Jammin’ in the name of the Lord

“This is my message to you:  Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right…” — Bob Marley


Insistent yet gentle offbeat rhythms.  Lyrics of overwhelming positivity and confident pursuit of justice.  Fiercely defiant, yet warmly exhilarating.

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of reggae music.  Or, as any Jamaican bus driver will tell you: “It’s island music, mon.”


Reggae, born in Jamaica in the ’60s, blends a tantalizing hybrid of ska, mento and calypso musical strains with a powerful lyrical message that focuses on social criticism and political consciousness, and the need for positive vibes, eternal love, joy and peace.  It’s most readily distinguished by its rhythmic emphasis on the offbeat, or backbeat (the second and fourth beat), instead of the downbeat (first and third beat), which characterizes most pop music styles.

Much more than many musical genres, reggae also has strong ties to religion, specifically Rastafarianism, a religious and social movement (they prefer “a way of life”) founded by Afro-Jamaicans in 1930s Jamaica primarily as a rejection of British colonialism.  Its beliefs include the healing powers of copious cannabis use and hypnotic, rhythmic music “to achieve the spiritual balance necessary for a satisfying existence.”

Hmmm.  Not exactly mainstream thinking in America at that time, although fringe audiences in isolated regions around the world took to it enthusiastically — both the music and the message.

Reggae first found favor outside Jamaica in the mid-’70s in England, where West Indian communities in and around London helped expose music lovers to the genre there.  Indeed, major British pop stars like Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton developed an interest in the island rhythms from hearing it performed by Jamaican musicians in the clubs of London.

Here in the United States, the acceptance and assimilation of reggae into the popular music market seems to have had a peculiar off-and-on history throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

johnny-nash-hold-me-tight-festival-3Its first appearance here, it’s generally agreed, came when an American-born artist — Johnny Nash, a Houston-based pop singer-songwriter — took his version of Jamaica’s indigenous music to #5 on the U.S. charts in 1968 with the catchy “Hold Me Tight.”  But if record companies were expecting to then cash in on a flood of reggae songs and bands, it didn’t happen.  (At least not yet.)

True, The Beatles, always savvy and forward-looking in their musical development, took a shot at reggae during sessions that same summer for “The White Album.”  McCartney explains:  “I had a friend named Jimmy who was a Nigerian conga player, and he was a happy happy guy all the time, like a philosopher to me, because he had all these great expressions about life.  One of them was ‘obladi, oblada, life goes on, bra…’  I told him I loved it and was going to use it in a fun little song I was writing that used a rhythmic approach I was starting to hear from Jamaican bands in the London clubs at the time.  Wonderful vibe, this music called reggae.  So that’s what ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ was, our rudimentary attempt at reggae.  I don’t know if we quite got it, but we had a blast trying.” But it wasn’t a single, just one of 30 album tracks, so it didn’t achieve widespread popularity until nearly a decade later.

R-532201-1371131732-1351.jpegSo reggae went back into hiding for a few years until the great Paul Simon, always curious about “world music” and intriguing new rhythms, visited Kingston in 1971 to record his new song “Mother and Child Reunion.”  He admired reggae artists like Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker and wanted to explore the music further at its source, using Jamaican musicians who instinctively knew the way it should be played.  He invited Cliff’s backing group to accompany him on the recording, and the result was also a #5 hit that put reggae back in the public eye.

MI0001597709The attention Cliff gained from that connection helped him later that year when he released “The Harder They Come,” the soundtrack album to the movie of the same name (in which he also starred).  The film, a crudely made crime drama, was largely ignored but later became a favorite with the midnight-movie crowd.

Then, in the fall of 1972, a reggae song finally reached #1 on the charts here (and in Canada) when Nash returned with “I Can See Clearly Now,” the most popular song in the U.S. for four straight weeks.  A year later, Clapton took the plunge that inadvertently brought reggae to an entirely new level in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Recalled the guitarist, “We were in Miami cutting the album that became ‘461 Ocean Boulevard.’  One day, guitarist George Terry came in with an album called ‘Burnin” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, a band I’d never heard of.  When he played it, I was mesmerized.  George especially liked the track ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and kept saying to me, ‘You should cut this, we could make it sound great.’  But it was hard-core reggae and I wasn’t sure we could do it justice.  We did a version of it anyway, and although I didn’t say so at the time, I wasn’t that enamored with it.  Ska, bluebeat and reggae were familiar to me, but it was still quite new to American musicians, and they weren’t as finicky as I was about the way it should be played — not that I really knew myself how to maxresdefault-8play it.  I just knew we weren’t doing it right.

