Robert Nesta Marley is probably to this day still the greatest reggae superstar there is, has been and always will be. No doubt he was the first internationally recognised reggae artist and the principal reason why Rasta and reggae are synonymous in many people's minds. Bob not only wrote early hits for Johnny Nash, but also "I Shot the Sheriff", Eric Clapton's monster comeback hit from his 461 Ocean Boulevard album, all of which gave him an entrée into the world of rock superstardom, but also wrote "No Woman, No Cry", which probably is as much of an anthem as "I Shot the Sheriff." in the late years of his career, from Kaya onwards, Marley also wrote a series of pop hits that leavened the heavily politicised Rastafarianism he had become known for and proved that reggae could be as much a vehicle for popular standards as for political expression.
Reggae, like Seventies funk, is an example of a genre of music I truly enjoy because I experience it viscerally and should have explored more thoroughly yet never have. Mostly because there is so much other music out there I love, that blues and rock is the predominant flavour of my CD (and my record before that) collection.
I guess my first exposure to reggae, or even ska, would have been Milly's "My Boy Lollipop", Johnny Nash's version of "Stir It Up" and Eric Clapton's monster hit version of "I Shot The Sheriff." I also heard the live version of "No Woman No Cry" every so often on local radio, as well as whatever reggae influenced pop was given airtime. Other than that, reggae was mystery music.
In about 1979 I attended the first of two (Cape Town) Woodstock music festivals in the Good Hope Centre. The Steve Walsh Buddies Band was one of the acts and amongst the other cover versions they played, they slotted in a couple of Bob Marley tunes, such as "Crazy Baldhead" and gave us a taste of White reggae at just about the time The Police were about to make it a lucrative genre.
Bob Marley was the big guy in reggae and the only international star; a household name. He had dreadlocks, was a Rastafarian (whatever that was) and smoked copious amounts of ganja. it was called from time to time. All of that made Marley the antithesis of what was considered a good, wholesome role model for South African youth. Apparently Rastas were also incredibly chauvinistic and sexist.
One of the interesting little facts about the punk movement that took Britain by storm in 1976 and 1977 was the NME reported that the leading lights of the movement seemed to listen to little else but heavy reggae.
The NME gave their favoured JA (it took me some time to realise that this as an abbreviation for Jamaican Archipelago) acts quite a bit of coverage and I knew a good deal about the top reggae acts long before I heard much of the music. One of the interviews with Marley that always stuck with me was headed A Lickle Love an' T'ing, by Cynthia Rose, if I am not mistaken, and if I remember correctly this was one of the first times a journalist raised the vexing question of the sexism that was prevalent amongst male Rastafaris who thought of women as little better than second class citizens whose job was to serve the menfolk and to be sexually available to their men and otherwise be chaste, while the men could avail themselves of whatever young stars truck women were hanging around the Rasta camp.
I found Burnin', the second album on Island Records of the internationally focused Mailers at the OK Record Bar as a budget release and bought it from curiosity and because it was cheap. My expectations were dashed. The main reason why I liked reggae was the deep, bottom heavy bass sound and drum rhythms that we wanna get up and dance. Burnin' sounded tinny and weedy, unlike the "rock" production I was expecting after reading how Catch A Fire had been gussied up for international rock palates. It seemed to me that Burnin' just had no power and that it was no better than a series of limpid, lazy songs of Rastafarian praise. I cannot say that it hardly ever left my turntable. In fact, I did not even take the trouble of recording it on a cassette tape.
I bought the Bob Marley & The Wailers Live album only some time afterwards and this, too, was unfathomably great, not only because of the rock solid grooves but the magisterial tone of the incantatory lyrics. This album made me understand why Marley was the superstar and not the other excellent reggae musicians show albums I owned.
During one of my moves from home to home in the early Eighties this album was stolen (along with most of my rap collection) by the movers. As was my practice with all my records I had taped the album and therefore still had the music and listened to it often. For some unknown reason I never replaced the record with its CD equivalent.
In 2005 I bought a DVD of a live performance of Bob Marley in 1977, at the Rainbow theatre in London, with a cover that was an almost direct copy of the live album. The songs from the Rainbow shoe overlapped with the songs from the Lyceum show released on the record, but there were some older songs and some newer songs from the then current Exodus album. The DVD is exciting, as it showcases Bob Marley and his touring band at the height of their powers with a powerful set of definitive songs in the Marley canon, and it was intriguing, so many years after Marley's death, to see him perform. He had played in Harare in 1980 as part of the celebrations of Zimbabwe's newly established lawful independence and democracy and some of my Varsity acquaintances had gone to see him but I did not have the gumption or even the inclination.
