1978: Culture / Harder Than The Rest

by J A Gray

Harder Than The Rest

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about reggae.  You may have noticed in previous chapters, under the “other nominations” heading, that the occasional reggae album has been showing up, but so far ever the bridesmaid and never the bride.  Well that really has to stop when it comes to Culture.

What an incredible phenomenon reggae has proved to be.  That the music of a poverty-stricken Caribbean island nation like Jamaica could have captured the hearts and feet of people from all over the world is remarkable.  That it did so long before ‘world music’ became a hip specialist interest of Western music lovers says much about both its power and its accessibility.  The rhythm can’t be denied.  And when that rhythm is coupled with first-rate songwriting talent then it becomes unstoppable.

I’m trying to recall when I first became aware of reggae.  I remember Eric Clapton having a hit with his cover of I Shot The Sheriff in 1974.  I remember seeing a copy of Marley’s Live! LP at the home of some friends of the family, but I didn’t get to hear it at the time.  Marley himself occasionally performed on Top Of The Pops later in the 70s, and I saw Desmond Dekker and Althea & Donna on there too.  But most of what I was hearing wasn’t made by Jamaican reggae performers, it was made by British whites who were adding reggae grooves to their rock music.  I was guilty of buying 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday.  And I lapped up The Police’s first two LPs on which they cleverly combined reggae verses with rock choruses.  And The Clash succeeded brilliantly in blending reggae with punk and making it their own.  Later still I enjoyed UB40’s early records (I swear they were pretty good in the years before Red Red Wine), but I still felt horribly out of my depth when it came to the real thing.  Most white Brits from the sticks were the same – we knew Bob Marley, and maybe a handful of other UK chart hits, but that was all.  Jamaican reggae was a whole new world, and I didn’t have a map.

In the early 80s, Marcus, his University days now behind him, moved down to London and shared a flat with a college friend called Nick Hogg.  They lived just up the road from Brixton, in a place called Stockwell.  I went down to visit them a few times, and it was a bit of an eye opener for me.  I was still a sixth-former, living a comfortable life with my parents up in Yorkshire.  Stockwell was pretty gnarly.  It didn’t even manage much in the way of inner-city glamour.  Nick was quite a character.  He had slightly chubby cheeks and a permanent quizzical scowl which managed to make him look both cute and deeply confused at the same time.  You didn’t know whether to hug him or tease him.  Marcus opted for the latter, and would amuse himself silly by spinning increasingly elaborate puns based on Nick’s somewhat unfortunate surname.  Marcus would call Nick “The Porcine One”, tell him it was time he “brought home the bacon”, or quip “don’t bring me your truffles, Hogg, I’ve got truffles of my own”.  Poor Nick would get quite exasperated and be visibly needled, but tried his best to bear this with good grace, and shoot back a few one-liners of his own.  But Marcus would smile the self-satisfied smile of a man who knew he held the trump card – Nick’s surname would always prove to be his Achilles’ Trotter.*

Most of the time though they rubbed along pretty well.  I remember the three of us taking walks down to the local shop to stock up on Red Stripe beer and the jelly sugar-covered dummy sweets that Nick and I became obsessed with.  Nick would be wearing his leather coal man’s jacket which was so beat up that it was hanging off him – the sleeves weren’t actually supposed to be detachable.  Marcus would be wearing a pair of desert boots that flapped open at the front.  These were not wealthy young men.  I followed along like the gawky teenager I still was, lapping up every verbal exchange and trying my best to join in.  Happy days for me.  The sugar dums would be scoffed and the Red Stripe would be drunk and the empty cans would be stacked into a pyramid in the middle of the lounge.  The choice of brand was significant.  Red Stripe is Jamaican.  And, true, Stockwell, like Brixton, catered for the tastes of its sizeable West Indian immigrant community.  But a far greater factor was Nick’s deep and abiding love of reggae music.  Marcus liked reggae well enough (still does), but Nick didn’t listen to anything else.  And he wanted the perfect liquid accompaniment.  Nick called it “getting Striped”.  I remember him playing U-Roy and I-Roy and Dillinger.  I especially remember Dillinger.  The CB200 LP with Cokane In My Brain and Buckingham Palace on it.  I loved those so much I bought the single while I was down there.  Marcus, in turn, played me a compilation of early Black Uhuru 12″ singles called Vital Selection.  I loved that one so much that I got him to send me a tape of it.  I was finally getting a handle on real Jamaican reggae.

