Graham Reid | | 2 min read
When Max Romeo's Holding Out My Love to You album was released in '81 it came with heavy patronage: Keith Richards was a Romeo fan and had produced some of the tracks . . . so there was a cover sticker proclaiming "Featuring Keith Richards -- Free Colour Poster of Keith and Mick Inside".
Romeo had moved from Jamaica to New York a few years previous (he wrote and starred in a musical, Reggae) and had fallen in with Mick'n'Keith, and sang back-up on Emotional Rescue.
But while the Stones' support was genuine you'd have hoped Max Romeo -- what a terrific name, like some spiv in a Fifties film noir -- wouldn't have needed it.
After all, just a few years previous he had delivered a killer album, War Ina Babylon, produced by Lee Scratch Perry at his Black Ark Studio. It was chock full of great songs, and Romeo had the history.
Back in the late Sixties Romeo -- born Max Smith -- had achieved some notoriety with his song Wet Dream being banned by the BBC for lyrics which read, "every night me go to sleep me have a wet dream, lie dung gal, mek me push it up push it, lie dung . . ."
Romeo's explanation that the song was about a leaky roof didn't . . . hold water? That the follow-up album contained a few such similar songs wasn't convincing either.
Back in Jamaica in the early Seventies however he underwent some changes and passed into a consciousness/political period (the album Revelation Time of '75), and one of his songs with Perry -- the catchy Sipple Out Deh -- was given an inevitable re-working to appear as War Ina Babylon.
The album of the same name was Romeo's finest moment: the nine songs are all short and memorable, and contain hard hitting mesages. One Step Forward is about the on-going struggle in Babylon (and commands Rastas not to give up); Stealin' in the Name of Jah is about low-life preachers exploiting their flock ("my Father's house of worship has become a den of thieves"); and Uptown Babies ("don't cry, they don't know what hungry is like") speaks for itself.
Norman is a warning about a ghetto legend and the seduction of the lifestyle ("a gambler, rides around in a Rambler . . . Norman never give away a thing, if you ask for less he says he wants more") and Chase the Devil is a stone cold classic -- "I'm gonna put on a iron shirt and chase Satan out a Eart' " -- and has become a reggae standard.
Most of the songs are co-credited to Perry and Romeo, and the studio band is the Upsetters with Marcia Griffiths on harmony vocals.
And Max Romeo's vocals front and centre are strong, clear and articulate.
If he tried to argue his way around Wet Dream there was no need to on War Ina Babylon: the messages are plain and simple -- and that's way even now, decades on, this album feels true, honest and necessary.
A cornerstone reggae, and an Essential Elsewhere, album.
You can hear this album at Spotify here.
These Essential Elsewhere pages deliberately point to albums which you might not have thought of, or have even heard . . .
But they might just open a door into a new kind of music, or an artist you didn't know of.
Or someone you may have thought was just plain boring.