Their sound was already classic. Despite being together close to a decade, the release of Catch a Fire in 1973, marked the first the music of The Wailers — Peter, Bunny, and Robert Nesta — would be released beyond the parameters of their native island nation of Jamaica. The grating, lilting harmonies, Bunny Wailer’s harmonies literally wailing in the background would have a dramatic impact on global pop music for some time to come, even if the original album cover art which featured a giant “spliff” had to be replaced by a photo of the trio.
With the release of their follow-up Burnin’, which included soon to be reggae standards like “I Shot the Sheriff” and the fiery “Get Up, Stand Up”, the moment was already over as Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh moved on to solo careers of some distinction. Beatles hype notwithstanding, perhaps the re-union that should have happened, but tragically never will, is that of the original Wailers, of which only Bunny Wailer survives. Under the auspicious of the Universal Music Group, an ambitious re-issue series — close to 20 releases — of the original Wailers and Bob Marley and the Wailers began with the re-issue of Catch a Fire (both the original Jamaican mixes and later mixes in the States) and will continue well into 2002. Natty Dread, Live, and Rastaman Vibration, were the first three releases in the post-Bunny and Peter era and helped establish Robert Nesta Marley as one of the most significant artist of the late 20th century.
If Natty Dread, released in November of 1974, is generally considered the most important of Marley’s recordings, then the opening track “Lively Up Yourself” must logically be considered among his finest individual performances. Unforgettable are bass man Alston “family man” Barrett’s urgent, insistent opening lines, which is punctured by Marley’s wild flailing yelp. Unforgettable is listening to Marley rummage through the line “I’m a trying to wonder, wonder, wonder why you, wonder, wonder why you act so . . .” and later listening to him breathlessly race through the lyric “Keep a livelin up your woman when the evening come and take her, take her, take her, take her . . .” before falling prey to Barrett’s groove again.
Two decades before “gated” communities would become the norm even in middle-class communities and the publication of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, Marley’s “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock)” would speak plain to the realities of surveillance. Marley defiantly sings “Why can’t we roam this open country / Oh why can’t we be what we want to be / We want to be free / 3 O’Clock-roadblock” and later responds to a surveillance (law enforcement office) with a metaphoric fuck you (“And hey Mr. Cop, ain’t got no / Ain’t go no birth certificate on me now.”). A full measure of the song’s influence would come more than two decades later when Michael Franti (Spearhead) — the closet thing to Gramscian intellectual in the music industry — would record a version of the song with Marley’s son Stephen.
The legendary I-Threes-Marcia Griffith, Rita Marley, and the (always) lovely Judy Mowatt-play a prominent role on “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”, which highlights the class distinctions that marked the lives of the Jamaican (military) elite and the masses whose necks they stepped on. Marley’s ear for American pop music can be discerned on tracks like “Talkin’ Blues” which sounds musically like it could have been written by “baby” James Taylor or “Revolution” (“Never make a politician, grant you a favor / They will always want to control you forever / So if a fire make it burn / And if a blood make it run.”), which sounds like it could have been produced off the Motown assembly line.
On Live Marley and the Wailers allow themselves to let loose in way that the studio did allow. As Marley and company run through their catalog of hits, the crowd literally erupts in a frenzy at the intro of the speedball version of “Lively Up Yourself”. The live version of “I Shot the Sheriff” hints at the straight gangsta version of the song that EPMD would later reconstitute on their track “Strictly Business”, which ironically samples the Eric Clapton version of the song (poetic justice, I think). Live, which was recorded live in London in July of 1975, allowed Marley to reach a much larger audience, in large part due to the striking guitar work on the recording which earned the group a following among the axe-playing masses. This seeming disconnect was comically captured in Eddie Murphy’s now classic Saturday Night Live skit “Kill the White People”, which featured guitarist Hiram Bullock.
The highlight of Live is “No Woman, No Cry.” A studio version of the song originally appeared on Natty Dread, but it is the live version that allows the song to take on a life of its own. The audience members are already singing the song’s lyrics during the song’s plaintive introduction which is anchored by Tyrone Downie on the Hammond B-3. The transformation of the song from studio obscurity to live brilliance, recalls the similar transition of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover”. As such, Marley’s live “No Woman, No Cry” is among the greatest live recorded performances in black pop, on par with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s “Country Preacher” (Country Preacher: Live from Operation Breadbasket, 1969), Donny Hathaway’s “Young Gifted and Black” (the posthumous In Performance, 1980), Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Reasons” (Gratitude, 1976), and Aretha Franklin’s (with a cameo by Uncle Ray Charles) “Spirit in the Dark” (Live at the Fillmore West, 1971).
As Franklin’s trip to the Fillmore earned her recognition that she could have never imagined, similarly Marley’s live performance earned him a significantly larger following. Rastaman Vibration the follow-up to Live became the first Marley recording to be certified Gold, breaking into the US Top Ten charts shortly after its release in April of 1976. Compared to previous release, Rastaman Vibration comes off as a highly polished pop recording, with only two tracks (“Who the Cap Fit” and “Want More”) clocking in over four minutes.
After the infectious opening track “Positive Vibration”, much of Rastaman Vibration seems tamed for mainstream audiences. Tracks like “Johnny Was”, “Cry to Me”, and even “Who the Cap Fit” sound as breezy as any of the Philly Soul from the mid-1970s. The innocuous lyrics of “Rat Race”, penned by wife Rita Marley, could have been sung by current movie theme schlock-king, Randy Newman.
The real gem of Rastaman Vibration is “War”. The lyrics of the song were drawn from a 1968 speech from the Rastafarian’s “living” deity, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (“And until the ignoble and unhappy regime[s] that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa in sub-human bondage, have been toppled utterly destroyed, well everywhere is war.”).
Marley’s commercial breakthrough with Rastaman Vibration was largely achieved with little support by African American audiences, who were cold to Marley music and reggae in general until late in Marley’s career. Marley’s real breakthrough with African American audiences occurred after his 1979 tour with Stevie Wonder. Wonder’s Hotter than July (1980) was recognition of the impact that Marley had on him as he would later write and produce Third World’s “Try Jah Love”. Marley’s 1980 recording, released a year before his death would his first real inroad to African-American audiences and radio, particularly after the release of “Could You Be Love”. The song shares an interesting affinity to the Police’s “Voices Inside My Head” (Zenyatta Mondatta, 1980), a connection that was not lost on DJs at New York City’s WBLS, the late Frankie Crocker in particular, who regularly mixed the two songs together, helping to break both acts to their largely black audiences.
All three re-issues include bonus tracks in order to appeal to audiences who need to replace vinyl additions or earlier CD versions. Overall the re-issue series is a long-overdue attempt to introduce and re-introduce an artist, who arguably stands alongside Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye as the most effective purveyors of political pop.