Day 163: My Overdue Cliff Notes

originally published June 11, 2012

As a self-proclaimed music geek, I’ve assumed an obnoxious, smug confidence in the breadth of my knowledge of popular classics. I’ve sat through the entirety of Thick As A Brick, skipped out on buying Roxette tickets in high school so that I could see the Everly Brothers, and even named my daughter after a Beatles album (Magical Mystery Tour).

But I’ll admit, there are holes in my knowledge. I had decades of great music that came before me to catch up with, along with the onerous task of sifting through the crap factory of current music for discs that didn’t suck. Also, I wasted years of my youth listening to inane, regrettable pap like Taco, Starship, and Robbie Nevil.

One album that never truly blipped on my radar was Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come. I knew a little about it – it was a soundtrack to a film they never showed on TV, it featured reggae from before Bob Marley redefined reggae in the 1970s, and everyone seems to love it. Rolling Stone, which at one time was considered knowledgeable and relevant, ranked the album #119 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. I’ve seen that list, and I think I’ve heard every album above it, at least the ones that would interest me.

So how did I miss this one? I could blame my parents, who force-fed me 80s soul music as a child, which I believe is at least 65% responsible for my current, fragile mental state. I could also blame the music industry in my formative years. I had to hide under a reinforced White Album sleeve in high school to protect myself from an onslaught of hair metal and parachute pants. Maybe the responsibility is all my own.

Today I change everything. I have acquired a copy of the album, and plan to listen to it right now. Rather than spend a kilograph detailing the story behind the recording sessions, or the impact the album had on the charts, I’m just going to listen to it and react.

Track 1: Jimmy Cliff – You Can Get It If You Really Want

It starts with trumpet, that’s a good sign. Jimmy’s in a happy mood; this isn’t the reggae I know, the stuff about overcoming racism, persecution and suffering. Okay, I’m wrong. It is about that, but in a very optimistic way. This has pop single written all over it, but I don’t think it was released as such. The second-to-last track on the album has the same name, so we’ll see just how rosy Jimmy feels after the rest of the album.

Track 2: Scotty – Draw Your Brakes

Scotty. Never heard of him, but I’m a fan of the tissues. It starts with some foreign talking, which intimidates me but I carry on. This tune is very reminiscent of the early pre-Burnin’ Bob Marley recordings. Scotty has a great voice, but it doesn’t seem like he had much success outside his appearance on this album. He was a pioneer of ‘singjay’, a style in which ‘singing’ is replaced by ‘talking’, but not rhythmic, rappish talking, and not the Tom Waits ‘let-me-tell-you-a-story-while-we-both-sit-here-and-get-drunk-on-cheap-whiskey kind of talking either.

If you aren’t a fan of the reggae groove, you’ve probably hung up on this album by this point. Luckily I could bob my head back and forth to this vibe for hours on end, until my neck hurt. (hat)

Track 3: The Melodians – Rivers Of Babylon

The Melodians. Another act I’ve never heard of. This song was redone by Boney M, and charted quite highly in Europe. I pray to whatever powers may be that I never hear that version. Boney M. is to music what Carls Jr. is to haute cuisine. Scratch that, Boney M. is to music what the picked-apart-by-pigeons remains of regurgitated Carls Jr. on an East Detroit parking lot after an unseasonably slushy February is to haute cuisine. Take that, disco bastards.

The lyrics of this song are about the Jewish people in exile around 586 BC, so I guess there’s a kind of kinship I should relate to. Nope. But my head is bobbing and my shoulders are even moving a little bit to this tune. My dogs are looking at me suspiciously. They don’t understand what reggae does to humans. They never will.

Track 4: Jimmy Cliff – Many Rivers To Cross

Back to Jimmy. Ranked by Rolling Stone at #317 on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. I’ve heard this song done by UB40 and Elvis Costello, and possibly a few of the dozens of other acts who have covered it. But Jimmy’s voice, backed here by a gospel choir, is plaintive and genuine. It’s not reggae per se, but it’s a-ok.

My apologies for the idiotic vowel-work there. I think the looks my dogs are shooting me are starting to have some negative effect on my central processing structure.

Track 5: The Maytals – Sweet And Dandy

The Maytals, led by the enigmatic Toots. I love this guy’s voice. They paired up the jovial title of this track with a jaunty little reggae groove. The Wiki article on this soundtrack states that a lot of the tracks were simply hit singles from Jamaica, released to an international audience. I’m not sure if “Sweet and Dandy” was going to land Toots an American record deal, but it’s a happy song.

