Current Issue | Archives | Eternal Thunder


Renegade child, ladies' man, devoted dreadlocks

By David Katz

War In A Babylon, his 1976 follow up for Perry, was even stronger. Released by Island to much international critical acclaim, it is arguably his finest work to date. Max described it as "the album that kills me and then brings me back to life, the story of my life, the one I hate to tell! It's a story of sorry, and hungry and frustration, and near to suicide, an inch away from schizophrenia, the album that kills me and brings me back to life, War In A Babylon! Because 21 years after, I'm yet to see the first royalty statement, and I cried blood, and I cried tears, and even piss came out of the corner of my eyes, nobody listens!"

"A contract with Island is like a death certificate that's void, ain't nothing happening. It doesn't matter, I didn't have one anyways... I had one in the early days, but when I realised the trick that was being played on us, I rebel. When I realised that what they do, they sign all the artists that was a threat to Bob Marley and put them on the shelf so they can send the King ahead and crown the King, we were all victims and we were all sacrificed to make the Marley empire. We thank God for it, because the world would hear reggae music."

According to Max, this album had a complicated genesis: "I had this song 'War Ina Babylon' when me say 'it wicked out there, it dread out there.' I took it to (Scratch), I said, 'You like it?' 'Yeah!' Excitement. 'But, no dread and no wicked, it sipple out deh!' So I said, 'Yeah, that have a ring to it. It sipple out deh' - because sipple mean slippery, you know, it's slidey out there. I said, 'yeah, fantastic idea... war ina Babylon, it sipple out deh. Yeah Scratch, that's it.' So I record the song, that was the only song that I record then."

"They sign all the artists that was a threat to Bob Marley and put them on the shelf. We thank God for it, because the world would hear reggae music."

"Chris Blackwell came to the studio one day, and (Scratch) played the song for him. He said, 'Yeah, we can do an album with this artist.' So we said 'OK Scratch, let's do the album' and we did the album then. When Bob hear the 'War Ina Babylon' track he was ecstatic, he said 'let me do this song.' Scratch said 'no, this is Max Romeo's song, make him do it.' So he went away and recorded 'Three Little Birds' because it's the same bass line. I said 'OK Bob, take it, you got a slice of it, I've got to sing mine!' So we did the song. Scratch got $15,000 (JA) for producing the song. After production costs he gave me $2,500. That's the only money I get to date."

Another song that Max remembers Perry restructuring was "Chase the Devil": "In those days, you write a song and you take it to Scratch, it's never good enough. No matter how good your song is, it's never good enough, you have to sit, you've got to debate it, and then you've got to take out that, put that in, and at the end of the day, you give him 50% of the publishing."

"One Step Forward," the album's opening track, was also issued as a single. "It goes back to Michael Manley again," says Max of the song's inspiration. "Michael Manley won (the election), he sits for a while. There was nothing happening. So I said 'wait, we're taking one step forward and two steps backward because you don't know whether to suit Uncle Sam or to suit the people. One day you're a dreadlocks to hold up the rod of correction and the next day you're a bald head. Onward, forward and don't step backward man, make we step out of Babylon!' That was straight to Manley's head, and then come 'No Joshua No.' "

"You took them out of bondage and they thank you for it. But now they think they are forsaken."

"I was waking up the guy because he was sitting up in Jamaica House and he was meeting friends for two years and not doing nothing after he went in. So I said 'You took them out of bondage and they thank you for it, you sing them songs of love and they tried to sing with it, but now in the desert, tired, battered, bruised, they think they are forsaken, they think they have been used, since you are my friend Joshua, Rasta is watching and blaming you.' And that pulled him out of his chair, he called me in to Jamaica House, sit me down, and said 'look man, I must confess, that song pulled me out of my chair. I've got to do something, go home, I'll see what I can do, please don't sing no more politics songs for now, give me a break, let me show you what I'm going to do' and he created Land Lease Project, Crash Programme, JAMAL, all the social programmes of '72 that had guys washing their cars with Heineken Beer and all them things came into existence. And then, they take flour out of the barrel and the fish from off the shelf and there was no food, and because of that, the same trick that they used on Marcus Garvey, they used it on Michael Manley: No food, no vote. And the private sector said 'if you don't swing away from Castro, no food!' And that was the end of Michael Manley."

Another notable track from the album is "Norman", who Max says is based on a real person. "Norman is a friend of mine, Norman Eliot from Bull Bay in St. Thomas. A very good friend of mine, I used to hang out at that guy's house every evening. We play cards, it's like a little gambling gathering 'mongst us when the day is done to unwind. He was the house master. He buys the deck, he gives us the table and the chair, and you can get a beer and things like that. Every six games you play, he's got to collect, and that's the way he runs the business, but if you're broke, you say 'Norman, I beg you a less.' He's drawing 'less,' the money that he draws from you, we call it 'less'; it's a tax. He tax the players every sixth game they play. If I say 'Norman, beg you a less' he'd say 'me? I want more!' That way, he never lose, always win, but he never give away a pin. I didn't say he cheated. When he play, he always trumps a jack, because if you trump a jack you win, or if you trump a six you win. But every time he shuffles, he trumps a jack. He's setting the deck, 'he always sets the pack, he always trumps the jack, and every hand that he shows you is a flush or a straight.' You can't win!"

