Reggae | Max Romeo

Irie Magazine | Reggae - Max Romeo

Max Romeo

Horror Zone

Max Romeo (born Maxwell Livingston Smith, 22 November 1944) is a roots reggae recording artist that has achieved critical acclaim and chart success worldwide, with a recording career spanning 50 years. From his humble beginnings in Jamaica with the Emotions harmony group, Max’s distinctive voice was soon picked up by the island’s top producers, and he began his career as a powerful
solo artist.

His 1968 world smash ‘Wet Dream,’ the Bunny Lee-produced ‘song that nobody wanted to sing,’ propelled Max onto the global stage with the track reaching Number 10 in the UK charts, despite being banned by the BBC, and it also hit the Number 1 chart position in Jamaica.

In 1971, Max’s ‘Let The Power Fall’ album set the path for the renowned political and social commentary that make his songs so powerfully relevant. In fact, the Leftist People’s National Party (PNP) chose “Let The Power Fall” as their theme song for the 1972 Jamaican general election. Max had been working sporadically with innovative producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry during the same era, but things reached another level in 1975, when Max began working on the excellent concept album Revelation Time at Perry’s legendary Black Ark studio. 1976 saw the pair collaborate on what is certainly Max’s best-known album to date, the internationally successful War Ina Babylon. Pairing the Black Ark version of Perry’s oft-changing Upsetters band, with Lee Perry’s inventive production, Tony Wright’s fantastic hand-painted cover, and Max’s insightful lyrics; all produced what is rated as one of the best roots reggae albums ever released. The album included hit songs such as ‘War In A Babylon’ and ‘Chase The Devil’, the latter becoming the most sampled reggae song to date.

We now fast forward to contemporary times, to find that Max has teamed up with British producer Daniel Boyle, who had recently finished a long stint working with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on rekindling the Black Ark sound for a number of releases, which culminated in the acclaimed & award winning album ‘Back On The Controls’.

Daniel’s vision for the Max Romeo project was to take the rekindled Black Ark studio set up, which he and Lee had created at Daniel’s Rolling Lion studio in London, and blend a mix of the old and new with it, to create a follow-on from War Ina Babylon. The idea was to make a truly heavyweight roots reggae album; driven by Max Romeo’s powerful and conscious lyrics.

For this project, Daniel and Max rounded up some of Lee Perry’s old Upsetters line-up, including Vin Gordon on trombone, Robbie Lyn on keyboards, and Glen DaCosta on saxophone, blending these veteran Jamaican studio legends with Daniel’s ever evolving ‘Rolling Lion All Stars’ session band, to create a reggae super group, with some added input from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry himself on percussion, effects and backing vocals.

To complete the concept, Daniel connected with Tony Wright, who was bought on to design and hand-paint the cover art. Tony was responsible for hand painting many famous album covers during the 1970s and beyond, including Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Natty Dread, Lee Perry’s seminal dub album Super Ape, Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, Ijahman Levi’s Haile I Hymn, and many more…

The album plan was now in place. Max and Daniel thus headed into the studio throughout 2015, to create a set of ultra-heavyweight deep roots reggae tracks, with Max penning all original lyrics drawn from events taking place in the world we are living in today. Unfortunately, many of the same issues that prompted Max to write his deep social commentary on War Ina Babylon, are as ever-present today as they were back in the 1970s. So the writing sessions focused on the problems the world is facing in the 21st Century. Therefore, the album title was born, because, in Max’s own words, ‘We as a human race, are living in a real horror zone…’

The music was written, and the rhythm tracks arranged. So Daniel decided to continue the 1970s theme that the music was demanding, and set about recording the songs, with a classic Lo-Fi approach – Raw, rough round the edges ‘Roots’ style recordings, tracked live; but utilising the best vintage equipment available in the present day. A heady mix of original Fairchild, Decca, Neve, RCA, Gates and Teletronix compressors, Decca, Pultec and Neve EQ’s. RCA, Grampian and Telefunken microphones, and a vintage Neve console; were used to record the music. With a focus on capturing Lee Perry’s classic Black Ark ‘Lo-Fi’ drum sound. Max’s vocals were then recorded using a beautiful, original 1950’s RCA 44-BX Ribbon microphone. The tracks were then taken to Daniel’s Rolling Lion Studio, where Lee Perry arrived to add percussion, effects for the dub versions; and backing vocals. Using similar units to those that had been in the Black Ark, including the Mu-Tron Bi-Phase, Grampian reverb and the Roland Space Echo. Daniel then mixed the tracks and created a set of ultra-deep & heavy dub versions, all blended together on his vintage British, Trident 80B console. All culminating, with a true mix of veteran and modern players, working with vintage analogue equipment; recorded, mixed and dubbed in the present day — A real blend of the old and the new. The concept was then taken to Tony Wright, who designed the stunning artwork, hand-painted in oils, taking the woman he featured on the ‘War Ina Babylon’ cover; and bringing her into our modern day world—the real ‘Horror Zone.’

The Interview

IRIE. You were born Maxwell Livingston Smith. Where did the name Romeo come from?

