(Note: this review was originally posted on Friday, July 13 but due to a glitch [Bryne forgetting how to count], it wasn't featured on the homepage. We're reposting it today for the majority of you who missed it. –Ed.)
So impressed were the Clash with Mikey Dread's Jamaican dub albums that they invited him to be their opening act during the US, Europe, and UK leg of their tour supporting London Calling. While many Clash fans were surprised by the hip, Jamaican Deejay opening for the biggest punk band of the time, the bold move certainly had precedent.
As is well known, the Clash were big aficionados of Jamaican music having recorded a cover of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves", inviting eccentric/legendary producer Lee "Scratch" Perry to do (minimal) production work on their "Complete Control" single, and even giving a shout out to the genre that Mikey Dread help developed with "Clash City Rockers" (With "rockers" referring to energetic, sonically aggressive roots reggae and not to rock and roll).
Following Dread's test in front of the sometimes accepting sometimes annoyed audience, the Clash had Dread produce their Bankrobber single for them. Sort of a companion to the epic London Calling double LP, and a forecast of the wanton experimentalism of the the triple LP Sandinista, "Bankrobber" was rooted in extreme dub, but had a weird, ghostly distorted sound that had existed in neither rock nor reggae previously. Indeed, the Clash were so impressed with the new sound that they gave Dread the "Rockers Galore" Deejay cut on side B, where Dread deejayed/chatted/rapped/sang over a version of "Bankrobber", making the Bankrobber single the only time the Clash ever released a split 7".
The Clash furthered their Mikey Dread collaboration by giving Dread almost an entire side of Sandinista! allowing him to fill up side six with dub and deejay cuts of songs already on the album. (Although, one must concede that real estate on the six sidedSandinista! was not as rare as that of say… the 35 minute The Clash.) And that's where the story of World War III one of the most unique and innovative albums in reggae begins…
While it's tempting to overstate the influence of the Clash on Mikey Dread (and nearly as tempting to dismiss the Clash's residue all together), there is a noticeable change between Dread's pre-Clash releases and 1980's World War III. Prior to working with the Clash, Dread had already released two well received Dub albums, a compilation vocal album, and a string of notable singles including the hit "Barber Saloon." Yet, although Dread had lived in both Jamaica and the UK by that point, and had even studied at British audi engineering program, Dread's pre-1980's work sounded distinctively Jamaican, shaded by their lo-fi yet powerful production, heavy accent, and laggardly roots reggae beat.
But, when Dread returned with the post-Clash World War III his sound was noticeably changed. WWIII kicks off with the energetic, snappy, boastful "Jumping Master." Quite similar to the modern hip hop intro track, the song is little more than Dread naming and pinning accolades to performers on the disc and contemporaries such as "King Tubby a de dub plate master/ Prince Jammy a de mix it master/Scientist him a apprentice master" Yet, of course, Dread saves the greatest accolade for himself with "A dis one here a de studio master/ a dis one here is de worldwide master!"
But, while lyrically "Jumping Master" is little more than a role call, technique and sonically, it is a revolution. Since the extreme popularity of the roots reggae Heart of the Congos by the Congos, Satta Massaganna by the Abyssinians, and Two Sevens Clash by Culture in Jamaica, roots reggae was becoming even more rootsy and even more severe. So steeped in rhetoric and reference to ancient, biblical figures that suddenly, aided by producer King Jammy, producer Junjo, and even extremely Rastafari toaster Prince Far I, that Dancehall had overthrown roots reggae through its playfulness, energy, and most importantly, willingness to experiment. Possibly seeing that roots reggae was becoming passe, Dread suddenly produced music that had the energy, playfulness, and experimentalism of Dancehall, but maintained the philosophy of (some) roots Rastarafari. For instance, instead of a plodding, Biblical beat, "Jumping Master" cruises forward at a bopping bass provided by Flabba Holt.
Meanwhile, Dread advanced a new vocal style. Throughout the age of roots reggae, singers became more and more harmonious to the point where they sounded as if they were singing gospel. Yet Dread has a distinctive, high pitched nasally voice. Instead of trying to downplay his unusual voice, he places it at the front, at times singing, at times chatting, and even at other times, spitting out a sort of proto-rap designed to boom across the dance-floor and not to be experienced in solitary.
Similarly, while a great deal of roots reggae focused on the perfection of the rastaman, Dread goes on the attack against both contemporary capitalism as well as the self-smugness of many rastas. "Money Dread" finds Mikey Dread pointing figures at rasta who use their position for money and tangible gain, something rarely, if ever seen before (with Lee Perry possibly providing precedent(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNDDwSi0p3g)). On "Break down the walls," instead of railing against European overlords, Dread urges unity, and threatens only the few evil men at the very top, instead of drawing dissection between Rastas and non-adherents.
Yet, throughout the album, while the band tackles heavy subjects, the weightiness is mitigate by the sheer snappiness and neat sounds constantly whipping through the album. "Jah jah love" is propelled by a circular, springing bass which is as aimed for the dancehall as it is for the place of worship. "Mental Slavery" has a singular metallic clang that hammers down throughout the song like the fists of oppressors.
But, while WWIII has its parts of lamentation, the energy and tempo of the whole affair seems to be joyous… until its massive closing track, World War III." As much a lecture as a song, Dread ponders why rastas are treated with disdain merely for their hair, comparing it to the then popular afro haircut, and pointing out the incidentally of such division. Yet, before he can complete his lecture, the song is wiped out by a sudden, unexpected blast, foretelling an apocalypse not dissimilar to a certain opening track by the Clash…
The EBReggae re-issue of this release is the one to get. A lovingly constructed set, not only does it append all the various tracks from the different versions of this release, but it adds numerous tasty dub cuts that exhibit Dread's audio engineering degree, as he pushes the bass way up and drops in strange and sometimes threatening sonic effects.
Although Dread and the Clash would only work together sporadically post WWIII, the effect was evident on the experimentation of one and the energy of the other. Would Dread have made WWIII without the influence of four English blokes? Well, probably. But then again, he would release reggae's first double LP album, Pave the Way (Parts 1 & 2) a mere three years later…
Note: All four of the Clash are thanked in the notes of WWIII, though Paul Simonon is thanked first. I wonder why?