Desmond Dekker & the Aces
Ska or reggae? You decide.
And does it matter? When this song came out in the spring of 1969, hitting #1 in the UK, Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands -- even edging into the US Top Ten -- most people outside of Jamaica didn't know the difference and didn't care. Dekker's strong Jamaican accent, the relatively simple production, that heavy bassline all told us it was "island music." It didn't occur to me to wonder why a guy from Jamaica would be singing about people from Israel. All I knew was (cue up the American Bandstand theme) it had a great beat and you could dance to it.
So tonight I'm watching old episodes of the daffy British slapstick comedy Doctor in the House (thank you, YouTube!) -- a show I used to watch in re-runs on late-night Indianapolis PBS with my brother and sister. It was the summer of '75, the last time we all three were living at home, and our nightly rendezvous with this mad Britcom was essential. Around 10pm we'd drive out to the 24-hour Marsh supermarket (quite a novelty in those days, that all-night schedule) to buy our customary Doritos and Pepsi and Nabisco's Famous Cookies assortment, then race home in time for that perky theme song. Good times, good times . . . I can still hear Holt's mad cackle in my heart.
But I digress. In the episode I watched tonight, the show's hero, med student Michael Upton (played by Barry Evans, if you must know), can't study because his dorm room is so noisy. And lo and behold, what record is his neighbor rudely blasting at top volume? Yes, this 1969 hit, probably still on the charts when this episode first aired. Jeez, I hadn't thought about this song in probably 40 years.
But what a great song it is.
Desmond Dekker said this song just flew into his head, one night while he was walking through a park in a poor section of Kingston and overheard a couple arguing about money. It's as if he just transcribed the man's lament: "Get up in the morning, slavin' for bread / So that every mouth can be fed / Oh, oh, me Israelite." The dogged syncopation is just right -- it really makes you feel how weary the singer is from his daily dutiful grind. I love how the Aces join in on those doleful "oh's," as if consoling him -- or maybe just reminding us how many others are bowed down by the same hopeless struggle.
Ah, the Biblical references of reggae -- like "Rivers of Babylon," a song I wouldn't hear until 2 years later when I saw The Harder They Come. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You don't even have to know that Rastafarians identified with the Lost Tribes of Israel. It's like African-American slaves in the cotton fields, singing "Go Down, Moses," a coded message protesting their own enslavement. All poor Jamaicans, not just the Rastas, knew what it felt to labor for a foreign king, remembering Zion.
In the second verse, his wife's left him; in the third he woefully describes his raggedy clothes -- "shirt them-a tear up, trousers is gone" (though I'm sure in 1969 I could not decipher those lyrics; thanks, internet!). I did get the next line: "Don't want to end up like Bonnie & Clyde." This was just a year after Arthur Penn's film about those romantic Depression-era gangsters (was Warren Beatty not hot in that movie?) and only a couple months after Georgie Fame's "Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde" hit the airwaves; of course that reference would jump out at me. This guy doesn't want to resort to a life of crime, even though so many in Kingston did. Or maybe he just doesn't want to end up riddled with bullets in a police shoot-out -- well, who could blame him?
What a downbeat song this could have been -- yet the tempo ticks along, that trippy melody bounces around the scale. It's as if the act of singing the song itself keeps him from despair. If I were a DJ, I'd play this song alongside Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine" and Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang." In 1968, what did I know about working long hours for no pay? To be honest, what do I know about it now? But thanks to records like these, at least I have given it more than a passing thought.