By Dave Thompson
Death is normally a great excuse for delaying, if not wholly derailing, an album’s completion… who, after all, is going to argue with an artist’s insistence that he can no longer finish the project in hand, due to more pressing engagements in the after life?
That certainly seemed to be the fate of the second album by the Wingless Angels, the wild and wonderful coterie of sundry Jamaican musician friends that Keith Richards gathered around himself in 1997, and who were responsible for one of the most uplifting debut albums of that entire decade.
Far from anything the Stones had ever touched, but as close as Christmas to Richards’ own musical heart, the Wingless Angels caught Keef and co relaxing in the most musically magnificent fashion, sitting around the front room of the guitarist’s Ocho Rios home, with a couple of mikes to capture the proceedings. Tribal percussion, strummed offbeat guitars, voices raised in triumphant exultation; the Wingless Angels jammed Nyahbingi, a musical genre that the mainstream music biz has more or less totally ignored, but which – as the accompanying sidebar will reveal – is the true soul and heartbeat of reggae in all its guises.
Richards’ own fascination with them music is equally instinctive. “I think Nyahbingi music gets as pure a spirit going as you can imagine. It’s about uplifting moments where you forget all of the sorrows and cares of the world.” He first heard Nyahbingi when the Stones visited Jamaica in 1972 to record their Goat’s Head Soup masterpiece at Kingston’s Dynamic Studios. Richards bought a house at the same time and fellow Wingless Angel Brian Jobson, the band’s bassist and producer, explains, “Keith linked up with these guys who lived just down the road and he’d go down and play with them and record it just on cassettes. Every time he came back, he’d do that and he really didn’t think about it in terms of doing anything formal, it was just a lark basically. But it really sounded good and there was nothing else out there like that.”
There wasn’t. Back in the early-mid 1970s, Nyahbingi outfits like Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus and Count Ossie did get their music out on the UK Trojan label, but they sold poorly – and primarily to the curious. The years since then saw Nyahbingi shrink back into the hills and mountains, at least so far as the mass market was concerned. The Wingless Angels themselves, says Jobson, was simply “a labor of love. Years ago the first Ras Michael albums, the Count Ossie albums, they were really good. That basic premise is what we wanted.”
They achieved it. Released in 1997, Wingless Angels may have been more or less overlooked by the world at large, but anyone who heard it could not help but be utterly captivated. But then the Stones machine started up again, hauling Richards away for months… years… at a time.
“We had done the first one, and we kept saying ‘man, we have so many more tunes, we should do more,’ although we still weren’t thinking about ‘what is the next step,’ you know, it was just let’s get together and play, get into the studio and record it and see what happens. But it’s difficult to get everybody in the same place, plus, when we did that first one the Stones weren’t that active.
“But then they started, and when you start up that machine you can imagine, it has a momentum of its own. Keith didn’t come back to Jamaica for quite a long while. The Stones were on tour, and then he had other things, it was almost like he forgot he had his house in Jamaica. For five years he didn’t come back, so when he came back the next time everybody was raring to go so he said ‘okay, we’ll do it again’.”
Jobson, Locksley Whitlock, Maureen Fremantle, Warrin Williamson and Milton Beckerd all rejoined the crew, together with vocalist Justin Hinds, one of the quintessential stars of the early Jamaican scene, and possessor of one of the quintessential voices.
“This one was done under much better conditions than the first one,” Jobson recalls. “The first album was done at Keith’s house; this one was done at an actual studio just down the road. The first one was everyone sitting in Keith’s living room with two mikes, but this one we recorded everybody… we all had individual mikes this time.”
Some things didn’t change, however. “We recorded everything live, and each song went on for about thirty minutes. It was amazing, we recorded it over three or four days, and a lot of it, if you really check it, is traditional stuff, a lot is adapted from the English hymnal. So we would be starting a song and I’d be ‘oops, I think we did that on the last album…’.”
Other material was provided by bandmate Maureen Fremantle. “Maureen, she writes and she’s a really good arranger as well. She would bring stuff in, some we adapted. There’s a lot of reggae songs, Curtis Mayfield songs that we changed… and it’s like a tank starting up, it starts slowly and then it builds and builds. The tempos speed up and slow down, and then you’d say ‘next tune,’ and they’d start playing the same one, and it’s ‘no man, we just did that one…’; ‘oh yeah, yeah…’ But everything we played, in all of them, there were at least ten or fifteen minutes when it was really magic.”
Wingless Angels II was recorded in 2004; the following March, however, the veteran Hinds passed away. Locksley Whitlock died a few months later, and all work on the album halted. (A third of the performers, Jackie Ellis, has also since passed on.) The project was shelved, the musicians moved on. “And then Keith said, ‘man, we need to get it out as a tribute…’ But he was about to go out on tour with the Stones, and said ‘I don’t know if I can do it, so can you just deal with it?’ Because you can’t get anything done when they’re on the road. But he came in when he could to do overdubs….
“We had a lot of editing to do, but it’s so evocative. When we were mixing it in LA, people would come to the studio and say ‘what the hell is that?’ But every time I hear it, I have to smile because it takes me back to the sessions, remembering all the jokes that were going around….”
Future plans for the Wingless Angels are being laid. The first album has been reissued as part of a deluxe addition twinned with its newly released successor; a wealth of documentary footage is being sifted through for possible release, and the Angels themselves might soon be taking flight live, with Justin Hinds’ son Jerome filling his father’s shoes.
For now, though, we have the music and it is as timeless as it ought to be. The angels have wings after all.
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