Pop-A-Top

From the Daily Gleaner, November 17, 1968

From the Daily Gleaner, November 17, 1968 advertising “Tonight popatop at Ding-Ho Club.” Perhaps a reference to the drinking contest–as in “pop a top” off the bottle, or a nod to the popular style?

This week we take a look at the short-lived style called “Pop-a-top” which existed from around 1968 to 1970. It seems that Derrick Morgan was the originator of this style, or so he says, which features an upbeat tempo in some tunes, in others is slower. The feature that makes it pop-a-top is the keyboard. It is, what I would describe, a sound like a carnival carousel—not a calliope, but the organ. Other have identified the sound as a “bubble organ.” It is a novelty style. It was neato, didn’t last long, and you can really only listen to it in small doses.

Here’s what I was able to gather historically about pop-a-top. The only editorial I could find in the Daily Gleaner archives didn’t come from the era of poptop, but from years later in an article about Derrick Morgan. “By 1968 . . . Morgan was responsible for the hugely successful pop-a-top series of songs, when the rhythm of his re-recorded version of Fatman was extensively used.” So perhaps it was around 1968 when this phenomenon started, and it seems to have ended completely by 1970, as far as I can tell.

Here’s what Derrick Morgan told me back in 1996: “You have to remember, ska music is a foundation. What is ska? It is the guitar and the piano. That is what you call ska. And rocksteady is the same guitar and piano but it is the bass and the drum that changes and make it slower and we call it rocksteady and still we didn’t like the name rocksteady and we try for another one. We try for another one. ‘Pop-a-top, pop-a-top,’ you know? We tried that one but it did not last long. I only made ‘Fat Man’ with pop-a-top rhythm. It took off a little in England but it didn’t last for long so we have to go ahead looking for another name,” says Morgan who then spoke about reggae.

I have learned after a healthy debate on the Pama Forum, that the term “pop-a-top” comes from a Canada Dry commercial at the time that may have inspired the style of music. Pop a top means to pop the top off the bottle, or as some have pointed out, to pop the pop tab off the can. Some music aficionados are careful to point out that this was not a genre, not a subgenre, and instead was a style of reggae or maybe nothing at all. You be the judge. I am throwing this out there for discussion which is why I include it as a blog post, not a scholarly dissertation–it is fascinating to me, and I hope it is for you too! Have a listen and chime in below.

Here is a list of pop-a-top tunes compiled by my great friend and collector Si Gains (thanks Si!). Have a listen and add yours to the list:
Sour Ofrus, “East Me Up Officer” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoCPDSZmoYE

Andy Capp “Popatop” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts-TrLH2PEw

Derrick Morgan “Fat Man” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ8InkIPgXQ&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

Ernest Ranglin “Pop-A-Top” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXALNnfNsSE&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

Fitzroy & Harry “Pop a Top Train” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsZFD6Rl1g4&list=PLR9vn98_oC5o9efhMwGVVkfhPa9v6cwDu

The Maytones “Billy Goat” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIra8QTbKgs

Joe Gibbs and the Destroyers “Nevada Joe” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=315LlD3oqm8

The Creations “Mix Up Girl” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cey-8dIRdII

Also, Foundation Ska fans and friends – I’m giving away a pair of tickets to The Apple Stomp on May 31 and June 1 at Irving Plaza in New York! Time to go crazy and skank the weekend away to the music of ska heavy hitters The Toasters, Big D and the Kids Table, Stubborn All Stars, Five Iron Frenzy and many more!

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9 comments

  1. Pop-A-Top was actually based on a Canada Dry commercial slogan that was running in JA at that time (maybe borrowed from Jim Ed Brown’s big 1967 country hit “Pop A Top”?).

    musically it was a cover of “South Parkway Mambo” – the original R&B tune by Dave Bartholomew had been a JA sound system hit in the ’50s. the rhythm was used for Derrick Morgan’s 1968 recut of his old hit “Fat Man”. Val Bennett’s instrumental was on the flip side as “South Parkway Rock”. i know it was released on Trojan in the UK, but uncharacteristically there was not a previous JA release that i know of. Derrick Morgan may just have had it licensed in the UK…

    regardless, engineer Andy Capp initially was not completely satisfied with the instrumental (this may have been a second cut of the rhythm, as Capp was known to “beg yuh a song” from the WIRL musicians for his own experiments), but it was Lloyd Charmer’s addition of the iconic organ riff at a later time that inspired Capp to do the vocal.

