❉ One of the strongest roots reggae albums of all time, reviewed by Paul Matts.
When Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry identified the successor to a certain Bob Marley, who had just left to release future material on his own Tuff Gong record label, then that individual must have had something. The year was 1971.
‘Junior Byles is something different, something special,’ Perry said at the time.
Kenneth Thaddeus William Byles Junior was born in 1948. He was brought up in Jonestown, Kingston, the son of a mechanic and schoolteacher. Kenneth (Junior) was a firefighter, combining his duties with being the leader and chief vocalist with the little known but hopeful singing group, The Versatiles, who formed in 1967. The band also included Louis Davis, who went on to some success with The Morwells. The Versatiles cut several tracks for Joe Gibbs at his studio. Lee Perry was the in-house producer at the time, and the island’s Festival Song Competition entry The Time Has Come was among them. The track opened doors for The Versatiles, leading to gigs across Jamaica and further recordings for the Orange Street record label Deltone. Orange Street was the geographical musical heart of Kingston.
In late 1970 Byles began recording 45s for Perry. Junior Byles had a caring nature, and a love and empathy for mankind which effected his mental state from an early age. He was a troubled soul. Perry seemed to pick up on this and following the completion of his work with Bob Marley and the Wailers, devoted time and energy to Byles. They landed in each other’s lives at the right moment.
‘He has a sweet voice, but he’s not easy to control. He had good thoughts, very good ideas and to get it, you have to have patience.’ Lee Perry.
Early fruit included What’s The World Coming To? on Trojan Records, and Place Called Africa. The latter is a reflective, subtle piece of work through the eyes of a young man yearning for his homeland whilst reflecting on his life in Jamaica. Junior’s vocal is, frankly, sublime. It was released on Perry’s Upsetter label.
The big breakthrough came in 1971 with Beat Down Babylon, also released on Upsetter. An anthem of a tune, about the Rastafari forcing Babylon into submission. Lee Perry provided inspired production, with typical Upsetter sonics complete with whip sound effects and another beguiling vocal from Junior. It was a huge seller in both 1971 and 1972. Backing was provided by the Now Generation, featuring Mikey Chung on guitar, Val Douglas on bass, Lloyd Adams on drums and Earl Lindo on organ. The line-up plays on many of the cuts throughout this collection.
Further singles were released with Perry, including the commercial and big selling (Festival) Da Da. Eventually, in 1972, the Beat Down Babylon album was issued on Trojan. A cracker of an album, familiar to many roots-reggae fans. Its upsetter vibe, with dynamic, exciting and sharp production courtesy of the main man. The album flows beautifully, with fantastic sequencing. The material is written largely by Perry, assisted by Byles himself. Throughout, the vocal is up there with the best to emerge from Jamaica.
The partnership of these two great Jamaican musicians continued until the mid-seventies. Byles began to record with other producers at this point, including Joe Gibbs and Blacka Morwell (from the fore mentioned Morwells). However, Junior’s fragile mental state increasingly made his life difficult and when the Rastafari physical leader Haile Selassie died in 1975, Junior wanted to end his own life. He spent time in Bellevue psychiatric hospital in Jamaica and made very few recordings throughout the 1980s. Indeed, he became homeless during the nineties after the death of his mother and his wife and children left him to live in the United States.
He managed to recover sufficiently to perform at the Nevada World Music Festival in California in 1998. Further live performances in Jamaica and the UK followed in 2004. His last show was in France in 2010, at the Garance Festival.
Life has continued to be demanding, challenging and difficult for Junior. However, following a campaign by his daughter Christine, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in Kingston in 2019. It was a great evening, with money raised going towards settling Junior’s outstanding medical bills and other costs.
Given the impact his work with Lee Perry has had on the roots reggae world, it would be fitting if the remaining time on this earth was easier for Junior Byles. The joy he has given to so many with his thoughtful, reflective, direct yet beautiful music is immeasurable. Hopefully, this new Doctor Bird Collection will go some small way towards contributing to this.
