[6 July 2004]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Although his name isn’t as well known as Bob Marley’s or the Wailers’, or even Burning Spear’s or Dennis Brown’s, Max “Romeo” Smith is an important figure in the development of “conscious” or “roots” reggae. Still touring in the ‘00s, he is also one of reggae’s few living legends. And while it’s important that he be given his due with compilations like Wet Dream: The Best of Max Romeo, the very title of this disc is problematic. Here’s why:
“Wet Dream” is the title of Romeo’s breakthrough 1968 single, which reached the Top 10 in the UK. Part of the reason for the song’s success, though, was controversy; it was the “Relax” of its time. In an early example of the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” doctrine of music promotion, the British music press made all kinds of fuss over the song’s sexually-themed title, not to mention lyrics like “Lie down girl / And let me push it up”. Romeo kept the ball rolling by ingeniously claiming that the song was really about fixing a leaky roof. Massive sales ensued.
The success of “Wet Dream”—a catchy song but a novelty nonetheless—led Romeo to issue a series of sex-themed follow-ups (one, “Mini Skirt Vision” is included here under the censor-eluding title “The Horn”), none of which were as successful as “Wet Dream”, but all of which caused Romeo to be dismissed as a one-trick horndog. This may be one reason why Romeo’s subsequent recordings, some of the first to address the plight and unrest of the general Jamaican population, have been overlooked by those with less than an obsessive interest in reggae. Wet Dream the compilation, however, is made up mostly of these later works, as it should be. But devoting the title (not to mention nearly all of the liner notes) to the novel aspect of Romeo’s career, the folks at Trojan are both doing his legacy a disservice and misrepresenting the album.
Another problem with the title of this disc: It really should be The Best of The Rest of Max Romeo. That’s because Romeo’s best work consists of Revelation Time, released in 1975 (re-issued by Blood & Fire as Open the Iron Gate 1973-1977), and the following year’s international success, War in a Babylon, both recorded with the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry, who was at the height of his dubbed-out powers. But the only representation on Wet Dream of this period is the Revelation Time track “Three Blind Mice”, a brief re-working of the nursery rhyme and hardly a fitting choice for a “Best of”. Licensing problems, it must be assumed, are to blame.
Now that it’s clear what Wet Dream doesn’t offer, what about what it does? Well, it’s a fairly comprehensive collection of 25 of the best Romeo tracks that aren’t on Revelation Time or War in a Babylon. Spanning the late ‘60s to mid ‘70s, it does a good job culling tracks recorded for a variety of producers and labels. Aside from the novelties, there are conscious highlights like “Macabee Version”, about the non-canonized Bible scriptures; and “No Joshua No”, arguably the most influential of the songs resulting from Romeo’s relationship with the Jamaican People’s National Party. There’s the wonderful Bunny Lee-produced ballad “Walk into the Dawn”, with its strange, bell-like cymbals. And there are a few real treasures: several early Perry collaborations and a couple tracks cut with Winston “Niney” Holness. “I Man a African”, “Public Enemy Number One” and “The Coming of Jah” are Bible-quoting manifestos that pit Romeo’s appealing, studied delivery against the slowest and eeriest of rhythms. “Rasta Band Wagon” is a sharp attack on the pretenders to the suddenly trendy conscious reggae.
A couple love songs from Romeo’s late ‘60s vocal group, the Emotions, help complete the historical picture, although musically they’re unremarkable. It would have been nice to get something from the Hippy Boys, Romeo’s first group, which featured future legends Aston “Family Man” and Carlton Barrett and Glen Adams, too. A 1995 dancehall version of “Wet Dream” is unnecessary. Why treat Romeo like he’s a one hit wonder? Finally, the non-chronological sequencing baffles; interspersing the novelty tunes among the serious social commentary does neither listener nor artist any good.
If you already own Open the Iron Gate 1973-1977 and War in a Babylon, Wet Dream is an ideal way to fill in the blanks. If you’re just beginning to explore Romeo, go for one of the other two instead.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/romeromax-wetdream/