Collecting reggae records 101

By Dave Thompson

A few points to ponder if you’re considering collecting old reggae records; old as in 1960s or early ‘70s; and records as in original Jamaican pressings.

1) With the exception of the biggest hits, they were pressed in quantities that make the average Record Store Day limited edition look like “Bat Out of Hell.”

2) They were pressed on vinyl that was recycled so often that half of it probably wasn’t even vinyl any longer.

3) These records were made for playing, and that’s what their owners did. Usually on the most rudimentary turntable imaginable, with a needle that lost its point long ago. And in a room full of people jumping up and down to it.

It’s a world where “mint” means a bag of Lifesavers, and “rare” is so common that it’s all but meaningless. Again with the exception of the biggest hits, almost every old Jamaican single can be considered rare in anything but the most debilitated state. Which is why, if you cast around for a few recent eBay prices, you will come across the following:

The Minstrels – “So Weary” on the Merritone label – $5,389

Prince Buster – “High Blood Pressure” (blank label) – $4,050

The Zodiacs – “If You Need Someone” (Zeeeeeee) – $3,051

The Tennors – “Oh My Baby” (Wasp) – $3,050

The Viceroys – “Sugar and Spice” (Coxsone) – $2,900

And that’s just one tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty more examples where they came from, and while that’s not to say there’s not thousands of singles that you can pick up for a matter of a few dollars, there’s hundreds more that will set you back some very serious money. And almost all of this takes place so far below the radar that many U.S. dealers don’t have a clue what they’ve got, until they list it on eBay.

There is no Jamaican equivalent of the Goldmine Price Guide; there are no reliable reference books to tell you what’s out there. There’s just piles and piles of worn-out old singles, the grooves ground flat and the labels tattered. Some are broken, some are worn, some have been so scribbled upon that neither artist or song is legible any longer. Some of the labels are completely blank. If you came across a collection of U.S. pressings that looked half as bad as these, you’d probably consign them to the trashbag.

But there’s gold in them grooves because, almost without exception, ska, rock steady and early reggae singles… — the three musical movements that define the course of Jamaican popular music through the 60s and early 70s… — rate among the most exciting, electric and exhilarating records you will ever have the luck to listen to.

Throughout this period, the Jamaican music industry was driven by 45s. Albums released during this period were few and far between and, in any case, rarely offered more than a gathering of past singles hits. Not until the very late 1960s, and a corresponding boom in LPs for the international market, did albums begin appearing in any appreciable numbers; and it was only with the international rise of Bob Marley & The Wailers, in the mid-1970s, that artists finally looked beyond the 7-inch single as their medium of choice.

Records were recorded, and sometimes manufactured, under the most rudimentary conditions possible. For every studio that could boast state of the art facilities, there were dozens more that operated out of a shed or a shack, with equipment pieced together from what could be found, or picked up on the cheap, and all held together with whatever was on hand.

There were no record contracts. For the most part, artists were free to wander from studio to studio, sometimes cutting three or four records on the same day, all for release on different labels.

There was no distribution network. Every producer owned his own label, and often his own record store as well. A single could be recorded in the morning, pressed by lunchtime and on sale by mid-afternoon, although many would first take a detour via the sound systems, mobile discotheques which would set up on the street and play whatever records that came to hand. If a new release got a good reaction from the crowd, there’d be a larger run of records pressed. If it didn’t, there’d be just a handful. It was DIY music-making at its most basic, but it worked.

The biggest names on the contemporary Jamaican scene were, for the most part, the biggest names in the modern collecting and they are, in general, the producers — names like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster, Lee Perry, Bunny Lee and Niney the Observer. With a comparative handful of exceptions, it was not until, again, the ’70s that individual artists rose up to command the same kind of respect. Rather, they lived from single-to-single, pumping out a ceaseless stream of 45s in a bid to keep their name alive, both with the public and with the all-important producers.

Some performers would stick with one studio — Bob Marley & The Wailers, for example, recorded exclusively for Coxsone Dodd throughout the first half of the ‘60s, before breaking away to launch their own label, Wail’n Soul’m (the forerunner to the later Tuff Gong), and then heading off to tour the producers. Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals enjoyed many of their biggest early successes with producer Leslie Kong; U-Roy with Duke Reid; and so forth.

But even those artists’ discographies are pocked with one-offs recorded for other producers, and released on other labels, and there are many performers whose entire output seems to feature a different label for every single. And, for modern collectors, thus begins the hunt.

Of course there are easier ways of gathering this music than scouring the Internet in search of rare locally-produced reggae. Beginning in 1962, a variety of British labels, including Melodisc, the infant Island Records and, from 1967, Trojan, set up distribution deals with more or less every Jamaican producer they could find, initially for the country’s ever-growing West Indian immigrant population but, increasingly, to fuel a white British market, too.

Many of these labels, too, formed subsidiaries around exclusive (or thereabouts) deals with individual producers — Melodisc’s Bluebeat subsidiary was dedicated almost wholly to Prince Buster productions, for example; Trojan’s Upsetter to Lee Perry. Others (including the Trojan imprint itself), however, ranged across the spectrum for new releases and, from around 1962, ensured that few Jamaican 45s of even passing significance were allowed to pass an English audience by.

Attempts to catalog this vast corpus of material are destined for frustration. Neither the British music press nor the music industry’s own trade publications felt duty bound to document the near-Biblical flood of new releases unleashed on a twice-weekly basis by upwards of 50 different imprints, while the labels themselves were notoriously lax when it came to promoting their wares.

No less than their counterparts back in Jamaica, British reggae labels relied upon word of mouth to promote new releases, beginning in the dance clubs where a loyal fan base of fans and DJs made sure that every record received at least one spin, and onto the specialist stores and market-stalls which dotted the country, for whom the regular Tuesday and Friday deliveries signaled a rush of hungry customers.

