Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 14: The Upsetters, "Man From M.I.5"

Artist: The Upsetters
Song: "Man From M.I.5"
Album: Return Of Django
Year: 1969

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One of the more intriguing trends that can be seen running throughout nearly the entire history of music, touching every genre, is the way in which the true musical visionaries are judged harshly in their own times.  If one looks back on what "the critics" had to say about most of those performers who were thinking so far ahead, they are often called crazy or lost or a number of other terms that carry with them negative connotations.  This is largely the byproduct of society being resistant to change, and often not being able to wrap their heads around an up and coming sound.  Though many performers have been given such a title, there are few that have incurred the ire of critics more than reggae visionary and icon, Lee "Scratch" Perry.  From his often wild vocal contributions to the absolutely blissful way that he was able to create music, one can easily argue that without his efforts, the "island sounds" would have never found their way into the world at large.  Though it took him some time to fine tune his sound, and to configure his brilliant backing band, The Upsetters, once this formula fell into place, there were almost no recordings of his that were anything short of spectacular.  Making music that was worlds apart from a majority of the sounds being released as the 1960's turned into the 1970's, there may be no better a definition of the music of Lee "Scratch" Perry than The Upsetters' magnificent 1969 single, "Man From M.I.5."

Within moments of "Man From M.I.5" kicking in, the energy, tension, and rhythm that define both reggae and ska are apparent, and in many ways, one can argue that it never got better than what was produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry.  The band is in full swing, yet they never become too loud or overbearing, and the entire song is a clear example of simply letting the music itself dictate the course and actions of the musicians.  One of the more unique aspects of "Man From M.I.5" can be heard from the onset of the song, as there is a lack of any formal drumming on the track.  Instead, percussionist Hugh Malcolm uses less abrasive and more muted shakers and scrapers, creating a fantastic, smooth feel to serve as the back-bone of the song.  The amount of personality and energy that he is able to pull from this seemingly less aggressive instrumentation is amazing, and it once again proves that it is moreso how one plays as opposed to what is being played.  The other half of the rhythm section on"Man From M.I.5," bassist Jackie Johnson, and there are few performances in history that can be termed to be as "playful" as what one finds on this song.  Truly dancing around the fret-board, Johnson is the one that injects the bounce into the track, and one can easily feel just how perfect a song this is for "skanking."  The duo are superb throughout the song, and it is their ability to stay tightly together, whilst letting the song "breathe," that makes "Man From M.I.5" such a uniquely enjoyable recording.

Yet as fantastic as the rhythm section is throughout "Man From M.I.5," it is the brilliant performances from the rest of the band that lift the song into timeless status.  Organist Ansel Collins sits in with the band on this track, and it is his playing that gives the song its easy going feel, and in many ways serves as the blueprint for all reggae and ska that followed.  This sliding progressions inject a bit of mystery into the undertones of the song, and when he takes the second solo section during the latter part of the track, "Man From M.I.5" shows a bit of the jazz influence, as Collins improvises around the main theme in brilliant fashion.  However, the way in which Collins interacts with guitarist Lyn Taitt is perhaps the most striking aspect of "Man From M.I.5," and Taitt delivers one of the most impressive solos in reggae history.  There is a deep groove within his performance, and one cannot deny that there is also a clear presence of influence from "surf rock" in his playing.  It is the way that Taitt makes the guitar sound bounce that adds yet another element that would be copied countless times, and it is also the way that he is able to keep things almost tranquil in his tone, whilst helping to build an amazing level of tension.  This is perhaps the main aspect that makes "Man From M.I.5" so unique, in that it has the perfect duality of hard hitting instrumentation, yet never becomes overly aggressive or loud, resulting in a rather rare co-existence of powerful musical euphoria.

Along with serving as the producer of the song, as well as its composer, Lee "Scratch" Perry makes a brief vocal appearance at the top of the song, before joining in with the instrumentation.  It is perhaps his almost disturbing tone during the brief vocal that caused so many critics to label him as they did, as this would become one of the signatures of his music.  At the same time, there is clearly an upbeat grin within the tone of his voice, and the amount of liveliness that it injects at the top of the song clearly set into motion everything that followed.  Furthermore, the balance between the instruments is absolutely perfect, and the way that Perry was able to keep the percussion steady in the mix, even without a drum kit, is a testament to his talents as a producer as well as to his overall understanding of how instruments best interact with one another.  The way that he guides the various musicians, and extracts the sense of mystery and even a bit of danger throughout the song is perfectly fitting of the title, and yet no point on "Man From M.I.5" seems overdone or cliché.  It is all of these different balances that set "Man From M.I.5" so far apart from Perry's other songs, and it also introduced the James Bond character to many in Jamaica, whilst simultaneously bringing the sounds of "the island" to the world at large.  Though he is often mentioned as a lesser icon compared to other reggae greats, there is no question that without Lee "Scratch" Perry, reggae and ska would have never developed as they did, and one can hear him at the top of his unique genius on his 1969 single, "Man From M.I.5."

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