Bob Marley & The Wailers

TrackAlbum
Mr. BrownSongs Of Freedom CD
Sun Is ShiningAfrican Herbsman
Stir It UpCatch A Fire
Concrete JungleCatch A Fire
400 YearsCatch A Fire
I Shot The SheriffBurnin'
No Woman, No CryLive! (vinyl or Remaster CD)
ExodusExodus
Is This LoveKaya
Redemption SongUprising

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Contributor: Peter Viney

Monday 23rd April 1973. New release day for records. I always made a point of going to Wax Records in Bournemouth to check out the new releases. I was teaching English as a Foreign Language. It meant a race down to the town centre in lunchtime, or in a free lesson. That day I was free before lunch, so unhurried. I walked in. The manager said, “You will buy this. I guarantee it. Just listen,” and put on Catch A Fire. He chose Side Two for familiarity, because Stir It Up was known. Neither of us had heard of The Wailers, but I already had Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now LP and Stir It Up was my favourite track. It had been out for a year. Then The Wailers’ version of Stir It Up crept out of the speakers. We stood, transfixed. Yes, I bought the LP which is why my copy is a first day LP with Zippo lighter cover. There are just 20,000 of them. I was showing it to someone ten years ago and tore the flame.

Catch A Fire is an album with a DVD documentary in the Classic Albums series and a full De-Luxe double album edition on CD. It is also an album that stands up there with Blonde On Blonde, The Band, Astral Weeks, Pet Sounds, What’s Going On, Sergeant Pepper. It is indeed one of the greatest albums of all time.

The Wailers had been around. Richard Williams, in the Classic Albums documentary, said he bought his first Wailers single, Put It On, in 1966. Tellingly, that has some intricate lead guitar at the beginning, very much in later style. Put It On is first rate, even if the bass guitar part would work with Hang On Sloopy. It was redone on Burnin’. The riff is nearly the same on Mr. Brown (1970), which in turn shares bits with Duppy Conqueror … the backing track was originally intended for Duppy Conqueror. The drone on Mr. Brown and the spooky lyric gets it on to Halloween compilations. It uses a basic Jamaican “riddim” (rhythm). It was written by Glen Adams of The Upsetters, which is the only reason Put It On nearly beat it to the place in the list, but Mr. Brown was this article’s earworm. The version of Mr. Brown on the Trojan Explosion compilation sounds better than the Songs Of Freedom version. The other early contender was Nice Time from 1967.

In the same Classic Albums documentary Richard Williams said that until Catch A Fire reggae was not taken seriously and was just ‘Fatty Bumbum’ in public perception. That’s plain wrong. Paul McCartney and Paul Simon had put focus on reggae, and there had been major reggae hits from Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, Bob & Marcia, The Pioneers, Harry J. All Stars, Dave & Ansil Collins and Johnny Nash (who was American). Catch A Fire wasn’t even the first credible reggae album as a whole. That was Jimmy Cliff in 1969. The “serious” breakthrough was the film The Harder They Come (see Jimmy Cliff Toppermost #471) and Chris Blackwell of Island only turned his attention to The Wailers when Jimmy Cliff jumped ship. However, Catch A Fire was a new height, and Chris Blackwell was the man who made it happen. He gave The Wailers £4000 to record the basic tracks in Jamaica … all now available on the De Luxe Edition CD. Stir It Up in particular had been previously recorded in 1967, but the 1972 version is vastly superior. Then Blackwell decided to tweak them in London for a Western rock audience by overdubbing organ, clavinet and synthesizer from Rabbit Bundrick, and slide guitar from Wayne Perkins. Bob Marley was present at the overdubs, and Rabbit Bundrick describes him showing him the choppy keyboard rhythms. Production is credited to Bob Marley and Chris Blackwell.

