WAR INA BABYLON
(Classic Albums #1)
Between 1976 and 1977, Lee Perry released a quartet of albums that can easily be considered amongst his finest moments: Super Ape, War Ina Babylon, Police And Thieves and Party Time. Not only do these epic albums represent Scratch at his best, but reggae at it's finest. Scratch would soon take his already formidable production skills to even higher levels with the amazing Heart Of The Congos album, but even if that album had never been released, these four sets would provide enough of a legacy. Of this mighty quartet, War Ina Babylon is perhaps my favourite, a righteous mix of potent lyrics and musical excellence.
Max Romeo had recorded a handful of tunes for Scratch in the early 70s, when he was trying to distance himself from his infamous "Wet Dream" notoriety. These included the outstanding "Public Enemy Number One" and "Ginal Ship" as well as a Niney-produced tune recorded with Scratch's help, "Rasta Bandwagon". In 1975, Max recorded the landmark Revelation Time album, a self-produced tour de force which was his strongest work to date. The album laid down a definite blueprint for the epic War Ina Babylon.
"One Step Forward" begins the album, a wry commentary on the Jamaican state of affairs in 1976. In an interview with David Katz, Max claims that the song was largely inspired by what Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley was doing at the time. "Michael Manley won (the election), he sits for a while. There was nothing happening," says Max. "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..." Apparently "One Step Forward" proved potent enough that Manley himself arranged for a private meeting with Max to let him know that his message had indeed touched a nerve.
The epic "Uptown Babies Don't Cry" has never been as popular as other War Ina Babylon tracks that were released as singles, but it's fantastic arrangement and heartfelt lyrics make it one of the most powerful songs on the album. It revisits the militant themes Max expresses in his earlier "Warning", but contains less venom for the decadent rich and more pathos for the sufferers. His poignant observations of the "little lad selling Star" and the mother who has to "pay the fees for little Junior to go to school" paint a vivid picture. Scratch's arrangement of majestic horns and prowling organ give the excellent lyrics a magnificent rock to stand on.
The militant lyrics of "Chase The Devil" had their origins in one of Lee Perry's vivid ideas. According to Max, Scratch originally conceived lyrics about not only chasing the devil, but capturing him, cutting his throat, and tossing him into a fire. Max convinced Scratch to tone down the violence, and a classic Black Ark track was born. Later, Scratch would take the rhythm track for "Chase The Devil" and transform it into the feverish "Disco Devil", adding clanking percussion and remixing Max's vocals into a screeching war cry.
"War Ina Babylon" was the first song to be recorded. The tune was originally called "Sipple Out Deh" and released on an Upsetters 7" single. Max had approached Scratch with the concept for a tune that dealt with the violence in Jamaica, claiming that it was "dread out there". Scratch liked the idea but suggested that it was "sipple (slippery) out there" and the lyric was duly changed. Later, it was remixed for the album and renamed "War Ina Babylon". The strength of the single ensured that a full album would follow -- soon after it was recorded, Chris Blackwell heard the song and gave Scratch the green light to record an album's worth of material with Romeo. Interestingly, "War Ina Babylon" almost became a Bob Marley song. When Marley heard it, he loved it so much that he asked Scratch if he could voice the tune. Scratch wisely turned him down. The rhythm track was used for several other Black Ark productions: a James Brown' DJ cut, "Stop The War Ina Babylon", as well as "Black Vest" on Super Ape, which contains parts of Brown's vocals in the mix along with those of Prince Jazzbo. Max also used the rhythm track for his corrosive "Fire Fe De Vatican" single, issued in 1977. Finally, it was used on a Black Art 12" for Jah Lloyd's ponderous "Earth Is The Lord".
The fantastic "Norman" is like a film noir set to a Black Ark beat.
The fantastic "Norman" is like a film noir set to a Black Ark beat. The story of a flashy and corrupt gambler was apparently based on a real-life friend of Max's. "Norman is a friend of mine, Norman Eliot from Bull Bay in St. Thomas," relates Max. "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... He tax the players every sixth game they play. If I say 'Norman, beg you a less' he'd say 'me? I want more!'" Later, Scratch would create an incredible extended mix of the tune, featuring dialogue between the infamous Norman and a fellow gambler who tries in vain to confront Norman about his cheating, creating an even more sinister atmosphere for the song.
"Stealing In The Name Of The Lord" contains some of Max's finest lyrics on the album, with bitter and vivid imagery decrying the Christian church in Jamaica. Without even mentioning the Rasta faith, the song is a clear boost for the less restrictive doctrines of Max's chosen faith. "They fed our mothers with sour grapes / And set our teeth on edge..."
The simmering "Tan And See" uses a variety of old Jamaican proverbs to hammer home the point that people need to wake up and take a serious look at their situation. Such is the power of the tune that it's just as relevant today and in a greater context than Max's original Jamaican ideology. The song makes mention of Anansi, the notorious trickster from Jamaican folklore. Here Max tells us that there's "no need to jump and prance" for Anansi "nah spoil no dance" - a clear allegory for people to calm down and not give in to unreasonable panic or undue influence from tricksters. "The more you look is the less you see..."
A reality tune to conclude a reality album; there is no happy ending here.
"Smokey Room" may be a small homage to the Black Ark and the friendly vibe that Scratch created there. Rather than a sterile, uptown recording facility, the Black Ark was located in Scratch's backyard which immediately gave the studio a laid back atmosphere that most musicans found refreshing. The tune starts with an angry voice complaining about all the ganja smoke in the recording studio; Max takes no notice and instead sings about feeling "Jah Jah's riddim" and "meditating in a smokey room", all the time praising the quality of the ganja being smoked as well as the vitality of the rhythms being heard.
War Ina Babylon concludes with "Smile Out A Style", a rather grim commentary on current affairs that certainly provides a downbeat ending to the album. The mood of the song is cynical: smiling has gone out of style, and times are tough. The lyric "Screwface back in town" uses a classic Jamaican slang term for a grouch or even the devil. The whole song can be summed up by one of the most potent lines on the album: "the rain is falling but no seeds are growing". A reality tune to conclude a reality album; there is no happy ending here.
Check out David Katz' excellent article on Max Romeo.