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I still fondly remember seeing Black Uhuru at the Brixton Academy (then known as the Fair Deal) live in 1981. It was one of the first gigs I'd been to and it still ranks as one of the best. In 1981 Black Uhuru were beginning to achieve a certain amount of success in the reggae charts and were poised to have more mainstream popularity. The live shows emphasised what was best about the band. All the songs had strong political messages has would be expected from a band whose name means 'Black Freedom'. This social consciousness was backed up by the uncompromising force of the roots music with a hard core drum and bass backbeat. Michael Rose was a great showman and vocalist, perfectly backed by the colourful presence of the late and sadly missed Puma Jones and the group's founder Duckie Simpson doing his 'thing' on keyboards, very much in the background. Keeping things musically tight and bubbling along were the huge talent of Sly Dunbar on bass and Robbie Shakespeare on drums. The tour was on the back of two great albums, 'Showcase' and 'Sinsemilla' and was launching the new album 'Red' and I feel this was their pinnacle.
'Anthem' was on the face of it their most successful album released in 1984 it proved to be a huge hit especially in the US and has the distinction of being the first album to win a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Recording in 1985. So is it their best album? Sadly no. While it does include some strong songs and the highly regarded production talents of Sly and Robbie, the spirit and essence of the Black Uhuru sound has been compromised in order to appeal to a wider audience.
While Black Uhuru were always about mixing the accepted roots reggae sound that was pioneered in the mid 70's by Bob Marley and others with more progressive elements of Soul and Rock I feel that in the case of 'Anthem' this experiment has gone too far.
Right from the start the song 'What is Life?' included a rather bland Electric guitar rock riff and some weak synth. It sounds overproduced and has lost some of the raw power that had always exemplified Black Uhuru at their best. The drum and bass are tight as we would expect with Sly and Robbie involved but the track is at best pedestrian.
Things don't get much better with the second track 'Solidarity'. Again the songs sentiments are in the right place making a statement of unity amongst all people but the musical accompaniment with its very dated soft sounding 80's synthesizer backing let the song down. I suppose they felt that they had to make the sound more mainstream and non reggae fan friendly in order to maximise their success in the US. And in terms of sales and the Grammy they would argue that they did the right thing. 'Black Uhuru Anthem' the next track and 'Try It' are an improvement both featuring a little dub and a much stronger and pure drum and base. The positive momentum is kept going with 'Botanical Roots' probably the best song on the album. Unfortunately this is followed by the worst song on the album 'Somebody's Watching You?' which is a saccharine infused love song that old Black Uhuru fans would find repellent. While faults in the other songs could be put down to the production rather than the compositions this song can't be defended in any way, it is just bad and even a laughable dub section at the end can't reprieve it.
As we might expect with this 'Jekyll and Hyde' album the next track 'Bull in The Pen' is back to roots and has all the elements that is best in Black Uhuru at their best. The drum and base once again take their pride of place at the forefront of the rhythm and Michael Rose gives his best wailing vocals, even a little bit of overenthusiastic synth and misplaced horns don't ruin this one. Fortunately this patchy album is rounded off with a couple of good track with 'Elements' and 'Party Next Door' being passable efforts. 'Party Next Door especially picks up the beat and is infused with a very danceable feel, you feel like more of this would have made the album more palatable for roots reggae lovers.
1. What Is Life?
3. Black Uhuru Anthem
4. Try It
5. Botanical Roots
6. Somebody's Watching You
7. Bull In The Pen
9. Party Next Door
'Anthem' despite being the group's best-selling album is not one of their best. It is trying too hard to be acceptable to a market that doesn't easily accept the group's political message or its hard core reggae drum and base beats. Despite the success of Anthem in many ways this represented the end of the group's most productive period. Anthem was the last studio album to feature the best Uhuru line up, Michal Rose leaving to pursue a solo career in 1985 after falling out with Simpson and was replaced by Junior Reid. High points from now on were to be few and far between Despite the next album 'Brutal' also being nominated for a Grammy and the single 'The Great train Robbery' being a hit in the UK the groups began to fall apart has Sly and Robbie left their ranks and tragically Puma Jones had to leave the group due to illness which later claimed her life in 1990. Despite one time vocalist Don Carlos and Michael Rose both returning recently the group has never for me captured the heights of 1981.
'Anthem' might indeed be an accessible way for non reggae fans to accustom themselves to Black Uhuru but at best it is Black Uhuru 'lite'. If you really want to get the best from the band go further back to 'Sinsemilla' or 'Red'.
'Black Uhuru - Anthem' can be bought through Amazon.co.uk from £6.99 from private sellers at the time of writing this review.
Recommended (with caution).
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 What Is Life?
3 Black Uhuru Anthem
4 Try It
5 Botanical Roots
6 Somebody's Watching You
7 Bull in the Pen
9 Party Next Doo