Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Lee "Scratch" Perry w/Peaking Lights and Ivan Lee, "Life of the Plants" EP and Willie Williams "Armagideon Time (Discomix Vocal/Version)" 12"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Life of the Plants (12" vinyl EP, Stones Throw Records, 2019), a collaborative effort between Lee "Scratch" Perry, Peaking Lights (AKA Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis), and Argentinian musician Ivan Lee, is a compelling, modern take on roots reggae (Peaking Lights bills themselves as "electronic dub") that's not too dissimilar from Perry's work with Adrian Sherwood or Mad Professor. The moody and mysterious title track has an insistent and driving riddim with Perry urging the listener to follow a vegetarian way of life: "No meat, no beef/No chicken heads, no chicken backs, no chicken leg/No meat, no cannibalizing..." "No Age" features a repeated progression of dubby synth chords with various percussive and sound effects (its dub is similar, but incorporates more Perry exhortations). "Magik" is more of a trippy electronica cut than reggae, but concerns a recurring theme in Perry's work ("Macumba Rock" from his recently released Rainford album is about voodoo and black magic). Each of these tracks comes in just shy of 10 minutes--and all are too long, frankly. The material is great, but everything's needlessly stretched out. A more condensed and focused record would have yielded more powerful results.

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As part of their ongoing Studio One reissue series, Soul Jazz Records is releasing classic tracks from Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's pioneering label as a series of 12" singles. So far, I've picked up Horace Andy's 1973 hit sizzler "Fever" b/w Cedric Im Brooks' "The Flu" (an instrumental version of "Fever")--and have Alton Ellis' 1967 rocksteady smash "I'm Still in Love" (Althea and Donna used this riddim for "Uptown Top Ranking") b/w Soul Vendors' funky "Just a Bit of Soul" (love the Jackie Mittoo keyboard work here!) coming soon in the mail. Of all the 12" singles issued so far, the one that I'm most excited to have in my hands is Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time (Discomix Vocal)" b/w "Armagideon Time (Discomix Version)" (12" vinyl single, Soul Jazz Records, 2019), an absolute favorite of mine that I think is one of the greatest reggae songs ever recorded. These versions (first released in 1980) are not too far removed from Williams' original 1979 Studio One single (which utilizes Dodd's magnificent "Real Rock" riddim and is credited to Dodd/Mittoo/Williams), but incorporate laser sounds, almost ethereal piano chords/lines played by Mittoo on a Fender Rhodes, and additional percussion. I have these exact tracks on a treasured blue and white paper label Studio One reissued 7" single (pressed in the US in the 1990s?) that I found a few years ago, but they're titled "Armagideon Time" b/w "Armagideon Version" (with Sound Dimension). Of course, this song gained a vastly wider audience beyond JA when The Clash covered it brilliantly for the b side of their 1979 "London Calling" single (I was first introduced to "Armagideon Time" via The Clash's Black Market Clash compilation). Indeed, Joe Strummer's impassioned vocals--full of empathy, outrage, and desperation--contrast so well against the band's taut, muscular, but spare take on the music (they really "got" reggae--and Topper Headon's drumming on this cut is phenomenal). Thematically, "Armagideon Time" was also the perfect companion piece to "London Calling's" apocalyptic/post-nuclear "error" societal breakdown scenario. But for all of Strummer's emoting, Willie Williams' simple, straight-forward, and relaxed vocals are all the more powerful for their same-as-it-ever-was matter-of-factness. His lyrics pack all of the punches themselves...

"A lotta people won't get no supper tonight
A lotta people going to suffer tonight
'Cause the battle is getting harder
In this Iration, it's Armagideon

A lotta people won't get no justice tonight
So, a lot of people going to have to stand up and fight
But remember, to praise Jehovah
And he will guide you
In this Iration, it's Armagideon"

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Duff Review: Madness' New, Anti-Tory/Boris Johnson Single, "The Bullingdon Boys"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

After a three-year break from recording (their last album was the excellent Can't Touch Us Now--though they have been playing gigs/festivals and have just released a book, "Before We Was We: Madness by Madness"), Madness are back on the beat with the explicitly anti-Boris Johnson/Tory/Trump track, "The Bullingdon Boys," just in time for the UK's high-stakes general election coming up later this month. For non-Brits, the Bullingdon reference is to an elite/exclusive club for rich Oxford University students (one not officially recognized by that institution) who have been educated at "public" (meaning private in the US) schools, such as Eton. Members of the Bullingdon Club include the former British Prime Minister David Cameron, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland Nick Hurd, and the current PM Boris Johnson (Tories/Conservatives, all). And this song's about how the 1% (see the aforementioned Eton alum) maintain their cold, dead grip on political power and wealth through a rigged system of predatory capitalism/governance that benefits them at the expense of everyone else (in a similar vein--times never change--see The Jam's "Eton Rifles""What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?").

In "The Bullingdon Boys" lyrics below, note the MAGA reference and Johnson's similar, Trumpian ploy of appealing to the anti-immigrant/racist crowd in order to lure them into voting against their own interests (buh-bye NHS) for the party that will gladly pick their bones after they've fleeced the nation.

"The Eton Boys are undefiled
The Bullingdon Boys, running wild
And England slides into the mist
No hope they'll cease nor desist

They're making England great again
Make way for the bagmen
And when everything's been sold and bought
We'll soon be off the life support

This is an English public school
This is where Britain raised its empire
Rulers of yesterday
And still trains the leaders of tomorrow"

"The Bullingdon Boys" opens with the discordant, careening car crash final crescendo of sounds (an orchestral glissando) from Lennon and McCartney's/The Beatles' "A Day in the Life," (in the "Bullingdon" music video, it looks like we're about to crash into the cliffs of Dover) and transitions quickly into Madness' classic music hall-pop-ska sound, with Suggs serving as our reliable (if bitter) guide through the nation's "comedy horror show." The music video for "The Bullingdon Boys" features clips from movies like "A Clockwork Orange," "A Christmas Carol" (highlighting the pre-reformed Scrooge, of course), "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," "Bonnie and Clyde," one of the spaghetti Westerns (don't have time to watch them now), and the disturbing satire of English public school life (also starring droog Malcolm McDowell), "...if," among others.

At the moment, there is no physical release of this song--it's a digital single, available from the usual outlets. But a protest track like this--so sharply relevant to what may be democracy's end times--cries out for a physical release (that artwork's made to be on the picture sleeve for a 45!) to race up the charts and give notice/pause to the powers that be (and hope to the resistors) that not everyone's been duped by their authoritarian gaslighting or co-opted via their insidious, bread and circuses-like schemes.

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