And down through the years I’d hear a tune here and there.  Mostly from various artists compilations.  Much more so than rock music, reggae was really about the single.  About getting a single played on a sound system or at a dancehall that then became a local hit.  Maybe even a worldwide hit, thanks to reggae going international in the 70s and 80s.  Most people couldn’t afford LPs in Jamaica.  The earliest reggae albums were pretty slapdash affairs – some hits and some filler in a tacky sleeve, cheap and cheerful.  But when the West started to take notice, things started to change.  By now, certainly in the rock universe, it was all about the album.  If reggae was to take its share of the big money then it would have to adopt the practices of rock.  It’s only been over the last decade or so that I’ve moved beyond buying reggae singles compilations and finally got around to hearing some of these ‘proper’ albums.  I started with The Wailers.  Then I picked up a copy of The Rough Guide To Reggae for more clues.  Before long I had my first Culture album, Two Sevens Clash.

If you’ve only heard one song by Culture, then odds on it’s Two Sevens Clash.  If you’ve only heard one album by them, then it’ll likely be the album of the same name.  And with good reason.  Two Sevens Clash was Culture’s breakthrough hit.  The song picked up on a Marcus Garvey prediction that there would be chaos in the streets of Jamaica on the 7th of July 1977, when “the sevens met”.  Released early in ’77 itself, how could that not be a big hit in a land where Garvey was a huge folk hero?  Especially as the song was dynamite, one of the very best reggae singles of all time.  It was catchy as hell, but still deep roots reggae.  The punks in England picked up on the song too, and it became a cult hit over here too.  And the album proved that Culture weren’t one-trick ponies, containing at least a handful of other songs that could stand shoulder to shoulder with that landmark 45.  Two Sevens Clash is arguably the greatest reggae album of all.  Except maybe for Harder Than The Rest.

Culture were a vocal trio.  Their lead singer and songwriter was Joseph Hill.  Albert Walker and Kenneth Dayes (later replaced by Telford Nelson) sang harmonies.  But Joseph was the star attraction.  If there was any justice, Hill would be celebrated  throughout the world for his talents as a singer, songwriter, arranger and live performer.  But even the phrase “Joseph Hill of Culture” will get you blank looks of incomprehension from even lifelong music fans.  It didn’t help that he didn’t share Marley’s handsome looks – Joseph had a seriously lazy eye that torpedoed any chance of becoming a pin-up.  And, unlike Marley, he never softened his message with occasional secular love songs.  Everything Hill wrote was about Jah Rastafari, or the history of slavery, or suffering and poverty in Jamaica.  There was no compromise with the lyrics.  But, oh, the melodies and the arrangements!  These potentially dry sermons were dressed up in the finest melodies and productions, laden with hooks (but never in a dumb way) and played by the finest Jamaican sessioneers available.  Hill knew how to sweeten his message.

Culture had a phenomenal work rate during the late 70s.  Their earliest recordings were taped during 1976 and 1977 at Joe Gibbs’s studios, with Errol Thompson at the controls.  Hill baulked at the amount of recording they were being asked to do which was preventing them from capitalising on their success in live concerts, and Culture soon left Gibbs’s organisation.  They had recorded so many songs there though that a second album, Baldhead Bridge, was soon cobbled together, which, though it lacked the consistency of their debut LP, still contained more than enough magic to make it an essential listen.**  In 1978 they hooked up with Sylvan Morris at Harry J’s studios, but these sessions were abandoned at the eleventh hour, before the final overdubs and sweetening had been applied.  Much to Hill’s annoyance, this work-in-progress was released anyway as the quasi-bootleg Africa Stand Alone*** – there wasn’t really anyway to police these matters in Jamaica.

The group finally found a home with Sonia Pottinger’s set-up at Treasure Isle studios, with Errol Brown behind the desk.  Joseph Hill claimed that he did the producing and arranging himself during this period, but wasn’t given the credit.  Nevertheless, Culture made three records in quick succession for Pottinger between 1978 and 1979: Harder Than The Rest, Cumbolo, and International Herb.****

Not surprisingly there was some duplication of songs during this period of comings and goings.  Of the ten songs on Harder Than The Rest, six had been essayed at either the Gibbs sessions or the Africa Stand Alone sessions, and two of these had been tried out at both.  In my opinion the versions recorded for Harder Than The Rest were the superior, definitive ones.  That’s not to say that the earlier attempts are without merit – Hill always brought something special to every performance, especially during these formative years – but everything on Harder Than The Rest is so beautifully judged, from the vocals, to the brass, to the percussion.  The album probably wouldn’t be as wonderful as it is if the group hadn’t already recorded those earlier run-throughs – now Joseph knew exactly what he wanted where.  The words were honed to perfection and the rhythm tracks were sublime.  On later albums Culture would continue to revisit older material, but they never got it as right as this again – the songs were still new enough to sound fresh and Hill was still hungry for Culture to take their place in the pantheon of reggae greats.

