MAX ROMEO: CHASING THE DEVIL WITH LYRICS


Renegade child, ladies' man, devoted dreadlocks

Max Romeo is The Man


By David Katz

Like Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley, Max Livingston Smith also hails from the rural Parish of St Ann. on November 22, 1944, Max soon came to know hardship. By the age of ten, he moved to Kingston, where he began a transient existence after his mother's migration to England.

"I was taken to Kingston to live with my father," Max recalls. "He was married to another woman then, away from my mother. I spent some time with them, but me and my father's wife couldn't get along, so I had to run away from home. I drifted between my grandmother and my grandfather, both deceased now, and a aunt of mine who's still alive. Altogether it was four of us. I was the first kid, then there was three other sisters, one is also deceased now, and the other two are still alive. I grew more with strange people, because I was like a renegade child then."

Max spoke of his peculiar path to a singing career in his teenage years: "After drifting around for years, running back and forth, here and there, trying to find myself, I followed a friend of mine to a place, and I saw this man was sitting, looking at me. He called me over and said, 'A brown man like you, brown complexion...' Those days in Jamaica, high complexion people were looked upon to live certain standard. I was suffering then, one pants all torn, shirt without sleeves, shoes with hole in the sole and the heel leaning... He gave me a piece of paper and a pencil and said 'I want you to write 20 things in life you think you would want to be.' I sit down and I wrote from mechanic, electrician, painter, carpenter, pastor, singer - the works. He said 'I want you to narrow it down to two.' I was trying to find the easiest of them, so it came down to the preacher and the singer. He said 'Now I want you to choose one of the two', so I choose singer. He said 'OK, from now on, you're a singer, don't let nobody else call you anything other than a singer.' I was about 17 then."

"I left with that in my mind, and then I started working with a guy named Ken Lack, taking records to the record shop and things like that. I keep singing all the time, so he heard me singing one day and said, 'hey, give it a try.' The first song I did was 'I'll Buy You A Rainbow' and it went to number two on the charts. That was 1966. I started with two other guys singing harmony with me, Lloyd Shakespeare, the brother of Robbie Shakespeare, and this guy named Kenneth Knight, and we called the group Emotions."

"After a little while, there was disagreements in the group, and I decided to work on my own, and I met Bunny Lee then. At that time, he was working as a desk clerk at Kingston Industrial Garage, it's an auto parts shop. He wasn't yet really in the business. He used to be around Duke Reid and these guys, like bouncer type of guys, take the records to the radio station, see to it that they play it by any means necessary... Duke Reid gave him some studio time, and Ken Lack and myself put together some money to buy the tapes. Tommy McCook and the Supersonics played for him and he came up with a hit, Roy Shirley's 'Music For You' and Slim Smith, I think it was 'My Conversation.' That was the starting point for Bunny Lee."

Max says that Lee was partly responsible for the creation of his stage persona: "How that name came about, I was standing at this guy's gate, talking to his daughter one morning. I was there from about 8 o'clock the morning talking to her. I stand in a particular pose, and this guy push his bicycle up the road to work. Well, shortly after he left, I leave, but I came back, standing in the same spot with the same pose. He came from work, about to go in, and he look at me and say 'Wait! Same spot, same pose? You must be Romeo!' Bunny Lee catch onto the name and say 'Why not call yourself Max Romeo then?'"

Romeo's first solo outing was "Wet Dream", a song that Lee persuaded him to write. "I started moving with Striker. I was in the studio and if a rhythm was made, I would write songs and ride the rhythm. That's how 'Wet Dream' come into play, that was the first song with Bunny Lee. Obviously, he came with the idea to me about doing a slack song, because they were heavy into […] all these type of artists who was doing like rude songs, 'Shitting on the Dock of the Bay' and all those things. They was really into Blowfly then, that's an American artist. He (Striker) came with this idea about doing this dirty song, and I wrote the song, but I didn't want to sing it. And everybody he go to, everybody refuse to sing the song. Slim Smith don't want to sing it, Roy Shirley said 'no way', John Holt, 'no way', so him come back to me and say 'this song must be done.' So Bunny Lee came back to me and said 'OK, if you don't do it, you're out of here. You can't stay around, you have to do it.' So I said 'OK.'

