Althea & Donna, Uptown Top Ranking (1977)

AltheaDonnaUptownTopRankingArtist: Althea & Donna
Title: Uptown Top Ranking
Description: single; album track, Uptown Top Ranking
Label: Lightning Records
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1977

There’s no point in being coy about it: I once sang Uptown Top Ranking, the number one one-hit of Jamaican teens Althea Forrest and Donna Reid, in the appropriate patois and ting, onstage at no less than London’s famous 100 Club as part of a particularly memorable Karaoke Circus night. It is fair to say that my interpretation, as heartfelt and affectionate as it was, lacked a certain amount of pop and style, and was no match for the carefree unselfconsciousness of the irresistible original.

Inaccurately billing the artists as “Althia” & Donna on the original sleeve and label, Lightning was a subsidiary of Warner Bros, although the post-colonial plunder of Jamaica’s rich seam of musical ore really did help to broadcast it around it around the world, and it’s accepted now that reggae fed into punk, leading to the UK ska revival of the early 80s. Uptown Top Ranking might have seemed like a pop novelty to some in 1977 when it bogled up to the toppermost of the poppermost – two slightly cocky teens boasting of being “hip and ting” and threatening to give lecherous men a heart attack with their ’alter back (the “halter back” being a vest held up by a single strap, if you’re not fashion-inclined) – but its jerky charm is not withered by age. It feels now like an authentic explosion of youthful attitude.

Typically, it was John Peel who championed the track, and the duo, just as he did a few years later with Musical Youth, whose Pass The Dutchie was also a knee-high number one smasheroo. Although his patronage of reggae is more readily emblemised by dope-cloud dub, it’s to the great man’s credit that he was also a reggae pop-picker. As mentioned elsewhere, I was the right age circa post-punk and 2-Tone – and in the right ie. wrong place, geographically ie. Northampton – to find the West Indian influence effortlessly alluring. I can’t to this day confidently translate every romantically coloquialised couplet in Uptown Top Ranking, but you get the picture.

See me ’pon the road I hear you call out to me
True you see mi inna pants and ting

The protagonists’ focus on couture is paramount to the song’s trajectory. To the clothes hanger bearing “pants” (the “hot” variety we might presume) and that cardiac-risky “‘alter back”, we may add a “khaki suit”.

Meanwhile, the addition of a “likkle bass”

make me wine up me waist

Which, as any student of patois will tell you, refers to a form of dancing normally done by women, which involves gyrating the mid-section of body. Nothing to do with a glass of pinot. There are site-specific coordinates, too, which work best if you don’t look them up.

Drivin’ through Constant Spring
Them check sey me come from cosmo spring

Constant Spring is a residential district of Kingston, Jamaica, and I know this because I looked it up and that’s all its Wikipedia entry reveals other than the fact that it’s mentioned in Uptown Top Ranking. Cosmo spring? No idea. All I know now, as someone who’s not only looked up the lyric but learned it, off by heart, and sung it to a clubful of people through amplification, is that when I first heard it, in 1977, I made no effort whatsoever to understand it. I was transported by the order of its syllables, and you could just about sing along to the title, and to the manifesto line, “No pop, no style, something something roots.” It was sufficient.

Since we know for historical fact that the 1970s were a troubled decade, sexually, not least in Television Centre, where the 17- and 18-year-old Forrest and Reid performed their hit for Top Of The Pops that February, it’s reassuring to find that the pair seem so strident; their musical youthfulness appears to have escaped without patronisation or worse. That appearance, backed by a turtlenecked Top Of The Pops Orchestra who I suspect were largely non-Caribbean, survives as an organic little gem. Nothing about the packaging of the girls or their records (they followed up with an LP and further singles for Virgin’s Front Line, but none charted) seems exploitative, even in retrospect.

Althea and Donna get a writing credit along with Errol Thompson, one half of The Mighty Two with producer Joe Gibbs (the peak of whose endless studio CV must surely be Two Sevens Clash), so we might assume the young women had some input into the lyric. Let’s hope so. (The b-side of the UK issue, Calico Suit, is credited only to The Mighty Two.) Although the TOTP rendition is robbed of its roots, the vocal keeps it real, but you must return to the original recording to savour the full effect, from lazy opening rimshot to that teasing fade. But until you’ve actually learned precisely when to go “Ow!” (as in: “Watch how we chuck it and ting” “Ow!”), you’re a reggae weekender.

Ow!

