15
Sep 06

DESMOND DEKKER AND THE ACES – “Israelites”

FT + Popular43 comments • 6,666 views

#269, 19th April 1969

“Get up in the morning slaving for bread Sir”

The intro to “Israelites” – two chords, and Dekker’s naked voice – is one of the most striking in 60s pop. Taken slower than the rest of the verses it’s a moment of absolute authority: stop and listen to this. Immediately the Aces start on the groove: it’s not a particularly heavy groove, it’s mid-paced and supple. Dekker uses the groove as a springboard for two-line, self-contained verses, and the guitar does a lot of the work, joining the dots on Dekker’s snapshot thoughts, leading the listener through.

“Wife and me kids they pack up and leave me”

I first encountered “Israelites” on a Maxell tape ad in the late 80s, where the joke was that Dekker’s lyrics were particularly unintelligible. This isn’t especially true, and the joke feels a little dodgy now, but then I’m used to Jamaican voices in pop. The fact that Maxell picked the song and thought the gag would resonate shows a residual memory of reggae-as-exotica. “Israelites” is far from the first Reggae hit but to get to No.1 still required a serious degree of crossover to a white, pop audience. That audience may or may not have deciphered the lyrics but they were certainly responding to Dekker’s beautiful voice, hitting notes of weariness, defiance, yearning and pride.

“Don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde”

And maybe it wasn’t just gorgeousness they were responding to. The Maxell ad has Dekker showing his lyrics on flashcards, in an echo of Bob Dylan on the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” film. The parallel is there to service the joke but the two songs are cousins – cryptic, disconnected imagery crystallising some kind of hardship and struggle. “Israelites” has a thread of menace in it – “catch me in the farm, you sound the alarm”, and Bonnie and Clyde may have ‘ended up’ dead but they took a few people with them on the way.

The threat is subtle, only implied, but it’s there – Dekker had first hit in the UK singing about rude boy gangsters. And any act of crossover draws attention to tensions as well as potentially smoothing them over. The tensions in this case were racial – Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968 had pushed immigration to the top of the political agenda, and though “Israelites” is in no sense a direct response to this, it’s a record that resonates with its times as richly as any Stones or Doors track.

“After a storm there must be a calm”

Political or cultural resonance doesn’t make a pop record great, but “Israelites” also looks to the future. Not just by being one of the first huge reggae crossovers: by singing about and for a tribe, and in oblique fragments, Dekker seems to assume multiple voices, and what “Israelites” ultimately makes me think of is the group rhyme-trading of early hip-hop, different perspectives fighting and uniting over a single beat.

10

Comments

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  1. 26
    blount on 15 Sep 2006 #

    when i was a little kid i used to get this mixed up with brenton wood’s ‘oogum boogum’!

  2. 27
    Brian on 15 Sep 2006 #

    My first encounter woth reggae was the soundtrack to ” The Harder They Come ” and really never connected that Desmond Decker with the Israelite song.

    Wolfe : if you want some roots shanty-town reggae, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come ” is a great sampler …..with many of the songs now listed as classics

  3. 28
    koganbot on 15 Sep 2006 #

    “Israelites” sounds less generically Jamaican than most other reggae, including (the even better, in my opinion) “007 Shanty Town,” whose beauty is more comforting to me for being less exquisite. (If that makes any sense.) “Israelites” is one of those songs like David Banner’s “Cadillac On 22s” that defies taxonomy. It isn’t that you can’t categorize them so much as the they still seem odd for their category.

    Mark’s on the money in regard to the “churchiness,” though I’d add that – for me, anyway – it’s not “churchiness,” as you’d get (or I’d get) through church or through what’s generally thought of as “gospel,” whose secularized spawn was all over the radio either in the form of the vocal harmony soul groups or the call-and-response shouters. Rather it’s the sound of “spirituals” you’d find on “folk” anthologies. So the sound of the “Israelites,” when I heard it – managed to miss its run on the Top 40, so didn’t run across the record until late ’70s – did feel familiar to me, as I’d been a folk fan as a wee ‘un. I think of “Motherless Child” and “Wayfarin’ Stranger” as prototypes for me of the “spiritual” sound, though come to think of it neither is all that spiritual. I’d known “Wayfarin’ Stranger” from an old Burl Ives 78 owned by my parents.

