David Bowie Becomes 'Ziggy Stardub'
Real Rock Becomes Real Reggae
You've got to admire the audacity of Michael Goldwasser. Twenty years ago, the New York musician, label owner, producer, songwriter and mixer, showed the first results of what may have seemed a nutty idea: a reggae reenactment of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." The entire album was turned into first-rate reggae, by Goldwasser's musical collective the Easy Star All-Stars (founded 1997), track by track, beat by beat. The result, "Dub Side of the Moon," not only put a fresh light on the iconic Pink Floyd album. It seemed to reinvigorate reggae as well.
This bold triumph resulted in other equally meticulous and entertaining remakes of legendary albums on the Easy Star independent label. "Radiodread" (2006) smoked out Radiohead's "OK Computer." The Beatles 1967 musical earthquake became "Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (2009). After a full remix of the Pink Floyd album ("Dubber Side of the Moon" 2010), Goldwasser and company tackled Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in the 2012 release Easy Star’s Thrillah. If my critical opinion was that this was not the complete artistic triumph as the other releases, it shed light on why: "Thriller" is not so much a Michael Jackson album as it is a Quincy Jones album. The album that made Michael Jackson the biggest pop star in the world in 1982 perhaps might have been more accurately called "Quincy Jones' 'Thriller' featuring Michael Jackson." This may also explain why I never had a career in the music business after my two year stint at CBS Records ended in 1974.
But the new release, "Ziggy Stardub," a reggae reinvention of David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," is the culmination of more than 20 years of production and mixing savvy, of organization, of featured musicians and singers, and Goldwasser's meticulously executed vision. This is not a statement I make lightly: Bowie's 1972 album is itself rock's sturdiest conceptual masterpiece, one of the top five or certainly seven albums of all-time. If I made lists I'd say what else was on it, but excess exposure of "listicles" on Twitter, and repeated calls to name this one and that one, or that one and this one, from those who suffer from "Listomania," if you will, have made me listphobic.
For the sake of simplicity, "Ziggy Stardubm" released near the end of April 2023, is the name of the Easy Star All-Stars album, but the legend lives in the grooves, or whatever sound emanates from these days.
With enough success behind him, Goldwasser and his team have access to many of the best reggae musicians in Jamaica, England, and America, to fullfill his vision of accuracy and truthfulness to the original work while transforming genres. Opener "Five Years" features the Birmingham, England rooted U.K. reggae band Steel Pulse, stars for 40 years, but it still has the almost operatic passion, the spirit of transcendence, of the original "Ziggy."
Think of the climactic "Suffragette City," in which the solos come not from Mick Ronson's guitar, but from the ska trombone of Buford O'Sullivan, a horn player in the Easy Star label group, the Extenders, who also tours with the classic ska instrumental band, the Skatalites. Replacing guitar with trombone but playing the solos to be faithful to the original record gives the Easy Star albums their credibility.
It's not that Goldwasser doesn't know some ace rock guitarists to deploy when needed.
"Hang On to Yourself" is a tour de force of mixed styles. Johnnygo Figure, who Goldwasser describes as "the resident DJ in the touring version of the Easy All-Stars," does the dub/club-style toasting (rapping). Two long-standing mainstays of what used to be known as the Black Rock Coalition kick out the jam, to the degree that the format of the song allows it: the reggae-adjacent artists Fishbone, and Vernon Reid of Living Colour.
Since the entire then-revolutionary agenda of Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" was gender-fluidity that was so prescient and yet easy to fictionalize 50 years ago, it makes sense that so many other women vocalists shine here: Joana Teeters of Easy Star Brooklyn band Sun Dub is the embodiment of "Lady Stardust."
"Moonage Daydream" gets a its bite from singer Naomi Cowan, who gives it an earthiness like a more fluid Grace Jones, but who is kicking it on guitar? Alex Lifeson from Rush. And the finale, "Rock n Roll Suicide," goes outside the reggae world altogether for a real voice-casting coup: it features the great soul and r&b singer Macy Gray. And after some dub mixes, the album's coda is a version of "All the Young Dudes," sung by Kristy Rock.
What fascinates me about all of these reggae revisions of rock classics is the process, so I spoke with Michael Goldwasser via email about these projects, and how he and his team, his business and musical partners, work. We don't really know each other, but have known of each other for almost 25 years. His father, Rabbi Bruce Goldwasser, was the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-Sholom in Queens until his retirement after 31 years in 2009. Two of my daughters were Bat-Mitzvah'd and received religious instruction from Rabbi Goldwasser, who had a knack for rousing them if they seemed tired or distracted, by switching to a dead-on Donald Duck voice.
