THIS is where it starts getting tricky. It’s getting on for three decades ago since I first heard this album, so you’re just going to have to bear with me if it all gets a bit sketchy.
Magic Reggae, a collection of music by Island, Creole, Trojan, Gull, WEA and Lightning Records artists put together by the TV advertised compilation behemoth K-Tel, has got ‘hastily purchased birthday present from Auntie Denise’ written all over it.
Well, it hasn’t. This particular copy of Magic Reggae actually has a green and white sticker saying “3.50, exclusive of VAT” on the back.
But it’s precisely the kind of thing my young, clued-up aunt would have bought me for my birthday. You can see her logic: “Our expletiveundeleted likes reggae, that album has got reggae in the title – job done. Now then, where’s the Tia Maria?”
Having said all that, I could easily have bought Magic Reggae myself. I was as happy with compilation albums as I was with the original releases – and unfortunately not many 10-inch dub plates made it from JA to Scunthorpe, so low-cost samplers and compilations came in handy.
Historically, in 1980, the full extent of Thatcher’s psychotic megalomania had yet to become apparent. The exhilarating, inspiring, inclusive 2Tone phenomenom was at its height.
The year before, I’d somehow had a holiday romance with beautiful, sweet, sultry Lynne from Jacksonville, FL who gently showed me the delights of physical love on a moonlit white-sand beach (it was all very From Here To Eternity), but when I got back to the UK I was utterly dismayed to find that I wasn’t the cute, exotic English kid anymore. As far as everyone else was concerned I was the same old speccy, dorky spaz as ever, totally into Star Wars, reggae, comics and skateboarding, totally uncool – and totally unshaggable.
Doing it once and then not doing it again for about two years was probably even harder than not doing it at all. Not a lot I could do about it though. Obviously, I tried. Without any success. Whatsoever.
This was my frustrated, alienated, love-lorn mindset in the summer of 1980.
I played this album an awful lot. Compiled by Don Reedman and Nigel Mason and released in May 1980, Magic Reggae is a fine collection of Seventies reggae pop chart hits – with a distinct leaning towards the soulful lovers rock sound created by the kids of the people who’d come to the UK on the Empire Windrush – from those halcyon days when authentic and inauthentic JA and domestic reggae was a staple of the pop charts in the UK.
It was the type of mainstream, easily available release you could pick up in WHSmith, Woolworths or even Boots, at a time when high street retailers sold vinyl like they do lottery tickets today. K-Tel pretty much invented the concept of the compilation album, and the company’s products were every bit as ubiquitous as the satanic effluent of the Now That’s What I Call Music super-franchise was in the Eighties and Nineties.
Although it ignored the rise of the increasingly slack Jamaican DJ culture, and omitted such obvious big names as Bob Marley and Burning Spear – and domestically, even Aswad and Black Slate I suppose – while featuring a lot of other stuff that was very much at the pop end of the reggae spectrum, I absolutely adored Magic Reggae. Simply put, Reedman and Mason had great taste. In fact, they had absolutely impeccable taste.
The front cover shows a beautiful Caribbean sunset with silhouetted palm trees and a chilled-to-the-gills hippy chick in a hat in the foreground. It could easily be Negril – but then I say that about any idyllic palm-framed beach scene. The back features a photo of a dusky Lady Bountiful, hoisting up a basket of tropical fruit onto her shoulder, in front of a typically tropical background which is almost certainly nowhere near the Caribbean.
And any compilation album which has The Liquidator by the Harry J All Stars as the very first track on the list at the front has got my vote.
The album lives up to the sunny, happy-go-lucky promise of the cover. It’s unlikely that even the most fair-weather reggae fan will fail to recognise all but two or three of Magic Reggae’s 20 tracks – I think all of them hit the British top 30, even if they didn’t hang around for too long – but the quality speaks for itself. It’s an extraordinary collection.
Immediately alienating any tedious holier-than-thou reggae purist, the album kicks off with Eddy Grant’s electro-tinged Living On The Frontline – which, I have to say, I absolutely loved at the time and still have a good deal of affection for now. It’s all about that nasty, dirty, squelchy bassline.
It’s followed by original rude boy Desmond Dekker’s oldie-but-goldie Israelites, the kind of reggae song that even your mum will sing along to – which of course used to get on my nerves like nobody’s business.
Ultimately, the UK’s first ever chart-topping reggae single, produced by Leslie Kong, was destined to be tainted by repeated exposure in a series of increasingly dreadful TV commercials (anyone for a big greasy tub of Vitalite?) but even a decade after its initial release, this piece of dancefloor devastation still had the power to move hearts and feet alike.
Sadly, despite having a couple more UK hit singles in the Seventies and something of a revival around the end of the decade with the arrival of 2Tone, Dekker never managed to recapture the success of Israelites. He died in 2006.
