The short version (radio edit):
I’ve got a new digital single out. It’s a 12-string acoustic version of the Melodians classic, “Rivers Of Babylon.” You can buy it here, and some other places, supposedly including iTunes. It’s my first solo release in thirty-five years. No pyrotechnics, no harmonic squeals, no bent notes. That stuff you can get on the Island Head CD. Here, I just play the tune.
The long, 12″ disco mix version, including the history of my solo career to date:
As many of you know, I’ve played on countless recording sessions since my career began, back in the days when the Riddim Twins were Pebbles and Bam-Bam. Some of these records have been, blessedly, both popular and enduring. Most, frankly, have not. I never planned on a career as a session musician. It just happened when I went to Jamaican and discovered that the people I really wanted to play with primarily made records instead of playing gigs. So I had to go where they were and do what they did to play with them. To my complete surprise, it turned out that I had a knack for playing on sessions and people have continued to ask me to do it ever since.
Along the way, a number of people asked me when I was going to record my own album as a guitarist. Several people actually went further than that and tried to make it happen. Derrick Harriott was the first. After I started doing sessions for him, he asked me about doing a cover of “Sleep Walk,” the great Santo and Johnny instrumental. I could never play it well enough on slide to be happy recording it, so I ducked him until he forgot about it.
Larry Carlton did the same tune without slide a couple of years later and got a lot of airplay with it. When I heard it, I kicked myself repeatedly. I could have done a fine job on it if I hadn’t insisted on playing slide…regrets, I’ve had a few. Derrick is one sharp dude and an excellent producer; if I’d done even an adequate version for him, Jamaican radio would probably still be playing it.
Next I did two guitar instrumentals for Harry J, covers of “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” and “Love Don’t Live Here Any More,” which to my knowledge were not released. I couldn’t do much with the first one but “Love Don’t Live Here Any More” came out pretty well, considering how little time Harry gave me to do it and how new I was to recording. I wasn’t really happy with either one of them (sense a pattern here?) so I never asked him to put them out.
Then I did a cover of “Ticket To Ride” for Joe Gibbs that ended up on the Sly and Robbie album “Syncopation,” without any mention of me. This lack of credit was typical of the JG labels; the same thing happened with Tappa Zukie. I did an improvised instrumental for him as part of a long session otherwise devoted to singers. Along with horn lines from Dean Fraser, Nambo, and Chico of We The People, it ended up as a 45 called “Falkland Crisis,” credited to the Tappa Zukie All-Stars, again with no AB name-check. It also ended up as “Leaders of Black Countries” on the Mighty Diamonds album of the same name. Oh, he also shorted us a bit on the original session if memory serves. Great days. (I got Tappa back somewhat for this escapade, but I’m saving the story for my book.)
A year or so later at Channel One, Niney approached me about doing an album. He had ten rhythm tracks and wanted me to play melodies over them. The up-front money he offered wasn’t much. Nor was he very forthcoming about how the publishing and writing was to be distributed. However, in spite of the obvious difficulties, I was considering the idea when the great singer Hugh Griffiths turned up and wanted to speak to Niney, concerning the matter of royalties due from a previous project. Within moments, the meeting rapidly degenerated into what diplomats call a “a full and frank discussion of the issues.” It concluded with Hugh drawing his machete and chasing Niney down the lane. This put my solo project on hold for the time being, as it’s difficult even for a Jamaican record producer to screw you out of your publishing while running for his life through Whitfield Town.
I did see Niney again a week or so later and he was still interested in recording me. But I’d already decided that a solo record for Niney was going to be more trouble than it was worth. So I told him I would have to think about it some more. In the meantime, did he have any session work?
As you can imagine, this incident dampened whatever enthusiasm I might have had for a solo career for quite a while. However, something that my friend Bubbler Waul, the great reggae keyboardist and my former We The People bandmate, once said had always stayed with me. Once we had been talking about the fact that Jamaican radio was somewhat open to instrumental reggae, but never played records with guitar as the lead instrument. I found this situation discouraging, but then Bubbler said something I’ll never forget. “Andy, don’t say to yourself that they won’t play a guitar instrumental. Say to yourself that you are going to make the first guitar instrumental that will get played on the radio.”
So, several years later, I took up Bubbler’s challenge. In early 1985, with my career in Jamaica at its peak, I had some extra money, some of which I spent recording a double-sided 45, “Skateland Rock/Too Sweet For Words. ” I wrote both songs and put down the artist information on the label as Andy Bassford with We The People. The full band at the time, including our leader Lloyd Parks, played on both songs along with contributions from Gits Willis and Winston Wright. We recorded it live to two-track in the studio, with the great Sylvan Morris engineering. The original idea had been to record an album, but I only had enough money to record three songs at the time.
After the session, my wife Elizabeth, who worked as Harry J’s administrative assistant and was there while we were recording, said to me, “Did you notice that Bigga and the other guys in the pressing plant came in to watch while you were recording the Skateland song?”
“I did notice, but I wasn’t paying much attention. What’s special about that?”
