Tag Archives: reggae

Toxic Post-Punk Syndrome: Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives

Having spent a little bit more times on the fringes of reggae (The Specials are my latest venture, getting into full-on ska territory at this point), the realization suddenly dawns on me that there’s a reggae song that I’ve been a fan of from way back, and it turns out that it’s even better now: Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”. Stapled onto the back of the American version Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, it was his first UK hit and an excellent object-lesson in simple atmosphere-building (a technique he’d use later to absolutely devastating effect on “I Want You”). The rest of the album shows of Costello’s songwriting chops, with scathing lyrics and good tunes, but this one feels totally immersive and that you’re only getting a little piece of the much bigger picture.

A Steve Goudling drubbing of the drums pulls us into the story as the slinky bass makes its appearance known and asks you to follow it with morbid curiosity, courtesy of Andrew Bodnar. There’s a slightly sinister air as the bass is slightly too complex to sit on its laurels over the reggae beat, so you get the sneaking suspicion that it knows something that you don’t. Costello’s guitar tries to sidle in without being seen before the vocals come in. As his voice cracks under the pressure, he draws out the scene cinematically “long shot of that jumping sign/visible shivers runnin’ down my spine/cut the baby taking off her clothes/close-up of a sign that says ‘we never close'”. His voice oozes menace as he lingers on those last syllables as Goudling deftly skips along the hi-hat.

The off-beat organ in the chorus makes it sounds little cheesy at first, but by the time the climactic last chorus comes by, you’re no longer laughin’. The vocals get closer and closer together until they’re overlapping each other in paranoia “Now fear is here to stay/Love is here for a visit/…/Someone’s scratching at the window/I wonder, who is it?”. The tension builds and builds as the vocals hammer on the beat harder and harder and the rhythm section fills things out more and more until it all stops and Costello delivers the punishing line “It only took my little fingers to blow you away”. Even though it follows your standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, there really ain’t no climax until that one little moment where it all comes together beautifully, as the rhythm stays pretty intact up until that point.

Each part under analysis doesn’t seems like it would fit together with everything going on in the song, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The song begins to coalesce more and more as it goes on until everyone’s firing on all cylinders when Costello calls “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!” during the chorus. The minor key and Costello’s straight delivery avoids the idea that Costello is trying to emulate a reggae song, but rather, is using the form as sort of a means to an end, the tension held together beautifully by the insistent rhythm of the whole thing, the organ in the chorus being the only place they really seems to hang a hat on it. By far one of my favourite songs of his entire oeuvre and one that I have a multitude of listens to give. Building up to that moment every time manages to remain a highlight, no matter how many repetitions. I’m still finding more in it!

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Beyond the Pale: Getting Into Reggae

It was one of those nights, y’know. You’re sittin’ around, playing video games or chatting or what-have-you, and the laptop gets passed around, and each person gets a turn at picking a track on YouTube to serve as the evening’s soundtrack for the next however many minutes, which is both terribly exciting and terribly frightening all at once. You get the chance to sneak in another of your best kept musical secrets, but at the same time it has to fit both the mood of the evening and keep in line with what’s been played previously. It has to progress, like a thinking playlist, and evolve based on similar themes or musical motifs. Anyhow, standard practice. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track.

Now, my experience with reggae is spotty, at best. I’d mostly heard Bob Marley echoing from the dorm rooms of stoned neighbours back in first year, and the playing of Radiodread to the crowd gathered on campus during 4/20; I’d also listened to the Police. Beyond that I never really got any closer, as there wasn’t much that really captured me any time I’d listened to it. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track: “Poor Me Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & the Aces.

After asking Bryce who it was, I was intrigued, as he wasn’t Bob Marley or Peter Tosh or Jimmy Cliff (about the extent of my knowledge of reggae at the time). It made me aware that there might be an entire world I didn’t know about. But more on that later. This song swept me away! Maybe it was the repetition of “Poooooor meeeeee Israelite” after each refrain that turns your ear towards the story of a man wishing to suffer as little as possible. Maybe it was the brisk pace compared to most reggae I’d heard before, or the dramatic slow introduction before the song kicks off. Maybe it was Dekker’s high voice, syncopating all over the place. Maybe the boppin’ bassline. Whatever it was, the moment this song entered my head, it would not come out for at least a month afterwards.

Having it go round and round in there got me to thinking that I could maybe give this reggae thing a try now. I checked out the album the song came from (1968’s Intensified) and Catch A Fire by The Wailers on a friend’s recommendation. After that, as far as I could tell, I was hooked. Wanting to see what was going on in the genre currently, and after goggling at the fact that Bob Marley was still atop the Billboard reggae charts (I don’t know why I was surprised, but it caught me off guard, as my intention was to educate myself in “more than just Bob Marley” by seeing the current trends, with the acknowledgement of how huge Marley is in reggae), I pulled a couple of interesting looking albums (working on Hawai’i 13 by The Green currently), and have been about there ever since (apart from, in that period where I was listening obsessively, I went and recorded a reggae-flavoured song).

The thing that confounds me still, however, is this – did I just hear the right reggae song that got me into it or had I built up enough appreciation for some of the musical tools that it used via other music that the time was now right to accept a reggae song and, perhaps, the whole genre now? I don’t think I’ll ever quite know, but “Poor Me Israelites” gets played in my ears constantly to this day, and I’m expanding knowledge and appreciating the reggae I do hear much more than I used to, which I only figure could be a good thing.

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