“When we got to the end of the sessions, and started to collate the songs we had, I told them I didn’t think ‘Sheriff’ should be included, as it didn’t do the Wailers’ version justice.  But everyone said, ‘No, no, honestly, this is a hit.’ And sure enough, when the album was released and the record company chose it as a single, to my utter astonishment, it went straight to Number One.  Though I didn’t meet Bob Marley until much later, he did call me up when the single came out and seemed pretty happy with it.  I tried to ask him what the song was about, but I couldn’t understand much of his reply.  I was just relieved that he liked what we had done with it.”

Marley had been a tireless devotee and champion of reggae throughout its early years of development, when his fellow Wailers (including Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), along with Toots and The Maytals, were the true pioneers of the genre.  It was Marley, through his songwriting, singing and relentless performing, who caught the eye and ear of Chris Blackwell, founder of the seminal Island Records and a native Jamaican himself.

In Marley, Blackwell recognised the elements needed to snare the rock audience: “Rock music was always rebel music at heart, and so was reggae.  I felt that demonstrating that similarity would really be the way to break Jamaican music in the U.S.  But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in, it was clear to me that he really was that image.”

marleyHe signed Marley to a lucrative contract in 1973, let him loose in his studios in the Bahamas and England, and sat back and waited.  The debut LP, “Catch a Fire,” marked the first time a reggae band had access to a state-of-the-art studio and were accorded the same care as their rock ‘n’ roll peers.  Blackwell, hoping to create “more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a rudimentary reggae rhythm,” restructured Marley’s arrangements and supervised the mixing and overdubbing.

While the album and its immediate follow-up, “Burnin’,” didn’t do much on the charts, the songs were getting better, and the rock critics and savvy listeners (especially in the UK) caught on.  When Marley made his debut live appearance in London in 1975 (and the concert was later released as the “Live!” LP), he had become a major sensation there, with his iconic “No Woman, No Cry” climbing to #8 on the UK charts.

Marley had been complimentary of the efforts of Nash and Simon to expose American audiences to the world of reggae, and he publicly endorsed Clapton’s version of “Sheriff,” but he remained determined in the belief that only Jamaicans could play reggae as intended.

He told Britain’s Uncut magazine in 1976, “The real reggae must come from Jamaica. Others can go anywhere and play funk and soul, but reggae — too hard.  Must have a bond with it.  Reggae has to be inside you.”

By the release of “Rastaman Vibration” later that year, Marley’s music had broken through to the U.S. market.  While its single, “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” stalled at #51 on the fd16-bw-bob-marley-billboard-1548pop charts, the album soared to #8 and the 1977 followup “Exodus” (with the FM hits “Jammin’,” “Waiting in Vain” and “Three Little Birds”) was a respectable #20.

In the UK, “Exodus” stayed on the charts for an astonishing 56 consecutive weeks.  Reggae’s boom there existed concurrently with the burgeoning punk movement, which shared that same rebellious streak.  But the message in reggae’s lyrics offered a more lasting form of rebellion — the one-two punch of hope and truth, which ultimately won out over punk’s dead-end nihilism.  It’s why reggae’s popularity has grown exponentially in recent decades while punk, frankly, isn’t much more than a glorified footnote (even more so in the U.S.).

The Police evolved from their punk/New Wave beginnings in 1977 to become international superstars in 1983, but reggae definitely played a pivotal role in their repertoire, from hits like “Roxanne” to deeper tracks like “Walking on the Moon” and 1981’s mantra-like “One World (Is Enough For All of Us).” As drummer Stewart Copeland put it, “We plundered reggae mercilessly.”

stevie-wonder-master-blaster-reggae-reggaetoday-okIn America, Motown/funk superstar Stevie Wonder was so taken by reggae in general, and Marley in particular, that he wrote a tribute to him in 1980 called “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” which became a #5 hit in the US and #2 in England.  Marley and Wonder even performed several shows together that summer.

