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Clash singer/guitarist Joe Strummer and Horace Andy first collaborated in 1999. Strummer had written the militant title track to Andy’s Living in the Flood album. Recently Milwaukee singer/guitarist/songwriter Eric Blowtorch, who’s worked with many reggae artists over the years and had known Strummer, asked Andy if it was true he’d once sung his own version of a Clash song.
Yes, Andy replied, he’d once recorded a version of “Straight to Hell,” but he didn’t like the way it turned out. He felt it needed a new rhythm track. Blowtorch felt a jolt of anticipation.
Out of that conversation comes one of 2016’s most arresting reggae releases: Horace Andy bringing his singular style to a brand new roots reggae recording of “Straight to Hell,” (Fe True Records 12-inch single on March 16th and digital download on April 14th) backed with deejay versions voiced by the venerated Big Youth. And 10 per cent of the proceeds will go to Doctors Without Borders, the international organization known for tending to the health needs of people in direst need in the most dangerous places.
“When Living in the Flood was released,” Blowtorch says. “Joe mentioned to me that he’d suggested Horace record a version of ‘Straight to Hell.’ Aside from maybe Louis Armstrong’s recording of ‘Star Dust,’ there is is no dearer piece of recorded music to me. I never thought I would want to hear anyone sing ‘Straight to Hell’ besides Joe. As soon as Joe mentioned it,” Blowtorch laughs, “I immediately wanted to hear Horace Andy sing it.”
In the 34 years since its original release, “Straight to Hell” has become one of the Clash’s most beloved songs, a standout among even their eclectic body of work, recently sampled for “Paper Planes,” M.I.A.’s chilling piece about immigration. Blowtorch decided to completely re-fashion the entire song, working from the ground up to suit Andy’s voice.
“I put together a bassline and a topline, what Jamaicans call a horn head,” Blowtorch recalls. “I could not and would not attempt to ape anything from the original. The bassline turned out more like Family Man Barrett’s on the Wailers’ Stir It Up.’ I played it all for Horace. He said he loved it, and spent a week in Kingston on the vocals.”
With Blowtorch’s Welders bandmate and Fe True Records founder Michael “Dr. Bassie” Bell on bass, celebrated Latin drummer Cecilio Negron, Jr., on drum kit, Milwaukee soul/jazz/chansons singer Robin Pluer on organ, and an all-pro horn section, this take on “Straight to Hell” – which first appeared on the Clash’s Combat Rock in 1982 – captures the song’s cry of compassion for refugees and immigrants, Andy’s spectacular vocal performance rising from a gentle lullaby to a cry of anguish.
It’s a natural fit for the singer who first came to prominence with Studio One in 1972, enjoying numerous Jamaican hits with “Skylarking,” “You Are My Angel,” and “Money Is the Root of All Evil” before ascending even higher 20 years later with trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack.
By itself the song would be stunning. Teamed with “Pair of Dice” and “Asylum Seekers,” two anarchic, bass-heavy versions starring pioneering Jamaican deejay Big Youth over the same rhythm, it’s overwhelming.
“When Big Youth and I were strategizing about his voicing of the song, I kept coming back to Joe’s beautiful couplet, ‘Clear as winter ice/This is your paradise.’ I was thinking of Big Youth’s wild song titles like ‘Six Dead and Nineteen Gone a Jail’ and ‘Big Youth Fights Against Capitalist,’ and it just came to me: pair of dice, the idea that capitalism is an elaborate form of gambling,” Blowtorch explains. “He liked that idea and sent back a brilliant singjay performance. It’s melodic, but it’s still the voice of the sufferer.”
“It’s just a shame that people are crying and dying like that,” Big Youth says, “to see refugees in other countries running from the trouble of war.”
The man behind “S.90 Skank” and Screaming Target was an obvious choice to work on the track, not only because of his outspokenness and verbal dexterity, but because, like Andy, he’d been a hero to the Clash.
“Asylum Seekers” was crafted by engineer Shane Olivo of Milwaukee’s Bobby Peru Recording in a style influenced by producer/remixer Burial. “Shane came up with the idea of Horace versus Big Youth, and he reassembled the lyrics as he might have sung them,” Blowtorch notes. “He just attacked the song musically. The opening sound is a piano chord that’s digitally stretched.”
“Straight to Hell” remains as relevant now as three decades ago. The estimated 60 million people fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Mexico all prove that. And when the loudest, most incessantly repeated voices are those demanding more walls and barriers all over the world, of turning away the people in greatest need, and sending them straight back to hell, then we need this song and this performance more than ever.