Yes, it was stating the bleeding obvious – and I didn’t have much money anyway – but Money In My Pocket, Dennis Brown’s rueful lament that money can’t actually buy you love, was one of the first 12-inch singles I ever bought and I was absolutely bedazzled by the extended DJ (in the classic JA sense) mix on the A-side. There’s none of that on Magic Reggae, obviously, but this is a little piece of Joe Gibbs-produced heaven nevertheless.
After a long and successful career – he got paid – Dennis Brown died in 1999.
More Joe Gibbs niceness comes in the shape of Uptown Top Ranking by Althea Forrest and Donna Reid. A big hit in Jamaica in 1978, it was championed by the Blessed Peelie in the UK. Eventually the rest of the BBC caught up and Uptown Top Ranking finally knocked the seemingly-immovable Mull Of Kin-fucking-tyre from the top of the pop charts a year later. It stayed at number one for just one week but it gave me something to bust a move to at community hall discos for years after.
Utilising the same lop-sided rhythm as Alton Ellis’s I’m Still in Love (which had recently been covered by Marcia Aitken), Uptown Top Ranking was an answer song, a pointed lyrical response to Trinity’s Three Piece Suit. It is now, apparently, unforgiveable to play Uptown Top Ranking at classic reggae nights. Those classic reggae fans are really missing out. When this beautifully deadpan gal-power anthem is playing, I’ll be on the dancefloor.
“No pop no style, I strictly roots ..”
Bruce Ruffin’s Mad About You, a pleasantly melodic rocksteady tune which went top ten in 1972, is up next. With its dreamy strings and comical cornet-led brass section, it sounded like it wanted to be a northern soul tune. But I couldn’t say it was ever a big favourite.
Another of the less well-known tracks on the album, these days at least, is Reggae For It Now by Bill Lovelady, a multi-talented musician from Liverpool. I must have seen him perform the song on Top Of The Pops, but when ‘researching’ this piece, I was genuinely surprised to find out that he’s white. Then again, why not?
Cynical bandwagon-jumper or genuine reggae enthusiast, either way, Lovelady’s nonsensical but infectious UK pop-reggae gem, with its talk of (Jensen) Interceptors and “Gucci beauty” remains nigh on irresistable. And bearing in mind there’s more than a passing similarity with Karma Chameleon, surely Boy George must have known and loved Reggae For It Now?
Apparently not. According to the boy himself, Gawd bless him: “I don’t know it, I will research!”
Improbably, Lovelady ended up in a pop/classical fusion band called Oasis alongside Peter Skellern, Mary Hopkin and Julian Lloyd Webber. Even more improbably, in 2004 the shitting-Mail-supported-Hitler-in-the-Thirties-online-cackhouse reported that he was in a band called Planet Potato, with a retired Coldstream Guards colonel, a piano teacher and Bunter, Marquis of Worcester and son of the Duke of Beaufort. I’m not making this up.
Unafraid of tackling the big issues of the day head on, Planet Potato were anti-Guantanamo Bay and pro-fox hunting, apparently. Lovelady was last heard of composing a cantata for the Duke of Edinburgh’s 75th birthday.
I would’ve thought a cuntata might be more appropriate.
The soulful theme is continued by Toots and the Maytals’ glorious Reggae Got Soul, which could easily have been released by Stax. If the angelic sound of Toots Hibbert, Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias harmonising over this downbeat dancefloor masterpiece doesn’t make your heart sing and your feet move, you have real problems our kid. Seek help from Dr Sativa, immediately. Or have a drink or something. Relax.
Given my state of mind, it’s perhaps predictable that Barry Briggs’ epically sappy Sideshow was one of my favourite tracks on the album, tragically. There’s something about the thin synthetic strings and the trite, maudlin lyric (“So let the sideshow begin, Hurry, hurry, Step right on in. Can’t afford to pass it by, Guaranteed to make you cry ..”) delivered by Briggs’s perfect falsetto that appealed to my default self-pitying romanticism.
Even now, I can’t hear it without being transported back to the sexual wasteland of my early Eighties youth.
Luckily, Third World’s soulful, bumping reggae-disco monster, Now That We’ve Found Love comes next – and I probably should remind you that we’re still on side one. These days, I appreciate this one much more than I ever did at the time. It’s like proto-house music, five years before Mr Knuckles started to work it out. But did you know that it was a cover of an O’Jays tune? Me neither.
Side one closes with The Liquidator, an astounding bit of Rhodes-driven instrumental stealth-psychedelia by Harry J’s studio houseband – journeyman session musicians doing the JA equivalent of the nine-to-five – which became an anthem for the emerging skinhead movement in Britain when it was released over here by Trojan at the tail end of the Sixties.
