Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Sampled

Rasta-Far-Out

The ghosting season is upon us, the one time of year I truly despise. I hated it as a child. I hated it as a parent when my kids were young enough to participate. I just hate it. The dressing up… the greediness… those creeping Americanisms of going trick or treating for candy around cobweb-frosted front doors and plastic gravestone-enhanced gardens can do one.

Amazingly, brilliantly – God bless ye, Covid – this year there’ll be no drip-nosed grubbers standing at my door in their various states of grotesqueness, reeling off the same combination of tired and/or risque jokes (Q. ‘What’s the difference between the tyres on my dad’s car and a blonde?‘ A. ‘A blonde will go down quicker than my dad’s tyres.’) in return for a handful of Haribo and a “have you told your mum that joke?” telling-off from me. The wee girl who first let slip that horrorshow of a party piece four or five years ago, and every year since, might finally stop telling it for good now.

Anyway.

Reggae.

Bob Marley‘s Mr Brown is one of his earliest recordings, dating back to 1970. It just so happens to be a ghost song, written in response to local legend that told of a duppy/ghost that could be seen hurtling across Jamaica late at night on a three-wheeled coffin. Perched atop the coffin alongside the ghost were three crows, one of which could talk. The talking crow would repeatedly ask for a Mr Brown. If you ever saw this hideous and creepy apparition, the story went, then RUN!, because you didn’t have long left on this earth. 

Bob Marley & The (Wailing) WailersMr Brown

The tune itself is a gently lilting three chord skank, played at relaxed pace and featuring some sweet falsetto backing vocals. Guitars and keys lock the rhythm and never deviate, allowing Marley to tell the story of the out of control ghost-driven coffin and the talking crow. Not yer average subject matter, and all the better for it.

Mr Brown was produced by the ubiquitous Lee Perry. Lee Perry is synonymous with reggae. The more dubified the music, the more prominent his involvement. His blunted, mercurial touch has been applied to literally thousands of records from Jamaica and beyond, fried at the edges and sprinkled with madness but beating with a heart of thunderclapping echoes and cavernous bass.

As I get older, I’ve begun to appreciate his more outré work in much the same way age has allowed me to appreciate a fine malt. Slightly unpalatable at first, you quickly develop a taste and ponder how you could go an evening without it.

Playing around with the Wailers’ track, Perry removed the vocals, credited the instrumental to The Upsetters and manouevered it onto the flip side of the Wailers’ single. In keeping with the original’s ghostly/horror theme, it was given the title of Dracula.

The UpsettersDracula

I don’t for a second think that Bob, Bunny and Peter sat around in rehearsal saying, y’know what….what this tune really needs is a funky, alien vibration every now and again. That ever-present deep electronic shimmer that sounds like the ancient central heating pipes in a school I used to teach in was clearly the madcap work of Lee Perry. Half a century later, it’s that sound that’s become the record’s signature.

Removing Marley’s vocals also allowed Perry the opportunity to incorporate the instrumental version into his soundsystem and toast across the top of it should he fancy doing so. Forever forward-thinking.

Eco-aware long before there was such a thing, Lee Perry not only grew his own herbs, he recycled tunes for his own benefit. In a burst of foresighted creativity, and long before many a future hip-hopper or soundscaper was out of short trousers, Perry actually sampled the vibe from another record entirely and enhanced the Wailers’ and, subsequently, his own tune.

Jackie MittooPeenie Wallie

He’s lowered the pitch, from toe-tapping shuffling ska to head-nodding deep-fried reggae, but you can hear exactly where Perry welded the backing track onto the Wailers’ own easy skanking shuffle, enhancing and filling out what is a fairly straightforward run through by a band still finding their musical feet.

The track’s title – Peenie Wallie – intrigues me. Here in Scotland, if someone is unwell, pale faced, or indeed ghost-faced, we refer to them as peelie wallie. Not a million miles away from the Jackie Mittoo title. I’ve often thought the owner of Studio One might’ve been referring to such a person, albeit in slightly interpolated form. Which of course, would bring us back onto the subject of pale-faced make-up and ghouls and ghosts.

*Bonus Track!

“And for our next track….!”

Bob Marley & The WailersDuppy Conqueror

Bob and the Wailers went on to record an ‘answer record’ to Mr Brown, the self-explanatory Duppy Conqueror. Proving that there’s great mileage in reggae, it too used a variation of the same backing track as Mr Brown.

Poke your nose in and you’ll discover that reggae is full of wonderful, recycled tunes. You knew that already though.

 

 

Alternative Version, Cover Versions

Simply Dread

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 CongosFisherman

 

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 PerryFisherman 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 GardinerMelting 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.