A “rebirth” for the reggae icon
It’s been eight years since reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s last album—Black Magic, produced by Dave Stewart. Since then, he’s continued to tour the world, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, in 2011, recorded an album that is his best since the ’80s—the recently released Rebirth, produced by Tim Armstrong, an exceptional guitarist with deep roots in both punk and ska. (He is perhaps best known for fronting the San Francisco Bay Area band Rancid and for co-founding HellCat Records.) That may sound like an unlikely pairing, but it’s not.
“I’ve studied his music and his career and all those records he and his contemporaries made,” Armstrong says. “Ska, rock steady, reggae; I love all that. And Jimmy was there from the beginning; he was there in ’62 with [producer] Leslie Kong and obviously he’s done so much great stuff and been so influential. So getting to work with him was a real honor for me.”
“I knew about Tim via Joe Strummer of The Clash,” Cliff says. The Clash was a huge influence on Armstrong’s ska-punk outfit Operation Ivy and subsequent groups, and HellCat released two albums by Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros in the early 2000s. “Then Tim and I talked on the phone, and his energy felt good. By the time we actually met in the studio to work on a song he wrote called ‘Ruby Soho,’ everything felt so good I thought we should continue.”
In its original version on Rancid’s 1995 album …And Out Come the Wolves, “Ruby Soho” is very Clash-like, but when Armstrong and Cliff first got together at the historic Sunset Sound Factory Studios in May of 2011, “I played him ‘Ruby Soho’ on my acoustic guitar, thinking it was a song we could in do as a sort of late-’60s reggae—almost skinhead reggae—vibe,” Armstrong says. For the occasion, Armstrong had assembled some of his favorite musicians, known collectively as the Engine Room, “and when Jimmy heard those guys put it down, he really liked the vibe and the energy.”
The group consists of several longtime musical associates of Armstrong’s: bassist J. Bonner and drummer Scott Abel were key members of the L.A. reggae/ska/punk band The Aggrolites (who recoded for HellCat). Organist Dan Boer also played some with the Aggrolites and with another ska-rooted group, Go Jimmy Go. And Armstrong says he’s known Kevin Bivona, who played piano, guitar, and did some engineering on the Cliff album, “since he was 17 and joined The Transplants [one of Armstrong’s former groups] and we went on the Warped Tour. So these are cats I’ve know for a long time, who are students of reggae are very respectful about it.”
Indeed, in backing Cliff, the Engine Room went for “old-school” reggae sounds and textures more often than not, even favoring the same early-’60s organ that had been used at Dynamic Sound in Jamaica during Cliff’s late-’60s and early-’70s heyday. “That’s one of the things I really liked about working with Tim and the band,” Cliff says. “I had forgotten what some of those instruments were; some of those old keyboards and sounds. They’d say, ‘Well, you used this kind of organ on this old track,’ and I was like, ‘OK, let’s go!’ That band was a lot of fun to play with. And even though it might sound like an older style of reggae, it’s fresh for a younger audience today.”
Typically, Cliff had simple guitar-and-voice or piano-and-voice demos for his songs and then Armstrong “would figure out on an old Fender acoustic how the arrangement was going to be, and I’d show the guys and we’d start working out the rhythm—playing it over and over until you’ve got the bass, guitar, piano, organ and drums all locking in one bubble, one rhythm. So we’d work that out, and meanwhile Jimmy would be chillin’. And once we were totally locked in and rockin’ with one cohesive sound, then Jimmy would come in and he might say, ‘Why don’t we try this a little slower,’ or maybe ‘Bring it up a little bit,’ or he would say, ‘Let’s change the key.’ Whatever Jimmy wanted, we didn’t hesitate. You want to try every idea.”
The album was cut almost completely live, with the Engine Room set up in one of Sound Factory’s mid-sized Studio A (“It’s legendary; The Doors recorded there!” Armstrong crows), while Cliff was in an iso booth—known as “the Piano room”—just to Armstrong’s left, in full visual contact with the whole band, laying down vocals as they tracked. “Since we recorded it live,” Armstrong notes, “there was a certain amount of bleed going on, with piano mics picking up drums and guitar, and everything is sort of in everybody else’s mics, so there was no overdubbing on the main instruments later. So it was really important we get it right.”
