JAMAICA: Funky Kingston - Toots and the Maytals
Taking reggae and blending it with blues, R&B, and rock'n'roll, the Jamaican icons are at their best on this resplendent album
I have always considered myself a person with adventurous film tastes, though I am aware that saying so in a public forum such as a blog will likely make me sound like a wanker, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I will never write off a film just because of its genre or style. I don’t really like rom-coms, for example, but I’m always on the look-out for the great ones, and when they come, they’re all the more brilliant because my bias against them means I go into the film underestimating it. It is true I would always prefer a film that tried something new and failed to one that did not try at all. Filmmakers like David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Yorgos Lanthimos all became firm favourites, with a key characteristic of all their work being even if they made a film I did not like, I would always be able to take something from it. I would always seek out foreign films, arthouse films, or rarely seen gems that I was keen to experience. When it came to music, however, I was a bit more rigid. Sure, I liked a variety of genres before starting this project, and though the rock music of the 1960s and 1970s was my favourite bar none, I loved salsa music, 80s pop, folk music, Cuban son, electronica and more. I did, however mainly stick to the same collection of artists I whose comfortable, familiar, and brilliant work I would devour over and over again. I cannot tell you how many times I must have listened to Rumours or Sgt Pepper, it must be in the hundreds. I did, however have a big blind spot, a genre I rarely, if ever, liked and connected with. Reggae.
Like many people across the globe, my introduction into the world of reggae music was with Bob Marley. An iconic figure for his music and his politics, I was in my mid-teens when I had a few friends who were really into his music, and I listened to him as well. While I was always able to recognise that songs such as Redemption Song, Could You Be Loved, and No Woman No Cry were all good and meaningful, I never connected emotionally with any of his music. Having listened to a great deal of his work and admiring it more than liking it, I came to believe that reggae just was not for me, a position I stuck to until I began this project in earnest with Danny. After a while of searching for albums from all over the world, I thought it was time to revisit reggae. Danny is a big reggae fan, and so I left it to him to do the work for me, to present me with a selection of reggae from across the decades to try and find something I would like. In return, I searched for heavy metal albums I thought he would enjoy as that was his musical blind spot, but that’s a story for another review. He had some early success in recommending me the reggae/rap fusion album Distant Relatives by Damian Marley and Nas which I liked very much, but perhaps due to its very nature as a fusion album it did not provide that moment of musical revelation I was hoping for. It took for me to listen to Funky Kingston by Toots and the Maytals for that to happen.
“The best thing that I can say about the album [is that] it turned a reggae sceptic into a reggae fan.”
Funky Kingston is actually the name of two different albums by Toots and the Maytals, though they share some of the same tracks. The first version was released in 1973 in the UK, and the second version, the one I am reviewing was released in 1975 for the American market. What struck me initially about the album was how soulful it was. Toots Hibbert has an extremely rich and smooth voice that sounded unlike anything I had heard before in (my admittedly limited) reggae explorations, and when combined with the tight offbeats of the guitar and drums, it became utterly irresistible. By about 30 seconds in to the first track Time Tough, I already had the beginnings of the musical revelation I had been seeking and I knew it must be an album of the week for the site. I suppose that is the best thing that I can say about the album, it turned a reggae sceptic into a reggae fan.
The album does have form in this regard. Not that I knew it upon my initial listens, but Funky Kingston was part of the beginning of the phenomenal success of reggae in the West. They signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in the early 1970s, and by the time of this album’s release, Toots and the Maytals were the biggest and most popular reggae group in Jamaica, even coining the term in a hit song of theirs from 1968, though reggae had not yet made it into the mainstream across the world. Though the brilliant 1972 Jimmy Cliff star vehicle The Harder They Come, the soundtrack of which featured songs by Cliff, Toots Hibbert, and Desmond Dekker had started the good work, it was the subsequent Island Records releases of Toots and the Maytals and soon after Bob Marley and the Wailers that broke it into the mainstream.
It is easy to see why, in retrospect, that the album would be a success. Toots and his band are excellent musicians, and each song is a well-crafted marvel. Though the songs are not as overtly political as that of Bob Marley and the Wailers, songs such as Time Tough do sing of poverty and hardship, and the musical irony provided by the upbeat backing is a beauty to behold. The title track is just a gloriously fun tune, and In the Dark is a relationship song of heartbreak and sadness, again in an upbeat mode, with a backing choir that is reminiscent of Motown and R&B music. What’s great is that Toots’s voice is so soulful he is able to lean in to those Motown inflections, while still retaining the essentially reggae heart of the piece. The album is not only full of fast-paced tunes, however, with Love Is Gonna Let Me Down being a gorgeous reggae ballad where Toots wrings the emotion out of every single note. Toots give us his take on 1950s rock’n’roll by covering Louie Louie, which may not be the most meaningful or beautiful song on the album, but it’s nonetheless a fun addition of a widely loved song. Another braver and more surprising cover found on the album is the version of John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads (here just called Country Road). Though country music and reggae may not be natural bedfellows, Toots makes the song his own, and it’s a supremely enjoyable and distinctive cover of an already great original. The flirtations with diverse genres do not end there, with the album ending on a high with Sailin’ On, which features a very bluesy piano and guitar.
Fundamentally our reaction to music, or indeed any art, is emotional and not rational, and ultimately why I responded so strongly to this album rather than other reggae albums is a mystery. All I can say is that I love it and I think it’s an extremely strong record that is definitely more than worth your time to listen. The vocal performance throughout from Toots Hibbert is superb, with his charismatic and expressive voice serving each song perfectly, and the music itself is played to perfection, creating 38 minutes of joy. Even though it is full of variety on a musical level, with almost all the songs picking and borrowing from genres other than reggae, what’s great about that is you almost barely notice it when listening. The group is so adept at making the album coherent as one piece of music that though the variations in the songs are vital to its success in my view, they are just subtle enough that if you’re not looking for it on a non-active listen, you may just hear reggae alone. What’s more is that the album, though it has great songs that are wonderful when played individually, when played as a whole piece its true majesty is apparent, as the boundless energy of the piece comes to the forefront in all its funky reggae glory. It is the very definition of more than the sum of its parts.