In early 1985 the constant Sound System clashes that drive Jamaican music forward produced one of its defining moments. King Jammy and Black Scorpio went head to head and Jammy, already a producer of note, decided to add a Cassio digital keyboard to his battery of effects. The insistent, staccato rhythm blew away the opposition and seventies roots reggae finally gave way to the new sound. It was reggae’s equivalent to Planet Rock and the music was forever changed.The rest of the eighties belonged to King Jammy. Computerised rhythms eased out the older forms and paved the way for ragga and today’s fierce dancehall styles.
Well, that’s the story anyway. Certainly reggae by 1989 sounded very different to ten years earlier. The rhythms were bumpier, more jagged and to many ears vastly inferior. However, The Revenge of the Super Power All Stars Volume 3 demonstrates that, as one would suspect, change was a little more gradual than paradigm theorists might wish. More significantly, the records were far more substantial (and melodic) than memory had suggested. What this collection of mid-Eighties tracks represents is a good insight into a transitional phase in the island’s music. You will hear rootsy ballads, the beginnings of the digital take-over and the emergence of Dancehall stylings. There is also a useful sample of which older stars adapted and survived and who the new stars were who prospered with King Jammy’s rise. In short it is an excellent snapshot of what was being played and how the genre was developing at the time.
None of these records are exactly “classics”, although Bailey & Demus’ “One Scotch” is included. The more famous tunes are on the earlier volumes (and on endless other anthologies). Anyway it is refreshing to have a different set of songs and the quality is generally very high. The list of artists alone attests to that. How about this for a roster? Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Leroy Smart, Coco Tea, Johnny Osbourne, Frankie Paul, Al Campbell and Half Pint. These are the performers that the real reggae audience genuinely loved (still do, for that matter). Jammy’s deejays are here too, of course. The likes of Admirals Tibbett and Bailey and, the better known, Chaka Demus formed the bridge between U.Roy and and the manic moderns. All in all, listening to these two CDs is like going to the dance circa 1986—a couple of outstanding songs, some solid performances and bass lines that won’t let you sit still.
One or two tunes and their references have dated. Some pleasantly and nostalgically so—Sister Maureen’s “Toots” (remember all those “Boops” records)—others have worn less well. Dennis Brown’s Madonna-alluding “Material Girl” and Peter Metro’s “Police in England” have historical interest but little musical merit. On the other hand, most tracks are fresher than you’d expect and forgotten figures like Little John, Nitty Gritty, Leroy Gibbons and Don Angelo are a revelation. The major names to emerge in that decade, Frankie Paul and Coco Tea for example, fully justify their reputations. Paul’s “Mus Mus Tail” is as strange and infectious today as back then. Gregory Isaacs is as reliable as ever—“No Good Girl” is a typical cynical ballad.
To be truthful individual numbers matter less than the overall atmosphere. The mood is mostly upbeat, slightly edgy but less frenetic than its detractors claimed. There is a nervousness and a slightly uneasy feel about the music—life was more than usually unsettled in the ghetto in those years. However the economic references are few and the Rasta philosophy, so prominent a few years earlier, is almost totally absent.T his is pure dance music for the people, yet still offering a more varied fare than today’s audience can expect to hear on a night out. The distance between the sweet and the rough is less pronounced than now—artists like Leroy Smart and Johnny Osbourne combined melody and toughness in single songs. So too did Jammy’s rhythms. The digital element is nowhere nearly as total as its reputation claims. There is definitely a new feel to the production but only those who think reggae equals Bob Marley will have difficulty placing this music in the continuum of Jamaican popular song.
Lack of sleeve notes might make this experience a little difficult to absorb for newcomers and the set is probably aimed at a more knowledgeable buyer. Even so, I would actually steer novices towards it. Over the 30 something tracks they will get a fairer and more accurate picture of what was happening on ground level than the official “history of reggae” albums ever manage. In any case tunes like “Tune In” (Coco Tea), “Rewind” (Johnny Osbourne) and, my favourite, “Who Lick Me First” (Half Pint) need ideally to be heard in this context and not surrounded by crossover hits.
In a crowded re-issue market this series certainly holds its own. Volume three might even serve to convince a few Seventies diehards that digital techniques didn’t completely destroy reggae. For others it will simply bring back great memories. For even the most casual listener, it yet again serves to emphasise just how many remarkable records poured out of one small Caribbean island. There is also a fine, though sadly uncaptioned, portfolio of photos of the performers. These evoke a bygone age almost as well as the early digital beats do, if in not quite so body-moving a fashion. As we used to shout at the time, “Rewind!”.