Perfect Sound Forever


Looking back at a roots reggae classic
by Eric Doumerc
(October 2019)

The reggae group known as The Wailing Souls has been around under various names and with a fluctuating personnel since the mid-1960's, but the two founding members, Winston "Pipe" Matthews, and Lloyd "Bread" McDonald, have been part of the group since the beginning. The original group seems to have been formed in Trench Town neighborhood (near Kingston) around 1965 by Matthews, McDonald, George "Buddy" Hayes, Oswald Downer, and Norman Davis to do some session work for various artists (like guitarist Ernest Ranglin). At the time, the young singers called themselves the Renegades because they considered themselves as rebels. That early incarnation of the group soon disbanded as Hayes wanted to go to art school and other members had other commitments to honour.

As the late 1960's/early 1970's approached, Matthews and Mc Donald decided to re-form the group with Downer and Davis in tow, this time recording under the name the Wailing Souls. They recorded "Gold Digger" for producer Lloyd "The Matador" Daley, but it was at Studio One that they made their name with songs like "Mr Fire Coal Man," "Row Fisherman Row" and "Back Out with It," which were eventually released on a Studio One album entitled The Wailing Souls (1975). On these Studio One recordings, Matthews and McDonald were sometimes joined by Downer and Davis. Their second Studio One LP , Soul and Power, was released much later (1982), when the group had already a solid reputation. In the early 1970s the group also recorded two songs ("Harbour Shark" and "Back Biter") for Bob Marley's Tuff Gong label and did background vocals on several Wailers tracks like "Trench Town Rock," "Redder Than Red" and "Lick Samba" (Katz 154).

Nevertheless, it was at Channel One that the Wailing Souls really made their mark with a series of hits for the Hoo Kim brothers. At the time, Channel One was establishing its reputation by releasing modern-sounding, rockers-style versions of old Studio One hits, and their approach worked very well for the Wailing Souls who re-recorded their "Back Out With It," re-titling it "Things and Time" (1977). It was a big hit, and they followed it up with "Jah Jah Give Us Life to Live" (1978), which was released as a twelve-inch on the Greensleeves label in Britain. Another popular title was "War," also released as a twelve-inch on Greensleeves with a toast by the deejay Ranking Trevor (and late covered by Canadian punk legends D.O.A.). The song was about riots in Trenchtown: "More than 100 people died in Trenchtown. Bombing and shooting and burning. That's how we get that inspiration at that time to write that song." (Foster 41)

Their success at Channel One encouraged the group to set up their own label (Massive) to achieve more control of their material. They thus left the Hoo Kim brothers but continued to use the studio to record two of their biggest hits, "Bredda Gravilicious" (1977) and "Feel the Spirit" (1979). They also released "(War De Round A) John Shop" on their own label. The popularity of their singles led to a contract with Island Records and to the release of the Wild Suspense album on that label in 1979.

Wild Suspense constitutes a high-water mark for 1970's roots reggae on account of its sophistication and staggering musicianship. It contains a mixture of old Studio One do-overs ("Row Fisherman," "Feel The Spirit"), self-productions with horns added ("Bredda Gravilicious," "Very Well") and tunes by Rudoplh "Garth" Dennis ("Slow Coach") and George "Buddy" Hayes ("Wild Suspense"). The opening track, "Row Fisherman," is a new version of their Studio One song which tells the story of an unfortunate fisherman whose unreliable partner exploits him and keeps asking him for more all the time. The fisherman is urged to "get out of her life" as she "ain't your type." The second track, "Slow Coach," was originally recorded by one of the first incarnations of Black Uhuru (Don Carlos, Garth Dennis, and Duckie Simpson). It is a kind of wake-up call or a call to arms which deals with conflicts both in Jamaica and in the Middle East: the world is in a crisis and it is time to act. The song was originally released on Raymond "Benno" Anderson's label in New York. The Wailing Souls' version benefited from some great guitar work by Rad Bryan.

