Peter Tosh: Legalize It / Equal Rights

Peter Tosh
Legalize It: Legacy Edition

When Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley parted ways in 1973, you’d think that the end of such a fruitful and tight bond between players would have had a negative effect. Instead, Bunny Wailer put out the lush and excellent Blackheart Man and Marley hit the Top 10 in the U.S. with Rastaman Vibration. It was Tosh, though, whose work would prove most vital after his stint with the Wailers. His first two solo records, Legalize It and Equal Rights are not just two of the best reggae records ever, but also two of the finest records of the ’70s, period. They were inventive and deeply catchy records full of songs that could be as playful as they were defiant. Peter Tosh was always outspoken, always the rebel, but it was the way he said things — that honeyed voice, those brilliant and subtly intricate compositions — that set him apart.

With no context for it, you could dismiss Legalize It — with Tosh on the cover smoking in a field of marijuana — as a gimmick record, one meant solely for the parking lots of aging summer tours and college dorm rooms. However, Tosh’s first record is so much more than it appears. It was an album Tosh struggled over for years, and scraped together funding to make. Even its pro-marijuana stance isn’t some pro-drug screed, it’s a religious statement. Tosh believed deeply in his cause; it was part of his spiritual life as a devotee to Rastafari and he fought for it. Tosh had run-ins with officials where he was nearly beaten to death, and still he blew smoke in their faces. To him, marijuana was righteous, and this record wasn’t some childish call to get high — it was a vital shout for religious freedom.

Still, while Legalize It is a roots-reggae record, one deeply rooted in Jamaican music and tradition, Tosh put together an eclectic, slippery set of songs here. They’re all reggae at their core, but they also contain shifts into other genres and tones, in part because of the players Tosh assembled around him. You have Bunny Wailer here singing backing vocals, along with Bob’s wife Rita Marley and others, as well as guitarist Al Anderson, who joined the reassembled Wailers after Tosh left. But there was also blues guitarist Donald Kinsey who changes the vibe completely on “No Sympathy” and “Brand New Second Hand” with a few quick riffs.

This was a combination of American and Jamaican players, along with overdubs done in Miami and some recording with bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jamie Oldaker, both of whom would then join Eric Clapton’s band (an invitation Tosh himself declined). Though Radle’s and Oldaker’s parts were eventually replaced back in Jamaica, the influence of American music — rock, blues, and soul, in particular — is evident in the record. “Why Must I Cry” starts with a funk rundown that sets the song up with a deeper low end, while “No Sympathy” is a swampy blues-reggae hybrid. They both ride the same kind of groove, but get there in radically different ways, like how Kinsey’s solo in “No Sympathy” is straight blues playing but fits in the mix perfectly. Elsewhere “Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised)” may feel headier than these other tracks, which comes from the use of synthesizer, perhaps the first one ever used in reggae music. It provides a spacey expanse to the song that brings the moody middle of the record to a triumphant close before we shift to the ultra-infectious “Ketchy Shuby”.

Top to bottom, the album is a statement of defiance, against drug laws, against death itself (“Burial”, the album’s best song), against police brutality (“Whatcha Gonna Do”, “Till Your Well Runs Dry”), and so on. When he isn’t defiant, Tosh is taken with love. We get both sides of that coin, from the playful sexual allusions of “Ketchy Shuby” to the condemnation of surface-level, fake women on “Brand New Second Hand”. What makes Legalize It brilliant, though, is the conviction with which Tosh delivers these beliefs. Despite all the opposition voiced here, there isn’t a hint of cynicism. Tosh’s love for life, and his fight to make it better, come across at every moment here, and the attention to detail he puts into his songs assures that not only will the message come across, but will resonate for a long time to come.

