Counterbalance No. 133a: Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘Catch a Fire’

Bob Marley and the Wailers
Catch a Fire

Klinger: Last week you mentioned that we’ve only covered five hip-hop albums so far, and two of them are by Public Enemy. Fair point. But here we are covering our second reggae album in nearly three years, and 100% of them are Bob Marley records. (Marley’s monopoly is going to come to an end next year when we get to the soundtrack from The Harder They Come, but still.) I have a few theories about how reggae came to be so nearly synonymous with Bob Marley over the years, but I don’t want to throw all my cards on the table just yet. I’ll just start with one notion.

Catch a Fire has become a major part of the Bob Marley iconography, probably due at least in part to the fact that college-age stoners love to decorate their dorms and apartments with marijuana-related memorabilia. And while the earliest pressings of the Catch a Fire LP have that cool looking Zippo lighter cover going (and the album is credited to the Wailers as a group), by 1974 the cover was replaced (and the credit changed to Bob Marley and the Wailers) with an image of Bob in full-on splifftastic mode. So the sheer ubiquity of that cover in places where ponchos are de rigeur certainly helped. Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: I think that is a dubious connection at best, Klinger. If stoners wielded any type of critical cachet, the Great List would look a whole lot different. Thankfully, we won’t see a Grateful Dead record for at least two more years. And Phish failed to even make the list. Phish, dude—the band that people now follow around all year instead of the Grateful Dead. Phish couldn’t even muster a spot in the back 3000s of the list. I’m trying to remember what other posters I have seen on the walls in the typical stoner’s apartment but for some reason my recollection is a little hazy. Weird.

Look, Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer were from Jamaica and Rastafarians, which means cannabis use is pretty much a requisite for them. Attributing the success of this album to the cover art and its popularity amongst a certain subset of young people doesn’t hold much water. What other cards do you have sitting over there?

Klinger: Dang, I thought I could Jedi mind-trick you into thinking that was a good enough reason and we could cut out early this week. OK, how about this: Marley and the Wailers ended up getting snapped up by Island Records, a label founded by British producer Chris Blackwell in 1962, just as Jamaica was declaring its independence from Great Britain. Having divided his youth between England and Jamaica, Blackwell had one foot in both worlds, and he brought a more rock-based sensibility to his handling of Marley, who clearly had the makings of a full-blown rock star.

You get a sense for that when you hear the contributions of the two non-Jamaican musicians on Catch a Fire, American guitarist Wayne Perkins and keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick. Perkins, just two years away from his high-profile audition for the Rolling Stones, plays some impressive leads throughout the album. (Case in point: the solo on lead-off track “Concrete Jungle”.) Listening to him play, by the way, gets me to thinking that if the Stones had gone with Perkins instead of Ron Wood, they would have stayed a lot closer to their Mick Taylor lead/rhythm approach. But I digress.

Meanwhile, Bundrick (who went on to be the Who’s utility keyboard guy) brings his various synths and fiddly-widgets to the proceedings, lending even more non-Caribbean undertones to the proceedings, We hear that most prominently on “Stir It Up”, which might be the album’s most recognized track since it was included on that Legend record that was every ’80s kid’s initiation into reggae—if UB40 hadn’t gotten to them first.

Mendelsohn: Ah yes, half a generation brought into the reggae fold by drinking too much red, red wine. The other half stumbled in through the Marley door. Take it where you can get it. Am I right, Reggae? I think “Stir It Up” is probably the perfect representation of Catch a Fire. It was both a nod toward the roots of reggae and a look into the future of not only Marley’s career but the genre as a whole as reggae music moved from the isolation of Jamaica and began to pick up influences from the US and UK. What better way to make head way with those two markets then to add recognizable elements?

In the end, reggae went on to have a fairly far reaching influence in the UK (while being largely ignored in the US). I’m not sure this album was the sole reason for reggae success, but I could name a couple of bands who, either consciously or unconsciously, takes cues from this record.

Klinger: Oh yeah, by 1973 reggae was pretty much everywhere, which we touched on briefly when we covered Natty Dread a while back. It was the year of “D’yer Mak’er”, those breaks in “Live and Let Die” and “Mind Games” and uh, “Jamaica Jerk Off”. And a lot of that was at least in part due to Marley’s presence as a rock star on the rise, and the Wailers’ willingness to rethink their music as more than just a singles medium. It’s also down in part to the increasing jet-settery of rock’s ruling class, and maybe it’s that somewhat touristy attitude that served to unfairly typecast reggae as somehow being Vacation Music.

It’s long been a consternation to me that an art form that can produce social commentary like “Slave Driver” or “400 Years” (to give Peter Tosh his due—this wasn’t solely Marley’s show just yet) can be heard as some sort of feel-good music for sunburned white people who’ve run out of Jimmy Buffett CDs to play. I mean sure, “Baby We’ve Got a Date” and “Kinky Reggae” offer the playfulness that offset the protest numbers, but ultimately this is serious music by serious musicians. Does that come through or has it all been made into party music for yuppies and stoners?

Mendelsohn: Unfortunately, due to decades of classless marketing and repurposing, the guitar on the downbeat that is so unique to reggae acts like a Pavlovian signal for everyone to reach for a fruity drink with a little umbrella floating in it. Couple that with the association with stoners and there isn’t much wiggle room for serious discussion. And that’s a shame—especially for this understated record. And while Catch a Fire isn’t particularly exciting or host to a bevy of hits like Natty Dread or Legend, it is a solid record with no real low points. And as you noted, this is a serious record, addressing serious social commentary on par with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

It seems to me that Marley’s attempt to legitimize reggae by bringing into the sphere of influence of rock was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it made him a star and propelled reggae off the island. On the other hand, reggae was then taken away from the island, re appropriated in innumerable ways by a myriad of offenders, thus stripping reggae of its legitimacy. Was it worth it?

Klinger: That’s a tough one to call. I’m going to use the rationale here that I use when I’m defending the British blues boom of the 1960s. Sure, most white kids who started listening to the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds basically stopped there. But a few of them dug a little deeper and went right to the source, and along the way they helped make careers for guys like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Terry. Of course, reggae seems like it’s based more on Marley as the prime mover, but the analogy is still pretty much there.

And again, it’s difficult to say because reggae just wasn’t an album-based genre. Going back to the sound systems and white label pressings of Jamaica, there has always been an emphasis throughout the reggae world on the single. That helps explain why we only really see a handful of reggae artists (Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff, Black Uhuru, and a few others) on the Great List. That is to say, only a sprinkling of albums were going to have the reach necessary to capture the hive mind of the critical imagination, and that in turn is going to trickle down to the masses of their readership.

Mendelsohn: Or bubble up through their bongs. Damn it. I told myself I wasn’t going to stoop to weed jokes. And there too is part of the problem—a sort of sniggering in the press about marijuana use like it’s some sort of misunderstood taboo a world away from cracking open 10 or 14 harmless brewskis.

Reggae in general gets the short shrift in almost all sectors, but I think, the biggest disservice to this record may very well have been to decision to change the record cover from the well-thought out Zippo packaging to the now iconic image of Marley getting blazed. Yes, the image is very recognizable, but for all the talk about cannabis, it doesn’t really come up in this record. Instead, it only serves to misconstrue to intended message of the phrase “Catch a Fire”, which roughly translates to “cause trouble”—more akin to calling for civil disobedience than getting high. And that may be the greatest shame of all, pigeon-holing such a forward-thinking, socially conscious record in with a bunch of poncho-wearing, patchouli-stinking tokers who are too baked to really appreciate the gravitas of this record.