Desmond Dekker & The Aces – 007 (Shanty Town) (1967, Pyramid)
Why It’s Perfect: Ask most people what reggae sounds like and you can bet dollars to donuts (or cash to cannabis, if you prefer) they’ll think of Bob Marley. I’m not excluding myself here; I might drop a little knowledge during this post, but don’t be fooled, I don’t really know dick about this genre. What I do know is that all genres go through stages of differentiation from the genres that spawned them. Rock, for example, started out as a combination of R&B and country, and if you listen to Berry or Holly or early Elvis, you can see where the parts haven’t quite fused together yet. Within a few years, the blues and country had been melted so thoroughly that only their synthesis, the streamlined, adjective-less rock, remained. By the time Marley became a superstar, reggae had hit that point, and moreover, his music was so influential and beloved that his particular style had become synonymous with the genre itself.
What I like about early ska and reggae is that it doesn’t yet inhabit its own universe; as much as it is Jamaica’s music, period, it’s also still recognizable as a mutant version of American pop soul. Let’s (finally!) look at Desmond Dekker & the Aces’ terrific 1967 single 007 (Shanty Town). The thing you notice immediately is that patient, bouncing ska rhythm. Ska pioneer Ernest Ranglin once said that the main difference between American R&B and ska was that R&B beats sound like “chink-ka” and ska rhythms sound like “ka-chink.” Onomatopoeia is always tricky because the way you may verbalize a sound might not be the same way I do, but if you listen closely enough to the way the beat drops and the guitar skanks, there is a certain backward quality to it, like someone playing R&B in reverse. The guitar is fractured in ways that must have seemed strange and foreign for the era (for Anglo-American audiences at least), but the clean, effervescent tone and ingratiating melodies are butter-smooth. The whole thing, and particularly the harmonies provided by backing quartet the Aces, has the wistful, high school romance catchiness of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers or the Everly Brothers. And yet, if you can decipher the lyrics, 007 isn’t about whispering sweet nothings or chaste yearning. It’s thuggin’ like Jay-Z.
The 26 year-old Dekker’s vocals sound dreamy-eyed, but make no mistake, the man is singing about rude boys (white man trans: young street toughs) running the shanty town. There’s even an early example of that classic hip-hop trope of comparing street crime to the glamour of the movies; the life of the average Jamaican juvenile delinquent hadn’t much in common with James Bond or Frank Sinatra’s Ocean’s 11, but it spoke to the generation’s high rolling aspirations. “Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail” was a gangsta’s version of “rinse, lather, repeat.” There’s no audible malice in it though. Just listen to the way Dekker sings “007”; I’ve been conditioned by two dozen Broccoli Bond films to read that as “double-oh seven,” but he sings it “oh, OH, seeeevvvvven” like the sound alone is enough to make him thoroughly, perfectly content.
007 (Shanty Town) was a breakthrough single for Dekker and for reggae in general, managing to hit the UK top 15 singles chart. It was produced by the legendary Leslie Kong, a Chinese-Jamaican (my God what an accent he must’ve had!) who ran an ice cream parlour that doubled as a record store and studio. It was Kong’s touch that helped records by Dekker and contemporary Jimmy Cliff to make it beyond the island’s shores, where it would be a fundamental influence on British punk and post-punk (The Clash’s Rudie Can’t Fail seems to have been inspired by a line from this song), and indeed, it’s hard to find any fault with this track’s pristine mix despite what would be considered by today’s recording standards to be primitive conditions. There’s nothing like pouring rum over ice, lying back in the sun and jamming this track on repeat for at least twenty minutes or so. “Rudeboys cannot fail.”
Defining Moment: About a minute in there’s a short instrumental break, and it feels like the moment for a guitar solo of some kind. And sure enough, the lead guitar track makes its presence known with a few short stabs, but it’s almost like it’s just too cool to show off. It just grooves. The song finds its own, smoother way to elevate the energy though, adding in a touch of brass to accentuate the downbeats.
Other Great Songs by Desmond Dekker: Dekker is probably best known for the US Billboard Top 10/UK Number 1 single Israelites, a perfect pop single in its own right. Between 007 and Israelites, Dekker did more to popularize the reggae sound internationally than any artist save Marley (and perhaps Jimmy Cliff). These songs, strong as they are, certainly don’t tell the whole story though. It Miek, Rudie Got Soul, Problems, Pretty Africa and Fu Man Chu are (to my admittedly untrained ear) essential reggae. If you’re looking for a place to expand your reggae/ska collection beyond Peter Tosh and Burning Spear, Dekker should be high on your list.