    Capp also borrowed from another old Dave Bartholomew song – “The Monkey Speaks His Mind” for one of the deejay bits in “Pop-A-Top”

    there was also a dance that went with the pop-a-top style tunes, but it was probably as short-lived as the Pop-A-Top craze.

    • Fantastic info!!! Thanks, Blackbelt. Also, here is some info that Mike Atherton posted on the Pama forum that is helpful: Thanks for posting that, Heather, but I can’t help thinking that you have missed the point-a-point. It was studio engineer Lynford Anderson alias Andy Capp who created Pop-a-Top, which must qualify as one of the first experiments in dub, from the rhythm track of Derrick Morgan’s ‘Fat Man’, dropping out instruments and then bringing them back into the mix.
      Actually if you listen to the Morgan cut of ‘Fat Man’ you can hear Andy/ Lynford beginning to experiment, as he fades the rhythm down and back up again during the midway instrumental break. Then on Pop-a-Top he really gets into his stride.
      My favourite cut on the rhythm is by Jamaica’s bluesiest saxman Val Bennett, it’s called something like Forest Gate Rock, but not that exact title. perhaps somebody will help me out here?

      Edit: Marcus, our posts crossed. You are entirely correct. I guess the phrase “pop a top” was used in the advert to mean “take the top off the bottle”, and it fitted the rhythm ideally.

  2. Hi Heather,
    As Black Belt says, that iconic ad still lives on in the memories of most of us from that era – “pop-a-top, tip-a-sip, aaaaah!!!!).

    As a youngster, we didn’t know or think about genres and stuff at the time, we just accepted it as another of the songs spawning lots of “versions”, like Satta Amasagana and so on.

    Adding these:
    Andy Capp and Val Bennett
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Goc1a2rs0Ew

    Winston Wright and J.J. All Stars
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8-wPpyYofA

    Iron Capone

  3. Al Capone’s version of “Fat Man” is a favorite of mine.

    Lee Perry was a producer who jumped on the trend, releasing quite a few tunes with that same tempo and feel.

    The original “Pop a top” ad referred not to a bottle but to the new pull tabs on aluminum cans which eliminated the need for a can opener.

  4. ab fab finding myself on a marvellous journey (fate – I have only been on the net since November 2013) finding out about the Jamaician music and the artists, labels, studios and island life that I have loved since first hearing a rock steady cover of Spanish Harlem, around late 1968, on my parents radiogram (sterogram) whilst trying to tune into radio Luxembourg when they went out.

  5. Dave and Ansel Collins Karate
    Iron Capone Pop A Version
    Derrick Morgan Fat Man
    Dynamites Pop It Up
    Fitzroy and Harry Pop A Top Train
    Hippy Boys Death Rides A Horse (Maxie’s Pop A Top)
    Kentuckians Pop A Top
    The Electronics Flap Flap (Pop A Top Vers. 5)
    Andy Capp Pop A Top
    Andy Capp Pop A Top Version 2 (Derrick Top The Pop)
    Andy Capp and Val Bennett Poppy Show
    Val Bennett South Parkway Rock (Fat Man Version)

  6. Fascinating stuff!! Been my obsession for years! (well back since the late 1980s / early 1990s when I heard Derrick Morgan on Radio 1 talking about the transition from rocksteady to reggae and I picked up a Derrick Morgan LP). Which all then later influenced me to started my label Pop-A-Top Records in 2003 (the smallest reggae label in the world?!!! – perhaps…..) – just to make my bands artwork look a bit better.

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