Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Fistful of 45's

This tale could be subtitled something like… “How Japanese samurai helped shape Reggae music.” While that might sound ludicrous at first, in fact the Pop Culture connections are easily uncovered. Along the lines of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” from the glory days of baseball infielders, so here one might (sound)track the frozen rope (and sprocket holes) from Toshiro to Ennio to Scratch… Or if those names are too obscure, from Kurosawa/Mifune to Leone/Morricone/Eastwood to John Sturges (and other American directors, including George Lucas), as well as to Jamaica’s madcap record producer, Lee Perry, who then influenced most other creators of Dub music—and Dub eventually led to Hip-Hop and Rap, Electronica,
Trance Music, so-called Drum and Bass, and other spacy, reductionist/Modernist recorded music.

Little did Kurosawa suspect that his ironic and Western-nized versions of samurai warrior adventures (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, and others, but Seven Samurai in particular) would open the door for other Japanese directors, and then martial arts films in general (the Bruce Lee movies, for example), and then sky’s-the-limit, all-effects Oriental action flicks, including Hong Kong’s urban shoot-‘em-ups by John Woo and others.

Meanwhile, back at il rancho, Italians of the Sixties evinced a craving for spaghetti… spaghetti Westerns, that is... especially those cooked up by tongue-in-cheek director Sergio Leone, who made his own triple play: he “borrowed” cheerfully and openly
from the plots and staging of Kurosawa (and lesser lights of Rising Sun movie-making); for purposes practical and otherwise he introduced Italy’s filmscore one-man army, genius composer Ennio Morricone, to the wider world; and he discerned in a callow, lanky young television actor a certain cool panache… and so unleashed the Clint Eastwood Acting/Directing/Western Recreating Machine, still showing up 50 years later on silver screens near you and me. (As “The Man with No Name,” a Euro version of Toshiro Mifune, Clint starred in three Leone gundowns, then brought that no-holds-barred, hard attitude back to the States for Hang ‘Em High, Two Mules
for Sister Sarah, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales
, and more. I’d include too the often brutal “Dirty Harry” series of mid-California quasi-Westerns.)

For my tale, however, the crucial element was composer Morricone, who may have scored a thousand films by now, but who will forever be known as the man who invented the sound of spaghetti Westerns, then rented out his skills to a hundred directors post-Leone—and whose musical stylings have been parodied or ripped off ever since.

The Leone/Morricone influence is immediately discernible in the titles of many Reggae tunes (mostly instrumentals): “Clint Eastwood,” “Lee Van Cleef,” “Return of Django,” “The Man with No Name,” “The Big Gundown,” “High Plains Drifter,” “For a Few Dollars More,” “Django Shoots First,” and a dozen or two more, most all of
them the work of quirky composer, pop culture magpie, and kingpin producer Lee Perry, nicknamed both “Scratch” and “The Upsetter.” Perry also released albums called Eastwood Rides Again and The Good, the Bad and the Upsetters (his band), and then took up the emerging kung fu/martial arts craze instead.

But these superficial title links just hint at the significant connections made during the fervor and turmoil of that time (1968-70) via Perry’s oddball and ubiquitous tunes, to the studio engineers and producers soon to create the wonders of Dub music: King Tubby, Clancy Eccles, Errol (“E.T.”) Thompson, Clive Chin, Bunny (“Striker”) Lee, and a burgeoning posse of
Rocksteady-into-Reggae soon-comers.

Where Morricone’s amazing soundtracks employed expert whistling, Jew’s harp, guitar effects, disembodied female voices, rhythms that might speed up or slow down, harmonica accents, twang bars, gunshots, and other controlled surprises, the creators of Dub started slowly (i.e., backing tracks played without the recorded vocals, a simplification invented to fill the B-sides of 45 r.p.m. singles), but relentlessly and inexorably came to use all of Morricone’s arsenal and then some--singly or at least selectively--repeating cowbells, crying babies, traffic noise, cattle lowing, jet engines, random squeaks and squawks, slapsticks, lugubrious
organ, echo effects ranging from subtle tags to whole roomfuls of booming sound, stuttering guitars, windstorms, sweeping washes of synthesized counter-melody, nonsense syllables, vocals shifting/phasing in and out, Striker’s hugely influential “flying cymbals” sound, white noise, machinegun fire, superimposed solos by young Augustus Pablo on his curious melodica, instant bursts of unidentifiable sounds, momentary dead silence, and always, always, multi-track melodies stripped down suddenly to drum and bass only, with the bass cranked to an earthquake rumble… plus echo, echo, and more echo. (How these Protean phantasms of sounds and fury stayed musical too--usually--is an astonishment, and a lasting tribute to the improvisational, on-the-fly mixing skills of Dub’s masters.)

