Counterbalance No. 117: Bob Marley’s ‘Natty Dread’

Bob Marley
Natty Dread

Mendelsohn: Sometimes the Great List takes me by surprise. You round a corner and run smack into a goliath of an album that you never saw coming. I wasn’t paying too much attention and then all of the sudden, I’m face to face with Bob Marley’s Natty Dread, a well-loved behemoth of a record and the Great List’s first real foray into reggae.

Klinger: It is interesting that it’s taken us this long to get to any reggae, given just how influential the genre was to the music of the 1970s. By 1974, the year Natty Dread was released, everyone from Led Zeppelin and John Lennon to Paul McCartney and Elton John had let loose with facsimiles, reasonable or unreasonable, of those sunny island sounds. Still, I was surprised to learn that it was Natty Dread that beat out what I thought were more famous Marley discs like Catch a Fire or Exodus. But then what do I know—if I’m being honest, my own experience with Marley hasn’t really extended too far beyond the cassette copy of Legend that all college freshmen were issued back in the ’80s. And it turns out Legend did a very odd bit of cherry-picking when it came to song selection, because no songs from Natty Dread are featured on that compilation. (A live version of “No Woman, No Cry” was used instead. Also, do they still do issue Legend to incoming freshmen? Mine was in a box with a travel-size deodorant and an ill-advised poncho.)

Mendelsohn: That practice must have been discontinued sometime in the mid-1990s. By the time I reached college, the box they gave you was full of worthless product samples and literature about making good decisions now that you were away from mom and dad. I wish the box had included some reggae, maybe then it wouldn’t have taken me so long to realize that I enjoy it.

I mostly like the classic sounds from the late 1960s and early 1970s, the likes of which were popularized in the United Kingdom by the Trojan record label. And that stems directly from my love for dub because dub taps into the rhythm section of my brain where my love for repetitive electronic music resides. I don’t know what to do with Bob Marley though. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with this record, much more than I thought I would (I have some hippie-related hang-ups when it comes to Marley and as a result never really got into his catalog), but I feel completely out of my element here almost as much as I do when we tackle jazz records. The difference being that I really enjoy Marley’s music—as opposed to jazz, which I just have to say I like but never really bother taking it off the shelf. On top of that, the myth that is Bob Marley has completely eclipsed the music. How do we go about separating the two?

Klinger: You kind of can’t, Mendelsohn. Myths always have a way of eclipsing the music, and that may be especially true in the case of reggae and Bob Marley. In many people’s minds, Marley is pretty well synonymous with reggae—maybe too much so, given that no one has really filled the reggae void left after his death. But by all accounts, that’s to do with Marley’s own larger-than-life persona. His stage presence led to Mick Jagger comparisons, and his politicized lyrics gave him an undeniable edge with critics, who were likely concerned that the era of protest was going the way of all things. As I’m digging into Natty Dread, though, I’m trying to hear it as more of a collection of songs, though, and less of a representation of an entire culture. Of course, that’s easy enough when you have a song that’s as immediately accessible as, say, “No Woman, No Cry”.

Mendelsohn: I think the keyword here is definitely “accessible”. Marley’s reggae is an amalgamation of blues, funk, and pop more than it is strictly reggae. The requisite trappings of reggae are all there to be had — the off-beat guitar, the bouncing, larger than life bass, the choppy organ stains — but those elements are blended thoroughly with a more homogenized pop sound that would allow for mass appeal cross genre boundaries. It’s hard not to see why this record is so well-loved. And as you noted it Marley’s sharp lyrical bent played well against the soft, easy-going vibes of the instrumentation.

We’ve seen reggae’s influence filter into the Great List already—most notably with the Clash’s London Calling—but between those scant influences and this single, solitary album, reggae is noticeably absent from the canon. What’s the deal? Why no love for reggae?

Klinger: Well, I think it’s been perceived as a genre that exists outside the rock mainstream, like country or blues or whatever, so critics can view it as something more for the honors students. Mixing it in with your rock? Awesome. But straight up it can be a little hard for rock types to take in large doses. But Bob Marley has stood apart, and as a result he’s the anointed one. Part of that may have to do with the fact that he struck out on his own—Natty Dread is the first album where he’s not collaborating with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer (who, come to think of it, may have found himself with limited career options once they split. Good thing I didn’t take my first band’s name—Eric Backwash might have struggled in later life). So songs like “Dem Belly Full” or “Revolution” carry the full import of a major songwriter without the concerns that come from sharing credit.

Mendelsohn: As we move further down the list, for all my growing hope for increased diversity in the canon, reggae’s absence up to this point is a pretty harsh reminder about the Great List’s overtly rockist tendencies. It wasn’t until Marley pushed reggae toward the center with pop grit and funk inflections that mass appeal was achieved. Marley’s songwriting may have edged reggae into the realm of rock, but for the most part the pace of Natty Dread doesn’t get above a quickened saunter. This is a seriously laid-back record. At first glance there wasn’t much catching my attention aside from “No Woman, No Cry”, and only because I had heard that song so many times. It wasn’t until I spent an extended amount of time with the record that the hooks finally sank in and I found myself humming the refrain “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”. Now I have a hard time pointing out a weak spot on the record, especially in concerns to Marley’s songwriting abilities.

Klinger: You know I think that may be a function of having to train your ears to certain sounds. When you’ve ensconced yourself in one genre for most of your life, it’s hard to move past the outer shell of a different genre and hear the craftsmanship that’s built in. Of course, that could be even tougher with reggae, which features such a distinctive rhythm (and especially on Natty Dread, where that rhythm is supplied by the brilliant Barrett brothers, Carlton and Aston “Family Man”).

But it really does all come down to songwriting, and that’s a big part of what sets Marley apart. So what is that you find so compelling about Marley’s songwriting that sets him apart from other reggae purveyors—or perhaps what is it about his songwriting that places him so firmly in the canon?

Mendelsohn: I think Marley’s place in the canon is secured largely by two things: his ability to write hook-filled songs and his foresight to move beyond the traditional sounds of reggae. Marley’s way with melody easily transcends cultural borders as evidenced in everything from the unconventional pop of “No Woman, No Cry”, to the more roots-based “So Jah Seh”. I don’t think anyone can really make any argument against Marley’s keen understanding of melody and how to apply it to not only traditional reggae themes but tie those themes to the broader world of music by coupling the sounds of Jamaica to the rest of the world through the use of rock, funk, and blues.

Looking down the Acclaimed Music list, I don’t see much traditional reggae in our future. It seems the only reggae we will get to enjoy anytime soon will be the two Wailers albums and the Specials’ self-titled debut (I know, it’s a stretch) that pop up before we are out of the Top 200. If anything I think it backs up your point about the genre of reggae being an outlier which I find a little strange considering the critics seeming acceptance of hip-hop and more traditional jazz.

Klinger: But even with hip-hop and jazz, you still get the sense that critics (who I realize aren’t collaborating on the Great List per se, but still) are selecting a few universally understood albums to serve as placeholders. I hold out hope that future generations of critics will take a more catholic approach, but that’s me. I believe that children are our future.