"It was in Studio One, Coxsone himself was at the control board. I went 'round the mike and I start when the rhythm start (sings) 'Every night, me go to sleep, me have wet dream.' Coxsone shot off the board and get up and say 'Bunny, where you get that fool fool singer from?! I won't be a part of this foolishness! What kind of idiot business that you bring me into?' By this time now, Errol Thompson, he was an apprentice then at the studio. So Bunny Lee say 'We rent the studio, and we no really want a man to dictate to me how fe run my session. This man going fe do this tune and if you don't want fe do it, let the apprentice come.' So ET come 'round the board, and ET did the session. (Striker) took it to England to do some business with Pama with a bunch of tune, then he threw mine in as a make up, and that was the birth of 'Wet Dream.'"

A huge hit in the UK (despite a radio ban due to song's rude lyrics), "Wet Dream" paved the way for the recording of his first album, A Dream . Unfortunately for Max, the rude image of such early banal hits has stuck to him, despite the growing maturity and political relevance of his later work.

I said if I'm going to deal with Rastafari, then I might as well dedicate my whole life and my whole career to the cause...

A committed Rastafarian by 1969, Max quickly changed the focus of his songs to all things spiritual and political. "The transition was a personal commitment," Max recalls. "I started to listen to other (rude) songs from Lloyd Charmers, Prince Buster and I started to say, could I play these songs for my kids, proudly say 'come on, listen to your dad'?"

"Then I started being philosophical about life. I checked Muslim, it was too restrictive. I checked Buddhism, too much restriction. Christianity was a no-no, 'cause I already condemned that from the beginning. Then I stumbled into Rasta, stumbled into the faith and everything about it attracts me. It's a self-practice, there's no church to throw offerings, there's nothing pressing, it's an in thing; it's what you eat decide how long you live, and it's how you live decide how clean you are, and I start to assess the whole situation, I said 'I'm more comfortable with this.' Then I said if I'm going to deal with Rastafari, then I might as well dedicate my whole life and my whole career to the cause."

Max continued working with Striker as both lead and harmony vocalist: "I do a lot of harmonies on a lot of songs that Bunny Lee produced, I was like the harmony singer at that time. 'Bangarang', I sing a little harmony on that, a lot of Derrick Morgan's tunes I do harmony as well. I was like the harmony singer at that time." After such success with Striker Lee, he started work with Striker's close associates, the up and coming producers Lee Perry and Niney the Observer. "We were always together," Max recalls, "Niney, Scratch, Bunny Lee, myself, we're always together on each other's sessions." Max says the first song he recorded for Scratch was a guest vocal on the tune "Selassie", credited on release to the Reggae Boys in 1969. "Glen Adams carry good harmony, and Reggie (Alva Lewis), they were the Reggae Boys originally. Those two were the Reggae Boys and I was just doing an harmony on that song at the time, I wasn't really a part of the group."

A memorable Niney production of Max from the early 1970s in which Perry had a hand was "Rasta Bandwagon," in which Max castigates the growing number of false dreads. As Max remembers, "'Rasta Bandwagon' was done for Niney, but it was being distributed for us by Upsetter because by then, Upsetter had this little distribution going, so we decided to support it. We started to produce a few songs for that distribution and 'Rasta Bandwagon' was one of those songs. If you notice there is no drum in that song. I fired the drummer on the session, Horsemouth. It was the early days of Horsemouth, and every time we did a good take, he's off to the bathroom or somewhere, so I just fired him off that tune and said 'do it without a drum.' At the end of the day, we just use the stick they use to beat the bass drum in Niyabinghi wrapped in a little piece of cloth, so we just touch bass, boom!"

