Friday, November 21, 2008

Double Barrel Blasts Its Way Into The Charts

By travelling back to 1971 I’m stretching the very limits of my living experience music recall, but I think it’s true that our earliest memories often retain the greatest clarity and resonance, even in encroaching middle age. The reason for my journey back that far is a song called ‘Double Barrel’. When I was but old enough to barely walk, one of my older brothers was old enough to be buying records. One of the records he purchased on vinyl 45 at the time of its release was ‘Double Barrel’. I can recall the song being played regularly, and in particular the echoing spoken word intro - or declaration might be more appropriate, as it sounded like it was delivered over a loud speaker system at a stadium, with full reverb - “I am the magnificent! I’m backed by the shack of a soul boss, most turnin’, stormin’, sound o’the soul.” In truth I could only decipher the words “I am the magnificent” back then, and even now, though having checked some lyrics sites and listened to the track again closely, I’m confident the rest of those opening line lyrics are pretty close to the mark.

So who was the artist behind the hit ‘Double Barrel’? Well, depending on which source you access, and which record cover or label you read, it was credited to Dave & Ansil Collins. Most chart records spell it ‘Ansil‘, though there are variations of ‘Ansel’ or even ‘Ansell’ - but to keep it simple and less confusing for me, I’ll spell it ‘Ansil’ for the remainder of this post. Now you might be thinking at this point, as I once did, that Dave & Ansil Collins were brothers, as in Dave Collins and his brother Ansil Collins, but the wording of the artist credit was a bit misleading. Dave was actually Dave Barker, and he was no relation to Ansil Collins. Barker had been a session vocalist at Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Black Ark recording studio in Jamaica during the late 60s and early 70s, and he recorded a number of solo hits on the local Jamaican scene. Self taught keyboardist Ansil Collins had likewise been playing with other artists both in studio and live, among them the Upsetters and Jimmy Cliff. He’d also been a session player with other Jamaican reggae artists like Black Uhuru, the Mighty Diamonds, and Barrington Levy.

Writer/producer Winston Riley had sketched the beginnings of an instrumental with a working title of ‘Double Barrel’. Ansil Collins then laid down his atmospheric keyboard track to flesh out the song’s melody. Riley and Collins decided the track needed a vocal to really energise it, so they turned to Dave Barker with an offer equivalent to 20 pounds to lay down some vocals. Barker happily accepted the work, but had he known the enormous worldwide sales the single would generate, he might have negotiated for greater remuneration for his efforts. In my view it was Dave Barker’s raucous vocal performance, or ‘toasting’, that made ‘Double Barrel’ the memorable song it is, but that’s not to discount the basic instrumental track which was an innovative, hybrid mix of rocksteady rhythms (combining reggae and ska), with jazz-soul overtones that married seamlessly with Barker’s reggae toast delivery. The percussion track was performed by a 14 year old drummer by the name of Sly Dunbar, who would go on to assume legendary status on the Jamaican reggae scene as one half of the writing and production team of Sly & Robbie (see future Maxi Priest post). Every time I’ve heard the 1979 Madness hit ‘One Step Beyond’, I can’t help but think its’ source of inspiration must have been ‘Double Barrel’. I’ve read in a couple of places that the middle eight chord sequence borrows heavily from Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ but I’m not convinced of that.

What was convincing is that the world was blown away by ‘Double Barrel’ when it was released in early 1971. Dave & Ansil Collins suddenly became household names in Britain when ‘Double Barrel’ debuted on the charts during March ‘71. Within two months ‘Double Barrel’ had shot to #1 on the British charts, and held sway over the competition for two weeks during May. It went on to become the 5th biggest selling single in Britain for 1971. The song became somewhat of a cult hit for the emerging underground skinhead movement - don’t ask me why. ‘Double Barrel’ wasn’t the first single of Caribbean origin to top the British charts, as two years earlier fellow Jamaican Desmond Dekker (And The Aces) journeyed to #1 with ‘The Israelites’.

On the back of ‘Double Barrel’s success in Britain, the record label(s) Trojan Records/Big Tree, took aim at both U.S. and Australian markets. ‘Double Barrel’ hit the U.S. charts in June and worked its way to #22 (becoming the first reggae single to reach the top 30 on the U.S. Hot 100), whilst here in Australia the song successfully targeted the top 10 and eventually hit its mark at #8 during September ‘71.

Winston Riley wrote and produced most of the tracks on the debut album for Dave & Ansil Collins, also titled ‘Double Barrel’ (UK#41). The album also featured the follow up single ‘Monkey Spanner’ which only attracted interest in the U.K. where it climbed as high as #7 in mid ‘71. That would be the last of the duo’s hits outside of their home region, but they did release one more album in 1976 titled ‘In The Ghetto’.

Both Dave Barker and Ansil Collins also continued to record and release material as solo acts, with Collins credited much of the time as ‘Ansell’. Barker relocated to the U.K. and worked with a number of low profile soul groups, whilst Collins was a key member of the renowned Bunny Lee house band The Aggrovators, and another unit called the Revolutionaries. In the early 80s the duo reunited and recorded some new material, reportedly as Clint Eastwood & General Saint (I’m not sure which was which), but the comeback was a fizzer. As for the song ‘Double Barrel’, it resurfaced in 1994 when it was sampled by Chaka Demus & Pliers on their top 20 U.K. hit ‘Gal Wine’. I came across an interview with Ansil Collins, published in the Jamaican Gleaner News in February ’07, and he commented that he was about to release a new album of instrumentals called ‘Sounds of Reggae’. In 2001 a compilation album was released in Europe on Armoury Records, which featured a mix of original and re-recorded material from the duo.

Almost forty years after it was released ‘Double Barrel’ is still cited as an influential song across a range of contemporary music genres. I was fortunate enough to score my first copy of the song on CD back in the early 90s via an eclectic compilation mix titled ‘History Of Pop - Volume 5’ - which included several other gems including ‘Barbados’ by Typically Tropical and ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ by Carl Douglas (see earlier posts) and ‘Best Disco In Town’ by Ritchie Family (see future post). I can recall by older brother telling me that ‘Double Barrel’ had originally been used as a promo for a radio station. I don’t doubt that there’s truth in that but I haven’t been able to uncover anything specific regarding which radio station or when. If anyone can offer any information regarding that I’d really appreciate it.

Meanwhile, enjoy this live versio
n of ‘Double Barrel’ by Dave & Ansil Collins, recorded on Britain’s ‘Top Of The Pops’.

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