Saturday, 15 February 2014

January 1979

The Circle root

In Jamaica the cocks never crow before ten a.m.

The blistering sun devours haste and time is a thing of the past.

To the musicians who congregate outside Randy’s record shop in the heart of Kingston, the hour is of little consequence. It’s all just a matter of hanging out until the heat on the street becomes unbearable. Then they split for a spliff in the shadows and play a little reggae, Jamaica’s sweet soul music.

And I’m watching all this courtesy of Island Records, thanks to some well-placed punctuation and even better-placed publications. Maybe the Farringdon Agency is finally paying off. They want me to interview Inner Circle and I know fuck all about ‘proper’ reggae. Doesn’t mean to say I can’t write about it. Right?

Over the last ten years, reggae in its many guises − like ska and bluebeat − has become big business. The classier exponents have earned fortunes and Bob Marley, the richest of them all, has brought his island’s joy and tears to the masses. In the last year reggae has burned through the rainclouds to tan a whole new market in America and Europe.

‘I’ve been very disappointed at the indifferent reaction the music has had up until now, although it’s always been a major industry in Jamaica,’ says Chris Blackwell, who, as head of Island Records, is the man responsible for breaking Marley. ‘But this year I’m confident all that will change mainly because reggae is beginning to assimilate other kinds of music and consequently growing stronger.’

There are two radio stations on the island, more than a hundred record-shops and around twenty recording studios. There is precious little live music. If an artist wants to play, he gives an impromptu show almost anywhere and passes the word round his friends beforehand. The locals tend to rely on the numerous mobile deejays to catch up on the latest sounds. The deejays’ influence on the music scene is considerable – especially at a ‘rockers’ dance, although dance is altogether an inappropriate word since the thousand or so people who usually attend the functions are predominantly male and spend most of their time getting stoned.

Yeah! Tell it like it is. Reggae, reggae, reggae, here comes Johnny Reggae, lay it on me...

Okay, I admit I've always found roots reggae totally inaccessible.

It's a mystifying mixture of incomprehension and grotesque repetition enjoyed only by guys far across the sea or in Shepherds Bush basements, and vaguely condescending middle class honkies who like to ‘identify’ with the black man's plight and can't dance a step.

Now Desmond Dekker I could get off on. Never had the faintest idea what he was rabbiting on about but I felt flash swaying to it down the local Birds’ Nest.

And then I get offered this trip to Jamaica by Island Records to interview Inner Circle. At first it seems both exciting and alarming. I’d read about the poverty-stricken ghettos and drug-driven violence in Kingston, the murder capital of the world. But an island capable of producing sweet airs that have danced across oceans and grooved nations can’t be so bad. And there’s always a chance of drifting on a Jamaican breeze. Come on, man. It’s roots, and the Maytals.

So I go, and prepare to be shocked. And I am, but it’s not the shock I was expecting as I find myself being chauffeured up to a mansion in Beverly Hills. Can you get that? Lavish houses peppered over verdant hills on the outskirts of Kingston and home to Inner Circle.

Their mainman, Jacob Miller, who, someone whispers in my ear, is ‘legendary’, is holed up in New York. Apparently there’s some friction between him and the police regarding gorgeous ganja and he’s decided to prolong his stay. So we’re left with the mighty Lewis brothers − Roger and Ian.

I tell ya, if these two ever decide to visit Venice, all those charities to keep it above water might as well jack it in. The city would sink without trace. Roger weighs in at twenty-three stone and Ian ain’t far behind. By comparison, Meat Loaf looks like Twiggy after a six-month bout of anorexia.

Oh, yeah, and Toto the keyboardist is hanging around in this year’s fashionable Jamaican outfit − a football kit.

They give me a glass of iced coconut milk, an inch away from nectar, and we start talking. You never know what you’re gonna get when you sit down and interview someone you don’t know from Adam. So you indulge in chit-chat to suss them out and weigh up whether to use a lot of foreplay and beat about the bush or just go straight in because they’re moist and eager to please.

