music is math…

Archive for September, 2009

Window on the world: Jamaica

Part I: From Roots to Reggae

In the summer of 1962 Jamaica achieved its independence from Britain and the new nation celebrated in typical fashion. Soundsystems on the streets of Kingston blasted out the latest local musical phenomenon, ska music, as Jamaicans partied through the night.

Ska was a mix of the popular American R&B songs and more traditional Caribbean sounds such as mento and calypso, resulting in an energetic style of music perfect for the dancehalls of Jamaica. American music was everywhere in Jamaica in the 1950s with a demand for live bands in the tourist clubs and the US Navy making frequent stops on the island.

However, as more studios opened and producers began making records using local talent, this tiny Caribbean island was in the process of creating one of the most powerful musical cultures of the 20th century.

Producers like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster were instrumental in creating the careers these early stars. Dodd’s Studio One label was home to The Skatalites, Delroy Wilson, The Wailers, Toots & The Maytals and many more, earning it the nickname “the Motown of Jamaica”. One of the best pieces of early ska to come out of the studio was the 1963 number one hit ‘Simmer Down’ performed by The Wailers and The Skatalites.

The Skatalites went on to define the sound of ska and continue to tour the world to this day (albeit with a very different lineup). This Studio One cut is by the band’s trombonist Don Drummond who, like many other ska musicians, learnt to play music at the Alpha Boys School in Kingston. ‘Man in the Street’  carries all the recognisable traits of the ska sound, particularly the horns blasting a catchy hook over an offbeat rhythm.

The celebratory mood of post-independece Jamaica did not last long and by the mid 1960s, unemployment and street crime in Kingston had given rise to the culture of the “rudeboys”. Derrick Morgan’s ‘Tougher Than Tough’, a song he was apparently threatened into writing for a notorious rudeboy, sums up the situation on the streets and the authorities’ hopeless efforts to bring them to justice.

As society changed, so did the music, and the slower, more mellow sounds of rocksteady began to overtake the popularity of ska. Groups such as The Maytals, The Melodians and The Paragons became popular for their use vocal harmonies, shuffling basslines and unusual chord sequences. The Federals’ ‘Shocking Love’ is a beautifully romantic example of the new sound that swept Jamaica in the late 60s.

The influence of the Rastafari community also grew during this period, and out of rocksteady came the style known as reggae. Rocksteady’s more thoughtful sound was a perfect base for the meditative Rasta lyrics, as demonstrated by The Heptones’ ‘Cool Rasta’.

The transition away from rocksteady was helped by the addition of new instruments, notably the recognisable organ shuffle now synonymous with reggae and African percussion. With the sound developing, all reggae needed was an icon…

Spotify playlist available to download here featuring 31 tracks from the origins of ska, through to rocksteady and early reggae.


The Beatles are back!

I’m not sure they ever really went away, but 40 years on from the release of Abbey Road and a set of remastered CDs have stormed the album charts here in the UK. With a new videogame attracting a younger audience to the band, there has been quite a serious Beatlemania revival across the globe.

The BBC has got in on the action too with a series of fascinating documentaries on everything from their popularity (and suppression) in the Soviet Union to the incredible public reaction to their first American tour.

This is all good news, however we should not forget the band’s real achievement: the amazing music they committed to record in under ten years. To mark this new wave of Beatlemania, here are a few interesting clips of the band taken from the height of their fame to their more creative days behind the doors of Abbey Road studios.

As the songwriting became more complex and the crowds grew larger, The Beatles came to resent touring. Just a year after the iconic Shea Stadium performance, the band decided to focus solely on working in a studio environment, presumably to the disappointment of many of the girls seen in this video.

Their decision was vindicated when Lennon’s delightfully psychedelic ‘Strawberry Fields…’ was released in 1967. From its simple opening mellotron chords and dreamy guitar line, the song becomes much darker and more complex as it progresses. Few songs can claim to have changed the way people went about making music in the same way this one can.

