If Fy-ah, Fy-ah (“Fire, Fire”) reveals anything about Bob Marley, it’s that he had visions of international stardom long before he and the Wailers took up with Chris Blackwell and Island Records. He wasn’t content just to be an occasional hitmaker on the Jamaican scene. Unlike most of his Jamaican peers, some of whom had had commercial success in England and Europe, Marley knew that the first and most important stop on the path to Superstardom was America.
It’s easy to forget that, as talented a singer and songwriter as he was, Marley was also a shrewd observer of trends in popular culture. And in using those observations to his advantage he was an important precursor to the likes of Prince and Madonna. Like those two, Marley had his share of wilderness years, during which he learned from his mistakes and let his failures stoke the fire of determination. Fy-ah Fy-ah captures Marley and the Wailers during this transitional time; not surprisingly, it’s revelatory and disappointing in equal measures.
The three-disc set includes nearly 60 tracks and a handful of “versions”, recorded between 1966 and 1970. In ‘66, after an extended hiatus in America, Marley returned to Jamaica, where he and the Wailers founded their own Wail’n'Soul’m label. Many of the self-produced tracks for that label are here, along with tracks that were cut with Leslie Kong and Warwick Lynn, Bunny Lee and Ted Pounder between 1968 and 1970. Also included is a disc’s worth of 1968 material that was cut for the JAD label (Wail’n'Soul’m folded that same year), with the American market specifically in mind. Fy-ah, Fy-ah contains a few much-sought-after gems to lure collectors. The rest is a grab-bag affair, with some top-notch songs and performances lurking amid the filler and missteps.
From the beginning you’re struck by just how many different types of and approaches to music Marley and the Wailers were willing to try. There’s the playful sexuality of “Stir it Up”, “Bend Down Low” and “Touch Me”; the staid romanticism of “Chances Are”, “Can’t You See” and “Stay With Me”; the sincere spirituality of “This Train”, “Thank You Lord” and “Soul Captives”; the edgy rude-boy social commentary of “Dem A Fi’ Get a Beatin’”, “Mr. Chatterbox” and “Soul Rebel”. Several songs are included in two or more versions, each recorded for a different producer and label. Others, like Peter Tosh’s “Steppin’ Razor” and Bunny Wailer’s “This Train”, would become staples of future solo careers. And, of course, several titles would turn up on Marley’s own Island releases in the 1970s.
The real treats, though, are lower-profile curiosities. The energetic “Play Play” is one of only a handful of Wailers tracks to feature Bob’s wife Rita on lead vocals. “The Lord Will Make Away Somehow” is fascinating because it’s one of the collection’s only tracks that veers away from standard ska and rocksteady rhythms. Instead, it’s smoothly-played soul, complete with a traditional R&B backbeat—a solid reminder of the extent to which American R&B acts influenced Marley and his charges. Then there is the equally remarkable rocksteady take on the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”, and the charming rendition of the Leo Graham-penned “Adam & Eve”—maybe one of Marley’s most listenable cuts ever.
You also get true rarities like the contemplative instrumental “Lyrical Satirical I” and the Rasta hymn “Selassie is the Chapel”, sung to the tune of “Cryin’ in the Chapel”. Several tracks are played with acoustic guitar as accompaniment, revealing the heart beneath the sharp songwriting and commercial angling. Others offer glimpses of hits to come; the happy-sad chord progression of “Wisdom” may just be the beginning of “Waiting in Vain”.
The poorer parts of Fy-ah, Fy-ah can be just as revealing as the highlights, if not nearly as enjoyable. The grating “Soon Come”, for example, is among Tosh’s weakest performances with the band, showing that he was never going to be a proper pop singer. And the entire third disc, with the JAD material, exposes Marley’s commercial ambitions in embarrassing fashion. Working with American producers and (mostly) American session musicians, the group subjects their sound to, at best, trite, thin production that tries to make the brooding “Soul Rebel” into a pop song; and, at worst, outside songwriters who make them sing the likes of “Splish for My Splash” and “Milk Shake & Potato Chips”, songs that are every bit the tripe their titles suggest. As if to distract from Marley’s own folly, the producers of this set wrap things up with a horrible, 1980s-style “Dub Plate Special” remix of “How Many Times”.
The recordings have been remastered, and while the source material on some tracks is irredeemable, for the most part things sound good. The playing is solid, especially on the non-JAD sessions, with standout performances by saxophonist Tommy McCook and several organists. Yet the overall package feels a bit shoddy: the tracklisting on Disc 3 is inaccurate, with two different songs listed as track 21, while the liner notes are misguided in their attempt to portray the concept of fire and its different meanings as a central theme.
In the end, for all its diversity, none of the material on Fy-ah, Fy-ah met with much commercial success. Marley and The Wailers regrouped, regained their credibility with Lee “Scratch” Perry, and took a successful stab at America with Island and a more rock-influenced sound. Somewhere, Prince and Madonna took notice.