Socially conscious lyrics are one of the hallmarks of reggae. Of course, reggae artists cover a broad variety of subjects with their songs, from love to religion. Some may simply aim to convey generally optimistic vibes to their audience. However, artists like the legendary Bob Marley, Burning Spear or Peter Tosh helped advance reggae beyond its early days as straightforward dance music to music that could raise the political awareness of listeners by speaking out against oppression. But what then is left when reggae lacks lyrics entirely? Liquidator by the Harry J Allstars is an influential early instrumental reggae album, and unsurprisingly, the lack of lyrics might throw some listeners for a loop.
Under the employ of Jamaican producer Harry “J” Johnson, the Harry J Allstars were comprised of a cast of session musicians who recorded backing tracks and instrumentals. Johnson’s eponymous Harry J Studio continues as a reggae hub to this day, but when Liquidator was recorded in the late 1960s, it provided an ideal recording environment for studio musicians, and eventually drew in reggae greats like Bob Marley and The Wailers during the 1970s. Released in 1969, Liquidator emerged on the threshold of reggae’s entrance to the mainstream. In fact, the popularity this particular album enjoyed in Britain contributed to lifting reggae into the spotlight. The studio musicians on the album included Aston Barrett on bass, drummer Carlton Barrett, guitarist Alva Lewis and Winston Wright on organ.
To modern ears, Liquidator sounds like late-60s’ cheese distilled down to its purest form. The Hammond organ featured so prominently is practically the definition of tacky, and the lack of vocals draws even more attention to the antiquated timbres. Comprised entirely of instrumentals, some tracks on this album could even draw unfortunate comparisons to muzak. This album’s campiness is even further exacerbated by some bizarre musical quotes: “Jay Moonwalk” directly lifts the well-known bugle call “Reveille” and plays it on organ over a 16-bar blues form.
If one can stomach the cheese, the absence of lyrics on Liquidator does have some advantages that contribute to an enjoyable overall vibe. In place of vocals, melody becomes an especially conspicuous part of this record, and for all the album’s kitsch a number of tracks are genuine earworms. The fan-favorite title track “Liquidator” is incredibly catchy and found popularity as walk-on music for UK football teams. The following track, “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” several tracks later both have unforgettable melancholic melodies that add a touch of sentiment to an otherwise happy-go-lucky album.
When I played part of this album for a friend, he jibed “I like how easy this music is to not listen to.” Admittedly Liquidator may not stand up to close scrutiny from contemporary listeners who want music with insightful messages or timeless instrumentals, but it is a fantastic album to put on in the background while working on other tasks or relaxing. After all, the whole point of an instrumental album is the atmosphere. For all its gaudiness, this album does an excellent job of feeling quirky but relaxed, even when the music derives inspiration from serial killers like “Jack the Ripper.”
But for those who have little patience for instrumental music and find lyrics to be an essential part of the experience, it might still be possible to enjoy the fruits of this album as performed by other musicians. After all, Harry J’s work as a producer involved a fair bit of cross pollination with other artists, and some instrumentals found their way into other songs. As it turns out, the title rack “Liquidator” provides the instrumental backing for Tony Scott’s vocals in his song “What Am I to Do.”