The Harder They Come: A Jamaican Snapshot

Jimmy Cliff and Various Artists

The soundtrack album to the now iconic Jamaican crime film of the same name has become something of a gateway record to those wanting to explore reggae music. Most consider it to be the album that brought reggae music to the world, though I think a more accurate statement would be that it brought reggae music to the world that had already heard Bob Marley but wanted to dig deeper. The Wailers’ Catch a Fire (from the same year) is equally as important in the general popularization of the genre, but The Harder They Come manages to capture some of the less popular artists of the genre and serves as a nice, if incomplete overview of that wild, live, disorganized music scene from as early as 1967 all the way to ’73.

Reggae has one of the most universal and infectious rhythms in the world. It’s also almost entirely signature to its home country, just as the raucous beats of early Rock and Roll are signature to America in the 50s. This record stands as a timeless testament to a time and a place above all else, like ‘The Indestructable Beat of Soweto’, ‘Nuggets’, and the ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’. If you were transported to Kingston circa. 1971, you might just hear every single one of these songs diegetically: the fuzzed out ‘Pressure Drop’ blasting out of a car stereo, ‘Draw Your Brakes’ on the street corner. Catch me, bruddah?

9 Rivers to Cross out of 10 (1 point deducted for repeating two Cliff tracks at the end. Well, it is a soundtrack, isn’t it.)   (-_-)

Choice Cut: Many Rivers to Cross

Goof: One critic said of reggae: ”its syncopation was a response to the rock that replaced shuffle r&b on U.S. radio in the early ’60s”. True, but (call me a cynic), would it be accurate to say that it’s signature rhythm was also a reaction to the sweet leaf?

Here is ”You Can Get it if You Really Want” by Jimmy Cliff, performed by Desmond Dekker. Trojan Records mistitled it as Dekker’s 007.

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Cable Hogue: Sam Peckinpah’s America

With a sprawling and studied work of masculine power under his belt (1969’s The Wild Bunch), a film that was one of the main factors in Peckinpah’s unfair gaining of notoriety as a merciless and violence-obsessed film-maker, Sam proved his skill in more tender and intimate character studies with The Ballad of Cable Hogue, lyrical and modest in comparison to his other infamous works.

Sam Peckinpah stands among Martin Scorsese and Howard Hawks as one of cinema’s greatest philosophers of masculinity, if not the greatest. With the Ballad of Cable Hogue, it does seem glaring that he is clearly less in touch with the realm of the female, but then again; one of the main points of interest in films like Straw Dogs and Ride the High Country is how his male characters treat their women, and the juxtaposition of violence and tenderness. When his male characters show tenderness towards women, his filmic treatment of this actually seems more sexist (in my eyes, the man was never misogynist, although you can decide that for yourself). It’s nice that the majority of characters in this film are generally ‘good’. It’s also nice that some are confusing and dangerously morally dubious.

For a while, The Ballad of Cable Hogue seems to be an odd-one-out in Peckinpah’s catalogue: while the Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, and Ride the High Country all lament the dying of the Old West and its values, this film displays that the old frontier spirit of work and patience is still existent in the new west (when Peckinpah’s film is set is not clear, though it is still judged as a ‘new/revisionist’ western). Jason Robard’s Cable Hogue and his love, Hildy, are given money by the bank (yes, an honest banker!) to build a home and develop the water well that he found, and build a happy community just outside of town. It seems that the honest frontier ethic is still alive, even when big cities are emerging.

Suddenly, Hildy leaves him to ‘see the big city’ and experience the high life just as his ramshackle development is beginning to thrive, but Cable carries on alone, adamantly. One day Hildy returns (right), looking utterly out of place in her new fancy San Francisco clothes, as if her earlier, simpler life was always drawing her back.
As a brit, I have observed that America is a nation built on technological advancement and committed to urban expansion, but simultaneously a nation that has a deep connection with its simple, wholesome rural past. Peckinpah displays this with the character of Hildy perfectly, a woman that is stuck in the limitations of small town life, and wishes for a brighter, more illustrious one, but still retains an intangible connection with that past life that ultimately draws her back. Note that Hildy returns in a ‘car‘, something completely alien to Cable, and it is this modern advancement that ends up killing Cable (he is run over by the car as he tries to stop it from rolling down a hill). Cable is buried in his proud little establishment, eternally bound from going any further than his dry old desert. American pride isn’t normally associated with melancholia and introspection, but this is a proudly patriotic statement if I’ve ever heard one.

