“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.