By the time of his untimely death Bob Marley had become a huge legend, one of the international and iconic superstars of the Seventies and one of the few who was not White and wasn't born in either the UK or the USA.
The live version of "No Woman, No Cry" from the Live album had been played on South African radio and it became one of my favourite tunes of all time, and more loved than even the mega hit "I Shot The Sheriff" but I was totally blown away when I heard the original studio recording of it, many years later, as released on Natty Dread. One of the revelations was that the slightly jerky, funkier rhythms of the original sounded miles different to the streamlined live version. It seemed to me that there had been a serious change in how reggae sounded from the early to the late Seventies. The latter sound was bigger and more monolithic and the earlier sound was lighter and more ska inflected. In most respects I found the early reggae sound preferable but I guess it is all good.
Somewhere in the first half of the first decade of the new millennium I bought the CD of Rastaman Vibration at Cash Crusaders and for the first time I got why Bob Marley became so huge. The songs were mostly unfamiliar to me, except for "Johnny Was" that I had heard in a version by some British band, perhaps The Ruts, from the early Eighties, and "Crazy Baldhead", the very same tune Steve Walsh had performed at the Woodstock festival in Cape Town in 1979. I had read about the Haile Selassie speech that formed the backbone of "War." On the whole I experience Rastaman Vibration a joyous, uplifting album, musically in transition between the early reggae style of the band that record Catch A Fire and Natty Dread, and the rockers style of Live.
I must also point out that the version of "No Woman, No Cry" on Natty Dread is a million miles away from the live version that became the international hit, and though the studio cut sounds kinda emotionally lightweight in comparison to the somewhat ponderous gravitas of the live version, I prefer the studio cut to the live performance.
My best Marley memory comes from taping one of his later studio albums that I'd borrowed from a friend. I'd put the record on the turntable, let the needle drop, pressed "record" on the tape deck and sat down at my dining room table where I was busy with some task or another, only half concentrating on the music. What I did notice of was a really good repetitive, rhythmic, dub-like instrumental groove that opened the record. It sounded like an extended, rather catchy, jamming intro to something that might promise to be a satisfying tune. After maybe 15 minutes it struck me that the instrumental intro had in fact become a long instrumental number and I was curious because I would not have thought that Bob Marley would record a song without vocals. I stood up and went over to the record player and found that the needle had stuck in one of the first grooves of the vinyl. The first track on the album was not a long instrumental after all. I had in effect been listening to a loop of the opening chords.
I immediately stopped recording but I listened back to the tape I still liked that loop and kept about 5 minutes of it. Then I cleaned the record surface and recorded it again, this time without any loops. The first five minutes of the tape was still the best part, though.
My most recent Marley & The Wailers acquisition is a CD called Classic Wailers and it is another version of a seemingly endless recycling of recordings the Wailers made in Jamaica before Chris Blackwell took them under his wing and made international stars of the group, and Marley in particular. After Marley's death the budget CD market was flooded with compilations of these early tracks and up to recently I resisted buying any of them because I suspected the music would not be all that wonderful. This album, though, cost less than R50 and was therefore not much of a risk if it turned out badly.
As it happens, the album turned out quite pleasantly even if the songs and performances generally feel more poppy end lightweight than the later more Rastafari infused albums. The songs are very tuneful, the rhythms grooving, bottom heavy and infectious and the material is a good cross section of almost straight R & B styled pop and the more philosophical and militant type of song the Wailers recorded when they became international stars. There are "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror" I knew from Burnin and here they sound very much of a piece with the glossier versions on the Island Records release. There is Peter Tosh's very self-assertive "Stepping Razor," a number he re-recorded a couple of times in beefier versions but it is still one of his best tunes. There is "Stir It Up," there is "Lively Up Yourself" and there is a conceptually strange, though captivating, and version of "Sugar Sugar" by The Archies. The Wailers could do serious and militant and they could do sweet pop. They could absolutely do compelling listening, long before Chris Blackwell got his hands on them.
After spending some time with these songs I would almost say I prefer the pop reggae incarnation of the Wailers to the more militant incarnation. Catchy is as catchy does and these tunes are spectacularly catchy. Perhaps the Rasta influence and identity was the motivator for a less overtly commercial sound and a more "rock" approach that could co-incidentally lead to international stardom, given the strong, striking image righteous dreadlocked Jah warriors could parlay into recognition and success far beyond the borders of their island home.