Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, February 18, 2003
COOL OFF RUDIES!….One of the better series of any genre of late has been these Trojan Records box sets of early reggae (1960s and 70s style): Rocksteady, 1970s dub, ska, Lee Perry/Upsetters, and many more. What I have recently learned is just what a pressure hold the Trojan label held on the release, marketing and distribution of these classic sides, as well as their import to the UK (where this stuff was popular enough to chart in the late 1960s). You listen to these box sets, and with few exceptions -- the Treasure Isle label comes to mind -- almost every quality Jamaican 45 of the day seems to have been owned by Trojan. It has all the makings of an antitrust special, thankfully this time to the consumer’s benefit. Each three-CD box set comes in a small, study cardboard box and has over 180 minutes of music. With a little searching, you can find them each selling for just $15 a box.

They are certainly milking this cow of every last drop, too. I took a stab at two that sounded promising, if not a little, uh, “poseur”: the Trojan Rude Boy box set and the Trojan Skinhead Reggae box set. I hereby pronounce both to be fantastic. Orange County fifteen-year-olds who come a-skankin’ to these from their No Doubt CDs are fully welcome under the big tent that is Agony Shorthand. Now, the Rude Boy thing would seem to be quite an unusual box set subject – how many quality songs would really there be, right? – but these guys, the “Rudies”, outlaw cowboy/pimps of the mid-60s, captivated Jamaica for better or for worse and set off a fierce spike of lyrical and musical creativity. On the pro side, we have Desmond Dekker & the Aces with “Rudie Got Soul”, The Pioneers stating on no uncertain terms that “Rudies Are The Greatest” and Derrick Morgan’s great “Tougher Than Tough (Rudie In Court). In the other corner, we have Justin Hinds & The Dominoes and “No Good Rudie”, Henry Buckley with “Beware of Rude Boys” and the one all y’all know, Dandy Livingstone’s “Rudy A Message To You”. These tracks are all full-band, horn-heavy, fast-scatting ska or near-instrumental Rocksteady (i.e. slower but still propulsive and danceable). Fifty tracks and barely a dog among them – and better yet, very few repeats from OTHER Trojan box sets. How many excellent Jamaican 45s were coming off the island back then? You have to reckon 5-7 great ones per week.

Just as good and as hard to pin down is the Skinhead Reggae box. I have another excellent comp of this stuff, the Treasure Isle Skinhead Moonstomp compilation, and the tracks appear to find simple common cause in the cropped hairstyles of the British chip-eaters who loved them. From the liner notes:

“Around the summer of 1968 Jamaican music underwent a transformation, with the rhythms of Rocksteady superseded by the more aggressive metre of Reggae. This no-nonsense, uncompromising style perfectly suited the attitude of the new young stylists (the UK Skinheads) and over the ensuing months, it increasingly provided the focus for their growing movement”.

Aside from spelling “meter” incorrectly, it’s as simple as that. A new fashion needed a sound, reggae got a little bit tougher, and there you have it: Skinhead Reggae. Unlike the Rude Boy box, very few of the songs deal directly with the skinheads, though a few cash-in numbers are included among the fifty tracks. For the untrained ear – like mine – this style of music is fairly indistinguishable from the Rude Boy box; it’s honking, aggressively played ska music if you ask me. I totally dig it. There certainly is a steaming heap of awful, awful reggae music. I am severely biased against non-dub reggae from the mid-1970s & beyond (which is when many of us heard our first Bob Marley and disavowed reggae immediately), but this 60s stuff is as soulful, inventive and as fun as anything Americans were doing on R&B labels like Stax/Volt/King etc. I hope Trojan keeps the goldmine coming – this is some great stuff