While many of Marley’s most cherished songs preach love and serenity, his final efforts — 1979’s “Survival” and 1980’s “Uprising” — adopted far more militant tones, as he felt compelled to speak out more against the social injustices he saw on the rise as the ’80s began.  Just glance at the changing mood in the song titles:  Instead of “One Love” and “Positive Vibration,” we have “Africa Unite,” “So Much Trouble in the World,” “Zimbabwe,” “Ambush in the Night,” “Real Situation,” “Redemption Song.”

Jamaica was rocked to the core when Marley succumbed to cancer in 1981 at only 36 years old.  Four decades later, Marley is still regarded as a figurehead and near-deity among the Jamaican people, and the spread of reggae worldwide is due in large part to his impact.  Several of his 11 children have picked up the Marley mantle ziggy_marley_australian_toursince then, most notably Ziggy in the late ’80s (particularly “Tomorrow People” in 1988) and Damien in the ’90s, perpetuating and growing the reach and influence of reggae music as their father intended.

In the Eighties, acts like Blondie kept reggae prominently in the picture with their #1 cover version of The Paragon’s “The Tide is High,” and Culture Club contributed reggae-flavored hits like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” which was more an amalgam of multiple styles that included reggae.   As Boy George remarked, “In the the ’70s, we had glam rock, but we also had reggae and ska happening at around the same time.  I just took all those influences I had as a kid and threw them together, and somehow it worked.”

Some purists regarded these and other non-Jamaican acts like UB40 as “weaker, pastel versions” of true reggae — one critic called it “reggae that wouldn’t frighten white people” — and truth be told, they’re probably right on.  And still others never liked reggae to begin with.  Morrissey, the iconoclast who served as frontman for The Smiths, one of England’s most popular bands of the ’80s, summarized his feelings this way:  “Reggae is vile.”

Me, I enjoy a little reggae now and then, but usually only if I’m sitting by the pool or on the beach.  To my ears, it has a certain sameness to it that gets old after a short while.  But damn, it’s fun, it’s soothing, it gently gets under your skin, in a good way.  Take a listen to the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below for a healthy cross-section of reggae’s earliest hits and timeless anthems.  Or, if you prefer, you certainly can’t go wrong anytime you play Marley’s incredible “Legends” CD compilation, which has now sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

Such a fine line between stupid and clever

I have a sheepish admission to make.

As a devotee of rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I have been called “a walking encyclopedia” of song lyrics, rock band trivia, chart success of albums and singles, and all manner of unusual anecdotes about rock culture of those years.

But I must confess:  I never got around to seeing the celebrated 1984 rock documentary parody film “This is Spinal Tap” until two days ago.

11976492_1300x1733In rock music circles, my failure to be hip to this movie would be regarded as unforgivable for a rock blog writer.  It has gained its place as an iconic, can’t-be-missed gem that brilliantly satirizes both the rock music business as well as the documentary genre in general.

So anyone who dismisses “This is Spinal Tap” as a silly cult film would be wrong.  True, it took in a rather meager $4.5 million at the box office upon its release.  But this unique and hilarious “rockumentary” has been widely praised by just about everybody who’s seen it (and thanks to video/DVD sales over the years, that number has grown significantly).

Consider this:  “This is Spinal Tap” is ranked #29 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Best Comedies of All Time.”  Entertainment Weekly included it on its “100 Greatest Movies” list, calling it “just too beloved to ignore.”  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% rating, with this critical consensus:  “Smartly directed, brilliantly acted, packed with endlessly quotable moments.  An all-time comedy classic.”   Even the friggin’ Library of Congress deemed it “of aesthetic cultural significance” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry!

Pretty damn solid credentials for a film that was shot in a month by a first-time director who had no script.

video-this-is-spinal-tap-trailer-2-videoSixteenByNine1050That director was the great Rob Reiner, who started his career as an actor playing Michael “Meathead” Stivic on the Seventies TV classic “All in the Family” and has gone on to direct such landmark films as “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,””Ghosts of Mississippi” and “The Bucket List.”