Three years later and it was all over. This song has always been a personal favourite for some reason, however it was only recently that I learned this was the last song The Beatles ever recorded together. The song seems to be building towards a spectacular conclusion for almost eight minutes when John Lennon curtails proceedings with surprising haste. A strangely fitting way for the band to end a recording career that changed the world in so many ways.

Special Feature – Mr. Meeble interview

Never Trust the Chinese - Out Now

It is hardly surprising to be slightly taken aback when pointed in the direction of an album like Never Trust the Chinese. And not just because of its bizarre title.

No, the real surprise comes a few tracks in when, after a few pleasantly glitchy pop tunes, the album arrives at ‘It All Came to Pass’. Just under a minute into the song, brooding beats and bass unexpectedly give way to a deliciously soulful vocal, and from this point on the listener is accompanying Mr. Meeble on an intense journey through both the dark and light sides of electronic music.

Many of the songs are slow to evolve but well worth the wait, such as excellent ‘Until I Grasp the Second’ which mutates from its childlike glockenspiel introduction into a somewhat unnerving finale. As the words “It hunts me everywhere I go” emerge from under an ominously heavy bassline, the dreamy pop of the album’s opening seems a long way off.

This curious mixture of dark and playful elements is perfectly encapsulated in the video for ‘I Fell Through’, one of the band’s many imaginative visual creations that accompany their music. Watch the much less serious making of video to catch a glimpse of how it was all done.

I caught up with the video’s star (or victim), Devin Fleenor to find out a bit more about the band, their album and what the future holds…

You provide alot of access to the band and your work through the internet. How do you feel about these methods replacing the traditional ways of the music industry when it comes to promoting new bands?

I don’t know much about the old way of promoting music, but 99% of the fan base we have is via myspace, youtube, and twitter. Facebook is starting to be more important as of late. We don’t have a label or much of a budget, so there hasn’t been a choice.

It’s refreshing to hear a new band blending pop influences with samples and beats rather than just guitars. Did you all grow up listening to electronic music, and which artists particularly inspired the sound of Mr. Meeble?

We all fell in love with various forms of electronic music as teens, but we are just as influenced by rock. We are trying to create organic art. We are trying to merge technology with flesh and blood. In the last 2 years, I’ve inundated myself with Sigur Ros, Lymbyc Systym, Atlas Sound, Bat for Lashes, Flying Lotus and Radiohead.

The album goes through a wide range of styles in its 12 tracks. Was this variety always the vision for the band or did it come about as the songs were developed?

To me, NTTC sounds like a band exploring genres and finding their identity. It developed over 3 years, chronicling some traumatic events in my life. Along the way, Blain got involved with the band. So some of the songs sound different because of his presence.

Visuals play an important part in both the band’s live experience and also your videos. Do you have specific images in mind when making the music or are they a separate venture?

I have always dreamed of being able to create amazing art, seamlessly integrating music with visuals. I think its beginning to take form, but we are nowhere close to what I envision. Currently, the visuals are done after the fact, but take 3-4 times as much time and money to produce – so obviously, we value them. Mr. Meeble wouldn’t exist without the visual element.

The video for ‘I fell through’ is very original (and entertaining). Can you tell us a bit about how that came about?

I just had an idea one day, and the next day we were shooting. Its one of those things that could have been derailed by 100 different factors, but somehow it worked out – I consider it a lucky success.

The album has a rather unusual title, apparently only referring to one person. Has anyone taken the name a bit too seriously?

Many people have been angered by the title. But hey, people who get their panties in a bunch over a title don’t need to be listening to Mr. Meeble in the first place.

What are your plans for the band now the album has been released?

Well, we are playing some shows, and promoting. One fan at a time, we are building our audience.

How do you see the sound of Mr. Meeble evolving, or is that not something you feel you can anticipate?

The next meeble album will be more live, more organic, and more cohesive. It will focus on our “sound” and it will revolve around our live playing and our ability to feed off each other’s energy. Perhaps a bit more experimental and a bit more rock? Either way, fans can expect an amzing record.

Do check out Mr. Meeble’s MySpace and YouTube for more of a listen. Hope you enjoyed the first VariousNoises interview.