Reggae Beyond Bob Marley: A Subjective Guide
I was involved in the reggae scene in Denver in the 80s, and that was a great period for the art form. Reggae blossomed in Jamaica during the 70s, but by the following decade there was a global scene, with a lot of action coming out of England. This guide will touch on a few of the great singers and bands that flourished then, and is intended as an aid and encouragement to those of you who have been lead to believe, erroneously, that reggae begins and ends with Bob Marley's Greatest Hits, a truly great record that, tragically, has morphed into classy elevator music.
The late master of what is known as lover's rock went easy on the Rastafarian mumbo jumbo and focused instead on a sensuous and elegant sound. He is my favorite reggae singer, a vocal stylist par excellence, sort of a reggae analog to someone like Merle Haggard. He didn't just do love songs, though. He could do some pretty good political stuff addressing the empty materialism of Babylon. I like his collection of early cuts called Looking Back, the classic Night Nurse, and the sleeper More Gregory, featuring the Roots Radics as his band.
Born in the Cote d'Ivoire, Alpha Blondy is a major figure in pan-African and internationalist reggae, creating his own fusion that is clearly reggae but so much more. He's multilingual and sings in English, French, Hebrew, and Arabic. He is also a charismatic performer, a serious lyricist, and his bands totally smoke. I like Jerusalem and Elohim, but he's a consistent artist.
This British band also goes light on Rastafarianism and blends pop and R & B elements into their sound. Case in point, their shimmering cover of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)" on their very strong record of 1984, Rebel Souls. That record also features a swinging cover of Toots Hibbert's "54-46 Was My Number." The other great bands of the time were the UK's Steel Pulse and Kingston's Black Uhuru.
Linton Kwesi Johnson
Another British artist, Johnson is the master of the form known as dub poetry. This style runs parallel to the development of rap in the US. LKJ talks his poetry over the pumping rhythms of his group, The Dub Band. Not Rastafarian in the least, his lyrics feature leftist politics and vigorous denunciations of the racist and fascist segments that arose in 1980s England. Is this like eating kale? It's not. Be assured this is grooving and upbeat music. One good way to get an overview is 1985's In Concert With the Dub Band. All his early records are classics.
Is Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, the greatest reggae artist of all? That case can be made. Rastafarian, but not overtly so, he's a "back to Africa" guy whose songs recall the pain of colonialism in songs like Slavery Days and pay tribute to the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The instrumental backing and rhythms are bone deep -- marrow deep -- some of the best examples of the stripped down aesthetic of dub. His singing consists of chants, incantations, and exhortations, creating a trance-like, meditative vibe. When he asks, "Do you remember the days of slavery?" you know it's important that we do. It's appropriate that his 1979 collection was called Harder Than the Best.
Ska & Roots Reggae
The precursor of reggae was ska. More uptempo than reggae, the ska revival of the early 80s coincided with the rise of punk and New Wave in the US and UK, and it's influence was everywhere, especially in groups like the English Beat and Madness and the Police. You can access great ska through general collections like Intensified Ska or the Ska-talites compilation Foundation Ska. Ska is also jazzier than reggae, with horn players stretching out. After ska came roots reggae, best exemplified by Jimmy Cliff's soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come, as well as the soundtrack to the movie Rockers. Desmond Dekker is a great artist of this period, the sweetest period of all.
Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer joined Bob Marley in the original Wailers, and were important artists in their own right. Augustus Pablo and Lee "Scratch" Perry were important dub artists. Sly and Robbie were the go-to rhythm section in the 70s and 80s. I could go on, but at this point I'll point you to the Reggae section at AllMusic.com.
May you always feel irie, mon.