Reiner has comedy in his genes, thanks to his father, the legendary Carl Reiner, instrumental in early television sketch comedy on “Your Show of Shows” (1950-1954) and “Sid Caesar’s Hour” (1954-1957), as well as creator of the brilliant “Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1966) and director of several Steve Martin comedy films like “The Jerk” (1979) and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982).

Not surprisingly, it was a challenge getting “This is Spinal Tap” made in the first place.  In those days, a TV actor who had the audacity to say he wanted to direct a film was laughed out of every Hollywood office he approached.  But Reiner kept at it, eventually getting enough seed money to shoot a 20-minute demo of what he had in mind, and then shopping that around until Norman Lear, creator of “All in the Family” and other award-winning TV shows, agreed to back the project.


McKean, Shearer and Guest

Reiner had been friends with comic writer/actor Harry Shearer, and they teamed up in 1978 with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, comedians who had originally been musicians, on a sketch about a parody rock band for a comedy show called “The TV Show.”  The foursome decided to expand that simple sketch into a novel idea for a faux documentary about a British heavy metal band trying to make a comeback on what became a rather disastrous American tour.


“Chris and Michael had been improvising for years with these characters, playing up their British accents and their dimwitted naiveté,” said Reiner.  “We put together a general arc of a story line, but when we shot the movie, we made it up as went along, because they were just so good at it.  We often used the first take in the final cut, because it captured the natural reactions best.”

Cinematographer Peter Smokler, who had worked on rock & roll documentary films like “Gimme Shelter,” was brought in on the project.  Says Reiner, “The whole time we were shooting, Peter kept turning to me and saying, ‘What’s funny about this?  This is not funny.  This is what they (rock musicians) do.’  And it’s true.  Apparently, a lot of bands at that time were well-meaning but seemed so entitled, and genuinely clueless.”

spinal-tap-2-435x580“This is Spinal Tap” is mischievously witty without being mean-spirited as it tells the tale of an aging, pitiable, slowly disintegrating band, with an arrogant, ineffective manager, who try vainly to keep their hopes up even as they face the embarrassment of half-empty venues and cancelled gigs.

It has an “is it or isn’t it real” quality that at first fooled many viewers into thinking Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was a bonafide documentary.  Hand-held camera techniques and deft editing between concert footage and backstage interviews made it look not all that different from actual rock docs like “The Last Waltz” or “Don’t Look Back.”

Reiner had seen how Martin Scorsese had put himself in his film “The Last Waltz” as its director, and decided to do the same thing.  “I called myself Marty DiBergi, sort of combining Scorsese, Bergman and Fellini all rolled together.”  He is seen interviewing band members and hangers-on backstage and at press events, and also introduces the film as its director at the beginning.

Much like “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” and other comedies of its era, “This is Spinal Tap” is riddled with quotable lines.  One memorable scene has Guest’s guitarist character showing all the band’s equipment to Reiner’s interviewer character.  He points Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_Elevenout that they have earned the reputation as “England’s loudest band” because they have amplifiers that can be turned up to 11.  “All these other bands, they can only turn the volume up to 10, but when we need that extra oomph, we can go up one more notch,” the guitarist explains confidently as Reiner stares at him, puzzled.

Reiner said he was dumbfounded when people asked him why he did a documentary of a band no one had ever heard of, a band that was so bad.  “And I would have to say to them, ‘Um…Haven’t you ever heard of satire?  You know, making fun of it all?’  And they would say, ‘Oh, okay…’  It took a while for people to catch up to it and realize it was all a spoof.”

Notorious party-boy rocker Ozzy Osbourne said he was among the audience members who assumed Spinal Tap was a real band.  “When I learned the truth, I realized I should’ve known better.  They seemed quite tame compared to what we were up to.”

