Sunday, May 31, 2015

Shots in the Dark: Desmond Dekker "Black and Dekker"

Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, or a fickle record-buying public, were lost in the fray. 

(By Steve Shafer)

The Release: Desmond Dekker's Black and Dekker (Stiff Records and Stiff America, 1980)

The Band: The UK-based Desmond Dekker was backed by an array of top musicians, including The Pioneers (which included Dekker's half brother, George Agard), Jackie Mitoo, The Rumour (who often backed pub rocker Graham Parker), The Equators, and The Akrylykz (featuring a certain Roland Gift on sax, who would later join Andy Cox and David Steele of The Beat to form Fine Young Cannibals).

The Sound: Black and Dekker contains many of Dekker's instantly recognizable rocksteady and skinhead reggae hits of the late 60s and early 70s (plus some really fine new tunes)--all dusted off, revved-up, and purposefully fashioned to appeal to the 2 Tone ska fans of 1980. 

The Album: As the first batch of 2 Tone singles commandeered the UK charts in 1979 (The Specials' "Gangsters" b/w The Selecter's "The Selecter" reached #6; Madness' "The Prince" b/w "Madness" topped out at #16; The Selecter's "On My Radio" b/w "Too Much Pressure" rose to #8; The Specials' "A Message to You, Rudy" b/w "Nite Klub" made it to #9; and The Beat's "Tears of a Clown" b/w "Ranking Full Stop" grabbed the #6 spot), other labels were left scrambling trying to figure out how to capitalize on the 2 Tone craze that had so swiftly captivated Britain's youth. Dave Robinson, the maverick head of gonzo indie Stiff Records--who had already signed Madness and was starting to reap the rewards of that hit single-generating act (which would help keep the label afloat for years to come), as well as the Birmingham-based Equators, who were playing 2 Tone-like ska before The Beat and The Specials (and ended up heavily influencing LA's The Untouchables--another Stiff signing a few years later--when The Equators performed in California in 1981)--wanted a bigger piece of the action and was willing to bet that Desmond Dekker's great popularity with the late 1960s/early 1970s mods, skins, and pop fans (in 1967, "007 (Shanty Town)" hit #14 on the UK charts; in 1969, "Israelites" hit #1 in the UK and #9 in the USA; in 1969, "It Mek" reached #7 in the UK; and his cover of Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Get It If You Really Want" went to #2 in 1970, two years before The Harder They Come film soundtrack was released) could be fairly easily replicated in the 2 Tone-era. The climate was certainly right. 

(Robinson wasn't the only label head interested in promoting an authentic 1960s ska star during the 2 Tone years. Secret Affair's Ian Page signed Laurel "Godfather of Ska" Aitken, another artist very popular with late 1960s/early 1970s mods and skins, to his I-Spy label soon after Dekker went with Stiff; Aitken, backed by The Ruts, toured the UK and enjoyed his one 2 Tone-era hit, "Rudi Got Married"--#60 on the UK charts--in 1980.)

After all, the late 70s ska revival was steeped in overt references to 60s ska and skinhead reggae, even though 2 Tone was clearly an organic evolution of the genre's sound/attitude--a hybrid of the rebel music cousins of reggae and punk. The 60s references gave the late 70s' ska scene a foundation and context--acknowledging 2 Tone's roots and close connection to the Jamaican immigrant community in the UK, while tacitly--and later, explicitly--endorsing racial/cultural diversity and tolerance. The 2 Tone bands clearly revered the 60s ska originators (and Dekker was Jamaica's first international ska/early reggae star, well before Jimmy Cliff or Bob Marley) and had grown up hearing their songs (many of which had topped the UK charts) alongside the sons and daughters of Jamaican immigrants, and felt a deep connection to the artists (leading The Specials to collaborate with Rico Rodriguez, who had worked with The Skatalites, and The Beat to ask Saxa, who had played with Prince Buster, to join their band). 

