Catch a Fire, Bob Marley and the Wailers’ first major label release, was the album that set the band—primarily Marley, of course—on the road to global fame.
As numerous music critics have noted, this was a little ironic since the record that broke the group outside of Jamaica was not, strictly speaking at least, the album that Bob Marley and the Wailers presented to Island Records boss Chris Blackwell.
Excited by their work with producer Lee “Scratch” Perry on records like 1970’s Soul Rebels, Blackwell recognized the Wailers’ potential as the band to take reggae to the rest of the world and signed them to Island. On hearing the tapes of the album that would be Catch a Fire in late 1972, however, he changed his tune slightly. Ever the shrewd businessman—Lee “Scratch” Perry would say a “vampire”—Blackwell convinced the Wailers that certain changes were in order if they were to achieve the degree of success he had in mind.
Having taken the master tapes to London, Blackwell enlisted two white American session musicians—guitarist Wayne Perkins and keyboard player John “Rabbit” Bundrick—to flesh out the Wailers’ sparse textures and had the album remixed, effectively translating it into a format that British and American rock audiences would find more palatable.
In places this so-called “English” version of the Wailers’ material now sounds a little too saccharine and awkward—for example, the rock licks of “Concrete Jungle” and the slide guitar twang of “Baby We’ve Got a Date (Rock It Baby)”. Nevertheless, in its historical moment, the subtle transformation and finessing of the band’s sound worked well and, particularly in the UK and the US, the album garnered the acclaim Blackwell had sought for the Wailers. (Two years later, Island would take a similar approach with Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey, an album that was remixed in order to dilute the dark roots grooves of producer Jack Ruby. This would be the album to break Burning Spear beyond Jamaica.)
While the majority of Catch a Fire‘s compositions are by Marley—who takes lead vocals on all but two songs—the solid propulsive rhythm section provided by brothers Aston and Carlton Barrett, the staccato guitar patterns of Peter Tosh, and the vocal interplay of Bunny Livingston, Tosh, and Marley emphasize that the Wailers at this point were very much a group, not simply a band centered around Marley.
Overdubs notwithstanding, tracks like “Stir It Up” and “Concrete Jungle” neatly encapsulate the Wailers’ range; the band was capable of playful love songs, well within the pop tradition, and songs concerned with social justice and a history of oppression that expanded the horizons of the early ‘70s pop idiom.
Nevertheless, nearly 30 years after the album’s original release, one of its finest tracks remains Peter Tosh’s “400 Years”, on which Tosh takes lead vocals and gives listeners a taste of what he would achieve as a solo artist on leaving the Wailers in 1974.
While this re-mastered reissue of Catch a Fire includes bonus tracks from the original, so-called “Jamaican” version that never made it onto the English incarnation (“High Tide or Low Tide” and “All Day All Night”), fans might want to check out Universal/Island’s Catch a Fire [Deluxe Edition], released in March 2001. It may cost twice as much and may have “cashing in” written all over it, but it includes the present CD and the previously unavailable, untranslated Jamaican version on which the Wailers’ lean, rough and ready sound can be enjoyed in its original form.
In October 1973, only six months after Catch a Fire, the appropriately entitled Burnin’ appeared. It finds the Wailers expanding on the fuller, finessed sound that was earning them interest abroad, albeit without the assistance of hired rock session-musicians.
Although Bunny Livingston and Tosh were about to leave the Wailers, their contributions here are memorable, especially Livingston’s mournful “Hallelujah Time” and Tosh’s optimistic “One Foundation”. Three extra Livingston- and Tosh-penned tracks recorded during the Burnin’ sessions appear on this reissue—two of them hitherto unavailable—and, listening to them now, it’s difficult to discern why they weren’t originally included. This is particularly true of Livingston’s phenomenal “Oppressed Song”.
Of course, Burnin’ is best remembered for the urgent “Burnin’ and Lootin’”, the anthemic “Get up, Stand Up”, and “I Shot the Sheriff”, the song that Eric Clapton would famously cover on 461 Ocean Boulevard a year later. Nevertheless, the more understated numbers are also deserving of attention, especially “Small Axe”—one of several songs on the album that the Wailers had already recorded with Lee “Scratch” Perry—with its infectious rhythms and harmonies and its pseudo-biblical lyric of resistance. Just as the central metaphor of the song addresses the transcendent potential of the dispossessed and the weak before the oppressor, the modest groove of the music has an enormous hook.
Catch a Fire translated the sound of the Wailers in a way that, for the most part, preserved the integrity and essence of the band’s sound and made reggae comprehensible and attractive to a broader market. Burnin’ achieves that translation more seamlessly. Both albums remain foundational to the Wailers’ oeuvre.