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 (Above: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros delight in performing Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every Christmas Eve, a significant block of time is set aside to honor the late Joe Strummer, who died on Dec. 22, 2002. This year, The Daily Record celebrates Strummer’s lifelong love of reggae music.

The Clash – “Pressure Drop”

Joe Strummer – “The Harder They Come”

Joe Strummer and Jimmy Cliff – “Over the Border”

In the early days of the London punk scene, DJ/filmmaker/musician Don Letts played reggae albums at the famed Roxy Club. At first the reggae was a necessity – the punk scene was still too young for any of the bands to record their own material. But even after the punk catalog exploded, the reggae remained.

“The punks were digging on the old anti-establishment chant down Babylon (attitude), heavy bass lines and they didn’t mind the weed,” Letts told Mojo magazine in 2008.

Not that this was many of the punks’ first exposure to the Jamaican genres.

“People like (Joe) Strummer, (John) Lydon and (Paul) Simonon didn’t need Don Letts to turn them on,” Letts said in the same interview.

Jimmy Cliff in "The Harder They Come."

Strummer, Simonon and the remaining members of the Clash likely stumbled upon Toots and the Maytalls’ “Pressure Drop” shortly after its 1972 release on the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come.” Both the film and the soundtrack had a profound influence on Strummer. In 1977 the band covered “Pressure Drop,” which was released in 1979 as the b-side to “English Civil War.” The title of their second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” borrows the style of “The Harder They Come” by introducing a well-known phrase and letting the second half remain implied (i.e. “… and they’ll hang themselves”).

“Safe European Home,” one of the tracks on “Rope,” not only name checks “The Harder They Come,” but borrows the phrase “Rudie can’t fail” from another reggae song, foreshadowing the band’s biggest foray into the ska/Two-Tone sound. Finally, Strummer borrowed the film plot of “The Harder They Come” and adapted it to his British punk interpretation titled “Rude Boy.”

Two decades after the release of “Rude Boy,” Strummer recorded his own version of “The Harder They Come.” Teaming with the Long Beach Dub All-Stars and U.K. reggae singer Tippa Irie, his cover was released on the 2000 benefit album “Free the West Memphis Three.” Strummer’s interpretation doesn’t alter much from Jimmy Cliff’s original, but he’s clearly having a great time. Strummer thought enough of the song that another recording of the song was posthumously released the b-side to “Coma Girl.” Recorded live with the Strummer’s final band, the Mescaleros, this version is taken at a faster tempo and joyously ragged and raw.

At one of his final recording sessions, Strummer finally got to collaborate with Cliff. Upon learning where Cliff was recording his latest album, Strummer showed up with some unfinished lyrics in hand that he felt Cliff should sing. “Over the Border,” the song that grew out of this partnership appeared on Cliff’s 2004 album “Black Magic.”

Cliff described the session with Gibson.com shortly before his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

“The two of them (producer Dave Stewart and Strummer) began playing guitar, and I came up with the melody, and then Joe chipped in with some help on the melody as well,” Cliff said. “We recorded the song right away. That was a really special moment for me. You can imagine the shock I felt after hearing that Joe was not with us anymore.”

Keep reading:

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2009)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2008)

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Original Wailers keep promise to Bob Marley

 

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(Above: Toots and the Maytals deliver “54-46 Was My Number” to a massive French audience in 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For four hours Sunday night, the back lot behind Grinder’s felt like a Jamaican resort.

The balmy summer weather was the perfect accompaniment to the music. Toots and the Maytals, the group that invented the word “reggae,” and the Wailers, the band that took it mainstream, celebrated both the roots and the future of the genre for a partially packed but fully appreciative audience.

While both groups feature only one founding member, it was more than enough for each ensemble. Led by bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the Wailers blasted through an energetic hour of Bob Marley’s greatest hits.

The 10-piece band stuck closely to the original arrangements handed down from Mount Marley, but no one seemed to be looking for anything new. The Wailers played the hits for a crowd who had worn out their copies of “Legend” and needed no prompting to sing and dance along.

With a deck stacked so deeply, it was hard to go wrong, but a few songs stood out. “Jamming” took its title literally enough to feature some nice guitar work. “Wait In Vain” featured some nice harmony vocals from lead singer Elan Atias and the two female backing vocalists. The trio tossed the audience a curveball in the middle of that number when they worked “We Are the World” and a shout-out to Michael Jackson in the chorus.

The Wailers’ set ended with an epic medley of “Exodus” and “Punky Reggae Party.” Anchored by the wah guitar strumming and keyboard riff and garnished by horns, the 10-minute performance suggested a slithering, dancing convoy.

When “Exodus” was over, so was the set. It seemed a shame to shut down a band that felt like it was just getting start. The puzzlement was compounded by 45-minute wait before Toots and the Maytals came on.

Toots Hibbert made up for the wait between sets by opening with the song most people wanted to hear -– “Pressure Drop” -– and blasting through his best-known numbers. The music Hibbert made with the Maytals isn’t as famous as Marley’s, but it’s just as influential, mixing gospel, soul, funk and folk.

The earliest highlight wasn’t an original number, though. Hibbert and the seven-piece Maytals transformed “Louie Louie” to something that sounded like a Jamaican version of Booker T and the MGs that ended in double-time with Hibbert screaming like Ronald Isley at the end of “Shout” and verbally jousting with his two female backing singers. The trick worked so well it was reprised several times throughout the set.

A slowed-down reading of “Bam Bam” found Hibbert on acoustic guitar with an arrangement that betrayed the song’s sea shanty roots. Hibbert stayed on acoustic for a ferocious “Funky Kingston,” which more than lived up to its title. He blew a blues harp on “My Love Is So Strong” and dared the crowd to keep up with his fast dance moves several times.

The indefatigable Hibbert still has great pipes and he showed them off frequently. An improvised tribute to Kinston went from soul ballad to blues shuffle to reggae groove before getting a big gospel finish. The Maytals’ church collided with a great cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that reclaimed the number from Dwight Schrute and Andy Bernard’s break room shenanigans.

The Maytals’ 95-minute set ended with romps through “Broadway Jungle” and “54-46 Was My Number” that culminated in another gospel blow-out and the band riffing on “Beat It.”

Public Property opened the evening with a 30-minute set played against the setting sun and an arriving audience. The six-piece band was definitely a disciple of the acts who followed. Their infectious set including the catchy “Choo-Choo Song.”

Setlists

The Wailers: Intro/horn instrumental, Lively Up Yourself, Rastaman Vibration, I Shot the Sheriff, Jamming, Wait In Vain ->We Are the World, Three Little Birds, One Love, Exodus/Punky Reggae Party

Toots and the Maytals: Pressure Drop, Pomp and Pride, Louie Louie, Reggae Got Soul, Time Tough, Bam Bam, Funky Kingston, unknown song, My Love is So Strong, Sweet and Dandy, Reggae Music All Right (improv), Take Me Home Country Roads, You Know, Light Your Light, Monkey Man/encore/Broadway Jungle, 54-46 Was My Number

Keep reading:

Review: Toots and the Maytals (2007)

Review: Sly and Robbie (2009)

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