In the wake of Bob Marley’s death from cancer at age 36 in May 1981, there was no obvious charismatic and uniting figure in the reggae world to build on Marley’s momentum, no acts that crossed over onto U.S. rock radio the way he had on occasion. That is, until Ziggy Marley came along.
Talk about big shoes to fill. David “Ziggy” Marley was the second of nine children Bob fathered with seven different women; the middle of three with his wife Rita. Ziggy was only 12 when Bob died, but he’d been around music since birth, so it was no surprise when he showed an interest in following his father’s lead. In 1979, he recorded a song with his dad, two older sisters—Cedella and Sharon—and younger brother Stephen (along with some of Bob’s musicians), and the four siblings were soon known as the Melody Makers. Ziggy and Stephen played at Bob Marley’s state funeral, and then formally launched their sibling group, the Melody Makers, releasing a couple of singles.
Even as a young teenager, Ziggy bore a strong resemblance to his father, and their vocal similarities became more pronounced as he matured. In the mid-’80s, the group, backed by top Jamaican players, released a couple of albums that were distributed by EMI: The first was a disappointingly lightweight reggae/pop affair, Play the Game Right; the second (and first by “Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers”), Hey World, was much better and showed that Ziggy and Stephen were both growing as writers and singers. Neither album did much commercially, but Nancy Jeffries, A&R rep for fledgling Virgin Records, saw something special in the young group and signed them to their first major deal in 1987.
Alex Sadkin, who had engineered a couple of Bob Marley’s later albums and was a fixture at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas (founded in 1977 by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, Marley’s producer), was slated to produce the first ZM/MM album at Compass Point, but he was killed in an automobile accident in July ’87, and it was Jeffries who suggested that the husband and wife team of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth—of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club fame—take the production reins. They were part-time Compass Point residents, as well, had worked with Sadkin on a couple of Talking Heads projects, and clearly knew a thing or two about reggae and “world music” in general.
“We had never produced a record outside of the Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club axis,” Weymouth told Musician magazine in 1988, “so it was quite a gamble for us and for Ziggy.
“When we first met Ziggy in New York,” she added, “I grilled him a little bit. I wanted to know whether he was the spoiled brat of a famous musician, or whether he had something to say for himself.” For his part, Ziggy, then 18, only knew his prospective producers through one song—Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
Even though Weymouth and Franz had the strong Compass Point connection, they decided to bring Ziggy and the group to New York to record their first album for Virgin, Conscious Party, at Sigma Sound, which had been Talking Heads’ studio-of-choice for a while. In Musician, Weymouth noted, “Chris [Frantz] pointed out that most reggae albums are recorded in these really deadened Jamaican studio rooms… We had gone down to see them at [Reggae] Sunsplash [Festival], and they were so exciting live, we said, ‘Why don’t we use the ambient rock ’n’ roll recording technique, which [engineer] Glenn Rosenstein is so superb at?”
Rosenstein, whose career up to that point had included engineering and mixing work with the likes of U2, Madonna, Talking Heads, Ramones and Full Force, says, “There was this great collective of musicians, engineers and assistants that revolved around that studio. And Talking Heads kept Sigma booked—they might have two or three rooms going at once with different projects. I worked on some of the Talking Heads records and individually with both Tom Tom Club and David Byrne. I also worked with Jerry Harrison on his recordings, though not quite as much. But there was this amazingly talented group of people who came in and out of that studio scene, contributing to those recordings in different ways, and I was privileged to be among them.”
Sigma’s NYC operation—owner Joe Tarsia’s original Sigma Sound was still operating in Philadelphia—opened in 1977 on the tenth floor of the building that still houses The Ed Sullivan Theater (current home The Late Show with David Letterman), and a little later put in a mix room on the floor below. Rosenstein recorded the bulk of Conscious Party live in Sigma NY’s Studio 5 on an SSL 4000 E Series board and 3M 79 multitrack, then mixed it downstairs in Studio 8 on an SSL 6000 E, to stereo half-inch on an Ampex ATR-100.
“It was in an older building, standard New York City office architecture,” Rosenstein says. “Nothing was done structurally to the space, other than acoustic treatment and studio walls. We were stuck with the regulation New York City office space ceiling height. Initially that would have been thought of as an issue for any record, but we found ways to work around it.
“This was a full band with a lot of musicians and leakage was something we could not even remotely address,” he continues. “We didn’t have much in the way of isolation, but rather than fight it, that actually became an asset for us. We were trying to get some room sound out of the kit, and Sigma had these large stand-alone RPG Diffusor boxes that we floated on the floor. I took those and placed them about 20 to 25 feet away from the drums and faced a pair of Shure 81s toward the diffusors, to get a little room sound, and it actually worked.
