It’s fair to say that one of my most anticipated album releases of early 2019 is the seventh instalment in On-U Sound’s Pay It All Back series.
Earlier this month, some 23 years after the release of the volume six, the label announced a March 29 release date for the unveiling of a mouth-watering volume seven. Here’s the blurb from the On-U Sound Bandcamp page (where you can also pre-order, here):
“An 18 track showcase of new Adrian Sherwood productions featuring previews of several forthcoming On-U releases, unique mixes, deep cuts, and unreleased tracks from Roots Manuva, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Coldcut, Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band), Mark Stewart, Horace Andy and more. The long-awaited latest instalment in the legendary On-U sampler series that first emerged in 1984. In the classic tradition of the series the tracks are stitched together with a number of special pirate radio style segueways, making for a unique journey through the modern world of On-U Sound! Both vinyl and CD editions come with a fully illustrated and annotated On-U catalogue, track exclusive to physical formats and is presented in a gorgeous colour-printed kraft board sleeve.”
The full Pay It All Back set, volumes one through six, is the only long running compilation series - on any label - I’ve managed collect in its entirety in the same format … only on CD, sadly, although I had at least one, if not two, of the early volumes on vinyl back in the day.
With the first six volumes having provided an in-depth overview of the label’s first decade, and nothing since 1996, volume seven is more than just a little overdue.
There have, of course, been many other Adrian Sherwood and On-U compilation releases during that period, but the Pay It All Back series remains the most definitive. Up until 1996, at least.
In anticipation of the forthcoming addition, I’ve compiled a How to Buy On-U Sound (collections) guide, and although every On-U devotee would add and delete as applicable to create a completely different set of favourites, the ten releases listed below all take pride of place in my own collection, roughly in order of preference.
How to Buy On-U Sound …
15 Years in an Open Boat (1997)
Although each Pay It All Back volume comes with its own unique set of charms, 15 Years in an Open Boat is perhaps the only collection to trump them all, and it currently ranks as the most comprehensive On-U Sound overview to date, covering off the label’s first - and surely most important - 15 year period. 29 tracks across two CDs and/or LPs. As such, we get everything from Prince Far I’s seminal ‘Virgin’ (of 1982), through to Sherwood’s mid-90s work with the likes of Little Axe, Audio Active, and 2 Badcard. It also ticks boxes for the hugely significant Tackhead (‘What’s My Mission Now?’), Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (‘Jungle’), Dub Syndicate (four tracks), and many others along the way. 15 Years in an Open Boat is an absolute essential for any self-respecting On-U collector.
Pay It All Back Volume Three (1991)
My pick of the Pay It All Back bunch. Just. It opens with Strange Parcels’ ‘Disconnection’ and it doesn’t relent across 17 FX-drenched Sherwood masterpieces. Perry and Dub Syndicate again feature, the latter with another three gems, but there’s also arguable career highpoints on this one for key Sherwood sidekick Gary Clail with ‘False Leader’, and the much loved Little Annie, aka Annie Anxiety, with ‘I Think of You’. Naturally there’s some Barmy Army (two tracks), African Head Charge, Mark Stewart, and the late, always missed, never forgotten, Bim Sherman, who closes proceedings with ‘Nightmare’. This one is pretty much the equivalent of an On-U “Who’s Who” of the label’s roster as things stood at the end of its first decade.
Pay It All Back Volume Two (1988)
Where it all started for me, on vinyl, and while the On-U Bandcamp page appears to insist that Volume Two is short and sweet at just nine tracks in length, the album in hard copy form (CD) consists of 16 tracks, most showcasing Sherwood’s love of reggae at the rootsy end of the spectrum; opening with Perry & Dub Syndicate’s ‘Train To Doomsville’, and closing with Dr Pablo’s melodica-driven ‘Red Sea’. Everything in between is a genuine On-U classic. Highlights include two Bim Sherman collaborations, with Singers & Players on ‘Run Them Away’, and Dub Syndicate on ‘Haunting Ground’. Singers & Players back Prince Far I on two tracks, and Far I’s own, immortal, ‘Bedward The Flying Preacher’ is another obvious stand-out. There’s two great contributions from African Head Charge, and three Mark Stewart/Maffia offerings across the second half.
Sherwood At The Controls Volume 2 1985-1990 (2016)
A recent raiding of the On-U archives from just a couple of years back. I thought the most important aspect of the two recent Sherwood At The Controls releases - will there be more in this series? - was the way each one highlighted the label’s evolution from its earliest post-punk roots, and this volume serves to showcase Sherwood’s early forays into a fledgling form of industrial EDM with tracks from the likes of Mark Stewart (with ‘Hypnotized 12 Mix’), Tackhead (‘Mind at the End of the Tether’), Keith Le Blanc (‘These Sounds’), Ministry (‘All Day Remix’), and KMFDM (‘Don’t Blow Your Top’). But the dub/reggae staples - Perry, Dub Syndicate, Sherman, and AHC - also feature prominently enough, and At The Controls Volume 2 at its best presents a hybrid mix of all of the genres Sherwood found himself tinkering with across the late 80s. Which means this one is perhaps the most eclectic of all the albums featured on this list.
