Culture

'Israelites': A Musical Exodus in Two Minutes and Thirty Five Seconds

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When my best friend and I finished high school, we made good on our long time plan to move to the big city.

We rented an east end house with a few other people, and the two of us shared the extra big upstairs bedroom.

I’d always known my friend was a heavy sleeper; she was almost always late for school, for instance.

But I didn’t know how heavy until we moved in together.

She slept through fire, car and smoke alarms, power drills, break-ins and raging roommate fights.

The morning I moved out — remember, we shared a bedroom  — she slept through that, too.

But that was one of the only differences between her and me.

We loved the same music: punk and “2-tone” ska revival. When you’re a teenager or just beyond, shared musical tastes “covereth a multitude of sins.”

One day she came back from Kensington Market with the Desmond Dekker single, “Israelites.”

Years before Bob Marley made reggae world famous (and ruined it with all that brain dead Rastafarian nonsense), Desmond Dekker’s peppy, infectious, out-of-nowhere ska song had been the first Jamaican record to make the international Top 10, selling millions of copies in 1969, and again when it was reissued in 1975.

“Israelites” quickly became our house anthem.

In those pre-iPhone and iPod days, my friend often said that if someone would just invent an alarm clock that played “Israelites” full blast, she’d never sleep in again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zors3Qe_YqI

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You might think “Israelites” must be about the Book of Exodus and the psalms of lamentation and Jewish exhiles weeping by the “rivers of Babylon.”

Or, since it’s an early reggae song, it must have something to do with “the lion of Judah” and “ganja” and “Jah.”

Actually, no.

Pre-internet, if you didn’t know an actual Jamaican who could translate the patois, you were hard pressed to correctly decipher all the words to the song. “Israelites” birthed many a mondegreen.

When you finally read the lyrics, they aren’t anywhere near as awe inspiring or majestic as the music has lead you to believe.

Musically, the beginning of “Israelites,” like Beethoven’s “Fifth,” is a portentious pre-proclamation, maybe the fanfare for a dead king.

Yet the accompanying lyrics dump us unceremoniously into a literally mundane place and time, depressingly familiar to mere commoners everywhere:

Get up in the morning slaving for bread, sir
So that every mouth can be fed
Poor me Israelites

We learn that the singer’s wife has taken the children and left. He’s struggling to make ends meet, and “don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.”

He sneaks onto a farm to steal something to eat. The landowner calls the cops.

And, well, that’s about it.

But even if you only managed to make out a third of the lyric after hundreds of listens, the opening line was unmistakable:

“Get up in the morning…” — sung in a doom-laden, dirgelike fashion that almost sounds like you’re playing the record at the wrong speed.

Who hasn’t felt that dread?

Of course, the lyrics to many beloved popular songs look deader — lying there listlessly on the page or the screen — than you expect them to. Like they should have chalk outlines around them. This is especially true of “Israelites.”

As well, like many a traditional American blues song, “Israelites”‘s relentlessly upbeat, uptempo music doesn’t “match” its downer lyrics.

That combination — one part exhilaration, one part depression — is a counter-intuitive musical cocktail that can leave you feeling weirdly euphoric.

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The summer of “Israelites” was a long time ago.

Ronald Reagan was still president. I was still drinking, and still dating my first “real” boyfriend.

My best friend and I were often mistaken for sisters. After I moved out, we talked every night on the phone, sometimes for hours. I was maid of honor at her wedding.

But then a new century dawned.

I have a few “9/11 friends,” as I call them. She’s one of those, someone whose “America asked for it” response to the attacks suddenly revealed aspects of her personality and personal philosophy that I’d been trying to ignore since Grade Eleven.

(And I’m sure she felt the same way about me screaming, “Bush should nuke Afghanistan!” when she called me that morning.)

A few years later, she moved out of the big city, had a baby, and probably has more than one now. We haven’t talked for a long time.

Years passed before the internet brought “Israelites” back into my life.

When it did, I played it over and over again.

I was pleased to discover that it was still the perfect musical accompaniment for housework, especially the really tedious, dirty kind you put off for as long as you can.

Sometimes the song transported me back to that old, bright yellow east end living room, where my friend and I drank too much coffee and beer, and smoked too much and complained about our crappy jobs and never fought about anything, ever.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ih26uQBff2g

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There was a time I’d have cc’d that friend on the email I sent out near the end of December, alerting my remaining “gang members” to the “Gen X” oriented specials BBC 6 was airing over the Christmas holidays.

