Wingless Angels: The Second Coming

Wingless Angels - Justin Hinds is seated in the centre

Twelve years ago, I reviewed the first Wingless Angels’ album and expressed amazement that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones – a man who’s renowned for epitomising the rock and roll lifestyle like no other, at least in the past – should have bonded with a group of Rastafarian singers and drummers on Jamaica’s north coast and made music of such deep, spiritual grace, especially as the Angels were led by Justin Hinds, whom I’d met and knew to be a self-effacing and humble person who couldn’t have been further removed from rock star style excess. Talk about a meeting of opposites. The idea of him and “Keef” finding common ground seemed far-fetched at the time, but then with repeated plays the songs began to work their magic and different feelings emerged. Soon, disdain gave way to something a little more reflective [and not to say more charitable] and I came to realise that it wasn’t just the idyllic setting on Jamaica’s north coast that had provided Keith with a refuge or even the locals’ indifference to his fame and notoriety, but the very music itself. In the same way that nyahbinghi rhythms and chanting bring Rastafarians release from their everyday cares, they afford Keith Richards the very same thing. In the company of these simple people, wise beyond measure after a lifetime of natural living and Bible teachings, he could shed the skin of being Keith Richards, rock star extraordinaire, and simply be himself. There was no pressure on him to live up to expectations, or act in a certain kind of way. He could just be an ordinary person who enjoys a laugh and a spliff and playing his guitar, free of obligations to record companies, paying audiences or band politics. When you’re as well known as him, such a degree of freedom must be priceless and it’s little wonder he fell under the Angels’ spell and then wanted to pay tribute to Justin in some way after the singer’s untimely death in 2005.

The first Wingless Angels’ album was recorded in Keith’s living-room at a house he’d bought near Ocho Rios after the Stones’ sessions in Kingston nearly thirty years earlier. It’s church music in its simplest form, sang and chanted to the accompaniment of Rasta drums, and with the sound of crickets in the damp, warm, Jamaican night embellishing every track. Scenes like that stretch back to the beginning of time, and are universal in the truest sense. It’s this same heartbeat that resides at the core of so much roots reggae music from Jamaica – something an ardent reggae fan like Keith Richards recognised only too well. He’d made cassette recordings of the Angels’ sessions for years before Rob Fraboni turned up at his house with a mobile studio in 1995. Three years later, Keith released it on his own Mindless label where it quietly slipped into obscurity, until now. Next month he’s about to release a deluxe version, complete with fresh recordings taped a year before Justin Hinds’ passing.

These additional recordings were made at a small studio in the Cobaya Botanical Gardens near Ocho Rios. They were produced by Brian Jobson, who sat the musicians in a semi-circle, set up a few microphones and in his own words, “captured the moment and the magic, warts and all” since the tempos inevitably change on certain tracks.

“You can’t get artsy with the tracks or anything,” Keith told Roger Steffens. “ It is what it is. They’ve just got to feel free just to do it and that’s it.” After the session was recorded, nothing much happened until Justin died. Keith then phoned Brian, saying they should release it as a tribute to the singer who’d recorded a string of hits for Treasure Isle’s Duke Reid during the ska and rocksteady eras [including Save A Bread, Here I Stand and Carry Go Bring Come], and then briefly emerged from self-imposed exile with albums for Jack Ruby and Nighthawk.

“I really wanted to make it a little bit more modern than the first one,” explains Brian. “After we’d recorded the initial session, I’d overdubbed bass and Keith had overdubbed guitar and we’d just left it like that because he was busy with the Stones. He then asked if I could fix up the tracks and so I did that, and then I added a few more modern touches as well. On the first album they’d used some of the older guys but I wanted to use some of the newer, younger musicians on this second one so I got Lili Haydn, who is an electric violinist, and changed it up a bit. What we were trying to do was make it into a tribute to Justin, and showcasing his voice. Basically that’s what it is now, and then they had the idea of putting it out together with the first album and some of Keith’s drawings. It’s a wonderful project and when I think back to how it came about and all the different characters involved, I can’t put it on and not smile! Those sessions were so much fun, and yet at the same time it was so joyous. It’s so different to everything else that’s out there.”

Do you know if there any plans to tour?
“Well, they’ve always been talking about it but trying to get them together is difficult,” he says, laughing. “It’s always a case of “soon come” and they’re so laidback. They just get together almost every night, playing and singing like that. They don’t have any kind of formal set-up. It’s just like friends getting together and it’s so loose, it might spoil things if they made into something more formal. When they came into the studio, Justin would lead off and they’d all slowly join in and start singing. It would take five or ten minutes for everyone to find their feet and then when everything falls into place and the harmonies come together, then it would all take off. That’s when they get their wings and soar, after about half an hour and then they wouldn’t want to stop so I’d have to say, ‘Okay, that’s enough now!’”

Apart from Justin himself, they’ve lost other key members like Vincent “Jackie” Ellis and Locksley Whitlock since the Wingless Angels first came to wider attention. Maureen Fremantle, who combines singing and writing with selling trinkets on the beach is still there and so tooWarren Williamson and Milton “Neville” Beckerd, who is caretaker of the group’s collection of hand drums. Brian’s brother Wayne Jobson, director of the Peter Tosh film Stepping Razor: Red X and a well-known radio and telvision presenter in Los Angeles, say it’s supposed to take twenty, twenty-five years for Rasta drums to get cured.

“That’s why that first Wingless Angels’ project took so long, because they were just jamming and curing the drums!” he says. “Then finally now, fifteen years later, they did the second album but the whole process has taken nearly forty years in total and that’s how long Keith has been jamming and singing with them really.
“Steer Town and Mammee Bay were our nearest towns when Brian and I were growing up and anytime we needed to drive to the coast, we’d have to pass through there, y’know? Steer Town was the first Rasta town and in those days Rasta was like the “black heart man.” They were viewed as dangerous guys and so everybody was scared of them. We were just kids, and that’s how we’d been conditioned to think and yet it wasn’t like that because these were the most righteous form of Rastas. Justin, he was like the godfather of Steer Town and supported a lot of the people there but it was nice to see him and Keith together, because there was a strong bond between them.”

Brian describes Justin as “a very special person.

“When I was a kid growing up he was the local pop star. He’d sang those big hit songs like Carry Go Bring Come and I couldn’t believe he was living just down the road from us but over the years we’d all become really good friends. The rest of them were the dreads from up in his area. It was like a family and they all live in this village just above St. Ann’s Bay. A lot of the original Rastas came from St. Ann’s and they still have a really tight community up there. Everyone looks out for everyone else and they all love Keith and look out for him too. They take good care of him and whilst they know he’s a musician, they don’t realise the stature of him I don’t think, because no one’s running him down or anything like that. He can just sit at the bar and chat with people and that comes through on the album as well, because he’s just one of the musicians really.”

John Masouri

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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