reggae fell out of fashion with the general record-buying public. The Front Line label was abandoned around the end of 1979 as Virgin started to wind down their roster of Reggae acts. Come the passing of Bob Marley in 1981 and the change of musical direction in Jamaica, where audience increasingly turned away from the spiritual Roots style in favour of the hedonistic sound of Dancehall, many established artists found themselves out of favour and either unable or unwilling to adapt to the brash new style.

Yet, while much of the newer music has since faded, the sounds of the seventies continue to attract new fans and admirers the world over. This collection hails this golden period of Reggae, a time when the music went overground, thanks in no small measure to a label that has since become widely acknowledged as being one of the most iconic Roots Reggae imprints of the era: Virgin's Front Line.

Michael de Koningh
 
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