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
I 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.”
Jo-Ann Greene’s review of the song on AllMusic is also worth a peek.