Studio One Reissues Series
Using American rhythm and blues and big band jazz as a starting point, generations of Jamaican musicians altered and adapted the sound, sometimes slowing down the beat, sometimes speeding it up, emphasizing and recycling different aspects, resulting in a rich and diverse group of musical genres that can be intimidating for the novice.
Luckily, Heartbeat Records has embarked on an ambitious series of reissues going through the vaults of C.S. “Coxsone” Dodd’s legendary Studio One. Most of this group focuses on rocksteady, a music that originated from ska, featuring more vocal harmonies, less brass, and a heavier bass sound. Many of these are reissues of earlier compilations with extra songs and cleaned up production, and are excellent starting places for anyone wishing to delve into the rocksteady era.
Full Up: Best of Studio One, Volume Two – While mainly showcasing rocksteady, this disc also features a few roots reggae numbers from Culture and Burning Spear. Willie Williams’ track “Armagideon Time” will be familiar from the Clash cover. Rocksteady highlights include The Cables’ “What Kind of World,” a cut whose backing track has been used over and over again, notably in “Rocker’s Rock.” “Rougher Yet” by Slim Smith features heavy bass, with a barely heard piano. As with most of the songs on the reissues, the rough production adds to the song, creating a sparse, dub-like effect. Interestingly they also included “Love Bump” by Lone Ranger, which toasts over the “Rougher Yet” track. The booklet included is very informative, although some more information on individual players and solos would have been appreciated.
The Best of Delroy Wilson — While Wilson had hits throughout just about every phase of Jamaican music, these 18 songs from the late ’60s showcase Wilson’s mastery of the rocksteady genre, featuring slower tempos, horns relegated to more of a decorative role than in the more frenetic ska period, and the young vocalist’s soulful voice, which displays just a hint of roughness. The first track, “Riding for a Fall,” showcases Wilson’s pleading voice, and is a rocksteady classic. A cover of The Temptations’ “Get Ready” is slowed down to a crawl and stripped of the glossy sheen, turning the familiar song into an aching, soulful ballad. Wilson seems more comfortable in the slow rocksteady songs, but there are two faster-paced ska songs, “It’s Impossible,” and “One Last Kiss.” “True Believer in Love” features an instrumental drop where Wilson’s voice sounds suspended in time and space, prefiguring the dub versions that would soon become dominant in Jamaican music.
I Can’t Get You Off My Mind, John Holt — This album is by a former member of The Paragons, a Jamaican vocal group heavily influenced by American soul music. Holt transformed into an early rocksteady powerhouse responsible for “The Tide is High,” later covered by Blondie, and features here strong vocals and a cleaner overall production sound than most of the early rocksteady hits. The overall sound is sort of a mix between rocksteady and early reggae. The standout track is the haunting “Strange Things,” a sparse, skeletal song using only drum and bass, giving a spooky feel. This haunting song’s stream of consciousness lyrics has no rhymes and is a masterpiece of an aching love song.
I’m Still in Love With You, Alton Ellis — Alton Ellis had a number of ska hits, including “Cry Tough” and “Dance Crasher,” and his song “Rock Steady” is said to have given a name for the new, slower music gaining in popularity after the ska era. Several of these rocksteady songs feature his sister, Hortense, and all display a soul singer at the peak of his powers. “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” is one of the standout tracks, and was faithfully covered by ska revivalists, The English Beat.
Downbeat the Ruler: Killer Instrumentals from Studio One — This set of 18 mostly-instrumentals demonstrates the recycled nature of Jamaican music. Some of the mostly rocksteady songs were instrumentals, others were dub versions. This collection can be frustrating to intermediate Jamaican music listeners, because you will be wracking your brain trying to remember where you heard the track “Real Rock” before. A chart of how many times these instrumental tracks were used would have been helpful, but likely would be about 80 pages. The familiar rhythms continue to be recycled — “Heavy Rock” and “Rockford Rock” would be later reworked into dancehall versions.
Best of Studio One — This was one of the earliest collections showcasing the music produced at Studio One, and has been reissued with extra tracks. The material leans heavily on rocksteady, with simple, soulful, ghostly cuts like The Cables’ “Baby Why,” and the Termites’ “My Last Love,” but there are a variety of styles represented, from the bouncy uplift of Sugar Minot’s “Oh Mr. DC,” the roots reggae of the Abssynians’ “Declaration of Rights” to Lone Ranger’s DJ cut “The Answer,” a remake of “I’ll Never Let Go.” Even with the remastering, the essential graininess and low fidelity has been preserved, which adds to the sound and feel of the collection.
Version Dread: 18 Dub Hits from Studio One — While the dub versions from Studio One tended overall to be less dense and experimental than those of Scientist, Lee Perry, or King Tubby, the heavy bass, drop outs, and delay tend to emphasize the roots of the song rather than sonic embellishments. Because of this, Version Dread would be the perfect starting point for someone interested in dub. Willie and the Brentford Rockers’ “Armagideon Version” will be familiar to Clash fans, and while most of the dubs are fairly straightforward instrumental versions of songs, there are hints of a more radical style in songs like “Pick Up Version,” which utilizes snippets of harmonizing vocals to great effect.
Bobby Bobylon, Freddie McGregor — This is an effective mix of songs alternating between social concerns and love songs. Many of the songs are remakes of previous Studio One songs, and McGregor’s smooth vocals and versatile band are able to blend many different styles of Jamaican songs into a rhythmic whole. Standout tracks include a cover of The Ethiopians’ ska hit “Gonna Take Over Now” done in a bouncy, light style, and the dense, percussion-heavy “Rastaman Camp,” but the album works better as one piece, documenting McGregor’s mastery of a wide range of styles.
Ska Bonanza: The Studio One Ska Years — This almost two-hour compilation of early ’60s ska recorded at Studio One shows the many different styles of ska there were at the time – from bouncy “Answer Me My Darling” by Derrick Harriot to the more jazz-infused Skatalites “Nimble Foot Ska” to the infectious early Bob Marley and the Wailers “Simmer Down.” With the exception of “Simmer Down,” there are few songs that non-aficionados would recognize, but the whole thing is such a bouncy, upbeat collection that it is hard to imagine anyone complaining about this collection.
One Love at Studio One, Bob Marley and the Wailers — Bob Marley and the Wailers’ early output has been collected many times, but few collections show the depth and range of these early songs as well as this 40-track collection. While the Wailers were primarily thought of as a ska band, there is an amazing diversity of song styles presented here. Naturally, the hits such as “Simmer Down” and “Hooligans” are present, but they share time with Beatles covers, demos, and rarities. Interesting to many will be an early ska version of “One Love.” Recording quality varies throughout, which only adds to the overall feel, as if secret tunes are coming out of the vault.
Heartbeat Records: http://www.heartbeatreggae.com/ ◼