It seems unquestionable to me that a good deal of the spirit at work here can be traced to Jamaica’s Rastafarians, and to their favored musical form, dub. The connection isn’t stylistically explicit (though Smith and Costello–listen to “Watching the Detectives”–have done some borrowing); it has to do with a doomy message communicated by the overall sound and by the stance of the artists. It’s a translation of the Rasta/dub ethos of apocalypse-asordinary-life. The idea that comes across is that every day, every song, must be lived as if it maybe the last, as if it will be judged.
Dub is postreggae. It began with Jamaican “disc jockeys” like Big Youth dropping outrageous raps onto the instrumental tracks of other people’s reggae hits. Then, groups remixed their own tracks, fading and phasing instruments up and down and across one another, electronically altering straight vocals into whispers and screams, projecting a spooky, otherworldly specter of isolation, holy madness and delight. The music–its masterpiece is Burning Spear’s Garvey’s Ghost–claimed night vision. It was weird, and its weirdness produced, in its artists, both a sense of revelation and a crazed sense of humor.
Tapper Zukie is a Jamaican living in London. His Man Ah Warrior, released through the efforts of Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, is one of the finest and also one of the most accessible dub albums I’ve ever heard: even a ten-year-old hooked on Shaun and Donny could get into “Archie, the Rednose Reindeer.”
The LP opens with the bass line from the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Since it’s the most dramatic bass line in all of rock & roll, there’s no way you can ignore it. (Zukie acknowledges the cop on side two: “I’m not a rolling stone, you know,” he chants, “I’m just a warrior.”) All across the album, the sound of the bass is unusually taut for Jamaican music; the mix is dark and complex, but you can begin to hear what’s going on immediately. Part of the pleasure of dub, though, comes from the fact that there’s no way you can hear everything on first listening: you find your way into the music by twists and turns, as on a Firesign Theatre album. I was struck instantly by the brilliantly arranged “I King Zukie”–the singer sounded lost and triumphant all at once–but it took me days to hear it as of a piece with the Clash’s “Complete Control” or “What’s My Name.’
Man Ah Warrior is alive with quick shifts of time, with seemingly irrational, strike-and-retreat changes in sound presence; the two, perhaps three vocals on each cut (not lead/backup singing, but a kind of rhythmic moral debate) ambush you, throwing you off guard, drawing you back in. You feel surrounded, trapped. It is, surprisingly, a good feeling: as with Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, Tapper Zukie’s music doesn’t give an inch. Its nerve is infectious; once seduced, you may find yourself impatient with good, conventional records like the Jefferson Starship’s Earth. As Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party” says with such good humor, new alliances are forming all the time, and the rock wars of the late Seventies go on.
Rolling Stone, May 18, 1978