Pay It All Back Volume Four (1993)
The importance to Sherwood and On-U Sound over the years of key individuals like bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald can never be overstated, and their omnipresence is the most immediately obvious thing about the material found on Volume Four: collectively, individually, or as key members of Strange Parcels - effectively Tackhead in disguise - with that collective contributing five out of the 14 tracks on offer. Elsewhere, we get McDonald, aka Little Axe, in a “solo” guise with ‘Hammerhead’, and in partnership with Wimbish on ‘Stop The Clock Part 2’ ... all of that before we even start on the duo’s involvement with various other On-U projects - see Barmy Army, Dub Syndicate etc. And McDonald is credited with co-production on ten tracks here. Curiously enough though, my choice cut from Volume Four has to be the Norman Grant-produced Twinkle Brothers dub-with-strings extravaganza that is ‘Don’t Betray Me’. A shout out, also, to the mournful social commentary of Jalal’s ‘Mankind’.
On-U Sound - Dub Xperience: The Dread Operators (1996)
Given that it was released on Cleopatra Records, and includes material lifted from the Cherry Red imprint, pesky purists might insist this one’s not authentic to the On-U label, but one quick glance at the track-list should be enough to quell the concern of any sceptic; things don’t get much more early On-U Sound than Creation Rebel - Eskimo Fox, Style Scott, Sherwood, et al - with five tracks, including two co-credits with New Age Steppers, or Singers & Players, with four tracks, including ‘Autobiography (Dread Operator)’, which serves as an opener and title track. Prince Far I features with ‘Quante Jubila’, and Voice of Authority, effectively Sherwood himself, is there with ‘Middle East Power Station’. However you wish to frame it, Dub Xperience: The Dread Operators, is pure foundation-era On-U Sound, and a few years after its release as a standalone document, compiler Matt Green saw fit to include it as one third of a wider On-U Sound box set, also released on Cleopatra.
Pay It All Back Volume One (1985)
The first release in the Pay It All Back series, yet one I was forced to work my way back to after buying all the rest, given its relatively rare status for the decade or so after its release (here in New Zealand, pre-internet, at least). A couple of tracks featuring here would resurface again on Volume Two - it probably depends on what release/version/format is being discussed - but obviously Volume One was crucial in that it meticulously covered off the label’s earliest output. Which means it contains some of Sherwood’s most rudimentary and experimental production work. The sort of stuff fans of the label would later come to know (and love) as easily identifiable signature moments - his explorative use of space, echo FX, and sampling, being at its most raw and cutting edge during this phase. Highlights include Dub Syndicate’s ‘Must Be Dreaming’, and African Head Charge’s ‘Timbuktu Express’, but there’s state-of-the-art work too from Singers & Players, New Age Steppers, and Mark Stewart’s Maffia.
Sherwood At The Controls Volume 1 1979-1984 (2015)
At The Controls Volume 1 was all about excavating some of the super early Sherwood stuff that might otherwise have been forgotten about. Again, as with the template or formula explored further on Volume 2, it brings into sharp focus Sherwood’s links with punk, new wave, and post-punk; bands like The Fall (with ‘Middle Mass’), The Slits (‘Man Next Door’), and Shriekback (‘Mistah Linn He Dead’) take pride of place, all blending seamlessly with the obligatory portions of dub on offer here - see work offered by the usual suspects, Prince Far I, Singers & Players, and African Head Charge. Naturally, Mark Stewart’s seminal ‘Learning to Cope with Cowardice’ is right at home, and Vivien Goldman’s album closer, ‘Private Armies Dub’, will doubtlessly be of some interest to trainspotter types. For my money, this one is not quite as listenable as Volume 2, but it’s a hugely important document all the same.
Pay It All Back Volume Six (1996)
From a personal listening/consumer perspective, Volume Six was all too quickly overshadowed by the release of the more expansive 15 Years in an Open Boat set (see above) the following year. Had I known at the time that it would be the last Pay It All Back release for nearly quarter of a century, I might have been inclined to give it a little more ear/air time and love. I did, however, give Audio Active’s ‘Paint Your Face Red’, and Bim Sherman’s ‘It Must Be A Dream’, plenty of long-term love, and although it probably won’t be a universally popular choice amongst hardcore On-U devotees, I think ‘Japanese Record’ is something close to the best track Dub Syndicate ever recorded. They’re all highlights here. At just 12 tracks, in relation to other releases in the series, Volume Six was a relatively brief offering.
Pay It All Back Volume Five (1995)
Hmmm. Keen observers will note the album cover I’ve posted above is rather different to the more widely recognised/official On-U cover for Volume Five. That’s because, in order to stay true to my own collection, I’ve posted the Restless Records (US) version. And while I’ve always been vaguely aware that my Restless Records Pay It All Back was a black sheep in terms of sleeves, it was only in the course of writing this blogpost that I became aware of the inconsistencies within the track-listing for each version … I’m not sure of the issues surrounding licensing, but the Restless Records release includes 2 Badcard’s ‘Rock To Sleep’ instead of ‘Weed Specialist’, Gary Clail’s ‘Another Hard Man’ instead of ‘One Flesh And Blood’, and Tackhead’s ‘Laws Of Repetition’ rather than Doug Wimbish’s ‘Life In Arena (version 1)’ … all of that said, this volume’s highlights come in the form of Dub Syndicate’s ‘Roots Commandment’, and Bim Sherman’s ‘Can I Be Free (From Crying)’, which are among the ten (of 13) tracks included on both editions.
Of course, this is a far from complete “how to buy On-U” guide, and with a focus only on collections or compilation releases, I’ve ignored so many gems within the wider catalogue - terrific albums released by Perry, Tackhead, Dub Syndicate, Audio Active, African Head Charge, and Sherwood in a “solo” guise, to name just a few - but I may yet cover off a few of those in a future blogpost … for now it’s all about looking forward to Pay It All Back Volume Seven, and an appreciation of just how we got here in the first place ...
I’ll leave you with some Audio Active: