Reggae + Strings: Crossover Need Not Be a Dirty Word

For so-called secular pop music, reggae is pretty deeply rooted in matters of spirit – an element that makes the music so distinctive.  Just as John Lennon once dared to imagine “all the people living in peace” undivided by religion (still one of the most radical lyrics ever to hit the Top Ten), seven years earlier Bob Marley had forthrightly declared that we are all “one love, one heart” and should join together in joy and brotherly spirit.

As the 60s slipped into the 70s, reggae became more and more commercially viable, particularly in the UK, where single releases were increasingly supplemented with strings to sweeten the sound.   The inevitable backlash against the slicker and more overtly commercial sound was certainly understandable, but we can now see in hindsight that in some instances, the use of strings wasn’t simply a shameless bid to sell records but rather an inspired choice that suited the song.  I would contend, for instance, that the strings at the beginning of “New Morning” by Nicky Thomas give the mix a buoyancy and hope that underscores the song’s title (alternatively, as the person who posted this YouTube audio mix declares, “strings reggae is good!”).

In a similar vein I find the highly-augmented sound on Jackie Mittoo’s 1971 album Wishbone – achieved with the help of a 32-piece orchestra on many tracks – to be a musical marriage that works.  Wishbone is one of three albums released by the legendary Skatalites keyboardist and Studio One session bandleader after Mittoo emigrated to Canada at the end of the 60s.  Unusually, for a Jackie Mittoo album, there are a few vocal tunes, such as excellent album closer, “Right Track”:

Jackie Mittoo - Wishbone

Jackie Mittoo, curiously in the music news this past July when indie-pop veterans, Superchunk, announced the title of their latest single, “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo.”

Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

In a curious twist, 1973’s hit by The Heptones, “Book of Rules” – whose first verse and chorus were largely taken from “Bag of Tools” by American poet, R.L. Sharpe – would itself be appropriated 27 years later by Noel Gallagher for the musical bridge to “Go Let It Out,” a #1 UK single for Oasis in 2000.

Bag of Tools” by R.L. Sharpe

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings, and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people, like you and me, are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules; a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown; a stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.