Singles Going Steady #1:

UNSPECIFIED - circa 1970:  (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of BLACK UHURU  (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

…wherein the blogger points to those certain songs no playlist should be without, because nobody hums albums….

Black Uhuru – What Is Life?

Island/Mango 12” single [1984]

It sounds unlikely now, but once upon a time, reggae was a legitimate contender to become the Sound of Young Urban America. Unrelated but intertwined factors such as Bob Marley’s untimely death, a sudden backlash against the growing popularity of rap/hip-hop and life in Ronald Reagan’s “America” led black America to seriously reconsider it’s cultural gestalt.  Soul/R&B had been made a niche market by Disco, which itself had been forced into hiding under the beige monniker of “dance music” (think B-52s not Earth, Wind and Fire).

Of course nobody knew at the time that Michael Jackson and the embattled rappers would win both the battle and the war soon, so at the time Reggae (and its distant cousin Afrobeat) were seen by hipster, critics and record labels alike as the next great frontier of inner city pop…Even though it had been around for a generation already.

Black Uhuru had been around for over a decade themselves when Anthem came out in ‘84. They’d been kicking around Kingston and the UK as just another pretty decent vocal trio in the Meditations/Mighty Diamonds mold, weathering several personnel changes before settling on the [now seminal] 80s lineup of Michael Rose, Duckie Simpson and (American secret weapon) Puma Jones.  Newly signed to Chris Blackwell’s boutique label Mango, the group fell in with the production team/rhythm section of Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare.  Over the course of four critically acclaimed albums, the combination of Rose’s apocalyptic vocals, Jones and Simpson’s mournful harmonies and Sly & Robbie’s hard-eged, post-punk, dub-heavy production pushed the unlikely trio to the head of the class selling out US venuess, opening for major acts like the Stones and Clash and even cracking urban radio in a few major cities.  

Anthem opens with “What Is Life?” — five and a half thrilling, harrowing, noisy minutes that gives the ears no place to hide, no respite.

Bass and drums pound the earth, churning up clouds of sonic dust for the guitars of Mikey Chung and Darryl Thompson to slice into.  From deep in the heart of the sound and fury, the voices emerge, pushed, bolstered and occasionally confronted by a horn chart that would have made Curtis Mayfield smile.  “Duckie” Simpson’s lyrics [sung by Rose] are powerful visions of the world seen by people facing a world whose leaders considered nuclear wars winnable and feeding the hungry some other guy’s problem. Through all this, it’s the chorus that cuts the deepest, asking and answering their own question with the trepidation, defiance and cautious optimism of people praying to a god they hope isn’t dead yet:

Anthem album was Black Uhuru’s high point – it would win the first ever grammy awarded a reggae album. It was also the beginning of the end for the grounp as well as reggae’s hold on the mass consciousness.  Rap/Hip Hop would break out in the next couple years,  borrowing heavily from reggae/dub values while offering youth culture an even starker, local take on the mess the world was in.  Black Uhuru’s sound had gotten as “American” and “Progressive” as reggae can get and the only place left to go was back to their roots (sic).  Rose would shortly leave for a checkered solo career while Puma Jones would (like Bob Marley) succumb to cancer a few years later.  Black Uhuru, continues even now, recording and touring with various frontmen, their following small but loyal.  What is Life?  No one can tell.


Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Getting Mighty Crowded

B-side of “High Fidelity” [UK import F-Beat/Columbia]


Once upon a time Elvis Costello was not considered great. Many people didn’t even consider him that good.  Back then he was little more than a punchline for a Lorraine Newman character on “Saturday Night Live” [not even the character caught on].  Needless to say, this was when he made his greatest music.

Get Happy arrived on the heels of the not-breakthrough of Armed Forces with 20 friggin’ songs on one LP [this was a lot back then, kids].  I thought there were 20 hit singles on the record and Columbia couldn’t seem to find one.  Undeterred by his lack of commercial success stateside, Costello released a spate of singles in the UK from Get Happy, all with equally amazing B-sides, of which “Getting Mighty Crowded” may be the best [though his version of “Girls Talk” also stands out].  “Getting Mighty Crowded” was a typically great Van McCoy tune, written for Betty [“Shoop Shoop Song”] Everett, who is sweetley defiant on the original as she warns an errant lover she’s had enough of his cheating. Producer Carl Carter gives Everett a handsome 4/4, horn-fueled strut that shows off how convincing a singer Everett could be when given ace material.

Elvis and the [then] still-improving Attractions play the song double-time, Nick Lowe’s matte finish production owing more to the ill-starred pop of Joe Meek than Tamla-Motown.  Costello’s vocal is frantic, half-shouting, half-ranting. He comes off like a man who know’s he’s the odd duck but has to take a stand anyway, if only to save face. He sounds angrier at himself for loving someone so totally indifferent to him [a common theme in his own writing even now].

The Attractions barrel through the almost guitarless arrangement mixing Northern Soul romanticism and new wave abandon with explosive reuslts. Lowe’s tight sound throws Costello’s hoarse lead up front, forcing him to reveal himself. For a songwriter prone to obscuring his real feeling behind wordplay and sarcasm, the striaightforward lyric strips away artifice, leaving only the raw emotions that power so much great art. Costello would employ the tactic again and again; using the words of other writers to empower his most emomtional performances. The end result is a tough, yet tender, manic-obsessive take on US soul by people who kept loving it long after we Yanks had moved on from it.  Records like this are why the early 80s in the UK rival the early 60s as the era of the Big Single.

Put this on repeat and Dance away the Heartache. Or just dance.


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