Maybe my first Edmonton winter in 20 years has been longer and colder than I’d expected or cared to remember. Maybe there was a hackneyed sun destination getaway commercial on TV during a Canadiens game. Whatever the reason, I woke up one recent morning chanting the ‘oh oh oh oh’ hook of Bobby Bloom’s 1970 Top Ten hit Montego Bay. I swear to God that I don’t believe I’d actually heard the song in its entirety since its release. Now I know all the words. The ‘official’ video, a promo reel, has some 538,900 hits on YouTube. I am responsible for 100 of them.
Vernon will meet me when the BOAC (sung as bo-ack) lands/Keys to the MG will be in his hands/Adjust to the driving and I’m on my way/Everything’s on the right side in Montego Bay
Cue the whistling and the enchanting nonsense syllable chorus over an addictive calypso lilt. The song is about a repeat visit: I think I remember but it’s twice as good. There is the requisite rum reference: I thirst to be thirsty in Montego Bay. And likely heaping mounds of pot: You ain’t been ‘til you been high in Montego Bay. After months of shivering in the dark, I’m game. Sounds good to me on every level.
The rhythms of the heat seduced another American, Johnny Nash, whose light reggae I Can See Clearly Now and a cover of Bob Marley’s Stir It Up were hits in 1972. Those songs, more so than Harry Belafonte’s novelty Banana Boat Song, opened these ears to the unexpropriated splendor of the real thing, the music of the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Toots & the Maytals, the Heptones, Sly & Robbie, ex-Wailer Peter Tosh and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry who comes across in interviews as an agreeable a lunatic as there ever was.
The Jamaican influence on popular music, from Belafonte through to Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the J. Geils Band, 10cc, the Police, the Clash, Keith Richards’ labour of love side project Wingless Angels, indeed the entire British ska revival of the 80s, is disproportionately massive for a country with a population of less than three million souls. Country icon Willie Nelson even released a reggae album, of course the old outlaw has ingested more herb than anyone else on the planet.