Laurel Aitken ‘Original Album Collection’ 5 CD Box Set (Cherry Red) 4/5

laurel-aitkenReggae legend Laurel Aitken has enjoyed at least two separate periods of popularity and the original skinheads in the 1960s paid homage to him with his 45s and albums and then a second generation of aficionados discovered his music in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he became associated with the Two Tone movement. This excellent box set brings together some of the key mid-late 1960s sides that Aitken cut in the UK with four original albums and includes arguably his strongest vinyl LP of all, the majestic ‘The High Priest of Reggae’ from 1969. However, there is an entire CD of extra bonus 45s to keep both long-time devotees in search of rarities as happy as well as the first-time listener in search of a more general introduction. Not included on this anthology are the Blue Beat 45s that Aitken recorded, but these are now available elsewhere and this does not detract in any way from the quality songs on offer here. Pride of place belongs to ‘High Priest of Reggae’ and some of Laurel Aitken’s most enduring compositions are showcased on that superb album, beginning with the storytelling ‘Jesse James’ and ‘Landlords and Tenants’. Aitken, though, was aware of the changing tide in Jamaican music and the roots driven ‘Haile Selaise’ (sic) was a clear indication of his listening to new musicians emerging on the reggae roots scene. Another interesting album was ‘Laurel Aitken Says Fire’ and this included the hilarious ‘Fire (in your wire)’ as well as ‘Rice and Peas’, the staple Jamaican diet and a remake of the pop tune ‘Quando Quando’. Going back to the ska era when Laurel Aitken was one of the pioneers, a Rio album from 1965, ‘Ska with Laurel’ is included and features the anthemic songs ‘We shall overcome’ (a civil rights anthem given a decidedly Jamaican flavour here) and ‘Hallelujah Train’. Fast forwarding to the very end of the 1960s, Aitken became interested in the roots movement and cut the deeply melodic ‘Haile Haile (The Lion)’ and ‘Lion of Judah’, both which stand the test of time remarkably well as does the fascinating tale, provocatively entitled ‘The rise and fall of Laurel Aitken’. In reality, the 1970s witnessed a decline in Aitken’s popularity when younger artists emerged and appealed to a younger audience. By the end of that decade, however, thanks to the efforts of the Specials, the Selector and others, Laurel Aitken rose again and his earlier works were being enjoyed by that same younger generation. He remained a firm favourite on the live concert scene in the UK right up until his death in Leicester in 2005.

Tim Stenhouse