THE NOW GENERATION
Roots reggae's backbone band?
by Eric Doumerc
The Now Generation Band was a late 1960's/early 1970's session band who carved a reputation for themselves by covering many soul and jazz classics and by backing many artists at a time when reggae was developing as a new musical form in Jamaica. Val Douglas remembers that early members of the band included Ernest Wilson on guitar and Lloyd "Tinleg" Adams on drums, with Douglas on bass, and that they recorded a lot of tunes for the producer Derrick Harriott (like the Chosen Few's "Psychedelic Train" in 1970). Musicians like Augustus Pablo and William "Bunny Ruggs" Ckarke drifted in and out of this early version of the band, but eventually, the "permanent" members came to include studio legends Geoffrey Chung on keyboards, Mikey Chung on guitar, Val Douglas on bass, Mikey "Boo" Richards on drums, with Robbie Lyn and Earl "Wire" Lindo on keyboards.
The Now Generation started out as a dance band, performing all over Jamaica, but, as their reputation grew, in 1972, they began to concentrate on studio work, recording with and for various producers, like Derrick Harriott, Joe Gibbs, Lee Perry, and Harry J. They backed the Chosen Few on their cover of Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" and can be heard on Dennis Brown's "Things in Life."
In 1972, they released a cover of Bobby Womack's "Breezin'" (later covered by George Benson) on the Gay Feet label, which was simply wonderful, and in 1974, they backed Lorna Bennett on a cover of "Breakfast in Bed," an R' an' B hit first recorded by Dustry Springfield and Baby Washington.
The Now Generation Band also recorded the backing tracks for Junior Byles' "Beat Down Babylon," and Peter Tosh's "Maga Dog" and "Dem Ha Fe Get a Beatin'." In 1972, they worked with the Heptones on an album which featured tracks like "Hypocrite," "Be the One," "The Road is Rough" and a cover of Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman's "Save the Last Dance" (recorded by The Drifters).
One of the most stunning tracks recorded by the Now Generation band has to be Roman Stewart's "Never Too Young to Learn" (an adaptation of Kenny Ball's "Midnight in Moscow"), produced by the adventurous Glen Brown, and released on his Pantomime label. The song has a jazz-like feel, with its staccato rhythms and bouncing organ, and is a good showcase for the band's jazz and blues-influenced style. It was later to be recycled for Big Youth's "Opporunity Rock" toast.
Meeting Joe Higgs
In 1972 they were Joe Higgs' backing band on his seminal album Life of Contradiction. Higgs had begun his career in the late 1950s as a member of an R&B duo called Higgs and Wilson, and their song "Oh Manny-O" had been a hit for the producer (and future prime minister) Edward Seaga in 1959. Higgs and Wilson then recorded for Clement Dodd (Coxsone) and various other producers until Roy Wilson migrated to the USA, and Higgs continued as a solo artist, eventually joining Carlos Malcolm's band.
Higgs is well-known as the early Wailers' mentor and tutor, coaching the young musicians in harmony technique and stagecraft. When the Wailers went on their first North American tour in 1973 and Bunny Wailer refused to go on that tour, Bob Marley asked Joe Higgs to sub for Bunny on harmony and conga drums. In 1975, Jimmy Cliff embarked on his own American tour and he asked Higgs to be his warm-up act. This led to Higgs performing in various American cities, and eventually in Central Parl where he sang "Johnny Too Bad" and got rave reviews in the papers.
By the early 1970's, Higgs was already well-known as a talented and thoughtful lyricist whose songs (like the great "The World is Upside Down") were both catchy and socially conscious.
What made Higgs' lyrics different from other reggae singers' at the time was their philosophical and wistful quality, and their bluesy feeling. Indeed, the title-track of Higgs' first album is about the complexity of life and the fact that it cannot be reduced to one interpretation: it is full of contradictions. The complexity of the lyrics is echoed by the intricate rhythms that the Now Generation Band and the American blues guitarist Eric Gale wove to set out Hill's message. The influence of the blues looms large in Hill's music and this is audible in "Hard Times Don't Bother Me," with its insistance that even though hard times may be around the corner, "life is so glorious." This song is also characterised by its proverb-like quality with lines such as "Life is one experience that only a fool could refuse." This world-weary quality is reminiscent of the blues tradition. The song entitled "There's A Reward" states the simple message that life may be a hard slog, but there is a light at the end ofthe tunnel.