According to Max, the politically damning "Ginal Ship" was produced by Striker, not Scratch, although a 1971 Pama Supreme single lists Perry as producer: "I think that was produced by Bunny Lee. The melody line is 'Old Fowl Dead In The Market', it's an old calypso melody. In those days, when you're writing songs, you have to be close to a melody so it touch a chord in somebody and they can relate to it. You had was to do it that way, because it was a new beat, so the rhythms and melodies can't all be new. You have to be as close to traditional as you can, in order for them to get that taste..."

"'Ginal Ship,' it's like more a political thing. In those times, the political pressure was brewing up, it wasn't there full scale like now. Politicians was just getting that real crooked attitude, the way they are now. The ginal is the politicians who are hiking prices every day; not doing anything for the people but they're reaping a lot. They are the ginals. Ginal ship is the act of being a crook, (sings) 'crookedness mash up the country,' that's what I'm saying really."

Used by Michael Manley as his 1972 election campaign slogan, "Let The Power Fall" was Max's Rasta adaptation of a Christian hymn. "I figured that if I could use that as a medium to deal with my Rastafarian faith, I figured I would say 'let the power fall on I' instead of 'on me oh Lord' and then I put a story to it, because it was just a sing along, one verse singalong chorus. I added some depth, made a story, 'let the wicked burn in flames Far I,' so I transform it into a song rather than just a chorus. There was this guy Pat Cooper who was supposed to be working as (Manley's) PR. They contacted me and he said they want to use it, so I said 'OK, I need a promotion, so why not?'. I felt all right about it."

In the early 1970s, Scratch produced the memorable "Babylon's Burning" (who Max says features "me and the Heptones, excluding Leroy Sibbles") and later "Three Blind Mice" in collaboration with the great King Tubby. As Max recalls it, "Scratch built the rhythm, King Tubby produced the vocal with me. I voiced it in King Tubby's studio for King Tubby at that time and he mixed the dub. His sound was the first to play about 14 different versions of the song, all different type of cuts, all different type of things happening in various parts of it, 14 different cuts of 'Three Blind Mice' he had, before it hit the street!"

Max's "Macabee Version" caused a strong impact through its radical lyrics, but according to Max the creation of the tune has "a very sad story behind it. I wrote that song, I produced it. Nobody want to hear it, the radio station - 'rubbish.' The record shop - 'rubbish.' I went to Bunny Lee, I said 'help me with this song' and he took it to the radio station. The day I asked him to help me with the song, I walk away and a guy come and offer me $200 for the song, a guy named Willie Francis, Little Willie label. Willie Francis came to me and said 'Look, I see you struggling with this, it not going nowhere. I'll give you $200 and I'll take the song and deal with it.' $200 then was a lot of money, it was $1.75 US for one Jamaican dollar, so I said 'OK Willie.'"

"He gave me the $200, and I walk away from Caribbean Distributors on the left hand side of the street over to Bunny Lee's shop on the right hand side; Bunny Lee had already asked them to play it at the radio station and it was played. KG send his van down for 1,000 copies. Now here I am with 200 lousy dollars in my pocket, and yet this guy order 1,000 copies of the record, he just run me out of his bloody shop! So Bunny Lee said 'OK, no feel no way, you have the rhythm? Yeah, let's voice it again, and let me and Willie Francis sell it.' So I voice it again, this time with Derrick Morgan saying 'Hail I Jah! Rastafari,' a different cut, right? He was selling it, and Willie Francis was selling it, making money, and all I get for my song is a lousy $200! I was a sucker for that song."

