LIVE – BURNING SPEAR (1977)
I’ve never been to a reggae gig. They’re comparatively rare in Scotland and, despite the odd historic flirtation with the genre, Elvis Costello can hardly be said to count, so I have to content myself with some of the most incendiary live albums of any kind: The Wailers from the Lyceum in 1975 (over-familiarity notwithstanding); Misty In Roots at the Counter Eurovision, and this one.
For all the majesty of the studio-bound dub sorcery that was being cast by Lee Perry, Joe Gibbs and the rest by the mid-’70s, reggae’s essence remained in its performance and you can hear the roof being torn off on these albums, and see as well as hear the alfresco splintering in the numerous Reggae Sunsplash films produced over the years.
With this scalding performance by Burning Spear, captured at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park, north London (a venue steeped in late ’70s music lore) Island chief Chris Blackwell might have had justifiable reason to believe that Marley’s crossover success would be replicated. A similarly scintillating London performance, a similarly red, green and yellow (gold was tricky to reproduce) ‘live’ logo , a similarly exultant onstage pose struck on the cover by Winston Rodney. Not so commercially but musically…
Marcus Garvey strides off from the starting blocks on one of the mightiest riffs in all reggae which reminds you that Rodney (he is Spear and Spear is him) is a master of the deep-striking pop hook – see Tradition on Marcus Garvey (the album) and Columbus on Hail HIM for further evidence. It mainly comes courtesy of Aswad, then, along with Misty, Matumbi and Steel Pulse, in the vanguard of the first wave of British reggae and a full decade away from their number one with featherweight soft metal cover Don’t Turn Around.
But the song carries real weight – the titular Garvey, a political and trade union activist of the early 20th century, is revered as one of Rastafarianism’s most important prophets, not only for his fostering of a truly international black consciousness, and of the admittedly contentious ‘back to Africa’ movement, but also for his declaration that the crowning of a black king in Africa would herald the “day of deliverance” – widely held to be a prophecy of Haile Selassie’s emergence as Emperor of Ethiopia.
But imprisonment, deportation and an obscure, impoverished death in London in 1940 followed for Garvey. By the 1970s, his reputation in Jamaica was secure but on Old Marcus Garvey, it’s those years of oblivion that Rodney seems to be lamenting, as he repeats “no one remember Old Marcus Garvey” while countering it with a roll call of other heroes of Jamaican history. And he really is lamenting – as the sombre rhythms roll, he genuinely sounds like he’s bursting into tears over this negligence – I wasn’t there and there doesn’t seem to be any footage but it sounds pretty real to me and he doesn’t stop weeping even as the music ends. This level of intensity, you feel, is what the NME’s Chris Salewicz was getting at when, in a quote boldly pulled out for the album’s advery, he pronounced it “the most awe-inspiring show I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
There’s more unorthodox vocalising on Man In The Hills. To a lissom, intoxicating rhythm, Rodney extols the Rastafarian practice of communal living in the Blue Mountains above Kingston (a theme he would soon revisit on the superb Social Living) and brings the nature of rural Jamaica to the sprawl of north London with an exuberant blast of birdsong.
Such is the supercharged cauldron of this music that even the lyrically grim Slavery Days gives rise to a call-and-response, that’s invigorating where these things are so often corny. “Do you remember the days of slavery? Do you? Do you?” Demands Rodney. Each time the answer comes back “yeah!” Thankfully, the answer is really no but, as with the Holocaust, remembering here means not allowing to be forgotten. Now, of course, we know slavery has never gone away, though the notion of “modern slavery” is a grotesque paradox. Modern signifies progress, refinement, enhancement; slavery is, by definition, primitive, barely evolved. Remember.
But this is the mark of protest music at its most potent, music and message hitting feet, hips, head and heart simultaneously and with equal force. If the question “do you feel irie?” at the start of Lion elicits a negative response, better check for a pulse (PG).