The collection itself is a double compact disc selection. First up is the Beat Down Babylon original issue itself, accompanied by eighteen bonus tracks. Disc two is entitled Dreader Sounds 1973-1975. The package comes with highly detailed and informative sleeve notes by David Katz. As ever with Doctor Bird releases (a division of Cherry Red Records), these are essential reading, giving excellent background to the grooves contained on the discs. A series of wonderful period photographs are included, also.
Released on Trojan in 1972, Beat Down Babylon is one of the great albums. Perry is operating at peak level, and in Junior Byles he had an artist from whom he could wrench out the best. For those unfamiliar with the long player, here is a whistle stop tour of Beat Down Babylon.
The almost throwaway pop reggae of (Festival) Da Da kicks things off. The up-beat sing-along chorus leads the way, almost at odds with the social comment across the rest of the record. Perry was well-aware of the value of a hit and a hook. It is here in abundance. You’ll be singing it for days after hearing it.
I’ve Got A Feeling is resonant vocally with a fantastically emotive performance from Byles, and also resonant lyrically, articulating a man’s internal frustrations in life due to skin colour. The chorus ‘Oh Yeah’ male vocal harmony enhances the message. The gorgeously smouldering Don’t Know Why articulates vulnerability and insecurity, this time in satisfying a woman.
Demonstration is in fact one of Junior Byles early 45s for Perry but is stripped down here. When What’s The World Coming To? was originally released, it had a string-wash and orchestration common in many reggae hits of the early 1970s (such as Young, Gifted and Black). The renamed recording on Beat Down Babylon sounds tougher and is the better for it. The rebellious cry of ‘I Don’t Know What The World is Coming To’ is more effective with less in its way. The lyric contrasts poverty and the space race, for instance, and other hypocrisies allowed by mankind at the time. Nothing much has changed, really.
Side two of the original vinyl release begins with the title track, mentioned earlier. It is followed up with A Place Called Africa, again mentioned before. PNP leader and future Prime Minister Michael Manly is the subject of Joshua’s Desire, the politically charged pointer. A largely over-looked roots reggae classic comes next with the soulful A Matter of Time. The complication of adolescent-parental relationships is addressed, with Junior’s vocal awesome. It is a classic cut. The album closes with Poor Chubby, a tragic story of Byles, stumbling in and out of employment, prison and homelessness.
Beat Down Babylon ranks among Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s finest work. His song writing, often over-looked, is superb. The innovation in the production is forefront, playful and the grooves range from slow and smouldering, to steady and strong, to up-tempo and bouncy. It is certainly Junior Byles finest release, every song a total winner and his own performance as a singer stunning. It is one of the strongest roots reggae albums of all time.
The remainder of disc one is a mix of alternative mixes and ‘version’ numbers, singles and B-sides. Perry’s innovative use of the mixing console as an instrument is vital. By taking the basis of a backing track, Perry would remove slices of vocal, ship in sound effects and create a work of art to give record buyers and a new version of tracks they were already familiar with. Hence use of the word ‘version’ in many of the titles.
For example, Come Da Da and its B-side Come Da Da Version were included on a single release on the island, and feature both Perry and Byles scatting over the (Festival) Da Da structure. Fun. As are further ‘versions’ Righteous Oily and Ital Version (the original flip side of the Beat Down Babylon 7-inch).
A single co-written by Perry and Byles, Education Rock, is included. A chirpy, lovable number. King Of Babylon is a political charged once more, casting the Jamaican Labour party candidate Hugh Shearer as an Egyptian Pharaoh, holding the righteous people in chains. His opponent in the election was Michael ‘Joshua’ Manley, of the more left-wing socialist People’s National Party. Its companion dub piece, Nebuchadnezzar, is a reference to the Egyptian Pharaoh King of the same name. The formula is repeated for another political cut, Pharaoh Hiding and its alternative ‘versions’, Hail To Power and Got The Tip. Here Manley comes to the rescue of the righteous people held in bondage, put there by Shearer. It is an example of roots reggae at its best. A catchy, up-tempo rhythm and melody, containing a direct, political message, wrapped in biblical imagery.