In tribute to--and to honor the legacy of--their musical forefathers/mothers, The Specials, Selecter, Madness, The Beat, and The Bodysnatchers all performed and recorded ska and early reggae hits of yesteryear (the 60s JA ska musicians often covered contemporary pop songs themselves, sometimes renaming them in the process--see The Skatalites' "Independence Anniversary Ska" AKA The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" or Prince Buster's/Yusef Ali's "Uganda" AKA Don Drummond's "Green Island," etc.). One suspects that, at times, this compensated for a dearth of original material (indeed, that was one of the great criticisms of the late 70s ska revival), though the 2 Tone bands often redeemed themselves by repurposing the covers--imbuing them with new meaning for the present day and following the tradition of 60s ska of decrying social/political injustice. Lloyd Charmers' naughty "Birth Control" was transformed by The Specials into "Too Much Too Young," which disparaged teen motherhood and advocated the use of diaphragms and, one would assume, condoms; The Selecter borrowed The Pioneers' "Time Hard," renaming it as "Everyday" ("...thing are getting worse"), to comment on Thatcherite England; and Andy and Joey's "You're Wondering Now" in The Specials' hands became an ominous warning to the racists and National Front supporters lurking in Britain's shadows: "You're wondering how/You will pay/For the way you did behave..." 

Co-produced by Coxsone Dodd's cousin Syd Bucknor (who learned his trade at Studio 1), Black and Dekker starts out promisingly (and safe) enough with a brisk and jaunty--if, um, a little stiff--ska version of Dekker's "Israelites." Stiff also released this song as a single, paired with the phenomenal new track "Why Fight?," which marked the third time "Israelites" was issued as a single. In 1969, it hit #1 on the UK charts and was the first Jamaican reggae single to crack the Top Ten in America, and when it was re-released in 1975, made it back into the UK Top Ten. The 1980 ska version of "Israelites" failed to chart in the UK, though it made it to #15 in Belgium, according to Richard Balls' "Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story" (what a punk rock name: Dick Balls!). Dekker's unmistakable and incredibly sweet falsetto is in terrific shape on the album and The Pioneers provide gorgeous and impeccable backing vocals and harmonies (as they do throughout). It also should be noted that The Pioneers were a favorite of The Specials, who covered "Long Shot Kick De Bucket"--The Pioneers' 1969 best-seller produced by Leslie Kong (who also was Dekker's sure-fire hit producer, until Kong's early death in 1971)--during their "Skinhead Symphony" on The Special AKA Live! EP, which was a #1 single in the UK in 1980.

"Israelites" is a potent sufferer's lament with an explicit reference to Rastafarianism (Rastas believe that they are one of the lost tribes of ancient Israel, something that I can't imagine most Americans in 1969 were aware of when they snatched up that single). Since the lyrics are often misheard, they're worth printing here:

"Get up in the morning, slaving for breads, sir
So that every mouth can be fed
Poor me, Israelite

Wife an' ma kids, dem pack up and a-leave me
Darling, she said, I was yours to receive
Poor me, Israelite

Shirt dem a-tear up, trousers a go
I don't wan' to end up like Bonnie and Clyde
Poor me, Israelite

After a storm, there mus' be a calming
You catch me in ya palm, you sound ya alarm
Poor me, Israelite

I'm wandering I'm working hard, too
A poor, a poor, a poor
Me, Israelite
I look a-down on a-me, sir"

Of all the new tracks, "Why Fight?" (with Jackie Mittoo on piano!) is the obvious hit to this listener--and one has the feeling that Stiff knew this too, but hedged its bets by pushing "Israelites" as the first single from the album and appending "Why Fight?" to its b-side. For all of Stiff's eagerness to reach the 2 Tone fan base, they seem to have been completely oblivious to how "Why Fight's" message was very much in line with what The Specials, The Beat, The Selecter, et al were propagating--that the racial hatred, violence, and discriminatory political/social/economic policies directed at Britain's non-white population had to end--and had the track been given Stiff's promotional push, it would have been well-received by the late 70s ska fans, who appreciated the very relevant messages that often came with the music:

"People all over the world
Why fight?
When we should unite

Right from the start
We're part of creation
So, why can't we all
be one nation?

Why fight?
People all over the world
Why fight?
When we should unite
When we should unite...
we fight
People all over the world

It's a shame to know
That we are the most intelligent
of all animals
And it hurts so bad
to know that we are acting
like cannibals

This a world is a beautiful world
Nothing all wrong with it
But a man know a try
to change it and rearrange it

I know that we understand
how to make peace upon this land
And we can
And we can

Why fight?
People all over the world..."

After "Israelites" failed to chart and became the albatross around "Why Fight's" neck, Stiff chose the undeniably catchy and lighthearted "Please Don't Bend" (backed with the terrific new tune "Work Out") as the follow-up single (another in a string of Dekker's songs to admonish women for their dress or behavior): "Girl, the dress you are a wearing/Is a bit too short/Don't misunderstand me/I'm not an astronaut/Girl, whatever you do/I said, please don't bend/Girl, if you do/We're gonna see rear end!"

