Before Bob Marley achieved worldwide superstardom in the 1970s with such hits as “I Shot the Sheriff”, “Jamming”, and “No Woman, No Cry”, he achieved modest success in his native Jamaica with a series of records recorded in legendary producer Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One. The Bob Marley presented on this disc, however, is quite different from the cool, righteously political reggae god that he was to become. These 20 tracks present a group crafting a lo-fi sound, blending reggae, ska, and most notably, American doo-wop and soul music. Moreover, the themes of these songs, some written solely by Marley, others with the help of Neville Livingston or Coxsone Dodd, balance a political vision preaching equality and compassion with a hefty dose of American ’50s-style love tunes.
Tracks such as “Donna”, “It Hurts to Be Alone”, “Do You Remember”, and the achingly sweet “Dancing Shoes” all present an ideal 1950s Americana feel. Teenage love is all there is, and as long as you can drive and dance with your girl, everything will be all right. These tracks are quiet and simple, characterized by light guitars, modest horns, and sweet, simple melodies. “Dancing Shoes”, with its subtle ska beat, is the epitome of this aspect of the early Wailers: “Cuz we ain’t got no time to lose / cuz we got on our dancing shoes”. The various Wailers’ vocals on these early singles are carefully crafted and controlled — the low, cool, accented voice of Marley’s ’70s hits was still in its infancy.
Even in the mid-’60s when these cuts were recorded, Marley already fostered his political vision of universal equality. Nowhere is this clearer than on the original version of his later worldwide hit “One Love”, as well as the angry, polemical “Let Him Go”. “One Love” bounces along, more of a ’50s-style pop song than its later, laid-back successor. The earnestness of the song, however, is not lost in this more commercial arrangement. Coming from a country torn by political and social turmoil, Marley’s vision of a grand Christian-type unity, bound together by simple love for your brothers and sisters, strikes a powerful chord. “Hear my plea!” Marley exclaims in the choruses with a voice so pained and honest that it is just that — a desperate and admirable plea for peace and love.
“Let Him Go”, however, shows the other side of the Wailers’ early political vision. The song is one drawn-out plea for those who missed the point of “One Love” to understand the plight and the struggles of the Jamaican “Rude Boys”, street toughs who came of age during the nationalist uprisings of the 1960s. As much as the singer pleads for peace, he also understands and sympathizes with the hardships of the Jamaican poor and their need for redemption. In a lightly skipping reggae track punctuated by ’50s-style doo-wop vocals, the repeated demand of the chorus, “Let him go, / you got to, got to, / let him go”, is startling in its urgency and integrity. The slight strain and grain in the vocal tell you the singer isn’t demanding liberty because of any high and mighty political creed or ideology — his restrained weariness and anger are due to a respect and need for basic human decency. His voice doesn’t say, “Let him go, or else”, but rather, “For the love of God, let him go”.
Furthermore, the lo-fi reggae groove of the song, with its loose, improvised vocals, seems a direct precursor to the Clash, maybe even providing the inspiration for “Rudie Can’t Fail” on 1979’s London Calling. Both tracks celebrate and pay homage to the Rude Boys, heralding them as modern desperadoes taking the law into their own hands, embodying the fears and frustrations of a nation in their vigilante struggles. Before the idyllic peace of “One Love” can be achieved, the dissatisfied masses the Rude Boys represented have to be addressed. “Let Him Go” shows the complexity of the Wailers’ vision even at this early stage in their career. