Dubspot Sub-Bass Studies Pt 1: Winston Riley – ‘Ring the alarm! Another sound man dying!’

Welcome to Sub-Bass Studies, the first of a series in which we’ll get under the skin of sounds that mean something now. As we do in our Music Foundations course, live here at Dubspot in NYC, I’ll be listening through the music to hear the rhythm of its ancestral DNA – because every song we love has a history. If you love a song, why not worship its ancestors? A Sub-Bass story could be about a track that’s scorching dancefloors now, or a tune that’s brought to mind by current events.

Winston Riley at Techniques Records on Orange Street, Kingston Jamaica, 1995 | photo courtesy of David Corio

Such is the genesis of this first Sub-Bass, which mourns the passing of Jamaican producer Winston Riley while honoring his extraordinary career trajectory, making hits with bold new sounds for an astonishing five decades. Recent rewards of sampling had helped Riley expand his operations, adding a recording studio and even a music museum to his store on Orange Street, Kingston’s shabby Tin Pan Alley. But though greatly loved and respected, Riley clearly had his enemies. His death on January 19 following a gunshot at his home, was the last round in a grim series of attacks, from a stabbing to the burning of his Orange Street operation, which he later re-built. No-one has been arrested and no motive is known.

Winston Riley at Techniques Records on Orange Street, Kingston Jamaica, 1995 | photo courtesy of David Corio

Riley’s first group, The Techniques, were part of a wave of harmony trios that dominated Jamaican music in the early 1960s, right round the time of the island’s independence. Heavily seasoned with Afro-American influence, trios like the Techniques, the Wailers and Toots and the Maytals were following the template laid down by people like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. That great master from Chicago helped move street corner doo-wop into the stirring, wrenching sounds that came to mean “soul” around the world, with a humanistic political philosophy that made us feel a gangster’s wounded manhood and understand the reverence a man can feel for his Queen. In fact, one of the Techniques’ most loved tunes is “Queen Majesty”, a version of a Mayfield song, “Minstrel and Queen”.

The Impressions “Minstrel and Queen (Queen Majesty)” from The Impressions (ABC-Paramount, 1963)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ffHHrXo-GMThe Techniques “Queen Majesty” from Little Did We Know (Treasure Isle, 1967)

After the Techniques, Riley kept on pioneering. His UK number one instrumental ska hit with Dave and Ansel Collins, 1971′s Double Barrel helped spark the mod/ska boom. Later in the decade, another massive riddim for Riley, and a great favorite at King Tubby’s Sound System, was a lethal one-drop bass which he named “Stalag 17″.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v64jglg7lI8Techniques All Star “Stalag 17″ (Techniques Records, 1973)

Thus, the haunting, heavy instrumental is forever linked to the 1953 tragic-comic Second World War prisoner escape flick of the same name Stalag 17, shot with typical brilliant cynicism by my favorite director, the great Billy WIlder. Take a look at the trailer for Stalag 17 here.

The “Stalag 17″ riddim attracted several top DJs including U-Roy and Big Youth. Its appeal never waned, and in the mid-80s, Riley re-vamped it again for another round of hits with a new generation of DJs. The version that stuck hardest was cut by a slight youth named Tenor Saw, born Clive Bright, as “Ring The Alarm”.

Tenor Saw “Ring The Alarm” (Techniques Records, 1985)

A true “ghetto star,” Tenor Saw came from the least materially privileged of an economically depressed underclass. He first flourished as the teenage protegee of another late Jamaican great, the socially-minded raggamuffin, Sugar Minott. Tenor Saw’s reedy, edgy singing matched the gripping lyrics: “Ring the alarm! Another sound man dying!”

The track became his prophetic legacy as just two years later, the 22 year old sound man’s body was found among some bushes at a roadside in Houston, Texas. Like Winston Riley’s death, Tenor Saw’s demise remains a mystery. The many rumors swirling round Tenor Saw’s death prompted a DJ tribute, “Who Killed Tenor Saw” by his old compadre, Nitty Gritty.

If “Ring The Alarm” may now seem to have a sinister frisson, thankfully that doom never touched the seemingly invulnerable Beyonce. She may spend more time in snazzy St. Bart’s than downtown Kingston, but Beyonce clearly still likes to think of herself as a Rude Gyaal. Last year’s “Girls (Run The World)” was based on Major Lazer’s dancehall tune “Pon De Floor”. But as far back as 2006, Beyonce was feeling dancehall with her take on “Ring The Alarm”. Producer Swizz Beatz, no stranger to dub and reggae, brought her the idea and co-produced. But the sparse, clangorous neo-dancehall of “Ring The Alarm” left Beyonce fans bemused with its unaccustomed aggression. It shows the ruff face of Beyonce, the one who’d spit in the dust and ball her fists to fight and scratch for her man. In fact, the very role Beyonce went on to play in her 2009 Obsessed movie co-starring Idris Elba!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1Yl8fZcLG0Beyonce performs “Ring The Alarm” live at the MTV Awards, 2006

On this live MTV Awards performance of “Ring The Alarm”, Beyonce is unusually covered up, in her high-necked ankle-sweeping trench coats, a bit like those of the German officers in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. Who knows whether Beyonce realized the role she was playing in the conceptual heritage of her song; but as dramatic searchlights sweep the stage, we see her swing down from on high, and hear an announcement — Beyonce’s a prisoner, busting out! The synchronicity is too great. Surely Beyonce knows the original “Ring The Alarm”, and that it was based on “Stalag 17″, which in turn was inspired by the Billy Wilder comedy escape flick set in a P.O.W. camp!

If she doesn’t, let’s hope she reads this and joins us in giving respect to the late greats who showed us how to find laughter even in the midst of tragedy, and to persist in what you believe in, even at risk of your life: Winston Riley, Curtis Mayfield, Tenor Saw, Sugar Minott and Billy Wilder.

Don’t miss Dubspot sub-bass studies parts 2 & 3 below.

Dubspot Sub-Bass Studies Pt 2: Skrillex vs. Yes – Prog Rock’s Influence on Dubstep?

Dubspot Sub-Bass Studies Pt 3: Burial – Peter Tosh – African Baka Water Music – Is There A Connection?

Vivien Goldman is a journalist, educator, and musician from London. She currently lives in New York City. Goldman’s fifth book The Book of Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley & the Wailers’ Album of the Century was published in 2006 on Three Rivers Press.

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