Friday, July 12, 2013

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Independant Intavenshan: The Island Anthology

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when reggae was at its apex in popularity, the best-known performers were those based in Jamaica, notably Bob Marley and the Wailers, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, Culture, and others.

In England, however, were many Jamaicans resided, there was a growing and important reggae scene and, by the mid-Eighties, groups like the UB40, Steel Pulse and Aswad were quite popular.  While lesser known, the great Linton Kwesi Johnson was, to this observer, the most important British-based reggae performer of that era.  Born in Jamaica in 1952, LKJ emigrated to England at age 11 to join his mother.  Coming of age in the civil rights era and a transforming British social structure in the late 60s, he used his writing talents to great effect in political contexts.  Encouraged to put his work to music, he did so by the late 1970s and emerged as a major force in English reggae.

From 1978 to 1983, he released a series of excellent albums on the Virgin and Island labels, including Dread Beat 'N Blood (1978), Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980), and Making History (1983.)  What distinguished LKJ from other reggae artists was that he was an established poet and he fused that talent with tightly performed and well-produced music by British musicians to create memorable political statements at a time when British society was roiled by race issues, including police mistreatment of West Indian blacks, job discrimination, and others.  Johnson became a leading voice in expressing the frustration and anger felt by young blacks in Thatcherite England.

This observer first bought an LKJ live album that came out in 1985 and it quickly became a favorite for its rousing versions of classics that appear in studio and dub versions on the 1998 compilation Independant Intavenshan issued by Island.

This double disc survey of Johnson's work is filled with great tunes like "Want Fi Go Rave," "It Noh Funny," the phenomenal "Reality Poem," "Bass Culture," "Reggae Fi Peach," the soulful and jazzy masterpiece "Wat About Da Workin' Claas?" and the mind-blowing "Di Great Insohreckshan."  LKJ's strong lyrical content is supported beautifully by his band, which included mainstays like keyboardist, bassist, mixer, engineer and producer Dennis Bovell, guitarist John Kpiaye (who has excellent solos on tracks like "Reality Poem"), bassist Vivian Weathers and drummer Jah Bunny.

By the time, though, that the great live album referred to above came out in 1985, reggae had peaked.  Marley had been dead several years, Black Uhuru lost its vocalist and chief songwriter Michael Rose, and other factors led to a decline in the music, which was supplanted by dancehall or ragga, a digital distillation that took away the live bass, drums and other instrumentation, as well as the social and political lyrical commentary, that marked what became known as "roots reggae."

While LKJ occasionally performed live and released albums, his career was never the same after the mid-80s.  Independant Intavenshan, though, is abundant evidence that Linton Kwesi Johnson was a unique and powerful voice, using his poetry skills and great support from musicians to build a body of work that ranks among the very finest in reggae.

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