Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Duff Review: Phoenix City All-Stars "Skatisfaction"

Hotshot and Scorcher

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As a kid--we're talking elementary and middle school years here--I was a Beatles guy, drawn to their perfectly constructed, catchy pop and rock songs (for the record, I was a much bigger fan of John's than Paul's--I liked my Beatles songs to have a bit of an edge, like "She Said, She Said," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," and "Strawberry Fields").  I certainly was aware of The Rolling Stones--they were inescapable in the realm of pop culture--and heard them often on NYC's classic rock radio station WNEW in the 1970s (as well as the oldies station WCBS), but I just wasn't that much into their shambling, bluesy rock.

But the advent of MTV in the early 80s started to change my stance on the Stones. I had to visit my friend Johnny in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan to watch MTV, which we did obsessively (my parents' house in nearby Yonkers didn't have cable yet and even if we did, the local cable company didn't carry MTV yet). In between all of the British New Wave music videos I was devouring, I was exposed to a number of Rolling Stones videos, including "Waiting on a Friend" (watch it and time travel back to NYC's East Village in the early 80s and see Mick and Keith hanging on a St. Mark's Place stoop with Peter Tosh), and begrudgingly found that I liked their New York centric New Wave and disco tracks from Some Girls and Tattoo You (see a tune like "Shattered": Don't you know the crime rate/Is going up, up, up, up, up/To live in this town you must be/Tough, tough, tough, tough, tough/You got rats on the West Side, bed bugs uptown/What a mess, this town's in tatters/I've been shattered, my brain's been battered/Splattered all over Manhattan").

While the Phoenix City All-stars Skatisfaction tribute album doesn't mine the late 70s/early 80s Stones output that wormed its way into my brain, I'm happily surprised to find that I really dig their stellar vintage ska take on a slew of Rolling Stones hits and deep album cuts from the 1960s and early 70s. Skatisfaction follows the Phoenix City All-stars' tremendously great tribute to 2 Tone, Two Tone Gone Ska, where the band interpreted, arranged, and performed material by The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat, Madness, and Specials producer/2 Tone fan Elvis Costello as if they were The Skatalites back at Studio One in 1965 (honoring both the originators and the revivalists). And it seems especially appropriate that the Phoenix City All-stars (comprised of members of Pama International, The Sidewalk Doctors, Kasabian, Intensified, Dub Vendor All-stars, The Loafers, Big Boss Man, The Bongolian, and The Delegators) are channelling The Skatalites on Skastisfaction, since The Skatalites tended to cover--even commandeer--the pop hits of the day (see The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" repurposed as "Independence Anniversary Ska" or Henry Mancini's "Mambo Parisienne" versioned as "Ska La Parisienne") and The Rolling Stones were their musical contemporaries (!). As a music fan, it may be heretical to admit this, but I prefer these songs in a ska setting rather than a blues-based one--and the fact that many of the Stones' songs were written in minor keys works to the Phoenix City All-stars' advantage, since so many of The Skatalites' best tunes are in those scales ("Reburial," "Confucius," "A Shot in the Dark," "Determination," "Exodus," etc.).

Skatisfaction starts with a killer, driving instrumental version of the menacing, I-can't-be-bought-off 1965 B-side "Play with Fire" ("Well, you've got your diamonds/And you've got your pretty clothes/And the chauffeur drives your cars/You let everybody know/But don't play with me/'Cause you're playing with fire") that was originally recorded just by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Phil Spector producing (and playing bass). I wasn't familiar with the original cut until looking it up on YouTube--but this version really holds up quite well against the original (and may even best it). Guest vocalist Freddie Notes (who, according to the album liner notes, sang at Mick and Bianca Jagger's wedding--and is known for his world-wide 1970 Trojan smash "Montego Bay") gives a soulful reading to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," shedding the youthful urgency and angry sexual frustration of the original for the wisdom that comes with age (sure he still wants it, and will keep trying to get it--but experience has taught him that life doesn't own you a damn thing and will often leave your wants and desires unsated, just like it did when you were young) .

The terrific, edgy instrumental version of "Under My Thumb" features a vocal line taken on by a Jackie Mittoo organ and guitar work very reminiscent of Ernest Ranglin or Lynn Taitt. I was never a fan of the Stones' sluggish ballad "Wild Horses," but completely love the Phoenix City All-stars' crisp rocksteady version, which still retains the original's sadness, regret, and longing through The Sidewalk Doctors' Nathan Thomas' superb vocals (this might very well be my favorite track on this album).

