I remember meeting Joe Strummer when I was about 16 or 17 and, after talking for some time about my musical aspirations, him being appalled that I hadn't see the film The Harder They Come. Shamed by the charismatic frontman of The Clash, and stymied by the terrible selection of videos available to me near my hometown in Connecticut, it took a trip to New York City and a visit to my friend whose parents still had a Betamax player to find out what all the fuss was about.
The digital age has made things a tad easier.
For more than 40 years, critics and audiences from all walks of life have sung the praises of filmmaker Perry Henzell's gritty, groundbreaking masterpiece that brought reggae music to the international stage, helped make Jimmy Cliff a worldwide star, and demonstrated that music and art can change the world. Now it's been restored in glorious HD and is available on iTunes and VHX via www.thehardertheycome.com in both download and streaming formats.
"Perry strongly believed in the power of Art to bridge cultural boundaries," said Justine Henzell, the Chair of Interntaional Film Management, the film's original producers. "Having his film available to the world in this manner is a dream come true."
IFM and its partner Syndctd Entertainment distributed the restored film into theaters last September for a one-night only special theatrical event. As part of the 360-degree approach to re-launching the classic film, an official merchandise line has been created with a fresh spin on vintage artwork from the movie.
"Consumers are looking for something special in the box when they purchase a DVD or Blu-ray. We want to translate that experience with an HD quality digital download straight to any fan's computer, laptop or tablet, along with official clothing as depicted in the film, at a discounted price, and VHX has provided that solution." say Syndctd Entertainment co-founders Philip Camino and Jonathan Chaupin.
This homegrown Jamaican film, co-written with award-winning playwright, Trevor Rhone, has gone on to become one of the best regarded independent features of all time. The 1973 U.S. launch of The Harder They Come led to four decades of smoke filled late night-screenings around the world. When Bob Marley and the Wailers first toured America later that year, they appeared in many of the same theaters that were screening The Harder They Come.
There is probably no more identifiable reggae album than The Harder They Come's original soundtrack album. Along with Bob Marley's catalog, it introduced the world -- and especially the US -- to the genre and is still a touchstone, with Rolling Stone magazine recently ranking it the third greatest soundtrack of all time (behind only behind Prince's Purple Rain and The Beatles' Help!).
Written and performed by Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, the Melodians, Scotty, The Slickers and Toots and The Maytals, the twelve tracks span a wide range of Jamaican music styles popular at the time the film was shot in the early 1970s. Music aficionados should note that the soundtrack consists entirely of songs written and/or performed by Jimmy or hand-selected for the film by Perry Henzell from his personal record collection.
This article is copyright 2014 by Jeff Slate. No part may be reprinted or referenced without permission and/or attribution. All rights reserved.
Tony Brevett, who has died aged 64, was a founding member of the Melodians, one of Jamaica's most popular harmony groups, which had a hit with their reggae adaptation of the spiritual hymn Rivers of Babylon.
The song, which featured on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come (1972), a Jamaican crime film starring Jimmy Cliff, had a significant international impact and drew a new audience to reggae. It also led to Boney M's popular disco version.
In Jamaica it was just one of a string of hits that the Melodians secured during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they charmed listeners with superb three-part harmonies and uncommon lyricism. Brevett also had success as a solo singer, particularly with self-produced work.
Brevett was born in Kingston on September 3, 1949. His uncle, Lloyd, was bassist in the Skatalites, Jamaica's leading ska group, and it was a natural progression for Tony to become involved in music.
While attending Ebenezer School in the early 1960s, he formed an informal harmony group with a then unknown Bob Marley and another school friend, George Allison, rehearsing renditions of American songs in a local church. He learned some rudimentary guitar chords after acquiring a ukulele, and after Marley made his debut recording for Leslie Kong's Beverley's Records, Brevett auditioned at Beverley's, but was rejected.
He formed the Melodians in 1963 with Bradfield Brown, Trevor McNaughton and Brent Dowe, who alternated lead vocal duties with Brevett. After Brown dropped out, Renford Cogle began contributing lyrics and helping with musical arrangements, but did not sing with the group.
The Melodians made an initial impact performing at Kingston's Kittymat club and other local venues. In 1966 they began recording at Clement Dodd's Studio One facility, cutting Lay It On, Meet Me, I Should Have Made It Up and Let's Join Hands (Together). They soon shifted to Dodd's chief rival, Duke Reid's Treasure Isle, as Reid was offering £10 a song, while Dodd offered only £6.
At Treasure Isle the Melodians became one of the premier groups of the rock-steady era with heartbroken hits such as You Have Caught Me, I'll Get Along Without You, You Don't Need Me and Come On Little Girl, as well as the spirited Expo 67, which celebrated Jamaica's presence at the Montreal event. In 1968 the group recorded the popular Swing and Dine and Little Nut Tree for Sonia Pottinger, then Jamaica's sole female record producer, before enjoying a further extended spell of success with Leslie Kong, for whom they cut Rivers of Babylon.
Following Kong's death in 1971, the group recorded Round and Round for Lee Perry, and This Beautiful Land, produced by Brevett, but success proved elusive, leading to a temporary break-up. Dowe issued a solo album and Brevett issued noteworthy self-produced work, such as the chilling Starlight, backed the Skatalites, and the popular Don't Get Weary, which highlighted his expressive, deep tenor.
Producer Harry J persuaded the group to re-form in 1976 for the album Sweet Sensations, while a half-finished album, recorded at Lee Perry's Black Ark for Sonia Pottinger, eventually surfaced as Deep Meditation, padded out by older material. The group was then dissolved once more, though they re-formed in the early 1980s for some less successful releases produced by Dowe.
Yet the legendary status accorded the group's rock-steady and early reggae recordings saw further reunions, most notably for a rock-steady revue, staged by fellow singer Alton Ellis in London in 1997.
Although Dowe died of a heart attack in 2006, Brevett and McNaughton continued to perform under the Melodians name, and before Brevett died they were preparing for a 50th anniversary concert, to be held in Miami.
California based skate-shoe company Vans who have developed numerous footwear/merchandise lines inspired by bands ranging from Bad Brains to Metallica have entered into a partnership with Queens, New York based Reggae independent VP Records to create the Dub Rockers sneaker. One-hundred and twenty pairs of the black mid-top accented with the Ethiopian/Rastafarian colors, red, green and gold, will be distributed throughout the summer, part of the promotional campaign for VP’s latest imprint, Dub Rockers,
The label’s debut is a Dub Rockers compilation, scheduled for an August 27 release in digital, CD and vinyl formats. The album’s ten tracks pair VP’s Jamaican artists with several American reggae acts that have amassed large fan bases among Vans’ target market: the skating and surf boarding community.
The first single “Only Man In The World,” a sultry lovers rock duet featuring Hawaii’s Anuhea and Jamaica’s Tarrus Riley was released in March and has sold over 6,000 digital units; the song’s video directed by Janelle Dyer (below).
Vans also sponsored professional skateboarder John Cardiel, who moonlights as reggae DJ Juan Love, to create a series of Dub Rockers mixtapes in the months leading up to the album’s release, coordinating tracks from VP’s extensive Jamaican catalogue with songs by American reggae artists. Cardiel will also spin reggae selections at the Dub Rockers late August album release party to be held at Brooklyn’s House of Vans, an indoor/outdoor concert venue and skate park, with a capacity of 1,200.
VP recently sponsored the 4th annual California Roots Music and Arts Festival (May 24-26) in Monterrey, Calif., attracting nearly 30,000 patrons with a lineup that included three California-based bands heard on the compilation, Slightly Stoopid, The Expendables and Rebelution. The label will also support the Afropunk Festival at Brooklyn’s Commodore Perry Park on August 24 and 25, which features a skateboarding competition. Vans, meanwhile, will push Dub Rockers video content and postings through their social networks, which include more than 10,000,000 likes on Facebook and 139,000 Twitter followers.
“This relationship has many marketing opportunities: we can do shows, create products together but most important is the relationship to authenticity; we come from the action/sports world, they come from the reggae world so bridging gaps is very meaningful to both parties,” says Kurt Soto founder of Vans’ Music Program, which includes their annual sponsorship of the Warped Tour.
“Our goal is to expose Jamaican acts to an audience that may be unfamiliar with them, but also legitimize in a sense what the American guys are doing because Caribbean audiences can be unreceptive to outside acts playing reggae,” adds Mike McGraw, VP’s Director of New Media as well as an avid skateboarder. “This is something new for VP; ultimately, we hope to sign Jamaican and non-Jamaican bands to the Dub Rockers imprint.”