Anyone hoping that Culture could make another record as righteous as Two Sevens Clash wasn’t to be disappointed.  Album opener Behold kicks things off with the sweetest of brass melodies.  Tell Me Where You Get It is arguably the most insanely catch song they ever recorded – it can’t help to bring a smile even as it laments the suffering of the poor and hungry.  Iron Sharpen Iron and Vacancy are as gritty a pair of roots reggae tunes as you’ll hear, yet still boasting hooks that keep you coming back for more.  Vacancy, furthermore, has to stand as one of the all-time great protest songs.  I can hear it in my head done in all kinds of other styles and still working brilliantly – a song for the ages.  Stop The Fussing And Fighting had ‘big commercial hit’ written all over it – it merely did OK.  Culture never got to be global reggae superstars.  The world’s loss.

As ever with a Culture album though, the greatest joy is in hearing Joseph Hill.  What an expressive singer he was, brimming over with charisma and personality.  His style borrowed a lot from Burning Spear’s Winston Rodney, but so much of what he did was 100% his own.  He didn’t have a sweet voice, but it had a kind of cracked, earthy warmth.  He would get so into a song that he would throw in various ad-libbed phrases, and then play around with variations of melody and harmony in the choruses while Walker and Dayes kept the ball rolling.  No two attempts at a song were ever the same because Joseph was always switched on – he gave himself completely every time he sang.  For my money, there’s not a reggae singer to touch him.  When I hear Joseph Hill sing then chances are I’ll soon be either laughing or crying or both.  He moves me.  It doesn’t matter one iota that I’m not a follower of Haile Selassie or a student of Marcus Garvey, or that I’ve never known what it is to be truly poor or hungry.  It doesn’t even matter when I don’t always fully comprehend his patois or his Old Testament references.  No, it’s the man’s spirit and his conviction and his sense of truth and beauty that get to me, and that’s enough for me to feel that I can tune into his wavelength.  Yes, I confess – I love Joseph Hill.

By the start of the 80s, the golden age of roots reggae was passing.  Around the corner lay digital rhythms and dancehall slackness.  Culture made occasional attempts at keeping up with the changing times, but it didn’t really suit them.  They were really too good for that.  They’ll always be remembered for Two Sevens Clash, and justifiably, but, honestly, just about everything that they recorded during the 70s was magnificent, and Harder Than The Rest may just be the mightiest diamond in the mine.

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* Marcus informs me that it finally got too much for him and he got it changed officially.  I shall withhold the details of his new identity to protect the innocence of a man I remember with much fondness.  I would just like to take this opportunity to present a further tribute to the living legend that used to be called Nick Hogg:-

Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this ton of pork.

** A third album of Gibbs recordings, More Culture, was released a few years later, and even that didn’t drain the well completely.  Can I take this opportunity to recommend the budget-priced Culture At Joe Gibbs 4-disc box set which includes Two Sevens Clash, Baldhead Bridge, More Culture, plus a fourth CD of odds and sods.  It’s possibly the best twelve quid you’ll ever spend.

*** Africa Stand Alone has never been released in its own right on CD, but a 2-disc Culture compilation called Natty Dread Taking Over includes the album in its entirety.

**** A fourth album for Pottinger, Black Rose, was started but was left unfinished when Culture temporarily split up in 1981.

N.B. Harder Than The Rest is currently available, in remastered form, on CD.

My other nominations for 1978 albums of merit:

Television / Adventure

The Stranglers / Black And White

The Rutles

The Rolling Stones / Some Girls

Thin Lizzy / Live And Dangerous

Todd Rundgren / Hermit Of Mink Hollow

Todd Rundgren / Back To The Bars

Neil Young / Comes A Time

The Clash / Give ‘Em Enough Rope

Bob Dylan / Street Legal

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