Max Romeo: I was not born Maxwell Livingston Smith. It was the name they intended to give me. Instead, I got the name Maxie Smith with no middle name. The name ‘Romeo’ was given by friends as a nickname because of my ways with girls.

IRIE. Your music career began when you won a local talent competition at the age of 18. You moved to Kingston where you eventually join the vocal trio, The Emotions and a year later, had you first hit, ‘(Buy You) A Rainbow’. What was the experience like for you?

Max Romeo: The Emotions was the first and only group I worked with. I was the lead singer. The backup singers were Lloyd Shakespeare and Kenneth Kinght. Lloyd died and Kenneth migrated. I started singing under the name Max Romeo. It was a very great experience. My first hit was ‘Buy you a Rainbow’. It was a success. 

IRIE. In 1968, you wrote the massive hit,’ Wet Dream”’, a track that became a Top 10 hit in the UK but was ultimately banned by the BBC Radio. A year later, you released your debut LP, ‘A Dream’, however, you were banned from performing at certain venues during your UK tour in support of the album. Did these resistant actions discourage you or did they make you stronger?

Max Romeo: In 1968, I recorded the song ‘Wet Dream’ on the Bunny Striker Lee label. It was released in 1969 on the Pama Record label, ‘Unity’. The BBC banned it. It was an anthem for the ‘Skinheads’, a group of young youths rebelling against the system.

A few town councils decided that the song was not fit to perform publicly, so it was one of the private possessions of parents who did not want their kids to be exposed to anything sexually explicit. Wet Dream gave me my big breakthrough. It didn’t discourage at all. 

IRIE. How did you first come to meet Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry? What was it like to work with Lee on your album, Revelation Time, at famed Black ark Studio? Did you ever think that this meeting was the beginning of something much bigger?

Max Romeo: I knew Lee Perry from my early teen years. We both worked for labels, taking samples to record and collecting orders from record companies. He worked for Dynamic Sound, which at the time was a major label. I worked for Caltone, a small label operated by Kenlac.

We would met each other on the road. That’s where the friendship began. We worked together on a couple of singles, then we coordinate on the album ‘Revelation Time’. The album was recorded in the Black Ark Studio. Lee and I had a good vibe. We worked on more productions after. 

IRIE. 1976 saw the release of ‘War in a Babylon’ with Lee Perry’s backing band, The Upsetters. The album, which was part of the Black Ark ‘holy trinity’, is considered your best work. Can you take us back in time to share with us your experience in producing your groundbreaking work with Lee?

Max Romeo: Working with Lee Perry is pure fun. We had more fun working on the album, ‘War Inna Babylon’, than any other. It’s my most successful album. Working with Lee can be very easy but hard. You see, Lee is a perfectionist, so there was no surprise when ‘War Inna Babylon’ became a mega hit.

IRIE. Let’s fast-forward to 2016 and your upcoming release of Horror Zone. How did the opportunity to work with grammy-nominated British producer Daniel Boyle first come about? Did you guys know each other from the past?

Max Romeo: Daniel Boyle connected with my children before he met I. They told me of him wanting to do some productions together. From that, he produced my latest album, ‘Horror Zone’.

IRIE. Daniel’s vision for Horror Zone to rekindled the Black Art Studio and then blend a mix of the old and new to project is genius! What was it like to work with Daniel in the Black Ark Studio setup? I’m sure it must have brought back some great memories.

Max Romeo: Daniel had an idea of recreating the old roots rock reggae mixed with the modern sound. Working on this album was fun. It reminded me of the time working on the ‘War Inna Babylon’ album.

IRIE. You began work on Horror Zone in 2015 and during the project, you managed to round up some of Lee Perry’s old Upsetter line-up, including Vin Gordon on trombone, Robbie Lyn on keyboards and Glen DaCosta on saxophone. What was it like to work again with the Upsetters on Horror Zone? I hear that Lee also added some input on the album project with percussion, effects and backing vocals.

Max Romeo: It was a great delight that I got the opportunity to work with these great musicians again. To see Lee singing backing vocals and playing percussion reminds me of old times, good times.

IRIE. What does it tell you about society today when the same issues you wrote about in War Ina Babylon (1976) are still present today? What kind of change do you feel needs to take place to truly solve these social issues?

Max Romeo: People tend to forget things in 24hrs but as the good book says, “Don’t spare the rod and spoil the child.” The rod is the words and one never runs out of words. Society today is in the grip of the hands of Babylon. The change will come but it will only come when we break away from Babylon.

IRIE. What do you hope your fans take from listening to Horror Zone?

Max Romeo: After listening to my album, ‘Horror Zone,’ I hope my fans will be motivated to live positively.

IRIE. Is there anything you would like to add or say to the IRIE audience?

Max Romeo: There is only one world. There’s only one people with culture and ideas. Everyone is striving for success, trying to pull away from the rest of the crabs in the barrel. But success does not come overnight. Wait on Jah! Jah will help you achieve your goals.

IRIE: Yes I! Much Love and Respect, Max Romeo! Irie Magazine Logo