Flip the record over and the big, big tunes just keep on coming. It’s like a machine – a rickety, creaky, gaffa taped-together old jallopy of a machine – but a machine nevertheless.
Side two opens with the groundbreaking and largely forgotten jazz, funk, soul, reggae fusionist combo Zap Pow – possibly featuring Beresford Hammond – and the smouldering, horn-heavy groover This Is Reggae Music.
The Dennis Bovell-produced Silly Games, one of the very first lovers tunes, comes next. Bovell dreamed that Minnie Ripperton would sing it, but Janet Kay’s light-as-a-feather falsetto carries its heavyweight no-messing sentiment beautifully. This girl’s got no time for playing hide and seek, y’hear?
Another of the less well-known singles on the album is Guava Jelly by Owen Gray, JA’s very first homegrown star. Gray’s beautful, warm voice graced the very first release by Island in the early Sixties, and his subsequent career has seen him singing everything from gospel and ska to roots reggae and R&B and working with Duke Reid, Sir Coxsone, Prince Buster, Leslie Kong, King Tubby, Bunny Lee and even Guy Stevens.
This easygoing cover of Bob Marley’s sweet, slightly weird love song (“Come rub pon me belly, like guava jelly ..”) gets a litle lost among the gigantic tracks which accompany it – in much the same way that the perenial nearly-man of Jamaican music Gray gets forgotten in ill-considered retrospectives in Q magazine and its ilk – but it’s a genuinely charming little tune.
Jimmy Cliff’s interpretation of You Can Get It If You Really Want somehow pisses all over Desmond Dekker’s version, even though the music is the exact same Leslie Kong-produced backing track. Maybe because he wrote it. Either way, you can’t fault the sentiment: “Try, try and try .. You’ll succeed at last.”
There a fair few iconic and even legendary tunes on Reggae Magic, but the Pioneers’ Long Shot Kick De Bucket (here renamed Long Shot Kick The Bucket, presumably in order not to freak out whitey), which tells the sad tale of the famed nag which fell in the first race at Caymanas Park in Kingston, is probably the biggest and baddest of the lot.
A sparse, stripped-down rhythmic monster held in check by the terrific close harmonies of Jackie Robinson, Sydney Crooks and George Dekker and a funny-sad lyric, Long Shot was one of a series of horse racing-related songs from the Pioneers, which also included Long Shot Bus Me Bet and No Dope Me Pony.
I was always impressed by the piled-up dreadlocks sported by David Hinds and a few other members of Steel Pulse – but this has more to do with my own superficiality than any reflection on their music. Alongside Aswad and Misty in Roots, the conscious Birmingham roots band were enthusiastically embraced by John Peel’s more impressionable listeners and the uncompromising, militant Ku Klux Klan was their best-known tune by a long chalk.
What can I say about Police & Thieves that you don’t know already? Lee Perry’s heartfelt plea on behalf of the people caught in the crossfire between the men with the guns, voiced by Junior Murvin, is as perfect a piece of perfectly pitched street level reggae music as you’ll ever hear. Hard and strident, gentle and considered, with a simply terrific vocal and a vintage production job from the raider of the Black Ark, Police & Thieves works anytime, any place, anywhere. Essential.
If any one act is going to get two tunes onto one compilation, it may as well be Toots & The Maytals. Chatty Chatty, their amiably daft tale of chatty chatty girl who showed Toots the wrong direction and gave him “a hard reception” isn’t perhaps the best Toots tune ever released – it’s not even the best Toots tune on this album – but c’mon, we’re 18 tracks in and there are worse things to listen to.
And do I really have to tell you how much more wonderful the Melodions’ original version of Rivers of Babylon is compared to that shameful shite by Boney M? It’s late and I’m tired. Work it out for yourself.
The album ends with the slightly tedious novelty pop reggae of Barbados – as in: “Wooo! We’re going to Barbados ..” – which got on my nerves at the time and is only slightly more tolerable today. It would’ve been difficult to keep up the quality throughout the entire album, I suppose. But even so ..
Reggae Magic combined some of the sappiest novelty pop-reggae and lovers’ rock ever heard with classic dancefloor ska and rocksteady and one of the most militant and unflinching indictments of racism to come out of the entire scene.
This, wedding DJs, is the record that will fulfil all your wedding reception reggae needs.
It’d be great if this got a re-release but there’s probably no need. Everyone makes their own compilations, don’t they? Everything is a mixtape. Woolworth’s might have gone forever but pick and mix culture remains dominant. In the days of Spotify and iPod shuffle and Blip, who listens to whole albums, apart from obscurist vinyl obsessives? Who wants to concentrate on one artist for 45 minutes?
I think I may have stopped making sense.
My original copy went west, somewhere or other, at some point between 1980 and now. I bought it for a quid last Thursday under the old covered market in Preston.
It sounds great.