The Hang of Music: Write Dem Back

I’ve finally made it to review number 42! Here I’m going to find the question to all of life’s mysteries!

And the question is… “How many albums must you review before you review some reggae?” That’s a stupid question!

The answer is obviously* 42. And to prove it, today will be the day that I talk to you about Linton Kwesi Johnson. And to do so, I’m going to talk about the tracks I’ve found on Reggae Greats.

OK, here’s my problem – for love nor money, I cannot find an actual album by Linton Kwesi Johnson online. Nor in libraries, and I am too poor to buy one in a shop, even if they had any. But I do have a compilation, from the “Reggae Greats” collection. So today’s review is going to work a bit differently – as review 42 should.

I can’t really talk about the artistic construction of the album – something which I like to do – because I cannot vouch for the artistic intent of the person who arranged the tracks. And nor can I be sure that the mix is as the original tracks were released, as it’s probably been touched up a fair amount.

What I can talk about, however, is the content of the songs, and try to look at context. And content is something that these tracks (tracks – not an album) have in spades. What I can also do is try to give a bit more of a retrospective on a great reggae protest poet.

Enough about me, then.

Time to talk about reggae.

One of the things that I am very aware of whilst listening to all of this is that I am going to sit and read all of the lyrics to all of these songs. Because songs isn’t really the word for them: all of these tracks are less songs and more poems.

Not in that they’re poetic, as I might call great lyrics poetic – but that they’re actually poems. Instead of melody or rhyme, most, if not all of Johnson’s words rely on the rhthm and meter for their style and weight. Instead of being sung, all of the lyrics here are delivered in the stiff, dark monotone of a poetry reading.

Also, a lot of metaphors. Combined with the extra bits of slang that I can’t translate, some of his lyrics end up being pretty impenetrable. Look at “Street 66”, for example:

“The sound was music mellow steady flow
And man son mind just mystic red, green, red, green
Your scene

Cos when the music met I-tops [wut?]
I felt the sting, knew the shock, yeah, had to do and ride the rock
Outta dis rock shall come a greener riddim
Even more dread than what the breeze of glory bred”

Street 66

I think that the first stanza is about getting lost in the music, andstaring listlessly out of the window at the traffic lights outside, and that the latter is about dancing. This is a song about ambushing the police in a raid**. So this is some pretty in depth analysis of some rather banal features of an unimportant scene.

It really does capture the tedium of the calm before the storm, though.

Most of the songs are in a similar vein to this: about the corruption and institutionalised racism in society, and a call to arms to stop it. It seems odd to think of the pitched battles between the people and the police that were happening in this country only 35 years ago. It definitely seems odd to think of the SUS law – nominally an anti-vagrant act – and how it was abused and turned into an excuse for the cops to beat up black people, asian people, gay people, any-other-minority people. From the vantage point of less than half a century of progress this thankfully seems so alien.

At the heart of the change, I think anyway, was the music of the time. At the very least it reflected people’s dissent, but I also think that it informed and catalysed change. Music has a habit of doing that, you know? And people like Linton Kwesi Johnson were at the heart of it, and nor was he the only one; The Clash, The Ruts, Tom Robinson, The Specials and loads more. Its all there. This is the power of music to inform in action – and this is what Johnson was attempting, along with all the others: getting a message out to the world.

Its not surprising, then, that punk and reggae began to merge – The Clash, on later albums especially, but also others, such as the Slits. And then there’s the resurgence of ska. This, in turn has had an effect upon modern bands: when listening to “Independent Intavenshun”, I found it impossible not to think of Gorillaz. It took me a moment to realise why. I think it’s easier if I show you.

An artist's interpretation.

Convoluted, yet I feel interesting. Listen to all of those songs, and you can hear a definite lineage, as well as an evolution of sound.

In terms of pure grip on the attention, I’d have to say that despite “Fite Dem Back” being… well, Fite Dem Back, it’s still the following song, “Making History”, which makes me sit up and pay attention. It’s  agressive, has an arresting beat and tune, and its lyrics are directed and accusatory. This is the sort of reggae that rebellions are made of. If ever there were a sort, ths is it.

I know that this isn’t what you usually expect of a review – I haven’t been able to talk about the songs themselves, nor their structure and placement nearly enough. But that’s a limitation of the form – this not really being a whole, constructed piece to review. But if you’re interested in the origins of music – reggae, dub, ska, even such odd and hard to classify stuff as Damon Albarn writes (when Graham Coxon’s not about) and apparently listens to – then Johnson was an important and instrumental step along the way.

At least to people like me, who like their music to complain about stuff.

***

I know I typically only have two pictures per review, but I wanted to give you a portrait of the man himself.

Because this man looks to be the coolest motherfucker in existence.

* Including that special bonus review I did a long while ago.

** Or selling them drugs. I’m still really not sure. I think it’s the ultra-violence, though.

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Posted on April 20, 2012, in Music, The Hang of Music and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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