Various Artists

The Front Line

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It's understandable that the author of the hagiography passing for sleeve notes prefers to remain anonymous, and his revisionist history of the Virgin label, its subsidiary Front Line, and the U.K. reggae scene is nothing if not breathtaking in it's audacity. Apparently, it all began with the Clash, with the Police then taking up their banner, without a single mention of England's West Indian community disseminating Jamaican music in the first place. So, a bit of truth in advertising. Prog rock Virgin was wilting by the mid-'70s, and head honcho Richard Branson was desperately searching to revive his company's fading fortunes. Bob Marley's breakthrough offered an obvious solution, and the label began signing up some of Jamaica's hottest talent. With the arrival of the Sex Pistols in 1977, the pace quickened. Legend has it that Branson and Johnny Rotten arrived in Kingston with cash in hand, money for the taking for artists willing to sign on the dotted line. The punk hero's taste was impeccable, and by the time the pair were finished, and Front Line formerly launched in 1978, the company sported a roster that seriously rivaled even Island's. This four-CD box set showcases much of the formidable talent at Front Line's disposal, and the track listing reads like an encyclopedia of roots' greatest acts -- sublime vocal groups, phenomenal solo artists, and top-ranking toasters. The resulting records were mostly masterful, and, in many cases, masterpieces. The problem was the label had no idea how to market the material, and even as the records tore up the underground, none had the least impact on the mainstream. By the dawn of the new decade, Branson wrote Front Line off as a bad investment, and moved on to the greener pastures of new romanticism. Much of this superb music would now disappear for years. Two discs are given over to the singers, across 43 mostly well-chosen tracks, that will leave you searching out the original albums from which they were culled. Besides the big names -- Abyssinians, Culture, Gregory Isaacs, et al -- it's more neglected artists like Delroy Washington, the severely underrated Johnny Clarke, and the early seminal lineup of the Twinkle Brothers that really impress, if only for their unfamiliarity. Disc three rounds up the DJs, with the big three -- U Roy, Big Youth and I Roy -- well represented, alongside the popular Prince Far I, Tapper Zukie, and Jah Lloyd. U Brown and Prince Hammer, both of whom disappeared from view in the early '80s, are welcome inclusions, as are the early offerings from Ranking Trevor. The liner notes include pocket bios of all the artists included, but sadly give little information about the multitude of sensational dub versions that are bundled onto disc four. As a label showcase, this would be hard-pressed to be bettered, and one is left to wonder just how inept Front Line were to fail with such high-quality music.

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