I've never heard Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" until now (covered by The Rolling Stones on their 1969 album Let It Bleed--I prefer Johnson's direct and stripped down version), but this blues standard is almost completely transformed into a great Skatalites dancefloor stormer by the Phoenix City All-stars. "Paint It Black" sounds like newly rediscovered spaghetti Western reggae gem, with Oxman toasting on top (listen to it below). Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" (recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1961 and Sam Cooke in 1963--the Stones based their version on Cooke's and it reached #1 on the British charts in 1964) with Freddie Notes on vocals sounds very much like an early 60s ska track, when ska's rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll roots were still very evident. The country track "Sweet Virginia" (from Exile on Main Street) is rendered here as a sprightly ska track (greatly improving the song, in my opinion), with a sweet saxophone covering the vocal line.

The Phoenix City All-stars take on "Time Is On My Side" perfectly conveys the cool confidence, swagger, and cockiness of the original ("...you'll come running back to me"), with the horns delivering the vocal line. Nathan Thomas closes the album with a less boastful/more sober version of (the kinda skanky, as in nasty) "Honky Tonk Woman" that doesn't seem to revel in trolling for prostitutes and "fallen" women as much as the original (but I always found the Stones' in yer face, bad boy, sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll pose/lifestyle kind of tiresome to begin with). It's a nice touch--it an album full of them--that they keep the cowbell intro to this song and that the song fades out at the end, as if the band and Thomas drift off into a blurry night of drinking and debauchery.

People who happen to be fans of both The Rolling Stones and ska will immediately take to the Phoenix City All-stars' Skatisfaction (and they should--it's fantastic!). But the greater triumph may be its ability to win over those ska fans ambivalent (maybe even hostile!) towards the Stones--which just goes to prove that really well-crafted songs can be introduced into a new musical genre and, in the right hands, sound just as good--or even better--than the originals.

+ + + +

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Duff Review: The Clash featuring Ranking Roger - "Red Angel Dragnet" b/w "Rock the Casbah"!

Ska Boots Series
Fuschia vinyl 7" record (with Go Feet paper label)
Available in the US through Jump Up Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

God, if these two tracks had seen the light of day back in 1982--say on a 12" single, which were all the rage in the 80s--my head probably would have exploded from the sheer euphoria of experiencing this union of The Clash and The English Beat (two of my favorite bands, both then and now). Truth be told, I didn't even know that these demos existed until I read about them in the Marco on the Bass blog last summer. But it makes complete sense that some sort of collaboration was inevitable between these bands, as they both loved and successfully mined similar musical territory in ska and reggae.

Whether due to some wonderful cosmic coincidence or a brilliant pairing concocted by an unusually savvy promoter, The Clash and The Beat shared the stage for seven shows in Paris at the Theatre Mogador in September 1981 and the bands got on so well that The Clash invited Ranking Roger to toast during their covers of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time" and Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" for the duration of the Paris residency (and a few years later, Mick Jones joined Dave Wakeling's and Ranking Roger's post-Beat group, General Public, though he almost immediately departed to form Big Audio Dynamite with Don Letts). When it came time to record The Clash's follow-up to the extraordinary Sandinista, Strummer and Jones invited Ranking Roger to toast on two of their new cuts, "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Rock the Casbah." Initially, the title for this post-Vietnam War-obsessed double album was Rat Patrol from Ft. Bragg and Mick Jones handled all of the producing and mixing. However, when the rest of the band heard the results, they were less than thrilled--and classic rock pro Glyn Johns, who had produced albums for The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Eagles, amongst others, was brought it to finish the job (with only Strummer at his side). In the process, the double album was culled down a single LP and retitled Combat Rock (and the Rat Patrol mixes were later repeatedly bootlegged and now can be found, of course, on the internet).

The unnamed Brits behind the Ska Boots series (which has released ska and reggae covers/tracks by Joe Strummer, Amy Winehouse, The Specials, Madness, Lily Allen, No Doubt, Billy Bragg, Ian Dury, The Pogues, Jools Holland, Eddie Vedder, and a pre-Madonna Madonna) have released Mick Jones' demo mixes of the sweet, dubby extended versions of "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Rock the Casbah" with Ranking Roger toasting over these cuts. While the sound quality is what you would expect for a demo--and Roger's vocals aren't fully integrated into the mix of these songs, they're riding on top--I doubt most Clash/Beat fans will mind, since it's so cool to have these versions in such a nice, tangible package. (Cheeky of them to use the Go Feet paper label for this bootleg, but it works well and in plays out a crossover fantasy that I'm sure exists in many a fan's mind.)