“I still love the process of recording live with a band,” Cliff adds. “Once everybody learned the song and really got it, I’d go into my vocal booth, we’d count it off and that was it.” One tune, “Bang” is a first take. Others were usually chosen from just three or four takes.
One of the key tracks on the album, a powerful cover of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” had a different evolution, however. The night of the session for “Ruby Soho,” Armstrong relates, “We were all in the studio just jammin’and having fun and we started playing ‘Guns of Brixton.’ Jimmy was killing it with the nyabinghi [a Jamaican drum] and J’s wife was in there filming it. We were super-happy and fired up. The next day, before Jimmy came in, we looked at the footage and we thought it was awesome, so we took that original free-form ‘Guns of Brixton’ jam, set a tempo to that, and we tracked it for real. So when Jimmy came in, we had ‘Guns of Brixton’ already rockin’, and he loved it! I’ve got the acoustic Fender, and then that electric is me with a ’71 Gretsch Country Club—I’m going for sort of a Western showdown thing.”
Handling the miking, and manning the studio’s famous API console was lead engineer Clinton Welander, who proclaimed recording Cliff and the Engine Room “probably the most fun sessions I’ve ever been involved in.” Not surprisingly, the Engine Room band utilized the API’s much-loved preamps and EQs, while Cliff’s vocal went through a custom Sunset Sound preamp.
As for mics to capture Cliff’s lead vocal, Armstrong says, “Sometimes Jimmy sings really loud, like on ‘Cry No More,’ so we had a [Shure] SM7 for that kind of stuff, and for the more intimate songs, a [Neumann] U47 going through a [Chandler] TG-1 co0mpressor; so two different sounds. John [Morrical, who mixed the record at L.A.’s East West Studios’ on a Trident board] said he was using the U47 the most when he mixed.”
Armstrong’s many guitars went through one of two different amps, each with two mics—his Fender Twin had a Shure SM53 and AKG C12A, and his Fender Blues Deluxe had a Neumann U67 and a Sennheiser 421. Bonner’s bass took a Sound Factory DI (with a Jensen transformer) and was miked at the amp with a Neumann U67 and a Yamaha NS10 woofer (to capture sub information). The “secret” vintage organ (which Armstrong swore me not to reveal, under penalty of death) had two built-in speakers—one of which took a U87, the other a Shure SM57.
According to Welander, Scott Abel’s vintage Gretsch kit was miked with a Shure SM91 inside the kick, a Neumann U47 fet and an NS10 woofer outside; SM56 mics above and below the snare; a Sony ECM-50 lavalier on the hi-hat (“because it completely rejects everything else, so you have more control,” the engineer says); either 421s or U67s on the toms, depending on the tune; a Telefunken 251 and a Coles 4038 to capture the inside of the kit from different spots; a mono Sony C37A as an overhead; and an RCA 44 ribbon for a room mic.
Once the tracking sessions were over, there were what Armstrong calls instrumental “touchups” and background vocal and horn overdub sessions at a private studio in Laurel Canyon called Canyon Hut; those were engineered by mixer John Morrical.
Months later, with the album longfinished, Armstrong still can’t believe his good fortune to work with one his heroes. “The best part of the day was lunchtime at Sunset Sound Factory. There’s no other place you’d want to be. We’d gather around the picnic table and we’d sit there and eat lunch together, and I was telling the guys in the band, ‘Don’t ask him too many questions!’ Because we were all curious, of course. ‘Be cool!’ And then we’d start asking questions and the stories would just come pouring out. We were in heaven,” he laughs.
The end result is a vital, contemporary album that hearkens back to Cliff’s classic sound and overflows with the pointed social consciousness and humanity that put him on the map more than four decades ago. “It’s me,” he says simply. “I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to send this message.’ It’s just what I’m sensitive to. I just write what I feel. I’m at the center of my music, but at the same time, I’m tuned into the echoes of the people.”
Blair Jackson is a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician and Mix.