By Gerry McMahon
First things first. If ever there was agreement on reggae’s Top 10 albums, Bob Marley would surely take most of the slots. However, a formidable case can be made for the inclusion of 2 other albums coming from the same golden era of roots reggae.
The first of these is the ‘Heart Of The Congos’ by the Congos and produced by the living legend that is Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. The second of these is ‘Two Sevens Clash’ from the late Joe Hill’s Culture.
The good news is that as part of the Greensleeves’ 40th anniversary celebrations, the VP Music Group (who bought out Greensleeves) has re-released both albums with extensive frills.
This Congos’ produce is by far their best ever composition. In fact, it is so good that on the strength of it they can still dine out worldwide 40 years on! Unlike Bunny Wailer – who has a longstanding aversion to Lee Perry over the subject matter of ownership rights – the Congos will be forever grateful to Perry, both for his perfect production and his granting to them of this album’s ownership rights.
This VP release is remastered in 3 CD and LP\vinyl formats, featuring the rare original mix of the work, together with the familiar mix and a variety of dubs, disco mixes, 7 and 12 inch versions and the unreleased ‘Don’t Blame It On I’ track. Interestingly, in recent discrete interviews with the 3 Congo vocalists (Cedric Myton, Ashanti Roy and Watty Burnett) there was consensus that at the time of its composition in Perry’s Black Ark studio, they hadn’t a clue about the album’s potential. As Protoje might now say (or sing): ‘Who Knows?’!
The Culture produce from the same year, Two Sevens Clash, is loaded with hit anthems across this double CD and 3-piece vinyl release. In addition to the original versions, the listener is treated here to – amongst many others – I Roy’s, Prince Weedy’s and Mr. Bojangles’ takes on the classics. However, the release does not include Culture’s classic ‘International Herb’ song – though many won’t be deterred by this, especially given the apparent contradiction arising from the author’s eventual passing due to alcohol abuse.
Both releases are studded with stars from reggae’s musicianship. They include Gregory Isaacs, Lee Perry, Sly Dunbar, Ernest Ranglin, Boris Gardiner, the Meditations, Scully Sims, ‘Cool Stick’ Thompson, ‘Mikey Boo’ Richards and Geoffrey Chung on the Congos’ collaboration. Whilst ‘Bingy Bunny’, Sly and Robbie, Tommy McCook, Vin Gordon and Lloyd Parks help make Culture’s album legendary, under the watchful eye of producer Joe Gibbs. A nice bonus with this release is a neat booklet, that includes Don Letts’ review of the era and its relationship with the punk rock era.
Of course much water has travelled under reggae’s bridge since the halcyon days of Marley and his fellow-travellers. This was truly the genre’s golden era – as represented by this VP double issue release. These albums – and many of their contemporaries – introduced the world to a new sound, alongside a decent dollop of relevant righteousness.
However, this has neither prevailed nor persisted to any great extent. For one, Marley was never replaced – how could he be? For two, the genre has been tainted by slackness, homophobia, misogyny, conservative birth control creeds and a reluctance to call out Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe for what it is.
But these releases do serve as a welcome reminder of the wonderful calibre of the music and what it stood for. Yet, just as they come hot off the presses, that other ever present taint on the genre rears its head once again. That is, a glance at the social media outlets today reveals extensive, deep and longstanding ill-feeling about the payment (or non-payment) arrangements for musicians. Notably, this Culture release is accompanied by a press by-line from musical giant Burning Spear, about ‘when people say reggae music, they will always think of Culture’. Some might suggest that when people say Burning Spear they will think not only of his music, but his latter-day ‘one man’ campaign against record labels on this very payment\non-payment or ownership rights issue.
Over 20 years ago, the key track from this Congos’ release (Fisherman) rightly merited the issuance of a double album based solely on this one track. As well as the original vocal and dub versions, the set featured superb cuts from such legends as Horace Andy, Big Youth, Dillinger, Prince Jazzbo, Luciano, Freddie McGregor, Gregory Isaacs, Max Romeo, Mykal Rose, Dean Fraser, Sugar Minott and U-Roy – along with another 11 versions, showcasing both veteran and promising new artists. Before (the head Congo and impressively abstemious) Cedric Myton acquired my only copy(!) thereof, I tried to put him ‘on the spot’, by asking which rendition he liked best. Astute enough not to give offence to any artist, whilst ready to ‘big up’ himself, Myton cleverly and succinctly replied: ‘I still like the original version’.
When it comes to these VP releases, I’m inclined to agree with him. It’s classic Congos’ and Culture material – as effectively acknowledged by VP Records’ decision to include the popular and complete versions of both masterpieces. So the good news is that the great music of the Congos’ and Culture is still worthy of release.
If you don’t have them, don’t admit it. Just make the investment. The return will be manifold.
Congos – ‘Heart Of The Congos’ – Global Release Date: May 19th, 2017.
Culture – ‘Two Sevens Clash’ Global Release Date: May 26th, 2017.
VP Records – Greensleeves 40th