    I think there is a tendency in Jamaica’s sound and particularly Bob Marley’s towards melodies that resemble “spirituals,” which may be why reggae in general and Marley in particular did better among North Americans than did other Caribbean musics. Reggae took a while to score in the United States, however. As far as I know, “Israelites” was one of only two Jamaican songs to hit in the U.S. in the ’60s, the other being “My Boy Lollipop.”

  4. 29
    Doctor Casino on 15 Sep 2006 #

    Classic song in all ways. I first heard it in the car with my mother sometime in the late 90’s; I remember her turning up the volume excitedly, declaring something to the effect of “This is one of the weird ones, you’ll like this!” Yet another track that, if it was ever in regular US radio rotation, was gone by the time I was growing up. But what a fantastic song. If I heard more reggae that reminded me of this I’d be a fan – there’s something I don’t hear elsewhere in “Israelites”‘s rolling shuffle forward, some sort of weird momentum where once you wind the song up it never hits a beat that would really be the logical place to stop. The general sound pallette is part of this too, the way everything sounds something between muffled, underwater, and cavernous. The only point of connection I can think to make is to something like “Sincerely,” by the Moonglows, where the rawness of the recording combines with the spareness of the arrangement to create a sound that inevitably ends up being described as “timeless.”

    And yet – is there something more timely to “Israelites”? Tom and others are talking about racial tensions in Britain at the time – but what about that country over in the Middle East, the one named Israel? Certainly in the headlines in this time period. Obviously Dekker is drawing on a gospel/Biblical/spiritual tradition; his character is comparing his sufferings to those of the ancient Israelites. But did he also strike some more contemporary nerve?

  5. 30
    koganbot on 15 Sep 2006 #

    Casino, it wasn’t a mere comparison: For Dekker and his prime audience, “The Israelites” made a very up-to-date religous reference. This is from Wikipedia:

    Rastafarians believe that the black races are the true Children of Israel, or Israelites, as they like to call themselves. Using the Bible they also conclude that Haile Selassie of Ethiopia is the returned messiah who will lead the world’s peoples of African descent into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice.

    One Rasta sect, called the Twelve Tribes of Israel, imposes a metaphysical system whereby Aries is Reuben, Aquarius is Joseph, etc. With his famous early reggae song The Israelites Desmond Dekker immortalised the Rastafarian concept of themselves as the Children of Israel.

  6. 31
    Mark Gamon on 15 Sep 2006 #

    And you only gave Grapevine a 9?

  7. 32
    blount on 15 Sep 2006 #

    he hates soul! we’ve established this!

  8. 33
    Chris Brown on 16 Sep 2006 #

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who remembers the Maxell adverts! I recalled that there were other ones, but I couldn’t have told you which songs they were. I wonder if that, in itself, tells you something about the power of this song? Or maybe it was just reinforced by the other advert whose name a dare not mention – after all, I’m of an age to remember Musical Youth singing ’007′.

    The other memory I have connected to this song is that my parents went to a big university reunion where Desmond performed and said he was excellent. He seemed to see the funny side of all the “baked beans for breakfast” gags too.

    I don’t have the sort of personal love for this song that would make me give it a 10 – but I can’t argue against it.

  9. 34
    Doctor Mod on 16 Sep 2006 #

    This was actually a hit in the US some months later, though something less than #1. (And, to be honest, most Americans thought it was some odd thing with Jamaicans singing about the Middle East, as most Americans knew nothing of Rastafarians then. I’m not sure that most would think differently today.)

    Nothing, truly nothing ever heard on US pop music radio sounded like this before. The timbre of Dekker’s voice, the oddly tuned (and played) guitar, the strange harmonies of the backing vocals, and the “ticky” beat sounded dissonant as a whole to those unused to such things, but it was undeniably compelling, at least to those who didn’t find it unendingly irritating. But then there are those who find anything different irritating, and I suppose this first reggae hit in the US set off some sort of “Fear of a Black Planet” in those susceptible to such fears. (I recall that the radio DJs kept calling the group “English” rather than Jamaican.)

    But I had just completed high school and, because my family actually was poor by American standards, I had to go to work. (It would be many years before Doctor Mod became a doctor.) Even if I didn’t truly understand what this song was about, I surely could relate to its first line. It wasn’t what I’d planned on doing–but, no, I didn’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde. I’d seen that movie too.

    Stand fast, Tom–it’s a genuine 10.

