“ Artist: Aswad / Import / Audio Cassette released 1989-05-26 at Mango „
In the late 1970's and early 1980's Aswad were at the forefront of the home-grown British roots reggae scene. Along with other British bands such as Steel Pulse, Black Slate and Misty in Roots they took the Jamaican sound of Roots reggae and made it relevant to British youth in a way Jamaican reggae had never been. The original line up of the man included Brinsley Forde, Angus "Drummie Zeb" Gaye, Donald Griffiths, and Jordan Binkley later replaced by George Oban. Courtney Hemmings was also often involved in the band in the 1970s. In later years the line changed even more to include a host of different people.
Aswad were at the cutting edge of this new reggae boom both commercially and critically. Their sound was raw; their songs were about struggle and the disenfranchisement of British mainly black British youth of the period. Their music came with a backdrop of economic hardship, racial tension all culminating in the riots in major cities around the UK. Aswad were fated by indie music luminaries like John Peel and were making music with a message but also with accessibility for non reggae fans. Their importance in the reggae scene and to the social commentary of the time was cemented when they were asked to record the soundtrack to 'Babylon' a film about the devastating effect s of the Brixton riots as seen through the eyes of a group of young men living in Brixton. The film also starred original band member Brinsley Forde who had in his childhood been an actor on children's show 'Here Come the Double Deckers'. It's fair to say that Aswad's early output; 'Aswad' (1976), 'Hulet' (1978), 'New Chapter' (1981) 'Showcase' (1981), 'A New Chapter of Dub' (1982), 'Not Satisfied' (1982) and 'Live and Direct' (1983) were among the best of what British reggae had to offer. I was a huge fan and yet despite the quality of all the material they produced this best of compilation is extremely poor. Why? Well for Aswad I believe it all went wrong (or right if you judge by their bank balances) with their assault on the UK charts in 1988 on the release of their 11th album 'Distant Thunder'. The single from that album 'Don't Turn Around' went to number one in the UK and unfortunately the band never looked back. They went mainstream in the US and their 'roots' were definitely left behind and well forgotten.
OK so what exactly is included in this so called 'Best of' collection?
1. Don't Turn Around 3/10
2. 54-46 (Was My Number) 7/10
3. Set Them Free 4/10
4. Roots Rockin' 4/10
5. Need Your Love (Each and Every Day) 5/10
6. Gimme the Dub [Hip-Hop Mix] 6/10
7. Dub Fire 9/10
8. Hooked on You 2/10
9. Beauty's Only Skin Deep 3/10
10. Chasing for the Breeze 4/10
11. African Children 10/10
12. Back to Africa 10/10
13. Warrior Charge 10/10
14. Give a Little Love 3/10
The track order is not chronological and I suppose we start off with the 'big hitter' their one and only proper UK chart hit, the number one single 'Don't Turn Around', For me this sort of soft pop monstrosity is what killed off reggae in the 1980's as a relevant young music genre and led to a complete loss of integrity by many of the top artist. Sure Aswad did have some short lived chart success but their essence as a roots reggae was killed off and other reggae influenced music such as jungle, dancehall and even hybrid raga/hip hop took over the mantle of music with something to say.
'Don't Turn Around' is bland, bland, bland. Weak sugary sweet vocals over a mainstream radio friendly perverted reggae beat is what you get and the great British public seldom a connoisseur of good music bought it in their thousands. Things pick up with the second track Aswad's rendition of Toots Hibbert's classic 54-46 (was my number). The Aswad version of this song is a rather lighter affair than the Toots and the Maytal's original but it isn't half bad although it doesn't have the energy of their live version in 'Live and Direct'. Unfortunately things don't carry on improving after this. The next four tracks are rather forgettable soft reggae ballads featuring too many bland electric guitar solos, trite lyrics and middle of the road arrangement that would even put of off the softest of lover's rock fans. These songs represent the band cashing in on their mainstream success, abandoning their previous pretentions of being a serious roots reggae outfit.
Just when you thought all was lost along comes the 7th track of the album 'Dub Fire', which reminds you how good Aswad really were. 'Dub Fire' is a track taken from the album 'New Chapter of Dub' a dub version of the earlier 'New Chapter' album and it's great! It includes a fantastic backing riff that also featured on the Dennis Brown song 'Promised Land'. This is pure roots dub reggae at its best. Once again though this is only a false dawn in terms of this compilation, since this magnificent track is followed by yet more trite inconsequential nonsense with three tracks 'Hooked on You', 'Beauty's Only Skin Deep', 'Chasing for the Breeze' that manage to show Aswad at their dollar chasing worst.
Thankfully Aswad's golden period in the late 70's and early 80's could not be denied altogether by the makers of this collection and the next three tracks are simply three of the best songs that British reggae has had to offer. 'African Children' is an epic protest song describing the plight of young blacks in Britain at the time. The title refers to the alienation that the youngsters feel toward their country of birth, even though born in Britain they are so disenfranchised from their society that they associate themselves more with their roots in Africa. This is the most memorable, catchy and musically inspired song on this record and probably on Aswad's best album 'New Chapter' and deserves its place in any best of cd.
Next comes 'Back to Africa' was the song that introduced me to Aswad when I heard them perform it on a John Peel session way back in the 1970's. This is beautiful, understated song with a lovely melody and easy smooth tempo belying its serious subject matter. When I first heard this it was a revelation that a British band could produce such inspired Reggae with a distinctly British rather Jamaican stamp to it. It still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I hear it now.
The prefect trinity is completed by 'Warrior Charge' the powerful instrumental that featured on the film 'Babylon'. This piece of music is about the anger that British youngster's both black and white felt in the economic meltdown of the early 80's which amongst other factors like the heavy-handed approach by the police led to the riots. With its thumping rhythm, the sound of police sirens and smashing glass in the background this piece of music captured the negative energy and raw power that lead to such violence on the streets of London, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool. It is a really powerful piece of music. Tragically after such highs the compilation ends with one of the weakest songs 'Give a Little Love' which is once again poor man's lover's rock...what a shame.
To sum up, this collection is a real mixed bag, some of the tracks are simply BLAND, some are INOFFENSIVE and BLAND and just a few are magnificent. If it weren't for the proven talent that Aswad as a band clearly had this compilation could be dismissed as none-too-good but not that bad commercial middle of the road reggae, but considering the heights that Aswad had scaled in their earlier period this compilation, choosing as it does to mainly ignore their best work is an real disappointment.
'Crucial Cuts - 'The Best of Aswad' can be bought as an import from internet sellers starting from £3.80 at the time this review was written.
Recommended (for about half the tracks).
© Mauri 2012
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 I Don't Turn Around
2 54-46 Was My Number
3 Set Them Free [Single]
4 Roots Rocking
5 Need Your Love (Each and Every Day)
6 Gimme the Dub (Hip-Hop Mix] [Version]
7 Dub Fire
8 Hooked on You
9 Beauty Is Only Skin Deep [Single]
10 Chasing for the Breeze
11 African Children
12 Back to Africa
13 Warrior Charge
14 Give a Little Love
15 Woman [Single][*]
16 Kool Noh [*]