Thursday, June 16, 2011

June 16: Desmond Dekker, "007 (Shanty Town)"

Artist: Desmond Dekker
Song: "007 (Shanty Town)"
Album: 007 (Shanty Town) (single)
Year: 1967

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Though many fail to realize just how much diversity there is within the genre, reggae music has a number of different faces, most of which are not the mellow sound with which most are familiar.  It was during the mid and late 1960's that many of "the island" sounds developed, and during this period, a majority of the most important songs in the history of the genre were recorded.  In almost every case, these recordings involved Leslie Kong in one way or another, and one can easily argue him as one of the most important figures in music history.  However, Kong spent almost his entire career on "the other side of the glass," and it was the artists he helped mold that would truly change the face of music.  While he often times does not get as much credit as another of his fellow countrymen, there may be no other artist that was as vital in bringing the sounds of "the island" to the world than one finds in the music of Desmond Dekker.  In many ways establishing the blueprint for much of reggae, and standing as the definition of the "rudeboy" sound, a number of his singles remain true standards to this day.  Fusing together amazing melodies with his unmistakable voice, there is a tone and mood to his songs that is completely unique, and few songs better exemplify this sound, as well as showing just why Desmond Dekker is held in such high regard, than one finds in his groundbreaking 1967 single, "007 (Shanty Town)."

Almost from the instant that "007 (Shanty Town)" begins, the mood and tone that persist for the entire song are set into place.  While by current standards, the song may seem rather "standard" reggae fare, one must consider that in 1967, it was this song that SET that standard into motion.  Moreso than any song that had been previously recorded, "007 (Shanty Town)" brings an upbeat bounce that is absolutely irresistible.  The way in which the guitars dance across the track, providing a rhythm of their own that is perfect for "skanking," defines the entire "rudeboy" sound, and there is a simple perfection within the musical arrangement.  The steady cadence from the horns are equally ideal, as they make the down-beat more pronounced, and this would also become a defining characteristic of many of the reggae sounds.  Within the "formal" rhythm section, there is a stomp that separates it from the other island sounds, and it is also within this aspect that one can detect the attitude and swagger of the "rudeboy" movement.  Yet it is the way in which all of these elements fuse together that makes "007 (Shanty Town)" such a brilliant recording, as there is a smooth, light feeling that comes from the sound, and the way that this contrasts with the undeniable attitude is what set the standard for the entire "rudeboy" era that remains to this day.

Yet while one cannot deny the energy and presence of the music, it is the vocals of Desmond Dekker that remain truly iconic, and they have been copied and quoted countless times over the past four decades.  Though many later "rudeboy" vocalists would lean more toward the "toasting" style of vocals, Dekker is a singer first, and he possesses one of the most uniquely subdued yet strong voices in music history.  There is no question that he can sing, yet it is the way in which he contrasts his meandering singing with more direct, almost spoken pieces that makes "007 (Shanty Town)" such a brilliant recording.  Not only would Dekker establish the vocal approach for the "rudeboy" sound on "007 (Shanty Town)," but he also set into motion many of its longest standing themes and characteristics, turning it into "the" "rudeboy anthem" if there ever was one.  While at times, he certainly inflates the egos of the "rudeboys," he also gives them a stern warning, as the characters in his song are set free from jail, but they are chased around town by soldiers.  This duality is what further separates "007 (Shanty Town)" from other "rudeboy" classics, and yet there are few lines that stand as iconic as when Dekker sings the immortal words, "...rudeboys have no fear..."  While this line surely remains a calling card for the "rudeboy" movement, it is the way that Dekker presents both sides of their lives that set the standard for this entire musical approach.

While both the music and vocal work on "007 (Shanty Town)" have become absolute landmarks of "island" music, much of the lyrical content has risen to similar status.  Countless later artists have lifted lines from the song, perhaps most notably, The Clash and their exceptional song, "Rudie Can't Fail," which surely takes both its name and sentiment from those words found on "007 (Shanty Town)."  Furthermore, it is the way that Desmond Dekker is able to infuse so many images into the song, especially those relating to James Bond and Oceans Eleven that gave more of a "dangerous" feel to the song, and likely why "rudeboy" culture was so responsive to the song.  However, one can argue "007 (Shanty Town)" as one of the biggest examples of "you only hear what you want" in history, as most "rudeboys" surely ignored the songs' warning tones, only concentrating on the aspects that glorified their "dangerous" lives.  The distinctive bounce and attitude that backed these words remains just as strong to this day, as does the truly irresistible dance rhythm.  It is this combination of mood and style that makes "007 (Shanty Town)" such a uniquely fantastic song, and it proves that even within the "island" sounds, there was just as much sonic diversity.  Along with Jamaica, the song would find commercial success in both the US and UK, and in many ways, it was "007 (Shanty Town)" that truly introduced the "island sounds" to the rest of the world.  Whether it is this reality or the way in which the song sets the blueprint for "rudeboy" culture, there are few songs from any genre that are as important to the development of music as one finds in Desmond Dekker's 1967 single, "007 (Shanty Town)."

1 comment:

Dalton Lee said...

I was 12 years old when this came out. It was part of the great wave of reggae and ska that my father introduced me too, him having spent a lot of time in the West Indies as a British merchant navy sailor on the banana, sugar & rum trade.

While everything you say about the song (particularly the technical, musical side) is true what you don't really get across is just the sheer joyful, powerful life-affirming spirit behind it.

I grew up in Bristol, England, in a family with the same problems, joys and sorrows as the struggling West Indian immigrant families we knew.

The '60s were tough, violent, filled with lying politicians, corruption, greed and war. 1967 saw race riots everywhere, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, war in Biafra, butchery in the Congo, the Six-Day war in Egypt. This song came out less than a year before the 1968 Paris riots/student uprising. That's the real context for this song which was a both a recognition of violence and a joyful, humorous mocking of it.

There's no lauding of Rudeboy violence in this song, just a recognition that in tough times in tough places some people take out their anger in 'rude' ways.

What the song says, and I still get chills every-time i hear it, is that life is good, music makes a difference to the spirit, and that no matter how much 'shit happens' there's always time to sing, dance and feel good.