The Ethiopians – Engine 54
Released 17th May 2019
Enhanced reissue of the Ethiopians’ rare 1968 debut album, presented here with 17 bonus tracks dating from the same Rocksteady timeframe….Ian Canty looks at how a trailblazing early independent hit set the band on their way…..
The Train To Skaville single was very much “the little train that could”. The disc managed to post a top 40 placing in the UK under some of the most unpromising of circumstances. Cut in 1967 with backing from Lynn Taitt And The Jets, it was originally issued in Britain on the tiny Rio label owned by one William Rickard, really just an off-shoot of his record shop which catered for Jamaican recordings. With little radio support, the key to its success was the popularity it gained on the dance club scene. This momentum pushed it onwards and into the charts.
The taste that the Mods had got for Jamaican music through the Ska boom had remained as that fashion receded and this enduring interest led to the talented duo of Leonard Dillon and Stephen Taylor’s sole hit. Though another British chart placing eluded them, Train To Skaville set them up for a long run of success back in Jamaica with many well respected recordings. A knock on effect of the single’s triumph was they were one of the few artists afforded the opportunity of cutting a long playing record so early on in their careers, the Engine 54 LP that we have here.
The recently reissued collection of the Reggae Power/Woman Capture Man albums, reviewed here, documented their doings slightly later on 1969/70, but this collection brings together their work during the earlier Rocksteady era. The Engine 54 album itself, from the cover photo onwards, takes the train motif of the single as a starting point, but its not a concept album even if both the title track and Train To Glory are more or less in the style of Train To Skaville and of course also reference the locomotive.
Engine 54 the song is a neat summing of the Ethiopians’ strengths, with that strolling and rolling irresistible beat and the contrast in the pair’s voices combining memorably. If the next track My Love is more about demonstrating how at home they were with a straight Soul ballad, the following You Got The Dough shows their solid social comment side which informed all their work and indeed their very name. Despite its familiarity Train To Skaville still sounds very cool indeed, hardly surprising it went onto much success and while the swanee whistle intro on sequel Train To Glory threatens to take it down a comedy route, some great jazzy brass gives it some oomph and saves the day.
The Ethiopians touch on Calypso and Soul on Woman’s World and Unchanged Love, but bring it all back to a strident Reggae rhythm on set closer Come On Now. The sound they managed to get isn’t that far removed from Roots, which was still some way into the future from 1968. Engine 54 is, all things considered, a varied and interesting album, adequately displaying that the duo were far from one trick ponies. The record was issued at the time on via the original Doctor Bird label, but it floundered due to a number of factors which included distribution problems. Ironic really, seeing as even though the Train To Skaville single was released on the smaller Rio operation, it did not run into the same difficulties. Over the years because of these issues, the LP has become somewhat of a rarity, but unlike a lot of “lost classics” it is actually worth going out of your way to hear.
Also, we have 17 bonus tracks to enjoy here too. The flipside of Train To Skaville was You Are The Girl, credited to Albert Griffiths and the Ethiopians, Griffiths being the man who founded the Gladiators. Considerably more up-tempo than the A side and employing a different vocal style, nonetheless it’s a cool sound that is highly infectious. The Whip pushed into service the old “milk can” percussion in its lazy and charming lope and though The World Goes Ska again references a sound that was slightly passé by 1968, some nice guitar work and the standard smooth vocals work wonders on it. If Stay Loose Mama harks even further back to the Blues and Jazz at the heart of Ska’s development, I’m Shocking prefigured the toasting style that would become all the rage in 1970.
Apparently just after the Engine 54 album the Ethiopians recorded four tracks that weren’t released at the time, with In The Park coming out on Rhino in 1973 the other three finally showing up on Trojan many years later. In The Park is a cool dance number in the Reggae mode and Sign The Cheque shows the deep social consciousness Dillon could imbue a bouncy bit of Rocksteady with. Reggae Hits The Town gives one a real feeling of the impending boom of 1969, with the “don’t watch that one, watch this one” chant having an echo down the years with Chas Smash adapting it on the intro to Madness’ version of One Step Beyond. This compilation ends with Ding Dong Bell, of all things a Christmas song! Still the Ethiopians’ had more than enough panache to pull it off and it finishes a satisfying collection of bonus efforts.
This compilation neatly dovetails with the Reggae Power/Woman Capture Man set to provide a thorough overview of the Ethiopians’ early work. Though Dillon was clearly the driving creative voice, his partnership with Taylor was magic and Stephen’s tragic death in 1975 brought the first period of the Ethiopians to a sad close. The Rocksteady era was when they made their name and on hearing Engine 54 it is clear that their joyful abandon, innovation and vocal talent set them up for deserved success. It all still sounds so fresh to these ears, Rocksteady heaven indeed.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here