❉ Marrying serious themes poetically, with groove and melodic beauty, Culture’s music stands tall with the absolute best in any genre of its time.
“For anyone who has only experienced Culture’s legendary breakthrough album Two Sevens Clash, this collection shows there was so much more to Culture. For aficionados of the group, there is also a great selection of unreleased material.”
Formed in 1976, roots warriors Culture were led by the charismatic Joseph Hill. Influential reggae producer Joe Gibbs and The Morwells’ ‘Blacka’ Morwell both saw the group’s potential, and with Gibbs producing, Culture enjoyed immediate hits with This Time and See Them A Come.
Culture’s international breakthrough album was released in 1977, the legendary Two Sevens Clash. It was adopted by punk rock brethren in the UK, its apocalyptic lyric carrying a warning that resonated with the ‘no future’ generation in London town.
Riding the crest of an artistic wave and armed with a huge quantity of material, Culture subsequently joined Sonia Pottinger at High Note Records. Culture and Sonia remained together until 1982 when Albert, Kenneth and Joseph parted ways. Joseph kept the Culture flag flying with various members into the 21st century, until he was taking from this earth in 2006 aged just 57. The good really do die young, and this icon of Jamaican music left us with a legacy full of songs loaded with beauty, hope, strength, unity and consciousness.
Doctor Bird Records’ new triple disc compilation, Children Of Zion – The High Note Singles Collection features As and Bs, versions and disco mixes (discos), and has a super set of period photographs and sleeve notes by Tony Rounce. The collection is nicely laid out, with the first two discs providing both sides to every Culture single released on High Note.
Two cracking 45s getting proceedings under way, both from 1978’s Harder Than The Rest long player. Work On Natty tackles the struggle of the Rastafari, toiling, under-appreciated but awaiting divine judgement. It is spiritual, with biblical references. It is brilliantly crafted, Joseph’s voice carrying the fight with finesse, urged on by a driving bass line.
There is another version of Work On Natty by Grandpa Culture, AKA Joseph Hill. Called Production Something, it is Joseph the deejay, toasting over his original chassis. Its own Production Dub by The Revolutionaries is included, both receiving their digital debut.
Stop Fussing And Fighting is a serious message wrapped in sweet melodic clothing. So catchy, the best way to speak to the masses. Very few, possibly only Bob Marley, could reach this level. Indeed, 1976’s armed attack on Marley inspired the lyric. You see, as Jamaican music journeyed through the ‘70s its subject matter allied perfectly with troubled days on the streets of Kingston, the reggae of the day immortalised by the likes of Burning Spear and Culture. Rastafari had to believe in strength, uniting against oppressors.
Both 45s have the version B-sides by crack studio band The Revolutionaries. The drum effect, sped up in the mix on Natty Dub works well alongside the other percussive ingredients. The |Revolutionaries’ line up at this juncture included the likes of Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and Ansel Collins.
The triumphant and uplifting sound of 1978’s Dog A Go Nyam Dog has its disco on offer. An interesting cut since it was recorded between Culture’s time with Joe Gibbs and Sonia Pottinger. Again, heavily biblical lyrically, its chorus is fantastic and the dub -influenced mix retains the original 45’s bite. Magic. Pyarka was its original disco B-side on High Note, and is also included.
The glorious Down In Jamaica is from 1979’s Cumbolo long player. Lyrics referencing Marcus Garvey, his life and influence on social justice. Its repeated, chanted chorus is infectious, Joseph’s lead inspiring the backing. The twelve-inch dub soundscape stretches out with effect and subtlety. The ‘pops’ are especially striking – listen carefully!
The confrontational Black Rose completes disc one. A fighting lyric if ever there was one, with lucid commentary on inequality. ‘Do you ever see Black Roses, in a white garden?’ The vibe is hope though, and the track is bright. Strong brass accentuates this feel on this twelve-inch.
Disc two kicks off in the best possible fashion with the 7″ of the majestic repatriation anthem This Train. One of the great songs, in any genre. Also famously recorded by Bunny Wailer for the Black Hearted Man long player, the song is prophetic, biblical and soothing. And open to one’s own interpretation, like all great art. I’ve often thought ‘why spend money spent on wellness when listening to a song this good can give you all the help you need?’ Its version by The Revolutionaries, even without the full vocal, gets this over – such is its interpretation. Joseph, Albert and Kenneth’s combined vocals are breath-taking.
If anything, the quality goes up another notch with Mind Who You Beg For Help. A slow, steamy roots backing crammed with melodic bass boom, percussive panache and guitar riffage. With bombastic brass on top. O originally from the Cumbolo album, the 12-inch mix here stretches out nicely, the original vocal working with a barren dub scape loaded with instrumentation and effect drop-ins.
1979 also saw the release of International Herb. Jah Rastafari and The Shepherd were taken from it as 45s, and both are included along with their respective versions. The vocal arrangements on Jah Rastafari are superb. Culture never over-did anything vocally, getting the balance between lead and backing spot on. Well crafted, delivered with class and portraying true emotion. The Shepherd has a busy rhythm, and once again the vocal arrangements are fascinating. The three voices range from falsetto to deep and grainy, Joseph operating somewhere in the middle. This lightness of touch is key – a characteristic Culture always displayed. Fresh, vibrant, exciting ideas lyrically, vocally and musically.
The cool, smouldering yet funky Weeping Eyes again features beautifully soulful vocals. The spacious Yard Dub is its version, with ever-present percussionist Sticky strutting his stuff.
Children Of Zion fuses consciousness with a steady dance groove and roots sonic. Very definitely Culture’s trademark. Freedom Rock is its version. Messrs Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon were listening, preparing themselves for their Sandinista opus no doubt.
The disc closes with discos of Forward To Africa and Africa Dub. The repatriation theme is communicated with inevitable beauty. Whilst the extensions possibly not cutting edge, but with purpose. The snare snap in the mix gives a sharpness that propels the vocal arrangements, particularly the chanted chorus.
The third disc contains rare and previously unreleased 12” disco mixes, many getting their debut CD release including alternative mixes of Children Of Zion (Children Of Israel) and Weeping Eyes (Wipe Your Weeping Eyes). With the advent of dancehall, new mixes helped Culture have a foot in this new club, whether it be the toasting-laden Production Something and Trod On, or the loose jam mix of Pyarka. The collection closes with newly released mixes of the threatening Too Long In Slavery from International Herb and Tell Me Where You Get It from Harder Than The Rest.
It is not too much to say that Culture were the best reggae act of the late seventies, their music rubbing shoulders with the absolute best in any genre at that time, from Bob Marley to The Clash. Marrying serious themes poetically, with groove and melodic beauty. For anyone who has only experienced Two Sevens Clash, this collection shows there was so much more to Culture. For aficionados of the group, there is also a great selection of unreleased material.
And for those who are not familiar with Culture then, frankly, what are you waiting for?
You are missing out of some of the best roots-reggae ever recorded.
❉ Culture: ‘Children Of Zion – The High Note Singles Collection’ 3CD (Doctor Bird DBCDDD077) released May 14, 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.