DITDC: The Heptones-Party Time!

Sach O can’t stop partying. When it came to vocalists, Reggae fans became increasingly open-minded in the 1970’s. From weirdo toasters to Rastafarian firebrands, Jamaican audiences quickly...
By    November 2, 2009

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Sach O can’t stop partying.

When it came to vocalists, Reggae fans became increasingly open-minded in the 1970’s. From weirdo toasters to Rastafarian firebrands, Jamaican audiences quickly embraced the unique voices that followed Reggae’s creative boom leaving a number of wonderful Rocksteady acts in the dust. Thankfully, not all soul-influenced groups faded into the sunset–many persisted and found success, bridging their earlier romantic approach with the rebellious spirit of the times, resulting in powerful, gospel-like paeans to Jah and sufferer’s odes to Jamaican life. Of these groups, few were as successful as the legendary Heptones whose collaborations with maverick genius Lee “Scratch” Perry stand as some of the finest Jamaican music ever recorded.

Like the Temptations teaming up with Norman Whitfield, The Heptones’ work with Perry is a daring fusion of pure soul and psychedelic weirdness. Known for velvety voices that would have been just as comfortable belting out ballads in Detroit or Memphis as rockers in Kingston, the Heptones weren’t obvious candidates for the Upsetter’s avant-garde production. Thankfully, what could have been a total mess instead feels like the best of both worlds on Party Time!–a record that merges the group’s perfect pitch with Scratch’s bubbling soundscapes.

Combining new versions of their Studio One classics with original compositions and a few surprises, the ironically titled Party Time! re-imagines The Heptones’ sound as equal parts beauty and darkness. The beauty is obvious: these guys could have sung the phone book over these tracks and still have come up with a classic. From powerful leads to ghostly backing vocals, the group nails every take with equal parts raw spirit and technical perfection. “Crying over You” and “Why Must I” are plaintive odes to heartbreak, “Mr. President” and “Storm Cloud” angrily take on the Jamaican government and “Now Generation” and “Why Must I” are inspirational soul anthems urging the youth to make the world a better place. Throw in the dubby “Serious Time”, the Lee Perry penned “Sufferer’s Time” and the upbeat title track (a rare moment of light in a conspicuously downbeat album), and you’ve got the makings of a classic. However, the moment that caught the world’s eye and made this The Heptones’ biggest record is their cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released”. Rivaling The Band’s recording as the song’s definitive version, The Heptones’ devotional take fits in so seamlessly with the rest of the album that Dylan neophytes would be excused for thinking it was yet another Jamaican composition.

With The Heptones providing the grit, Lee Perry and The Upsetters provide the Inity and atmosphere. Reigning in his crazier impulses, Perry instead imbues the music with an undercurrent of dread and paranoia, gently bathing the tracks in echo without turning the album into a haunted house. Standing toe-to-toe with Heart of the Congos and Police and Thieves as one of Perry’s greatest releases, Party Time! is proof that removed from the mythmaking that has since consumed him, Perry’s studio daring was unrivaled. Rougher than any punk record and just as experimental as the stuff put out by well-heeled experimental artists, Party Time! is the sound of Perry capturing the Zeitgeist with nothing but a four track record, a broken mixing board, a tiny effects unit and Jamaica’s finest. Jeremy Marre’s inside look at Black Ark in his excellent Roots, Rock, Reggae documentary illustrates the simple genius of Scratch’s technique: drum & bass, musicians having a good time and a crack vocal band laying down harmony. Suffice to say, you can smoke to this.

While the Heptones would subsequently go on to record some fantastic music without Scratch, they never quite scaled the same peaks as they did with the Upsetter. Likewise, Scratch’s post-Black Ark output has been criticized as erratic if not downright incomprehensible. But as in contemporary soul and hip-hop, it’s impossible to demand the same energy and creative alchemy found is vintage records from contemporary releases when these elements are so inextricably tied to their times of recording. From dancehall to dubstep, roots reggae influenced artists so varied and far off that it’s occasionally hard to reconnect them to their origins at all. Nonetheless, listening to Party Time! makes it all clear: while most of the world was alternating between disco and AOR, Lee Perry and the Heptones were way, way, way ahead of the curve.

Download:
MP3: The Heptones-“Crying Over You”
MP3: The Heptones-“Mr. President”

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