Monday, 31 July 2017

The Mighty Diamonds: Right Time

Recently, I've been immersed in Lloyd Bradley's history of reggae music, Bass Culture. There was one copy on its own in a rather lacklustre remainder bookshop in Romsey and it's every bit as engrossing as I imagined it would on beating the good citizens of the Hampshire market town to the purchase. Like all good music books, in my mind, it's not just about the music but about the whole social, historical and political context in which it came about. I feel now that I know the layout of Kingston, Jamaica, as well as I do that of Kingston, Surrey (where my paternal grandparents, of blessed memory, once lived).

Each chapter of the unfolding evolution of different riddims has sent me scurrying for my own documentary evidence to support the thesis. I've spent way too many a happy hour re-discovering the US-influenced Blue Beat catalogue, all those frantic jerky ska instrumentals that used to get the Queen Mum hopping around her palace, Duke Reid's Treasure Isle of rock steady gems, Clement Coxsone Dodd's incomparable Studio One output, King Tubby's prolific dub experiments, Augustus Pablo's haunting melodica inna quasi-Eastern style and so on. Praise JA – and Jah, if you're that way inclined.

Now that I've reached the technologically more advanced Channel One studio catalogue, I've been reacquainting myself with some of the harmonious vocal-trio glories of the '70s era: a time when I used to buy the cheap Virgin Front Line samplers as a short-cut to all that was on offer then. The Abyssinians, the Heptones, Burning Spear, Culture, the Wailing Souls, possibly the most infectious live band that I ever witnessed, the Gladiators, Black Uhuru, Israel Vibration and many, many more – including of course the Mighty Diamonds, whose Right Time just about takes the natty biscuit.

Both the first, title track and the last track, 'Africa', featured on the first of the Front Line samplers. As every good sampler should do, it tempted me to spend my unearned student florins on the real thing. I was prepared to forego a few pints of lukewarm bitter to subsidise my burgeoning habit. Perhaps the apogee of the vocal-trio's art, Right Time has never, ever disappointed. No, that's a slight lie, because the 30-minute running time has always been a bone of contention. At a mere 2 minutes 5 seconds, the track that opens the second side, 'I Need A Roof', is one of those songs – like 'Knocking On Heaven's Door' – that will ever leave the listener frustrated. Natural transitory mystic. It demands a 12" version – and indeed there are versions galore, including Prince Fatty with Little Roy's 'Roof Over My Head', a personal favourite – but there is nothing long enough to slake my thirst.

Oh well, Right Time wouldn't be the album it is if any track peeped above the four-minute parapet. The opening title track, with its instantly recognisable Sly Dunbar drum motif ushering in the gorgeous harmonies of lead vocalist Donald Sharpe supported by Fitzroy Simpson and Lloyd Ferguson, is just about as long as it gets at 3.15. Half an hour and 10 songs brimming with rhythm and melody. 'Natty dread will never run away.../Dis ya a prophecy'.

The album was produced in 1975 by Joe Joe Hoo Kim at the Channel One studio that he and his brother Ernest founded – in true entrepreneurial Jamaican adaptable stylee – when the government outlawed gaming machines and therefore consigned the brothers' embryonic jukebox and fruit machine business to Babylon. The Hoo Kims gathered around them the customary house band of luminaries, in this case an outfit calling themselves the Revolutionaries that included the likes of Tommy McCook on tenor sax, Sticky Thompson on percussion, Ansell Collins on keyboards and the future riddim twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

On Right Time, the horns are used sparingly and, on tracks like 'Natural Natty', set way, way back in the mix, while the wonderful fluid bass of Robbie and Sly's previous partner, Ranchie McLean, is so prominent in the mix that it almost at times carries the melody. The fact that both are used on the album (and I certainly don't know my bass well enough to tell one from the other) suggests that Right Time is the transition time when Sly and Robbie were just finding each other. There's a marvellous passage in Lloyd Bradley's book when Augustus Pablo's protégé, Junior Delgado, describes the impact of the new rhythm section: 'When Ranchie was there with Sly it was good, but it wasn't wicked. That come with Robbie. As soon as him hook up with Sly they just click, like they both want to try new things and develop their sound. The vibes come offa them was terrible... pure terror, the other studios running for cover as Channel One rockers' sound rule the whole scene in Kingston for maybe two years'.

Their pure righteous terror certainly propels the Mighty Diamonds and creates a lovely easy rolling momentum to each one of the 10 tracks. Perhaps because the vocal harmonies are so rich, the sound is much fuller than the basic instrumentation might suggest. When you listen hard to ('weeping and wailing and moaning and') 'Gnashing of Teeth', for example, it's quite a surprise to discover that it's just drum and bass and a very sparse piano playing the kind of choppy refrain you usually associate with a rhythm guitar.

Despite a mere half hour of rhythmic and harmonic joy, Right Time still stands as a supreme flowering of the reggae art form. It represents a time in the mid '70s when, to the musical yout' like me, reggae seemed so new and fresh and downright exciting. Albums like this haven't lost their lustre. 'When the right time comes, Lord/Some a go charge fe treason...' Treasonable perhaps for any self-respecting reggae enthusiast not to have this one in their collection.

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