Jimmy Cliff is back on top with his newest record, Sacred Fire EP, with five exceptionally energized Reggae songs, that sound like the Real Deal dating from the early 1970s era, that emerged from the streets of Kingston, Jamaica (I’m no authority on this movement, but my curiosity might propel me to do some grassroots Reggae research sometime.) To get myself ready for Cliff’s freshest offering, I rented The Harder They Come on ITunes, in order to recreate the inspiring moment when Reggae gave birth.
I needed to think back on my days when I worked at the first vegetarian restaurant that came to Austin, The Garden Cafe, with Rick and Mac as the owners. Rick handled the tempura fried vegetables, veggie tacos, and Guacamole/Bean Sprout Mountains, while Mac took charge of the fruit smoothies, which was a completely new phenomenon in those days (1972 & 1973). (Mac had the first smoothie bar in Austin too, The Octopus Garden.)
Anyway, we drank a lotta of beer and smoked lots of reefer while we were working. Things were considerably looser in those days but the pay was unbelievably beaucoup low; so the management figured they could appease us by keeping us messed up out of our heads all the time. And come to think of it, this worked rather well, since we never rebelled or rioted, or never went on strike like these Occupy Wall Street bunch do now days.
What kept us happy really (along with the many gorgeous hippie chicks who worked at the Garden), was repeatedly rolling the soundtrack to the Harder They Come. And Mac would bring in at least two six packs of Shiner Bock for the grueling night shift and reefer made the rounds perpetually as we sang along with the Reggae classics, ‘You can get it if you really want.’ Repeat. I’ll let go of the nostalgia for now, and instead let’s vacation in Jimmy Cliff’s sunny Jamaica!
If you don’t get this Sacred Fire EP you’re going to hate yourself. A cover of the Clash’s The Guns of Brixton speaks of rebellion where the violence of the police may be answered by an equal dose of violence. Listen for a clanking cow bell, phasing guitar drenched in reverb, a power-driven drum kit, with undulating trombones accenting a lyric smitten of the Storming of the Bastille – instrumental counter-point bounces back and forth between your cheapo speakers.
For Ruby Soho, I watched Rancid’s original rendition on YouTube earlier today, since I’m not that familiar with the band Rancid. Their version is fairly more edgy and punky (than Cliff’s), but still has some charming harmonies, which Cliff continues in his signature falsetto (overdubbing on his own lead vocal), against a very bright, almost Ska-esque rhythm. Or maybe that’s just a very fast reggae rhythm – I know it’s 4/4, but at what point does it become Ska? Ska/Reggae scholars, come at once on out of your closet!
Ship Is Sailing is a new original of Jimmy’s that is an uplifting, spritely reggae ditty that gets you dancing a jig! A pick up organ lick kicks off each verse as a Jimmy Buffet-like nautical melody against a traditional springy Reggae rhythm. Cliff’s vocal performance is up to par with his characteristic falsetto outbursts, that would have you believe he’s a man of a mere twenty-five years. As good as this one is, the next one is the EP Keeper. A forty-eight year-old folk song about an imminent nuclear holocaust (Bobby wrote it just after the conclusion of The Cuban Missile Crisis) is rendered with enough immediacy, enough spontaneity, that we would expect it to be a timely comment on the condition of the world today.
Whoever would’ve thought Bob Dylan’s iconic anthem, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, could be pumped-up into a humorous, bouncy, bubbly, reggae sing-a-long? Jimmy switches ‘blue-eyed son’ to ‘brown-eyed son’ to make it for real Jamaican, with thumpin’ bass and a cacophony of gyrating carnival organ. And when Jimmy says: “Where black is the color, where none is the number,” he means it much more passionately than even its original lyricist.
You’ll swear up and down this is lifted right off of the soundtrack of The Harder They Come. The song has been transformed to fit into that classic reggae sound, perhaps since they used vintage analog equipment from that period. I’m curious about what type of vintage equipment was actually used and what musicians were gathered for the Sacred Fire EP. Yet I can’t seem to find the documentation anywhere?
The last song is the Brixton Version, which is a dub mix of the Guns of Brixton, creating some divergent musical architectonics with the first song, Guns of Brixton. Lots of echo and reverb, thumpy elevated bass, vocals wafting as if from a tunnel, whammy- bar guitar, percussion way up front, and there’s some trombone licks that simulate a trickling out of a beer barrel. (Guess on that one!)
Samples and repeats on the line: “Shot down on the pavement,” with the sample button slammed down hard on Shot, and it’s off to the races. Track 1 and 5 function as virtual bookends, but one is Tweedledum and the other is Tweedledee, they’re that different. Some brilliant mixing here on the dub mix; I suppose it was Jimmy himself and Tim Armstrong (the producer) twisting the knobs, getting that olde sound.
The Jimmy Cliff official web page is provided below for your enjoyment. Don’t fail to watch Jimmy doing The Harder They Come on Jimmy Fallon from just a few days ago. Jimmy is 63 now but is still in tip-top physical shape and gives a really stirring interpretation of his 1972 classic, with the Jimmy Fallon house band (Roots) doing a proper job at duplicating a Real Jamaican Roots Reggae Unit.