Every so often in this countdown – and quite frequently during the fertile late-sixties – we come across a record that sounds like a huge leap forward. This next chart-topper is one such song…
Israelites, by Desmond Dekker & The Aces (their 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 16th – 23rd April 1969
It starts with a chant: Get up in the morning, Slaving for bread… accompanied by some doo-wop harmonising. So that every mouth can be fed… Pretty bleak stuff. Oh-poor, me Israelites… Then in comes a jaunty, bouncy riff. There’s a big contrast here between the lyrics and the tune, but it works.
I have to admit – channelling my dear departed Gran here – that I have no idea what Desmond Dekker is singing for most of this disc. His Jamaican accent is uncompromising. You can picture fathers up and down the land frowning at Top of the Pops. ‘What is this nonsense? It seems that his wife and kids have left him, he has no money, and he may have to turn to a life of crime: I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde…
The title refers to Rastafarianism, which has its roots in Israel. (I never thought that I’d be getting into theology, but here goes…) Rastafarians were 2nd class citizens in a predominantly Christian Jamaica, and often had to struggle to make ends meet. But, like all the best songs-with-a-message, ‘Israelites’ doesn’t forget to be catchy. It works as well on a basic level, one that you can shake your body to, as it does as a social commentary.
We’ve had a couple of reggae false-starts over the past year. The Equals were reggae-tinted rock. Marmalade aped The Beatles aping reggae – the ‘Desmond with a barrow in the market place’ from ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ was based on Desmond Dekker – but it is now official. Reggae has arrived at the top of the British charts. I have to admit that it’s a genre I struggle to enjoy – even more so when it comes to ska and two-tone – but I love this record. It’s raw, it’s cool and authentic.
Coming as it does after Marvin Gaye, ‘Israelites’ also marks the first time we’ve had consecutive chart-toppers by black artists (I’m deliberately not counting the time in 1959 when The Platters replaced Shirley Bassey). While we’ve had plenty of black artists hit the top-spot, ‘Israelites’ feels different. It was written, produced and performed by black Jamaicans. It doesn’t sound like it’s had its edges softened to sell more. It is – I’ve used this word already but it fits very well here – uncompromising in its sound.
Desmond Dekker and The Aces enjoyed a few more chart hits in the UK. ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ – a much more accessible record than ‘Israelites’ – made #2 the following year. He was also one of the first people to spot and promote a young Jamaican by the name of Bob Marley. He passed away in London, in 2006.
Just as interesting – if less important in the grand scheme of things – is the fact that this record marks eleven chart-toppers in a row that have been their artists one and only #1. (Do you get what I mean? I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase that sentence.) From Mary Hopkin through to The Aces, we’ve had half a year of artists enjoying their one and only moment at the top. Which I think must be – or be close to being – a record. Bringing that run to an emphatic end, however, are The Beatles, an act that have enjoyed a few more number one singles than most…