Less political is one of the best roots reggae do-overs ever issued. Peggy Lee’s Fever is given barn-storming treatment by Byles, his vocal desperate and grinding. Obviously, the production is red hot, enabling the cut to smoke its way out of the speakers. Brilliant. It has its own deejay ‘version’, the gloriously titled Lick The Pipe Peter.
Dave Barker’s What A Confusion gets an alternative take courtesy of Perry with Another Moses. Disc one comes to an end with an exciting cut by The Versatiles, Junior’s original vocal group. The Thanks We Get was released as a 45 on Perry’s Upsetter label, and several other ‘versions’ appear later.
Disc two is entitled Dreader Sounds 1973 to 1975. It mops up the collective output of Byles and Perry during this period. One of Junior Byles biggest hits was Curly Locks, and this begins disc two. It was released on in the UK shortly after on Dip Records, but sub-licensed to Magnet Records courtesy of a young pop impresario name Pete Waterman. The result? Its melancholy tone, complete with bright brass interludes, provided quite a hit in Britain. Three alternative versions, Lock And Key, Dreader Locka and Militant Rock, are included, showcasing a nice blend of effects, echoes, deejay input and drop-outs. And as if that wasn’t enough, its original Dip flipside, the vibrant Now Generation is also included. Plus, a final, sparse vocal ‘version’ appears as the disc’s final track.
The Versatiles’ The Thanks We Get receives two alternative takes, entitled 1973 Version and Xylophone Rock. The xylophone contained in both mixes is playful, typical of Perry’s work. It is not mixed alongside everything else, but is loud, brash, bold and sharp, well up in the final production. Nice.
Another smouldering Perry/Byles collaboration and its dubby version B-side, The Long Way, continues the single/ version formula. The space dub of that B-side (The Longer Way) showcases the echoes and reverberation that was to become a feature of the dub genre in the coming years. Fun And Games has a strong ‘1969’ rough vibe, and is a gem, dusted down and salvaged for the purpose of this collection. It is in fact updated from the superb A Matter Of Time from side two of Beat Down Babylon. It is lively and melodic, with a strong chorus. It inevitably comes with ‘version’ B-side, Motion Dub.
Mumbling And Grumbling is another example of reggae music taking a frisky, tuneful approach in tackling social issues, this time via a satirical prod at mankind’s whining. Sharp instrumentation, too. Another ‘version’, King Size Mumble, is included. At this point on disc two the quality of the song writing is exceptional. Cutting Razor is by The Versatiles and is based on the Joe Higgs and Peter Tosh classic Stepping Razor. The rare 45 Pretty Baby contains a romantically vulnerable lyric. When Will Better Come has a political message. The wistful Rasta No Pickpocket drifts by beautifully, and Auntie Lu-Lu is a cracking number with a fantastic intro. The latter is not the same as Clancy Eccles’ song of the same name that is on his Freedom album, incidentally.
Most, but not all, of these cuts have a ‘version’. Junior Byles solo reading of The Thanks We Get is included, complete with Perry’s children providing, er, backing noises.
In a way it underlines Lee Perry. There has never been anybody as individual, daring, unconventional and unique. With such a sense of fun in his work. And he met his perfect partner in Junior Byles, a talent in need of a harness. Together, they produced music that was special, and is well and truly presented on this disc.
Beat Down Babylon is a superb document. It exhaustively showcases the work of a partnership of two of Jamaica’s best talents. One went on to enjoy an innovative career at the cutting edge of the island’s music, the other sadly encountered more than his fair share of personal difficulties. However we can hope that this collection finds its way into the homes of many a music lover, as it will improve the life of anyone who is prepared to open their ears to the voice, song writing quality and innovative production at a time when roots reggae was really finding its feet.
❉ Junior Byles: ‘Beat Down Babylon’ 2CD (DBCDD060) is released July 10, 2020, by Doctor Bird/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.