Now THIS is why I started my blog, because it makes me stop and listen to some overlooked gems in the 1537 that would otherwise just be gathering dust and moaning to their more prominent neighbouring records*. Welcome one and all to Jimmy Cliff Struggling Man, a thoroughly underappreciated gem from 1973.
Struggling Man is a bit of an unlikely triumph. Jimmy Cliff was, umm, struggling when he cut this LP. His long time collaborator Leslie Kong had died and his last LP had been pretty mediocre, he didn’t realise that the US release of The Harder They Come was a year away from catapulting him to stardom, the songs here (only just over half of which were written by him here) are tinted by a slightly desperate optimism as though he was trying to convince himself things would be okay. It was and would get even better.
Now let’s lay down the lore. Jimmy Cliff has written and sung two of my favourite songs ever, one of which, ‘The Harder they Come’, I use as an aural crutch to get me through tough times**. Jimmy Cliff has my joint favourite singing voice, the existence of him and Al Green could almost persuade me of the existence of a benevolent deity who cares for his creation. True story. In Miltonic terms Cliff can sound at times like a fallen angel singing of the beauties of heaven, with that pure joy tinged with the ineffable loss of it all. In a word, soul.
Which is pertinent because Struggling Man is predominantly a soul album. Okay so it is a reggae-based one, but it is a soul album nonetheless. Like all his contemporaries Jimmy Cliff was influenced by all the myriad musical elements floating around Jamaica one of which was the constant bombardment by US radio. Whilst overly earnest musical romantics like me like to think of Jamaican music from the 60s/70s as a pure explosion of talent, the world was far too small, even then, for any culture to develop in a vacuum, without baleful commercial interests interfering. Which is what makes it all worthwhile of course, but that’s another discussion.
Soul? disentangle the beat and check out the prominent horn section on ‘When You’re Young’, it could be 1970s Aretha on her holidays; the relentlessly upbeat ‘Better Days’ could be a Marvin Gaye B-side circa What’s Going On, honest; or the last-song-in-an-uplifting-soul-musical vibe of ‘Come On People’. But the real soul jewel in the soul crown is the monstrously great ‘Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving You’. A cover of a track by Traffic guitarist Dave Mason, this is straight heartfelt soul, with a great organ performance from, umm, someone^ who takes us firmly into territory that could almost be Led Zep in a contemplative mood, almost Joe Cocker at his best. I’m serious, try it.
Oh and Mr Cliff’s vocals are quite good on it too. One day I will use it to soundtrack the big climactic love scene in my first major Hollywood blockbuster. True story.
There are some top ranking tracks here, the title track^^, another belting tale of sufferance, striving and redemption and the bitter, yet alluringly jaunty, tale of the artist being exploited, conned and abandoned, ‘Going Back West’, a jaded, experienced counterpoint to ‘You Can get It If You Really Want’. Both are brilliant, how can you not love a song which tells you,
Struggling for recognition, identity and respect
I got a lot of promises, they told me not to fret
Said, “We will stand by you
If the going gets rough”
But when I started sinking
They didn’t even bluff (Going Back West)
Another fave is the purest hit of reggae on the album ‘Sooner or Later’, which has a very misty vibe to it indeed, along with a rhythm that I really can’t stay still to.
Now I’m not saying Struggling Man is a total success, there’s a few here that resonate much less with me like, ‘Those Good Good Old Days’ and the Paul McCartney-esque ‘I Can’t Live Without You’, maybe when I get mature enough I’ll like them a whole load more. Overall though this is a much-overlooked/under-appreciated LP.
Now, being the current reigning Mr Superficial 2015, I have to say one of the things I love most about Struggling Man is the cover. I’m a sucker for a well-drawn cover and the black ink drawings on the front and back covers here are exquisite, especially the depopulated back cover one. I have had to restrain myself several times from having a go at colouring it in. It is credited to David Dragon: Flying Colours.
Anyway, I can’t stay here praising all night.
Struggling man has got to move
Struggling man no time to lose
I’m a struggling man
And I’ve got to move on
Not made Spotify yet, so this is the best I can do, I’m pretty sure all the tracks follow sequentially.
**definitely one I want played at my funeral, in 2083. It’ll slot in really well after ‘Here Comes The Sun’, just before Soft Cell bring the curtain down with ‘Sex Dwarf’. True story.
^the copy of Struggling Man I was given has no inner sleeve and no credits on it at all. The big, mysterious internet is, mysteriously quiet about who played on the LP too. So all I can say is, hats off Mr Someone, you elevated a really great track to a rarefied plane of excellence attained by very few dudes ever. I will remember you for ever, for this.
^^made infinitely more famous by a girly cover version in The Walking Dead.