Review: Ian MacDonald, NME Nov 1975

THIS ONE’LL SORT out the liggers.

There’s a track on Mingus’s superb Let My Children Hear Music album (almost universally received with blankness by white jazz critics, but nevertheless a classic) – a track called ‘The I Of Hurricane Sue’.

Its black elemental vision was always too heavy for honky, and the rejection here was probably geared to Mingus’s sudden grasp of the possibilities of the white man’s studio.

Blacks are applauded as musicians if they stay ethnic and exhibit “artistry” by an alien definition, but the applause stops when they seize the alien technology and begin to use it better than its inventors.

Not that Burning Spear producer Jack Ruby is exactly Eddie Offord. No overdub club-sandwiches and fifty mikes round the Ludwigs at Randy’s Studio, Kingston, Jamaica – just a lot of “lightning, thunder, brimstone, fire”…

When you’ve bought this album (£5.50 at your local stall) chuck on ‘Red, Gold And Green’ at top volume. If you aren’t paying attention it’ll sound loud and last four-and-a-half minutes; if you can listen through your soul as well as your ears, you’ll hear a huge aural monsoon – winds rising along a stormcloud coast – music to inaugurate your revolution by.

Those who don’t hear nuthin’ probably won’t care for The I Of Hurricane Sue much, either. Think on.

Winston Rodney is the leader of Burning Spear.

Rupert Willington and Delroy Hines sing response lines, but Rodney is the king-pin – a roots poet converted to the black cultural beliefs of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) and a man in the unique position of being inevitable chart business, whilst-simultaneously able to knock openly at such august figures as Sir Alexander Bustamente (the Churchill of JA) and inquire directly of his hypnotized audience “Where is your love, Jamaicans?”

The Spear (the name is the “cultural” monniker of Jomo Kenyatta) started in 1969 on Clement Dodd’s Coxsone label, splitting to Ruby’s Fox outfit after a handful of hits (and a lot of unreleased recording) in 1971. Since then, they’ve had hit after hit – one of which, ‘Slavery Days’, was introduced to us by Third World on The Wailers’ last tour.
The appeal is obvious.

Rodney and Ruby have collaborated on producing the heaviest, most uncompromising roots music around – stuff that makes most of the current dub craze look the way it is: a little too light-headed.

The closest Marley’s got to communicating the awesome judgment-day music and philosophy of rasta on record is probably ‘Midnight Ravers’ – and this is in no way to downgrade the most diversified talent to emerge from Jamaica so far.

(Something to do with Dolbys, maybe?)

Burning Spear, on the other hand, want tradition –  and this boils down to getting the “live” impact of reggae into the grooves, instant sound-system.

The treble register is all brightness-without-glare – an atmosphere in which flutes glisten, Drummondesque brass rings out in the distance, drumsticks strike with a phased whistle, and Winston Rodney’s vocals seize almost tangibly at the listener’s attention.

The middle is neutral: skank… function. The Soul Syndicate are the MGs of reggae.

Robbie Shakespeare and Aston Barrett handle the bass end. Not only is the line for ‘Give Me’ the heaviest ever, it’s also the most caressingly recorded. The rest is similarly ear-opening.

As for the general scheme of the music, the initiate might find Dennis Brown a reasonable intermediate (if relatively minor) step to, say, ‘Jordan River’. Winston Rodney is as much musician as he is poet – which makes him (like Marley, like Dylan) a virtuoso singer, as well as able to let guitarist Chinna loose to extraordinary effect on the track which plumbs the deepest into tradition: ‘Tradition’.

The thing that will stop ‘Tradition’ reaching the top of the British hit-parade is the thing that stops us so much of the time. From hearing music instead of listening to it. It’s the Western cultural assumption that listening to music is a superior perceptive mode to ‘merely’ hearing it. (The answer? They should be done simultaneously, as fans of Castaneda’s Don Juan will tell you).

If half of being a critic resides in attempting to dissuade those who like to hang looser from getting too bogged down in the rainbow sludge of rock’n‘roll’s quite considerable industrial effluent, the other half has to do with encitement to riot.

The riot here is Burning Spear.