In 1975, Romeo recorded Revelation Time with producer Clive Hunt at Lee Perry's Black Ark studio; the disc is something of a landmark in that it is the first reggae concept album. A stunning work of seriousness and conviction, it shows the strength of Romeo's singing and song writing abilities. "The entire thing was recorded at Black Ark," says Max, noting the exception of "Three Blind Mice" which was done at Randy's. "There was this company that emerged, the same guys that was doing PR for Michael Manley, this guy Pat Cooper, and he's got another brother named Tyrone, he had this little company going called Sound Tracks Limited. He had Bob Andy, Geoffrey Chung as a producer. I don't think Clive Hunt was in it then, but a few heavies; it was that upper type of atmosphere."

"I was in the office one day and I saw Geoffrey Chung come in with a bill for mixing a 45, the bill was like $20,000. Pat Cooper takes care of it. Now, if I want to see the Prime Minister, no sweat... One day he came to me and said 'This company's not going to work, Max.' I said, 'Too much money's going out and nothing's happening. Look man, I'm not an informer here, but the way you're paying out, spending $20,000 mixing one 45, this is not Motown! Case in point, I'm going into the studio now with $5,000 and I'm going to produce an album to you, mixed and ready for production.' He said, 'No, you can't!' I said, 'Give me $5,000.' He gave me the $5,000 and I came back with two reels of mixed two track tapes with Revelation Time album on it."

"They went and did a deal with United Artists on it, behind my back, which was kind of... But Max Romeo on United Artists, that was more important to me than the bloody little pennies they were collecting on it anyway. So I didn't say anything, I just keep my mouth shut. I didn't want to rock the boat, I wanted to be on United Artists with even one record even if it was a mediocre. You know what I mean? This was UA here! That was my approach. That was how the whole album came into conception."


(Left) Max Romeo in Belgium, 2001 (photo courtesy of Reggae Vibes)

War In A Babylon , his 1976 follow up for Perry, was even stronger. Released by Island to much international critical acclaim, it is arguably his finest work to date. Max described it as "the album that kills me and then brings me back to life, the story of my life, the one I hate to tell! It's a story of sorry, and hungry and frustration, and near to suicide, an inch away from schizophrenia, the album that kills me and brings me back to life, War In A Babylon ! Because 21 years after, I'm yet to see the first royalty statement, and I cried blood, and I cried tears, and ever piss came out of the corner of my eyes, nobody listens!"

"A contract with Island is like a death certificate that's void, ain't nothing happening. It doesn't matter, I didn't have one anyways... I had one in the early days, but when I realised the trick that was being played on us, I rebel. When I realised that what they do, they sign all the artists that was a threat to Bob Marley and put them on the shelf so they can send the King ahead and crown the King, we were all victims and we were all sacrificed to make the Marley empire. We thank God for it, because the world would hear reggae music."

According to Max, this album had a complicated genesis: "I had this song 'War Ina Babylon' when me say 'it wicked out there, it dread out there.' I took it to (Scratch), I said, 'You like it?' 'Yeah!' Excitement. 'But, no dread and no wicked, it sipple out deh!' So I said, 'Yeah, that have a ring to it. It sipple out deh' - because sipple mean slippery, you know, it's slidey out there. I said, 'yeah, fantastic idea... war ina Babylon, it sipple out deh. Yeah Scratch, that's it.' So I record the song, that was the only song that I record then."

"Chris Blackwell came to the studio one day, and (Scratch) played the song for him. He said, 'Yeah, we can do an album with this artist.' So we said 'OK Scratch, let's do the album' and we did the album then. When Bob hear the 'War Ina Babylon' track he was ecstatic, he said 'let me do this song.' Scratch said 'no, this is Max Romeo's song, make him do it.' So he went away and recorded 'Three Little Birds' because it's the same bass line. I said 'OK Bob, take it, you got a slice of it, I've got to sing mine!' So we did the song. Scratch got $15,000 (JA) for producing the song. After production costs he gave me $2,500. That's the only money I get to date."

