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Think Floyd: Easy Star Records' Michael G. (left) and Ticklah (right) produced the reggae re-invention 'Dub Side of the Moon.'

Comfortably Dub

The Easy Star All-Stars bring their reggae version of Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon' to the Catalyst

By Steve Palopoli

Just a casual glance at the Easy Star All-Stars' Dub Side of the Moon, and it's obvious why the album was a crossover hit that impressed Pink Floyd fans as much if not more than reggae fans. The obvious cover would have been the famous Dark Side of the Moon prism art, with the reggae-standard red, gold and green beams of light replacing the original rainbow. However, that art is still owned and closely guarded by Hipgnosis, who created it for Pink Floyd in the first place and were not likely to approve it being imitated on another album cover.

Instead, the producers of the album came up with a brilliant design--a moon in full eclipse. For the hardcore Floyd fan, the in-jokes have already begun. For one thing, Pink Floyd briefly considered changing Dark Side of the Moon's title to Eclipse, which is also the title of the last song on the album. According to the definitive Floyd biography Saucerful of Secrets, they only went with Dark Side of the Moon after an identically titled album by the band Medicine Head flopped. Also, the Dub Side cover seems to be a reference to the last line uttered on the Dark Side record before it fades away into heartbeats: "There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it's all dark ..."

You might wonder what the partners of a small, upstart reggae label--Easy Star Records, whose "All Stars" are a loose-knit group of session musicians from the reggae scene in New York where the label is based--are doing knowing so much about Pink Floyd. Maybe you're even wondering why they'd be doing a reggae version of a classic-rock concept album anyway.

Well, as for why they'd take it on in the first place, Easy Star partner Eric Smith says it was a no-brainer.

"The idea of covering pop music and rock music is as old as reggae," says Smith. "Reggae originally was covering R&B tunes, and every hip-hop or current R&B tune that comes out is generally translated into dancehall."

And why Dark Side of the Moon? Well, we all occasionally think we have our million-dollar idea, but one day, while listening to the Pink Floyd album, Easy Star partner Lem Oppenheimer really did.

"I was walking along," says Oppenheimer. "I was listening to the disc, going to sell one of our early records to stores, and it just kind of clicked. We had been, for a while, trying to think of records we could do that would do well outside of reggae. And we'd certainly always looked at tribute records that had come out--there were some Grateful Dead, some Police ones--and we never liked what we heard. Either they'd be too disjointed, because there'd be totally different bands with every track, or it's kind of a greatest-hits approach where, say a group like the Grateful Dead, you're taking songs from 1968 to 1986 or something like that. It doesn't have continuity. And even more, it was forcing the music into a reggae vein without it having any reason to be."

With this album, though, Oppenheimer did see a reason.

"By approaching the entire album," he says, "it treats the album as a symphonic piece, as one piece of music, and that was what become interesting: can you take this and basically splice the DNA to make it come out proper?"

Oppenheimer and Smith thought it possible, so they took the idea to Michael G. and Ticklah, the label's other two partners who also handle most of the production duties and are the nucleus of the All-Stars. They weren't too familiar with the Pink Floyd record, but thought the idea could work, and set about to compose basic arrangements for the songs.

The real culture shock came when the producers brought the project to the musicians.

"A lot of the artists were straight up Jamaican artists who might have heard of Pink Floyd, but had no idea what it was. So some of them had no idea what they were dealing with, but everyone took it in stride. And the cool thing with the lyrics is they're pretty universal," says Smith. "I think it was more the arrangements that were challenging for some of the artists, something they hadn't really dealt with before."

Despite the fact that it's an entirely different style of music, the record is unexpectedly true to the original. Maybe that's why the major differences stand out so much, in a good way. The sound effects are intact, but the famous 7/8 opening of "Money" opens with someone taking an impressive bong hit--it's a sly in-joke, considering that the original Floyd album was sustained for a record 736 weeks on the Billboard charts in no small part by the legions of the stoned. And Ranking Joe lays out a reggae-style vocal rap during the song "Time" that's startling in comparison to the Floyd-type vocal lead from Corey Harris on the same song.

"It's definitely a misnomer that it's a dub album," says Oppenheimer of the reggae translation, "because obviously we do all the lyrics. But especially with Dark Side of the Moon, you have those musical passages where the words become kind of little sections within there; it's not a typically word-heavy album. That allows you to imagine stretching it out, letting the music build the way it might in a dub environment."

In the end, the project took three years to "do proper," including a grueling two-month, 14-hour-a-day mixing schedule that explains why Dub Side emulates the original album's top-notch production values.

Off to See the Wizard

Further evidence of the producers' attention to detail is that they seriously considered how much of a role the fabled Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz connection (see story) should play in their project.

"From the beginning, we thought it would be good if we could look into the whole Wizard of Oz connection," says Smith. "Which came up after the fact for the first album, but we figured, 'Well, now that we're going into the album, let's see if we can get close to the timing of the first one.' The greater desire was to make a mirror image, a red, gold and green version of the original. So that was the initial reason to keep the timing as close to the timing as the original. But we thought about the Wizard of Oz thing."

Even cooler: "We actually thought about maybe we should make it sync with The Wiz, to bring it to a different level," Smith says.

In the end, they didn't really tailor the album to the film, but the results, says Smith, have that same synchronicity anyway.

"Michael and I sat down at one point when we had a somewhat finished mix of the album and, you know, you can find your moments there," he says. "My personal feeling is you can probably make a lot of things sync with each other just by coincidence. But we then played Dark Side with Wizard of Oz and I think we all agreed we have just as many strong moments as Dark Side has."

Still, the Oz connection has been a big part of the press Dub Side has gotten, and maybe even a part of the reason it's sold over 50,000 copies--an incredible number for a tiny label in the usually miniscule reggae market--and been on the Billboard reggae charts for over a year. The Easy Star All-Stars have even taken to playing The Wizard of Oz in the background while they play the Dub Side suite live, though on the West Coast they've only been able to arrange that at their Los Angeles gig and won't be doing it at their show at the Catalyst Thursday, Aug. 12--though they will of course perform the album in its entirety here.

It's not just reggae fans that are going to these shows, either. Certainly in a live setting the more energetic, sometimes downright upbeat, music--while it may on first listen obscure somewhat the album's original theme of a modern individual driven mad by the various aspects of modern life--also brings something to the work that fans of the record originally made by a bunch of dour Englishman never known for their rhythm section don't expect.

"When we first went out live," says Smith, "the thing I kept hearing time and time again was 'You can dance to this now.'"


The Easy Star All-Stars perform 'Dub Side of the Moon' in a 16-and-over show at the Catalyst Thursday, Aug. 12. Dub FX opens at 8:30pm; tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door; 831.423.133.

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From the August 11-18, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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