Some people don’t like the sweetening, hence the De Luxe Edition with the raw versions. I think they were a touch of production genius, and they did help the appeal to a wider audience. The great breakthrough moment was The Wailers performing Stir It Up on TV on The Old Grey Whistle Test in Britain on 1st May 1973

I could happily say Catch A Fire, that’s nine of the Toppermost, add No Woman No Cry (Live). Job done. I can’t see any quality drop between the tracks. The Wailers at this point … and remember it’s credited to ‘The Wailers’ not Bob Marley, comprise Bob Marley (guitar, vocal), Peter Tosh (guitar, organ, piano, vocal), Aston Family Man Barrett (bass), Carlton Barrett (drums), Bunny Livingston aka Bunny Wailer (percussion, vocals) with the studio addition of Rita Marley and Marcia Griffith on backing vocals. Robbie Shakespeare played bass on Concrete Jungle, Tyrone Downie played organ on Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle, and Tommy McCook added flute. Plus Rabbit Bundrick and Wayne Perkins in the studio.

Side One opens with Concrete Jungle a considered choice, thought by many to be the album’s finest song. They deliberately started the track and the album with Wayne Perkins’ guitar. Listen to the way the organ part swells and builds, then the prog rock lead guitar. Robbie Shakespeare’s bass line is central and we’re into the full reggae rhythm. The slavery days connection is up and running.

No chains around my feet, but I’m not free,
I know I’m bound here in captivity …

… in Concrete Jungle, then straight to Slave Driver with …

Every time I hear the crack of the whip,
My blood runs cold
I remember on the slave ship
How they brutalised our very souls …

And into 400 Years it takes it back to the original Spanish slave colony in Jamaica …

400 Years (400 Years 400 Years)
And it’s the same philosophy …

All three were assembled in line, and opened the album. They’re in quite a different order on the original Jamaican recordings on the De Luxe edition. From there we’re into life and sensuality, but the uncompromising ‘slavery days’ message is right up front..

Slave Driver has the actual ‘catch a fire’ chorus, then two Peter Tosh songs, 400 Years and Stop That Train, closing the side with Baby We Got A Date. Side Two goes from the sublime Stir It Up to Kinky Reggae, No More Trouble and Midnight Ravers. Good. I typed that without having to check, the sign of a truly great LP. My shortlist is 400 Years, Slave Driver and Concrete Jungle. 400 Years gets in because The Wailers were more than just Bob Marley, so let’s give Peter Tosh an entry. I thought hard about the unadorned Jamaican version. Definitely get the DeLuxe edition, but I haven’t found a track that I prefer to the overdubbed versions. Maybe it’s familiarity. There are two fine outtakes, High Tide or Low Tide and All Day All Night.

You could go back. Trojan Records did immediately Catch A Fire was released with a cash-in compilation, African Herbsman. One and a half CDs of the box set Songs Of Freedom (Tuff Gong) consists of pre-Catch A Fire material, from 1962 to 1972. On African Herbsman there are earlier attempts at Stir It Up and 400 Years, plus Put It On, Lively Up Yourself, Trenchtown Rock, Small Axe, Duppy Conqueror (on Burnin’), a 1965 version of One Love/People Get Ready complete with long jazzy sax solo (later on Exodus) and two tracks later re-done on Kaya. This material has been recycled on countless budget LPs and CDs, and in the mid 70s I was a pushover for them, but African Herbsman was the best. Soul Shakedown Party was the most prominent of these early tracks. Simmer Down, from 1963 was the first Jamaican hit by The Wailers. The Wailers version of Guava Jelly, that was given to Johnny Nash along with Stir It Up is one of these pre-success tracks.

Burnin’ was the next Island LP up, still credited to just The Wailers, and the last with Peter Tosh, who co-wrote Get Up, Stand Up. Tosh and Bunny Wailer left after Burnin’. The new addition was Earl Lindo on keyboards … they needed a full-time keyboard player to reproduce their studio tracks. One feels the need to explore the unexpected in a Toppermost, but it really should be the ten you love best, so the bleedin’ obvious has to go in. I Shot The Sheriff. Perhaps because of Eric Clapton’s hit cover in 1974, the song became a major live showpiece. Here I’m agonizing. The huge, impressive drum and organ start first appeared on Live! and got bigger on subsequent efforts with the song. If you switch, the Burnin’ version seems lighter, thinner, but it also appears translucent, bouncier, magical. The original words were “I Shot The Police” … he had to change it. Get Up Stand Up is a near miss, and the version of many that I would want is the ‘Rave tour’ version that ends the Classic Albums DVD. It was filmed in black and white live in Edmonton, London in 1973, so might pre-date the album. It’s gloriously ramshackle, but DVD only.

