Skatalites and Laurel Aitken ‘The clash of the Ska titans’/’Guns of Navarone’ 2CD (Bad Fish/Cherry Red) 3/5 and 4/5 for respective CDs

This handy two CD set groups together two separate, yet nonetheless connected recordings, by legendary ska original musicians the Skatalites and Laurel Aitken. The dates both emanate from 1996 when there was something of a ska revival underway on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK the two-tone movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s was being revived by the re-emergence of some of those bands in live performance such as the Specials and Selecter while in the US the whole ska phenomenon was placed in an altogether different context. The original musicians of the 1960s were referred to as the first wave, the two-tone musicians as the second wave and a new generation of US-born musicians who performed to a new, younger and infinitely more diverse audience were collectively known as the third wave. With this historical information in mind, one can view these recordings as a celebration of the genre, especially since a large part of the CD space is taken up by live renditions. The first CD focuses attention on singer Laurel Aitken and was mainly recorded in the studio in London. Some of Aitken’s most enduring songs are re-interpreted and these include a minor theme version of ‘It’s too late’ and a slower tempo than per usual take on ‘Sugar Sugar’ complete with female vocals. Surprisingly these classics are a little underwhelming with some vital spark seemingly missing and it is left to Aitken covering other people’s songs for the singer to truly come to life. A storming version of Delroy Wilson’s ‘Come down’ is accompanied in its intensity by a lovely interpretation of a Motown standard ‘Same old song’ which is just about the best thing among the studio recorded material.

CD 2 takes over with an all live set of the Skatalites which follows on from the last numbers on the first CD. Although there are no precise details of the line-up, it is safe to assume from other Skatalites recordings of the period that several members of the original group were still around and notably include Lloyd Brevette on double bass, Lloyd Knibb(s) on drums alongside the stellar horn trio of Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling and Tommy McCook and for this reason alone the CD is worth purchasing and at over seventy-three minutes it is excellent value for money. For first time listeners this will be a revelatory experience and the lengthy re-workings of ‘Freedom sounds’, ‘Eastern standard time’ and a decidedly uptempo take on ‘El Pussycat’ will not disappoint. A tale of two halves, then, for this re-issue.

Tim Stenhouse