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Rock's Backpages - Peter Tosh: <i>Mystic Man</i>

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Peter Tosh: Mystic Man Simon Frith, Melody Maker, 23 June 1979

I ALMOST didn't make it through the title-track. Two female trios do the I Threes jobs for Tosh, and here their effect is extra-irritating. They echo his words in eagerly subservient accents and they bring out the worst aspect of his approach, its dumbness. 'I man don't eat up them frankfurters,' they croon blissfully, as he runs through his mystic credentials. But the record turns out to be much more interesting than this. Tosh hasn't just shifted his sound for a market (following Marley's bus through Babylon), he's making a new sort of black music: his sound has as much to do with funk and disco as with reggae; it is generous, easy, unthreateningly urgent. But he's kept his Rasta hopes and his Jamaican dreams and his words are still militant, righteous, committed. The result is an angry album that doesn't sound angry at all. Rasta musicians after Mammonite success will always face this dilemma. Success means the white rock audience, an audience which shares none of Rasta's political, religious or racial concerns. The only common interest is drugs, and even this is dubious. Tosh begins Mystic Man with a list of drugs he doesn't do: 'I don't drink no champagne, and I man I don't sniff no cocaine, chalk brain, I no don't take no morphine, I man I don't take no heroin...' Tosh's rock solution is, then, musical rather than lyrical. Mystic Man was recorded in Jamaica, but it sounds like sophisticated American music, with soulful horns and subliminal syndrums. The reggae percussive thump is merged with the neurotic beat of congas and the cool, spaced notes of electronic keyboards. The obvious hit singles here aren't reggae at all. 'Buk-in-Hamm Palace' is excellent disco, 'Can't You See' is straight rock, with a flash guitar lead from Ed Elizalde, and Tosh himself singing with a husky intimacy disconcertingly reminiscent of Neil Diamond. But Tosh doesn't come over slick. His religious themes retain their hymn book openness. 'Recruiting Soldiers' has the loping dedication of the Salvation Army on a Saturday night: "I'm recruiting soldiers for Jah army," Tosh sings pleasantly, as a choir ooh in the background and as a sax moves sharply through the puzzled crowds. This is very poppy music. A light beat emphasises catchy choruses. On 'Jah She No' Tosh laments in his richest most sorrowful tones: "Must Rasta live in misery and eathen in luxury? Jahseh no." I find myself humming along, as if to an uncluttered Toots and the Maytals pop song. On 'Fight On' Tosh's deep-voiced passion is undercut by the easy tune, the tinkling piano, the chorus oo-be-doos. On 'Rumours Of War' the word "war" is the focus of the song rhythmically, melodically, lyrically ("War in Pakistan, war in Soweto, war in Johannesburg, war in South Africa...") but Tosh sings it so tenderly that it comes over like a love song, an insidious celebration. "Free your land," Tosh sings on 'Fight On', "Free your fellow man," and I wonder to myself who the "you" is here. I mean, this is an enjoyable album, filled with incidental pleasures (the guitar line in the chorus of 'The Day The Dollar Die', the strange honking noise at the beginning of 'Crystal Ball').But it is enjoyable like most other popular albums, as background music, for dancing, talking, eating. It could well give Tosh the material success he's after, but in its cracks and fissures are other ambitions, other concerns, and of the Tosh music that matches them (in its power, its bite, its ambition) there's not much left here at all. Š Simon Frith, 1979

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