I feel as though I am doing this album a serious injustice by not accompanying it with a fruit-infused rum beverage. I am overwhelmed by the urge to call my friends who installed a tiki bar in their kitchen and ask them if I can relocate there for the evening in order to set the mood. Nah, I’m almost done side one – I’ll carry on.

Track 6: Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come

Everyone has heard this song, right? Ranked just below “Many Rivers To Cross” on that Rolling Stone song list, it lands at #341. Covered by everyone from Cher to Jerry Garcia to Joe Jackson to Joe Strummer. No mention if this version charted though – how could it not? Given that popular music had already begun its heinous 70s decline by this point, I’d think this song would have perked up the charts in ’72.

I compare it to Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, a cheerful reggae tune that has worked its way under every human’s skin in the western hemisphere. Why isn’t this song just as well known? Again, I’ll blame Boney M.

Track 7: The Slickers – Johnny Too Bad

On to side 2. I’m already over 1000 words and I still want rum. I don’t know the Slickers; the band didn’t make it through the 70s, nor did they have any song that received wider airplay than this one. Great Hammond solo.

Again, how does anyone not like classic reggae? The groove is so thick you can practically gnaw it with your teeth, the melody spirals around it with an almost rapturous intent, and it just makes the heart feel good.

Track 8: Desmond Dekker – 007 (Shanty Town)

Nice. A song about James Bond by the “Isrealites” guy. It also mentions Ocean’s Eleven. This song unleashes the raw power of the hi-hat to carry a rhythm upon its bepedaled shoulders. “Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail.” This is a darker, more evil James Bond.

Track 9: The Maytals – Pressure Drop

Okay, this is an easy one. If you don’t know Toots & The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”, just drop whatever you’re doing, even if you’re performing surgery, and download it from iTunes. Or get it illegally, I won’t tell. This is one of my favorite reggae songs ever. Only #446 on that damn Rolling Stone list, but it deserves kinder praise. It was used in the film 50 First Dates, and covered by the Clash, so you may know it. If you don’t, you are doing yourself a great disservice.

And while I think of it, if you’re reading this article while performing surgery, you’re probably doing somebody else a disservice as well.

The music track in this song doesn’t seem to change at all, it’s all in Toots’ vocal work. It builds to a brilliant intensity. I want to throw something, but in a happy way. Like confetti or something. No, that would just be weird.

Track 10: Jimmy Cliff – Sitting In Limbo

Back to Jimmy. This is the Quiet Storm track on the album. More a mellow bongo vibe going on here than a reggae beat. Wait, here comes some more percussion to keep this from soft-rockitude. The acoustic guitar and electric piano seem to be dancing with each other. At any moment, one or both of them is nudging past the other, laying a genuinely tropical bed under Jimmy’s optimistic sadness.

I know this song is about ‘limbo’, the hypothetical place between places, but you could also use it to perform an actual limbo if your party guests weren’t Chuck Berry fans. I’m just saying, the groove picks up, the horns give it some kick, and he’s saying the word “limbo”, like a hundred times.

Dammit, I’m going to have to buy this album now.

Track 11: Jimmy Cliff – You Can Get It If You Really Want

Track 1 repeated? Actually, yeah. It might be a different take, but it’s essentially the same track. Why do this? Did Jimmy have nothing else to contribute?

Wait, I’m mistaken. This version has lyrics through the chorus, but a notable absence of vocals during the verse. I don’t understand, are we supposed to make up our own verses? Is this the do-it-yourself, kinda-karaoke version? I guess it’s nice hearing the musicians’ work front and center, but now the vocals in the chorus sound out of place.

Track 12: Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come

This version has vocals, but it’s 36 seconds shorter than the other version. I’m guessing it’s a single edit? Whatever, it’s a brilliant song. I’ll listen again.

My conclusions? Writing a live review of an album I’ve never heard before is a great way to pound through an article with minimal research and with a finite time commitment. It also allows me to ramble far beyond the 1000 word mark.

More importantly, this is an album with tremendous re-listenability potential. It’s known first and foremost for its cultural impact – there really wasn’t any reggae in the western mainstream before Jimmy showed up with this collection, and it had the benefit of featuring a number of artists besides Jimmy. It was a portal into a new, supremely groovy world.

The newest incarnation of RS’s top albums has Etta James’ At Last! at #119, so I’m not sure if that means Jimmy got bumped up or down. Given that they’ve added a decades’ worth of new music since the first list, I’m guessing down. Yep, Kanye West is listed at #118, so I’m done with this list for now, and once again Rolling Stone and I will part ways.

But I feel my education grew a little bit today. Not a bad way to spend 40 minutes.

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