Fisherman by The Congos is a proper chunk of roots reggae; thudding staccato bass, lilting scratchy guitar, blunt-powered off-beat drumming and the sweetest falsetto this side of Frankie Valli’s The Night. The opening track on The Congos 1977 Heart Of The Congos album, it’s exactly the sort of track you’d introduce to any cloth-eared fool who tells you they don’t like reggae.
The Congos – Fisherman
Produced by Lee Perry, Fisherman is testament to his genius at the controls. He allows the band to play with a tight fluidity, adds the requisite sonic watery boinks and drowns the whole load in a bathtub full of reverb and delay. There’s a spaciousness to it all, the sound of a group of musicians and producer playing, at the very least, in their slippers with their feet up, but more likely horizontally and under the influence of old, home-rolled Jamaican finest. His dub version is fantastic…
Lee Perry – Fisherman dub
As crucial as Lee Perry is to the sound of the record, the musicians themselves can’t be overlooked. Save the booming, brooding opening track, drums on the album were provided by the ubiquitous Sly Dunbar. That stellar bass is played by Boris Gardiner, best known in the UK perhaps for his unlikely mid 80s number 1 hit, I Want To Wake Up With You, but famed in reggae circles for his stellar contribution to the development of the genre from knee-trembling ska to filling-loosening whacked-out dub. Check out his fantastic take on Booker T’s Melting Pot for proof, if any was required, that bass playing and arranging doesn’t come much groovier.
Boris Gardiner – Melting Pot
Likewise, that lightly toasted, occasionally lightly rocking wockawockawocka wah-wahd guitar comes courtesy of Ernest Ranglin, a true originator who played on oodles of original Jamaica ska and rocksteady records – umpteen Prince Buster singles, My Boy Lollipop, Rivers Of Babylon amongst others. By the time of The Congos album, he was a guitar-for-hire sessioneer, as likely to be playing bebop in Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club or on a James Bond soundtrack (Dr No) as he was to be found in Jimmy Cliff’s touring band or in Studio One and Black Ark. Add the floating falsetto of Cedric Myton and Ashanti Johnson’s baritone and you can appreciate the pedigree. The Congos wasn’t just a supergroup. It was a super group.
Record label politics being what they are, Chris Blackwell at Island Records balked when he heard Heart Of the Congos. He’d invested heavily in Bob Marley, smoothing out his thumping roots reggae to ensure radio play and appeal to fans of white rock music (because, y’know, whitey doesn’t dig the real roots reggae), and here was Heart Of The Congos; untampered, 100% proof roots reggae….a direct threat to Marley. Island ended up pressing just a few hundred copies of Heart Of The Congos, Marley went on to international success and The Congos disappeared into a footnote marked ‘cult groups with cult records’.
Here’s where it gets bizarre. In the mid 90s, none other than Mick Hucknall, the ruby-toothed, elfin-faced, ginger-corkscrewed perma shagger who keeps warm by tossing £50 notes onto an open fire every coupla minutes thanks to his omnipresent global smash hit Stars LP got hold of the original Black Ark tapes and arranged for Heart Of The Congos to be repressed. He did! See, Blackwell, whitey really does dig the real roots reggae! Nowadays, anyone buying a copy of the album, unless they’ve somehow managed to unearth one of those rare originals, owes a great deal of thanks to the focal point of Simply Red. What a brilliant and strange world we live in.
Now get yourself over to that there Amazon and relieve yourself of just twelve quid (as we go to press) for a copy of the record. I’m sure wee Mick is on Twitter or suchlike, should you fancy passing on your thanks.