They say the world is spinning around
I say the world is upside down
With a legacy stretching back nearly 50 years, the Honourable Jimmy Cliff is still standing as one of the prime movers and continuing shapers of modern music. With a catalog that ranks among the most influential in global culture, Cliff remains a forceful voice of power and conscience, creating new music as vital and vibrant as ever. Teamed with producer Tim Armstrong -- the Rancid front man who has cited Cliff as his most admired artist -- Cliff is working on his first new album in seven years, a set which builds on his unparalleled history and points to a wide-open future.
The power and promise of the pairing jumps out from a five-song EP previewing the album. Together they bring fire to both compelling Cliff originals and a couple of pointedly chosen covers. The above-quoted “World is Spinning” and the steely “One More” show an artist as engaged with -- and troubled by -- the state of the world as much as he was when he made such landmark songs as “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and the title song of the movie The Harder They Come, both game-changers that will mark their 40th anniversary in 2012. A version of the Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” taps into the popular uprisings for freedom in the Middle East, not to mention the recent London riots, which took place as sessions for the album were underway. Rancid’s affectionate portrait “Ruby Soho” brings the generations together, a full-circle journey of icon and acolytes. The two also teamed on a forceful interpretation of Bob Dylan’s generation-defining -- and generation-crossing -- “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” a featured track on the upcoming all-star Dylan tribute album benefiting Amnesty International.
It comes at a time in which Cliff’s legend has only grown, reaching new ears from many tastes and walks of life, with much more to come as the milestone anniversary for The Harder They Come is celebrated. Additionally, Paul Simon featured Cliff’s 1970 song “Vietnam” in his electrifying 2011 concerts. Simon introduced the song -- which Dylan had called the greatest protest song ever written -- as having inspired him to head to Jamaica and record “Mother and Child Reunion” with Cliff’s band. Cliff himself has in recent years revived and revised the song to address the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, bridging his past and present.
“I have great respect for what we did [in the past] and what other people have done,” says Cliff, the only living musician honored with Jamaica’s Order of Merit and a 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. “At the same time, I am always looking for the new.”
In fact, Armstrong’s great love for and knowledge of Cliff’s past music offered fresh insights for the artist. Armstrong recruited his studio band, The Engine Room, to play on the sessions – featuring J Bonner (bass and percussion), Scott Abels (drums and percussion), Dan Boer (organ and percussion), Kevin Bivona (piano and lead guitar), with Armstrong producing and playing rhythm guitar.
“For someone like Tim having a great foothold on the traditions, it woke me up to some things that had been done,” Cliff says. “The drummer played some patterns I forgot we had done! It’s a reawakening to those things, knowing they are not lost, preserved by younger folk, passing them on.”
The two had never met before this project began, and Cliff was not really familiar with Armstrong’s music. But he had heard the younger musician’s name, with a premium recommendation. The Clash’s co-founder Joe Strummer talked up Armstrong while he and Cliff were recording “Over the Border,” a song from Cliff’s 2004 album, Black Magic -- a session that sadly was to be Strummer’s last before he passed away. Strummer, another top Armstrong hero, released his last three albums on the latter’s independent Hellcat Records label.
“I was talking with Joe, talking about music and people, and Tim’s name came up,” Cliff says. “I had never had the opportunity to hear his music, but it was a great thing how we hit it off in the studio.”
The first song they did together “Ruby Soho,” gave the two a chance to see how they worked together and offered Armstrong a chance to have an idol sing one of his songs.
“I knew the song but never got deep into it,” Cliff says of the ska-tinged tune. “I didn’t know it was one of Tim’s songs, but I liked it and could identify with the sentiments. A musician has to go on tour, do his thing, miss his woman. I know the life, yeah.”
Even more relevant to current events is “World Upside Down,” though that song’s roots reach back even further than the Clash song, to the ‘70s period right after The Harder They Come.
“I wrote the lyrics, but it was a song originally written by [late reggae great] Joe Higgs,” Cliff says. “Joe and I were very close. People knew the role he played with Bob Marley & the Wailers. He for me was one of the unsung heroes of Jamaican music. This was a song I always felt I would do. I recorded the song in 2009 in Jamaica, played the tapes for Tim and he pulled it out as one he wanted us to do. The song was originally called ‘World Turned Upside Down,’ but I re-wrote the lyrics and made it for the world today. Joe’s was not as broad a subject.”
With “Our Ship Is Sailing,” Cliff seeks to inspire and embrace positive movement. “It’s one of the newer songs that I wrote this year,” he says. “It’s about part of the sacred fire that’s inside of me, expressing that the ship had been land bound, in dry dock, not moving. Now the tide is in and the ship is moving. Sacred fire is about myself as an artist and my aspirations… the goals I’ve set.”
The song, and all the music here, has both the global sweep and the personal focus, just as it is at once timeless and of the moment.
“People might say, ‘Jimmy Cliff, you’ve done a lot, achieved a lot. What more can you want?’ That’s what I want. I keep things to myself, but things are opening again and the ship is sailing.”
Fittingly, then, the EP-closing “One More” serves as a personal statement of purpose and a promise to both himself and the world that he has much left to do.
“‘One More’ kind of speaks to that,” he says. “One more shot at the prize. One more shot at the goal. Straight from the soul and in control.”
Cliff has hardly been idle in the seven years since his last album, “constantly touring,” he says. Meanwhile he was just waiting for the right time, the right opportunity and the right collaborators before making a new album. With The Harder They Come marking its milestone, it’s a full-circle coup for the now-elder statesman of reggae. When the film and album came out first in Jamaica in 1972 as an instant national sensation, great acclaim in Europe and the U.S. followed, exposing reggae music to listeners outside its homeland.
At that time, Cliff was already a huge star in Jamaica. Coming from the small town of St. James, Jamaica, he headed to Kingston while still a boy and quickly convinced record store proprietor Leslie Kong to produce him. His first hit, “Hurricane Hattie,” was released when he was just 14. After representing Jamaica at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he signed with Island Records and moved to London, making such hits as “Waterfall” and “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” which won him international success and acclaim.
The Harder They Come brought him unprecedented renown at home and global stardom. The title track, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross” and other songs quickly became mainstays of FM radio, opening a whole new world of music and, arguably, opening the door for reggae’s journey to being a universal sound, embraced and adapted in cultures throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.
With that to his name, Cliff was sought out as a collaborator by artists ranging from the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello to Annie Lennox, while Willie Nelson, Cher, New Order, Jerry Garcia and Fiona Apple are among the many who have performed and recorded his material. His song “Trapped” reached a vast new audience in the 1980s when Bruce Springsteen performed it regularly and contributed his version to the 1985 mega-hit charity album We Are the World. In 1993, Cliff returned to the mainstream pop charts in he U.S. with his version of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”.
“The music was fresh and this introduced it to the world,” he says. “A few countries had been hearing it, but this is where it all came from.”
“It captured a moment in time, but had lasting quality.”
With his new music, Jimmy Cliff has done exactly that again.