Explosive Rock Steady (Expanded Version) reviewed

  A terrific album, showcasing the early work of some of Jamaica’s biggest names, now with 46 bonus tracks many new to CD.

Many Jamaican music purists maintain the brief, two-year rock steady era produced the finest sounds from the island. When one considers the calibre of the artists and the quality of the songs issued between 1966-1968, it’s difficult to argue.

One individual at the coalface from the start was Joe Gibbs. He even produced what is widely held to be the ‘first true rock steady record’, Hold Them by Roy Shirley. The original Explosive Rock Steady compilation was issued by Trojan in 1968 and was made up of Joe Gibbs recordings, all issued on his label, Amalgamated Records.

This Doctor Bird collection is built round the original vinyl and contains some of Jamaica’s biggest tunes by some of its most legendary artists. There are forty-six bonus cuts, of which seven are new to CD. Many rare tunes as well as plenty of national and international hits, are also included. The package completed by sleeve notes and period photographs.

Joe went on to produce some of reggae’s biggest records across subsequent decades, such as Two Sevens Clash by Culture and Dennis Brown’s Money In My Pocket. He sadly passed away in 2008, following a heart attack. Joe’s legacy, in being at the very forefront of rock steady, is simply colossal.

The dozen tracks that made up the Explosive Rock Steady compilation open the collection on disc one. A terrific album, it has been unavailable on CD since 1997 so this is an excellent opportunity to update the reggae collections of anybody who missed out since.

The barnstorming I’m Moving On by Keith Blake gets things under way. Keith’s recordings were limited, and all his work on Amalgamated is showcased here. Hurray! It’s a pity he didn’t record more.

The Pioneers feature heavily. On nearly half of the cuts, in fact. Long Shot is their ode to a successful racehorse and is the prequel to the worldwide smash Long Shot Kick De Bucket. It’s a classic track as is the urban mento of their collaboration with Errol Dunkley, Miss Tourist. The partnership is renewed once more on the superb swoop of Love Love Every Day, which closed side one of the original vinyl. A cheery (can the Pioneers be anything else?) slice of rock steady, aimed at the teen market. Wonderful.

A real standout is Cool Sticky’s deejay reading of The Ethiopians’ Last Train To Skasville, entitled Train To Soulsville. Sticky was one of the very first toasters, and the inclusion of this cut balances the LP nicely.

The aforementioned rock steady landmark, Hold Them by Roy Shirley, is present in all its glory – a necessary inclusion given the record’s status. The Versatiles, the vocal group who had Junior Byles in their original ranks, contribute the lively, bustling Push It In. Errol Dunkley, who like The Pioneers, has been the subject of a recent Doctor Bird collection, closes the original LP with his huge Jamaican hit single, Love Brother, Love Sister.

Things get interesting with the bonus tracks. These take up the rest of the two-disc collection and are some forty-six in number. Included are absolute solid gold classics like I Am The Upsetter, by Lee ‘King’ Perry – his title prior to taking the ‘Scratch’ moniker.

Errol Dunkley has three tracks, including his very early hit, Your Gonna Need Me. Errol was not much more than a boy when he made this recording with Gibbs in 1967, rivalling Delroy Wilson as Jamaica’s biggest ‘child star’. Other island smashes, The Scorcher and I’m Going Home, are featured.

Keith Blake’s other hit for Gibbs Musically again leaves me wondering why the partnership didn’t release more material. The Versatiles’ You Just Can’t Win has fantastic, almost ethereal harmonies that fit the mood of the lyric. The Overtakers swoon-some That’s The Way You Like It will lift any collection and does so here. A great cut, with a heartfelt delivery of a heart-breaking tale of lost love. The vocal harmony group appear again later with Girl You Ruff.

Two tracks new to CD are present on disc one, The Leaders’ Someday, Someway and Lord Salmons’ Great Great in ’68.

Disc two continues in a similar vein, only with more cuts new to CD. The Leaders again are featured. They were a bit of a supergroup, with Roy Shirley and Ken Boothe both members, the trio completed by Joe White. Hope Someday has delicious, mournful harmonies with nice vibrato in places. The vocal group have a second number, the more up-beat and chirpy, even, especially given the title and subject matter – Sometimes I Sit Down And Cry. 

The Creations also have two tracks new to CD on the second disc. A vocal duo comprising of Ossie Henry and Barry York, they were active during the rock steady era and immediately after and issued a small clutch of 45s for Joe Gibbs. Meet Me At Eight has a meandering feel, with Searching raw and pleading for the protagonist’s girl.

The remaining cuts new to CD feature one Victor Morris. Both sides of his only 45 feature, Now I’m All Alone and Fall And Rise.

Elsewhere look out for a young Lee ‘King’ Perry once more. His fragile, soulful voice is usually overlooked in favour of his amazing production contributions, but get your ears around the delicious, gentle rock steady shove of Thank You Baby. Scratch (or ‘King’) has one more track, the brilliant, individual Kimble. It is full of the Perry touches, whip cracks and so forth, we went on to know and love. Furthermore, check out the instrumental version of I Am The Upsetter, by Lyn Taitt and The Jets, which closes the disc.

The early recordings of child star Errol Dunkley are again wonderful – the disc kicks off with Please Stop Your Lying, and the quality of the wonderkid’s voice is even better on Seek And You’ll Find. And there’s more, deeper into the collection.

Other highlights include the criminally underrated The Versatiles, with Trust The Book and the joyous The Time Has Come. And Roy Shirley – the man who released that first rock steady song back in 1966. His track The World Needs Love really showcases his unique voice, with its range being tastefully exploited. Cinderella by Eric Morris is based on the Caribbean folk tune, Brown Girl In The Ring. As covered by Boney M. If that don’t make you want to give this collection a whirl, nothing will.

There are over forty tracks added to the original Explosive Rock Steady by Doctor Bird. Consequently, we have an item full of historical reference. It showcases the early work by Jamaica’s biggest names as well as being true testament to the musical production of Joe Gibbs.

 Various Artists: ‘Explosive Rock Steady’ 2CD Expanded Original Album (Doctor Bird DBCDD082) released 10 September 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

 Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

Paul Matts is a writer from Leicestershire, England. His debut novel, Toy Guitars, was published in July 2021 by New Generation Publishing. Other works include the novella Donny Jackal and short stories Revenge Can Be Sweet and One More Season. Paul is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punk Globe, Punk Noir and Something Else magazines, specialising in punk and Jamaican music. Occasionally, he dabbles in other genres too. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/.

Become a patron at Patreon!