Perry clearly had paid attention--aural as well as visual--and where Scratch ventured, others soon followed. Ever-taciturn King Tubby and his aides Prince Jammy and Scientist probably made the most creative and intelligible music, remixing hundreds of Dub B-sides year after year after year, while elusive E.T. carved out simpler pieces, stripping away superfluous layers, which often allowed the Dub effects he chose to be all the more startling. Though ever-restless Scratch moved on to new “Black Arks” (opening his own studio, that is) and more mad acts (a wacky procession of 45 singles even as he was nursemaiding the Wailers and then the Congos into greatness), omnipresent
producer Bunny Lee probably had a hand in the shaping of a thousand Dubs as he worked closely with Tubby’s crew and several other studio sources for two decades and more. (Scratch and Striker are still alive today, and both seem intent on reissuing every last scrap of sound they ever recorded.)

It’s beyond the scope of this brief look at some oceans-apart, shrinking-world cultures intersecting, but I believe a case can also be made that samurai and martial arts films--with their preening peacock warriors, petty fiefdom quarrels, and deadly blood-feuds--ubiquitous in video rental stores everywhere for several decades now, are likely to
have influenced and encouraged the strutting-and-shooting, “Johnny Too Bad” Jamaican “rude boys” (memorialized vividly in The Harder They Come), and even contributed to the rivalries and territorial gang violence so prevalent in the slum districts of the island. And I consider the whole lewd, crude, and deadly Dancehall era of Reggae to be a related development.

But staying with the music, here are a few recommendations for serious Dub albums that may well link back to Morricone (and make for killer listening regardless):

For Scratch, 2CD set The Upsetter Selection: A Lee Perry Jukebox (Trojan 06076-80566-2) and Sound System Scratch: Lee Perry’s Dub Plate Mixes 1973 to 1979 (Pressure Sounds PSCD68). Trying to
encapsulate Perry in a couple of CDs is the mission of a fool; he could be impish or demonic, charismatic or nasty, brutal, and short, with the records ranging from stunning to stunted. But these provide a taste of his eclectic productions—and the madness of the great.

For King Tubby there have been scores of releases attempting to collect his Dub extravaganzas; the man pretty much commanded the B-side scene for two decades, until he was stupidly murdered. Bunny Lee provided maybe two-thirds of all the basic mixed recordings Tubby remixed into bite-size musical miracles, and Striker issued two of the all-time crucial Tubby sets (all Dubbious, nothin’ dubious!), currently offered as King Tubby Presents the Roots of Dub and King Tubby: Dub from the Roots (Jamaican Recordings JRCD
035 and JRCD 036, respectively). Watch your pockets; this stuff can be seriously addictive.

More obscure, but loads of fun anyway, is Forward the Bass: Dub from Randy’s 1972-1975 (Blood and Fire BAFCD 022), which provides splendid samples of the Dubs deconstructed by Errol Thompson at Clive Chin’s recording studio (confusingly known as Randy’s). Among the 15 gems here are several featuring harmonica riffs and solos (played by the mysterious “Chicago Steve”), some of which might remind you of Charles Bronson’s harp work in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Which brings us to this: Once Upon a Time at King Tubby’s (Pressure Sounds PSCD62), a recent compilation of insult singles, hurled at one another circa 1971 (“Straight to Jazzbo’s Head,” for example, or “Gal Boy I Roy”) by several “toaster”
deejays rapping rhythmically over familiar Dub cuts. Prince Jazzbo and I Roy were the chief instigators (along with producer Bunny Lee, eager to keep the money-making mock battles going), but Derrick Morgan, rival producer Dirty Harry, the great Prince Far I, studio bands the Aggrovators and the Revolutionaries, even King Tubby, all got caught up in the year-and-some of silly insults. The recent CD presents all the pieces in one place for the first time, and the spaghetti Western packaging serves as a goofy reminder of what was once an interesting time in the Far East and the Old West.

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