Classic Albums #2
It starts off with an almost irresistible urge to party and let loose. It ends with a sober lament about hard times. In between lie songs of frustration, determination, and inspiration. Perhaps more than any other album from the Black Ark, Party Time showcases the light and the dark that came out of Lee Perry's mighty studio.
Only The Heptones could have pulled it off. A trio who sound just as good singing about broken hearts as they do singing about judgement day, The Heptones really represent all of reggae's moods. Their catalog of high quality songs is one of the deepest wells in Jamaican music. The Heptones have seen many highs, Party Time being only one of them. The sublime music they made at Studio One during the rocksteady era stands out as something special, and they continued to make memorable music throughout the 1970s with a variety of producers. Even after Leroy Sibbles left the trio in 1979 for a solo career in Canada, Earl Morgan and Barry Llwellyn soldiered on with Naggo Morris and continued to make great music for many years.
After George Faith's To Be A Lover, Party Time is definitely the most accessible album to come from the Black Ark era. At the same time, this is an album of dark and sombre moods and certainly not lightweight. Along with Junior Murvin's Police And Thieves and Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon, Party Time forms a "holy trinity" of Black Ark productions. Any serious reggae fan must have all three albums in their collection.
The title track dates back to the Heptones' Studio One days. It was later recut for Phil Pratt in a surprisingly lethargic version; the Black Ark version is the definitive cut. Its message is pretty simple: let's have some fun tonight. But like many Sibbles compositions, there are some darker undertones: "time is short", "we've got to live some life before we're cold"... So whether these partiers go back to work for Babylon the next morning or are destined to live a rough life in the mean streets of Kingston, at least they have this night.
"Crying Over You" is a classic lover's lament made even more melancholy by Perry's phased out arrangement. Barry Llwellyn's passionate vocals recall those of Ken Boothe in his famous "crying" mode. At times, the sparse vocals make this track sound more like a dub version. Serious fans will notice that the album version of "Crying Over You" features a slightly different mix than the original 1976 Wildflower single and is about 20 seconds shorter.
"Now Generation" is an archetypical "fatherly advice" tune, with The Heptones urging the youth to take care during turbulent times. "Oh my brothers, what a situation / The poor will suffer more / If we don't open the door..."
More than any other album from the Black Ark, Party Time showcases the light and the dark that came out of Lee Perry's mighty studio.
"Mr. President" is the first really militant tune of the album, with The Heptones expressing a rising anger at politicians who aren't serving the people they represent. The song pulls no punches, with devastating lines such as "How can you sit there and watch the humble die / How do you really feel when hungry babies cry?" 25 years later, this song would become a favourite among American reggae radio DJs who wanted to express their disapproval for the evil Bush administration. Like so many other reggae songs, certainly the words of "Mr. President" still ring true today, no matter what country you live in. Politicians at the command of big business or sordid personal interests seem tailor-made for the lines "I know there is a lot that you can do / But the pain they bear means nothing to you."
After the fire of "Mr. President", the coals are stoked further with "Serious Time", a Barry Llwellyn composition that sees him taking the lead vocal. Riddled with Jamaican patois and Biblical proverbs, this is a serious "reasoning" tune with Barry's voice alternating between subdued observation and rising anger throughout. The song contains a definite mood of menace: the second verse imagery of a preacher's son stealing a Bible and then getting badly beaten by the police is startling.
"I Shall Be Released" is the sound of the sky clearing after a thunderstorm. The sun may be shining, but thunder still rumbles in the background. The song is a cover of a Bob Dylan tune, with some notable changes in the lyrics, namely "I see Jah light come shining from the west down to the east..." Rather than internal inspiration (Dylan's original lyric is "I see my light..."), The Heptones are drawing on their Rastafarian faith for strength in troubled times.
"Storm Cloud" is one of the album's finest moments. Lyrically and musically it sounds just as menacing as the title suggests. As with "Mr. President", it takes aim at politicians struggling for power while "I and I in the ghetto a suffer so". In some ways, "Storm Cloud" also channels Dylan, reminiscent of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and "High Water": there is trouble brewing for everyone, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it. Scratch's heavy use of phasing on the horns and the sizzling hi-hat cymbal on the rhythm track are pure Black Ark magic.
"Road Of Life" has always been a personal favourite. In fact, I wish this was the song that ends the album, since it makes a perfect conclusion to all of the bittersweet moods and themes that have come before it on Party Time. On top of a shimmering, pulsing rhythm track, the Heptones soar with lines like "We can make if we try / With a little more love..." 'Nuff said.
"Why Must I" is one of Party Time's show-stoppers, a completely stunning song and a true tear jerker. The song is a powerful portrait of despair, originally recorded at Studio One in 1967. Leroy Sibbles is at his best as he quietly delivers devastating lines such as "Everyone is having fun / But I am having none / What in this world can I do?"
The album concludes with "Sufferer's Time", a song that speaks of the legacy of slavery and the divide between the haves and have nots. The Heptones sing about 400 years of racial oppression and call for a serious redressing of wealth. "Time for sufferers fe drive big car / Time for sufferers fe live it up..." The mood of the song is like a knife being sharpened slowly. It's the song of someone who has had enough and is ready to finally take action. As with "Crying Over You", the album version features a different, slower mix than the original Upsetters 7" single.
It would be great if Island would re-release Party Time with some well chosen bonus tracks.
Besides the ten songs that made it onto Party Time, there are other Heptones Black Ark tracks floating around. Shortly after the album was released by Island, Scratch created a four song EP, "Black Art Heptones Disco Dub". It featured excellent discomixes of "Mr. President" and "Crying Over You" with Jah Lion toasts and extended, dubwise mixes of "Why Must I" and "I Shall Be Released". All of the EP was later re-released on Anachron's Turn And Fire collection, along with other discomixes by Max Romeo and the awesome "Disco Devil". The momentous "Party Time" was given the discomix treatment in 1979, backed with a previously unreleased song, "Come Into My World" (the 12" single was re-released in limited numbers in 1991 on the Dutch Jamaican Art label). At the same time, a peculiar but powerful reworking of Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey" as "Babylon Falling" was released on a Roots From The Yard single (it was later included on Trojan's excellent Open The Gate collection). Finally, the lost gem "Make Up Your Mind" was included on Island's Arkology collection, as was a strange DJ version of "Why Must I" featuring Scratch toasting in Armharic and gibberish.
For some reason, Party Time was unavailable for many years, despite it being one of Island's best selling albums in the 1970s. The album is currently available again, and it would be great if Island would re-release Party Time with some well-chosen bonus tracks as they did in 2003 with Junior Murvin's Police And Thieves. Hopefully, any day now, I shall be re-released...