Legend presents Bob Marley at his most unthreatening, and most anodyne. And that was intentional.
Was there really any good reason to release Legend yet again other than someone's need to rake in more cash from the best-selling reggae album ever? Is Rita Marley's bank account not sufficiently plush these days? It can't be that Island/Tuff Gong believed they needed to keep Bob Marley's memory alive 33 years after his death. Legend Remixed came out in 2013; a re-mastered version of the album, first released in 1984, was issued in 2002.
The ostensible reason for the latest re-release is technological. The new "deluxe" version is a "combo set" comprising a CD and a Blu-ray pure audio disk. For the latter, producer Bob Clearmountain mixed the original tapes in 5.1 (five speakers plus subwoofer, as opposed to stereo's two speakers), resulting in a more textured sound with less compression and greater depth. The sound quality is indeed superior to a standard compact disk and vastly superior to the MP3 format. But so what? Most music consumers don't buy disks nowadays, and not only younger ones. As countless frustrated audiophiles have complained, it makes more sense to improve the quality of downloadable files (as Neil Young is doing with his PonoMusic project) and the poor quality of earbud and iPod sound.
So what does the buyer get with Legend (30th Anniversary Edition) besides better sound? Two outtakes, of "Easy Skanking" and "Punky Reggae Party", neither one a must-have, and the original version of "No Woman, No Cry", from the Natty Dread album. And the combo set is packaged with a 28-page booklet with photos, liner notes and the musings of Sir Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder about Marley's greatness. If you need this ephemera, then go right ahead.
But the interesting story about Legend has nothing to do with remixes or deluxe packaging. Critics have noted that the album, originally released three years after Marley's death, presents him at his most unthreatening, and most anodyne. And that was intentional. Chris Kornelis, in a recent article in the Houston Press, reported that two years after Marley died Island Records chief Chris Blackwell hired Dave Robinson, a co-founder of Stiff Records, to put together a collection of Marley's songs. Robinson, in reviewing the sales figures of Marley's albums, was surprised to discover that the king of reggae didn't move millions of units of what the industry calls "product". He had respectable sales, in the high hundred-thousands, but not superstar figures.
Robinson, says Kornelis, "believed he could sell a million copies of the [proposed compilation] album, but to do it, he would have to repackage not just a collection of songs, but Marley himself."
"My vision of Bob from a marketing point of view", Robinson says, "was to sell him to the white world."
Robinson "had a hunch that suburban record buyers were uneasy with Marley's image -- that of a perpetually stoned, politically driven iconoclast associated with violence. And so he commissioned a London-based researcher named Gary Trueman to conduct focus groups with white suburban record buyers in England."
The focus groups told Robinson that the scary Rasta revolution stuff turned off Caucasian consumers. So, with a few exceptions, Legend focuses on Marley's most upbeat, tuneful and least-political material. The album has the maddeningly chirpy "Three Little Birds" (the Target department store chain uses a bit of it in their latest back-to-school ads), "One Love" (repurposed by the Jamaica Tourist Board as an advertising jingle), "Is This Love?" and "Waiting in Vain". But not "Revolution", "Them Bellyful (But We Hungry)", "Slave Driver", "Rebel Music", and certainly not "Burnin' and Lootin'".
Robinson's strategy certainly paid off. Legend has sold better than any other reggae album, with more than 15 million copies sold in the U.S. and more than 27 million worldwide. Chris Kornelis reports sales of about 250,000 units annually in the United States alone.
Bob Marley was never just a radical spokesperson for the dispossessed, in Jamaica and worldwide. His formative influences were American R&B and soul music, and he had always written sweet and tender love songs. Legend does offer some of the best. But the compilation is so skewed towards romance that it presents a distorted view of this still-influential and beloved artist.
Instead of shelling out for yet another release of Legend, fans who know Marley only from that collection would do well to check out Catch a Fire, Burnin', Natty Dread, Survival and Uprising. Those spikier, angrier albums give a fuller aural portrait of the former Kingston slum dweller who had much more to offer the world than easy skankin'.