Stiff records had been producing promotional films for their bands years before the advent of MTV in 1981 (according to Ball's book, Robinson had always believed "pop music and short films as being complementary"). By the time Black and Dekker was released, Stiff had shot short films for The Damned's "New Rose," Ian Dury and the Blockheads' "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll," Lene Lovich's "Lucky Number," Madness' "One Step Beyond," and many others, in addition to live footage of the Stiff package tours. Instead of a funny or subversive take on the lyrics, the video for "Please Don't Bend" is dunderheadedly and embarrassingly sexist--full of leering men ogling a woman in a very short dress, with multiple shots of her derriere. The video makes it plain that Dekker doth protest too much: Please bend away, ladies!

Despite its theme of corporeal punishment (the singer begs his mother to intervene with his father, who has been beating him so severely that he's developed some sort of nervous hiccup), "Lickin' Stick" becomes an incredibly upbeat (and almost joyful) song in The Equators' hands--they help transform this track and "Hippo"--two of Dekker's skinhead reggae-era favorites--into modern, 2 Tone ska songs (and make one wonder why the powers that be just didn't have The Equators back Dekker for the whole album, instead of this rotating cast of dozens of musicians--though The Rumour do a very good job on "Problems" and "Rude Boy Train").

In fact, most of Dekker's reworked hits for the 2 Tone era on Black and Dekker--"It Mek," "Hippo," "007," "Problems," "Rude Boy Train," "Pickney Gal," and even his soulful cover of Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" (which was released as the third Stiff single, backed with "Pickney Gal")--sound good to pretty great. But from the consistent high quality of new material on the album ("Why Fight?," "Work Out," "Please Don't Bend," and the US-only "Juliet"), it's clearly evident that Dekker's songwriting was as strong as ever and makes one wish that there were additional new tunes (and fewer re-worked ones). And with the ready availability of the beloved original versions of Dekker's late 60s/early 70s hits (on Trojan compilations like 1978's Dekker's Sweet 16 Hits)--and their treasured place in the hearts of ska and reggae fans everywhere--it's questionable as to why they were re-recorded in the first place.

The Ugly Reality: It's a sticky proposition to tinker with one's own legacy. Dekker's late 60s/early 70s skinhead reggae hit singles were practically sacrosanct to legions of mods and skinheads--and still very well-known to many 2 Tone fans of all ages in the UK. By re-recording his hits, Dekker and Stiff risked alienating the very same crowd they intended to reach. Stiff and Dekker hoped that the perceived nostalgia/demand for 60s ska during 2 Tone would carry the day for Black and Dekker (instead of trusting Dekker's prodigious songwriting skills to produce new hits). But it was such a weird approach for such a renegade label--trying to have Dekker recapture past glories instead of creating new ones (which may have struck some as inauthentic and a calculated grab for cash).

It also suggests that Stiff and Dekker didn't really grasp why the old ska covers were being re-worked and incorporated into the 2 Tone bands' sets and recordings. It wasn't about nostalgia. The original ska and skinhead reggae songs were being appropriated in order to lend context and connection to what The Specials et al were doing with the ska genre in the late 70s/early 80s. The covers usually were supplementing/secondary to the incredible original material that the 2 Tone acts were creating and promoting. And, unlike Dekker, the 2 Tone artists' covers weren't retreads of their own material.

On balance, Black and Dekker remains a great album and it certainly deserved the love and attention of ska fans in 1980 (indeed, listening to it many decades later, much of it holds up quite well and makes one wonder why it wasn't a bigger success). According to the liner notes by John Reed for the 2013 Cherry Red/Pressure Drop reissue, sales of Black and Dekker were decent enough for Stiff to have reason to bankroll a second album (this time, of all new Dekker material), to be recorded at Island Records label head Chris Blackwell's studio in the Bahamas with Robert "Addicted to Love" Palmer producing (and Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare on rhythm section). Unfortunately, this pairing of producer and artist/genre was disastrous (according to Jo-Ann Greene's review in the All Music Guide, Dekker's material is great, but virtually every production choice Palmer made was flat-out wrong and killed the album in the studio) and, apart from a few so-so albums of reggae covers for Trojan in the 1990s (including one with several members of The Specials), Compass Point marked the ignoble end of Dekker's mostly stunning recording career.

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