My absolute favorite AND the most important reissue of 2003? The Harder They Come soundtrack, deluxe edition, which includes a second disc, the complete Crucial Reggae 1968-72 collection, in addition to the glorious soundtrack. Together they ably cover the most beguiling and artistically important period in reggae history, the very heart of the magical Golden Age.
Perry Henzell’s ’72 The Harder They Come film is by far the most revered Jamaican feature film ever made, starring the great reggae singer/songwriter Jimmy Cliff – third behind only Bob Marley and Toots Hibbert in the reggae pantheon – as a wiry downtrodden rude boy who turns to crime out of desperation.
But as interesting as the film may be, it is the soundtrack that has given it legendary status. It is simply one of the finest soundtracks ever assembled and is the greatest reggae record not made by Bob Marley.
The center of the collection is composed of Cliff’s own standards: the sweet melodic positivity-tempered-with-realism of “You Can Get It if You Really Want,” the soaring gospel reverence of “Many Rivers to Cross” (among the most enduring soul – not just reggae – ballads ever), the chugging rasta perfection of “The Harder They Come” title track, with Cliff veering between vulnerability and righteous defiance, and “Sitting Here In Limbo,” an insinuating, sophisticated (note deft use of flute and gospel chorus), mid-tempo stunner with perhaps Cliff’s most indelible melody.
But as epochal and essential as Cliff’s songs are, they are just the beginning of the collection’s bounty: if I was forced at gunpoint (perhaps in the hand of Cliff’s rude boy character) to select my favorite reggae song ever, it might be one of two songs here NOT by Jimmy Cliff, the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon,” produced by the legendary Leslie Kong, or the Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad,” the musical embodiment of the Cliff character.
“Rivers” combines all that is to be loved about reggae: naturalistic, unaffected singing (mostly three-part harmony here); deep internal conviction; childlike (not anything close to childish) moral simplicity in the face of poverty, degradation, violence and despair; melodic purity and rhythmic punch. God, I love that song – it brings me to the verge of tears even after hundreds of listenings:
“‘Cause the wicked carried us away captivity
Require from us a song
How can we sing King Alfa song
In a strange land?”
No wonder the (forced) African diaspora felt such an affinity with the biblical Isrealites (the name of another reggae classic, by the way, by Cliff’s great friend Desmond Dekker, featured on disc two).
The Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” paints an unforgettable portrait of the outlaw as his own worst enemy, in a very few, poignant words over a relentless, implacable beat:
“Walking down the road with a pistol in your waist
Johnny you’re too bad
….One of these days when you hear a voice say come
Where you gonna run to
….You gonna run to the rock for rescue
There will be no rock”
Dylan wishes “You Gotta Serve Somebody” had such compact impact.
Also livening the banquet are Toots and the Maytals standards “Pressure Drop” and “Sweet and Dandy” (more on Toots here).
All disc two has to offer is Dekker’s “Isrealites” (the first reggae hit in America) and “It Mek”; Cliff’s “Viet Nam,” “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah” (covered by Brownsville Station in ’73) and “Wonderful World, Beautiful People”; Toots and the Maytals’ “Do the Reggay” (wherein a style was named), “54-46 (That’s My Number)” and “Pomp and Pride”; Johnny Nash’s eternal “I Can See Clearly Now”; Eric Donaldson’s “Cherry Oh Baby,” and other goodies by the Ethiopians, Melodians, and Uniques.
If you want to revel in the very best reggae has to offer, pick up Marley’s Legend and this deluxe edition of The Harder They Come soundtrack (if you need more Cliff, his Anthology is outstanding). Irie, mon!