"After doing the song, I went back home and I saw Norman. Norman says 'Max, you have my name and make money off foreign man.' I said 'Norman, how old are you?' He said '45.' I said, 'You have your name for 45 years, never use it? I take it and use it now to make some money. You can't argue with me man! Anyway, here's some money, have a drink."

"A lot of people say Scratch is mad. In my mind, Scratch is not mad. Scratch is on a heights that he choose to be, and he wants to keep people off him."

Although Perry is later said to have called Max Romeo a "White Belly Rat" in one of his singles, Max says Scratch first asked him to voice the tune, "and I wouldn't, because it was singing about Bunny Lee. Bunny Lee is supposed to be the white belly rat. He and Scratch always have a feud, I don't know why, but even now, they are friends today and they are enemies tomorrow, and they are friends the other day, and enemies the other day. Me and Scratch is very close, but during his transition to the heights that he's in, we rarely meet, and when he don't see me, I think some times, he feels that I'm a traitor by not tracking him down. Because one day Max Romeo is Judas, he used to play that game with me in the studio. He doesn't see me for a month, and if you go in the studio you see all my pictures marked Judas. Then here I come, everything's come down, new pictures go up. I disappear for another month, you go in there, 'Max Romeo - Judas.' Max Romeo this, Max Romeo that. Me and the guy so close. Right now there are elements that are trying to come between us that I don't understand. In my mind, a lot of people say Scratch is mad. In my mind, Scratch is not mad. Scratch is on a heights that he choose to be, and he wants to keep people off him. It's a charade game he's playing. He's very capable. That guy, he's an old guy, and he's as young as the youngest guy. He stand on one foot and use his toe, touching his forehead. He's just in a heights that a lot of people don't understand. He's not crazy. He's just trying to keep certain people off him."

His next Island album, Reconstruction, was not given much promotion, and fared less well despite some strong material. The disc's hit "Melt Away" remains a constant favourite of Shaka's sound system, and has recently resurfaced on a clandestine single. "That was the star track on that album," says Max, "Island didn't even know what record they had. That song was co-written by Earl 'Chinna' Smith. I never do an album without Chinna's participation, unless I'm not in the country. As long as I'm there, Chinna have to participate. He always do a track of his idea, organise the rhythm and things like that, so that's how "Melt Away" came in. The rhythm is Chinna's original thing. I know Boris Gardiner played bass, and I think it was Winston Wright (on keyboards)."

Shifting his base to New York in this period, Max's recorded output began to slow down. "I bought myself three vans, and started a courier service in New York, just to cool my head off. Then I met Sonny Ochai finally, I took him to Bullwackie who had a little studio in New York. We did that album, I Love My Music. That's what started Tachyon actually, and I did this album that Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones played lead guitar on, Holding Out My Love To You. I gave Tachyon that as well, it was released through Shanachie Records. That was how the whole Japanese thing came through."

In the late 1980s, Romeo linked up with his old crony Lee Perry for some work in New York on an album that later surfaced as Transition; although the pair began the album together, it was finished with little input from Perry. "The whole idea was to do an album, Max Romeo meets Lee Perry," laughs Max at the memory, "I'm going to do one side of the album and he's going to do the other. But when he flew over to New York, the plans change. He ended up doing two albums for company, and I end up doing one, which is Transition. All he had was to do was to be in the studio. He didn't do anything else other than that then; by the time that session was done, that studio had to be re-painted. He was scrawling all over the bloody ceiling!"

Returning to Jamaica in the early 1990s, Romeo recorded two albums of note for London's sound system king, Jah Shaka: "Shaka came to Jamaica with nothing in mind, and he want was to do some recording but he didn't have anything planned really. He ran into me so I said 'Look man, let's do something. Why not?' We did the first album, Tafari Captain Of My Ship, and he get distribution from Greensleeves. He figure it was a good idea to go further on and see what's happening. Then we did Our Rights."

For the last three years, Max has remained solidly on the road. Although he rarely appears live in the UK, he has regular concert appearances in Europe and Japan. "I figured I'm going to tour for five years," Max explained, "I've gone three already, I've got two left. After that, it will be strictly recording, and then I want to invent I new era in music, I want to cross these old battle hymns. I'm planning a new project, I want to bring something different from what's happening."

Max's long-standing involvement in reggae music is ultimately a testimony to his talent as a singer and song writer.

Staying true to his name, Romeo is now father to ten children; his own mother passed away in London after experiencing heart trouble in 1997, and is dearly missed by all who knew her. Max says he looks forward to a quiet life in years to come. "I want to retire on a farm, that's all I'm asking of my career. Give me a little farm somewhere, some place where I can grow enough food to feed my kids. "

Max's long-standing involvement in reggae music is ultimately a testimony to his talent as a singer and song writer. His intriguing lines, sometimes adapted to folk tunes and religious hymns, often infused with hard-hitting political content, has kept him active through four decades of musical production. Although the risqué nature of a few early novelty hits has been given undue attention in the media, the greater portion of Romeo's work has been radically challenging and overtly political. Still active as a recording and performing artist, Max Romeo remains an artist of note.

September 2003