Another song that Max remembers Perry restructuring was "Chase the Devil": "In those days, you write a song and you take it to Scratch, it's never good enough. No matter how good your song is, it's never good enough, you have to sit, you've got to debate it, and then you've got to take out that, put that in, and at the end of the day, you give him 50% of the publishing."

"One Step Forward," the album's opening track, was also issued as a single. "It goes back to Michael Manley again," says Max of the song's inspiration. "Michael Manley won (the election), he sits for a while. There was nothing happening. So I said 'wait, we're taking one step forward and two steps backward because you don't know whether to suit Uncle Sam or to suit the people. One day you're a dreadlocks to hold up the rod of correction and the next day you're a bald head. Onward, forward and don't step backward man, make we step out of Babylon!' That was straight to Manley's head, and then come 'No Joshua No.' "

"I was waking up the guy because he was sitting up in Jamaica House and he was meeting friends for two years and not doing nothing after he went in. So I said 'You took them out of bondage and they thank you for it, you sing them songs of love and they tried to sing with it, but now in the desert, tired, battered, bruised, they think they are forsaken, they think they have been used, since you are my friend Joshua, Rasta is watching and blaming you.' And that pulled him out of his chair, he called me in to Jamaica House, sit me down, and said 'look man, I must confess, that song pulled me out of my chair. I've got to do something, go home, I'll see what I can do, please don't sing no more politics songs for now, give me a break, let me show you what I'm going to do' and he created Land Lease Project, Crash Programme, JAMAL, all the social programmes of '72 that had guys washing their cars with Heineken Beer and all them things came into existence. And then, they take flour out of the barrel and the fish from off the shelf and there was no food, and because of that, the same trick that they used on Marcus Garvey, they used it on Michael Manley: No food, no vote. And the private sector said 'if you don't swing away from Castro, no food!' And that was the end of Michael Manley."

Another notable track from the album is "Norman", who Max says is based on a real person. "Norman is a friend of mine, Norman Eliot from Bull Bay in St. Thomas. A very good friend of mine, I used to hang out at that guy's house every evening. We play cards, it's like a little gambling gathering 'mongst us when the day is done to unwind. He was the house master. He buys the deck, he gives us the table and the chair, and you can get a beer and things like that. Every six games you play, he's got to collect, and that's the way he runs the business, but if you're broke, you say 'Norman, I beg you a less.' He's drawing 'less,' the money that he draws from you, we call it 'less'; it's a tax. He tax the players every sixth game they play. If I say 'Norman, beg you a less' he'd say 'me? I want more!' That way, he never lose, always win, but he never give away a pin. I didn't say he cheated. When he play, he always trumps a jack, because if you trump a jack you win, or if you trump a six you win. But every time he shuffles, he trumps a jack. He's setting the deck, 'he always sets the pack, he always trumps the jack, and every hand that he shows you is a flush or a straight.' You can't win!"

"After doing the song, I went back home and I saw Norman. Norman says 'Max, you have my name and make money off foreign man.' I said 'Norman, how old are you?' He said '45.' I said, 'You have your name for 45 years, never use it? I take it and use it now to make some money. You can't argue with me man! Anyway, here's some money, have a drink."

We were all victims and we were all sacrificed to make the Marley empire. We thank God for it, because the world would hear reggae music.

Although Perry is later said to have called Max Romeo a "White Belly Rat" in one of his singles, Max says Scratch first asked him to voice the tune, "and I wouldn't, because it was singing about Bunny Lee. Bunny Lee is supposed to be the white belly rat. He and Scratch always have a feud, I don't know why, but even now, they are friends today and they are enemies tomorrow, and they are friends the other day, and enemies the other day. Me and Scratch is very close, but during his transition to the heights that he's in, we rarely meet, and when he don't see me, I think some times, he feels that I'm a traitor by not tracking him down. Because one day Max Romeo is Judas, he used to play that game with me in the studio. He doesn't see me for a month, and if you go in the studio you see all my pictures marked Judas. Then here I come, everything's come down, new pictures go up. I disappear for another month, you go in there, 'Max Romeo - Judas.' Max Romeo this, Max Romeo that. Me and the guy so close. Right now there are elements that are trying to come between us that I don't understand. In my mind, a lot of people say Scratch is mad. In my mind, Scratch is not mad. Scratch is on a heights that he choose to be, and he wants to keep people off him. It's a charade game he's playing. He's very capable. That guy, he's an old guy, and he's as young as the youngest guy. He stand on one foot and use his toe, touching his forehead. He's just in a heights that a lot of people don't understand. He's not crazy. He's just trying to keep certain people off him."

