REVIEW: Easy Star All-Stars’ “Thrillah”

Photobucket With the 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller only a few months ago, there will no doubt be a wealth of celebrations for one of the biggest selling albums of all time. The Easy Star All-Stars have been known for honoring classic albums and groups for a long time, and this time around they cover the entire Thriller album, take it back to Jamaica and return it as Thrillah with a few surprises.

First off, Hawai’i gets representation with The Green, who sit in for “Baby Be Mine”. “The Girl Is Mine” is passed to Mojo Morgan and Steel Pulse, while “Thriller” is extended to over seven minutes with help from Mikey General and Spragga Benz. The great Luciano embraces “Billie Jean”, adds a nice synthy vibe to it and allows listeners to hear it in a new light while retaining its lyrical power.

The biggest surprise is the opening track, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”, as JoWil and Ruff Scott take it into Afrobeat mode and help take the song and the spirit of Michael Jackson back to Africa, as the original intended to do with the Soul Makossa chant. Cas Haley’s approach to “Human Nature” would work as a hit in 2012 if it was pushed, but I’m not sure if mainstream music fans are ready for that kind of echo in the dub. Speaking of dub, “Beat It” is turned into “Dub It” and “Thriller” becomes “Close To Midnight”, and is the case with most dub mixes, you’re allowed to explore the original by entering the echo chamber, or simply enjoy it for what it is.

I wasn’t a fan of the cover of “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”, featuring Kirsty Rock on vocals and it’s not her that’s the program, but the arrangement, which is not that far from the original. At least with these other covers, they are given a reggae, ska, dub, or Afrobeat riddim but… it’s okay but not as exciting as it might be if twisted into something else. It falls flat for me. The rest of Thrillah manages to show how well the songs on Thriller hold up without getting too cheesy, sappy, or overly nostalgic, in fact in steps up on its own. It just so happens to be Michael Jackson songs you’re listening to, so even if you replaced the record, cassette, and CD over the years and have your MP3’s in a folder somewhere, you’ll find this tribute to MJ quite good and I’d like to think he would be honored to hear his songs performed this way.

THE LISTENING EXPERIENCE: Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”

This song is significant for me, for I remember it as a song that goes back to a time when I was light enough to sit on top of a fish tank.

I remember the record vividly: it was a 7″ 45 on Epic Records with the yellow label, which would mean late 60’s/early 70’s. In this case, Johnny Nash‘s “I Can See Clearly Now” was released in September 1972, which means it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The question though is “why were you sitting on a fish tank?” I clearly remember being about 3 or 4 years old when my dad would play music in the living room. During one of those moments, he sat me on the fish tank and he would sing the song. I’d look over and see the record with the yellow label spinning at 45 revolutions per minute. Then he reached to the bridge and started to sing very loud:

look all around, there’s nothing but blue sky
look straight ahead, nothing but blue sky

He looked so happy. I was too young to remember anything else other than the bridge was “his moment” in the song, and he would continue singing about how it would be bright and sun-shiny day. That song has remained in my mind and consciousness from that point on.

At the age of 9, I was already reading Rolling Stone. Some might think “were you reading or just looking at your musical heroes and wishing you were a rock star?” It was a mixture of both. I know I’d look at the concert tour dates and see if any bands were going to perform in Honolulu. Not that I was a frequent concert goer at that age, but the idea that these people I was listening to might be on my island was kinda cool. I remember one year, when they opened a new section of the Pearlridge Shopping Center, they brought in singer (and later actor) Rex Smith, whose sole hit was “You Take My Breath Away”. I was a kid who did listen to my share of pop radio (and it was always AM stations like KKUA-69 and KIKI-83, I hadn’t discovered the wonders of clarity with FM radio just yet), but when I heard Smith was coming to Hawai’i, all I could think was “this guy has Leif Garrett hair, yuck”. He was teeny-bopper, a guy for the girls, he was of no interest to me. Yet I’d keep on reading Rolling Stone in case someone I liked would show up. At the time, I think the only concert I had been to was the last concert Loggins & Messina did in support of their Native Sons album. It was also the first concert I remember going to. I wanted more, and wouldn’t start going to shows on a regular basis until I hit the double digits.

