Canadian band Magic! had a smash hit and viral sensation this year with their single “Rude.” Its melody and lyrics are pure pop but it’s music and title reference a genre with origins in a far sunnier climate, Jamaican reggae. They are far from the first white musicians to experiment with reggae’s offbeat rhythms and seductive grooves. Since the late 1960’s, some of music’s biggest acts have tried their hand at the style with varying degrees of musical (and chart) success.
Reggae evolved from previous indigenous Jamaican musical styles, slowing down the pulsing rhythms of early ‘60s ska, turning up the bass and often dealing with the spiritual themes of the Rastafarian religious movement. Under the guidance of superstar Bob Marley, it went global and made inroads into popular music, especially in the United Kingdom with its large Jamaican population. Its atypical rhythmic reliance on the offbeat and subtle instrumental complexity is one of the trickier musical idioms to master, especially for white rock n’ roll musicians who tend to play flat out. Many have tried, usually when using it more as an influence than a template, and many more have failed. Let’s stroll down musical memory lane and see which musicians have tried their hand at reggae “riddims” and see how they did.
The Beatles “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (1968)
You wouldn’t know it from it’s herky jerky rhythms, but this Paul McCartney-penned song was his attempt at reggae. Written as the first rush of reggae singles was making a splash in the UK, the “Desmond” of the lyrics refers to Jamaican singer Desmond Dekker, whose classic single “Israelites” was the first top 10 reggae hit in the US and UK charts.
Paul Simon “Mother & Child Reunion” (1972)
Simon became so enamored of reggae music he actually recorded this song in Kingston, Jamaica with members of Jimmy Cliff’s band and Toots & the Maytals. It was probably the first time many Americans heard a proper reggae groove, even if it was backing up a 5 foot tall Jewish kid from Queens, NY.
Led Zeppelin “D’yer Mak’er” (1973)
Much like The Beatles, someone needs to tell you the masters of hard rock are trying to play reggae for you to realize it. The title, which is a play on the word “Jamaica,” was supposed to be a nod to the genre’s native isle but unfortunately most fans mispronounced it “Dire Maker.”
Eric Clapton “I Shot The Sheriff” (1974)
The blues rock guitarist made the wise decision to not attempt full-on reggae for this Bob Marley cover, and instead opted for a funk rock vibe. Legend has it that Marley was so incensed when hearing it on the radio instead of his original version, he stormed the station playing it and brandished a machete.
The Rolling Stones “Hey Negrita” (1976)
Bad reggae and a really questionable song title from one of The Stones worst albums. According to singer Mick Jagger the title was his nickname for then-wife Bianca Jagger, however the band’s legacy of sexist lyrics belies the point and what’s worse is their over-wrought attempt at reggae authenticity.
The Clash “Police & Thieves” (1977)
This first-wave British punk band went to great lengths to let everyone know how much they loved reggae music. If this version of the Junior Murvin classic succeeds musically, it’s because rather than trying to ape reggae’s stylistic attributes, they make the song their own and play it as punk rock.
The Police “So Lonely” (1978)
Sting has said that the group used reggae influences to mask their advanced musicianship during the punk era. Again, if this song sounds less clunky than those that came before, it’s because the band isn’t trying to play it as straight reggae, despite admittedly stealing the chord progression from Bob Marley’s “’No Woman No Cry.”
Blondie “The Tide Is High” (1980)
These New York new wavers looked to obscure rock steady group The Paragons 1967 for this 1980 hit single. An upbeat and not unrespectable attempt at the style but with a pop sheen not found on the original.
Culture Club “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” (1982)
Though part of England’s foppish New Romantic movement, the band that introduced Boy George to the world adopted a reggae groove for this, their biggest hit.
UB40 “Red Red Wine” (1983)
Like many Jamaican musicians before them, this ethnically diverse British reggae group looked to non-reggae source material, covering this Neil Diamond song. The song was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and turned many young fans on to the reggae sound.
Snow “Informer” (1993)
White guys playing reggae is one thing, but white dudes adopting a Jamaican accent and toasting is another. That said, this Canadian wonder did an OK job and this song, his only US hit, was produced by Queens hip hop legend MC Shan.
311 “All Mixed Up” (1995)
Do reggae influences and metal guitars mix? One would think not, however this band from the extremely un-tropical locale of Omaha, Nebraska had a hit in the mid-1990s doing just that.
Sublime “Santaria” (1996)
This Long beach, CA band blended ska and reggae with punk and alternative music on songs like this ’96 MTV hit. They were poised for the big time until the untimely death of lead singer Brad Nowell.
No Doubt “Underneath It All” (2002)
Starting life as a third-wave ska band, this So Cal band chased mainstream success with a pop makeover however went to Jamaica to record Rock Steady, which contained this track produced by famed reggae rhythm section Sly & Robbie.
Matisyahu “King Without A Crown” (2004)
OK, white dudes adopting a Jamaican accent and toasting is one thing, but an Orthodox Jewish kid in full Hassidic garb singing reggae and toasting is another. Then again, given Rastafarian’s liberal use of Bible and Hebrew motifs, it almost makes sense. Though the artist born Matthew Miller has since moved away from the Lubavitch movement, he still sings about his heritage in a reggae stylee.
Magic “Rude” (2014)
One of this past year’s defining hit singles, features an unmistakable – if radio slick – reggae groove. And where else would it come from than Canada?