Sgt. Pepper meets Selassie
July 2, 2009
Some people translate great works of literature into a different language. Michael Goldwasser translates great musical albums into reggae. Not a simple task when you look at his body of work.
It took nearly four years for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to be turned into Dub Side of the Moon in 2003. Then, Goldwasser and the Easy Star All-Stars took on Radiohead, transforming OK Computer into Radiodread.
"We’re trying to do somewhat of a service to reggae music by turning more people onto it," Goldwasser said. "It’s a lot of cross pollination between groups of people and styles of music." To him, reggae is an under-appreciated form of music, so he is "trying to really widen people’s ideas about what reggae is."
Most recently, The Beatles have taken a trip even they couldn’t have imagined, as the Easy Star All-Stars released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band in April. Next Sunday, July 12, the touring version of the Easy Star All-Stars will bring the Lonely Hearts Dub Band to life on stage during the second day of the Roots Rock Reggae Festival at the Newpark Amphitheatre.
Goldwasser’s journey, from the "Dark Side" into the "Sky with Diamonds," originated with his love for music, including reggae and the works of Pink Floyd, Radiohead and The Beatles. He and his business partners founded Easy Star Records in 1996 as a way to bring reggae back to its roots of the 1970s by "using live musicians and vintage recording techniques."
Goldwasser got started on Dub Side of the Moon simply to answer the question he and partner at Easy Star, Lem Oppenheimer, had as to whether or not they could do a reggae version of Pink Floyd.
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"I wrote up a few quick arrangements of a few of the songs to see if it could work and we thought, ‘You know, this could really work,’" Goldwasser said. "Once that [album] met with a lot of critical acclaim and a great response from fans and it was selling pretty well, we realized we wanted to put a band on the road to be able to perform it live."
Starting out as a singer and songwriter in New York, Goldwasser knew most of the musicians in the reggae scene and was able to select, literally, an all-star cast for the touring band, which has changed somewhat over the years but will have the same core of members for their show in Park City.
"I’m still a musician but I don’t tour with the band anymore because I would rather focus my energies on making these records. I spent almost a year and a half on this last album," Goldwasser said.
After playing back-to-back-to-back shows at the Glastonbury Music Festival in England, Goldwasser said he knows the band can handle, and liven, the crowd at the Roots Rock Reggae Festival. When they could perform an album in its entirety the live show could flow with more consistency. Now the band performs songs from three different cover albums as well as original tracks from the band members.
"[We] just try to find a good flow where it won’t be too jarring that we’re doing these songs from different albums. But it’s all united by the vibes of the live band and the reggae philosophy from the band," Goldwasser said.
Goldwasser was attracted to reggae from a young age because of its philosophies.
"A lot of the great reggae from the ’70s dealt with issues of trying to correct society’s ills or injustices or criticizing figure of authority when they’re not doing things correctly," he said.
The albums they have chosen to transcribe into the reggae style are all concept albums. He said that listening to an album in its entirety is important and "really a visceral thing" and with the replacement of vinyl with CDs and digital music, the album as a whole has lost its importance. They have chosen concept albums that "would be cohesive and have an overall vibe to them so people would want to sit down and listen to an entire album."
Goldwasser said that in keeping with the concept album theme, they would eventually have to tackle the pop-infused Sgt. Pepper’s, what he calls "the mother of all concept albums" to prove themselves. The albums also have some themes that were consistent with the traditional attitudes of reggae and fit in with the Easy Star vibe.
"[The] early stuff with Easy Star touched on a lot of political and social themes. With these tribute albums, it’s a little different. We can’t change the lyrics but some of them really do make sense in the reggae context."
Without being able to change the lyrics, Goldwasser said he starts the process of translating an album to reggae with a lot of listening. Then he starts writing arrangements and demos in his home studio, starting first with the strength of the reggae bass line.
"A good reggae bass line has a certain feel and it moves in a certain way musically," he said.
Then he includes one of the many distinct reggae drum patterns, before adding the "skank" of the piano and guitar rhythms that play on the two and four of each bar. After adding an organ and horns, he allows the vocalists to "reinterpret these songs with their reggae sensibility" or what he calls a "natural reggae filter."
The result is a completely different product from the original that has managed to bridge the gap between rock and reggae and hopefully bring more people to the under-appreciated genre that is more than just music for the islands.
The Easy Star All-Stars will bring their reggae interpretations of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead to the mountains on Sunday, July 12 during the Roots Rock Reggae festival at the Newpark Amphitheatre. Gates open at 11:30 a.m.