Now, as it turns out, the guys are friendly, happy to communicate their thoughts and downright hospitable. There’s only one snag − I can’t understand a fucking word. It’s a real heavy accent, almost indecipherable. Ian does all the talking initially, and it’s like trying to hold a conversation with a geezer operating a road drill. But the more he talks, the more I hear.

They’ve just released ‘Everything Is Great’ as a twelve-inch − and if you’re gonna try and kid me that’s roots you may as well add the Queen’s a smack freak.

Maybe I’m not comprehending the subtleties, but I can’t find a trace of reggae on this Earth, Wind & Fire visitation. It’s disco with guts and it’s as hot as Colman’s.

‘We want everyone to understand our music,’ Ian tells me, in a grim voice, as we step out onto the patio where a hummingbird hovers like a gargantuan bee. ‘It’s energy. It makes people really start rocking. A lot of people from outside Jamaica think that all people like here is reggae. But Jamaicans love all music, from Billy Joel to soul, from the Eagles to disco.’

The band have been together for five years and before that they were all part of the Third World set-up. They’ve been making and producing records for most of that time (which

explains the affluence) but it was only at last year’s Kingston Peace Festival, attended by the world’s press, that they really came to the attention of the uninitiated.

‘We were really good that day,'' recalls Ian as he scratches his beard for the umpteenth time.’Mick Jagger approached us afterwards and has since become great friends. The vibes were right and−a−everything.’

But what you play ain’t exactly reggae, is it?

‘It’s reggae, all right. We’ll never forget our roots. We’re always reggae. It’s just that we add a few things, like a synthesiser. They’ve never been used correctly in that context but we know how to make it sound right for reggae. Jacob Miller is roots. He’ll always be roots.’

Ian becomes more adamant. ‘Reggae can’t be left out. It’s always got to be there. You have that first and everything else is secondary. But you’ve got to do it the right way. We ain’t afraid to experiment. We’re more theatrical than most bands. As long as you know where you’re coming from, it’s okay to use backdrops or even lasers. It’s not a deviation, it’s a transition.

‘Everything is great. It’s a laugh. Simply a matter of seeing things in a revised form. You just gotta make the people feel happy, that’s all.’

I can tell Ian is running out of things to say ’cos he stops scratching his beard and peers longingly back into the comforting solitude of the lounge. Happily, Roger is now cultivating a communicative mood and wanders onto the patio like an articulated meat lorry.

I ask him what he feels about the writers who are more patronising than pure when it comes to black music − and I don’t mean Boney M.

‘I don’t feel they check their facts. They write all this stuff about lifestyles related to music and what’s roots and what ain’t and if you ain’t you’re not worth listening to. Why should I play music to please them when they don’t know what they’re talking about anyway? Either they’ve never seen Jamaica or they come over here with preconceived notions which they refuse to change even though what they see contradicts those notions.’

His voice wavers. His lips tremble. He shuffles backwards and forwards on the patio cutting a strange, wild figure in this pacific, wealthy garden of joy.

‘It makes me feel bad. Don’t write about my lifestyle. Don’t write about my personal existence as a human being. Don’t say, "Roger Lewis is not crying from the streets of Trenchtown." If you criticise me then you must criticise Bob Marley for living in a hundred-thousand-dollar house or Joe Gibbs or any one of a number of reggae singers.

‘I was brought up in the ghetto. So what? All I’m doing is trying to bring reggae to the marketplace of Britain, Europe and America. You either like the music or you don’t. It’s not a question of culture. We all got different ones anyway. We play reggae music because we come from Jamaica. But that doesn’t prevent us getting into other areas of music One of the biggest disco records of all time was "Kung Fu Fighting" and that was sung by a Jamaican − George Douglas.

‘And look at Boney M.’

(A year after the interview, Jacob Miller was killed in a car crash. Inner Circle’s biggest UK hit came in 1992 with ‘Sweat (A La La La La Long)’, which was new roots and panties. The band now run Circle House, a famous Miami recording studio.)

Next: A kick around with Bob Marley

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives:



No comments:

Post a Comment


About Me

My photo
London, United Kingdom
I'm your Flexifriend blogger for all your Flexipop! needs.....