  10. 35
    intothefireuk on 18 Sep 2006 #

    Never connected with this as a child except maybe for novelty value. I agree with the earlier posts that it wasn’t played much on the radio as otherwise I’m sure it would have left a bigger impression on me. Yes unfortunately its the margarine ad that we all know and love that brought it into focus much more than being a number one from this period. I once covered this with my band without actually knowing what the lyrics were (the days before the interweb) – I made most of them up – funnily enough no one noticed !

  11. 36
    Billy Smart on 8 Mar 2008 #

    I saw Desmond Dekker play the Lewisham People’s Festival in the summer of 1994. The songs were better than the band, but then, who was complaining? It was reggae legend Desmond Dekker in the park! Also on a rather odd bill were John Hegley and Eddie Izzard.

    When I was a child, Dekker was frequently in the local papers in articles for which the tone was always “Rock legend Desmond Dekker lives in *Lewisham*!”

  12. 37
    Matthew on 16 Jan 2009 #

    I didn’t realise this wasn’t just “the music from the Vitalite advert” until 2008. I am pop illiterate! Definitely a 10 though.

  13. 38
    Waldo on 6 Aug 2009 #

    The misheard lyric feature of this was set in stone and you could make up your own pic and mix – “my ears are alight”, “strawberries for breakfast” and all the rest of it. Once everyone had stopped laughing at themselves, delighted at their own wit, they listened to the record and concluded that they were in the presence of something quite extraordinary. The fact that the skins latched onto it has got nothing to do with it other than to remind people from later generations of the basic history of the youths of the period back then. This is undoubtedly a monster of a record. And that opening is just sublime.

  14. 39
    tutorsteve on 19 Jul 2012 #

    the mods were into black music and evolved into skinheads. the skins protected Dekker and other jamaican artistes at the time and genuinely loved the music. Dekker was a religious man so there are gospel undertones in there. There is a trojan double CD of desmonds Beverleys recordings from Ska through to Israelites..

  15. 40
    Garry on 4 Apr 2014 #

    One was a stringy who loved fisherman’s hats. The other was short, thick and had logs through his ears. They ran our radio station Punk and Ska program.

    I can remember when the stringy one, casual flicking through our thousands of vinyl discs, called out in surprise and devotion. He ran up holding “Israelites”. We were herded into the production studio and given an education, and to this day it was one of my favourite moments in my years lazing about the studio.

    Before this point I had ignored reggae, but then again at this point reggae wall all Marley and not much else. I preferred ska, but my knowledge didn’t extend past Madness, UB40, The Impression That I Get and some then popular Australian bands. Israelites tied everything together and opened up more, and my listening experience is richer because of it.

  16. 41
    tm on 4 Apr 2014 #

    The three best gigs I’ve seen were the three Desmond Dekker gigs I saw. First one was in 2003 so he was elderly to say the least but an incredibly energetic performer and in great voice, still doing the falsetto bits. His keyboardist had the nastiest sound I’ve ever heard and tbh the whole band were a bit weddingy but they really weren’t anyone’s focus. The Selecter were the support on the first two as well. I almost met DD backstage but a bunch of skins were getting a bit geezery with him and he put a towel over his head and waved us away just as I got to him.

    RIP. A well deserved 10 and 007 and It Mek would be 10s for me too.

  17. 42
    hectorthebat on 29 May 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 35
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 855
    Greil Marcus (USA) – STRANDED: “Treasure Island” Singles (1979)
    Pitchfork (USA) – Top 200 Songs of the 60s (2006) 10
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA)- The Songs That Shaped Rock (Additions 2011)
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 33
    Guinness Book of Hits of the ’60s (UK, 1984) – Jo Rice’s Top 10 Songs
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 6
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 86
    Paul Roland (UK) – CD Guide to Pop & Rock, 100 Essential Singles (2001)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 522
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Q (UK) – Top 20 Singles from 1954-1969 (2004) 19
    Zig Zag (UK) – Gillett & Frith’s Hot 100 Singles (1975)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Jamaican Poll – The Top 100 Jamaican Songs of 1957-2007 (2009) 7

  18. 43
    lonepilgrim on 20 Feb 2017 #

    I remember hearing this played some time in 1969 at an end of term party at my junior school and finding it slightly bewildering if enjoyable. I was familiar with the ‘Israelites’ from Bible Stories at school but couldn’t understand what this had to do with them. Despite its upbeat rhythms the song has a hint of melancholy that runs through the performance and gives it a complexity which isn’t immediately obvious.

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