Summertime. The portion of the globe, on which we reside, turns its cheek to the sun. The light is bright. Brighter sometimes than the eye can stand; hence, the sunglasses. The light is warm. The light is hot. I remain amazed at the energy contained in the light from the sun. Moving from a shady spot into bright sunlight, the increased warmth on my skin is instantaneous. The hairs on my arms stand up in the heat. All from an object so far away, so far overhead, producing such massive amounts of energy, that my comprehension of it is that of a middle school age brain. Somewhere along the growth path, age continued and my brain ceased to grow along with it.
In addition to admitting that my brain is only so big, and can only deal with issues, ideas and problems related to its metaphorical size, summertime turns my thoughts to Dub music, a version of Reggae music, originating from the island of Jamaica. I suppose it is the association of an island and the sunlight. Cliched, sure; but I celebrate cliches. At least to myself, I admit to them freely.
My journey to the discovery of Reggae and Dub music is a cobblestone street, partially paved over.
Growing up, I had the good fortune of pop radio, a nostalgic notion today; a radio format that played a variety of genres, rock, pop, country, etc. as long as the song was a hit. One such hit record was “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker. A song unlike most of the other songs on the radio at that time, a song with a rhythm all its own. It was the first Ska song I ever heard, most likely the first Ska a lot of people ever heard. Ska music being the precursor to Rocksteady, and Rocksteady being the precursor to Reggae.
My introduction to Reggae was not as dignified as my introduction to Ska. In the early 1970’s, there was a notion afloat that rock music was dead, or dying. This sort of thing had happened before, and had of course turned out to be untrue, and will be untrue in the future when that thought comes round again. At that time in my childhood, it was put forth that Reggae music was going to save Rock n’ roll. The consequences of this thought process was that popular musicians recorded popular Reggae songs. For instance, Eric Clapton recorded Bob Marley’s song, “I Shot the Sheriff,” and had a substantial hit on his hands. At the time of the record’s release, I myself had not heard any music by Bob Marley himself. Being a young man with one ear tuned to AM radio, I doubt I was alone in that fact.
With age though, as the cliche states, comes wisdom; or in my case, opportunity, which seized serves one just as well as an expanded thought. Knowing when to take advantage of an opportunity may be a path to wisdom. My opportunity in this case, was employment in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant along with a friend from high school, with resulting exposure to FM radio. Quite the revelation, I must say. Music went from black & white to technicolor overnight. The local FM radio station, KLRB, was typical of FM radio of the era, playing tracks from albums, not necessarily the hit single. But they also had a fairly free-thinking manner, in which they programmed the music. It was not uncommon to hear Bob Marley songs, along with classic tracks by The Who. Working in a hot kitchen, putting together plates of enchiladas or chile verde, was where I heard a variety of songs by Bob Marley, music I absorbed with no conscious knowledge of doing so. At the time I am sure I was prone to bouncing atop the rubber mat that covered the kitchen floor to The Who, Pink Floyd, and the new music that was played by the likes of The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Police, Gary Myrick & The Figures, and The Pretenders, to name but a few.
Not only was the new music exciting to me, but I didn’t even realize that these songs had a Reggae influence. It was all rock music to me, Punk Rock, New Wave, whatever, I had no concern what people called it, I just know that I loved it. Do you remember the first time you heard “Watching the Detectives” by Elvis Costello? That song is chilling. The rhythm, the guitar twang so different from a lot of other music being played at the time, the lyrics, so smart, clever, seemingly spit out in anger. Yeah, I was hooked by the earworm!
In retrospect, Reggae music was quite pervasive in the Punk rock or New Wave community. Artists such as Patti Smith, Pere Ubu,Tom Verlaine & Bad Brains recorded songs with Reggae rhythms. Groups from the U.K. seemed to take it further still, groups such as The Slits & The Ruts had all of their music infused with Reggae rhythms.
And hearing those records, I heard production work with a Dub music influence.
But If I am being honest, I think the first time I ever heard the Dub Effect in music was hearing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus.
