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Posted October 1, 2010
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A Reggae "Sgt. Pepper"? Perhaps!
When Perry Hanzell released his movie "The Harder They Come" in 1972, it became one of those unexpected, watershed films that struck a nerve in those who saw it. Here was a movie that not only captured the hard-luck living of Jamaicans just as they achieved their independence but it also featured a pulsating soundtrack that fully encapsuled that time. It encapsuled it very much the way "Sgt. Pepper" did with The Summer Of Love. The soundtrack album of that movie, now available in Universal's Deluxe Edition, makes it clear that this was certainly the case and like "Sgt. Pepper", there isn't a bad song on the record.
The movie and the soundtrack made a major star out of Jimmy Cliff as his character sturggled to make a living as a singer in the urban jungle of Kingston only to be trapped by bad luck and hard circumstance and to eventually end up on the run as a murderer. Cliff's songs, particularly the title track, tell that story well even after all these years. So do the tunes by Toots and The Maytals ("Pressure Drop") and Desmond Dekker ("007 Shanty Town"). My favorite song is "Johnny Too Bad", written and performed by The Slickers, in which their message of the dangers of criminal life were amplified when one of the members of that group killed another and ended up in prison.
Since this is a Universal Deluxe Edition, there is also a second disc featuring a wealth of other great reggae tunes. Some of them are by Cliff, such as the profoundly sad "Vietnam". Some of them are by Dekker, like his wonderful signature song, "The Israelites". Some of them are by Toots, including his brilliant "54-46 (That's My Number)". Yet, there are also some excellent choice tunes here, such as Eric Donaldson's "Cherry Oh Baby", later covered by UB-40 and The Rolling Stones. There is even an alternate take of the title song listed as "The Bigger They Come, The Harder They Fall".
Many words have been used to describe the influence and impact that this album had on American culture at the time. However, it's important to keep in mind that this came out the same time that Bob Marley was becoming a Third World superstar, releasing "Catch A Fire", another sensational album from Universal Deluxe Edition. As soulful, catchy and swinging as this album is, it's easy to forget what an impression this beautiful and timeless soundtrack has become. Fortunately, this deluxe edition reminds us about that, too.
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