Burning Spear was a group, one of the most intriguing and heavy of Jamaican ensembles, and they released one of the best-known reggae albums ever, 1975’s Marcus Garvey. This righteous blast at Babylon, produced by the legendary Jack Ruby, gets mentioned on a lot of “best album” lists, but no one ever mentions anything else they have done since then. And that, as the re-release of these three albums proves, is a huge oversight. One disc combines 1976’s Ruby-produced Man in the Hills with their first self-produced album, Dry and Heavy from 1977, and the other presents Social Living from 1980, along with two extended dub mixes. Taken together, these three records prove quite a few things, including the revelation that some of those “best reggae album” lists need to be reordered to include some more Burning Spear.
The biggest misconception about this group is to equate Winston Rodney with Burning Spear. He did, in fact, become Burning Spear, but not on Man in the Hills. Here, the ghostly harmonies of bandmates Rupert Willington and Delroy Hines are absolutely central to the heavy roots attack; this is clear on the opening title track, where their chant of “And if we should live up in the hills” makes everything sweet and creepy and lovely all at the same time. But Rodney’s vocal work is always sad and hopeful at the same time, yearning and patient, mournful and smiling — his voice is a superb instrument, and he knows it: he’ll repeat a line over and over in weird ways, or allow a track to shamble to a start before tying it together with the first line of a song, and reggae just hadn’t heard anything like him, and there certainly haven’t been a lot of singers since who even wanted to try what he effortlessly accomplishes here.
Black self-reliance is clearly the theme of this album. The good in “It’s Good” is “It is good when a man can think for himself”; the children in “Children” are learning to fish even though the current is so strong and the sea so rocky; the mother in “Mother” tells Rodney, “Son, be careful / Think before you move”. And the people in “People Get Ready” are being addressed by Rodney, who is speaking simultaneously as himself and Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie: “Come, people / I wouldn’t leave my people behind / No I wouldn’t leave them behind / I couldn’t do that”.
This is all intoned in Rodney’s ageless pleading tenor, with Willington and Hines there to push the call-and-response vocal lines past what had ever been done in reggae before, with heavy African repetition on “Lion” and “It’s Good,” and a very James Brown and the Famous Flames vibe on “People Get Ready.” But it is the woozy and wild psychedelic intricacy of the backing tracks that really sends these songs over the top. “No More War” pulls in Shaft guitar scratches and blues lines from Earl “Chinna” Smith and Tony Chin, making it all sound like the Stax Reggae Song that never was. The push and pull of “Door Peep” is so thick that one four-note trombone phrase (by the amazing Vincent “Trommie” Gordon) sound like the scowl of fate, and “Groovy” contains one hell of a sick funky rhythm track thanks to the ministrations of Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace while the bass boomage of either Robbie Shakespeare or Aston “Family Man” Barrett. (David Katz’s liner notes are, as always, great on the big picture and just so-so on the song by song details.)
This band was still mostly in place for Dry and Heavy, so there is a certain band-like consistency of sound on that record, even though by this time Jack Ruby had been forced out by record company skullduggery, and Willingham and Hines were sacked for some reason. (Actually, the notes are unclear about this, too, and there are backing vocals all over Dry and Heavy, so maybe I’m wrong.) But Winston Rodney already wrote all the songs and sang all the leads and provided all the inspiration for the group Burning Spear, so things don’t sound radically different — a little more pastoral and a lot less psychedelic, perhaps, but fairly similar overall. “Any River”, one of many remakes of older songs, kicks things off with a smooth-rocking paean to the one that Rodney loves: “She could be from Africa / She could be from America / She could be from Jamaica”. Well, you have to figure that he’d be able to tell from the accent, right? So this must be not just one woman, but all black women, and/or all black people. Between these two records, Rodney learned subtlety and sneakiness, and it proved to be an important find.