In 2005, when U2 was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guitarist The Edge had this to say:  “It’s been so hard to keep things fresh, and not to become a parody of yourself.  If you’ve ever seen that movie Spinal Tap, you will know how easy it is to parody what we all do. The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t laugh.  I wept.  I wept because I recognized so much of ourselves in so many of those scenes.”

film__3046-this-is-spinal-tap--hi_res-5993de24Said Shearer in 2002, “The cast and crew love to hear that, the musicians who have said, ‘Man, I can’t watch Spinal Tap, it’s too much like my life.’  That’s the highest compliment of all.  It beats all the Oscar nominations we never got.”  Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eddie Vedder, and Dee Snider are just a few of the musicians who have referenced similarities between their own lives and the movie.

When he was casting “The Princess Bride” in 1987, Reiner said Sting, who had come in to audition for the part of Count Humperdinck, told him, “I’ll bet I’ve seen that movie 50 gal-spinal-tap-hutson-inset-jpgtimes.  We wore out our video copy on the tour bus.  Every time I watched, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Speaking of casting, “This is Spinal Tap” includes some “don’t blink, you’ll miss it” cameos by well-known actors in bit roles.  Billy Crystal, Angelica Huston, Fred Willard, gal-spinaltap-crystal-jpgFran Drescher, Ed Begley Jr., Howard Hesseman, Dana Carvey and Paul Shaffer all show up to add their two cents in the merriment.

Much of the credit for the film’s effectiveness as a parody must go to the trio of Guest, McKean and Shearer for their spot-on performances as fading British rockers who are continually humiliated by the scheduling snafus and corporate disrespect they face.  Guest, you may be aware, has had success in recent years imitating the mockumentary style of “This is Spinal Tap” in such critical favorites as “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000) and “A Mighty Wind” (2003), which he directed, co-wrote and appeared in.  McKean, who got his start playing neighbor Lenny in the TV chris_michael_harry_pressshow “Laverne and Shirley,” has appeared in nearly 70 films and 100 TV shows over the years, and currently plays older brother Chuck McGill on the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.”  Shearer, of course, has been one of the most important voices of characters on TV’s “The Simpsons” for two decades and running.

These guys wrote and performed Spinal Tap’s musical numbers themselves, with help from a few session players, and truth be told, some of the songs aren’t much worse than the tracks you might hear on your average heavy metal album of 1984 (which isn’t saying much).

tapbackfrondead_400x400In the years since the film’s original release, Guest, McKean and Shearer have periodically reunited as their film’s characters and improbably turned Spinal Tap into an honest-to-goodness band that went on the road and into the studio.  (A Spotify playlist below provides a decent sampling of their repertoire.)  Their 1992 album “Break Like the Wind” reached #61 on the US charts, and 2009’s “Back From the Dead” peaked at a respectable #52.  Said Guest, “We played the Pyramid Stage, we’ve played at Wembly, Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall.  It’s weird, but great.  The fictional became real.”


Art imitates life:  The ’70s hard rock band Uriah Heep once found themselves having to perform at a lame Air Force base social event, an incident that Shearer chose to include in Spinal Tap’s itinerary.

Life imitates art:  Heavy-metal titans Metallica said their 1991 LP “Metallica” (commonly known as “The Black Album”) is a tribute to the film’s scene where Spinal Tap’s record label replaced offensive artwork for its “Smell the Glove” LP with a plain black cover.

In one telling scene, Spinal Tap’s band members are angry about their album cover — a 64625_mx_uKqoNLdISDnxr_34157photo of a naked woman on her knees restrained by a dog collar and leash — being refused, when another group is given permission for their cover, which instead features the band members in the same degrading position.  When the difference is pointed out to them, they look at each other and say, “Hmmm.  It’s such a fine line between stupid…and clever.”

So true.  I suppose some people might find “This is Spinal Tap” monumentally stupid, but for those who appreciate finely tuned parody, I think it’s clever as hell.  As someone who just viewed it for the first time in 2018, I think I could make the argument that this movie probably works better today than it did when it was first released.  One of the movie’s goals was to satirize the concept of aging rockers engaging in “comeback” tours and albums, and, while there was plenty of that taking place in the early ’80s, it has surely become even more prevalent today.  Heavy metal headbangers might look absurd on the stage in their 30s; how about when they’re old enough for Medicare?