Sunday, September 13, 2015

“Up above my head"

"I hear music in the air..."

I love to explore chains of influence in music, especially by going on "version excursions", tracking a song through different versions over the years, across genres and continents. Jamaican music is all tangled up in such chains of versions - partly, I suppose, because copyright has never been enforced in Jamaica the way it has been in North America, but mainly because the audience for Jamaican music delights in "version" as the audience for jazz delights in standards.

As do I. For me, versions are a great way to learn about music - all kinds of music, because these excursions do not always travel along obvious and predictable lines. Unexpected genres sidle up to each other in surprising ways. It's hard to tell why songs get covered worldwide, over and over, by many different musicians, but they're certainly getting easier to access. Via YouTube, the chains of songs I'll be able to post for you on this site could get quite extensive. If each new version has something interesting to contribute to the musical imagination, it's good for the excursion. So with your indulgence, we can listen and compare.

Now, if we think about it logically, a version excursion should proceed mostly in chronological order, starting with the "original" (or as close to an original as can be found), and then it meanders through dubs and covers, re-voices and remixes. But to be true to the process of musical discovery, I must admit that in most cases I've learned about an original only because of a cover version. Or I've heard and loved the dub version before finding the vocal version. Or I learned to appreciate the album mix only after hearing the remix (or, as one remixer put it, the "re-fix"). And I may as well say that the first version explorations I ever embarked on were searches, back in the 1970s and 80s (i.e. before the internet!) for the originals of the three reggae songs covered by the Clash:  Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves", Toots & the Maytals' "Pressure Drop" and Willi Williams' "Armagideon Time".  (More on all that some other time.)

So on this first version excursion here on Sly Mongoose, I'd like to align the songs for you as I found them - a series of accidental zig-zags. It'll be a reverse-chronological excavation, digging out just a tiny shard of a song. I'm going to focus on a phrase, both lyrical and musical, which I first heard in reggae and dub music, a phrase that originally comes from African-American gospel music. It's a beautiful couplet in its lyric form, and as a song, it has rippled out in all musical directions.

Before I ever noticed that this significant and powerful phrase connects the songs you're about to hear, I was just doing what I do every day, playing the music of my favourite Jamaican (and Jamaica-centric) artists casually and persistently on my home stereo. It's the best!

Let's get to it ~ backwards version excursion ~ go!

Adrian Sherwood
"Dennis Bovine, Parts 1 & 2" 
[NB: violin by Filip Tavares #reggaewithstrings #dubwithstrings]
Becoming A Cliché / Dub Cliché (Real World, 2006)

The song title is obviously a pun on the name of the great British reggae guitarist, bassist, and producer Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell, and the subtitle "(Tribute to Blackbeard)" makes it clear that this is an homage and not a put-down. When you get out the magnifying glass to read the credits in the liner notes, you see that the vocals are credited to Dennis Bovell himself.

"Part 1" opens with a Tarzan yell and the mesmerizing vocal kicks right in, a reggae-inflected rendition of the significant phrase:

"Up above my head, I hear music everywhere
Coming dreader than dread, I feel the rhythm everyday"

When I first heard "Dennis Bovine", I didn't remember the source song ("Music In The Air") and how it's Bovell that's singing it. Not that it was all that hard to track down; I just didn't remember.

Bovell is fairly prolific as a musician and producer. He's released a few albums in his own name, and under the name Blackbeard (the great I Wah Dub, 1980), some of which I used to have on home-recorded cassettes. (!) His work that I know and love the best, and bought on vinyl in the olden days, is his work as a producer with The Pop Group and the Slits, and his bass playing on and co-production of Linton Kwesi Johnson's albums. Such great records!

But before he did any of that, Dennis Bovell played guitar and sang in the late 70s British reggae group Matumbi. He sings lead vocals on "Music In The Air". I was never a big fan of Matumbi; I preferred my reggae rootsier and harder, especially back then. But "Music In The Air" is a really good song.

It was originally released as a 12" single in 1977 on the Matumbi Music Corp. label. I've never seen it. I encountered the song because it was included on the Matumbi album called Seven Seals (Harvest, 1978), which I used to play on college radio back in the 80s. Pictured below in the video is the label of Matumbi's 1979 U.S. release Point of View, which also featured "Music In The Air", this time as the second last track on the album.

"Music In The Air"
Point of View (EMI, 1979)

Up above I head, I hear music in the air 
(I hear music in the air)
Up above I head, I hear music in the air 
(I hear music in the air)
Up above I head, I hear music in the air 
(I hear music in the air)
And it makes I believe
I said it makes I believe
I really do believe
There is a Zion somewhere
I must enter Zion someday

Up above I head, I hear singing in the air 

(I hear singing in the air)
Up above I head, I hear singing in the air 
(I hear singing in the air)
Way up above I head, I-man hear singing in the air 
(I hear singing in the air)
And it makes I believe
I said it makes I believe
That's why I believe
I'll enter Zion someday
I must enter Zion someday

Once I found the source of the phrase in Matumbi, I foolishly thought that I'd come to the "original" version, and I was proud of my accomplishment.

And then one fine night, while hanging out at home with some friends, surrounded by my beloved records, I was playing Adrian Sherwood's Becoming A Cliché, as is my wont. When the song "Dennis Bovine, Part 1" started up, my friend Jim, who's really not a reggae or dub fan, heard that phrase and said: "That's Sister Rosetta Tharpe." He had identified the "original".

Click play for the revelation:

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
"Up Above My Head There Is Music In The Air"
Gospel Train (Mercury, 1956)

What a song! What a voice! What an electric guitar sound! Of course Jim, who is an adept of early rock'n'roll, knew this memorable singer and guitarist that I'd never heard of before. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of the largely unsung (!) but vitally important foremothers of popular music.

Quick clicks over to Wikipedia reveal that the original version of "Up Above My Head" is actually a duet that Rosetta did with Marie Knight, back in the 1940s, supposedly before there even was rock'n'roll officially.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight 
"Up Above My Head" 
(Decca, 1949)

Propelling our version excursion onwards, here are four more renditions. Two of them follow the dual lead vocal style of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, trading repeating lines. "Poor old" Johnnie Ray is paired with Frankie Laine, and 20-year-old Rod "The Mod" Stewart back and forths with Long John Baldry in a rousing version. In 1964, New Orleans trumpeter Al "The Round Mound of Sound" Hirt sings lead and really swings his trumpet solo. And then, Elvis "The Pelvis" Presley includes it in a 1968 gospel medley (of which the link below provides only the 44 seconds when he's actually singing "Music In The Air".

Once you immerse yourself in the glory of this song, you may just start to hear it all over the place... up above your head... in the air. You may soon start to recognize it everywhere:

The Trammps
"Disco Inferno" 
(Atlantic, 1976)

At about 2 minutes, 23 seconds in:

"Up above my head I hear music in the air (I hear music!)
That makes me know there's a party somewhere!"

So sweet! So profane! So 70s! "Satisfaction came in a chain reaction!"

Next stop on this excursion is up in the air, yet-to-be determined as a true version... it has only half the musical phrase, with none of the lyrics, but... could this be a version of "Up Above My Head" too?
Beastie Boys, featuring Santigold
"Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win"
HotSauceCommitteePart Two (Capitol, 2011)

A good version excursion never really ends. Another link in the chain is bound to turn up.

1 comment:

  1. A great thread to follow. I just love this kind of thing.