8 Otto-mobeels out of 10

My 10 Favourite Songs (now)

I fully recognize that lists are inherently foolish, so this is more a record of some of the songs that I really love now, and of course some old favourites. All tracks appear on some of my favourite albums, and to avoid constant editing, they are not ranked. Ranking music is especialy foolish.

Tangled Up in Blue: Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
The opening track of Bob’s break-up album (left) contains some of his best lyrics, as well as a wonderfully relaxed back-up. It’s filled with sneaky metaphors and all that, and Dylan’s stark humour prevents it from falling into the sop bin.

Thirteen: Big Star (#1 Record, 1973)
Few tracks capture so un-sappily the unique throb of the heart (hear me out) that comes with being teenaged. I’m awfully condescending of new teenaged idols whom singing about adolescent angst is part of the job application. Somehow these 20-something year-olds managed to get the full picture in 2 minutes and 35 seconds.

Rocks Off: Rolling Stones (Exile on Main St., 1972)
The Stones exercised their trademark uneasy sleaze on many tracks, but none quite do it for me with quite the same druggy punch of Rocks Off, the rocker that kicks off one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time. Best line: the sunshine bores the daylights outta me”.

Fearless: Pink Floyd (Meddle, 1971)
Arguably the greatest chill-out song of all time (before that was ‘a thing’). The Floyd, while sometimes indescribably lower-sixth, could be the finest purveyors of a wonderfully British sensibility in their lyrics: ”I’ll climb the hill in my own time” still resonates with me. ‘Let me live my life the way I want to’, as one James Hendrix said.

Cemetry Gates: The Smiths (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Along with Neil Young’s Ambulance Blues and possibly Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, The Smiths’ song represents the very finest in musical critic-bashing. After all, there’s always someone somewhere, with a big nose who knows, who’ll trip you up and laugh when you fall. Is it plagiarism if I don’t use quote marks? Not in rock ‘n’ roll.

Strawberry Flats: Little Feat (S/T, 1971)
The 70’s were a time of urban paranoia (am I right?), and Little Feat’s Strawberry Flats, from the album I detailed in my very first post, expresses this with a wonderful mordant humour and a killer guitar solo to boot.

Deacon Blues: Steely Dan (Aja, 1977)
If anything exemplified what Robert Christgau called ”Beautiful loser fatalism”, it’s Steely Dan’s jazzy ballad from one of pop’s sneakiest masterpieces. The Dan’s reflective protagonist is their favourite kind of person: A whiskey-soaked, New York apartment-dwelling jazz enthusiast. Somehow this type of character has become an essential part of American urban folklore.

The Weight: The Band (Music From Big Pink, 1968),
I don’t usually like biblical references, but when I do, they’re in a Band song. Though their greatest album came afterwards, the Band’s definitive moment is on this simple song of unparalleled folky beauty. Straight out of the basement with Bob Dylan, these uncomplicated troubadors crafted what Roger Waters’ called the ‘second most influential rock album’. Make of that what you will.

Powderfinger: Neil Young (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
Here is my list of the top ten Neil Young tracks, where I place Powderfinger at No. 1.

When the Levee Breaks: Led Zeppelin (IV, 1971)
A phenomenal rock song, When the Levee Breaks has all the roots of great hard music in its soul: the Blues, the rock, the roll, and the sound of a truly great band exercising their momentous thunder on record. The closest rock ‘n’ roll has ever come to armageddon, with John Bonham’s much sampled beat seeming to encapsulate every single rhythm of rock past in one neanderthol thud with an eternal echo. The lyrics actually refer to the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which flooded a space the size of Scotland. The entirety of Scotland under thirty feet of water. Dwell on that. Displacing hundreds of thousands, and killing hundreds. That’s some serious shit, and part of me likes to think that the largely unreported primal destruction of that event is frozen in the many grooves of this song (and of its original source); a group of white guys paying majestic tribute to an entire penurious culture of sadly forgotten American blacks; to whom Led Zepplin owe their blues roots.

