Fundamental Reggay . . . and Beyond
The general perception of Jimmy Cliff is that he is one of the great also-rans in reggae history; that even though he was one of the stars of the greatest reggae movie of all time, The Harder They Come, and his songs dominate the classic soundtrack to that movie, he never really fulfilled the promise he showed in the first part of his career. Anthology, the two-disc greatest hits set I’m listening to right now, shows this perception to be faulty. Jimmy Cliff has been actually just as vital and interesting and conservatively radical after his biggest fame as he was before it. But it also shows that reggae’s self-perception and record-company marketing needs just didn’t square up with Cliff’s wider vision of what he wanted his music—and his life—to be.
Hip-O starts Anthology with the most fun song you will ever hear: Cliff’s second real single, “Miss Jamaica”. This laid-back ska ode to his island’s beautiful women pulses with fun and life; Cliff, who was just 14 when he recorded it, sounds nasal, cute, and innocent as he croons out the deathless lines, “Roses are red / Violets are blue / Believe me, I love you!” But the undercurrent of national pride, and black pride, that bubbles underneath it all (“I’m crowning you myself”) helps move it all along. The other juvenilia here, like the New Orleans groove of “Hurricane Hattie” and the rasta fable of “King of Kings”, are charming and minimal, thanks to the classic Leslie Kong production, and would seem to point to Cliff’s future as a straight-up reggae singer in the mold of all other straight-up reggae singers.
But that’s when things get interesting. 1968’s “Waterfall” is complicated rock-ish world-pop, and was a huge hit in Brazil, where it won a huge music prize. (It’s one of the few songs that Cliff didn’t write on the whole anthology, and it sounds it.) Cliff’s—and Kong’s—experience in Brazil is clear in the song’s followup, “Wonderful World, Beautiful People”, which was written about the people he met there and bubbles with tropicalian cellos right alongside its basic beat. This wonderful tune got to #25 on the pop charts here in the U.S., and up to #6 in the U.K., and suddenly Jimmy Cliff was reggae’s first international superstar.
The album named for the latter song is where the casual fan begins—seven of its songs are included in Anthology. These are wonderful beautiful things, and need to be savored: the gospel intro to “Come into My Life” out-wails the Wailers, and the hardcore but low-key “Viet Nam” (which Bob Dylan once said was his favorite protest song ever) (that’s right, I said Bob Dylan’s favorite protest song) is more Peter Tosh than even Peter Tosh dared to be back then. This song ambles along sweetly, with one of Cliff’s most beguiling vocals, only to reveal the steel beneath the frosting on the second or third listening: “Yesterday I got a letter from a friend / Fighting in Vietnam / And this is what he had to say / Tell all my friends / That I’ll be coming home soon / My time’ll be up some time in June” is pretty up-with-people stuff, and as he describes his Mary’s lips we are all happy until the second verse, when his mother gets a telegram. At this point, when we know what’s coming, the music amps up, becomes a bit rowdier and mockingly carefree, and the formerly “fun” backing vocals have now become more mournful as his mother gets the news. It’s a great great great great song, and Bob Dylan may well have been correct; but without Leslie Kong’s subtlety and touch, it would have been just a great great great great song. With Kong, “Viet Nam” is one of the damnedest things ever. With Kong, Cliff was unbeatable.
Dave Thompson’s liner notes are really quite perfect, describing how Cliff was the it kid of hipster music—Paul Simon flying down to Kong’s studio to record “Mother and Child Reunion” with Cliff’s band, Cat Stevens writing and producing “Wild World” for Cliff, only to see his own version pushed on the US charts instead of Cliff’s—but the liner notes must always take a backseat to the music. It’s easy to see why this is the Jimmy Cliff everyone always wants to remember, because this shit is sublime. “Suffering in the Land”, “Many Rivers to Cross”, “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah”—these were all just about as good as reggae music could ever get.
Which is why it hit Jimmy Cliff so hard in 1971 when Leslie Kong died of a heart attack. Some of the songs that ended up on The Harder They Come soundtrack were recorded before this tragedy, but some others were Cliff’s gift to the memory of his producer and friend; everyone knows that title track, with its “Small Axe” mentality, and “Sitting in Limbo” still hits like a penny dropped off the Empire State Building: “Tried my hand at love and friendship / But all that is past and gone / This little boy is moving on”. It’s a blues song, it’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” gone south, it’s sadness personified, it’s atypical reggae, it’s folk music, it’s perfect.
So that’s where most of it ends for most fans—he was in the movie, the soundtrack sold loads, and he was never as popular again, which means his songs must have been weaker and his attack must have been softer and he got what he deserved. If you are content with easy judgment, you should find another greatest hits disc for Jimmy Cliff. Because Anthology keeps going after The Harder They Come, and proves that all wrong. “Trapped” is here, in all its glory, along with great pieces like “Fundamental Reggay” and “Better Days Are Coming”. I’m sure that it would be much easier for everyone to just take the title of “Struggling Man” and run with it to describe this period of Cliff’s career—but that would be both too easy and untrue.
Because these are wonderful songs. The country-ish horn riff and the gospel-ish organ lines on 1974’s “House of Exile” come together to sound like Dylan’s rock-period work, which is perfectly matched to its theme: “So your day arrived when you least expected / ‘Cause you always thought you were well-protected / And now you feel like a fish out of water / So now you’re wondering what’s the matter”. Clever quotes from funk (“If I Follow My Mind” steals an opening riff from a Billy Preston song) and African music (“I Am the Living” gets a little high-life South African groove going, kinda cool for 1980) started to shake up some of his songs, which revealed fewer of the clichéd smiling-through-my-tears martyr ballads that started to be SOP in reggae music. It turned out that he was a folk musician all along.
But the songs were still very Jamaican in form and in intent. It’s not like Jimmy Cliff was abandoning reggae for other forms of music, but more like he refused to fit into the whole rasta/rebel continuum. For one thing, he had become a Muslim, so he wasn’t calling for Jah every other song. For another, Cliff is just conditionally opposed to making blanket statements. His sad stuff is personal, his political stuff is general and can be adapted to everybody everywhere. Which is not to say that he completely avoids cliché, because he doesn’t, and which is not to say that his later stuff is stronger than his earlier work, because it isn’t, not ultimately. But “Shelter of Your Love” is some pretty reggae folk music by any standard, simple and straightforward with Cliff’s amazing tenor soaring over it all. And there’s nothing wrong with Cliff or his band, Oneness, when they are tearing the hell out of “Give the People What They Want”—and what do the people want? They want “reggae music”, of course; but maybe all they know was the kind of reggae music that was sold to them, music that could be called “rebel music” and therefore highly marketable. Simple music with a lot of depth . . . well, that’s the kiss of death, innit?
Okay, so “Club Paradise” could be a little tougher, maybe; okay, so his top 20 version of “I Can See Clearly Now” wasn’t as strong as Johnny Nash’s version; fine, maybe he had more of an edge when he was young. But the reason he didn’t sell more records might not have had anything to do with that. He has never posed, he has never felt the need to try to impress the rude boys in the dancehall, and (besides taking the name “Jimmy Cliff” forty years ago) he has never lied about who he was or what he wanted to do. What Jimmy Cliff has done has been to pursue his inclusive musical vision, one that uses reggae as the major influence but also includes all the wonderful world and all its beautiful people. And Anthology is quite brave to show us all those sides. We should be kind of thankful for it.