By Dave Thompson
The Downtown Albums Collection
(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red 2CDs)
Early on in the Trojan Records story, as the label found its feet and focussed on granting separate imprints to a variety of reggae producers, Downtown Records quickly established itself as one of the company’s most intriguing outlets.
Unlike the majority of its stablemates, it focussed on the work not of a Jamaican legend, but a local, London-based, producer.Dandy Livingstone was in his mid-twenties and had lived in London for a decade, recording for a variety of UK-based labels before finding his way to the newly-launched Trojan. Indeed, Livingstone (or the singular Dandy, as he was better known) was producer of the new label’s first nine singles and first three LPs; within a year, he was operating two labels of his own, Downtown and J-Dan.
This collection focusses on four of the albums that bore the Downtown imprimateur - Dandy’s Your Musical Doctor, Rico and the Rudies’ Blow Your Horn, and the first two volumes of Red Red Wine, a series of compilations named for Trojan’s first major pop chart entry, Tony Tribe’s “Red Red Wine.”Which, of course, Dandy produced.
They’re strong; singles by the Israelites (named for the Demond Dekker hit, of course, but featuring Dandy himself), Desmond Riley, Gene Rondo, Lyndon Johns and Audrey Hall may not have made such an impact on the national scene as the title song, but still they will strike a chord with anyone recalling the UK reggae scene of the age. Dandy focussed his attentions, after all, on British-based talent, and there was a lot of it to choose from.
Dandy features heavily on both albums, and that leads us neatly into Your Musical Doctor, his second Trojan LP and home to some half dozen earlier 45s, as well as new material.It’s too early in the day for his best known numbers (the hit “Suzanne Beware of the Devil” among them) to be featured, but still it’s a strong collection, while the Rico album also features a few Dandy vocals, in among the band’s trademark pounding instrumentals.
The entire 2CD set is an invigorating listen, but of course its resonance echoes across far more years than might immediately be apparent.“Red Red Wine” would become a monster hit for UB40 in the eighties, while Rico became a key component in the Two Tone movement, which celebrates its own fortieth anniversary this year with a stunning album by the reborn Specials.Dandy himself effectively faded from view in the early 1980s, but this album - and hopefully more to come - remind us that, for a short time at least, he was British reggae.
The Nighthawk Recordings
Although they are beloved for so much more, Culture will always be best associated with “Two Sevens Clash,” the warning that they released in the run up to a date that many Jamaicans awaited with the same sense of dread as we regarded the millennium bug - July 7, 1977, the day upon which all the sevens clashed.
Of course we survived the moment, and Culture survived too, to produce a string of further albums.By the early 1980s, however, much of their early impact had faded, and fresh releases passed many people by unnoticed.
Unjustly so, as this collection reveals.It was compiled from two separate sessions, the first in 1981 saw the Roots Radics band accompanying them and initially found release on a 1982 Nighthawks label compilation… it concludes, incidentally, with a new version of Culture’s debut single, the magnificent “This Time.”
The second session, recorded two years later, found Culture working with the Wailers band, cutting two new songs (“Can They Run” and “Mister Music,” plus attendant instrumental versions) that incredibly have remained unreleased until now… in fact, if you hurry to Record Store Day this year, you’ll find them on a special, limited-edition EP, with no less than three different vinyl colors to choose from.Latecomers, however, can grab the CD, and they won’t be disappointed.
The Treasure Isle Ska Albums Collection
(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red 2CDs)
This is crucial stuff.Four albums released on the legendary Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label between 1963-1965, packed with bonus tracks and effectively offering a snapshot of Jamaica’s most potent musical forces of the age.
The ever-legendary Skatalites are spread liberally across them, most obviously across disc two’s pairing of The Skatalite and Don Drummond’s Greatest Hits, credited to the then (1965) recently deceased trombonist Don Drummond.
But their talents are in evidence, too, across a brace of key compilations, The Birth of Ska and Latin Go Ska - key because one look at the contents effectively serves up a “best of” the entire era: Justin Hinds, Baba Brooks, Owen and Leon, Stranger and Patsy, Clive and Naomi, Dotty and Bonny, Joe White, Eric Morris… add a fifth album’s worth of bonus tracks from most of the above and more, and you can file away a heap of past compilations of this same material.
There, after all, it’s generally spattered across a landscape as broad as the island itself.Here, it’s tightly corralled into time and place, and that’s exactly as it ought to be.There’s been a lot (some say too many) of compilations pulling from this same archive over the years, and though these early albums were themselves somewhat scattershot in approach, still there’s a sense of context that only adds to the sense of occasion.
Like a Bolt
(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red)
And sticking with Duke Reid (see above), this collection effectively rounds up everything that the great John Holt recorded for Treasure Isle records between 1968-1973, beginning with what many regard as the finest of all his early albums, 1973’s Like A Bolt.
Predating the string driven hits with which he would find fame in the UK a year or so later, this is Holt at the peak of his early versatility - the years slip effortlessly past as he shifts from Thom Bell’s 1964 composition “I’m Your Man” to Al Bowlly’s 1938 “Hve You Ever Been to Heaven”; as he revisits the Heptones’ “Let’s Build Our Dreams,” and what was then his latest UK single, “I’m the One to be Blamed” makes a terrific album opener.
Move onto the bonus tracks and there’s just as many treasures, including a phenomenal 12-inch mix of the album’ “Ali Baba” and an unreleased-at-the-time out-take of “Wooden Heart,” one of the most successful reggaefications the Presley catalog ever saw.The booklet is packed with Doctor Bird’s traditional mix of hard discographical info, great pics and entertaining text, and Holt’s status among the most glorious vocalists in reggae history remains inviolate.