Review Summary: Love and God and Mutiny
We all know the song, if not the man. 'Angel' off Massive Attack’s seminal "Mezzanine," an album that launched a genre, was how the bulk of his fandom outside his native Jamaica was established. That song still stands as a near-flawless piece of music; built around a dense plunging bassline, it rides two crescendos so steep you feel your spine jerk, and then fades into a single twitch of dub. But for all that aural perfection, 'Angel' rises and falls with its singer, his misaligned croon more bracing and beautiful than anything the music could have mustered just from the immaculate production. And long before his balmy voice lent nervy claustrophobic grace to "Blue Lines" and "Mezzanine", in Bristol and around the world, Horace Andy spent close to three decades as the patron throat of Jamaica’s bustling dancehall scene.
Love, God and Mutiny stand as the vanguards of rocksteady music, and when its iconoclasts weren’t singing panegyrics to Jah or women, what they formed were protest songs that derided neocolonialism and all it brought to the islands.
The end of the 19th century saw Jamaica’s economy be overhauled, turning it from a plantation-based agricultural island into a horn of ore. The discovery of Jamaica’s cache of bauxite, a mineral oxide of aluminum, happened as early as the 1800’s. However, it wasn’t until World War II caused the West’s supplies of aluminum to dwindle, that mining companies set up permanent camp in the Great Antilles. The demand for bauxite and the labour jobs it created in the West Indies, outstripped sugar as the main export from the region. As more and more people streamed to bauxite-rich areas of Jamaica to break back for no holding interest, sugar and agriculture industries died off, leaving the place entirely dependent on the mining company payroll. As the excavation of bauxite progressed, thousands of people were displaced from their homes, forcing farmers to abandon their tracts. What followed was a typical sequence, one of shaky economics triggering heavy political instability and renewed racial strife. A mass pilgrimage to the UK ensued, where rocksteady and dancehall eventually evolved into two-tone ska and early primitive dub, genres themselves informed by economic and socio-political woes.
This was the grim set that Horace Andy was born into in 1951 in Kingston. By the time he started cutting songs with famed Caribbean producers Phil Pratt and Coxsone Dodd in the late 60’s, Jamaica’s mercantile disenfranchisement was in full swing. There was plenty to be angry about, but for all its brutalized origins, rocksteady music and its later formation into contemporary reggae were always denoted by uplift and a danceable abandon.
There was a study published in the 80’s laying claim that as the number of coloured TV’s in Israel grew, so did the number of suicides. The rub was that as the basic quality of life of the average man increased, he no longer had to worry of hunger or shelter, causing his mental state to erode from cosmetic existentialist prostration. In less oblique terms, the more time you’ve got on your hands, the more time you’ve got to collapse into superficial problems and fret your way into an early grave. That anxiety bleeds into all aspects of life, informing art along the way. It is true that music coming out of countries addled by political and economic malaise, issues entirely more urgent than psychiatric detachment, seems to be infinitely more capable of optimism. For all its troubled roots, rocksteady music rejoices like no other.
"Skylarking" was recorded in 1972 by Dodd at his Studio One, where Andy’s cousin Justin Hinds had previously cut the iconic 'Carry Go Bring Home,' later to be covered by just about every Trojan and Blue Beat mainstay. The album barely cracks a half-hour, but in that short time-frame, it manages a lot.
The title track would become Andy’s breakthrough hit, and aside from his intermittent stints in Massive Attack, is the song he is most associated with. The term refers to the idleness and hooliganism that plagues the disaffected youths mired in slums and shantytowns, rooted in the titular bird’s tendency for playfulness that at times defies adaption and turns to risk. The track is well-worth its rep, swaying atop a lively bass that jitters along happily, so much so that it seems almost grotesque when set against the woozy melancholy of Andy’s vocal.
Elsewhere, doo-wop back singers and punchy brass prop up 'Mammie Blue' and 'Don’t Cry,' love songs that break up the album’s political lean. Opener 'Where Do the Children Play' sets an early tone for most of the songs found here, Andy’s voice taking turns between warbling purrs and plaintive shouts. These protest songs seem almost too dapper now, with short run-times, and airy production that lends the music a dream-like state; but the structure of these tunes, a trilling voice bouncing on a steady bass pattern and low clapping drums, would form the skeleton of what would later become dub music.
It’s difficult to pinpoint this album’s beauty and charm, and it will do little to appeal to those who don’t take to reggae or ska. Its lack of change in tuning or tempo might make it repetitive and monotone to some. But the complex set of history and geography that stand behind "Skylarking" isn’t the only thing that makes Horace Andy such an original or formative presence music. Today, reggae has mostly been relegated to a platitude, the fare of stoners or innocuous background music at get-togethers. Yet for all its surface placidity, these songs are ingeniously alive, opening up in your earphones and prickling your knees into a sway. It breathes and unknots into subtle electronic touches or barely-audible acoustic plucks. And that voice… well, sometimes beauty is a well-deserved end in itself.