Riding the crest of a wave, Levi then became the first Saxon MC to sign a deal with a major label in the form of Island Records. Island are mainly associated with “album-ised” 70s JA roots like Marley and Burning Spear (as well as worthies like LKJ) but it also seems that they had their fingers on the pulse of homegrown talent.
Certainly Levi’s releases on Island are every bit as good as those on indies and the talent is definitely all there in the form of producer Paul “Groucho” Smykle, Paul Robinson continuing with drum duties and George Oban on bass & keyboards. Oban deserves a special “Uncarved gold medal” for going the distance with Aswad, UK fast chat, On-U Sound and even the Red Crayola.
“Bonnie and Clyde were two good looking people
But wicked and evil mister, that’s for sure
Entered a shop with a 30inch revolver (?)
They stole every dollar then they walked through the doorTwo country folk, man, they craved for the city
Because they wanted money in our society
Lived very fast, they made a lot of money
But their life was soon to end in misery…”
Bonnie & Clyde came out towards the end of 1984, the full colour cover and Levi singing some of the verses suggests a serious push towards the pop charts to my mind. Lyrically this is familiar reggae territory with an ambiguous take on rude boy gangsterism – both glamourised and condemned in the same tune.
Musically this is as tight as any JA tune you can mention from the period – it’s fantastically accessible without losing its edge. Warm bass, crisp drums and a brilliant cascading synth line. TUNE!
Warning on the flip is a re-rub of Michigan and Smiley’s Diseases, but concerning herpes rather than the polomylitis etc of the original cut. It fits in well with this post about reggae and sexual health. Levi focuses on monogamy rather than safe sex and there is a bit of an undercurrent of misogyny here with women presented as dangerous seducing harbingers with short skirts. But it is only really an undercurrent to what is essentially a light hearted tune about a serious issue.
Big ‘n’ Broad followed shortly afterwards and was a return to more familiar soundsystem rhymes and attitude. The tune is about Levi’s lyrical dexterity and his career as an MC with Saxon Studio International. I’m assuming a good few people have already heard this because it’s on the Lyric Maker mix, but the 12″ also includes an extended instrumental section which we left out. A classic, anyway.
84-tion on the flip goes even further back in time – to Levi’s childhood!
“Well in the school I used to go, I used to get detention
Well in the school I used to go, I used to get detention
The teacher would shout ‘Williams! Shut up and pay attention.’
If anything go missing I would be under suspicionThe headmaster was giving me a lot of aggravation
When I-man school report would read ‘Phillip have no ambition.’
To carry on like this I would never have an occupation
They’d tell my parents I was headed in the wrong direction
Mamma asked ‘Why you so bad?’ me never have no explanation
I never knew that soundsystem would be my destination
But through the mic I built myself a massive reputation
Seh english and jamaican MCs give me inspiration
Seh Levi and the Colonel are the sweetest combination
Saxon MCs are the best – for us there is no opposition
Lyrics in my brain is worse than nuclear ammunition [...]“
The backing track for this is minimal drum and bass which allows the lyrics to soak through you – the title comes from the fact that very line in the song ends in “tion”!
Trouble in Africa marks another landmark in the development of cockney chat. After all the admiration both ways, this was a real marriage of the islands of GB and JA: Levi on vocals, backed by Sly and Robbie. This 3 tracker came out in 1985 on Island’s Mango sublabel, for reaons unclear to me. The title track is some serious conscious lyrics over a great version of the stalag riddim.
Riot in Birmingham is sheer rapid-fire “reality” bizness over Sly & Robbie’s “Tickle Me” riddim (which warrants a future post of its very own). Levi’s lyrics outshine virtually everything that the anarchopunk scene was producing at the same time, its analysis is bang on and covers everything from class, police harassment to economics in terms of the black market, benefits and the huge spending drive on nuclear weapons. But of course all of that is negated for the spikey tops because Levi wasn’t a punk and the record came out on a major label…
“Well I-man Papa Levi, Island news reporter and writer[chorus]Riot inna Birmingham – shop get bruk up
Riot inna Birmingham – shop get bruk up
Burn up burn up house burn up car burn up van burn up truck
Burn up burn up shop burn up car burn up van burn up truck
Well down in a
Handsworth the living is a rough
Fi the poor man it hard(?) and for the poor man it tough
Seh social security- that’s not enough
Seh no jobs about – youth get dangerous
How long can the govt manhangle us
Them not see the situation serious
Problems we face are various
Police can stop a man just to suss
If you walk pon street you wan’ be well cautious
Police them always suspicious
If you drive big car them get envious
Not believe poor people can be ambitious
We come last and them come first
But the system is getting very monotonous
Future fi de youth don’ look marvelous
Even if you’re born as a true genius
From you’re living in the ghetto you have no status
If your complexion dark that make it even worse
This lyric dedicated to all the conscious
Want everybody join in pon the chorus
The reason for it is plain to see
I blame it on the ting called poverty
Poor people are the pillars of society
But don’t get not respect those in authority
Me no need the rich but the rich need me [...]“
Dear Pastor is the flipside tune, in which Home T4 are given questionable life coaching by “The Right Reverend Father Papa Levi”. This is a kind of throwaway tune, quite funny in a “sexual farce” kind of way and a nice contrast with the seriousness of the a-side. Home T was a vocal trio, iirc, who were a huge deal for a while – collaborating with Shabba and Cocoa Tea on tunes like Pirate’s Anthem (which was the first tune played on Kiss when it went legal!). I seem to remember reading somewhere that HomeT-4 was some kind of supergroup also incorporating Cocoa T, but I could be wrong about that.
But enough spotterism. What infuriates and amazes me is that these three 12″ have zero 2nd hand value in London, which means you can often pick them up for a couple of quid – scant recognition for their actual quality.
Clearly Island didn’t quite know what to do with Levi, perhaps because his style and lyrics were too uncompromising for the Top of The Pops appearances which were to be his colleagues’ trophies, or perhaps because he was just too sarf London for people who “liked a bit of Bob Marley”.
All I know is that no album on Island ever appeared and “Trouble” was to be Papa Levi’s last release for the label.
Chapter Three: Papa Levi – the independent years.