Parts of this article originally appeared in Reggae Report By Lee O'Neill
Heartland Reggae is one of a small handful of definitive videos on reggae. It's a more or less haphazard affair, offering a snapshot of reggae ca. 1978 but that snapshot manages to tell us more about the essential nature of reggae than almost any other video/cinematic attempt before or since. It doesn't achieve the same metaphoric heights of, say, The Harder They Come, but I would be hard pressed to suggest any other video that cuts to the heart of the matter deeper than Heartland Reggae.
Heartland Reggae offers footage of an outdoor concert featuring Dennis Brown, Althea & Donna and Junior Tucker and some indoor footage of U Roy and Bob Marley and the Wailers. For me, the soul of the film is in the contrast between Marley and Miller. The footage of Marley is dark, ill defined and almost claustrophobic. His singing is extraordinary, but also extraordinarily tight. This is truly revolutionary stuff, but the revolution is occurring on intellectual and psychological levels that aren't easily accessed.
On the other hand, when Jacob Miller dances across the stage with a spliff in his mouth and a policeman's hat on his head, his belly and B cup tits bouncing in rhythm to the Lewis Brothers' "Soul Rebel" groove, he is making a truly obvious and public revolutionary statement, Who's to say whether Marley's intellectual/psychological challenge was more or less revolutionary than Miller's comical social/cultural one? Not me, but the very fact that this issue exists puts both Marley and Miller in a different light than the one we usually see them from the 21st century.
From our contemporary perspective, Bob Marley defines modern reggae. Yet in the mid-to-late 1970's, when Marley was creating the music that has defined his legacy, Miller was clearly the more popular and influential artist in Jamaica. What does that say about Marley, Miller and us? In the 1978 One Love Peace Concert, Marley's performance has been recorded on video and his the moment when he brought Edward Seaga and Michael Manley on stage to hold hands is legendary. It is important to remember, however, that Miller and Inner Circle headlined over Marley and Miller brought gang leaders Claudie Massop and Tony "Tek Life" Welch on stage to hold hands, perhaps an even greater feat than Marley's.
Does this mean that I am advocating an analysis of reggae that lessens the impact of Bob Marley? Not on your life - Bob Marley is one of the most important artists on any genre in the last century. On the other hand, to equate the development of reggae with the music of Bob Marley is to overlook the real nature of Jamaican music and for several years in the 1970's, Jacob Miller defined Jamaican music. It's as simple as that.
OK, now that we've set the stage of this discussion by referring to a movie, I think that it's only fair that we go to a different movie to get started. Rockers is generally seen as the great follow-up to the classic The Harder They Come, a comedy set in the late 1970s and featuring many of reggae's hottest artists as actors. Miller is one of the stars and his performance is hilarious - a scene where he goes ballistic when Horsemouth Wallace tries to eat some of Miller's lunch is magnificent. Miller plays himself and he and the Inner Circle band are the house band in a ritzy tourist hotel. That's where the real Inner Circle started - playing for tourists on Jamaica's north coast.
The earliest edition of Inner Circle included brothers Ian and Roger Lewis, Ibo Cooper, Cat Coore, Willy Stewart and Bunny "Rugs" Clarke. They played hotels, nightclubs and resorts, offering cover versions of American pop and soul hits to tourists and Jamaicans out for a night on the town. This particular Inner Circle probably didn't produce any recordings although it is possible that some of the songs on the early Trojan records may have featured this lineup.
In 1973-4, Cooper and Coore left to form Third World. Clarke recorded some material for Lee Perry and he and Stewart joined them in 1976 when their lineup was revamped for their second LP, but that leads us into a different story. It was about this time that keyboard ace Bernard "Touter" Harvey became a member of Inner Circle and they hooked up with the great Jacob Miller.
Miller had made some undistinguished records with Clement Dodd's Studio One as a youth but was fresh from a session with Augustus Pablo that was nothing short of brilliant. Collected and reissued as Who Say Jah No Dread (Greensleeves, 1993), these songs could arguably be called the beginning of the rockers era. Pablo himself was just getting his career started, with a handful of songs (including the haunting, innovative "Java" and the extraordinary This Is Augustus Pablo LP that followed) that were creating an entirely new vocabulary for instrumental and dub reggae. On Who Say Jah No Dread, Pablo assembled six classic minor key arrangements that almost define the musical concept of dread. For each track, Miller sings an intense, if generally undisciplined and unsophisticated vocal and his vocal is followed by a dub track mixed by the legendary King Tubby. In a sense, Miller's contributions to this amazing album are almost incidental but this is probably the very best album that features Jacob Miller. In any case, it is one of a small handful of absolutely essential reggae albums.
The first Inner Circle records were made for Trojan and reflected the stage band roots of the band. The songs on Dread Reggae Hits (Top Ranking, 1973), Heavy Reggae (Top Ranking, 1974), Rock the Boat (Trojan, 1974), Blame It On the Sun (Trojan, 1975), Barry Biggs and Inner Circle (Trojan, 1977), Killer Rides Again (VP, 1976), Jacob Miller with Inner Circle & Augustus Pablo (Lagoon, 1990) and I & I & I (16C, 1997) are the products of a band who have not yet found their groove. The playing is always professional but not always exciting and Miller's singing is wildly inconsistent. The material is equally erratic. On Barry Biggs and Inner Circle, for example, the LP consists of six songs by Barry Biggs, then the hottest MOR singer on Trojan's roster, Inner Circle covers of Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, MFSB and Peter Tosh songs and one magnificent original, "Forward Jah Jah Children." The other collections are almost but not quite as strange. There is a lot of duplication among them and no one set can be considered definitive, although Rock the Boat probably comes closest.
