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Studio One Lovers Rock (SJRCD 422 - 2018)

Alton Ellis - Tumbling Tears
The Heptones - I Hold The Handle
Carlton And The Shoes - Never Give Your Heart Away
The Minstrels - Yours Until Tomorrow
Jerry Jones - Oh Me Oh My
Horace Andy - I’ll Be Gone
Carlton And The Shoes - Let Me Love You (12” Discomix)
The Invaders - Soulful Music
Sugar Minott - Ghetto Girl
Marcia Griffiths - Truly
Devon Russell - My Woman’s Love
Billy Cole - Rock All Night
Freddie McGregor - I Don’t Know
Cornel Campbell - Didn’t I
Horace Andy - Wanna Be Free
The Heptones - My Ting A Ling (12” Discomix)
Alton Ellis - Someone (Extended Mix)
The Righteous Flames - I Was Born To Be Loved
Raving in London between the late-1960s to the late-1970s was a particularly fluid affair, balancing the music, the protocols and the more primal attractions of a range of black clubs and sound systems, but one thing seemed constant: a large proportion of Jamaica's musical output at that time was making very little impact. In the light of roots' overwhelming consequence, the studio resourcefulness of dub and digital reggae's shiny new sounds, straightforward, masterfully put together, casually elegant reggae that was too often considered too unspectacular to make the cut over here. Lovers Rock the label didn't help matters either. Of course we all loved a lovers, but with the obvious exceptions of Gregory, Dennis Brown and John Holt and singles such as 'Curly Locks' and 'Natty Dread A Weh She want', we saw that as pretty much a London t'ing. It was celebrated as much for the whole 'for us by us' as much as the wonderful music itself. All in all, it was ridiculously easy for so much music to slip by unnoticed.

With hindsight, though, and removed from the pressure of having to dress right, dance competently and be cool at all times, what were we thinking? regardless of the high profile significance of roots 'n' culture's constant commentary, reggae was first and foremost pop music, and as such the vast majority of songs were boy-meets-girl or boy-loses-girl love songs. Saturday night dancehall fodder, which the Jamaican music industry was always very good at - a national penchant for country & western meant an innate understanding of storytelling, while the sound systems' dependence on immediate audience satisfaction meant giving the people what they wanted. Coxsone Dodd at Studio One was perhaps better at it than anybody else, which is why this new volume 'Studio One Lovers Rock' is more than merely a good idea. It's a chance to remind ourselves of what a genuinely golden period in Jamaican music, revisit reggae in a more or less unadulterated state, discover some recently unearthed gems and, for more than a few of us, catch up with what might have been missed.

It was when reggae evolved out of rock steady in the second half of the 1960s that Coxsone and his crack team truly came into their own. Rival producers Duke Reid and Sonia Pottinger carried the swing during the rock steady era, but many started to view the style's harmony singing - especially Reid's productions - as unnecessarily Americanised in the newly-independent Jamaica. Coxsone himself had long been keen to explore what being a Jamaican actually meant and pushed reggae forward as a more accurate representation of it. Plus, as a jazz-loving record producer he was well known in the local business for allowing his musicians and bandleaders the chance to experiment. Indeed it was Dodd's principal aim when he built his Brentford Road studio that time should not be a constraint on creativity, if people had ideas they could see them through without having to watch the clock. Of course this wasn't entirely altruistic, as he was always seeking to give his already massive popular Downbeat sound system an edge, but it kept Studio One at the forefront of the changes.

This set runs smoothly through a decade and a half of that evolution from the more or less straight up rock steady of The Righteous Flames' 'I Was Born To Be Loved' and The Heptones' 'I Hold The Handle' to Sugar Minott's proto-dancehall 'Ghetto Girl'. It's a mark of Studio One's quality that every track, no matter what rung of the evolutionary ladder, is recorded with the same attention to detail. It's such a consistency of approach that keeps everything apparently simple but it all has a delicate and engaging depth. The most appealing aspect of this album's timeline, though, is the early reggae and it's a massive part of this collection that serious space is given to this representation of the music. Songs like The Minstrels' 'Yours Until Tomorrow' of The Invaders' 'Soulful Music' or Jerry Jones' 'Me Oh My' are reggae in perhaps its most un-evolved state, without an agenda and therefore purest form. This wasn't making any sort of point or showing off somebody's skills, it was just reggae - men and women singing beautifully, mostly about being in love, to deeply groovy music, and the world feels like a much better place for it. Not that the set isn't completely without consciousness - Horace Andy's 'Wanna Be Free' and 'I'll Be Gone' fly the flag for early roots, but remain resolutely onvibe being built on the same gently rocking riddims.

Which is really the key to a great deal of the more evolved aspect of this set: Marcia Griffiths' 'Truly', Billy Cole's 'Rock All Night' and Devon Russell's 'My Woman's Love' are all about the choppy sometimes clankiness reggae became for a while in the 1970s, but building them on vintage riddims or vintage ideas that Keeps Studio One flow front and centre. As was witnessed when dancehall arrived, the sheer quality of Coxsone's productions meant they could stand any amount of doing over. It also allows the more experimental side of the label's output to get a look in without looking odd, like the organ flourished on Freddie McGregor's 'I Don't Know'.

However, one of 'Studio One Lovers Rock's' standout track is anything but experimental. 'Let Me Love You' by Carlton & The Shoes is pure old school reggae, delivered in 12" style, featuring Jackie Mittoo's sublime organ workout and a version section, a real treat, whether you're familiar with it or not. Fundamentally this tune is the apparently-unadorned reggae of the whole album packed into eight-and-a-half minutes - so laid back it's practically horizontal as the riddim cruises along, powering engagingly straightforward harmonies with uncomplicated lyrics - not too much other than 'just let me love you' - the instrumental part has a soft layering that doesn't need dub effects to make it's point, then the organ stitches it all together. Its sounds are relatively modern (it was recorded in 1978), but the feel is comfortingly old time and it's aiming to do little else but make the people in the dance feel good.

Which is what so much of Studio One on a grander scale was about, and it's the care taken by characters like Dodd, Jackie Mittoo and Leroy Sibbles that made what the fantastic work they did seem - and sound - so easy, and why it's all endured so well. It is highly unlikely anything like this will ever be created again, but while sounds like this still exist it doesn't really need to be. Speaking for myself and the people I moved with in North London 40 years ago, we are eternally grateful it's still around for us to properly come to grips with now we're smart enough to appreciate it.

Lloyd Bradley
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