Thirty years into his career as a reggae singer, Horace Andy has hit paydirt, writes Sean O’Hagan
IN 1991, I travelled to Jamaica with Massive Attack to film a video for the single, ‘Hymn of the Big Wheel’, sung by the veteran reggae vocalist Horace Andy. The video was never released, but the trip was a salutary one, not least because, during our sojourn in Kingston, we made a pilgrimage to the legendary Studio One label HQ on Brentford Road. There, in a dusty back room, littered with master tapes of everyone from Bob Marley to Dennis Brown, we listened as Horace Andy talked us through his earliest days as a young, struggling singer. Jackie Mittoo’s keyboard stood untended in one corner, and an old-fashioned microphone hung from the ceiling of a booth where Horace had laid down live vocals for classic songs like ‘Skylarking’ and ‘Every Tongue Shall Tell’, usually in one take. It was a glimpse of musical history, reflected through the eyes of a survivor.
Nearly 30 years on from his Brentford Road apprenticeship, Horace Andy, alone of all the great reggae singers of the early seventies, has not just survived, but has reinvented himself as a player at the vanguard of 90s musical adventurism. His signature falsetto, fragile yet strong, is now an integral part of the Massive Attack’s sound, his spiritually uplifting songs often providing a counterpoint to his cohorts’ increasingly dark musings. Skylarking: The Best of Horace Andy has already appeared oh Massive’s Melankolic label; now comes Living in the Flood, the first album of new Andy material in over a decade.
Recorded at Tuff Gong, Bob Marley’s Kingston studio, Living in the Flood is a crafted and often intriguing outing, an album that stays close to the musical template laid down by Studio One all those years ago. Unlike many of his contemporaries, and nearly all his successors, Horace Andy never cut his chops on the Jamaican sound system scene, where singers often had to compete with both declamatory toasters — the precursors of today’s rappers — and ear-splitting bass and treble heavy rhythms. But in the late 60s, singers arriving for recording auditions were expected to have one or more songs fully formed in their heads, and be able to produce it almost as soon as the studio band formed a rudimentary grasp of the melody and rhythm.
This baptism of fire has stood Horace Andy in good stead: he still writes catchy melodies and, like all Jamaican singers, his subject-matter remains constant: spiritual paeans to Rastafarianism interspersed with romantic eulogies to, as one title here has it, the ‘Girl of My Dreams’. The one exception here is, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘Doldrums’, a track written by Robert “3D” Del Naja from Massive Attack, which, as its title suggests, touches on the broody introspection that has characterised much of their later work. Alongside the opener, ‘After All’, a beautifully intimate love song carried on a lilting melodica accompaniment reminiscent of Augustus Pablo, it is probably the strongest track on the album. A close contender, though, is ‘Johnny Too Bad’, a rewrite of an older song concerning the antics of the ubiquitous Jamaican “rude boy”, initially recorded by Lone Ranger, and here graced by some weird and wonderful twanging guitar straight out of the Sergio Leone school of atmospherics. The title track was co-written by Joe Strummer, and evinces a sense of both biblical and a pre-millennial uneasiness.
Shorn of the rumbling, multi-layered , backdrop that might have undercut Living in the Flood had Massive Attack been involved in producing it, the album is an understated, crafted collection that shows off Andy’s singular singing style to full effect and provides further illustration of his pedigree as a roots reggae singer in an emphatically grassroots style. An album, then, for both the curious and the faithful.
© Sean O’Hagan, The Guardian, 22 October 1999