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Interview: Max Romeo (2013)

Interview: Max Romeo (2013)

Interview: Max Romeo (2013)

By on - Photos by Christian Bordey - Comment

"Scratch is the only man in the world who is as sane as can be and make millions out of madness!"


“Give me a break please. I’m doing an interview” says Max Romeo to his English musicians the Charmax Band. He’s cutting short a lively dressing area confab after a triumphant performance at Summerjam Festival in Cologne. “Keep a lid on it for a while.”

Max Romeo

He has stepped in to replace Ken Boothe who has curtailed his entire European tour (fear not: Mr Boothe’s management assure us that his health is not the reason – just a logistical mix-up). Later Max will step in again for another legend - the injured Toots Hibbert - at WOMAD in England. The Romeo tour, which takes in Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and now Germany, seems to be mopping up his colleagues’ cancelled dates. Is Max the man reggae festivals call in a crisis?

“I’m the man who fix a problem. I’m Mr Fix It.”

We thought Winston Francis was Mr Fix It?

“No, no, he is Mr Repair” says Max with a laugh “I’m Mr Fix it”.

I’m the man who fix a problem

“It’s just my nature.” He continues. “Help is my middle name when it’s dishing out. My agent learned of the difficulty and called me and said ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s fun doing it. I love to be on the stage.”

Even so, does he feel the need to make an impact when coming in at short notice? In his answer the regard Max has for a friend and elder statesman is clear.

“Yeah. I’m trying to appease the situation for Mr Boothe. I have to do my best because I’m doing Mr Boothe’s show. I can’t go in and do no little finicky thing. I have to give them the real thing like Mr Boothe was here.”

Dressed in white with greying locks, the slightly built Max might be a venerable veteran himself, but he is keen to salute the generations that came before. On this tour he has been closing with a ska medley featuring Byron Lee productions like Wings Of A Dove, Sammy Dead and Ska Ska Ska, as well as Derrick Morgan’s Sunday Monday. As a youth, the young Max Smith was enthused by the pioneering Jamaican beat to become a singer.

“Byron Lee became a good friend of mine. And Derrick Morgan is actually my godfather in the business. He was the guy who inspired me most of all in the early days when I was first coming. He is the grandfather of reggae and still alive and still performing.”

Derrick Morgan is actually my godfather in the business

The ska had slowed to rocksteady when Max got his initial whiff of musical success. It touched his very first group the Emotions, formed with Robbie Shakespeare’s brother Lloyd and Kenneth Knight. They voiced Buy Me A Rainbow for Ken Lack of the Caltone label which became a Jamaican hit in 1966.

“It was a short, short period but it was my starting point. The first song I recorded with the Emotions went on both national charts at the time. It went as far as number two but because of lack of proper promotion it tumbled back out of the chart and did not make it to number one. But that was my first effort and that inspired me to continue.”

Max is forthright about his reasons for leaving the Emotions. He didn’t like the committee-based approach to planning his career.

“We only did five songs together and I decided to go solo because I didn’t like singing in groups. I liked to make my decisions without asking somebody else’s opinion. I guess I’m a little selfish in that area but that’s what happened.

I didn’t like singing in groups. I liked to make my decisions without asking somebody else’s opinion

After I left Kenneth Knight migrated to Cayman and Lloyd Shakespeare died. Audley Rollins took over from me as leader of the group.”

Today Max uses an English band - including female duo Diane White and Caroline Williams of Realtalk Productions. The weekend before his WOMAD appearance he will give a free concert in London’s Brockwell Park (to a Brixton reeling from the cancellation of Beres Hammond later that evening). Max has a lot of love for England. After all, it gave him his first international hit as a solo singer with the risqué Wet Dream on the burgeoning reggae beat in 1969.

“England is a very important place for reggae. That was where the birth place in the Pama days and the good old Trojan days when things were happening. I have never turned my back on England. I have to give back something because that was where Wet Dream was born.”

I was the first rhythm rider

Wet Dream reached the UK top 10 despite being banned by the BBC. The taste of fame was all the sweeter because Max had followed his idol Derrick Morgan on to the rhythm decades before re-versioning became the norm.

“Yeah, Derrick did the original. Hold You Jack! I was the first rhythm rider in that sense that it takes another man rhythm make a song and it makes a bloody hit!”