On "We Got To Be Together," the need for more unity is addressed in straightforward terms: the Wailing Souls assert the need to go beyond rhetoric. To ask for change is not enough: acting is more important (action speaks louder than words). "Feel The Spirit" recreates the atmosphere of a Revival session, with great interplay between the lead singer and the three back-up vocalists. It is a do-over of their Studio One song "Soul and Power." It is, in fact, all about getting the spirit, a phrase which refers to possession by the Holy Spirit during a Revival Zion or a Pocomania session.

"Bredda Gravalicious" is a piece of folk poetry the theme of which is man's greed and thirst for material riches. In Jamaican Creole, "gravalicious" (a mixture of "grab"/"greedy" and "avaricious") means "greedy." In the song, "Brother Greedy" is the archetypal selfish person who uses others as stepping stones and then conveniently forgets about them once he's reached the top:

My brothers and sisters they build you up,
But now that you reach the top,
You don't remember them,
Through material things.
In typical reggae fashion, the Souls then use a Jamaican proverb to illustrate the idea of greed leading to man's downfall: the high seat killed Miss Thomas's puss (don't bite off more than you can chew).Then they retell Aesop's fable of the greedy dog who loses his bone : a dog once found a dog and decided to take it home. saw a dog's face reflected in the water, with an even bigger bone in his mouth and jumped into the stream, only to lose his bone. This cautionary tale is here retold to warn us against greed. As the Souls say, Bredda Gravalicious is "too damn craven" and is a "harbour shark" or a "bushrat" who preys upon other people. The theme is a quite frequent one in 1970's reggae and appears in the Wailers' "Craven A-go Choke Puppy."

The Wailing Souls are well-known for their deeply reflective and thoughtful lyrics, and this appears clearly on listening to "They Never Know," a song about an individual who must leave his community where all he recieved was "stones and lurking bones" in order to find inspiration, and get on with his life. It is a meditative track, which is far removed from what a 1970's roots reggae track was supposed to sound like, and it really shows that the Souls had taken the time to write lyrics that were a bit more complex than rants against Babylon.

"Black Rose" warns us that the time for the Apocalypse is near, s the candle is burning low and there will be no hiding place when we run to the rock to hide while "Something Funny" features some beautiful harmony singing, which is proof of the influence of African-American music on the Wailing Souls, and some wistful lyrics about the state of the world and the irreversible nature of change. It is a deeply meditative and contemplative tracks which puts paid to the notion that 1970's roots reggae was all about revolution and social issues. The final track, "Very Well" (previously released as a single), is about repatriation to Africa and the need for black people to finally go back home there. It features a powerful horn section and sound effects which were not on the original recording, as well as a majectic bass line which fits the seriousness of the lyrics.

The album benefited from a superlative horn section (Cedric Brooks, Headley "Deadly" Bennett, Rico Rodriguez, Vin Gordon), with the horns being overdubbed in England and in Jamaica. This really gave the re-recorded tunes a different, more majestic sound. Another major contribution to the album's sound was Sly Dunbar's drumming. At the time, Dunbar was experimenting with various beats, and this can be heard in the introduction of "Bredda Gravalicious" and in the song "Row Fisherman." The percussion (played by Uziah "Sticky" Thompson and Nol "Skully" Simms) was also particularly effective.

In 1994, the album was released on CD on the Mango label, with seven bonus dub tracks, which emphasised the work done by Sly Dunbar and bassist Bertram "Ranchie" McLean. The liner notes by Steve Barrow were very informative and set the album in its proper historical context.

Barrow, Steve. Liner notes to the 1994 release of Wild Suspense (Mango, 1994).
Foster, Chuck. "The Wailing Souls: Soul and Fire." The Beat, Volume 11, N4, 1992.
Katz, David. Solid Foundation : An Oral History of Reggae. London : Bloomsbury, 2003.

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