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Scabrous Birdseed
02-02-2003, 22:45:10
I had to write a review of a classic album for this issue, due to lack of material. Oh well.

As usual posted here in case of interest.

Itís not really surprising that a country whose contributions to the vocabulary of music include the seamless mixing of records, superstar DJs and 12" singles has a musical culture almost completely centered around dancing. The Jamaican recording industry was right from the start set up by, operating for and making the vast majority of its profits from sound systems, vast roving clubs trying to capture a fickle public by always hovering at the very cutting edge of creativity.

In 1966, after a decade of being virtually always eclipsed by rival "Coxsone" Dodd, Duke Reidís sound system and record company Treasure Isle hit the big time. He was the first to latch onto Rocksteady, the sound that would turn out to totally dominate the next two years and be the backdrop to Jamaicaís most frantic creative spurt ever.

For small-time Ska trio The Paragons the new style came as a godsend. John Holtís vocals were perfectly suited to the dark, wistful desperation of the Rocksteady performance, and the slower style meant his wildest vocal-harmony dreams could be fully realised. Together with studio band The Supersonics (whose complex arrangements and melodic Rocksteady basslines made them the best backing unit in town), The Paragons recorded an astounding run of classic hits, crushing all competition until the onslaught of Reggae and Holtís solo ambitions forced them to stop eighteen months later.

On The Beach With The Paragons, easily the best Rocksteady album ever recorded, collected the cream of the first ten or so months of this onslaught. That single B-Side and album filler "Tide Is High" has managed to so competely monopolise what little public attention there is seems grossly unfair- practically every track on here equals or surpasses it in depth and musical nous, if unable to reach the heights of its violin-driven production genius.

Take that singleís A-Side, "Only a Smile"- has anyone, except possibly Morrisey, been able to depict self-mocking despair so ably? Holtís lyrics implore us to believe that the girl whoís just shattered him completely was nothing but a flashy smile, his tone of voice constantly betraying him. The title track plunges even deeper into underlying depression territory, begging you to come to the beach and party while society decays somewhere in the background. The subtlety of expression is remarkable.

(That track also has the distinction of having been the first to be versioned, i.e. released with a featureless instrumental as a B-side, after sound system genius Mr. Midnight got hold of the backing track by mistake and used it for impromptu mix sessions. Without this accident, neither Hip-Hop or Dance would exist as we know them today, but thatís another story.)

If youíre new to the world of The Paragons, Jet Setís 1999 reissue has everything you need to access this forgotten classic. With four bonus tracks comprising the cream of their second Treasure Isle effort, it is the only Jamaican album that would make my personal top ten any day. Remarkable.