Like many of the immigrants who brought the music over from Jamaica, reggae found Britain a land of indignities as well as opportunities. The marketing savvy of Trojan Records pushed the sounds to the commercial peak that “Double Barrel” represents – at the same time, Trojan’s policy was to sweeten the sound for the UK market, with plenty of remixed string arrangements and cover versions of pop tunes, especially as more skinheads and suedeheads got into glam and the reggae boom faded. Now reggae cover versions are a Good Thing in my book, and I honestly haven’t heard enough “stringsed-up” reggae to know if it was as baleful as historians like Lloyd Bradley claim. But I do know that it’s seven years before a Jamaican single as lively as “Double Barrel” hits number one again.
“Double Barrel” is strings-free: the only real problem Dave and Ansel Collins faced was that Dave Barker’s identity got somewhat subsumed in a Collins brand. Dave was a toaster called in to spruce up a fairly successful instrumental (which according to Bradley’s Bass Culture he didn’t even like much) – its smash success surprised both men and yoked their careers together, at least in the lucrative UK market. Bradley describes how seeing it on Top Of The Pops was a definingly thrilling moment: unremixed Jamaican culture, barely supported by radio, at the top of the charts.
It may have seemed strange to a wider public then: it may seem even stranger now. The evolutionary descendents of early 70s toasting, flourishing in hip-hop and ragga, have devoured their ancestor: there’s no real reference point in recorded music for the disconnected, improvised MCing Dave does on this track. Toasting works as a kind of real-time commentary on a tune, slipping on and off the beat as whim and passion dictates. Dave is at once Ansel’s partner and the number one fan, his extravagant, spontaneously reaction to the groove encouraging the rest of us listeners to loosen up, feel it, shout it, work it. That particular bridge between beat and audience survives on radio and in the clubs, but it’s lost to the studio.
There’s no question that it works for “Double Barrel”, turning a jaunty – even balmy – ska instrumental into something with a lot more gusto and swagger. The serene organ-led breakdowns in the track stand out all the more, as hard-won moments of calm amid the hustle. With all credit to Ansel, there’s no question as to who the star here is – he is the magnificent double oh-oh-oh, bursting with life as his style briefly conquers Britain.