Dub, in all its shadowy refulgence, offers pleasure on par with few other items in my life. Its pleasures are rivalled only by the sight of pale, overly-mascara’ed, zaftig girls spilling out of black corsetry at Goth clubs or, more likely, the cloudy afternoon that finds me curled up with a favorite anthology of Charles Addams cartoons. There is more than faint redolence of the macabre, enjoyably so, in the murky dream logic of reggae deconstructed in dub. Fitting, then, that the caption of a particular Addams cartoon sums for me the joy of immersion in a great dub album: Addams's drawing shows the couple whom we now know as Gomez and Morticia (thanks to the ABC sitcom, as they were never named in the pages of The New Yorker) standing in the doorway of their decayed Victorian pile, waving good night to a pair of mutants shambling down the front walk. Gomez remarks, “I like them. They wear well.”
As much can be said, and more (as you knew I would) of Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style. Though it appeared circa ’77, in the fading years of dub’s halcyon era, this set is a standard bearer for the form, with its many strengths linked to the first great collections of ‘version’ sides appearing earlier in the decade. Jammy's... was mixed at the studio of dub potentate King Tubby, by his then-assistant Prince Jammy (neé Lloyd James). Most of the tracks versioned herein were drawn from Black Uhuru’s debut album for Jammy’s label, reissued by Greensleeves in the U.K., the set known variously as Black Sounds of Freedom or Love Crisis. That group’s vocal talent was mostly absent from Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style, as the mixer of the title was concerned with hammering out his own signature mixes and escaping the shadow, still lengthening through the present day, of his employer. The space-delineating reverb, a Fisher unit rewired by King Tubby, added a dimension perhaps best appreciated by spelunkers. Though there was more than enough bass, the first priority of any self-respecting dub organizer, Jammy used filter sweeping to create slow-motion melodies, anticipating Kraftwerk’s activities in this area by a full decade or more. The album that emerged was dark, very dark, deceptively plain-spun as a Double Dutch rhyme and every bit as insidious.
Prince Jammy issued this lp in close proximity to two other essential dub albums he created, Horace Andy’s In The Light Dub (reissued on CD in combination with its parent album of songs, on the Blood & Fire imprint) and Gregory Isaacs’ Slum In Dub. Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style has never seen release on aluminum, possibly owing to what Steve Barrow (A&R director for archival imprint Blood & Fire, he's also the music’s greatest historian, the A.J.P. Taylor of reggae) described as ‘ineradicable groove swish.’ This artifact is occasionally audible and may speak to an attribute of the studio then frequented by Prince Jammy. To describe many of the dubs being cut in King Tubby’s studio is to speak literally; often as not, the mixes went straight to a disc-cutting lathe, bypassing the usual intermediary master tape. This technique is still employed by audiophile labels; it certainly abetted the cavernous sound stage and stygian bass unique to Tubby’s mixing room.
Of course, an enduring tenet of dub is that the weirdest, most inventive mix can’t save a duff performance. Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style drew upon sessions featuring a stellar array of Jamaican studio talent: Robbie Shakespear on bass, drumming by Sly Dunbar or Carlton ‘Santa’ Davis, keyboards by Keith Sterling and Winston Wright (both from the later edition of Lee Perry’s studio band, the Upsetters) and the largely unsung MVP of reggae, guitarist Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith.
I was saddened, as many others were, to see 'cultural' rhythms of the '70s segue into ‘80s dancehall. The ostensible symptoms of change seem linked. The figurative death of songwriting in reggae. The too-literal death of many legendary talents (Marley, Tosh, Prince Far I, Hugh Mundell, Michael Smith — the latter stoned to death by a mob in the 20th Century — and King Tubby himself), others emigrating from the world's loudest island. Dancehall’s serving as soundtrack for the test-marketing of crack in Jamaica, before that substance became the mid-'80s agent of cultural corrosion elsewhere. Prince Jammy matriculated to King Jammy as this new era dawned and made his greatest mark as a dancehall producer. I will always favor the earlier years, though, when he helmed fabulous dubs such as those heard today.
As Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style is a comparatively brief collection, I have added a rarity found only on a 12” vinyl single, to the best of my knowledge. The A-side is a song by the Congos, “Jah Is The Sweetest.” (By the way, since I've mentioned Black Uhuru already in this post, don’t you think it’s interesting how reggae artists obsess about Haile Selassie-as-godhead, until their royalty cheques improve? Excepting Burning Spear, of course.) The B-side, included in today’s listening, is “Reggae Strings,” credited to Derrik (sic) Holtsma and Sly & Robbie. The intro of this instrumental finds the treble muted, under heavy manners. Another wild filter sweep, the high end opens up and lead violins (!) appear in duet; a bit Alice In Wonderland, this. I don’t know of any other reggae tracks that employ strings so effectively, save for those comprising the four volumes of Harry Mudie Meets King Tubby In Dub Conference. (Jamaicans were way in front — by years — of author Alexander McCall Smith in the baroque titling sweepstakes.) “Reggae Strings” resembles a soundtrack cue from two decades later, composer Angelo Badalamenti’s “Alvin’s Theme,” the splendid musical centerpiece of The Straight Story. That film was directed by David Lynch, something of an Addams character in his own right.
Next up, our trio of Jamaican posts concludes with the one mid-‘70s album from Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio that still is not properly represented on CD. Please stay tuned...Querida.
JAMMY'S IN LION DUB STYLE