Higgs' lyrics were deeply personal and universal at the same time, and even his socially conscious songs had a deeply personal or confessional tone and were characterised by a universal reach.
In spite of the bluesy and world-weary nature of many songs by Higgs, there is in his music a dogged optimism which shines through such songs as "Wake Up and Live" and "Got to Make a Way."
The artisttry achieved by the Now Generation Band and Eric Gale was really unique and appears clearly in the arrangements of "Got to Make A Way" and "Life of Contradiction." The latter track features complex arrangements which mix blues and reggae seamlessly while maintaining the individual qualities of each musical form (as is apparent in the driving chorus with its reggae rhythm). Likewise, the bassline powering the track entitled "Wake Up and Live" admirably fits the spirit of the song.
Sadly, this superb album was not to provide Higgs with the recognition or reward that should have been his. The album was recorded in 1972, but only released in 1975, at a time when the sound of reggae had changed considerably and at a time when Rasta-inlfuenced or political lyrics had become all the rage. As a consequence, Higgs' album went more or less unnoticed. Island Records apparently financed the recording of the album, but did not release it eventually. The album was released on the Micron label. Chris Blackwell said that he was an admirer of Higgs' work, but that Island Records would not know how to promote a black folk singer.
Other projects In 1973, Now Generation recorded tracks at Dynamic Sounds for Herman Chin-Loy's Aquarius Dub, which is widely acknowledged as one of the first dub LP's.
They finally released their first album, entitled For the Good Times on the Trojan label in 1974. The title-track is a cover of a Kris Kristofferson song, and the album contained other covers like "Guitar Man Reggae," a cover of Bread's "Guitar Man," and a version of Blue Mitchell's "Alone Again, Naturally." Other outstanding tracks on this album included an instrumental version of The Chosen Few's "Children of the Night," as well as covers of the Stylistics' "People Make the World Go Round," and Gilbert O'Sullivan's "If I Don't Get You Back Again." These covers were all characterised by great musicianship, a lightness of touch and an uncanny ability to mix soul music, jazz and reggae, developing in the process a totally unique sound which could be described as soulful reggae music.
In the second half of the 1970's, the members of Now Gen, as they had become known, all went on to illustrious careers as studio musicians or producers. Mikey Chung played on countless reggae records (like Peter Tosh's Mystic Man album) and became a member of Peter Tosh's Word Sound and Power band when he went on tour with Sly and Robbie. Geoffrey Chung became a famous producer, continuing to play the keyboards as well, eventually collaborating fruitfully with Pablo Moses, among others. Earl "Wire" Lindo is of course well-known for joining the Wailers in the early 1970's and for touring with Bob Marley. Mikey "Boo" Richards eventually joined Lee Scrach Perry's Upsetters band in their mid-1970's incarnation and played on the famous Super Ape album. Richards played on numerous recordings in the 1970's and his credentials include playing on Bob Marley's Survival album, along with the bassist Val Douglas. The keyboard player Robbie Lyn, who was already something of a legend for having played on many Studio One tracks (like The Gladiators' "Hello Carol"), went on to play and tour with Peter Tosh, Third World, and was even instrumental in the crafting of Freddie McGregor's "Just Don't Want to Be Lonely" for the producer Germain. The legacy of Now Gen lives on in countless recordings for numerous producers. Hopefully, one day they will get the recognition they so obviously deserve.
- Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. The Rough Guide to Reggae. London: Rough Guides, 1997.
- Katz, David. Solid Foundation – An Oral History of Reggae. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003.
- Steffens, Roger. "A Life of Contradiction: Joe Higgs in His Own Words." The Beat, Vol.19, No1, 2000.
- Wise, Harry. Liner notes to Life of Contradiction. Pressure Sounds, 2008.
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