Friday, December 4, 2020

Duff Review: Various Artists "Blue Beat Is Back in Town: The Sixty Year Celebration Album"

Blue Beat Records
Blue vinyl LP with gatefold sleeve

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Blue Beat Records--a subsidiary of Emil Shallit's Melodisc, which was founded in 1947 in London and specialized in licensing African highlife, Caribbean calypso and mento, and American jazz for release in the UK, and was one of Britain's first independent labels--was established in 1960 by Sigimund "Siggy" Jackson, a former music publisher who had been recruited in 1953 to join Melodisc as an A&R man and run the London office. Blue Beat was created in response to the success of Laurel Aitken's 1960 Melodisc single "Lonesome Lover" b/w "Marylee" to capitalize on the explosion of new Jamaican R&B that was being produced in JA (their take on the Black American R&B they were hearing broadcast from New Orleans, and on singles brought back by travelers to the US for play on sound systems)--and a style that would soon evolve into ska. Jackson's inspiration for the label's name was quite simple: "Because it had a good beat and was bluesy, I decided to call it Blue Beat."

The debut Blue Beat single was Laurel Aitken's "Boogie Rock" b/w "Little Sheila," followed by dozens of tracks licensed from top Jamaican producers such as Duke Reid, Prince Buster, and Coxsone Dodd, as well as Jackson's own productions with UK-based artists like Rico Rodriquez, The Marvels, and Laurel Aitken. (It's worth noting that the 1960 debut single from Chris Blackwell's then JA-based Island Records--which would become Blue Beat's main rival when Blackwell relocated the label in London in 1962--was Laurel Aitken's "Boogie in My Bones" b/w "Little Sheila.") During its initial run (1960-1967), Blue Beat released over 400 singles and about a dozen albums (introducing the world to JA artists like Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Owen Gray, Alton Ellis, Derrick Harriott, Toots and the Maytals, and many others in the process) that were enormously popular with both the ex-pat Jamaican community and British mods (so much so that Blue Beat became synonymous with ska music in the UK). Having said that, few of these releases climbed to the top of the charts, as the music was sold through specialized shops whose sales often weren't reported and included in music industry figures (and ska was largely consumed by marginalized/underground groups of people), though Prince Buster's 1964 single "Al Capone" b/w "One Step Beyond" made it to number 18 in the UK February of 1967! (Side note: Melodisc launched the FAB imprint in 1966, which was primarily devoted to licensing and releasing rocksteady sides, many of them from Prince Buster.)

In 1967, Shallit and Jackson split (the latter moved to EMI, where he created the Columbia Blue Beat imprint that released several skinhead reggae sides from Laurel Aitken, the Bees, the Mopeds, and others), and the Blue Beat imprint ceased releasing new material--though it was revived twice in the '70s to reissue several of Prince Buster's classic Blue Beat singles (unsurprisingly, demand was particularly great during the 2 Tone era, and Shallit was more than happy to meet it). Shallit passed away in 1983 and the imprint went dormant until 1989, when Buster Bloodvessel (AKA Doug Trendle) licensed the Blue Beat name from Jackson (who must have retained or reacquired rights to the imprint) and issued what is unquestionably Bad Manners' best album, Return of the Ugly, as well as superb records from Buster's Allstars, King Hammond, Napoleon Solo, and the excellent Live in London - The London International Ska Festival comp (I've written about many of these releases previously). Unfortunately, Buster's touring schedule kept him from the office and tending to business, and record sales did not keep pace with Blue Beat's aggressive new release schedule. Buster's version of Blue Beat went belly up in 1990.

Blue Beat's story might have ended there, but for Marcus Upbeat (née Downie) of the traditional ska band No.1 Station (which released a really great album for Rockers Revolt), who contacted Siggy Jackson in 2001 with the idea of reviving the label with a series of new but vintage-sounding releases. This partnership eventually yielded 13 Blue Beat singles released from 2004 through 2011--among them seven from No.1 Station, one each from Intensified and The Pyramids, and reissues of sides from Laurel Aitken and The Mopeds. In the midst of this, Jackson retired in 2009 after 50 years in the music business, and Marcus Upbeat acquired ownership of the label and focused on issuing Blue Beat's more recent releases digitally.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Blue Beat and its incredibly significant role in the history of ska music, Marcus Upbeat has released the Blue Beat Is Back in Town: The Sixty Year Celebration Album. This compilation provides a compelling overview of the label from all of its permutations. There are superb and essential 1960s Siggy Jackson-era releases from Laurel Aitken ("Boogie Rock"), The Folkes Brothers with The Count Ossie Afro-Combo ("Oh Carolina"), Derrick Morgan ("Miss Lulu"), Owen Gray ("Call Me My Pet"), Ewan and Jerry with The Carib Beats ("Oh Babe"), John Holt ("Help Me Make It Through the Night"), and Stranger Cole ("Rough and Smooth"). Blue Beat's enormous influence on the 2 Tone groups is acknowledged by the inclusion of Madness' cover of Prince Buster's "One Step Beyond" and The Beat's version of Prince Buster's take on Eddy Grant's "Rough Rider." The Buster Bloodvessel years are represented by Bad Manners Featuring Verona's excellent "Get Along Without You Now." And the Siggy Jackson/Marcus Upbeat revival is recognized by Marcus Upbeat's terrific new track "Blue Beat Is Back in Town" (also just issued as a double A-sided Blue Beat 60th anniversary single with Laurel Aitken's "Boogie Rock"), No.1 Station's awesome tribute to The Godfather of Ska "Laurel's Boogie," and Marcus & The Microdots "She's So Sweet" and The Marvels Featuring Donna Hinds' "We'll Have a Ball"--both of which are great old school style tracks.

The one shortcoming of the comp (and it's also the present-day label's Achilles heel) is that since the majority of Blue Beat's releases were licensed from JA producers in the 1960s, going about reissuing material that appeared on the Blue Beat imprint involves re-licensing the tracks from whomever now owns that producer's or artist's catalogue (for instance, several cuts here were licensed from various BMG labels like Sanctuary and Union Square, as well as Warner Brothers, and Cherry Red Records). Prince Buster, the label's greatest asset/artist in the '60s and '70, isn't represented by any of his classic recordings on this compilation (presumably due to licensing issues); his only appearance is a 2003 recording of "Enjoy Yourself" with Jools Holland (which, of course, bookended The Specials' More Specials). And given the sheer volume of key ska singles issued by the label in the 1960s, an additional LP of vintage tracks would have been welcome--and further emphasized Blue Beat's crucial role in the promotion and growth of ska music over the decades.

All criticism aside, Blue Beat Is Back in Town: The Sixty Year Celebration Album is a wonderful tribute to the label and its affiliated acts. Now that this milestone has been reached and commemorated, I'm eager and curious to see where Blue Beat goes from here...

No comments: