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Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy CliffVintage (as in age, rather than quality) feature on Jimmy Cliff ahead of his Triptych appearance in 2002 – or thereabouts). The forty minute phone call to Jamaica cost a small fortune.


Few music films provide anything more than the most ephemeral of entertainment, yet there are a handful that serve as important pieces of social documentary as well. D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” Don Letts’ “Punk Rock: The Movie” and the early eighties’ hip-hop movie, “Style Wars” all captured a sense of the social and political climate of the time as well a s featuring some great music. 1973’s “The Harder They Come” performed exactly the same function for reggae music, and in doing so brought what had been, until that point an indigenous Jamaican music scene to the attention of the world.

Its star, Jimmy Cliff, makes his first ever visit to Scotland in a musical career that has spanned thirty eight years to introduce and talk about the film as part of the impending Trip Tych festival, and remains enthusiastic about this piece of his past.

“I look back on it and think that it does capture the spirit and feeling of the people in Jamaica at the time,” he says, “and I think that was why it was a success at the time and an important document now. The character I played was kind of a rebel on the wrong side of the law who was seeking independence and freedom, which I think was the same as a lot of the people at the time. The Rastafarian movement had a lot of the same values and was becoming increasingly important, and the music was another fresh and vibrant part of the whole Jamaican culture. So the film, I think covered musical, social, political and cultural matters.”

At the time of its release Cliff had already established himself as a successful international artist and lived in London during the later part of the sixties when he was signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and enjoying his first international hit in Brazil in 1968 with “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.” Even so, he had no idea of the film’s initial impact. Its opening in Kingston attracted 30 000 people trying to get a ticket and a glimpse of its star, while similar events took place around the world.

“I guess when we were making the film, we were aware of the interest in it,” he recalls, “but I thought that a lot of that was down to the fact the character was a kind of historical Jamaican figure and that not many films were made in Jamaica at that time. When it came out it was totally amazing. It did a lot to take the music (the soundtrack includes songs by The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and Scotty as well as Cliff’s title track and one of his most renowned songs, “Many Rivers to Cross”) of Jamaica to the rest of the world, and I remember the opening of the film in London and Hollywood as well. The opening in Notting Hill Gate was mad, but it seemed to attract people from all over, not just the West Indian community and that was a great feeling.”

It could have been the start of a career in acting for Cliff, but a combination of his music career, which was at its peak around this time, and the lack of suitable roles has limited his subsequent output. A concert/ documentary, “Bongo Man” came out in 1980, and Channel 5 viewers may have recently caught sight of the rather inglorious appearance of Cliff with Peter O’Toole and Robin Williams in 1986’s “Club Paradise.” It did, however, re-ignite some interest in Cliff’s music in America.

“I had always loved acting,” he says, “and at school I was probably more interested in acting than I was in music, but I guess it is just the way things work out. I got noticed doing ‘The Harder They Come’ and was offered other roles, but I didn’t think that they were right. They all seemed to be like less interesting versions of the character I had already played.”

Tellingly, Cliff’s increasingly infrequent appearances in Britain (he has not played for nearly ten years) do not mean that he has stopped working. This is the first year that he has not spent the majority of his time on the road, as he has started work on a sequel to “The Harder They Come.” His global appeal is reflected in both his touring venues and the fact that, as well as London, he has lived at various times in Brazil and Senegal, before returning to Jamaica.

“I have tended to go where I have been most excited by the music and there has been a market for what I do,” he says. “Every year I tour in the States for about three months, but I also go regularly to Brazil and Argentina, the Far East and Africa.”

“The period I stayed in Brazil was very exciting because I made a few records that tried to fuse what I do with Brazilian music, and it was much the same when I was in Africa. I was really blown away by the music I was hearing young people in Senegal and Mali make. People like Youssou N’Dour: the whole scene was very young and aspiring and there was a freshness about it. I sang with a lot of these people in clubs, and felt that they were doing similar things for African music that we had been doing for the music of Jamaica twenty years before.”

Looking back on his career, Cliff is reluctant to pick out particular highlights, preferring to talk of the diversity of places, people and situations that he has encountered in the period.

“I’m at a stage now when I am never going to be able or want to do anything else apart from my music,” he says, “but when I look back on it I have enjoyed all the periods of my career for different reasons. The early period in Jamaica was a bit of a hardship, but the experience of recording for the first time and being paid a shilling for the song was something that I really appreciated. Then, coming to Britain was another challenge, because I was touring with British musicians that didn’t really know ska or rocksteady music and had to adapt to a whole new musical culture.

“The period around the film and going back to Jamaica when I had several big hits was great, but over the years perhaps the strong impact I have had in Africa is the most rewarding thing.”

With “The Harder They Come” the sequel ready to begin filming later this year, he hopes that it will have the same “grittiness” of the original and will have a similar impact on his own musical activities. It would be another remarkable twist in a pioneering life.

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Top of the Pops

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I must admit to paying little, make that no, attention to Top of the Pops since it was removed from the air last year. Yet it still exists, sort of, as a kind of publicly-funded brand extension.

So why am I watching this recording of TOTP2? Well, it is mainly down to a press release received earlier in the week entitled ‘How Queer – Fire Engines on TOTP2.’ Yes, these Fire Engines – Henderson, Slade, Burn & Main – a short-lived band from Edinburgh circa 1980.They were never known to have unduly troubled the chart compilers (although the sales of ‘Big Gold Dream’ would have easily found them in the top 5 these days) and hardly TV regulars at the time. The footage came, apparently, from a long forgotten show called ‘Riverside.’

The context here is key. With the exception of the Kaiser Chiefs doing a spot of product placement for their new album in the studio and an Arctic Monkeys’ video, the nature of the show is one of faintly ridiculous nostalgia. It would appear that the BBC archives are not raided for the best performances (or perhaps they have used them all up) but for a ragtag of items that could not be more musically disconnected if they tried. Hence we have Genesis performing ‘Follow You, Follow Me’ with a relatively hirsute Phil overcompensating in the front man’s role since his elevation from the drum kit. It is damning with faint praise to hail this actually o.k. pop song as one of his finest ever works.

A glimpse of Elton John’s ‘Kiss The Bride’ recalls a period when Reg had hair, bad teeth, big glasses and was married. Those around in 83 may have been justified in thinking that his career was on its last legs. Unfortunately, Live Aid, Princess Di and a hair weave put paid to such optimistic predictions.

Yet even Elton is outdone in the nonsense stakes by Marillion. Fish, sports tartan trousers and a six-fister (official unit of measurement of the mullet) while using some hand scrawled lyrics on a flip chart, ‘Don’t Look Back’ style, in a vain attempt to convince us that ‘Lavender Blue’ is, in fact, poetry. A double-headed guitar only adds to the unintended comedy value.

If this is embedded in the eighties, then so is the incongruous clip of the Waterboys’ ‘Glastonbury Song.’ It is all superfluous backing vocals, big keyboards and Mike Scott in a red beret hiding surplus hair. Unfortunately, this would be vaguely forgivable (after all he has made some good records) if it were recorded in the said decade. It was 1993.

So in these surroundings Fire Engines, musically lean and physically (cod liver) oiled, are timeless and transcendent. They have been gigging occasionally in recent years and their limited back catalogue has been reactivated by Domino (in the first instance where the band own the rights) and presumably the highest bidder (in the other where they don’t). Their some-time label mates, Arctic Monkeys, have never looked so ordinary by comparison. Queer, indeed.

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