Because Dry and Heavy is a record that lulls you one way and then yanks you back in another direction with no mercy. “The Sun” is a great example of this; it’s another Garvey/messiah fantasy, with a repeated “Are you ready? / I will call on you” hook and a quietly moving track; listeners are so chilled-out that Rodney’s mystic-soul histrionics at the very end of the song come as a “wow, he’s serious!” surprise. “Creation Rebel” is recast here as “It’s a Long Way Around,” and its drunken-style horns and syncopated piano and Memphis guitar pop up at unexpected moments. The title track is one of the most straightforward things here, but the layering of certain effects (blues guitar riffs, sustained piano chords, Rodney’s multi-tracked swoons) still throws us off enough that the story of the song — the spiritual ammunition collected by Jamaicans is, like firewood, both dry and heavy — carries more resonance than it would in either a crazy dubbed-out track or in a totally mellow one.
If this record doesn’t hit as hard as Man in the Hills, it is only because many of these songs had already been done before. But it is an absolutely crucial album for Rodney, as it added a whole new arrow of nuance to his quiver — and it is also a really great-sounding reggae album. “Throw Down Your Arms” is the biggest blast, with a quivering king-snake guitar and a whispered “T’row down your harms and come” refrain and some unbelievable Africanisms in the percussion line. What stands out, though, is Rodney’s skill and great strangeness as a vocalist, especially in the long vamping he does at the end, where he cries and laughs and chokes and comes right back to the title phrase. The album is closed out by the dark and wonderful “Black Disciples” and the redemptive “Shout It Out”, where Rodney says that his people are not going to cry no more.
So it was somewhat of a surprise to hear all the crying and wailing and sighing and grunting and obvious sufferation on the first song of his next record, Social Living. “Marcus Children Suffer” is a festival of insane vocal sounds, all happening simultaneously with the shrugging acceptance of the main lyrical plot, which deals with how Garvey’s followers can continue in a world without him. You can keep your Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Captain Beefheart and other “avant-garde” vocalists — what Rodney does here is to create not just strange sounds with his mouth (including something that sounds like he really needs to see a gastroenterologist), but to put those sounds in context. It is the weirdest moment in a record that still stands as one of reggae’s weirdest moments.
Every track here ends up going where you don’t think it could go. There is no way to predict the chord structure of the song “Social Living”, because it changes virtually every two measures, and never where you think it will go. This is exacerbated by the chorus, which repeats “Do you know / Social living is the best” six times and then launches into the verses before you’re ready, and intensified by the clattering percussion. It’s an experimental song structure of the first water, using as many of reggae’s conventions as it breaks, even dubbing out at the end, which isn’t even three minutes later.
Not all these tracks are as bizarre as these two, but although many of them are pretty, none of them are easy to take. “Institution” is about as straight-ahead as things get, and it’s still so heavy with conga rolls and funk-rock guitar and smooth swinging horns that it sounds like doom and love together. “Civilize Reggae” begins with some swirling synthesizer noise that never quite goes away when the beat begins, which is good because the beat is too oppressively hard to survive without something on top. When Rodney and his 47 echoes start listing the different places on earth that do the reggae, and the baritone saxophone starts honking away, it’s like the strange heaven that you always hoped was out there somewhere. (I’m not going to spoil the surprise ending of this track, which is the most perfect moment in reggae music history. Yes, you can quote me.)
This is a concept album, as you might expect on a record containing four different songs that have either “Marcus” or “Garvey” in their titles, but that’s not the concept. To me, this record is all about Winston Rodney trying to find the ghost in the Kingston machine, to locate in his music the ephemeral qualities that he intones at the beginning of “Mister Garvey”: “Light! Strength! Energy!” The fact that this song makes Marcus Garvey sound like a stone-cold pimp (“So cool / So smooth / No fool”) has something to do with it, but not all; the fact that “Nayah Keith” is an old nyahbinghi-riddimed Rasta hymn tricked out in new garb, but it’s still just as primal as it ever was, the ancient in new garb, the triumph of Winston Rodney’s vision. And better than anything Bob Marley ever did.