Reggae Goes Pop
Generally speaking, the rules governing pop music authenticity are strict. Arbitrarily conceived terminology like “real rock and roll”, hip-hop’s mantra “keepin’ it real”, and traditional country music (you could substitute blues here too) are fluidly (and carelessly) applied as a means of separating the essential from the ersatz. However, as anyone who’s ever spent five minutes with one will tell you, the gatekeepers who mediate this discussion are a dreary, dogmatic bunch of purists. Instantaneously dismissive of vernacular music with even a tinge of commerciality, these tastemakers (some of whom ply their trade as critics) have argued that the introduction of electricity forever ruined the blues, or that Duke Ellington’s artistic decline began in the mid-1930s, or when it comes to reggae any concessions to the hegemony of the pop marketplace marks you as a traitor to Jah.
It was this kind of cultural protectionism that dogged many late ‘70s British reggae bands. Steel Pulse, Matumbi (with the great Dennis Bovell), Misty in Roots, the Cimarrons, Black Slate, and bi-racial Brummies UB40, made many excellent records that reflected the complicated realities of an imbricated cultural identity perhaps best defined as Afro-Caribbean Britishness heavily accented with American soul and R&B. When it was good, it was the best of both worlds: a dreader than dread heavy roots vibe with a little taste of Stax, Motown, and a dollop of jazz. But, when it was bad, it was, well, pretty weak stuff, banal pop lacking a couple of reggae’s key ingredients: blood and fire.
Of the aforementioned bands, most would argue that Aswad were the best of the bunch. (If you’d like to compare and contrast I’d recommend the superb anthology of black British reggae bands Don’t Call Us Immigrants available on Adrian Sherwood’s brilliant reissue label Pressure Sounds). Formed in 1975 in West London’s Ladbroke Grove, the band’s career was jumpstarted by a well-received self-titled 1976 debut (the first British reggae release on a major label), a crucial role as Burning Spear’s backing band (their inspired playing captured forever on Spear’s stunning 1977 live album), and if that wasn’t enough, Aswad got big ups in the U.K. press from none other Robert Nesta Marley.
New Chapter (originally released in 1981) and Not Satisfied (1982) represent Aswad’s, albeit brief, creative peak. Of the two, New Chapter, a densely textured, politicized record, is clearly superior. For most of its 11 tracks, even those with ho-hum titles like “I Will Keep on Loving You” and “He Gave the Sun to Shine”, Aswad balances the heavy roots, dub influence of Lee Perry and King Tubby with a supple, jazzy swing. Tony Robinson’s spacious bass and Angus Gaye’s fluid drumming create insistent riddims that make up for the earnest, occasionally overwritten lyrics. Sweetening the package are the bonus tracks, especially the anti-violence ode “Finger Gun Style” and its dub version—the latter a jittery, spacey, and eerie slice of sonic bricolage that sounds readymade for some freestyle toasting from Big Youth or I-Roy.
The sleeve notes to Not Satisfied prosaically announce it as “more earthbound yet no less accomplished than its high-flying predecessor”. I wholeheartedly agree, but only if “earthbound” is a euphemism for tedious and boring, if so, then yes, this is without a doubt Aswad’s most earthbound record. Replacing grittiness with mawkish sentimentality, Not Satisfied is an about-face from the deeply funky and rootsy New Chapter, and is precisely the kind of reggae record that gives pop-hating purists reason to beef.
It starts promisingly with the lively-up-yourself vibe of “Oh Jah” but the decline is precipitous, starting with the title track to the smiley-faced “anthem” “Reality” to the ponderously awful “African Children (Part 2)”, a track hamstrung by ponderous insights such as “We are united now in the conditions into which we live”. Huh? Adding ganja only makes it worse. “Down the Line”, an ode to sensemillia with all the lyrical depth of Black Sabbath’s “Sweatleaf”, is bouncy elevator skank weighted down by doggerel like, “I’m never happy only blue / Every time I’m without you / My sensemillia”. Guys, I’m begging you, put the pipe down.
Sadly, there’s no relief in sight. By the time the slow-burn funk of the closing track “Girl’s Got to Know” rousts you from your torpor, it’s too little too late. To paraphrase a popular reggae expression the problem with Not Satisfied, especially coming after the nourishment of New Chapter, is too much fillah, not enough killah.