Of the two cuts here, the "Taxi Driver"/Guardian Angels/Jack the Ripper mash up "Red Angel Dragnet" works better; there's more menace in Roger's chatting and vocal effects--and it's far more effective than Kosmo Vinyl's Travis Bickle imitation (though here I miss his recitation of "One of these days, I'm going to get myself organizized" that appears right before the end fade of the Combat Rock version of this song). Also, the loping song structure of "Red Angel Dragnet"--somewhere between reggae and rockabilly, courtesy of Paul Simonon's songwriting--lends itself better to a dub version and gives Roger the space to do his thing. I've always had a soft spot for this deep album cut, as it taps into and reflects the seamier, lawless, and dangerous side of New York City in the early 80s (and celebrates a movie that revels in it) that was very real to me. I was seeing Curtis Sliwa's red windbreaker and beret outfitted Guardian Angels (the police shooting of Guardian Angel Frank Melvin inspired Strummer's lyrics for this song) who were citizen patrolling the grimy and decrepit (but sometimes stunning) subways I had been riding alone since fifth grade beneath the burning South Bronx, back and forth between Manhattan and Yonkers, and I had survived my infrequent, but unpleasant and nerve-wracking trips through Times Square, which was packed with porno theaters and heavily populated with con artists, drug dealers, and pimps and prostitutes--all of whom were depicted pretty accurately in Martin Scorcese's vigilante movie "Taxi Driver."

Lyrically, Ranking Roger's toasting in "Red Angel Dragnet" makes reference to the horrifying January 14, 1983 London Metropolitan Police ambush and shooting of Stephen Waldorf, whom they thought was escaped prisoner David Martin (it should be noted that Combat Rock was released in May of 1982--so this track could not have been part of the pre-Glyn Johns Mick Jones mixes). Roger also refers to the very real threat of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation in the early 80s (a few years earlier, the UK government had disclosed that American cruise missiles with nuclear warheads were being stored on British air force bases and could be launched against the Soviets from British soil; this, of course, made England an obvious target for the Russians in the event of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers): "Di Russian, di American/Dem both have a plan/and if we no careful/They involve a England/So what's the worry?/It's the cruise missile/Cause if we not careful/We end up in a pile." Not surprisingly, Roger makes a plea for "love and unity" at the end of the song, which was a repeated (and very much worthwhile) theme during his tenure with The Beat (see "Stand Down Margaret").

Mega-hit "Rock the Casbah" (The Clash's only top 10 single in the USA)--music by Topper Headon, lyrics by Strummer that were inspired by Iran's new(ish) religious fundamentalism that severely cracked down on popular music, amongst many other things--is almost too tightly wound of a pop/dance song for Ranking Roger's toasting; the backing track is too busy and dense. Having said that, it's still a great version of this song that should have been further developed (like "Red Angel Dragnet") and released back in the day. The audience was there and eager for this kind of experimentation, though the band (Strummer, in particular) was more focused on making a more mainstream hit album that would generate the financial reward and true fame in the USA that had eluded them (see Tony Fletcher's "The Clash: The Music That Matters"). I cringed when I learned that they were opening for classic rock dinosaurs The Who at Shea Stadium in Queens on the Combat Rock tour and didn't even try to go see them because of it. It's too bad that The Clash couldn't split the difference between Strummer's rock star ambitions and Jones' desire to further explore musical avenues in hip hop and reggae (and that Topper Headon couldn't quit the drugs and rejoin the band). They should have realized both the hit pop album and released Jonesie's more experimental dub/alternate versions as related singles--and maybe this might even have kept the band together long enough to release one more great Clash album with (most of) the original band (instead, we had to settle for Big Audio Dynamite's good to great Strummer/Jones collaboration in No. 10, Upping St. in 1986).

+ + + + +

Monday, December 2, 2013

Junior Murvin, RIP

Junior Murvin (photo by Adrian Boot)
According to the Jamaica Observer, Junior Murvin (AKA Murvin Junior Smith) died today at the age of 67 at the Port Antonio Hospital in Portland, Jamaica. While no cause of death has been determined as of yet, according to his son Kevin Smith, Murvin had entered the hospital last week seeking treatment for both diabetes and hypertension.

Punk fans worldwide were introduced to Murvin's music through The Clash's punky reggae cover of his "Police and Thieves," which was featured on their debut album in 1977. But many in the UK had first heard "Police and Thieves"--with Murvin's incredible, other-worldly falsetto, on par with anything The Congo's did on their perfect Heart of the Congos--in 1976, as the single had been a minor hit in England (and was associated with that year's rioting at the Notting Hill Festival , since the lyrics concern police violence, corruption, and oppression--"All the peacemaker, turn war officer"). Murvin's excellent debut album of the same title, released in 1977, was co-written and produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at his legendary Black Ark studio--and is considered by many to be amongst Perry's finest productions and an essential roots reggae album.

While Murvin continued to write and record music throughout the 1980s and 1990s and released gems like "Cool Out Son" (using the Soul Vendors' "Real Rock" riddim, which was appropriated for Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time"--also covered incredibly well by The Clash), he never quite reached the creative peak--and absolute perfection--of "Police and Thieves."

There are two good, comprehensive Junior Murvin bios to check out at Reggae Vibes and All Music; and his discography can be perused at Discogs.

Our deepest condolences go out to Junior Murvin's family and friends.