Back to Johnny Nash. Over the years, “I Can See Clearly Now” was simply a song I related to my dad, or at least a song he loved, and I did too. In the early 80’s, with the music of Bob Marley making the rounds in Hawai’i, reggae music was being explored. I had seen photos of Marley in Rolling Stone but he was still alive and was just “the island rocker”, not someone who would gain the kind of praise he would receive after he died in May 1981. I would see the album reviews and if it had a good review, I would log that in my head and think of it as something I might want to listen to. I would also see ads and if it looked interesting, I’d log that as well. One day, my dad said he wanted to test his new cassette deck in his new Cherry Red Karmann Ghia. He was a gearhead, someone who would take me to junk yards for the sake of finding the right car part, and he loved cars. After work, he was probably outside tinkering on his Volkswagen or looking to fix other people’s cars, for fun. He loved VW Bug’s, and for years I used to think a Karmann Ghia was a model of VW. I figured eh, they’re German, must be the same. But, when my dad saved enough to buy a Karmann Ghia, he cherished it. Anyway, he wanted some new cassettes and I clearly remember going to Records Hawai’i, a record store that was across the street from Ala Moana Shopping Center, and him asking the cashier how he wanted to buy some new reggae albums on cassette. The guy suggested Bob Marley, and wanting to feel like I was “the big boy”, I told my dad “don’t get him, everyone listens to him. Buy Third World‘s Rock The World and Steel Pulse‘s True Democracy. Yes, at the age of 11, I was already giving “expert suggestions” on what people should listen to, even though I had not heard either of them myself. My suggestion was based on Rolling Stone‘s praise and ads. My dad looked at the cassettes, he looked at me and said “are you sure?” I told him yes, and he bought them. My dad really loved the groove of Third World’s “Rock The World” and “Standing In The Rain”, but when he opened the Steel Pulse tape, popped it in the deck and the music started, he beamed. The music boomed, and it felt good:

Rejoice, rejoice
good tidings I bring you

When my dad wanted a new tape, it would often mean he would go cruising, or to drive around for an hour or two. This was his “peaceful time” and he would do this on a regular basis, sometimes as a family, but sometimes just me. He would play Side 1 all the time, so while I didn’t know all of the words just yet, I would remember the sequence of “Chant A Psalm”, “Ravers”, “Find It…Quick!”, “A Who Responsible?”, and a song that would become my favorite song on the album, “Rally Round”. As a kid, I became aware of politics from some of the things I had learned from hearing John Lennon and some of his songs, and the idea of preaching and living peace was something that has stayed with me to this day. However, I was not aware about the “red, gold, black and green”, so it was through this song I learned that:

red for the blood that flows like the river
green for the land Africa
yellow for the gold that the stole
black for the people they looted from

The song spoke on how people were held captive, but for some reason the line “I and I patience have now longtime gone” had spoken louder than anything else in the song. Back then, I had learned about the struggles of Hawaiians throughout history, and some of what I had learned seemed to relate to Steel Pulse as well. Side 2 would be played, and then the album would play “Dub Marcus Say”, which was just an instrumental of “Rally Round” but with various words isolated and echoed. This would be the first time I had ever heard a “dub” version of a song, and I would actually mimic the way the voices would cut off and echo into the unknown. You might catch me going “wit’… (wit wit wit wit)” and what I also loved was that the song turned up the bass significantly, it was just basically drum and bass. I ate that up like crazy. For a year, Rock The World and True Democracy became two of my dad’s favorite albums, and for years I used to think that it was I who introduced my dad to reggae. I felt good about this.

Years later, “I Can See Clearly Now” came on the radio and at the time I was doing a bit more research on reggae music. I loved ska too but on a much lower level. I grew up at a time when there was a ska revival in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Due to bands like The Police, Madness, and The Specials, ska was pushed as being “white man’s reggae”, as in “white people are playing reggae and this is how it is interpreted.” I had not been aware that ska actually came before reggae, nor was I aware that a lot of bands who were doing ska in the late 70’s/early 80’s had heard them from the first wave of groups who made them famous, as they were either imported from Jamaica from expatriates or pressed by British labels with the growing Jamaican population, which would in turn create a craving for ska, rock steady, and reggae that remains in the UK five decades later. Eventually I read some information about “I Can See Clearly Now” and it was then that I realized for the first time that the song was in fact a reggae song, or at least a song that was on the thin line between ska and reggae. As a kid, I was not aware of reggae music and it was then I realized oh wait: my dad has been a fan of ska and reggae far longer than I assumed. Perhaps my suggestion of Third World and Steel Pulse was “in the cards”, I’ll never know.

Yet away from genre classification, “I Can See Clearly Now” is my first introduction to the music of Jamaica. I’ve been fascinated with the music and culture of Jamaica for a long time, and it is a place that is very high on my list of countries I want to visit.

My dad died at a time when I was only a few months away from becoming a teen, so I often think how I missed at those “essential times” I could’ve shared with him, the transformation of boy to man, to have the kind of discussions I could never get from my mom. However, I think of the music he would often play and how they may have been subtle messages for me. The lyrics to “I Can See Clearly Now” is about someone who may be going through a down time in their life, and how if one gets through “all the obstacles in my way”, they will eventually see the sunshine. The last time I was home was in 2000, and before I arrived, Honolulu were going through a few days of rain. Upon arrival, the clouds cleared up and there was sun for the whole week. I had done an online diary and at the end I had thanked my dad for making the skies blues for me and my family. Afterwards, I was afraid that it would be interpreted as something spiritual in nature, but in truth it was a Johnny Nash reference and the link the song has with my dad.

The song would be very helpful for me when I went through almost two years of having some down time, realizing I was going through some dark clouds. In time I’d find a way to let go of some bullshit and came out of it stronger, with a bit more clarity and acknowledgment of a sun-shiny day.