Reggae’s “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida”

The Rocksteady Kid — Zero to 180’s radio alter ago — once had the good fortune to experience the frantic exhilaration of spinning classic Jamaican pop of the three-minute variety on the University of Maryland’s student radio station.  I very quickly learned you can’t be complacent when the tunes are coming so fast and furious:  stop to think for very long, and you just might miss your cue for the next track.

Things got even nuttier when the late, great Charlie Coleman (on Eastern Shore’s WKHS) allowed me to program a couple all-truck-driving radio shows in which a goodly number of the tunes were of the two-minute variety.   We were playing with fire each time we tried to carry on a conversation, and sure enough, one time we ended up playing one Moby Grape song too many.

Charlie Coleman & The Dieselbilly Kid @ WKHS     December, 2004

hp photosmart 720I can only imagine, therefore, the considerable ease of being a disc jockey in the 1970s when “Album-Oriented Rock” was the dominant format and short, sharp songs were the exception to the rule.  Stories are legend of DJs putting the needle on such long-winded tracks as Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” (ten minutes), Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” (fifteen minutes), or that hoary cliche “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” (seventeen minutes) so they could then disappear from the control room for vast stretches of time to do whatever.

One of the Rocksteady Kid’s favorite memories – and proudest radio moments – was when he had to cut the radio show short unexpectedly in order to allow the station to broadcast that night’s University of Maryland basketball game.  Thus, with nearly twenty minutes to fill, the Kid made an executive decision to play one final track as a swansong.  And it’s a doozy:

Lee Perry     “Free Up the Prisoners”     1978

I’m a little surprised that, with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s world renown as an “audio alchemist” of the First Order, only one audio clip exists on YouTube (with a paltry 1,248 “views,” no less).

Dave Katz has this to say about this epic track in his biography, People Funny Boy:  The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry:

“Also noteworthy [from 1978] was ‘Free Up the Prisoners,’ a vocal magnum opus from Perry himself cut on a peculiar ‘Disco Prisoner’ 12-inch single at 33 RPM.  Issued on his new Conquering Lion of Judah label with a beautiful picture sleeve, ‘Free Up the Prisoners’ was nearly 13 minutes of Perry listing the reasons why those in captivity should be freed over a relaxed and rolling re-cut of [Clancy Eccles’] ‘Feel the Rhythm’; two versions of the single were issued in quick succession, the second made notably different through its inclusion of a prominent piano riff.  As the song progressed, a crescendo of sound effects emerged, with sine waves and electric seesaw sounds gradually overpowering the mix; the sobering B-side, ‘Chase Them,’ spoke of non-Rasta elements such as income tax and birth control that needed to be chased away.”

Lee Perry Disco 45Jo-Ann Greene’s review of the song on AllMusic is also worth a peek.

“Play De Music” vs. “Finger Mash”: Festival Sound Clash

In the liner notes to Baba Boom! – Trojan’s compilation of Jamaica Independence Festival songs from 1966-1975 – one piece of text really jumped out at me:

“1974’s ‘Play De Music’ by Tinga Stewart – a monster hit and the very last one of the archetypal Festival Songs, celebrating the joy of music and its persuasive power to bring people of all persuasions together, that would prove as popular with the judges as it was with the record-buying public.”

Written & produced by Ernie Smith

Tinga Stewart 45

Lo and behold, the Upsetter himself – Lee Perry – released the oddly-titled “Finger Mash” that same year and (coincidentally or not) it pretty much sounded like an unabashed rewrite of “Play De Music,” despite claiming to have been written by Perry himself:

To be fair, the Upsetter mix does feature some trademark Lee Perry sonic surprises.  Sweet falsetto backing vocals, too, from The Silvertones.

Finger Mash - 7 inchHow likely is it that Tinga Stewart stole his Festival-winning song idea from Lee Perry? More importantly, who wins the ’74 Festival Face-Off:  “Play De Music” or “Finger Mash”?

Festival Song Competition:  A Thing of the Past?

Ominous story in the April 12, 2013 edition of the Jamaica Observer about the decision by the Jamaica Cultural Development Corporation to suspend the usual song competition in favor of allowing people instead to “vote for their favorite Festival song as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations” — thus, the “first time since the Festival Song Contest was held in 1966 that it will not be held in traditional form.”

“Sugartime”: Linda & Paul at Black Ark

Paul McCartney released a posthumous compilation in 1998 of Linda-related recordings, Wide Prairie, that included two tracks from Linda & Paul’s 1977 sojourn to Lee Perry’s famed laboratory of sound – Black Ark – in Kingston, Jamaica.  One of those Black Ark recordings, a remake of The McGuire Sisters’ million-selling hit, “Sugartime,” features long-time session pros Winston Wright on organ, Mikey “Boo” Richards on drums, and Boris Gardiner on bass, with Sir Paul on Wurlitzer electric piano and “toasting” vocals:

“Sugartime”     Linda & Paul    1977

Linda McCartneyBack to Skool for Paul

Rather amusing to note that Paul misspells the name of each and every session musician in his liner notes to Wide Prairie [“Miky” vs. Mikey Boo (drums); Billy “Gardber” vs. Gardiner (rhythm guitar); “Baris” vs. Boris Gardiner (bass); Winston “Write” vs. Wright (keyboards).

1950s Time Capsule in Black & White

Darling clip of The McGuire Sisters harmonizing with Perry Como on his NBC TV show.

“Love Can Run Faster”: B-Side of Mystery

In 1978 Robert Palmer traveled to Lee Perry’s recording compound in Kingston, Jamaica to get a little piece of that magic Black Ark sound.  “Love Can Run Faster” (B-side of Robert Palmer’s big 1978 hit, “Bad Case of Lovin’ You”) is the only song Palmer released from that recording session and bears the unmistakable imprint of Perry during a particularly fertile period of sonic exploration at Black Ark:

“Love Can Run Faster,” which shows Palmer very much under the spell of Stevie Wonder, is a song I did not encounter until much later in life when it came mistakenly bundled on a CD – or rather, included as a mis-identified bonus track on 1977’s From the Heart of the Congo = Lee Perry’s groundbreaking collaboration with two stranded and destitute musicians from Zaire, Kalo Kawongolo and Seke Molenga.  That is, on the 1993 CD reissue of From the Heart of the Congo, the track listing indicates the final track to be “River Stone” – a dub reggae instrumental by Jamaican band, Zap Pow – but for some unfathomable reason, “Love Can Run Faster,” Robert Palmer’s soulful Lee Perry-produced flip side is, in fact, the actual track included on the disc!

Love Can Run Faster - Robert Palmer