But if Legalize It was his confident first shout as a solo performer, 1977’s Equal Rights is his master stroke. Part of this might come from the strife out of which it arose. Herbie Miller recounts the time well in the liner notes, writing with detail about how, as Tosh recorded the album in Jamaica, the island was coming apart with civil unrest. Socialist supporters of the People’s National Party battled with a capitalist opposition, and the election of 1976 proved to be one of their most violent clashes. Thousands of people were killed — mostly from poor black communities — for their political affiliation, and the poor who survived nearly starved to death. With all this as backdrop, Tosh’s defiant voice took on a new importance. This record was for Jamaica, yes, but it was also for South Africa (most clearly on “Apartheid”) and any other place stuck in the same violent, political strife. In a year that saw the United States celebrate 200 years of independence, people were dying around Tosh and around the world, and this album was cry for the rest of us to stand up and take notice.

It’s an album that ups the ante on the boldness of its predecessor. Tosh wants the killing to stop, and he isn’t mincing words here. “Where you gonna run to?,” he asks the title character on album standout “Downpressor Man”, because when momentum shifts, the people are coming for him and we pay for his crimes. On the title track, Tosh claims that “everyone is crying out for peace, none is crying out for justice.” Tosh wants a change here: though he’s pushing back against the powers that be, he’s also challenging the oppressed to fight back, to get up, to stand up and do something. Nowhere is his anger more evident than “Stepping Razor”. He may lilt through the verse (“If you want to live, treat me good”), but he snaps to in the chorus, spitting out the lines letting you know “I’m dangerous, so dangerous.” This anger, this demand for change, combines with a call for community even across borders. In “African”, Tosh calls to all black men, tells them they are all African, which is to say they are all part of the same community — an idea that downplays nationality and colonialism — and thus share and must solve the same problems. As a protest record, Equal Rights is incendiary and affecting. Its conviction runs deep and the honest emotion under it runs even deeper.

On top of that, it’s also a remarkable set of songs. The shifts in genre aren’t as overt as on Legalize It, but they mesh into the songs in subtler ways here and make for a lusher overall sound. The echoing keys in “I Am That I Am” seem drawn from psychedelic music, while “Stepping Razor” is equal parts rock edge and funk shuffle. The fantastic “Downpressor Man” is a thick mix of pianos and keyboards and noodling guitars that are almost impossible to untangle, but together make Tosh’s biggest sound on either of these records. Both as musician and voice of dissent, Tosh is at his best on Equal Rights. It is his defining statement against the corruption of power, against oppression, and for the people, for living in a peace defined not by placation, but by justice and fairness.

The two albums have different genesis stories, to be sure, and these Legacy Editions honor them beautifully. The difficult road to release Legalize It is well documented, with both demos and the entire original Jamaican tapes (once nearly lost when someone at Island Records threw them out) included here. Together, from the loose feel of the demos to the murky tapes to the finished product, these songs tell a story of perseverance and clarity of artistic vision. It’s impressive to hear how these songs took shape and see how much time Tosh put into them. Even if you already love the album, there is a deeper appreciation to be found in how long it took and how difficult it was to put together. What’s most impressive is how none of those recordings show fatigue or sluggishness. Tosh is ready to make the record from day one and never looks back.

Equal Rights, on the other hand, includes a glut of studio outtakes after the album on disc one. Since it is Tosh’s most expansive sounding album, his most sonically ambitious, this edition shows just how many ways he took it; listening to that first disc all the way through makes it sound like a brilliant and remarkably consistent double-album. His versions of “Hammer”, “400 Years”, and “You Can’t Blame the Youth” — even if they are now reggae staples — are revelatory here, showing just how many ideas went into the record and how expansive it could have been. Like the Legalize It set, this one also contains dub versions of album tracks and other takes previously available only on rare Dub Plates. It all sounds good and makes both of these releases generous collections of Tosh’s work, though at some point those extra versions become more for hardcore collectors than anything else.

Overall, these Legacy Editions are carefully assembled and heartfelt representations of Peter Tosh’s two finest albums. They show the struggle of Legalize It and the bursting creativity and anger of Equal Rights and, in doing so, confirm these records as two of the most essential of their time. They’re defiant protests, they’re brilliant reggae records, and at every moment Peter Tosh’s passion and musicianship shine through. It’s difficult to make a lasting sound, and even harder to make music that says something, that ripples out culturally and politically. These records hit both high marks simultaneously, without sacrificing an ounce of either one.

RATING 9 / 10