A live concert album is a rare beast in the reggae world. Maybe it’s because the music has always been studio-based, with albums crafted by loose collectives of session musicians. Then there’s the elusive major-label commitment that is necessary for a live album of broadcast quality, which has always been thin on the ground. And since Jamaican singers often resort to using a local “pick-up band” when touring, it’s a wonder that reggae concert albums are even contemplated. All of which makes Toots and the Maytals’ Live at the Palais so exceptional, especially since the album was available for purchase the day after the concert took place on September 29th 1980.
Although Island paved the way for the group to reach into new territories, things didn’t always go according to plan.
Island Records’ head honcho Chris Blackwell had already pledged firm belief in the Maytals during the ska era. The Harrow-educated white Jamaican had moved Island from Kingston to London when Jamaica achieved its independence from Britain in 1962, and soon issued some 25 sides featuring the group. In 1966, after they won the inaugural Jamaican Festival Song Competition with the enthralling “Bam Bam,” Blackwell took things a step further by arranging the Maytals’ first overseas performances, but these British tour dates never happened, because Toots was swiftly jailed in Jamaica on a trumped-up ganja charge, the result of rival sabotage.
Toots’ incarceration took the Maytals off the map for the rock steady period, but upon his release in 1968, just as the new reggae style came into being, they bounced back with the chart-topping “54-46” (which recounted the prison spell), making the group bigger than ever. Blackwell subsequently had a hand in the albums Monkey Man and From the Roots, which were popular with the skinhead audience in Britain, and launched a major offensive to try to break the Maytals overseas during the mid-1970s. The first major success was Funky Kingston, which certainly had crossover potential, followed by the more rootsy In the Dark, which garnered critical acclaim, and after, the radio-friendly Reggae Got Soul.
Although Island paved the way for the group to reach into new territories, things didn’t always go according to plan. A spot opening for The Who’s 1975 North American tour should have been a godsend, but resulted in flung bottles from hostile crowds. Further Island albums Pass the Pipe and Just Like That weren’t bad, but didn’t exactly ignite. The unexpected return to the limelight came from two related streams: first, the 2 Tone ska revival brought the Maytals archive back in focus when The Specials issued a hit cover of “Monkey Man,” and The Clash’s beautifully rendered post-punk take of “Pressure Drop” raised their status even higher. Thus, to make the most of the renewed interest in the group, Island chose to make a permanent record of the Hammersmith Palais performance, and in the best spirit of the punk/2 Tone DIY ethos, had the album mastered and a thousand copies pressed up as a barebones pre-release overnight. That stock was actually available at record shops the following day, bearing a rubberstamped Kitemark that proclaimed it “Recorded & pressed in 24 hours,” ultimately earned the band a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest album ever made. Island’s Trevor Wyatt explains the process:
“We recorded the concert with the Island mobile outside the Palais, with Alex Sadkin at the controls. When the concert finished, we took the tape to the Sound Clinic (the mastering studio established by John Dent behind Island’s St Peter’s Square HQ), and mastered to laquer. I then drove to Gedmel Galvanics in Leicester and made metal parts, then drove to the pressing plant, also somewhere in Leicester – sleeves had been prepared previously. I waited for the records to come off the press, then drove to Coventry and got the records in a shop or two, before the next show. I then collapsed!”
If it seems like an amazing feat in retrospect, the overnight release was part and parcel of Island Records’ overriding strategy.
If it seems like an amazing feat in retrospect, the overnight release was part and parcel of Island Records’ overriding strategy, which relied on intuition and personal initiative more than anything else. During the label’s early years, Chris Blackwell personally brought his product to UK sales outlets in a Mini-Cooper (the stylish car of choice for Mods, though perhaps small for record deliveries), and this kind of grassroots approach was never abandoned. Blackwell maintained a strong personal commitment to the Maytals as well, later emphasising that “I’ve known Toots longer than anybody – much longer than Bob. Toots is one of the purest human beings I’ve met in my life, pure almost to a fault.”
As for the actual live performance, it is blistering, propelled by the same core players that had backed the group since the days of “54-46.” Bassist Jackie Jackson had been in the Supersonics, the leading Jamaican house band of rock steady, and had played with Roberta Flack. Dependable drummer Paul Douglas played on countless reggae hits and worked with Cat Stevens and guitarist Eric Gale. Rhythm guitarist Hux Brown had played in Lee Perry’s Upsetters, and was known for his bluesy licks; at the Palais, he is joined by Carl Harvey, a lesser-known lead player whose rock star lines greatly appealed to the largely white, middle class audience. Expressive organist Winston Wright was another session mainstay; here, his chords are offset by synth specialist Harold Butler, who had flirted with disco and orchestral arrangements on albums for Jimmy Cliff and a young Beres Hammond. With this band behind Toots and his original singing partners Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon, the result is a sonic powerhouse.
The set starts off strong with “Pressure Drop, ” buoyed by The Clash’s recent remake. Next, “Sweet and Dandy” slides in on the offbeat, with Toots evidencing the blues and gospel shades that have always marked his greatest works. “Monkey Man” somehow has a disco backbeat and upfront synth parts, contrasting strongly with the languorous, soulful feeling of “Get Up, Stand Up,” one of Pass the Pipe’s most outstanding tracks. Afterwards, the ancient gospel-ska of “Hallelujah” comes as a shock, reminding you how long the Maytals’ journey had already been. Then there are more rock pyrotechnics on a very groovesome “Funky Kingston,” peppered by funk cadences, and although it devolves into a sing-along, the tension rises as the band picks up the pace. “54-46” has some extended instrumental interludes, and the crowd clearly loves joining in. The original LP closed with a mesmerising cut of “Time Tough,” while the CD reissue included the encores “I Love You So” (a disjointed take of ska classic ‘Treating Me Bad”), while “Reggae Got Soul” is delivered in harmonic brilliance, as the band shifts into rhythmic overdrive.
Live at the Palais made an immediate impact on release, the novelty factor drawing extra interest, though the strength of the set was the main appeal. It remains a testimony to the strength of Toots and the Maytals in the live arena, and is still one of the best live reggae LPs of all time.