His next Island album, Reconstruction , was not given much promotion, and fared less well despite some strong material. The disc's hit "Melt Away" remains a constant favourite of Shaka's sound system, and has recently resurfaced on a clandestine single. "That was the star track on that album," says Max, "Island didn't even know what record they had. That song was co-written by Earl 'Chinna' Smith. I never do an album without Chinna's participation, unless I'm not in the country. As long as I'm there, Chinna have to participate. He always do a track of his idea, organise the rhythm and things like that, so that's how "Melt Away" came in. The rhythm is Chinna's original thing. I know Boris Gardiner played bass, and I think it was Winston Wright (on keyboards)."

Shifting his base to New York in this period, Max's recorded output began to slow down. "I bought myself three vans, and started a courier service in New York, just to cool my head off. Then I met Sonny Ochai finally, I took him to Bullwackie who had a little studio in New York. We did that album, I Love My Music . That's what started Tachyon actually, and I did this album that Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones played lead guitar on, Holding Out My Love To You . I gave Tachyon that as well, it was released through Shanachie Records. That was how the whole Japanese thing came through."

In the late 1980s, Romeo linked up with his old crony Lee Perry for some work in New York on an album that later surfaced as Transition ; although the pair began the album together, it was finished with little input from Perry. "The whole idea was to do an album, Max Romeo meets Lee Perry," laughs Max at the memory, "I'm going to do one side of the album and he's going to do the other. But when he flew over to New York, the plans change. He ended up doing two albums for company, and I end up doing one, which is Transition. All he had was to do was to be in the studio. He didn't do anything else other than that then; by the time that session was done, that studio had to be re-painted. He was scrawling all over the bloody ceiling!"

Returning to Jamaica in the early 1990s, Romeo recorded two albums of note for London's sound system king, Jah Shaka: "Shaka came to Jamaica with nothing in mind, and he want was to do some recording but he didn't have anything planned really. He ran into me so I said 'Look man, let's do something. Why not?' We did the first album, Tafari Captain Of My Ship , and he get distribution from Greensleeves. He figure it was a good idea to go further on and see what's happening. Then we did 'Our Rights.'"

For the last three years, Max has remained solidly on the road. Although he rarely appears live in the UK, he has regular concert appearances in Europe and Japan. "I figured I'm going to tour for five years," Max explained, "I've gone three already, I've got two left. After that, it will be strictly recording, and then I want to invent I new era in music, I want to cross these old battle hymns. I'm planning a new project, I want to bring something different from what's happening."

Staying true to his name, Romeo is now father to ten children; his own mother passed away in London after experiencing heart trouble in 1997, and is dearly missed by all who knew her. Max says he looks forward to a quiet life in years to come. "I want to retire on a farm, that's all I'm asking of my career. Give me a little farm somewhere, some place where I can grow enough food to feed my kids."

Max's long-standing involvement in reggae music is ultimately a testimony to his talent as a singer and song writer. His intriguing lines, sometimes adapted to folk tunes and religious hymns, often infused with hard-hitting political content, has kept him active through four decades of musical production. Although the risqué nature of a few early novelty hits has been given undue attention in the media, the greater portion of Romeo's work has been radically challenging and overtly political. Still active as a recording and performing artist, Max Romeo remains an artist of note.

September 2003.