Natty Dread in 1974 coincides with the change of line-up, the name changed to Bob Marley & The Wailers, and The I-Threes became part of the group, ready for Live At The Lyceum. No Woman No Cry and Lively Up Yourself are my favourite tracks, but brilliant as they are, Bob Marley improved them both live.

Live! is a strong candidate for Best Live Album (by anyone ever). Bob Marley tried hard enough to do it again with the double album Babylon By Bus in 1978 and posthumously we’ve had Live At the Roxy (1976). Live At The Record Plant, Burning Up Beantown (from 1973) and in 2015, Easy Skanking In Boston (1978). The single from Live! (aka Live At The Lyceum) was No Woman, No Cry. It starts with that swell of crowd recognition and the I-Threes, bass and organ and happy audience who start singing in the background. Bob Marley comes in and you hear the shouts again. I’m getting picky. If you have the “greatest hits” pressing on Legend (his best selling album), you haven’t heard it. If you have an early CD, you haven’t heard it. You must have the LP, the first single or the ‘Definitive Edition’ remaster 2001. Like many I was devastated by the first CD. Listen through to 1m 47s … good friends we have, good friends we lost … along the way. There is loud mic feedback after lost. It makes it totally real as does the bass speaker farting a little later. When the CD (and Legend) came out, they processed out the feedback. When I heard it, it was like there was a great hole in the music, and so many felt the same. Surely taking out the feedback must have taken a little more with it. The feedback is restored to its rightful warmly-remembered place on the remaster. This is a good place to compare live versions. Neither Live At The Roxy and Easy Skanking In Boston match the Lyceum version. The later Bob Marley croons more softly, croaks a bit, the edge is gone and somehow the whole sound is thicker, denser. It suits the start of I Shot The Sheriff with big phased drums, but not No Woman No Cry. Mostly the 1975 Lyceum versions on Live! outdo the originals. I’d definitely take Get Up Stand Up, Trenchtown Rock, Burnin’ and Lootin’ over the original studio takes. For Them Belly Full, I’ll take the Easy Skanking In Boston 1978 impassioned version. Live At The Roxy 1976 emerged in 2003. I can’t find anything on it to replace Live! or the originals. Part of the problem is they’re amplifying the drums much more and spreading them about, better equipment, bigger halls. There’s a tendency to sit on long hypnotic grooves … for example, Want More spends half its extent with desultory, or rather stoned, bass and drums just soldiering on regardless.

Rastaman Vibration was the American chart breakthrough (#8). Four songs are credited to Rita Marley. Three songs are credited to Vincent Ford who ran a soup kitchen in Kingston, as mentioned in No Woman No Cry, for which he also got a co-credit. Bob Marley was in dispute with his music publisher, and it’s generally accepted that he wrote all of them. Roots, Rocks, Reggae was his biggest US single. My favourite track is War, and that’s really because of Sinead O’Connor’s response to being booed at Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert. She couldn’t get started, and so sang War unaccompanied, saying later, “Sorry. Wrong Bob.”

Exodus in 1977 could also be called the one with all the later hits: Exodus, Three Little Birds, Waiting In Vain, Jammin’, One Love/People Get Ready. They form the core of the Legend compilation. I love Three Little Birds for its simplicity, but it’s not going in. Certain popular songs are used by ELT teachers for teaching English. I’ve been to so many talks on using songs in the classroom, and they virtually all use Three Little Birds. And rightly so, but that’s the strong association for me. Jammin’ was loved by Stevie Wonder. One Love/People Get Ready is sublime, relaxed. It’s as if Sam Cooke had done reggae. Junior Marvin is established on lead guitar, and there are twin keyboards from Tyrone Downie and Earl Lindo. Exodus, the title track, goes in. There’s got to be a hypnotic political chant in there and the style dominated their later output. Bob Marley leaves the high vocals to the I-Threes and raps it out. Trumpets are an addition. It was this point that Bob Marley and Rita Marley got shot and left Jamaica.

