Most of us come to Bob Marley via the increasingly popular albums he (and, for the first couple, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone) cut for Island Records between 1973 and 1980. But there’s a “secret history” buried beneath those landmark releases; Marley & the Wailers had been on the Jamaican scene and in the studio for a full decade before they signed to Island.
Part of the reason that all but hardcore fans are shocked to learn this is that Marley & The Wailers’ early history has been so muddled by a nonstop onslaught of (mostly) low-budget, cheaply-produced reissues from that era. Shoddy live recordings, demos and “official” material get thrown together and then re-hashed and thrown together again. Thankfully, over the last several years, labels such as Trojan have sought to rectify the situation. Now comes a trio of re-issues from JAD: the three original Marley & the Wailers albums issued by the Upsetter label in Jamaica.
Soul Rebels, released in 1970, marked the beginning of a new era for the Wailers. It was the first album to be released under the name “Bob Marley & the Wailers”, even though the trio had been releasing singles for over five years. It was also the first Marley & the Wailers record to be released in the UK (it was not released in America.) Most importantly, it was the crowning achievement of Marley & the Wailers’ collaboration with producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. With Soul Rebels, Marley, Tosh, and Livingstone completed the transition from ska-era harmony group to fiercely independent, conscious reggae powerhouse. It couldn’t have happened without Scratch.
The backing from the Upsetter house band is so minimal and understated, it’s barely there. Perry was just coming into his own as a risk-taking producer, and the eerie atmospheres on display portend the mind-bending dub experiments he would soon begin to embark on. Just as crucial are the inspired, fearless performances he gets out of all three Wailers.
“Soul Rebel” is perhaps the ultimate Marley & The Wailers song. Smooth, easygoing harmonies belie the Wailers’ bold statement of purpose: “I’m a rebel / Soul rebel / I’m a capturer / Soul adventurer.” The backing vocals are pitch perfect, stoned-out and sublime. No one could mix up sunshine-soaked vibes with a serious social consciousness like Marley & The Wailers could.
The Wailers’ love of and influence by American R&B music is evidenced by “Try Me”, a James Brown re-working, and the playful “Rebel’s Hop”, which interpolates bits of the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” into a Curtis Mayfield cover. Marley’s own “It’s Alright” is just as soulful, with Marley’s assertion that he’s “got to groove” amid funky organ bits and a percussive effect that sounds like a spoon being tapped against a glass. “My Cup” and “No Water” are as horny and fevered as Otis Redding could be; Marley’s yearning is genuine and enthusiastic. “Souls Almighty” boasts one of the most effortlessly catchy choruses the Wailers ever recorded. This stuff goes down like hot butter, and the confidence is palpable.
Tosh also makes strong contributions, his dangerous, angst-fuelled aura firmly established. “No Sympathy” is a brooding reality check in which Tosh laments “not one good word of advice from any of my so-called friends”. “400 Years”, which appeared in a slowed-down version on the Wailers’ first Island release, is a ska-paced rant in this incarnation. Tosh runs down the history of black oppression while Marley and Livingstone cover his back like bodyguards.
Scratch’s unique approach to recording makes Soul Rebels the strangest-sounding Wailers album you’ll hear. Instead of putting you off, though, the production only helps draw you in. About the only instrument that comes through the murk is the thundering bass, which almost plays lead on “My Cup”. Drums are limited to the lightest of snare hits and the occasional fill, while organ, wah-wah guitar and percussion provide an array of ringing and scraping. Actually, the effect is entrancing while giving the vocals plenty of room to breathe.
This material has been released before (Trojan’s Sun Is Shining provides a solid two discs of highlights from the Perry sessions and includes six of the twelve Soul Rebels tracks. Also available is The Complete Upsetter Collection, an exhaustive six-disc set covering the same time period), but the crisp, sympathetic sound remastering and the consistently superior performances make Soul Rebels an ideal single-disc representation of one of the most formative periods in the careers of all involved.
Within five years of the record’s release, Marley was ingeniously courting the rock & roll crowd while Tosh and Livingstone had left for solo careers. Knowing that, Soul Rebels is about as close to lightning-in-a-bottle as you can get.