Mississippi, 1927

Here’s a performance from The Band’s The Last Watz which features two artists on this list. And a certain artist hiding singing backing vocals. From behind a curtain.

From ”The Last Waltz”, 1978: United Artists

Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music: Vol. 1 and 2

The massive importance of both of these recordings can never be overstated.

Charles’ interpretations of these traditionally white songs feel extraordinarily natural; most other reworkings of songs end up sounding too similar to their origin, or alternatively sound too focused on ‘making it their own’ through excessive revamping and adaptation of the arrangement, but his don’t.
There are two keys to the success of these songs: Firstly, Ray breaks these racial barriers so easily (it feels like it comes naturally to him) that he inadvertently accentuates the very weakness of those barriers in the first place. Secondly, he manages to highligh the universality of song, through both the very universality of his voice, and by showing us so Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume Two.jpgbeautifully that if you dig deep, you’ll find that the inherent appeal in a song comes down to the raw music of it: the chords and the lyrics, while never dismissing the importance of trends and styles or detracting from the subtle genius of his own arrangements.

There are various reissues of these albums, and if you find a double or single disc issue of them, do not hesitate to pick it up. Essential to any collection of American music. 

A Turning Point: 1967 – 68

Great albums as albums were not common before 1967. As a rare music enthusiast who doesn’t completely worship the Beatles, I still am aware of the importance of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in enabling a whole generation to make a ritual out of the album and making it an art form in and of itself. In keeping with my eternal Beatles skepticism, however, here is an alternative list of albums that pushed that similar boundary, and turning points in an artist’s discography in which the album is the great statement. Note – to be snobbish about the ‘feeble single’ is to deny the inherent consumerist boundary of popular music, however flexible a boundary that may be.

The Byrds never sounded so ‘together’ as they did on this 1968 masterpiece, and it’s the first Byrds album whose brilliance comes from the album as a unified mood piece rather than an interesting collection of great songs (Younger Than Yesterday).

A bonus track on the reissued CD shows an argument between them on the recording of ‘Natural Harmony’. This is a band in turmoil, a band that had the desperate nerve to steal a song from the member they had previously fired; by normal logic, this should be a an absolute car crash of dodgy moog experimentation and forced delivery, but it’s not. Whether its gorgeous cohesion is by accident, as always, doesn’t matter, and the ethereal harmonies and evocative ambient sound is timeless.

Beggar’s Banquet was the first album that truly solidified the Rolling Stones as a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band.

Previous albums like Aftermath and Between the Buttons represent the early ‘cheeky London pop’ sound of the group, but the raw, apocalyptic Beggar’s Banquet came like a shot out of nowhere. Partly due to Brian Jones’ slow deterioration, Keith Richards could fully exercise his primal growl through seminal tracks like Street Fighting Man, which tumbles rather than bounces, and the Stones’ trademark uneasy rock ‘n’ roll ambiguity comes into full swing, one that would intensify with Let it Bleed, and then decay beautifully on Exile on Main Street.

Are You Experienced showed Hendrix’s initial push towards the then impenetrable commercial boundary, and represented a fuzzy electric punch in the face to the British Invasion groups’ (and their disposable American imitators’) clean melodies and style. The follow-up, in my opinion, was where Hendrix refined his album-based craftmanship. The songs are no longer attenuated, by short lengths and the group is given just enough room to stretch, and they use it to float rather than snarl as they did on the debut, before the sprawling and indulgent classic that would succeed it.

Note: All CD versions of Are You Experienced since 1997 now come with 17 tracks, a different running order to both the original releases (American and English). Make of that what you will…