“Those guys hear people recording all day, all the time. It’s nothing to them. They never stop the machines to listen. And they never, ever, come in the studio while people are recording. Think about it. As long as you’ve been playing at Harry J, did you ever see Bigga come inside the studio unless he needed to talk to Harry?”
“You’re right. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him or any of the others from the factory in the control room.”
“I think that tune has something. Those guys don’t stop working for anything and they stopped to listen to you. I know you were thinking about an album, but I think you should put that song out as a single. It’s got something.”
Elizabeth is not a musician but she has a great feel for music, and a great feel for people. The more I thought about it, the more sense her idea made. I wasn’t happy with the third track we recorded, but “Skateland Rock” and “Too Sweet For Words” had come out pretty well. Morris went with me to Dynamic to master it; the songs were a bit long for a 45 but he coached the mastering engineer through a live fade when he cut the master and managed to make them fit. (This came back to bite me later, another story for the book.)
I issued it on my own label, Registered Alien, but picked Harry J to manufacture and distribute it, as Elizabeth worked there and could keep an eye on things. Plus she was on very good terms with the factory guys. I hoped these factors would help keep the possibility of thievery to a tolerable minimum. Bagga Case of Home-T 4 designed the label using a little drawing she had done that I thought looked like a registered alien (which in fact I was; I had to renew my RA card every year).
We spent a little extra money on a black and white photo sleeve for the first 50 copies, which were to go to the DJs. This was something that people weren’t doing in Jamaica then and I thought it might help the record stand out among the hundreds of songs they auditioned each week.
We also wrote up a little press release pointing out that the record, unlike every other reggae 45 of the day, had two full songs instead of one song and a dub remix. There wasn’t really any choice, as I’d recorded the songs to two-track because the tape and studio costs were much lower. A lot of great records were cut live, and I knew the band could handle it. Plus recording on two-track allowed me to pay the musicians regular session fees instead of asking them to play for free. (At that time, everybody in the Kingston session clique regularly played on each other’s projects for free, so it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking them. We were hopeful but I didn’t really know what to expect.
The record went out on a Monday along with all the other Sunset Records releases. Within half an hour, RJR, one of the two stations that Jamaica had at the time, called the Harry J office. My wife answered the phone. It was the program director at RJR, whose name escapes me now. “We’re throwing away all the other records you sent us, but we added Andy’s record to the playlist. If you turn the radio on now, you’ll hear it.” She screamed, jumped up and down, and ran to the office radio. There it was. “Skateland Rock,” playing on the Allan Magnus morning show. RJR immediately started playing my record six or seven times a day.
For a while they played both songs about equally, and apparently there was quite an internal debate about which side was better. This is not a bad problem to have for your first single! Finally they settled on “Skateland Rock” as the side they liked most and began playing the living daylights out of it. Once they played “Skateland Rock” three times in a show and the flip side, “Too Sweet For Words,” once. I had hoped that I might get some radio play but this was beyond comprehension.
After a week or so, JBC started playing it too. For a long time, they used “Skateland Rock” as the musical lead-in to the 8 a.m. BBC World News broadcast every morning. Both stations continued to play “Skateland Rock” regularly for four or five months, and even after they backed off on it somewhat I continued to hear it almost daily until I left Jamaica for good that October.
At the time we lived in a room in a large house with an extended Jamaican family of twenty or so people, many of whom were children. Whenever they heard the record, they started yelling. “Mr. Andy! Mr. Andy! Your song a play again pon JBC! Wake up! Dem a play de song!” At that time my regular bedtime was between three and four hours earlier than the BBC World News, but if you have to be awakened at the uncivilized hour of 8 a.m., having little kids yelling that they hear your song on the radio is the way to go.
It turned out that without knowing much at all, we’d done a lot of things right. First of all, I’d given We The People credit on the record label itself. To me, this was simple courtesy. They were my friends, my comrades in arms, and they’d played brilliantly. (I credited Gits and Winston Wright on the black and white cover too, along with everyone else involved.) I knew what it felt like to have your name left off a record you were proud of, and it wasn’t going to happen on my watch. I didn’t think it would hurt to have the name on the record but I wasn’t trying to ride anybody’s coattails. The only reason I didn’t put down “Andy Bassford with Lloyd Parks and We The People” was that it would have been hard to fit all that in legible type on a 45!
What I hadn’t realized was that Jamaican radio was very open to anything with the We The People name on it. We were the most popular band in Jamaica, though largely unknown outside the island. (A band of young upstarts named Sagittarius led by my friend, the legendary bassist Derrick Barnett, was coming up fast though, and would ultimately supplant us.) We played shows regularly at Skateland (the venue that inspired “Skateland Rock”), which was almost next door to the JBC building, the other radio station in Jamaica at the time. Everyone in the music and the radio business knew the band, and they even knew who I was. Due to a variety of internal conflicts, the band hadn’t made a record as a band in a long time, though Lloyd, Dean Fraser, Ruddy Thomas, and Nambo Robinson had all released at least one solo album apiece since I’d joined in 1981. So there had been no Lloyd Parks and We The People record for Jamaican radio to play. They were more than ready for a We The People record, and by hiring the band and crediting them on the label, I had inadvertently given them one.
