The great Toots Hibbert passed away a couple months back, and I've been meaning to spin up a little something in honor of his crew, one of the great shining stars of reggae. The Maytals were one of the first Jamaican group to make a serious splash worldwide, predating Bob Marley and The Wailers and arguably even Jimmy Cliff. Notably, their signature tune
Pressure Drop even featured on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come — the movie engineered to make Cliff a star — where it was an undeniable highlight on what remains one of the greatest soundtracks ever.
The Maytals started out in the mid-sixties as a harmony group playing ska music with a heavy rhythm & blues foundation before becoming roots icons at the turn of the decade, touring in the seventies with rock bands like the Eagles and The Who, ultimately becoming a crucial influence later in the decade on a whole new crop of bands in the wake of punk and disco's reshuffling of the pop landscape. They remained a powerhouse through the new wave 1980s well into the post-Bristol '90s, becoming elder statesmen in the process, looming large over a landscape they helped to shape.
In short, the story of The Maytals is the story of reggae.
Like seemingly everyone else in Jamaica, The Maytals got their start with Coxsone Dodd, their earliest recordings coming out on his Coxsone imprint (the precursor to Studio One), before hooking up with Prince Buster and ultimately Byron Lee, with whom they recorded this record. Vibrant and bursting with life, The Sensational Maytals is the sound of peak-era ska in the making. Still heavily indebted to American r&b — especially in ballads like
It's No Use — it's nevertheless defined by white hot cuts like
My New Name and
What's On Your Mind, songs that exist in a class all their own. Right from the beginning, the interplay of Toots’ rugged lead vocals and the dulcet harmonies of Nathaniel "Jerry" Matthias and Henry "Raleigh" Gordon was honed to perfection, their backing croons dancing with Toots rugged, soaring lead in graceful airborne arcs.
I Know with its more languid pace and lush arrangement — particularly it's shimmering guitar solo jumping right out the speakers — even offers the faintest glimpse of things to come...
Coming five years later, 1970’s Monkey Man is a set of songs — many of them originating on the previous year's Beverley's LP Sweet And Dandy1 — that were rerecorded for the Trojan imprint with the great Leslie Kong behind the boards. It's one of the great early reggae LPs (from that period when rocksteady began to slooowww down to a stepper's pace), defined by its rich, beautifully captured sonics and rounded out by an excellent set of tunes like
Gold And Silver,
African Doctor, and
Bla Bla Bla. Interestingly enough, there's still a bit of relatively straight up soul here as well, giving it the same extra dimension as contemporary albums by fellow travelers like Jimmy Cliff and Alton Ellis.
The title track is another obvious standout, but the undeniable centerpiece is
Pressure Drop, one of the greatest reggae songs ever. Scratch that, one of the great songs ever, period. Marked by an inescapable intensity — particularly in the chorus, when Toots belts out 'It's you-ooo-u-ooo, oh yeah... I said pressure drop-oh-pressure-oh yeah pressure gonna drop on you,' with the sweetest harmonies swooping at every which angle beneath — it's simply the perfect Maytals song. When it later shows up in The Harder They Come, it manages to steal the scene just by playing on the radio in the background. That's just the short of understated intensity — creeping up on you without warning before you're slayed for good — that was the group's calling card.
It's a quality that was writ large across Funky Kingston, the group's breakthrough smash and one of the few non-Wailers-related reggae records to make the more mainstream 'greatest album ever' lists. Fair enough, since this album is flawless. It's also one of those cases where the sleeve perfectly complements the sounds encountered within. From the opening bars of
Sit Right Down, you can tell you're in for something special. First off, the rock-hard beats hit that much harder than you're expecting, bassline rolling out beneath it all as guitars twang in the foreground, glistening organ runs and horns punching through the mix — not to mention Toots at the center of the storm, singing his heart out — the whole thing's tightened up to an almost unbelievable degree, its rhythms eddy into little asides before drum fills kick in and gears shift on a dime, again and again and again. Dynamic Sounds? Truer words were never spoken.
Louie, Louie — one of the great cover versions of the most widely-covered song ever — sweeping to the next level in its cinematic explosion in the climax, Toots voice tearing through the mix before sliding right into a soaring sax solo. Best of all is the phenomenal title track. Marked by its recurring chant of 'Na, naa, naaa,', it's essentially one great rave up, with group harmonies gliding across its nagging rocksteady rhythm and an unstoppable piano riff, while the group works themselves into a J.B.'s frenzy while Toots goes mad over the top like some combination of James Brown and Otis Redding. Infectious is the word you're looking for. At one point, the song cuts out altogether for his extended vocal solo, where he spars with the drums and shouts himself hoarse. Even in the wide world of reggae, there's little else like it.
It's this unrelenting quality that saw the group into the punk and disco era, when reggae and dubs sounds wound up making their most profound impact on the pop landscape, reshaping it all in the process and changing the way music was made in the decades to come. Everyone knows the cover versions by the likes of Specials and The Clash,2 and decades later in the wake of Bristol’s hazy fallout their status as cultural touchstones was indisputable. By that point, crews like The Maytals were the elder statesmen, and they were accorded non-stop (deserved) respect. When I was coming up, they were legends from another time. But then — and even to this day — you throw on one of their records and it all springs to life again, hitting you like a bolt of lightning, the sound of funky Kingston... the sound of The Maytals.
Sadly enough, a record that I have yet to get ahold of.
The Specials with