Reggae music was supposed to take over the world.
At least that’s what “Time” magazine said. The hype was everywhere. And we didn’t even know how to pronounce it! Most people thought it was said the same as the name of that rich kid in the Archie comics, REGGIE music! Like Reggie Jackson.
But Reggie Jackson didn’t peak until the late seventies, didn’t enter the national consciousness until he played for the Yankees. Around the same time that Bob Marley put out his initial live album and people were mesmerized…
ONE GOOD THING ABOUT MUSIC, WHEN IT HITS YOU FEEL NO PAIN!
Hell, I’m gonna put the famous London ’75 live version of “Trenchtown Rock” at the head of this playlist… It wasn’t released on wax in the U.S. until the fall of ’76, but when you dropped the needle on this initial cut, you immediately got the power of reggae, you were closed.
Actually, that happened almost half a decade earlier, with Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” the “Graceland” of reggae cuts. Yes, Johnny Nash was an American with previous hits who synthesized the Jamaican sound and had a monster smash in ’72. One of the greatest reggae songs of all time, it’s pooh-poohed by the cognoscenti, but “I Can See Clearly Now” is pure perfection, put it on and you will truly believe it’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiney day.
And months later, “The Harder They Come” was released in theatres in the U.S. and promptly did…nothing.
Then it was shifted to midnight shows and it slowly gained traction, in Boston it played for years! And if you haven’t seen it, you must. To hear Ivan/Jimmy Cliff say DON’T **** WITH ME! as he brandishes a knife.
And sure, in retrospect it’s a genre picture. But it captured Jamaica before it became America’s spliff haven, when it was still raw and new to most people.
And it had the most fabulous soundtrack.
Yup, “Catch A Fire” came out in ’73 too, but the first Island Bob Marley album got a lot of press and had very few sales. We were all listening to Jimmy Cliff. We’re still listening to Jimmy Cliff. Because of those exquisite numbers on “The Harder They Come” soundtrack.
Oh, it wasn’t only Jimmy…
Toots and the Maytals are still touring on “Pressure Drop.” Be sure to listen to Robert Palmer’s cover, as well as the Selecter’s, but this is the definitive take.
And the Melodians never broke in the U.S., but you’d be hard-pressed to find a baby boomer who does not know “Rivers Of Babylon”…
By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion…
There was even a Desmond Dekker track, “007 Shantytown,” which was excellent, but no match for his 1968 hit “Israelites,” which burned up the airwaves in the U.S.
But the most memorable cuts on the soundtrack were by Jimmy Cliff. Starting with the opener, “You Can Get It If You Really Want.”
Better than any self-help book, play this cut and you truly believe you can not only conquer demons, but climb unscalable walls and triumph. You hear that opening brass note and you’re immediately ADRENALIZED!
Then, of course, there’s the title track.
So as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they fall
One and all
It’s the gansta rap ethos decades before, sung by someone who played a true gangster in the movie.
But as great as those two Jimmy Cliff songs are, they’re still not in the league of “Many Rivers To Cross.” A veritable spiritual, the track makes you think about everything that’s gone down and that which is still yet to come. The lyrics are great, but the feel is what makes the track. When they cut this they must have known they had a smash. Certain tracks just have that something extra.
But it’s not my favorite cut on the album.
That’s “Sitting In Limbo.”
There’s that groove, you can’t help but close your eyes and twist your head up and down and back and forth in time.
That’s what life is about, sitting in limbo.
It occupies all that time in between interactions. When you’re in your own mind, wondering what’s going to transpire.
If you haven’t sat on the curb and had this song go through your brain, you’ve never heard it.
I can’t say what life will show me
But I know what I’ve seen
I can’t say where life will lead me
But I know where I’ve been
Tried my hand at love and friendship
But all that is past and gone
This little boy is moving on
Ain’t that the truth. The past is known and the future’s yet to be discovered. It’s both scary and the nature of life, you’ve got to put one foot in front of the other.
Which Jimmy Cliff did. To Africa. To Islam. To near-irrelevance.
While Jimmy Cliff confounded and disappointed audiences, Bob Marley snuck in and stole everybody’s heart.
Yet, Marley’s no longer with us.
And Jimmy Cliff still is.
He played the main stage at Coachella last year to almost nobody, but if you saw him you were mesmerized, he’s as great as he’s ever been.
Either you know what I’m talking about or you don’t.
If you don’t, play these songs, see this movie, catch a glimpse of reggae in its formative phase, when it was all about the music and we were discovering it for the very first time.