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Bob Marley & The Wailers, No Woman, No Cry (Live) (1975)

BobMarleyLive

Artist: Bob Marley & The Wailers
Title: No Woman, No Cry (Live)
Description: album track, Live!
Label: Island
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1980

Just as we learned about the United States of America from the movies, we learned about Jamaica from reggae. Just as musically hungry residents of the fifth largest island country in the Caribbean got their jazz and R&B from US forces radio in the 50s, which helped fertilize the birth of ska and rocksteady, here in the UK we relied heavily on the likes of Island and Trojan for our understanding of reggae, which first infiltrated the charts through Eric Clapton before demand for the real thing took over. Cloaked in the smoke of myth and misinformation, reggae and Rastafari seemed exotic and aspirational: the big hats, the dope, the dub plates, the low-speed patois, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, the uprising against colonial thumb. Punk embraced it. We embraced it.

It is a simple fact that Bob Marley was the first rock star of reggae. The leonine, dressed-down, kickabout messiah looked and sounded like he could lead an exodus anywhere, any time he liked. He and the original Wailers toured the UK’s clubs, polytechnics and Top Ranks in ’73 and ’74, but it was the two nights at London’s Lyceum ballroom in ’75 after a long tour of the States in support of Natty Dread that gave us the monumental Live! album, and with it the definitive version of No Woman, No Cry. It does not strike me as perverse to enter the concert recording of what is, for me, their greatest song, into The 143. I am hardly the first to favour it over the 1974 studio original.

Arranged on the album by Hammond organist Jean Roussel, the keyboardist who sets the live rendition sail is new member Tyrone Downie, basically playing the vocal line, which causes sections of the ecstatic London audience to sing along even before the I Threes start mellifluously wailing. There’s a full minute of this somnolent, take-your-time intro and no showmanship intrudes on the vibe; new drummer Carlton Barrett and his bassist brother Aston “Family Man” keep the patient, confident beat, Alvan Patterson skims in a bit of bongo, while guitarist Al Anderson largely keeps his powder dry, content to simply catch the downbeat. (He’ll have his Eagles-style solo about four minutes in.) Bob’s first croak is not even that loud in the mix, and he sounds like he’s done every one of the previous 34 American shows, but it’s all the more plaintive for that. Sore throats and a touch of feedback remind us it’s live. Even the feedback is cool.

That first verse is so evocative of a home turf Marley and the Wailers haven’t even seen for six weeks, you can feel the pang of what the Welsh call hiraeth as Bob remembers sitting in the Government Yard in Trench Town, “observing the ’ypocrites” as they “mingle with the good people we meet.” There’s emptiness and longing in the talk of “good friends we’ve lost along the way”, not to mention a hint of Jamaica’s mortality rate, but optimism and pragmatism in the command to “dry your tears, I say.” Everything, after all, is gonna be alright.

The best reggae lyrics – in common, perhaps, with country’s – do not mince words. While not everything is literally spelt out, it’s unlikely to be obfuscated by metaphor. We hear, again nostalgically, that “Georgie would make the fire lights”, upon which “cornmeal porridge” was cooked and then shared. Never bothering to look it up, I always heard Bob sing, “My faith is my only carriage” – metaphor alert! – but the Internet tells me it’s the more terrestrial “feet“. With the Jamaican pronunciation (“fait‘”), you can empathise with my mishearing, but in the final analysis both versions work for me.

The advantage of a live recording, aside from the satisfying verité of hearing musicians ply their trade without overdubs, is the context. The reaction of the audience becomes part of the performance. Literally so, when what we may assume is a multi-ethnic throng joins in and preempts (producing a haunting pre-echo on the chorus). But this speaks of communality and where better to join hands with your fellow man than at a Bob Marley gig? In the mid-70s! Nobody in that ballroom is going to enunciate the words like Bob does, but it’s sweet hearing them try.

It’s seven minutes long. Another plus. Let’s be brutally frank, there is noodling, including some dextrous but surplus Hammond detail in the finish, but nobody in the room wants this one to end and that sense of gratitude seeps from the sum of its parts. Loose-limbed and lazy-sounding might be the modus operandi, but the Wailers’ command over the occasion is calculated and precise, and the rousing “everything’s gonna be alright” section takes off and lands right on schedule.

Marley wrote more political songs in his foreshortened lifetime and poppier ones. He proved himself a formidable albums artist, and yet the first posthumous compilation Legend sealed his reputation as one of the century’s master singles artists.

I never owned the big albums at the time – I always had a friend who did – so it was always the hits for me. I saw the Sisters Of Mercy at the Lyceum, my only pilgrimage to this seat of musical learning. There was a lot of smoke then, too.