Along with audio documentaries about David Bowie and reruns of Joe Strummer’s “London Calling” shows, Iggy Pop was hosting specials spinning records from his personal collection, as were former Sex Pistols front man John Lydon and the three surviving members of The Clash.

The playlists were meant to reflect some of these musicians’ early musical influences, so some of their selections probably surprised lots of listeners.

Tellingly, none of these old punks picked any punk songs.

The 57-year-old artist formerly known as “Johnny Rotten” fairly swooned — “Words fail me!” — before playing, of all things, The Bee Gee’s “Massachusetts.”

He wasn’t being “ironic” or “sarcastic” or “provocative” then, either, any more than when he cued up Perry Como’s “Papa Loves Mambo” and “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel.

And despite once famously wearing a “Pink Floyd” t-shirt with the words “I HATE” hand-scrawled across the chest, the punk pioneer acknowledged once again that, in fact, he’d always been kind of a fan of those long haired prog rockers, even when he was leading a musical revolution in the opposite direction. Lydon evidenced his devotion by playing The Floyd’s “Albert Lane.”

Lydon’s passion for reggae, however, is well known to his fans. It was on full display, especially when he introduced “Israelites”:

Desi Dekker.  Such an important fellow when we were young. I mean to us, when that record came on in the local youth center, that meant everything.

Up there with everything that really matters to me. Here I was, a working class lad and I can tell you from a very early age, I was an Israelite.

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In the 1960s and 70s, a major influx of Caribbean immigrants brought their style, food and music to London, England.

At the time, the geography of popular music veered between outer space and “Middle Earth” — anywhere, it seemed, but here and now — as glam and prog rock devolved into un-danceable, pretentious mock heroic operettas, performed by the elderly, the absurd and the fabulously weathly.

Younger kids bored with all this hippie noodling eagerly embraced the “short, shop shock” of ska and reggae they heard bouncing out of local “West Indian” shops and clubs.

(And sometimes on “pirate” radio; the state-run broadcasters wouldn’t dare play anything so exotic.)

White and black youth danced together to this raw, fresh beat, at Locarnos and community youth centers.

As English kids had done since skiffle, some of them formed bands of their own.

Biracial bands began the politically-oriented ska revival called 2-tone.

But a few years before that, some white kids kept the brevity of ska (and old time rockabilly), amped up the volume, and wrote lyrics that reflected their own experiences of poverty, crime and confusion.

Punk and reggae were both “rebel music,” but couldn’t have sounded more different. However, it was commonplace for early punk bands to play reggae records over the loud speakers before they took the stage. By doing that, and covering reggae classics, they introduced that sound to other kids in the city, and around the world.

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So I spent my last Christmas before turning 50 listening to BBC 6, while the guys who’d made the music I’d grown up with played the music they’d grown up with.

It was, well, exhilarating and depressing.

The Clash’s special was the one I looked forward to most, because the three don’t get together very often. Again, I didn’t find their playlist surprising — their musical influences are well known and obvious.

What did surprise me was that the one who chose to play “Israelites” that day was drummer Topper Headon. The last one to join the band, he was also the least familiar with reggae when he started, and he had to learn fast.

“I remember seeing [Desmond Dekker] on Top of the Pops,” Topper said by way of introduction.

Perhaps his Jewish ancestry prompted guitarist Mick Jones to put in:

“I always think about the parting of the Red Sea and the Israelites in The Ten Commandments (movie) and the Israelites escaping the Egyptians.”

“I don’t,” bassist Paul Simonon snapped, although the laughter of his two bandmates seemed to soften him. “I remember before it was on Top of the Pops. It was one of those songs that was actually allowed to be played on the radio, because back in those days they didn’t play reggae on the radio. People frowned on it. And I remember my friend buying the single, and he had this record player, and he bought ‘The Israelites’ because he still didn’t have any records.”

More laughter.

“It’s one of those we always used to hear in youth clubs and stuff when I was young,” Mick mused. “The sort of thing you’d hear in the background when you were playing ping pong.”

Topper tried to steer the conversation back to the song’s history as an unlikely mainstream hit by black artists that underpinned an underground musical movement led by whites.

(A movement now so mainstream that the BBC was eagerly entrusting its equipment, and the public airwaves, to some of the rebellion’s leaders — who were now sporting Saville Row suits, if even less hair.)

His gambit didn’t work.

Mick was still back at Edgware Road or thereabouts, hearing the same weird little song — through tinny, tiny speakers — that his future friends were listening to somewhere else, separately but together.

“I also imagined that the net, you know, on the ping pong table, was sort of like the Red Sea…”

“OK, Mick,” said Topper, not unkindly.

And then they played the song.