Reading back I notice I’ve used the phrase ‘life-affirming’ several times in my recent pieces and I’m really, really going to struggle to avoid using it talking about The Harder They Come (a compilation I file under Jimmy Cliff – well he sang half the songs and starred in the film!) which is an LP that genuinely just makes me happy to be alive. I’ve only seen the film once, about 20 years ago and I remember it being good but a bit of a period piece, however this LP is timeless. Funnily enough I remember my dad having another great reggae soundtrack LP called Country Man, who was basically Super Rasta, which had a similarly good, but not quite as good, soundtrack.
This LP quite simply has 3 of my favourite ever songs on it, Jimmy Cliff’s ‘You Can get it if You Really Want’ and ‘The Harder They Come’ and The Maytals ‘Pressure Drop’. Without seeming to be a bit soppy, I have to say that ‘The Harder They Come’ really means an awful lot to me, its a song I used to often hear played as a kid and as an adult I’ve often listened to it when times were tough to gee me up and to help me battle my natural diffidence – it is, genuinely, a song I’d like to have played at my funeral, although preferably not until 2083. I love it’s message of pushing through and taking what’s there, the fact that whatever you’re facing you can beat it and the harder they come, the harder they’ll fall…
So as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they fall, one and all
In all honesty I can live without The Melodians ‘The Rivers of Babylon’ and the final two vocal-less takes of ‘You Can get it..’ and ‘The Harder..’, but every other second of The Harder They Come is a treat, ranging from Scotty’s downbeat ‘Draw Your Brakes’, across to The Slickers brilliant ‘Johnny Too Bad’* and it’s cautionary tale of rude boys, Desmond Dekker’s slyly revolutionary rocksteady ‘Shanty Town’ and Jimmy Cliff’s soul-tinged ‘Sitting in Limbo’. Both ‘Pressure Drop’ and ‘Sweet & Dandy’ by the Maytals, later Toots & The Maytals, are simply sublime all those punk / rock bands who covered them knew what they were doing after all. I am seriously struggling not to refer to this music as ‘life-affirming’ but for the sake of my previous editorial promise I won’t.
I remember Keith Richards saying in interview how he was simply astounded by the explosion of talent from Jamaica in the 60s and 70s and he has a point. Jamaican music seems to be a perfect synthesis of African, pop, soul as well as all the indigenous forms such as ska, rocksteady and reggae. I think what has shaped it and served it so well is this ability to assimilate all the myriad influences and yet to retain its own distinctive character without being swamped by the outside world.
There’s not a huge deal to write here, not without detracting from the beauty of this LP and it’s swaggering, humble songs of aspiration, triumph and struggle, except:
Rome was not built in a day
Opposition will come your way
But the hotter the battle you see
It’s the sweeter the victory
Jimmy Cliff was gifted with one of the all-time great voices in any genre of music, ever and it is life-affirming damnit!
*the liner notes tell you that one of the songs’ writers was dead and one was on death row when the film was seeking copyright clearance for that number – ‘Walking down the road with a pistol in your waist / Johnny you’re too bad’
**if you haven’t got this yet, go for the 2003 reissue CD which is basically all the best rocksteady / ska / Jimmy Cliff songs ever assembled in a single collection, unless you’re a sad vinyl leper like myself.