“There was baffling for the guitar amps, and the bass amp—an Ampeg B-15—was baffled, too. Unfortunately, the bassist [Zeleke Gessesse] was using a Steinberg, which was notorious for having the least amount of low end—no resonance whatsoever—so in order to get what I thought was some semblance of low end, I had to strap together two Pultec EQP-1As; one was not enough.”
On the album (and live for a few years), Marley was backed primarily by a band called Dallol, comprising young musicians who had emigrated from politically unstable Ethiopia to Chicago during the late ’70s, and subsequently formed a group to play their own distinctive brand of reggae. Their eponymous debut album for the Shanachie label had been released in 1985, and they first toured with Marley in 1987. Augmenting the Dallol players (drums, bass, rhythm guitar, percussion, two keyboardists) were a pair of Jamaican reggae stalwarts: guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith and keyboardist Franklyn “Bubbler” Wahl. Ziggy also played guitar on several songs (though not on “Tomorrow People”), while his three siblings contributed backing vocals, along with one lead from “Steve,” as he’s called on the record). Guests included guitarist Keith Richards, saxophonist Lenny Pickett and, on two songs, including “Tomorrow People,” Jerry Harrison on B-3.
“If I recall correctly,” Rosenstein says, “Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith was using a custom modified Stratocaster as his main guitar, and for an amp he had one of Sigma’s—a 1966 blackface Fender Twin. One of the guitarists from Dallol was using a little combo Mesa Boogie amp. My mics of choice for the amps were probably [Shure] 57s and [Neumann] 87s, most likely a combination of both, very tight-miked and blanketed, because we’re talking about eight players in the room, one of them a percussionist, so real estate was at a minimum and leakage was at a maximum.
“But the thing that was remarkable about those sessions, what made us feel as though we really had something, was that these guys played together so well and they caught the vibe of every song so quickly. They were not just good musicians, they were phenomenal musicians.”
Rosenstein recalls that Ruphael Woldemariam’s drums (his name is misspelled in the album credits) were likely captured with a Neumann FET 47 inside the kick and a Beyer M88 outside; for snare, a 57 on top and an AKG 451 underneath; a 451 on the hi-hat; U87s on all three toms; and 87s as overheads, as well. Electronic keys would have been taken direct: “Franklyn Waul was quite expert with a Wave PPG, and I think he might have had a [Yamaha] DX7, too,” the engineer says.
All the tracks featured the full band on complete takes, with Ziggy singing scratch vocals in an iso booth. “For a typical song, like ‘Tomorrow People,’ we might have run it down three or four times and I don’t recall that we cut between takes. Most likely that was an early take.” Keeper lead vocals were cut later with an AKG C-12 tube. “Over the course of three records I made with Ziggy, comping was kept to a minimum, vibe to a maximum,” Rosenstein says. “He really knew his voice and how to use it, and he was very effective at nailing vocals quickly.”
Reverbs Rosenstein used in the mix included the then-fashionable Lexicon 224 and 224 XL, EMT 250, “and we had a couple of [Lexicon] Delta Ts, which were the precursor to the Primetime. We also used analog tape delay—we’d dedicate a 2-track, have the assistant engineer run tape, and we’d varispeed the machine to correctly time the delay. A couple of Publisons, some AMS DMXs, a few EMT plates—these were the tools we had back then; a little different than now.”
Conscious Party was released in the spring of 1988, and right out of the box, the catchy and melodic “Tomorrow People” was embraced by rock radio and a video for the song made it into MTV’s rotation (back in the days when they actually featured music videos). The single of the song made it to Number 39 (higher than any Bob Marley single), while the album peaked at Number 23, eventually selling well over a million copies. A second track from the album, “Tumblin’ Down,” hit Number 1 on Billboard’s R&B and Dance charts and Number 5 on Modern Rock Tracks. It also kicked off a particularly fertile period for Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers. The following year, they recorded another album, One Bright Day, with Weymouth, Franz and Rosenstein (who was listed as co-producer), and then in 1991, Rosenstein and Ziggy produced Jahmekyas.
Was Rosenstein surprised by the success of Conscious Party and “Tomorrow People”?
“Absolutely. I thought Chris and Tina had done a remarkable job capturing the emotion and spirit of the artist, and it was clear to me that we had done something special. But even in the context of a time when there were huge hits—these days the definition of a huge hit is considerably different—I’m not sure anyone could have had that type of expectation for Conscious Party’s success. Everyone always hopes for a successful project, but that this album would break out of its genre and become MTV fodder? While I know that was the intention of the label—and Virgin was a very well run label—we didn’t really expect it. So it was definitely quite cool when it happened.”