I say one good thing, one good thing
When it hits you feel no pain
One good thing about music
When it hits you feel no pain
So hit me with music
—Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Trenchtown Rock”
The beats are thick, steady and sinuous, drums, bass guitar pounding sly dance rhythms into the oxygen, a slinky Caribbean soul, a new sound growing from the surprisingly fertile soil of a Jamaican slum.
The beats seem to grow fatter, heavier as the song drives on, the vocal rising with a mix of sweetness and outrage, the images of desperation intertwined with the sheer joy of the rhythm, the singer, Bob Marley, giving into the beat, living in it, extolling its virtues. It is his beatitude.
“Hit me with music, hit me with music,” he sings in “Trenchtown Rock”.
Bob Marley and the Wailers helped to reinvent Jamaican music, broadening its musical base and ultimately expanding its reach.
The trio that initially was known as the Wailing Wailers—Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston, later to be known as Bunny Wailer—started recording in the mid- to late-1960s, exploring the ska and Jamaican rock steady genres, creating reggae and—along with musicians like Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals—ultimately moving the music in directions it had not gone before.
Much of what the world knows of Marley and the Wailers’ music comes from Marley’s 10 years with Island Records and the classic box set Songs of Freedom, which explores the full breadth of his career, including the earliest Jamaican sides but gives only limited play to the two or three years in which the band helped alter the face of Jamaican music.
The Hip-O Records release on March 2 of the three-disc box set Grooving Kingston 12 offers the first comprehensive look at a time in the band’s career when they were stars in Jamaica but had yet to break through internationally, before Marley and the band joined Island Records and before Tosh and Livingston left to start solo careers.
The band had had some success in the 1960s with rock steady, a bridge between ska and reggae, but did not catch fire until they started developing more of their own sound, which in its initial stages borrowed heavily from the sounds of black America. The music on Grooving Kingston 12 reflects this transformation in Jamaican music, shows the development of reggae and of Marley and the Wailers’ sound as the 1960s turned into the 1970s.
The 69 songs contained on the box set show a less polished Marley, the music thicker, denser than what would surface on albums like Kaya or Burnin’, drenched more heavily with bass and tied more closely to the American soul and R&B that were the building blocks of Jamaican music. Buried in the Jamaican rhythms of songs like “Who Is Mr. Brown?” and “Fussing and Fighting” are bits of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, and Motown. In fact, “Keep on Moving”, from the second disc, is a lovely cover of Mayfield, while “Black Progress”, also on the second disc, borrows heavily from Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man.”
This is not to imply that the music being recorded by Marley and the Wailers was derivative. That would be to listen to these groundbreaking recordings with a tin ear. The songs recorded between 1970 and 1972 show a band in full command of its music. The vocal interplay of Marley, Tosh, and Livingston pushed the songs Marley was writing to their limits, the trio layering their vocals, the rhythmic exploration and the pointed lyrics giving the music on these discs a distinctiveness that allows the songs to move well beyond their influences.
Marley adopted a harshly realistic tone for many of his lyrics, then followed with playful love songs and flights of spiritual affirmation. On “Concrete Jungle”, Marley writes of the brutal reality of the Trenchtown slums, a world of “illusion, confusion”: “No chains around my feet, but I’m not free / I know I am bound here in captivity / And I’ve never known happiness, and I’ve never known sweet caress / Still, I be always laughing like a clown / Won’t someone help me? / Cause, sweet life, I’ve got to pick myself from off the ground, / In this here concrete jungle”.
It is a mean place, these slums, he sings in “Craven Choke Puppy”, a meanness born of greed: “So you want all for yourself alone / And you don’t think about the other man / Let me tell you my friend if you gonna live this life / It’s not good for you to build strife.” It is the “craven dog will lose his bone,” he sings, “Grafting after something else.”
Then, on love songs like “Guava Jelly”, he shows a tender side (“I’ll say you should stop, stop crying / Wipe your weeping eyes / Baby, how I’m gonna love / Love you from the bottom of my heart”) that would be fully explored in later songs like “Is This Love” and “Could You Be Loved?”
Among the 69 cuts are 23 “versions”, or DJ takes on which the vocal tracks have been stripped and the bass has been pushed to the forefront. These cuts prefigure not only Jamaican dub music, but the 12-inch disco remixes of the late-‘70s and early-‘80s on which the beat is augmented and brought forward, and even the use of cut-and-paste editing and sampling by hip-hoppers.
The only negative about this set is the liner notes, which are interesting but could be fleshed out with more biographical detail. But this is quibbling, given the more than three hours of great music contained here. “So,” as Marley sings, “hit me with music.” This box set does just that.