It is these original U.K. pressings which are most frequently encountered by fans and collectors today; it is the U.K., too, which has produced the vast majority of both currently and historically available compilations, the most important of which, in terms of sheer bulk, are found within the series of three disc box sets released under the Trojan imprint through the 1990s and beyond.

There’s around a hundred of them, uniformly shaped and sized, and all packing 50 different tracks, divided by both genre (ska, rocksteady, nyahbingi, roots, dub, etc) and theme (rude boy, country, X-rated, Beatles covers…). While they remained in print, they were extraordinarily inexpensive, too. But time passes, discs get deleted, prices soar. And these have skyrocketed… although, it must be said, even at today’s prices, a full collection of the boxes will still cost you less than half what you might pay for, say, a Jamaican pressing of The Wailers’ “Selassie is The Chapel” 45.

For many collectors, U.K. pressings are the way to go. They are certainly better manufactured than their Jamaican counterparts, and are more likely to have survived in decent condition. They also tend to be more available — meaning, they turn up in online sales more frequently than the Caribbean originals. They are not, however, necessarily more common. A copy of Al and the Vibrators “We Need Love,” on the British Dr Bird label, sold for more than $2,000 in 2012, and there are plenty of similar records priced close behind.

Where was the U.S. throughout this period of explosive fruitfulness? Sadly, still at the starting gate. A mere handful of Jamaican singles were released in this country during the ‘60s and early ‘70s — Prince Buster enjoyed occasional releases on Atlantic, RCA, Phillips and Amy; the Big Tree label at least picked up on Dave and Ansel Collins’ U.K. chart-topping “Double Barrel”; and Johnny Nash’s JAD released The Wailers’ “Bend Down Low” in 1968. There were a few others.

For the most part, however, the closest the American schedules came to, for example, Lee Perry, was when Roulette released a single by Perry Lee. The success of Jimmy Cliff notwithstanding, it would be the mid-1970s before reggae 45s began appearing even sporadically on these shores (Bob Marley & The Wailers, of course, led the charge), and much later still before one could even begin to amass a sizable collection concentrating exclusively on domestic releases.

By which time, the majority of singles were simply tasters for current LPs.

As aforementioned, albums were slow in making inroads in Jamaica, reserved in the main for only the heaviest hitters of all. Prince Buster was one of the few artists who regularly bucked that trend, although even his albums were targeted more at the U.K. than Jamaica, and Toots and the Maytals released three between 1964 and 1969. But The Wailers released just one (“The Wailing Wailers” in 1965) before hooking up with Lee Perry in 1970; and they were not alone.

Original copies of these in anything approaching playable condition are excruciatingly difficult to find; U.K. pressings only marginally less so. By 1969, however, Trojan was pumping out almost as many albums as singles, both by individual performers and various artists — indeed, to an entire generation of British teenagers, the Tighten Up series of hits collection that Trojan unleashed through the early 1970s remains as much a part of growing up as any homegrown talent or TV show.

Eye-catching covers and never less than stellar round-ups of the label’s most recent 45s ensured the likes of Nora Dean’s “Barbed Wire” (key lyric — “he’s got barbed wire in his underpants, ma-maaaa!”), The Pioneers’ “Long Shot Kick The Bucket” (about the death of a racehorse, and also destined to become a U.K. hit single), and Niney’s “Blood and Fire” remain locked forever in the memory of young listeners; and away from the dance clubs or specialist record stores, the Tighten Up albums arguably did more to further reggae’s inroads into the British mainstream than any single other factor. Which may or may not explain their ubiquity today.

The success of the movie “The Harder They Come,” starring Jimmy Cliff, and its attendant soundtrack album, can also be viewed as a milestone in reggae’s commercial development, both in the U.K. and, this time, the U.S. And with the likes of Eric Clapton (covering Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”) and Hall and Oates (U-Roy’s “Soldering”) doing their own bit to popularize the music, and Paul Simon and the Stones recording at Kingston’s Dynamic Studios, reggae’s breakthrough was finally inevitable.

In 1975, The Wailers’ “No Woman, No Cry” gave Marley his first major U.K. hit; in 1977, “Exodus” became a worldwide smash. Third World took Gamble and Huff’s “Now That We’ve Found Love” and scored a massive success… by 1985, nobody even blinked an eye when Black Uhuru landed a Grammy for their “Anthem” album. Well, nobody apart from the fans who knew the band had done their best work back in the late ‘70s.

Many collectors today eschew such later releases, preferring to concentrate their attentions, and their cash, on the years when the music was still being made on a shoestring, before the major labels crashed the party, before money and glory and hype stepped in.

It’s a reasonable enough attitude. True, some of the greatest reggae music of all time was released after that watershed — mid-’70s albums by Junior Murvin, Tappa Zukie, Max Romeo, The Gladiators, The Congos, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Prince Far I and many more should be essential listening for all.

But these albums, for the most part, are scarcely hard to find, if not on vinyl, then at least on CD. How much more intriguing, and entertaining, to burrow through the deepest piles of singles, to scour the small print in the Goldmine ads, or send search after search whirring out into cyberspace, in search of… an original JA pressing of Rupie Edwards’ “Ire Feelings” (the first dub record ever to make the U.K. chart); of Margarita’s incandescent “Woman Come”; of Prince Buster’s Judge Dread trilogy; of Clive and Naomi’s “Open the Door.”

Yes, you can find them all on CD now, and you know they’ll play through without hiss or hindrance. But when it comes to music like this, you might as well tell a stamp collector to simply cut the pictures out of books, as tell a reggae collector to buy a CD.

And you know exactly what I mean.

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