Easily the most overtly political of the great mid-‘70s roots reggae albums, Winston Rodney’s 1975 magnum opus Marcus Garvey is a strange beast, to say the least. One of those marvellously idiosyncratic albums that come along every now and then where the lyrical sentiment or vocal delivery happily and willingly contradict the mood or sound of the actual music (think Comus’ First Utterance, early Smiths, Panic at the Disco’s Pretty. Odd.). Musically, for the most part, Marcus Garvey is classic bouncy Jamaican period reggae: catchy, mellow and drowning in horns, with a groove to die for.
Vocally, however, it’s a very different story. Rodney isn’t a particularly good singer, and he clearly knows it, preferring to eschew the smoother, technically more impressive pop-orientated vocal stylings of his roots contemporaries (even Peter Tosh can usually hold a note more adeptly than our boy Winston) in favour of a passionate, strained and mournful vocal delivery bearing more similarity to a West Indian ghost struggling to make it to the other side than to Messrs. Marley or Romeo.
But it’s the words that Rodney uses to paint his vision of what he percieves as the nightmarish world situation around him that most clash with the infectious rhythms backing him. Spiritual matters, chiefly dealing with the Good Mr. Spear’s devotion to the Rastafari movement, unsurprisingly feature to a certain extent. “Red, Gold and Green” is a paean to the divine emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopa (“the lion, the lion crown the king / in Addis Ababa, Africa”), while “Tradition” celebrates Selassie fulfilling the second coming (“More than two thousand years / since I come here… Do what you can / for I and I”). Yet for the most part the listener is bombarded with the kind of vitriolic, biting and veraciously political and revolutionary lyrics that wouldn’t become commonplace elsewhere until the punk explosion of a few years later (presuming you’re actually listening to the the words, that is; it would be an understatement to say they’re not easy to make out).
The most obvious of these is in the songs dealing with the titular black nationalist and national hero of Jamaica himself, “Marcus Garvey” and “Old Marcus Garvey”. But it’s the second track “Slavery Days”, which sees Rodney howling “Do you remember the days of slavery?” over a jaunty, organ- and trumpet-driven calypso-reggae skank, that really sets the scene for the rest of the record. “Invasion” is less cheery-sounding, but just as catchy: a haunting, minor-key number ruing the existence of an African diaspora (“You took us away from Africa / with the intention to steal our culture”). The Biblically-minded “Jordan River” looks forward to a time when “black brothers and sisters… be side by side / sing happy songs at the River Jordan’s side”. The eminently danceable “Resting Place”, with its lyrics lamenting the fact that the author can’t find one, owing to “too much pollution”, seems to precede the modern environmental movement.
Boy, does it work well. The music is certainly repetitive. Common with most reggae LPs, the entire album’s built around a single tempo and sound. But it never overstays its welcome, clocking in at shy of 34 minutes. It’s just short enough to make the listener want to reach for the ‘repeat’ button straight away, and just long enough not to feel like a rip-off. If you’re a white listener, you also may feel bad tapping your foot to songs decrying how your own ancestors “... beat us / and how they worked us so hard”, but when the music gets under your skin as much as that contained on Marcus Garvey does, it’s impossible not to tap that foot anyway.
Rodney was certainly an angry young man with a lot to say, but he was also a supremely talented songwriter with a real ear for melody. It’s to his credit that, unlike many others who have gone before and after, his own intense passion and political and religious idealism help to shape the sound of this music, rather than draw away from it. That’s where Marcus Garvey really shines.
For this latest reissue and remastering, Hip-O-Select have sensibly bundled the original album along with Garvey’s Ghost, Marcus Garvey’s minimalistic 1976 dub remix. Garvey’s Ghost itself is nothing to write home about, the music missing the emotional intensity of Rodney’s lyrics and pained howl. While it’s an entertaining enough listen hearing the songs in stripped-down alternate mixes, the album exists as more of a curio. It’s more akin to getting your hands on some demo backing tracks of your favourite songs than a great dub album outright. You certainly won’t find yourself listening to it half as much as you will its bigger brother.
Don’t let that put you off. If you don’t already own a copy of Marcus Garvey and have even a passing interest in roots reggae, you should be praising Jah for this latest repackaging. You owe it to yourself to pick this up this wonderfully contradictory and endlessly listenable album and see what you’ve been missing all these years.