In June 1969 there was something missing when the BBC announced the new UK chart on a Sunday evening. At #10 “a record by Max Romeo” was referred to then on to the next. “Wet Dream”, a song about sleeping under a leaky roof (yeah right Max) was banned by the only British music station but Reggae was not only favoured by skinheads that summer. Desmond Dekker’s “It Mek” & Max’s early example of Jamaican slackness could be heard, mixed in with the Motown, wherever young people gathered to dance. “Wet Dream”, a combination of novelty, suggestiveness & a damn good tune, sold 250,000 copies & Max Romeo became known as a very Rude Boy.
There was no successful follow-up to the hit. With producer Bunny Lee Max tried more slackness but that novelty had passed. There were ill-judged cover versions from the middle of the road (“Puppet on a String” !) while his own songs showed a growing concern with social issues & Rastafarian culture. “Let the Power Fall on I” was adopted by Michael Manley’s People’s National Party who campaigned & won an election in 1972 with policies including equal pay, a minimum wage & free education. Max liked the sound of that & wrote a number of songs promoting the PNP. They were an extension of previous conscious lyrics like “Rent Crisis” & “Black Equality”, sweet vocals setting out simple, direct & sincere sentiments. It’s difficult to resist a tune titled “Socialism Is Love”.
In the early 1970s Max Romeo worked mainly with Bunny Lee, Niney the Observer & Lee Perry with one-off recordings for other Kingston producers. The songs, with versions by men like Dennis Alcapone, (“Jordan River”), I Roy & King Tubby, are clear, attractive polemics, provocative & anticipating the coming “Rasta Bandwagon”. There are some gems to be found from this period. By 1975 the LP “Revelation Time”, a consistent, original collection, was only available in Jamaica. There were at least 10 single releases in 1975 & one of them stood above the rest.
“One Step Forward” was produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry who had engineered much of “Revelation Time”. Scratch’s reputation is as a mad, stoned Dub alchemist but for this LP, “War Ina Babylon”, Max has said there was “a one hundred percent scrupulous function” in the studio. There was a deal with Island Records, a guaranteed international release for “War….” & the Romeo/Perry partnership stepped up to the mark. This is a more refined Reggae, house band the Upsetters providing sympathetic, confident rhythms to Max’s assertive lyrics. In 1976 the possibilities of Reggae LPs were being stretched by Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Vibration” & the debut records of his brothers from the original Wailers. In his backyard Black Ark studio Lee Perry’s work with the Heptones & Junior Murvin was a benchmark for a commercial, still conscious sound. “War Ina Babylon” sits just fine with both of these strands, An essential Reggae LP.
The alliance with Perry didn’t last nor did the good relations with Island. Max took care with his publishing business, the much-sampled “Chase the Devil” from “War…” proved to be a consistent earner. However the money & promises made by producer & record label were not forthcoming. 1977’s LP “Reconstruction” was self-produced but Island’s promotional priorities were geared towards making Bob Marley an international superstar. The late UK release of “Revelation Time” also deflected attention from his new material. It’s a pity that songs as good as “Melt Away” failed to consolidate the higher profile his great record had brought him.
Max Romeo left Jamaica for work in the US, continuing to record, perform & write those good songs. In 1981 the “Holding Out My Love To You” LP, an attempt to crossover into the American market, was co-produced by Keith Richards. After the notoriety of “Wet Dream” he established himself with a series of early Rasta, direct & melodic political songs which were often too candid for Jamaican radio stations. “War Ina Babylon” is his masterpiece, still sounding great 40 years on. It’s an entry point for some seriously good Reggae music.