In 1976 the impressive War Ina Babylon was released. It was the first album in what was later to be called the “holy trinity”.
Max Romeo was born as Maxwell Livingston Smith on November 22nd, 1944, and would turn into a revered roots reggae musician and singer. At age 18 he won a local talent competition and left for Jamaica’s capital Kingston. Together with Kenneth Knight and Lloyd Shakespeare he formed The Emotions, the group that had their first hit in 1966. After a short unsuccessful solo adventure, Romeo started a new band, The Hippy Boys, which would more or less morph into (Lee “Scratch” Perry’s) The Upsetters.
In 1968 Romeo wrote Wet Dream, which was a huge hit in Jamaica. In England the song was banned, due to the sexually charged lyrics, even after Romeo’s somewhat lame excuse that the song was actually about a ‘leaking roof’. After the ban the song (of course) turned into a hit in England as well. After another batch of singles and the release of the debut album A Dream, Romeo went out on tour.
During the early 1970s the political and social climate in Jamaica was volatile, to say the least. Romeo had a distinct preference and sided with the democratic socialist party PNP. In 1972 the song Let The Power Fall On I, off the Let The Power Fall album, was used by the party during the elections. For the first time in Jamaica’s history the PNP was a serious threat to the ruling JLP party, which resulted in an unprecedented outburst of violence.
In 1975 Romeo released the beautiful Revelation Time, which was a collection of recordings from 1972-1975, made with a wide array of producers, one being the infamous Lee “Scratch” Perry. Meanwhile, the chaos on the island even worsened, making 1976 the most violent and intimidating year on Jamaica ever.
Romeo signed with Island and released the single War Ina Babylon, capturing the times’ spirit perfectly, which became a huge hit, in England as well. After the single the album with the same title followed.
War Ina Babylon
The combination of Lee “Scratch” Perry, who had just gained momentum with his regular group of musicians The Upsetters, and Max Romeo who had something to share, makes War Ina Babylon an instant roots reggae classic. Poverty, inequality, hopelessness, violence and also spiritual themes trade places on the Max Romeo & The Upsetters album.
All songs are equally great, with that characteristic Perry sound and Romeo’s voice that commands the listener to listen to its relevant lyrics, that do not only paint the picture of the problems, but also call out the root behind them. The solution to it all is blatantly obvious: stop poverty. Poverty leads to hunger, violence and inequality.
A whole bunch of reggae classics was released in 1976, from Bob Marley to The Mighty Diamonds and from Peter Tosh to Burning Spear. The one just as brilliant and impressive as the next. War Ina Babylon fits effortlessly amongst them. Together with The Heptones’ Party Time and Junior Murvin’s Police And Thieves, War Ina Babylon is part of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “holy trinity”.
A total of four singles were culled from the album: One Step Forward in 1975, War Ina Babylon and Chase The Devil in 1976 and Norman in 1977.
All songs written by Max Romeo and Lee “Scratch” Perry, unless stated otherwise.
- One Step Forward
- Uptown Babies (Max Romeo)
- Chase The Devil
- War Ina Babylon
- Stealin’ (Max Romeo)
- Tan And See (Max Romeo, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Brown)
- Smokey Room (Max Romeo, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Brown)
- Smile Out Of Style
After War Ina Babylon
Quickly after the release of War Ina Babylon Romeo and Perry got into an argument, resulting in Romeo self-producing successor Reconstruction. It couldn’t equal the predecessor’s success, not by a long shot.
In 1978 Romeo moved to New York and worked on the musical Reggae, where he played in as well. The name Romeo still drew attention, as witnessed by the guest appearance he made on the 1980 Rolling Stones album Emotional Rescue. In 1981 Keith Richards played on Romeo’s fourth album, Holding Out My Love To You, which wasn’t successful.
Romeo’s career drove itself into the ground and in the 1980s and early 1990s nothing (worthwhile) was heard from him. From 1992 and onwards he started releasing decent albums, like Fari Captain Of My Ship and Our Rights.
In 2016 something happened no-one expected, but many had hoped for, Romeo and Perry had reconnected. It immediately resulted in the best album Romeo had released since War Ina Babylon: the phenomenal Horror Zone.
What do you think of War Ina Babylon and Max Romeo? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Max Romeo’s classic War Ina Babylon. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.
Max Romeo image: ft.com
Max Romeo – Wet Dream image: dutchcharts.nl
Max Romeo & The Upsetters – War Ina Babylon image: rootsreggae.blogspot.com
Max Romeo & Lee "Scratch" Perry image: pinterest.com
Max Romeo – Horror Zone image: bol.com