Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 1: ska and rocksteady

This had originally intended to show the development of piano/keyboard playing in Jamaican music, but rather than just do a step-by-step timeline, I’ve picked out a few favourite tunes that have impacted upon me as a musician.

Ska
The first one is ‘Broadway Jungle’ by Toots and The Maytals. I love the piano riff that goes on throughout the tune, it’s the icing on the cake of a typically joyous Toots and The Maytals performance. The piano does an intro that is a little like Jackie Mittoo’s El Bang Bang, and it may well be Jackie playing on this track.

The next track I’ve chosen, Killer Diller by Jackie Mittoo is a departure, as it features the electric organ playing the main melody. It’s a Booker T & the MGs/Watermelon Man-type track but in ska, and, reflecting the influence of jazz on Jamaican musicians, the organ solo is in the soul-jazz mode.

Rocksteady
Napoleon Solo, is a classic piece of rocksteady. On piano again is Jackie Mittoo, heard with the Soul Vendors which was a splinter group from The Skatalites. (Could be Lynn Taitt and The Jets.) I could almost imagine this as something from a 40s big band but adapted to the one drop style. The piano has a nice, understated jazz touch.

Ali Shuffle AKA ‘Rock Steady’ (and Seven Wonders Of The World) is a tribute to Buster’s friend Muhammad Ali, and it’s another organ-led piece, played by Winston Wright. What’s notable is the middle eastern tinge, which may have been a musical nod to the fact that both Ali and Buster were muslims. Coincidentally, John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef were also exploring African and middle eastern elements, as was the genre called ‘exotica’ through people such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter. This sound crops up in some of Don Drummond’s work and was later mined by Augustus Pablo in his output. Anyone familiar with The Specials will recognise Ali Shuffle as a precursor to Ghost Town.

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Reflections on ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’

MIRROR IN THE BATHROOM

 Mirror In The Bathroom is a remarkable song by British band The Beat, who came to prominence in the late 70s 2 Tone movement.

It went to number three in the British charts back in 1980 (it was their third single), and was their biggest hit. Yet if you were to ask anyone who knows the song to say what it’s actually about, chances are they’d go blank. It goes to show how a song can strike a chord with many people without them needing to understand it. In a lot of ways, it’s such a danceable record that the meaning is quite secondary to the ‘beat’. I’ll come to the lyrics later.

The music

When I first heard the Beat’s debut single, a cover of Tears of a Clown, I felt they had something different going on from their 2 Tone peers. From the beginning of the band, they’d set out to fuse the energy of punk with the supple, lilting rhythms of reggae. Among others, they initially took their musical cues from fellow Birmingham band The Equators but quickly established their own signature sound.

‘Ska’ became used as a convenient catch-all phrase to categorise the songs made by bands associated with 2 tone; look a little closer and you realise that ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ isn’t ska at all. It’s a new music.

There’s a rich variety of musical ingredients in the pot. In Mirror, you have a mixture of uptempo steppers-reggae drums, dubby/Velvet Underground-styled bass, new wave guitar chords – neither major nor minor thanks to Dave Wakeling’s “wrongly” tuned guitar. On top of that, there’s Saxa’s jazz-tinged tenor sax with its soulful, dark yet sweet melodies. On paper, this mixture of styles shouldn’t work, but it does. Bassist David Steel’s description of their sound as a ‘weird chemistry’ kind of sums it up.

There isn’t one single element that defines their sound. Like with all great groups, the sum is greater than the individual parts. Though if I was to highlight an ‘x-factor’, it would have to be Everett Morton’s drumming. The drums always determine the sound of a band, and Everett’s playing – a sprightly Sly Dunbar-type of rhythm – gives the whole thing a unique energy, groove and edge.

The lyrics

If you listen to the words, what you have is a collection of images involving mirrors. That in itself is odd; what makes it even more obscure is the fact that there isn’t really a ‘story’ woven into the three verses. There’s an element of mystery about it, and you sense only the writer is privy to its meaning. Interestingly, the only other lyricist whom I’m aware of that writes in this way is Lee Thompson, saxophonist and founder member of Madness. Here’s Dave Wakeling revealing how he came to pen the lyrics.