The delayed echo effect on the guitar was unusual. I had not heard of such a thing at that time. It was similar to Reggae songs that I heard, but somehow deeper or tweaked.
Oddly for me, I did not take the exploration of Dub music any further. I was passive about it. Songs like “I Heard It through the Grapevine” by The Slits or “Guns of Brixton” by The Clash were part of my collection, often finding themselves on cassette mixes I made for work or personal use, but I never ventured to the Reggae section of the local record store.
My invested interest in Dub music was more life’s momentum than a decision made. Working in record stores offered me the luxury of listening to a variety of music. CD box sets and anthologies, items that made me curious, but often I could not afford, I could play for free at work. This is how I discovered Lee “Scratch” Perry, when the anthology “Arkology” was released.
His was a name with which I was vaguely familiar, as he had worked with The Clash, but I had no idea about his own work as a performer, nor his long running production work on some of the most popular and well known Reggae music. After being overjoyed and intrigued by his song “Roast Fish & Cornbread,” I made an effort to be more interested in Reggae and Dub music.
It quickly became apparent that my interest in Reggae and Dub music fell squarely on the dub side of the fence. I found that Dub music was often relegated to the flip side of seven inch singles. The track on the B-side was often a Dub version or simply “version,” of the track on the A-side. Sometimes this was done as simply as removing the vocal part, thus featuring the instrumental backing track. I found these simple “versions” interesting to a small degree, but they seemed too safe, too tame. But more and more often, I found B-sides in which some amount of mixing or production work had been invested. Echo had been added. Bass guitar parts become the bedrock on which everything stood. The repeated accent on the guitar part hooked me every time. Along with Lee “Scratch” Perry, I began to notice other names, King Tubby, Linval Thompson, Augustus Pablo. The list goes on. I also found a recycling or reissue of certain backing tracks.
There must be dozens upon dozens of songs that used the music from the songs “Skylarking” by Horace Andy or “Ali Baba” by John Holt.
These songs that originally appeared on 7” singles were reissued on any number of Dub collections and anthologies, often to be found on several different ones. The collections were often centered around a particular label, such as Trojan Records, or the work of a particular producer, such as King Tubby.
The work of King Tubby outpaced my initial interest in Lee “Scratch” Perry. Perry’s early dub productions felt less imaginative to my ears than did the work of King Tubby. Also the work by Perry often accentuated the organ, whereas the work of King Tubby seemed to feature the guitar on echo effect. Using the booklets inside the anthologies and collections for information, I found that the Dub music that most appealed to me emerged during the 1974-1980 time period. I am not sure what changed in 1980, but most Dub music after that year often left a foul note in my ear.
I am by no means alone in recognizing that some of King Tubby’s best work can be heard on the Augustus Pablo album, “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” from 1976, and his own solo albums that appeared in 1975, “The Roots Of Dub” & “Dub from the Roots.” His track, “Invasion,” may well be my most favorite Dub track of all time, with an interesting electronic beginning that has always reminded me of the electronic work of Raymond Scott.
Seeking out King Tubby records meant that I also uncovered other Dub records, most notably and among my favorites are “Outlaw Dub” by The Revolutionaries, produced by Linval Thompson; a very King Tubby-inspired album, “Decibel,” by Dennis Bovell. The latter had produced albums by The Slits & The Pop Group, and also worked with the dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose album “Bass Culture” became essential listening for me.
When I first started to seek out Reggae and Dub music, some of the record pressings seemed dubious, almost counterfeit (the question and discussion about bootleg and counterfeit records could be the subject of another blog piece). But these days, thanks to the fine work of the London based label, Soul Jazz Records, there is a wealth of Reggae and Dub music available, all with high quality sound, that is well organized and notated. It is difficult for me to imagine that another label will ever come along and out-do the work they have so lovingly done.
Like most things I have come to love, Dub music was always there, always around me, circling round me, I just needed to take notice, just needed to turn up the volume on the sound system and let the bass reverberate.