Part of Max’s draw as a live act is that he is still happy to play the hits from times gone by. No set is complete without selections off his two best loved albums 1975’s Revelation Time and 1976’s War Inna A Babylon – the former recorded partly and the latter totally at Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Ark studio. By the Perry period the slack lyrics of Wet Dream had been replaced with Rastafarian social commentary. Three Blind Mice from Revelation Time told the story of a raid on a 1975 sound system dance in Waterhouse held by the great King Tubby.

Max Romeo“Well, the dancehall situation in Jamaica with the police – the Christians don’t like reggae in general so whenever the sound systems string up near their home they would call the police and the police would retaliate sometimes violently. So most of the time in the raid most of the people will try to take themselves away because you don’t want to get involved with it so you scatter in all directions. King Tubbys was actually the official producer of this song. Lee Perry was actually the distributor on his Upsetter Label.”

The song Tacko – meaning “Idiots” or “Fools” – Max recalls as referring to the sceptics who reported the death of Haile Selassie in 1975.

“I think it was the Jamaican situation when they claim that His Majesty passed off. And a lot of people said ‘Yeah, Rasta dead because Selassie dead’. But we held on to the faith that the man is still alive. Well, let’s say even if his body perished his spirit still strong, it is still here, we still embrace it”.

A favourite from the Island Records distributed War Inna Babylon that he sings at almost every concert is Uptown Babies Don’t Cry. Yet a lot of the people at these European festivals are uptown babies. Do they get the message or do they just enjoy the tune?

“Well they should get the message. I’ve been doing this song for nearly 40 years and they have been hearing it. It’s the same song I’m doing so they should get the message by now. That we need a cure for poverty. That’s all the song is pointing to. We’ve got to find a serum that can cure poverty. It’s the world’s most dreaded disease that everybody turns a blind eye to.”

We’ve got to find a serum that can cure poverty

What is the cure?

“A pay cut for the rich. Toss a little across so we can get a pinch of it. I think that would help to do it.”

After the crossover success of War Inna Babylon, Romeo and Scratch famously fell out. Perry recorded the dismissive White Belly Rat and wrote “Judas” over Max’s photograph in his studio. Now Max and Scratch share a bill at WOMAD. Max says the whole feud with the so called ‘mad genius’ was exaggerated.

“We never had a problem. He just incorporated that into the little charade. He is the only man in the world who is as sane as can be and make millions out of madness!”

The 1970s roots reggae era with Scratch is generally regarded as Max’s peak. But in recent years his career has been revived by the love of his music in Europe. In 2007 he made headlines by saying that France and not Jamaica was the stronghold of reggae. Recently industry insiders have suggested that the Americas have become bigger markets than Europe yet Max says nothing has changed.

“And I still say it. It is still true. I’m sorry; no disrespect to Germany but it’s still true. Well for me that’s my theory. I’m not too sure if everybody shares that view but it’s my view because that’s where I get my start all over again. That’s where my starting ground lies. The French people are the ones who actually started to follow me on a positive note. I started getting a lot of work and everybody just fall right in. I’m in love with Europe in general.”

The best performance the next day at Summerjam was rising Jamaican Rasta star Chronixx. What does Max think of the young roots artists – how big an impact are they having in Jamaica or do they, like Max, have their spiritual and commercial capital abroad?

“I think it’s great. I like Chronixx because he’s singing roots and culture with a little gimmick. It’s very catchy. He’s very good. Romain Virgo is a good promising artist as well. There’s a few of them I’ve been listening to, they have some promise and show some promise. They show you that reggae will be for a loooong time.”

I like Chronixx because he’s singing roots and culture with a little gimmick

Last year Max showcased his own younger generation by taking his sons Romario and Ronaldo on tour with him. Their duo Rominal is currently hard at work on a debut album with Jahlonzo of Dubtonic Kru.

Right now they are in the studio trying to complete the album and getting ready to come on the road. Jahlonzo is the arranger and producer and everything. I assist with a little expertise whenever I can but I want to sit back and let them do it alone so I can hear their feel instead of their feel and mine, if you know what I mean.”

“Hopefully it will be out after the summer in time for the Christmas season. They’re doing good and I think they are going to join me at the end of the tour. They will be out with me further down in the summer.”

Meanwhile Max has been tinkering with his own forthcoming studio album titled The Love Of Money The Root of all Evil.

“I’m in the mixing stage of completing it. I’ve been doing over two years now. But every time I hear it I keep hearing something else where I need to make changes. In another couple of months it will be competed. It will be coming soon.”

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