The Melodians – Rivers Of Babylon
Released 9th August 2019
Compilation of all the Melodians’ recordings for Leslie Kong on his Beverley’s label, with the rare 1970 LP featuring the eponymous title hit and 15 bonus tracks…..LTW’s Ian Canty hears a key vocal group who had so much more about them than just that song…..
Like them or try to stuff builders’ putty into your ears at the very mention of their name, you have to concede that Boney M (well puppet-master Frank Farian) certainly had the knack of selecting good songs to cover. For instance, the Creation’s Mod Psych nugget Painter Man yielded a Top 10 hit for them. This was a tune also once mooted for the Pistols’ early live set, though they went with Through My Eyes instead (though Making Time seems to me that it would have been ideal for Rotten and co – imagine him in 1976 snarling “makes you sick” – but I digress).
They really hit the paydirt with a version of the Melodians’ Reggae classic Rivers Of Babylon, which topped the UK charts in 1978 and became one of the biggest selling singles of all-time here. It also made inroads on Billboard in the US. This was a sanitised effort though, with Trevor McNaughton and Brent Dowe’s Rasta message being downplayed with lyrical alterations (King Alpha and O-Far-I don’t appear in the Boney M rendition). The Melodians’ original version was at first banned by Jamaica’s political bigwigs because of the righteous slant and producer Leslie Kong went on record to comment on the ridiculousness of a song based on a Psalm from the Bible being prohibited.
Even before Boney M revived interest in it, the song had further exposure in the 1973 film The Harder They Come. But there was far more to the band than this one song. The talented triumvirate of McNaughton, Dowe and Tony Brevett (Skatalite Lloyd’s nephew) had originally come together in the early 60s and had success with a number of the island’s top producers, including fruitful stints with Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Sonia Pottinger.
Come the dawn of the original Reggae era, they found themselves on Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s Records. Also by then Renford Cogle had become the unofficial fourth Medlodian and his songs are strongly evident on the Rivers Of Babylon LP and the associated tracks here. Kong and his label were at the forefront of the Reggae Boom and boasted big names like Desmond Dekker, the Gaylads, Ken Boothe and the Pioneers. The Melodians were far from being out of their depth, even in such esteemed company. What we have here is the band’s complete output for the label, including the rare LP entitled after the big hit, which for some reason was never issued in the UK after it emerged in Jamaica in 1970. despite the single’s success.
The LP itself was typical of a lot of Reggae platters of the time, in that it rounded up single sides issued over the previous 12 months. But Rivers Of Babylon does have three tracks that were unissued before in Lost My Love, Though I’m Through With You and I Don’t Care, which began side two of the original album. Of this sorrowful but defiant trio Lost My Love stands out, a slightly unusual phasing effect on the guitar and vocals being endearing and some R&B and Jazz motifs float in and out nicely too.
Throughout the band take a wonderfully light approach to their material, no grandstanding, just effortlessly cool and smooth singing, the backing perfectly complimenting the main vocal. Both purposeful and danceable, but moving at their own pace within, nothing sounds rushed or over-emoted with the Melodians. Sweet Sensation, penned by Cogle, has a lovely skipping beat and a calm, assertive main voice and It’s My Delight possesses a rhythm just made for moonstomping.
The Skinhead Reggae feel still runs through this LP (though that sound was beginning to lose traction by 1970, in the charts at least), but the Melodians’ soulful roots emerge on A Day Seems So Long and Though I’m Through With You. The bright and very breezy Walking In The Rain brings the album to a bracingly busy end.
Rivers Of Babylon was such a big hit that it was of course versioned in JA and we get a DJ talkover take by Phillips Samuel entitled Sounds Of Babylon and a mostly instrumental/primitive Dub cut Second Babylon credited to Bongo Herman And The Beverley’s All Stars among the bonuses. Though ok, they don’t add much, but better is to be found on the other bonus tracks. Both The Time Has Come and Come Ethiopians Come reflect the Rasta and social consciousness of the band very effectively, but never at the expense of a good tune.
The song Hold My Hand has a structure that goes back to 50s R&B/Doo Wop, but is very pleasing and with Tony Brevett out front on lead vocals (and credited that way) Staircase Of Time has that classic Boss Reggae organ sound and an irresistible dance groove. Too Young To Fall In Love harnesses an upfront drum and echo effects well and My Life, My Love is a really neat skanking piece.
In truth, the Melodians’ tenure at Beverley’s very rarely dipped from the high standards they had set themselves. Leslie Kong was a sympathetic producer for the band’s aims and the talent in the ranks of the Beverley’s All Stars were at their peak at the time of recording. So they had the perfect set up to succeed, which as the evidence provided here proves again and again, they certainly did. After Kong’s death they worked for many producers and both Dowe and Brevett carved out solo careers. The band carried on intermittently through the years right up into the 21st century, though with the passing of Trevor McNaughton in 2018, all three of the trio that recorded the material here are no longer with us.
Although the band will be forever tied to Rivers Of Babylon, there’s much more to explore here – the simple and fun sound of the Melodians is still a breeze to listen and dance to, all these years on.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here