Top 10 Reggae Rock Songs
More than a few classic rockers have poured the flavors of Jamaica into their music – which means there were plenty of tracks to pick from to create the Top 10 Reggae Rock Songs. With the growing popularity of stars like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff in the ’70s, all sorts of musicians — from hard rock titans to superstar folkies to punks — began to draw on reggae as a major influence. Some of the songs below occurred as one-off experiments (dreadlocks dabbling, anyone?), while others provided significant insight into what inspired these artists.
During their Beatles days, both Paul McCartney and John Lennon were fans of Jamaican music – so much so that when Macca crafted the ska-like ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (“Desmond” was a nod to singer Desmond Dekker), John got upset because he thought fans would think that Paul was the only one hip enough to be into ska. Four years after ‘Ob-La-Di,’ McCartney went full-on reggae with this Wings B-side. The stuttering beat might have thrown Paul off just a little. He flubs his vocal cue during ‘C Moon’s’ introduction, a mistake that was kept in the released recording.
‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ (live)
When Bob Dylan assembled a band for his 1978 world tour, he made a point of dramatically reworking his greatest hits for the performances. Many were dismayed at the slick versions of ’60s classics with added backing vocals and flute solos (so much that the press dubbed the trek Dylan’s “Las Vegas Tour”), but the man who wrote them found the challenge invigorating. One of the most dramatic changes was this ‘Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ chestnut, which traded a spare, finger-picked guitar for an expansive reggae lilt. Good or bad, listeners certainly heard the song differently.
Chrissie Hynde might be from Ohio, but she came up in the London punk scene, where just about all the young dudes were heavily into reggae. So it’s no surprise that the frontwoman included this spacey groove on the Pretenders’ debut LP, which perfectly integrates the band’s sound with reggae rhythms (handled well by Hynde’s sharp Telecaster jabs and Martin Chambers’s hollow tom hits). Within the year, Jamaican singer Grace Jones covered the song with the help of the legendary reggae rhythm section Sly and Robbie. If that’s not a seal of approval, what is?
You couldn’t do the Top 10 Reggae Rock Songs without something from the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, perhaps, are the biggest reggae fans in all of rock and roll. Yet, it was then-new guitarist Ronnie Wood who created the riff for ‘Hey Negrita’ (although he would only get an “inspired by” credit on the album sleeve). This jammy ‘Black and Blue’ highlight showed how well the band could play with other genres – from a reggae riff to a funky bassline to Latin keyboards and percussion. And yet, ‘Hey Negrita’ still sounds like the good ol’ grimy Stones.
‘I Shot the Sheriff’
The story goes that a member of Eric Clapton’s band played him a copy of the Wailers’ ‘Burnin’’ album and he and the group decided to have a go at Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff.’ Initially, Slowhand was unconvinced it should be included on his next album (let alone released as a single). Perhaps he was uncertain of fans’ reaction or maybe he thought he had hewed a bit too close to the original. Regardless, his bandmates convinced him otherwise and Clapton’s version of Marley’s song became E.C.’s sole No. 1 U.S. hit on the Billboard 100.
‘Watching the Detectives’
A different E.C. had his own reggae success a few years later when used the Jamaican genre as the musical backdrop of this tale of love, frustration and television. Elvis Costello later said that he wrote the song after staying up all night listening to the Clash’s debut album (which included a cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’). Although ‘Watching the Detectives’ was the first Costello composition credited to the Attractions, only keyboardist Steve Nieve is on the track. The crackerjack drumming and rocksteady bass come courtesy of Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar – of Graham Parker’s band, the Rumour. Tightly wound perfection.
Somewhere, a small town radio DJ is still calling this Led Zeppelin anomaly “Dire Maker.” The title is a play on the phrase “Did you make her?” and “Jamaica” – in reference to the song’s reggae groove. Of course, when this song was first released, some fans thought the whole thing (along with R&B b-side ‘The Crunge’) was some sort of joke. Why would Zeppelin trade the hammer of the gods for the haze of the Rastafarians? Well the answer is that drummer John Bonham was attempting to create a doo-wop beat and something resembling reggae resulted.
‘Walking on the Moon’
The Police made a name for themselves by combining reggae with New Wave on their first three records. While ‘Roxanne’ brings the aesthetic to a tango and ‘So Lonely’ adds a punk-inspired chorus, this hit stays deep in the reggae pocket throughout. Andy Summers alternates between jagged guitar jabs and spacey chords that float in the air. Stewart Copeland keeps his sticks light while Sting bellows some pseudo-Jamaican wordlessness in the closing moments. It’s only fitting that the song comes from the band’s second album, ‘Regatta de Blanc,’ which translates loosely as “white reggae.”
‘Mother and Child Reunion’
Paul Simon always seemed to have the jump on which world music style would be the next to cross over and he was one of the first to mix reggae with mainstream rock. Until Simon starts rhymin’, you wouldn’t necessarily know that this isn’t true-blue reggae – given the twiddled guitar intro and instant groove. That’s because Simon recorded the song in Jamaica with actual reggae greats, including members of Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff’s backing band. The lyrics, on the other hand, have nothing to do with Jamaica. The title comes from a Chinese dish (featuring both chicken and egg) and the mournful tone was inspired by the death of Simon’s family dog. The strange play of these emotions against the bouncy beat only makes the song more interesting.
‘(White Man in) Hammersmith Palais’
The No. 1 position on the Top 10 Reggae Rock Songs belongs to a song that doesn’t just co-op reggae, but is a rumination on frontman Joe Strummer’s experience at a reggae show in London. Joe went to the show expecting to hear the rebel music that had inspired him and instead got a shined-up, “pop” version of reggae. In the rest of his song, the Clash city rocker turns his sour howl on race relations in England and the hollow state of contemporary music (“You think it’s funny?/ Turning rebellion into money”). Although the Clash had covered a reggae tune on their debut, it’s the blend found on this single that pointed the way to the band’s future, where they would expand their musical reach way beyond three-chord punk and their worldview beyond their neighborhood.