Song: "Downpresser Man"
Album: Equal Rights
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Though there is often times some basis for it to occur, whenever an artist is completely defined by a single moment or image, the true brilliance of the artist in question is almost always lost. While one can understand when an incident "outside" of music becomes the cause of such, when a recording or statement manages to overshadow the rest of their work, it can be seen as almost tragic. With that in mind, one can easily argue that there is nothing more frustrating within the history of music than the ignorant argument that reggae music is little more than fuel for stoners, as the genre has produced some of the most confrontational and beautiful music ever. Taking this idea to the extreme, there are countless people who assume that there is little more than thoughts of getting high within the music of the great Peter Tosh, and few statements are further from the truth. Throughout his career, Tosh has been responsible for some of the most impressive and influential songs in the history of reggae, and taking his catalog as a whole, those songs about drugs stand in a clear minority. After leaving The Wailers, the first few solo records released by Tosh remain some of the most essential in reggae history, and few are better than his 1977 record, Equal Rights, and one can quickly understand just want a powerful artist lived within Peter Tosh by hearing his finest song from that album, "Downpresser Man."
From the moment that "Downpresser Man" begins, almost every side of Peter Tosh (real name: Winston McIntosh) becomes completely evident, and there are few performers that have as instantly a recognizable a tone as one finds here. It is in these early moments of the song that one can quickly sense a bit of a darker, more aggressive tone, and while his previous co-worker (Bob Marley) may have had a talent for the power of his subtlety, Tosh shows no such tendency within any aspect of his song. "Downpresser Man" kicks in with a tough, edgy ska sound from the guitar of both Tosh and Al Anderson, and they bring a uniquely nervous tension and bounce that runs throughout the entire song. The keyboards from Earl Lindo work in perfect harmony with the guitars, and there are many times on the track where there is an almost jazz-like feel to his playing. The keyboards also seem to move up and down in the mix, and this enables "Downpresser Man" to have a sense of movement unlike any other song in reggae history. Bassist Robbie Shakespeare gives one of his finest performances, and it is often the open spaces he leaves in the rhythm that highlights the impact and groove that he brings to the song. It is the way in which these musicians all blend together with one another, making it almost unnecessary for a drummer, that makes "Downpresser Man" so unique in its sound and mood, and there is no other reggae song that manages to balance aggression and beauty as perfectly as one finds here.
Yet it is the vocals and lyrics form Peter Tosh that truly make "Downpresser Man" so extraordinary, and it is in these elements that he places himself far apart from his peers. There is a strength and pride within Tosh's voice that can be felt on nearly every one of his songs, and on "Downpresser Man," the defiant, almost confrontational spirit within him becomes the most clear. Tosh clearly understands "where" his voice sounds best, and he rarely moves from that range, and one can quickly understand why he "clicked" so well with Marley, as they share a similar vocal scope. However, Tosh's vocal approach is far less passive, and the "message" which he is attempting to convey is far less subtle, yet one cannot deny that it retains a punch equal to or greater than almost any other song from any other genre in history. Tosh makes no apologies for the political sentiment within his song, and has no problem letting it take the spotlight, as he crafts his frustrations into some of the most beautiful and forceful words ever penned. Painting a picture of boiling oceans and burning rocks, Tosh's allusion to hell for those who oppress others is not subtle in the least, and yet it does not seem forced in any way. Furthermore, Tosh does not seem to be offering any "way out" for the accused, and it is the blunt manner with which he presents this "fate" that makes "Downpresser Man" such a stunning recording.
Sadly, as the decades have passed, this defiant, poetic talent of Peter Tosh has been largely overshadowed by his penchant for smoking marijuana, and he has become an odd "hero" in the "fight" for its legalization. While there are certainly songs within his catalog that make such a status understandable, it has been pushed to a point where the "true" nature of his music has been forgotten by many, and few have experienced the true power that can be found within his songs. The way in which Tosh was able to craft lyrics of defiance and rebellion remains second to none, and this can be heard and felt all across his Equal Rights album. Though it is most clear within his lyrics and singing, one cannot deny the fact that there is an attitude and aggression within the music that helps to push these feelings to their maximum potential. Throughout "Downpresser Man," one can feel the tension and almost anger that is being built within the music, and it enables the lyrics to hit far harder, and make the song absolutely unforgettable. To this point, when one looks at the Equal Rights album as a whole, the song manages to eclipse the rest of the record, as it presents the ideal balance between powerful vocals and an intricate musical arrangement. It is these combination that highlights the exceptional talents of Peter Tosh, and the "real" character and mission of his music can be best experienced within his 1977 classic song of warning and defiance, "Downpresser Man."