Before Paul Simon decided to pour his love of reggae into his 1972 hit, Mother and Child Reunion, very few mainstream rock artists had incorporated the sounds of Jamaica into their music. Since then, rock-reggae has become a genre in its own right, with everyone from Eric Clapton to Suggs taking a bite of the apple. Some artists have flirted with it briefly, others have immersed themselves in it completely. Either way, it’s given us some awesome tunes. If you want to introduce some island flavor into your playlist, check out these 10 best reggae rock songs of all time.
10. Suggs – Cecilia
Suggs’ reggae-style rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s Cecilia might not be in the same league as the original, but it’s not without merit. Released in 1996, it scored the Madness frontman his biggest solo hit, charting at No.4 in the UK and certifying silver. Despite its surprisingly tough dancehall beat, it’s a playful romp that’s best not taken too seriously.
9. The Dirty Heads – Lay Me Down
In 2010, the reggae-rock genre received a fresh boost when The Dirty Heads teamed up with Rome Ramirez of Sublime to record Lay Me Down. It peaked at number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, with Billboard rightly calling it a serious contender for song of the summer. Chugging guitar riffs and a bouncy chorus combine with an upbeat melody and feel-good lyrics to create a silvery slice of island-inspired rock that’s practically dripping in sunshine.
8. UB40 – Red Red Wine
With the possible exception of The Police, the British band that’s made the biggest impact on the charts with their reggae-inspired rock is UB40. Since forming in 1978, they’ve had over 50 UK chart successes, been nominated for four Grammys for Best Reggae Album, and sold over 7 million records worldwide. They’ve also scored two Billboard Hot 100 No.1s, one of which was with 1983’s Red Red Wine. Originally recorded by Neil Diamond as a mid-tempo number with a folk flavoured vibe, UB40 added a big dollop of reggae and made it their own.
7. Magic! – Rude
In 2013, the Canadian reggae fusion band Magic! made a splashy introduction with the release of their debut single Rude. Critically, the reception was mixed. 4Music said, “One listen and you’ll be hooked.” Time called it one of the 10 worst songs of the year and blasted it for its “sanitized reggae-fusion sound.” Ultimately, it was intended as nothing more and nothing less than a bit of lighthearted fun. Clearly, the public got the message – the song soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and fared similarly well internationally.
6. The Pretenders – Private Life
As ultimateclassicrock.com writes, Chrissy Hynde may have been born and bred in Ohio, but she earned her stripes on the London punk scene, where all the young bands were heavily into reggae. Clearly, their influence paid off – Private Life is a groove-heavy tune that blends island rhythms with the band’s signature punk rock. Grace Jones did a very fine version of the song alongside Sly and Robbie the following year, but it’s the original that still captivates.
5. Eric Clapton – I Shot the Sheriff
You don’t tackle a classic like Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff unless you’re either very stupid or you know exactly what you’re doing. Clearly, Eric Clapton isn’t stupid… although he can sometimes be a bit slow on the uptake. After hearing the recorded version, he had to be convinced to put it on his next album and convinced a second time that it was good enough to be released as a single. In retrospect, he’s probably glad he let himself be overruled – his version managed to outplay the original, taking Clapton all the way to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually landing a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
4. Elvis Costello – Watching the Detectives
According to songfacts.com, Elvis Costello wrote Watching the Detectives after staying up all night listening to The Clash’s debut album. Fueled by an entire jar of instant coffee, he stayed awake for a straight 36 hours. During an interview with Q magazine in 2013, he explained away the lurching sound of the song with the comment “Why do you think that song is so jerky? I drank a lot of coffee.” Jerky or not, it’s a fine piece of reggae-inspired rock, with a galloping piano and some typically fine storytelling from Costello.
3. The Police – So Lonely
The Police were a band that never made any secret of their reggae influences, but few of their songs were quite so overtly tied to the genre as So Lonely. It’s not too surprising really – years later, Sting ‘fessed up to using Bob Marley’s No Women No Cry as the template. “Let’s be honest here, ‘So Lonely’ was unabashedly culled from ‘No Woman No Cry’ by Bob Marley,” he said. “Same chorus.” Either way, it’s a great song that’s emblematic of The Police’s signature blend of rock and reggae.
2. Paul Simon – Mother and Child Reunion
Long before Graceland, Paul Simon was delving into world music in a way few of his contemporaries could even contemplate. Taken from his eponymous 1972 album, Mother and Child Reunion is one of the very first songs by a non-Jamaican to incorporate reggae on such a significant scale. Unusually for Simon, he recorded the song before writing the lyrics, which may explain why it sounds like such an authentic slice of classic reggae, right up until Simon cuts in with his vocals. That, and the fact it was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica with Jimmy Cliff’s backing group.
1. The Clash – (White Man in) Hammersmith Palais
The Clash’s (White Man in) Hammersmith Palais starts by recounting a disappointing reggae showcase frontman Joe Strummer had attended at the Hammersmith Palais, which had been less of the roots-rock rebellion he’d been hoping for and more of a lightweight exercise in radio-friendly pop. From there, it moves on to take a withering look at the state of the nation, economic and racial inequality, and the punk bands that had given up their safety pins for Burton suits. Lyrically, it’s one of Strummer’s best ever works. Musically, it’s the same, representing one of (if not the) very first songs to ever blend punk with reggae. It may have left fans of their earlier work disoriented, but its musical depth and maturity are, even all these years later, still thrilling.