Jimmy Cliff’s most essential album can still be considered the best reggae has to offer even 50 years on
Prior to the release of the soundtrack for the independent film The Harder They Come on
July 7, 1972, reggae was considered a decidedly obscure entity.
It was a sound largely confined to the island of Jamaica and well beyond the musical mainstream, particularly as far as American listeners were concerned. Although a handful of popular performers helped popularize the style later on — Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, the Police, Madness, The Specials and the Clash being among the most prominent — it was alien as far as most artists and audiences were concerned, even though it had flourished during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s among the Rastafarians and those who had taken the sound of ska and updated the approach to conform to the cultural context of modern island life.
The plot of the movie lent itself to the realities of island life. Its hero, Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, was a wannabe reggae singer whose hardback happenstance and failed attempts at making a legitimate living lead him to a life of crime. Ivan was portrayed by a legitimate hero in his homeland, Jimmy Cliff, and although only the title track, “The Harder They Come,” was written specifically for the film, several of his songs dominate the album, and in fact, still resonate as the best efforts he’s ever offered. “You Can Get It If You Really Want” is an assertive offering that sums up the stance of the film’s outlaw hero, while “Sitting In Limbo” attests to the uncertainty and frustration that leads Ivan astray. That said, Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” is among the most beautiful entries of all, a hushed yet reassuring song with spiritual implications that still resonate now, half a century on.
VIDEO: The Harder They Come film clip
A disparate group of artists contribute the album’s other entries, all of which were tapped from the Jamaican hit parade earlier on. The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” is as soft and soothing as the title implies, a song that sums up a reverence for religion which was so essential to any life well lived. The effusive “Sweet and Dandy” helped introduce Toots and the Maytals to the general populace, allowing them to become standouts on the budding and influential Island Records label, the home of the soundtrack itself. Another Toots track, “Pressure Drop,” expressed the urgency of those struggling to find their way in a world where the odds were clearly not in their favor. Desmond Dekker, an early star of the idiom, is represented by “007 (Shanty Town),” another infectious entry that clearly captures the ramshackle environs inhabited by the characters in the film.
Five decades after its debut, The Harder They Come remains one of the most essential albums of the past 50 years, confirmed by the fact that in 2021 alone, it was hailed as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for inclusion in the National Historic Registry. Its impact is as implicit as ever, and even now, it represents reggae’s finest hour.