Reggae is a musical approach with a captivating history -- one whose less-publicized precursors and tangents are often as interesting as its more widely known achievements. But in this country, most folks know little about reggae's rich past other than that Bob Marley put out some good records. This narrow view severely limits listeners' abilities to appreciate the sound, which has influenced styles as disparate as hip-hop, punk and dance music. It's like presuming that there's no country music beyond Hank Williams, or feeling certain that rock and roll's first fifty years can be adequately comprehended by spinning a single Chuck Berry album.
To catch up, look for the Trojan label. Trojan Records was founded 35 years ago last month by Chris Blackwell and Lee Gopthal; originally conceived as a subsidiary of the Island imprint, it was named for the Trojan brand trucks that reggae pioneer Arthur "Duke" Reid used to transport his mobile sound system. By the mid-'70s, the company had produced dozens of hits in Jamaica, Great Britain and beyond; Desmond Dekker's beguiling "Israelites" even made the U.S. Top 40. But the firm subsequently lost steam and wound up changing corporate hands twice before re-emerging last year as a branch of Sanctuary Records. Since then, Trojan has released a slew of collections and compilations culled from its classic library, as well as a few new recordings.
Four of these packages -- Bob Marley and the Wailers' Trenchtown Rock: The Anthology 1969-78, Gregory Isaacs' All I Have Is Love: Anthology 1968 to 1995, the Pioneers' Let Your Yeah Be Yeah: Anthology 1966 to 1986 and Lee "Scratch" Perry's freshly cut Jamaican E.T. -- serve as terrific introductions to the Trojan universe. The discs demonstrate conclusively what reggae aficionados have known all along: There's a lot more to the genre than most Americans understand.
Marley, of course, had been around for years prior to the appearance of 1973's Catch a Fire, his first platter to receive widespread international distribution. He first rose to prominence in the Jamaican music scene a decade earlier, and in 1968 he reteamed with two key compatriots, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone (known today as Bunny Wailer). Their music from this period was perhaps less visionary than Marley's better-known work, but it was every bit as lyrical and entertaining, partly because of production assistance from two of reggae's architects, Leslie Kong and the aforementioned Lee Perry.
The first of two Trenchtown Rock discs sports nine Kong-produced efforts, including the classic Tosh composition "Stop the Train," a spiritually resonant arrangement of the traditional "Go Tell It on the Mountain," and a slew of Marley tunes. "Soul Captives" charms, thanks to its irresistibly simple "la-la-la-la-la" hook; "Caution" features some deft-fingered guitar work and a vocal arrangement that suggests a Caribbean variation on the Band; "Do It Twice," with its finger-popping intro and Jimmy Smith-like organ solo, shows just how influenced Marley was by the pop and R&B that rode airwaves south from the States.
Still, the majority of the cuts here -- over three dozen of them -- pair Marley and the Wailers with Perry, whose studio acumen is something to behold. "My Cup" sounds as if it were recorded in one the size of the Rose Bowl -- the mix is wonderfully spacious -- while the stop-and-start rhythms of "Soul Rebel" add just the right amount of eccentricity to the track. Familiar ditties such as "Kaya" and "Lively Up Yourself" are on hand as well, but the real attractions are oddities like the concluding "Who Colt the Game," whose lyrics are downright goofy: "It's not natty dreaded/It must be bald-headed..."
Isaacs has seldom engaged in such silliness. As a man often credited with popularizing the reggae hybrid known as lovers rock, he's serious about romance. But those who've been underwhelmed by the largely interchangeable discs he's churned out in recent years are apt to find a new reason to respect his skills in All I Have Is Love. Beginning with "Another Heartache," a duet with Winston Sinclair cut when Isaacs was still in his teens, the two-CD set not only showcases the singer's smooth crooning, but also his confidence and taste. "Too Late Girl" is seven minutes of thoroughly gorgeous Kingston atmosphere; "Bad Da" is spare and scintillating; "Mr. Cop" finds Isaacs recommending that an officer "cool down" his temper; and "Extra Classic" lives up to its title with the sort of tender invitation that's sure to be accepted. In the end, Love offers up fifty songs worth of pure bliss.
The same result is conjured by much of the Pioneers' Trojan effort, although the act, whose various lineups were anchored by Sydney Roy "Luddy" Crooks, arrives at this destination via a different route. "Doreen Girl," a tune by an early version of the group that kicks off Let Your Yeah Be Yeah, also a two-disc package, is marked by primitive production values often associated with early ska practitioners such as the Skatalites -- but the naked emotion of the singers slices through even the poorest fidelity. The same can be said of offerings contributed by the Pioneers' sturdiest configuration: Crooks, George Agard and Jackie Robinson (no relation to the baseball great). Even on novelty fare -- exemplified by "Long Shot Kick De Bucket," which is introduced by a comically shaky bugle call -- the harmonies are thrillingly genuine; they're raw and natural, yet precise. Things got slicker in later years, with the string-laden but undeniably magnetic "Let Your Yeah Be Yeah" leading inexorably to wrongheaded crossover attempts such as a cover of the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." But the Pioneers certainly had their moments, and this anthology captures a gaggle of them.
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By all rights, Perry should have run out of moments a long time ago; he's lived enough lives for a dozen of his countrymen, plus their pot dealers. Nonetheless, Jamaican E.T. is an unexpectedly entertaining salvo from the grand old man of dub, largely because of its inveterate weirdness. The lead ditty, "10 Commandments," rolls out amid overlapping vocals and chirping birds; "Message From the Black Art Studios" is delivered by what sounds like a multitude of Perrys, all of them drenched in echo; "Congratulations" comes complete with a heaping helping of bar-band funk; and the title cut, during which Perry seems to be having a nonsensical conversation with himself, is truly otherworldly. He may be a nut, but he's our nut.
The variety of music in the Trojan vaults doesn't end there. The outfit's 2002 sampler spotlights efforts by comparatively prominent performers like Toots and the Maytals (54-46 Was My Number: Anthology 1964-2000), the Ethiopians (Train to Skaville: Anthology 1966-1975), and Dennis Brown (Money in My Pocket: Anthology 1970-1995). But also represented are folks whose legacies will probably be less familiar to non-Jamaicans -- among them, Ken Boothe (Everything I Own: Anthology 1963-1978), Bruce Ruffin (Rain: The Best of Bruce Ruffin 1967-1971) and John Holt. Granted, Holt's signature song, "The Tide Is High," was a worldwide hit -- but for Blondie, not for him.
This avalanche of material is apt to come as a revelation to those who realize they're reggae novices, and even to some who don't. After all, the music didn't begin with Marley -- and it didn't end with him, either.