The “Real Rock” rhythm is one of reggae music’s most-recorded and longest-lasting backing tracks. Originally cut as a rocksteady instrumental by the Soul Vendors in 1967 for the legendary Studio One, the track has been used as the basis for classics by the likes of Augustus Pablo and Michigan and Smiley, but never quite so powerfully as on a 1979 cut by a relative unknown named Willie Williams.
Williams, who isn’t really known for much else, created the indelible classic “Armagideon Time“—a dark, apocalyptic vision that seemed completely unsuited to the sprightly, celebratory “Real Rock,” yet somehow fit perfectly. The song doesn’t have much in the way of lyrics—maybe two verses and that righteous chorus. It’s about the end of the world and how to survive the coming apocalypse (or “armagideon”) through faith in Rastafari. While countless other tracks from that period by better-known artists have been all but forgotten, Williams’ masterpiece has, unexpectedly, stood the test of time.
Most casual fans, when they hear “Armagideon Time,” don’t immediately associate it with Williams. Working with legendary Jamaican producer/DJ/singer Mikey Dread, the song became a live staple at shows by the Clash. As evidenced by the sublime 1980 version that appears on From Here To Eternity, a live Clash retrospective, the track is perfectly suited for the Clash’s punky reggae party. The choppy guitars, quick pace and politically-motivated lyrics sound like they could have been written by the Clash themselves, and the vocal trade-off between Joe Strummer’s sufferer’s wail and Mikey Dread’s echo-heavy toasting trumps Williams’ reedy original.
Perhaps influenced by the Clash version, which has a much darker vibe than the original ever did, the song surfaced again on the vastly underrated 1998 release by Dr. Israel, Inna City Pressure. Israel, interestingly enough, has been described as a modern-day Mikey Dread, due to his similar work with 90s Clash-obsessed punks Rancid. The version that appears on Israel’s record starts off as a piano and bass-driven reggae chant but explodes into a heavy drum and bass groove with some new vocal parts. Israel throws down fire-and-brimstone lyrical fury, and at times, it’s almost unrecognizable as the Williams tune, but when Israel swings back into the chorus: “And the battle / Will get hotter / In this iration / This Armagideon time…” it’s instantly familiar.
The most exciting development in the “Armagideon Time” saga might be the release of “Version Dread Dub Specialist,” a 2006 collection of Studio One b-sides and versions. Alongside dub takes on the likes of “Creation Rebel” and “Declaration of Rights,” 1982’s “Armagideon Version,” by Willie and the Brentford Rockers is included. The track is little more than a proto-dub remix of the original, but the way Williams’ apocalyptic visions wind their way in and out of the rhythm is absolutely fantastic. It’s a re-introduction to the original for those who are more familiar with other artists’ versions, and for the uninitiated, it’s a song with enough power to make you stop whatever you’re doing and listen closely…most likely four or five times in a row.