Is This Love from Kaya is an instant Toppermost for me. I suspect it’s promoted by being the opening track on the Legend compilation. In the days before iPads I used to keep six or seven CDs permanently in the car glove compartment, and Legend was one. I know the song backwards, forwards and sideways. The gentle Bob Marley voice is fabulous. Kaya had songs that had been around a while … Sun Is Shining was on African Herbsman which was released by Trojan right after Catch A Fire rounding up some of the best contenders from the earlier singles and the Jamaican Soul Revolution LP. He re-recorded it for Kaya – the title track also came from African Herbsman. The song was remixed by Funkstar De Luxe in 1999 as a reggae-fusion number and was a UK #3 hit. It’s a good song, but I really disliked the 1999 remix. YouTube viewers agree … 6 million hits for the Kaya version completely dwarf the remix. I’ll take the 1970 version that’s on African Herbsman first. So that goes in.

Babylon By Bus recorded in Paris, followed Kaya. The version of Is This Love is typical of the album. Great crowd swell, requisite mic feedback, an extra three minutes in length … but it’s just taken too fast and urgently. For such a romantic occasion, slower and gentler is better.

The next three were planned as a trilogy … Survival (1979), Uprising (1980) and Confrontation (1983).

By then, Bob Marley was firmly on my ever-growing ‘must buy new releases’ list. I found Survival too militantly relentless. Zimbabwe became an unofficial anthem of the new state. Africa Unite is gently melodic though.

Uprising was into Rastafarianism, and Could You Be Loved and Redemption Song took the attention, both migrating to Legend. Could You Be Loved was the hit single. Redemption Song is a major change of style, sincere, just Marley and acoustic guitar. Bob Marley as folk protest singer, with quotes from Marcus Garvey (Emancipate yourself from mental slavery). There is a live version on Songs Of Freedom (which takes its title from the words of the song) which is acoustic guitar and adds bongos then drums, then the band comes in for the last 30 seconds, but the choice is the original acoustic version.

Confrontation was posthumous, and some songs were worked up from demos, probably not Buffalo Soldier, the single, though. Bob Marley chose I Know as a single, and asked Island for it to be released after his death. It’s an expression of faith.

The records keep coming. Reggae fusion mixes, more live shows, the Bill Laswell produced Dreams Of Freedom: Ambient Translations Of Bob Marley In Dub (1997). To me, it’s like Jimi Hendrix. It’s always interesting to see what turns up, or what later producers have done with remixes, but in the end the original catalogue is unbeatable.

BUYER’S GUIDE
Catch A Fire in its entirety, not as selections on other albums. Live! remains the live album to get. Exodus has a lot of well-known stuff, but you might as well get Legend. Songs Of Freedom is notable for having longer 12″ mixes of key tracks and a tremendous selection of early material. I got addicted to CD1 while compiling this, particularly to the second half, the Jamaican recordings just before they got signed to Island.

 

Bob Marley – The Official Site

Bob Marley Museum

Bob Marley & The Wailers discography

Bob Marley & The Wailers on Trojan Records

Bob Marley on Island Records

Bob Marley & The Wailers biography (iTunes)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #479

2 Comments

  1. Zavadka
    Oct 5, 2015

    Peter V, I enjoyed this article very much. Your commitment to the history of music and your contributions here are greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Colin Duncan
    Oct 15, 2015

    A comprehensive, well researched article as ever, Peter. Can’t comment about the list because I have not heard all their material. Was there a feeling at the time that reggae came to the fore when there was nothing else about in Britain? I owned a compilation of early material, Kaya and Live!, but didn’t rebuy them when I moved to CD. I also owned a Peter Tosh solo album with (You Gotta Walk) Don’t Look Back. I bought his greatest hits on CD, but haven’t played it for some time. I’m going to rectify that and buy Kaya and Live!. Thanks.

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