Toots & The Maytals: Funky Kingston

Stax meets rocksteady in this rousing reggae set, which has been described as one of the most uplifting LPs ever. Steve Sutherland listens to the recent 180g reissue

Sometimes things go wrong. Like when I was flown to San Francisco to interview Australian psychedelic popsters The Church and they wouldn't talk to me, over a grudge which to this day remains a mystery to me. Then there was the time I interviewed the brilliant and now sadly deceased Prince Far I and such was the depth of his gutteral growl and the deep slur of his diction that, on playing back the tape recording, neither myself nor anyone else I cared to play it to could decipher a single word he uttered… Oh, and Robbie Williams once quit on me just as an interview was about to start, because as it later transpired he'd mistaken me for somebody else that he didn't like.

Fire Alarm
But weirdest of all my journalistic non-functions occurs one early spring late lunchtime in the mid 1980s in a flat up Notting Hill way. Famed photographer and all-round diamond geezer Tom Sheehan and I are here to interview Toots & The Maytals on the eve of a gig they're putting on. The apartment is crowded as we are proffered entry, and thickly clouded in smoke. There is a copy of the News Of The World spread out in the fireplace upon which sits a small mountain of what I take to be marijuana – much more than I'd ever seen in one place before.

There are six, maybe seven men in the room, all in differing aspects of being splayed out across the floor. Sheehan and I weave our way precariously through the matrix of outstretched legs and perch ourselves on two kitchen chairs against the far wall.

Toots is over there by the fireplace, firing up a chalice – not, you understand, by any means his first of the day. Nor will it be the last. Toots has a cough. Well, not just a cough actually. He has a monumental wracking noise that issues through his throat like some locomotive derailing. He eventually gives us a wary nod, then proceeds to attempt what we take to be speech… more a kind of wheezing, before another cough explodes.

The other men are mumbling amongst themselves and thus passes the next ten or so minutes. Sheehan and I, somewhat intimidated, are wondering how we are to fashion an introduction which might lead to a situation where we can, y'know, get down to the job, when suddenly the conversation amongst the men before us takes a more animated turn.

There is mention of the 'shops'. Four or five of the men, Toots among their number, rise and amble out of the room. We hear the front door bang behind them. The couple of chaps left lounge around for a while, then rise and retreat to another room leaving us all on our lonesome. It's now that we notice a large pot of stew or something set on a gas burner the other side of the room. We notice it because it is hissing, spitting and boiling over, creating a stench even stronger than the fog of dope smoke. Sheehan, alarmed that we might become trapped in a fire, crosses the room and turns off the gas.

He sits back down and there we remain in silence for a fair while until we hear the key in the front door and Toots and his pals are apparently back. They enter the room, settle back on the floor and are proceeding to go about filling another chalice when one of their number glances up and notices the gas is off.

Instant pandemonium. There is much shouting and arm-waving, chaps jumping to their feet and jabbing fingers at each other's faces. The couple of blokes rush in from the next room and are immediately accused of ruining the stew, or whatever it was. There are recriminations. There are threats yelled. There is something uttered about Jah saying the cooking pot should never be allowed off the boil.

Stepping Out
Which of them did it, they all want to know. There is more shouting. I glance nervously at Sheehan. He motions with his head towards the door and we up and leg it before something bad happens. As we exit they are still arguing. They don't notice we are gone. That's my Toots & The Maytals story so let's get on to why I was so keen to meet Toots in the first place: the mighty Funky Kingston.