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Published: 2001/11/21
by Jesse Jarnow

By Special Request: 18 Top Rock-Steady & Reggae Classics – various artists

Heartbeat Records 11661-7729-2
Rock-steady works – literally, at that – as a median between the sweet
British and American pop of the 1950s and the politically conscious
pioneering reggae of the early 1970s. Like early American rock, there is a
sense of tenderness that almost entirely disappeared once a self-reflective
voice had been developed. "By Special Request" is a collection of single
sides produced by Duke Reid and released on his True Isle Records label in
the late 1960s and featuring a revolving band of session musicians.
Singles collections capture a peculiar historical mood, a cross-section of a
certain time or place. Not belonging to an album, a single needs some kind
of other grounding — a song loose in the cultural atmosphere, free to be
used for a variety of purposes. A song is inherently freer than an album,
self-contained and artful in quite a different way. Its beginning must be
stronger, its structure tighter. Since these are all songs of the same
genre, they follow many of the same rules: a quick-snap drum-roll intro,
relaxed rhythm, and a gliding chorus. The lyrics are occasionally topical,
though not political.
For a white kid in Brooklyn, it’s impossible – even with any amount of liner
note deconstruction and analysis – to really get a sense of what these
records meant at the time they were made, and how people perceived the
music. It is clear, at any rate, that they were not made for the kind of
listening we expect of pop music today. It’s not just that they cut across
boundaries, but that the boundaries don’t exist at all in a way that is only
possible during the early stages of a subculture’s development.

Liner notes often ask the reader to consider himself to be at the music’s
point of origin, as if that were the only way to understand what the music
means. An approach like that may well describe what the music meant to the
people who made it, but if I put it on in my apartment, and sound comes out
of my speakers, it will affect me in an unconscious way, no matter
how much historical information I have at my disposal. This music is
uplifting and relaxing and wonderful. Listening to the gliding chorus of
You Can’t Stop Me – "she makes me happyyyyyyyy, when I am blue" – is
so perfectly pleasing, like a gently rising pocket of sweet, warm air. By
Special Request is a day of that.

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