Listening to this album for the first time in almost twenty years, I am struck by the fact that B.A.D. really seemed to be aiming for the charts on their third go-around. The songs are much shorter and more conventional (musically and lyrically) here than on their first two albums. Another thing I noticed is that the samples and sound effects used so extensively and creatively in the past are nearly absent this time around. They seem to be playing it safe on Tighten Up Vol. 88, and by the fourth number in, you start to think, “what happened to the elements that made them so unique?” It’s like they brought the audio but forgot the dynamite.
The album title itself works, unintentionally I imagine, on two levels. It’s meant as a homage to the late-‘60s-early-‘70s series of rocksteady and reggae albums put out by Trojan Records entitled Tighten Up (after the 1968 Archie Bell & the Drells dance hit). There were many volumes in the popular series (which were big in England) and this is meant as B.A.D.’s tribute (“88” representing 1988 – the year this album appeared). The title worked in another way though – as a comment on the fact that B.A.D. had “tightened up” their sound considerably. These were the types of songs that just about anybody could have written at the time – or, if you’re feeling more generous, the type of songs B.A.D. leader Mick Jones could have come up with years earlier. It’s certainly a dip in quality from its two predecessors.
Having said all that, Tighten Up is still an enjoyable album, and if it had been released under a different band name, or had come out as a Mick Jones solo album (which it actually feels like, being that co-bandmember Don Letts’ samples and voice are only used very sparingly), it might have been accepted better.
The album starts out on a fairly strong note, though, with “Rock Non Stop (All Night Long),” which shows the increasing dance-rock-pop direction the band was heading in. It’s one of the best songs on the album, and is followed by “Other 99,” another decent dance-rock song. Both songs are conventional, compared to the past, but are still memorable. “Funny Names,” a slightly country-sounding number that you could almost picture Ringo Starr singing is the first misstep of their career. It’s not really a bad tune, but certainly nothing more than average, and Jones’ voice is not suited for this type of material (his voice is unsuited for a number of songs on this album). “Applecart” follows and is much more successful, containing a solid pop melody. Still, the B.A.D. of old is largely missing. Where’s the cinematic samples that gave them their edge?
“Esquerita” is a tribute to one of the original piano-pounding wildmen of rock ‘n’ roll, now largely forgotten. The former Eskew Reeder, Jr. basically taught Little Richard everything he knew, and Richard got his style and pompadour from Esquerita, and took his sound all the way to the bank. That’s not to take anything away from the legendary Richard, but anyone who hears Esquerita for the first time will be amazed at the similarities. Being that Esquerita didn’t record until after Little Richard already had started having hits, he was basically seen as an imitator, and his career never took off. The emotionally volatile and flamboyant Reeder died in obscurity, washing car windows and playing in second rate clubs – a sad victim of AIDS. This rockabilly-leaning tribute, complete with imitations of his high-pitched wail might not be a great tune, but it is a nice tribute to this unfairly obscure American original.
This song leads into “Champagne,” one of the best songs on the album. A sing-along-type number about a woman who has a strong preference to the bubbly alcoholic beverage, to the exclusion of all others. I had forgotten how much I liked this song back in the day.
“The Battle of All Saints Road” is another misstep for the band. It’s a stylistically confused number, a strange country-roots rock hybrid, with Jamaican dancehall flourishes. It’s definitely interesting, but ultimately a failure.
“Mr. Walker Said” is on the rocking side, but somewhat generic. The fast dance workout “2000 Shoes” grows on you though. The lyrics deal with Imelda Marcos (wife of corrupt Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos), and her extravagant shoe fetish (hence the title). The song is cleverly spiked with tapdancing sounds throughout.
They leave the best for last though. “Just Play Music!,” a single from the album, is by far the most memorable song of the lot. It’s a pop-rock number, with dance music elements to it, that takes the basic B.A.D. aesthetic, smoothes it out, and comes up with a simple but effective tune. The lyrics are not very profound but don’t need to be. It’s one of the best songs of their career, and was a reasonable size hit.
Out of the four albums by the original incarnation of Big Audio Dynamite, this is easily the weakest. Even though they seem to be branching out with different styles of music here, it’s all done in a safe and unadventurous manner. It’s as if Jones wasn’t sure where to take the band after the groundbreaking music he came out with on the first two albums. The rest of the band seemed to take a backseat on this album, as well. They would rebound in a big way with their next release, 1989’s Megatop Phoenix, but not before Jones came close to death with a serious bout of pneumonia.
Even though this album (complete with artwork courtesy of former Clash bassist Paul Simonon) might not be the best thing Jones ever had a hand in, it’s still worth owning for any true B.A.D. fan, and if you can accept it for what it is, rather than condemning it for what it isn’t, Tighten Up Vol. 88 is actually an underrated piece of work. Some bands would kill for an album this good.