It is safe to say that the world would be a very different — and vastly poorer — place were it not for Bob Marley. Carrying the homegrown sounds of a small Caribbean island to Europe, Africa and America, he is directly responsible for a rhythm and a style that has moved millions and influenced every form of popular music for the past two decades. By exploding Eurocentric myths about the vitality and value of cultures beyond the borders of Britain and the US, he encouraged widespread cultural curiosity, as well as sparking the rediscovery of their heritage by countless people of color. And by building his art on a platform of esoteric religious faith and progressive Third World politics, Marley demonstrated a rare degree of defiance and courage for a global celebrity, and that has made him an enduring political/cultural hero to many.
In the early ’60s, the Wailin’ Wailers — basically Marley, Neville Livingstone (aka Bunny Wailer) and Peter MacKintosh (later Tosh) — were Jamaica’s leading ska band, taking their cues from American R&B as much as an indigenous form called mento. (The group’s early work can be heard on numerous anthologies, including 1990’s The Birth of a Legend.) They disbanded in 1966, and Marley moved to Delaware, but returned home in 1967, reunited the old group and began fitting together the pieces of what would come to be known as reggae: a rhythmic style that was then gaining popularity in Jamaica, belief in Ras Tafari and its attendant effects (marijuana use, dreadlocks, language, politics, etc.) and a bottom-heavy production sound learned from producer Lee Perry and his studio’s mighty rhythm section (bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his drummer brother Carlton, both of whom became Wailers).
By the early ’70s, the reggae revolution was in full swing in Jamaica, and the timely interest of Island Records was all it took to introduce this local phenomenon to the rest of the world. While awfully mild-sounding now, Catch a Fire (originally issued in a gimmicky flip-top cigarette lighter sleeve) delivered a stunning blast of warm tropical air and eloquent political reality amid the giddy glam-rock of 1972 England. “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up” (an international hit for Johnny Nash around the same time) proved Marley to be an extremely gifted songwriter; Tosh’s “400 Years” showed that there was more to the quintet than its charismatic lead singer. (Besides changing the cover art, later editions of the album began crediting it to Bob Marley and the Wailers.)
Released the same year, Burnin’ — the final record by the original lineup — has a funkier sound and two genuine classics: “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” As watered down as his interpretation of the song is, Eric Clapton’s 1974 hit cover of the latter actually helped bring reggae to the attention of those who hadn’t yet met the real thing.
With Tosh and Wailer gone, Marley brought in guitarist Al Anderson, a keyboard player and a female backing trio (the I-Threes: Judy Mowatt, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths) to make Natty Dread. Completely in charge and growing in confidence, Marley demonstrates the diversity in his music and the seriousness of his message with such memorable songs as the tender “No Woman, No Cry,” “Revolution” and “Lively Up Yourself,” an old Wailers’ tune given an updated arrangement.
Recorded onstage in London in July 1975, Live! (aka Live at the Lyceum) draws six of its seven numbers from the preceding two albums, thereby summarizing and expanding upon his international career to that point. More so than in their studio versions, the songs ring with emotional power in these concert renditions, allowing listeners to join Marley in his life-affirming celebration.
Although not released until 1991, Talkin’ Blues contains intriguing rarities from this era: seven live tracks from a 1973 California radio broadcast (with Tosh but not Livingstone on hand), a second version of “I Shot the Sheriff” from the London gigs recorded for Live! and three outtakes from the Natty Dread sessions. While gratuitous, the brief interview bites that alternate with these extraordinary performances are not particularly disruptive to the record’s flow.
Stylistically, Rastaman Vibration builds on Live at the Lyceum‘s loose-limbed atmosphere. A ten-person group lays down bubbling riddims covering reggaecentricity (“Positive Vibration,” “Roots, Rock, Reggae”) and pointed demands for justice (“Johnny Was” and “War,” its lyrics taken from a 1968 speech by Ras Tafari himself, Haile Selassie).
Marley’s first release after being wounded in a December 1976 assassination attempt is a handsomely delivered but firmly stated outpouring of politics and religion. Although Exodus offers upbeat optimism in “Jamming,” “One Love/People Get Ready” and the title track, it also contains imprecations against “Guiltiness” and “The Heathen.” Still capable of bringing things down to an individual level, “Waiting in Vain” is one of Marley’s most touching love songs. Besides making good use of horns, the Wailers benefit here from an adjusted lineup that includes guitarist Junior (Julian) Marvin.
A lyric in the first song on the understated but enticing Kaya aptly describes the record: “We’re taking it easy/We taking it slow.” At the outset, the lighter sounds and personal lyrics that fill the sunny grooves skirt the big issues for joyful celebrations (“Kaya”) and gentle romance (“Is This Love”). But the mood slides straight downhill, from “She’s Gone” to “Crisis,” culminating in the fatalistic spiritualism of “Time Will Tell.”
The Wailers’ 1978 tour was chronicled in Babylon by Bus, a double live album (originally released in a nifty die-cut sleeve) recorded at various European venues. Another flawless Island-spanning recap of hits given new resonance onstage, the program includes elongated renditions of “Positive Vibration,” “Stir It Up,” “Jamming,” “Is This Love?” and many more.
Al Anderson, who had returned to the group in time for Babylon by Bus, again shares leads with Marvin on Survival, a politically significant album in which Marley dedicates himself to Third World solidarity. “Africa Unite,” “Zimbabwe,” “One Drop” and “Top Rankin'” all preach an international message and reflect Marley’s growing stature.
The last album Marley recorded before his death in 1981 caps his career by touching diverse bases with profoundly beautiful music. From the hauntingly political lament of “Redemption Song” to the irresistible surge of “Could You Be Loved” to the joyful praise of “Forever Loving Jah,” Uprising comes straight from Marley’s soul.
The posthumous Confrontation — which contains the excellent and pointed “Buffalo Soldier” and other worthwhile tracks without quite adding up to a real album — is in fact an uneven collection of outtakes and tracks that had not previously been released outside of Jamaica.
Legend is a unassailable one-disc compilation of the best-loved tracks from Marley’s Island catalogue; Rebel Music attends to the political side of his oeuvre, both celebrating and ghettoizing it.
A complete discography of the Wailers would include countless other compilations of various eras, solo albums by Wailer, Tosh (who, like Carlton Barrett, was murdered in 1987) and others, as well as releases by the alumni who began using the Wailers name again in the late ’80s.