Easy Star All Stars
After re-configuring Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' in dub, it was only natural for the Easy All Stars to give Radiohead the reggae treatment
For many people, reggae is an obligation, like grandma’s knitted sweater or a PVC nurse’s outfit. That is to say, you think you should like it but can’t actually be bothered getting into it. But now even the most outrageous philistines have an easy route to understanding reggae thanks to ‘Radiodread’, the new album from the Easy Star All Stars. As the title hints, this is a reggae reimagining of Radiohead’s prog-indie masterpiece ‘OK Computer’. Where ‘Radiodread’ differs from your average remix is that the original electric and electronic elements of the tracks have actually been de-mixed into analogue, meaning they’re played on real instruments instead of tin boxes of robot mice.
The product of New York-based reggae producer Michael G, Radiodread is at times unrecognisable from its source matter. The idea, says G, is to ‘is to bring reggae to a wider audience without diluting it.’ This isn’t some internet-level prank by a couple of bored music students, either – the album features appearances from some of reggae’s biggest names, including Sugar Minnott (‘Exit Music’), Morgan Heritage (a superb organ-driven ‘Electioneering’) and Toots Hibbert and his Maytals, who invented the word ‘reggae’ in 1968. You don’t get much more authentic than that. It will also make Radiohead weep when they realise how many of their expensive synth sounds can be recreated using a melodica.
Just working out the arrangements took Michael six months of intensive on-and-off labour. ‘There are songs like “Paranoid Android”, which flips between 4/4 time and 7/8 time about 13 times, and I also had to think about other ways to reinterpret those parts with horns, melodica, organ… it was a great challenge.’
The real challenge to ‘Radiodread’ was not so much in transposing the album’s quixotic time signatures, but in maintaining its emotional content. Dreamy space-suicide ballad ‘Let Down’, for example, becomes a jumpy ska anthem, but singer Toots invests his reading with a weariness that Thom Yorke just doesn’t have the personal history to muster.
‘“OK Computer” to me is about the conflict between technology and life,’ muses Michael. ‘How it affects our life and how we struggle against it, yet we need it. Applying reggae vibes to it emphasises it in a different way. I don’t remember exactly why I thought: Wow, let’s make “Let Down” into a ska song, but having an upbeat ska feel against lyrics that are somewhat sad and yet somewhat hopeful brings a new level of tension to the song. And t he way I got Toots to sing it, the yearning in his voice is something very different from what Thom Yorke accomplished, but I think ultimately yields the same result.’
‘Radiodread’ is actually the All Stars’ second tribute album. Aficionados of London’s more esoteric nights out may well have caught one of the band’s several tours in support of their 2003 debut, ‘Dub Side Of The Moon’ (insomniac Avalonians may even have seen the late-night Glastonbury show synched with ‘The Wizard Of Oz’). This interpretation of Pink Floyd’s pièce de résistance, the ‘OK Computer’ of its day, was the brainchild of G’s production partner Lem Oppenheimer. Quite how Lem made the initial connection between prog rock and reggae is unexplained, but it’s a fairly safe bet marijuana was somehow involved. The album went on to become a cult classic among Floyd fans, dub fans and smirking postmodernists alike. It has even won tacit approval from the former Floydians themselves. A clearly delighted Roger Waters sent them a fax to say: ‘It is my policy not to endorse any covers of my material’, and didn’t even sue them, which is the Roger Waters equivalent of kissing them on the bum. After achieving all that, you’d have thought dealing with indie minnows Radiohead, who don’t even have a record deal, would be easy. And so did Easy Star. But they were wrong, as they discovered just over a year into production of the album. Oopsie.‘I think we went in with the idea that we got Pink Floyd to agree to this concept, so Radiohead would be much easier to sway,’ grimaces Easy Star executive producer Eric Smith. ‘So we’d already started recording when we got word that they didn’t want us to do it. We were pretty… panicked. We’re a small label, this was our A-list release, our bread and butter.’
Michael and Eric decided the best thing to do was to let the ’Head hear what they were trying to do, and so sent a CD of ‘Lucky’ (as sung by Frankie Paul) and the legendary Horace Andy’s take on ‘Airbag’ to the band along with, according to Eric ‘an impassioned letter’ to see if it might change their erudite Oxford minds.
‘And within 48 hours we heard back from them saying they loved what we did,’ says Eric, with raw relief still evident in his voice. ‘The fact that they said yes after hearing it is actually a better endorsement than if they’d just let us do it at the start.’
- Add your comment to this feature