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Elvis Costello and Reggae Influences

One of the most interesting—and often forgotten—musical cross-pollinations in rock history is the connection forged between punk and reggae in 1970s England. The scenes were so connected that when Bob Marley visited London in 1977, he wrote “Punky Reggae Party” to celebrate the common ground these communities were finding.

Though the Clash was the band that permanently fused these two styles, it was the Police—this week’s guests on SPECTACLE—who took Jamaican rhythms to the top of the rock charts. And while Elvis Costello was no more purely a punk than Sting, Andy Summers, or Stewart Copeland, he too played a significant role in moving reggae to the center of the pop universe.

As Copeland notes in his conversation with Elvis, Costello’s most celebrated island-influenced beat was probably his final single for Stiff Records, “Watching the Detectives.” But that was hardly the only song in Elvis’s early work that had a reggae feel—such tracks as “Less than Zero,” from My Aim is True, and “Living in Paradise” or “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea, from This Year’s Model, shared an off-kilter groove. It was a time when Elvis and British-based reggae stars Aswad could share the bill at a 1978 Rock Against Racism concert.

On subsequent albums, the reggae influence lessened, but could still be heard on such songs as “Lover’s Walk,” from Trust, and “Human Touch” on Get Happy!! (as well as the version of Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons’s “So Young” included on that album’s 2003 reissue; in the album’s notes, Elvis also refers to an attempt at a ska-style cover of “I Stand Accused” by the Merseybeats).

But Elvis’s greatest contribution to reggae history was his role as the producer of the 1979 debut album by the Specials, the magnificent band at the forefront of the UK ska revival. This rediscovery of the choppy, sped-up rhythms that served as a prototype for reggae in the late 1950s and early ’60s would prove crucial to such later ska inheritors in the US as No Doubt, Sublime, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Elvis would also work with Madness, one of the other leading lights in the “2-Tone” ska movement.

In 1986, Elvis collaborated with reggae giant Jimmy Cliff on Cliff’s song “Seven Day Weekend” for the Club Paradise soundtrack. In the mid-’80s, Elvis also covered Cliff’s classic “Many Rivers to Cross” on stage.

In recent years, Elvis hasn’t ventured back into reggae territory, but he has taken some steps in the direction of Latin rhythms. He has worked with Panamanian-born salsa superstar Ruben Blades on several occasions, and, most recently, appeared on Mar Dulce, the acclaimed 2008 album by the Argentinian/Uruguayan “electrotango” group Bajofondo. The world beat goes on.

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.