In addition to that, Allan Magnus, the RJR DJ who first played my record (a great radio man and a charter member of the Nice Guy Hall Of Fame) was a big Lloyd Parks fan. Allan was the first DJ to play Lloyd’s breakthrough release, “Officially,” which was the real start of Lloyd’s solo career, and always played Lloyd’s records. Lloyd always made a point of giving Allan credit for his big break and had introduced me to him almost as soon as I’d joined the band. Allan was a fan of mine too; he loved my guitar playing and maybe liked the idea that he might have jump-started a second musician’s solo career by putting “Skateland Rock” on his playlist.
Another thing that might have helped back in the analog days was that “Skateland Rock” was well over the four minute time limit that we normally aimed for when recording for radio. This gave the DJ an extra twenty seconds to go to the bathroom! It also worked well as background music for long announcements and segues, as there was no vocal for the DJ to interrupt. They had no problems talking over my solo!
Although payola was a fact of life at the time, I never paid anybody a dime to play my record. No one asked for it either. Jamaican radio heard the record, liked it, and played it. Often. This is how life should be, but so rarely is. Thirty-five years later I’m still amazed.
There is a lot more to the “Skateland Rock” story, which I will tell in my book. The short version is that I had a big radio hit and didn’t make any money to speak of. I then moved to the States, where it made no sense to release a followup record for which I would only stand to be paid in Jamaican dollars. At the time, the Jamaican dollar was not legally exportable, and, as now, they devalued regularly. I had no illusions that I could charm US radio the same way I had RJR and JBC into playing reggae guitar instrumentals. So I spent my time doing lots of other things.
I did record a followup that was written around the same time as “Skateland Rock,” called “Chicken Foot,” on which I programmed drums and played all the instruments. This one had a dub so it could be a conventional reggae 45 release. I gave it to Earl Moodie to release in England. He gave me an appropriate advance but the record never came out. What he told me at the time was that they had liked the record but wanted a full album, which was economically out of the question. The master tape is somewhere, maybe in the basement of Earl’s shop. I’ll have to ask the next time I see him. I actually made more money from “Chicken Foot,” which was never released, than “Skateland Rock,” which was played regularly on Jamaican radio for at least six months. You have to love the music business.
At one point shortly before his passing, Coxsone Dodd wanted me to write a couple of guitar instrumentals to a couple of his classic Burning Spear tracks. I still have the cassette, with his handwritten label. I worked for Sir D for almost twenty years as a session man and it would have been great to have a solo release on Studio One, but he died before we could go any further with the project. I figured that was it and again went on to do other things.
A while ago I bought a professional home recording setup so that I could enter the world of Internet session playing. Shortly thereafter, Bill Messinetti of Island Head and I went to WNTI-FM, the Centenary College radio station, to meet Cableman Dan, a great guy who has the Reggae and World Rhythms show. Dan played our record “Punky Reggae Party” a lot and he wanted to talk about it with us on the show, which we did.
After the interview, Dan asked me to perform a solo version of “Rivers Of Babylon,” one of his favorite songs. He likes to play a different version of the tune on each show. I wasn’t prepared and didn’t do a great job. Before we left, Dan asked if he could use my performance as a drop, which is what they call those short personalized show IDs that tell you who the DJ is. I told him I’d prefer to rerecord it at home and I’d send it to him to use. The next day I fired up the software, worked out the tune, recorded it, sent it to him, and forgot about it entirely.
At my surprise birthday party last month, Steel Pulse keyboardist and ace producer Sidney Mills was in attendance, and he asked the question again. “Andy. When are you going to do something for yourself? I’m offering the studio. Just call me. None of us are getting younger.” I hemmed and hawed as I always do and the party continued. A few days later I listened to my son Liam’s five solo guitar EPs that he’s put up on Bandcamp. My kid has five records out with his name on it and I have one. His five records you can download and buy instantly. My one record you have to find on eBay, and then you have to find a turntable on which to play it, if you don’t own one already. My other son Ethan’s band Ava Luna has several albums out and a new one ready to drop in a month or two. So who in the family has his act together, the father, or the sons? Hint: It isn’t me. I thought some more.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I was integrating my new computer into my home recording setup and needed a Cubase file to play to see if everything worked. I opened up the first one I found. I’d given it some weird name so I had no idea what it was, or what project it was for. Everything loaded into the computer as it should, and there it was: “Rivers Of Babylon.” It sounded good, better than I had remembered. For some reason I’d made a copy of the original stereo performance so there were four tracks instead of two. I fiddled with the copied tracks for a minute or two, balanced everything, listened again, winced, and said, “It’s OK. The parts I hate no one else will notice. My kids have the balls to put their stuff out. I don’t? This is embarrassing.” I exported the mix, did some digital distribution stuff, and now it’s here. “Rivers Of Babylon,” a solo performance on 12-string acoustic guitar. There will be more solo releases to come. I’m tired of my kids showing me up.