I used to think that music was something that evolved all over the world and then just aggregated in certain conduit spots, where it could be distributed to the masses. Surely not every band in the world lived in the same square block of London, the same squalid, soon-to-be-gentrified stretch of lower Manhattan. But as we have all learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there exists hellmouths in certain places that cause interesting things to happen. I keep trying to establish one under my feet in Baton Rouge, but I just hit water when you dig more than four feet down, hence why we bury our dead above ground.
These hellmouths are fleeting, too. In the late 70's Cleveland had one that birthed Pere Ubu and The Dead Boys, Detroit had one that produced the MC5 and the Stooges. In the 80's Athens GA had the largest one that produced a polarizing jangly music that steeled everyone on either side of the alternative rock fence, deeming the products of that other side to suck with unbridled temerity. The ultimate musical hellmouth though, is Kingston, Jamaica, through the 60's and 70's. Coxsone Dodd's Studio One and Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark are among the most fabled studios not on Abbey Road, producing the alchemical refractions of western music in the form of ska, reggae and dub. Each of these styles of music started as a mixture of Calypso, armed forces radio and gang mentality, deciding that we can make this tripe coming from the Gringos and make something beautiful and ultimately marketable from it, and they did.
(Light in the Attic)
By 1963, when Studio One opened its doors, a keyboardist named Jackie Mittoo was already a powerhouse of Jamaican music, forming a trio with Augustus Paolo in his youth. Dodd, with a nervous eye open for the finest talent roped in Mittoo as his music director, and Mittoo used his station to help form the greatest band that island ever produced, The Skatalites. Throughout the 60s, Mittoo's piano helped form ska and reggae and he embarked on a solo career to expand that vision when the Skatalites broke up (for the first time - they rival the Who on resurrection counts) resulting in a myriad of of brilliant instrumental records no one has ever heard since. Then the unexpected happened...
The Canadian Broadcast Company, in keeping with that nation's reputation as the most congenial of socialist regimes set up laws that made sure that Canadian artists, including immigrants, were not eclipsed by their more well-heeled competitors to the south, and that resulted in a number of Reggae artists, laboring in relative obscurity Kingston to move to Totonto where they could get in on some of that nice socialist airplay.
When I saw the press release for these reissues of Canadian Reggae, I admit my eyes glazed over, tsk-tsk-ing over the desperation of the times until I popped Mittoo's lost 1970 classic Wishbone in, and witnessed the greatest soul-reggae concoction to ever hit my ears. Authenticisists will likely balk at the presence of strings and horn sections and Motown infusions to the island jam, but then integrity queens don't really like anything, do they? I say Wishbone could easily sit up next to Funkadelic's Maggot Brain and Marvin Gaye's What's Goin On and D'Angelo's Voodoo as examples of R&B pushed into truly glorious territory, allowed to develop a depth that most Motown eschews.
An opening track of "Satisfaction" on any other reggae album would set the listener bracing for either a terrible of brilliant Rolling Stones Stars on 45 and Good Weed remake, but here is a keyboard-and string filled opening theme song bubbling over with soul positivity. I don't know if Mittoo ever found work sound-tracking the Blaxploitation epics of the time, but if not, they were missing out. "Groovy Spirit" tows closer to the ska instrumental line, filling in the gaps with disco strings and tons of percussion. It's brilliant stuff, and this spirit infects most of the record. The powerhouse "Grand Funk" has an organ groove that will open up your DNA and allow the chant of "My Bag, Your Bag" to reconfigure it. Even the title track, which wholesale rips off the Beatles "Carry That Weight" is a resplendent diversion to a happier place.
Less successful to these ears are the pieces with vocals, though Mittoo has a fine voice, the tracks sound hack-ish, until you get to the brilliant ska-meets-Ray Charles locomotion of "Soul Bird." If I was the type to still make mix tapes to get girls, I would put this on every one. The indestructible ska beat is replete with shimmying back up singers and that Motown way of continually charging through a great melody, nearly insipid lyrics that somehow speak volumes.
Got your message, little soul bird.
You're on your way from me.
It's been a long time you
Been trying to break my heart both day and night.
I hope you find someone new
That loves you and treats your right
Stupid, clich?© lines that somehow encapsulate the whole of love, the give and take of human interaction. That you can dance to. I'm hesitant to say they don't write them like that anymore, but well, they don't.
For the reggae conservatives out there, that don't like their rocksteady commingling with the enemy might find some solace in Mittoo's fellow ?©migr?© Noel Ellis. Noel had pedigree, being the son of Alton Ellis, but didn't find much success until Mittoo helped make a minor international hit in 1979 out of "Rocking Universally" now available on his long lost self-titled album. The track is a rat-a-tat stretch of hazy patois interspersed with off Muppet-like double speed vocals. It's the kind of continuum foolishness that resonates with Lee Perry enthusiasts, myself included. This is not the pop reggae of Bob Markey, nor the connoisseur's dope of Mittoo, but the kind of reggae William Gibson had as the ambience of deep-space tankers in Neuromancer. Music that establishes a simple infectious groove and keeps at it until the bong is empty.
"To Hallie Selassie" is the kind of echo-chamber dub that at first seems too slow, too sluggish, but after listening you find your own clock has been recalibrated to it, and everything else seems too fast. The brilliant example of this is the lysergic "Marcus Garvey" that it was brewed from juice squeezed out of a papaya grown on the moon. The lyrics don't; consist of much more than a series of dates and Garvey's name rattled out over an infinite series of crashing waves, occasionally peppered with a sweet "OK, let's go."
All the songs here clock past the six-minute mark, in keeping with their origins as 12" singles, but on each Ellis put out a vine that has just enough footholds to make his narcoleptic soul moan from falling into darkness. "Stop Your Fighting" is a prime example, where the dub beat trucks along for two and a half minutes and then suddenly drops tempo even further, creating a fissure that make you fee like your heart stopped for a second. It excellent stuff, perhaps not the life-affirming soul of the Mittoo album, but this is going after a different thing. Noel Ellis is lacing the threads, tying strings to the map tacks poking out of Toronto and Kingston and all other unlikely points of origin from which enlightenment issues.
(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com