His rebirth and ongoing cycle of passion and protest
Clash Magazine Issue 76 - Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff is all about the circles. He’s possessed by the rhythm of the world and seems self-perpetuating in his quest to relentlessly spread good vibes.

He’s back with a new LP called ‘Rebirth’. Somewhere between his 28th and 33rd long player. It’s hard to tell when someone’s been this prolific. It’s a Grade-A Jamaican belter of an album that hammers together jump-up ska, skanking reggae and the expectant politics and injustice angled at our heavens. Whereas many ‘legends’ surfing retirement age could be seen to be just going through the motions, Jimmy Cliff has been sucked back to his roots; to rectify a wrong.

“The significance of this album…’ pauses Jimmy from the lush interior of the St Pancreas Hotel, King’s Cross in London ‘is that it completes a chapter that was incomplete, which is a chapter of reggae. After I had a hit with ‘The Wonderful World…’ album I did another album which was a different category of music - so the reggae chapter was not completed.”

The singer pauses again to drink some of his 5 star cuppa, and to reflect on his achievements. “What I’m learning is the importance of what we did back then. I didn’t realise the importance of those early songs because my way of looking as a creative person was to move on, move forward, create new sounds, new rhythms and stay with the time, but this one is really going back. I learned that what you did back then can still have a big relevance today.”
Another circle that Jimmy is revisiting is that of Joe Strummer and The Clash. In a wonky triangle Jimmy teamed up with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, who had worked with Strummer in the past, the Rancid punk produced and worked on ‘Rebirth’ with Jimmy in LA. Each song was mainly recorded in one take, as Jimmy prefer to do.

“Tim had come out of the Punk era,” recalls the Jamaican. “So you know, reggae had this kind of influence on punk. It’s the same kind of anti-establishment, rebellious kind of music. So it was easy to work with him.”

Likewise Jimmy had briefly worked with Strummer and in fact they were working on a song together called ‘Over the Border’ when Joe sadly died: “I came to Britain in the ‘60s, around ‘65 and I was here until late ’70s,” he smiles. “I never had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Joe, but we’d be passing each other going to gigs – ‘hey Joe, hey Jimmy’. But on the last session on that last album he walked in with some lyrics one day and said: ‘You know I need to see Jimmy Cliff sing these lyrics’, I was like ‘how does the melody go?’. Then we got a melody together, Dave Stewart started playing guitar and I came up with the melody, and that’s how we had a real connection after all these years.”

The Clash overlap doesn’t stop there either. The new LP features a cover version of ‘Guns of Brixton’, a timely release after 2011’s youth riots ripped through South London’s hinterland of Lambeth, and such social commentary and politics runs through ‘Rebirth’ like an artery. In 1970 Jimmy’s anti-war protest song ‘Vietnam’ was a hit around the world. So much so that Bob Dylan called it ‘The best protest song ever written’ … so the Jamaican has versioned it, with new lyrics and re-titled it as ‘Afghanistan’.

“Yeah, I change a few of the lyrics, not a lot, because it’s kind of the same thing, Vietnam war and the Afghanistan war, and in my view it’s completely senseless. I don’t think anybody is going to win. Afghanistan is still going to remain Afghanistan, the world, maybe cultural things will change, but it’s really hard to change generations of culture. Those people are going to remain who they are. Everybody will be lost. It’s just a waste of lives and money. Somebody talking about bad economic times, that money could be helping a whole lot of people. It’s costing a whole lot of money, and the life for me is even more important than the money.”

Words by Matthew Bennett
Photo by Jesse John Jenkins

The full version of this interview appears in the August 2012 issue of Clash Magazine.

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