Review: Angus MacKinnon, NME May 1977

WHEN THE exuberant Toots Hibbert of The Maytals declared that “reggae got soul”, he was understating.

You remember soul, don’t you? Soul as in emotion, as n early Motown, as in Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and countless others at their respective peaks? Myself, I never forgave Norman Whitfield for psychedelicising The Temptations and so initiating the Great Disco-Funk Sellout – whereby once potent expressions of solidarity and resilience have become empty symbols and meaningless sloganeering.

Along with so many other platters out of JA, “Police and Thieves” and “Party Time” possess in abundance those very qualities that used to seem the almost exclusive prerogative of American black music: soul; emotion; pride; anger; ire and more besides.

Producer Lee Perry provides the connection here. Both albums are tantalisingly awash with incandescence of “Scratch’s” Black Ark sound. Perry wraps his studio (all four tape tracks of it) around singers and players like a protective forcer field, an ectoplasmic bag of sound that flexes in response to every note and beat.

His current rhythms are fast and streamlined. Bass and bass drums resonate through a screen of simmering percussion, muted horns, shifting, sifting guitars and keyboards. His production is simplicity itself and extreme sophistication guilessly combined; it’s so radiant.

All the same Perry treats his artists with deference, which is just as well perhaps since Junior Murvin’s voice is high ranged and pure, bittersweet and ecstatically soulful. It’s reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield – hardly surprising as Murvin’s act used to include Mayfield covers. But now he has his own songs to sing.

“Police And Thieves” (Scaring/fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition”) remains as pertinent a plea for an end to needless violence as it seemed last summer in the wake of the Jamaican election campaign and Notting Hill.

In “Rescue Jah Children” Murvin admonishes those responsible for divisive factionalism – “Stop the war in Rhodesia/Stop the war in Mozambique/Black against black everywhere/What a ball of confusion/Somebody got to set an example for the children to follow” – whilst the apocalyptic “False Teachin” demolishes another target – “Judgement at hand the teachers teach the lies/The preachers establish them high/Babylon blows the children’s minds”.

All this and more than ten immaculate rhythm cuts, though the gently humorous “Soloman” and the choogaloo of “Roots Train”. “Lucifer” condemns those of all colours and creeds who’ve in any way associated themselves with slavery; “Workin’ In The Cornfield” is a sweaty JA blues.

“Easy Task” (It’s no easy task to live but nobody wants to die”) and “Tedious” – Perry’s studio treatments at maximum warp as Murvin scats over a band workout – put the case for winning through against all the odds with an eloquence I’ve not encountered since Mayfield’s own, rather more laconic “Back To The World” and “America Today”. The location may be different, but the message remains the same. As Murvin suggests in “I Was Appointed”, “Whether you’re white or black, red or yellow, gather round, you got to do better”.

Whichever way you take it, “Police And Thieves” is a numbingly emotional first album.