Songs like "Forward Jah Jah Children," extraordinary live performances and some excellent Jamaican 45's led to a contract with Capitol records and the beginning of a most confusing recording legacy. Jacob Miller, produced and accompanied by Inner Circle became one of the hottest and most important artists of the 1970's in Jamaica with dozens of hit singles and a succession of powerful albums. Inner Circle, with Jacob Miller as lead singer, made an increasingly lame series of albums for international labels. From the perspective of the 1990's, it appears that when Inner Circle/Jacob Miller played in a pure, hot rockers style they made truly great music. When they experimented with rock, soul, slick production and funk they fell short, but that's a bit of an oversimplification.
The Miller material has been packaged and repackaged several times. They include Dread Dread (first on United Artists on 1978 and later on Liberty), Reggae Greats: Jacob Miller (Mango, 1985), Greatest Hits (1977), Jacob "Killer" Miller (1978) and Natty Xmas (1978) (all originally on Top Ranking and reissued on RAS), Collector's Classic (drawn from the RAS reissues) and Wanted (Top Ranking, 1978. All have the kind of tough, wicked rhythms in which the Lewis Brothers specialized along with Miller's intensely energetic voice but the newcomer must beware of heavy duplication among these sets.
When comparing this material to the Augustus Pablo or the show band recordings, the biggest difference comes from Miller's singing. The tracks are deep, heavy and taut but Miller himself is utterly untethered. With the possible exception of Toots Hibbert, I can't think of any reggae singer who pours more energy into a song and Hibbert's singing remains very much in the pentecostal/revival tradition. I don't know what tradition spawned Miller, but you might think of Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Roy Shirley and John Belushi in Animal House as touchpoints.
What made these recordings so amazing is that Inner Circle provided exactly the right bed for Miller's singing. Ian and Roger Lewis are often overlooked as mid-1970's instrumentalists but the tracks underneath Miller's histrionics are as hard and sleek as stainless steel sculptures and they have the drive of a high-speed train. They (and the rest of the band) may be more or less anonymous, but it's the kind of anonymity that recalls NASA - nobody knows who engineered those rockets, but nobody wants to get in their way, either.
By contrast, Inner Circle's Reggae Thing (Capitol, 1976) had several guest musicians including Eddie Money and Neal Schon, inferior remakes of several of the best Jacob Miller/Inner Circle singles and a decided lack of energy and sharpness. The followup, Ready for the World (Capitol, 1977) was more of the same and Inner Circle and Capitol parted company. Their Mango debut, Everything Is Great (Mango, 1979) took a new but no more successful approach. The chosen direction was a reggae-funk fusion and while some of the tracks found the right groove, Miller sounded constrained and except for "We a Rockers" none of the songs were memorable. New Age Music (Mango, 1980) was less of the same.
Miller died in a car accident in 1980 and led many to believe that Inner Circle was finished as well. One of the legacies left behind was a collection of recordings made for Joe Gibbs, the first cuts Miller made without Inner Circle since the Augustus Pablo sessions. Some of the songs ("I'm a Natty," "Shakey Girl") are among Miller's very best. Most of the rest, though, sound unfinished and sketchy. These are collected (with lots of duplication) on Jacob Miller Lives On and I'm Just a Dread. The remaining Inner Circle sessions surfaced as Mixed Up Moods (Top Ranking, 1980) and Unfinished Symphony (Top Ranking, 1980). Mixed Up Moods is clearly superior, but it sounds vaguely conservative and restrained when compared to the group's earlier recordings. The quality of the finished Joe Gibbs cuts, when compared to the Inner Circle tracks leads one to conclude that Miller was in the process of changing direction but hadn't quite determined where he was going. It's an interesting, if fruitless, item of speculation.
As for the post Miller Inner Circle, a few dub recordings surfaced as The Fatman Riddim Section in which the Lewis Brothers and Harvey tried to recapture the rockers spirit again. Something So Good (Carrere, 1983) featured a new (uncredited) singer but just couldn't find the right groove.
It wasn't until singer Calton Coffie joined in 1986 that Inner Circle really began to move again. Coffie has a voice that is reminiscent of Bob Marley and, along with new drummer Lancelot Hall, seemed to re-energize the group. One Way (RAS, 1987) was a breath of fresh air in those dancehall dominated days with a thick, energetic sound that was firmly rooted in the rockers style of Inner Circle's glory days. One of the songs from One Way, "Bad Boys," became the theme song for Fox TV's Cops and Inner Circle was launched into the front ranks of international reggae stars, something they never accomplished in their days with Jacob Miller.
Black Roses (RAS, 1990) was the second release of the new Inner Circle and dipped back a bit, showing the band in fine form on several classic covers but stalling on uninspired originals. Bad to the Bone (RAS, 1992) eliminated any doubts as to Inner Circle's talent. "Make U Sweat," "Sunglasses at Nite," "Shock Out" and "Slow It Down" showed a band expert at seamlessly integrating contemporary sounds into a classic rockers foundation and Coffie had developed an original voice, moving beyond his first Marley-based efforts. A remixed "Make U Sweat," called "Sweat" became an international hit cementing the group's standing and reputation.
Bad to the Bone was their most successful album until it was co-opted by it's followup, Bad Boys (Big Beat/Atlantic, 1993). Inner Circle's second attempt at working with a major label was a vast improvement over their Capitol albums. Featuring "Sweat," remakes of "Bad Boys" and a half-dozen of the best songs from Bad to the Bone and some new originals, it a jolt of energy and contemporary flash to the Inner Circle sound while allowing the basic feel of the band to shine. Muscular and danceable, Bad Boys is every bit the equal of the Jacob Miller sessions and is one of the best albums of the 1990's.