Creating greater awareness of veteran and contemporary Jamaican artists among the predominantly young Caucasian followers of American reggae bands while, conversely, exposing American bands to Jamaican reggae’s core African-Caribbean listenership provided the inspiration for the Dub Rockers compilation, says A&R Christoffer Mannix Schlarb, VP’s former Director of Publicity/Radio Promotions and founder of the company’s digital division. “Reggae is a niche genre that doesn’t need division between Caribbean and American fans. I thought if we produced tracks that drew an authentic connection between Jamaican and American acts, it would appeal to both audiences,” offers Schlarb, now CEO of the reggae-influenced digital label Dub Shot Records. Dub Rockers’ co-A&R is Olivier Chastan, President of Greensleeves Records, which VP acquired in 2008.
The first track recorded for the project was “No Cocaine” featuring veteran Jamaican band Inner Circle (also known for their “Bad Boys” theme to “Cops”) fiery Jamaican sing-jay Capleton and Slightly Stoopid. Founding member, guitarist Roger Lewis says the American bands’ desire to play Jamaican music parallels what Inner Circle was doing during their late-60s formative years. “Back then we were listening to the Impressions, the Beatles, trying to copy the foreign-man style. Slightly Stoopid, SOJA been doing the same, except they were learning our ‘70s tunes; it’s a real humbling experience to see how much we influence these kids,” Lewis revealed.
The proliferation U.S. born and bred reggae bands over the past 10-15 years stems from the seeds planted in the mid-70s by Jamaican legends including Bob Marley and The Wailers, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff, especially through “The Harder They Come” film/soundtrack; their music established reggae’s indelible popularity here, particularly among a (predominantly) white college age audience. Since then a new generation of young, mostly white American musicians have embraced reggae, integrating elements of rock and hip-hop. Several of these bands have so finely honed their skills they are no longer considered mere imitators but instead vital contributors to an evolving art form eternally rooted in Jamaica but with ever-lengthening branches that stretch across the globe.
VP’s development of the Dub Rockers imprint recognizes the shift in the reggae market as American reggae bands, buoyed by years of incessant touring and strategic online/social media marketing, consistently outsell their Jamaican counterparts.
On this week’s Reggae Album chart, for example, Strength to Surive (ATO) by SOJA (from Arlington, VA, heard on Dub Rockers alongside Germany’s Gentleman and Jamaica’s Tamika on the reggae-rock-dancehall mash up “I Tried”) is No. 3 after 69 consecutive weeks on the tally. Peace Of Mind (87/Silverback) by Rebelution (paired with Jamaican sing-jay I Wayne on the herb anthem “So High”) is No. 4, following 72 consecutive weeks and Hasidic reggae chanter Matisyahu’s Spark Seeker (Fallen Sparks/Thirty Tigers) sits at No. 6 with 45 consecutive weeks; all three titles have resided in the top 10 since their (2012) chart debuts. With Snoop Lion’s Reincarnated (RCA) at No. 1 the sole (non-compilation) Jamaican reggae artist album in the top 10 (Marley: The Original Soundtrack notwithstanding) is Sizzla’s The Messiah (VP) debuting this week at No. 7.
Peetah Morgan, lead singer of sibling group Morgan Heritage, who drop their ninth studio album Here Come The Kings (VP) on June 11 who are the only band with Jamaican roots to ever play the Warped Tour (in 2001 and 2002), says the punk rock/jam band audience that attends Warped and supports American reggae artists should have been aggressively courted years ago. “This is something we spoke about when we did the Warped tour, back when bands like Slightly Stoopid were opening for us. How did these American bands find their audiences? It is a circuit you have to tap into it. VP represents most of Jamaica’s reggae artists yet markets mainly to the Caribbean community, which doesn’t buy records; Chris Blackwell didn’t market Bob Marley to the Caribbean.”
For Dub Rockers Morgan teams up with John Brown’s Body, on the Subatomic Sound System remix of the Ithaca/Boston based band’s hard-hitting social critique “The Gold”. “We are all doing reggae but for totally different fans,” added Morgan. “Both sets of artists are interested in crossing into each other’s territories and this project is a great tool for that.”
Jimmy Cliff who cuts such classic reggae singles as The Harder They Come, Many Rivers To Cross and You Can Get It If You Really Want It back in the 60s and 70s - says he has always been an outsider. He was keen to collaborate with other artists and experiment with different genres, whereas most reggae artists remained in a closed world. And in the context of Rastafarian-dominated reggae culture he was also a Christian who converted to Islam then explored other religions ... and he has some rather outsider views on faith.