WR: All of your Easy Star adaptations are meticulous in execution, "Ziggy Stardub" especially so in the way it lines up with the Bowie in terms of tempo (as far as my ears can tell), and structure, while creating a new and different work, with the featured singers especially good at putting across their songs in this alternate genre. What is the process you go through to put together an album like this?
Michael Goldwasser: Thanks for appreciating my meticulousness! First of all, it takes a lot of discussion with my partners in Easy Star Records to decide which album to re-imagine (more on that below). Once we've decided on the album then I spend a few months listening to the source material and taking notes, while also starting a relationship with the publishers of the source material. . .
A great album will often have many layers to it so to consider all of the details I need to listen very carefully many times. As I'm listening, I often come up with the beginnings of some arrangements - usually bass lines come to me first. My general practice is to keep the melodic and harmonic structure of the songs close to the originals, and also the tempos and time signatures, though on this album I translated all of the songs into 4/4 time.
WR: It's been 20 years, I think, since "Dub Side of the Moon." How has your approach to recording and producing this material evolved?
MG: I'd like to think that I've become a much better producer in many ways over the past twenty years. In some ways, the approach hasn't changed much in that with Dub Side of the Moon; the goal was to really get inside the source material and pay attention to both the big picture and the small details, and I still aim to do that. But I've become more experimental over the years and less bound by any ethos of trying to stay true to any certain sound or vibe besides making a great reggae record.
WR: How do you decide what's a suitable classic rock album for the Goldwasser treatment?
MG: It's got to be a big album that a lot of people care about - we want to turn heads. But it's also got to be a "great" album - fantastic songs, interesting arrangements, thrilling performances. And while it doesn't have to be a concept album per se, we do prefer to do albums that have some kind of unifying theme or feature and that have a good flow as an album. I like to think of an album as a journey for the listener, or sometimes even three journeys - one on Side A, another on Side B, and then the third journey that goes from the first song on Side A to the last song on Side B (yes, I still see the world as an LP).
WR: How do you go about looking for singers, now that "features" are so important in today's rap/hip-hop/pop world?
MG: We aim to get a mix of guest vocalists - some well-known reggae artists, some up-and-coming reggae artists, and then some artists from outside of the reggae world. We also like to involve artists from the greater Easy Star family. We're not concerned with any current trends towards features but we do want each track to have a distinct vocal, which is best achieved by using different vocalists on each song.
WR: It seems like you've got reggae's best singers (I don't follow the scene closely, but I know many of the names) as regulars working on your albums. Were any skeptical at first about what you're asking them to do? And feel free to tell me more about Samory I and Sun Dub.
MG: By now, many top reggae artists are familiar with Easy Star and I even know them personally so it's much easier to recruit people for these projects. But in the beginning some artists were a little skeptical - none of the Jamaican artists had heard of Pink Floyd or Dark Side of the Moon. Still, once they heard rough mixes of the tracks they felt comfortable because they could tell that we were making authentic reggae.
Samory I is a Jamaican singer who will be releasing an album on Easy Star Records later this year. I think that he has one of the most interesting voices in reggae right now, harkening back to some of the great roots vocalists from the 70's. And lyrically, he stays true to the themes that brought reggae to prominence around the world such as fighting for equal rights and justice, the upliftment of the people, and Rastafari. He worked so well on "It Ain't Easy" from Ziggy Stardub because the original is a bit bluesy and Samory's vocal approach has a blues aspect to it.
WR: How did you get Macy Gray for "Rock n Roll Suicide"? Did you consider that a "casting coup," because it sounds like one.
MG: Yes, I consider it a bit of a coup. I often go after major artists from outside of the world of reggae for these projects but most of the time it doesn't work out. In this case, I had an "in" though. I produced an album for Jason Mraz a couple of years ago (Look for the Good) and one of the drummers that I used on it, Tamir Barzilay, is also in Macy's band. We were on tour with Jason in 2021 and one day I asked Tamir if he could ever put me in touch with Macy since I was thinking of her for this album. After the tour, he connected me with Macy's manager, who turned out to be a big fan of our Radiodread album and was eager to convince Macy to sing on our Bowie tribute. She was interested so then it was just a matter of the business end and setting up the session, which of course wound up taking seven months! But it was well worth it - I love her interpretation.
Michael Goldwasser has also done remixes for Janelle Monae, Kelly Clarkson, Yoko Ono, Umphrey's McGee, and Rebelution. He is also the author of the article "The 25 Best Cover Songs by Reggae Artists" in the May 16, 2023 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/best-reggae-cover-songs-1234724075 You might also hear him singing or performing as his alter ego, Goldswagger.
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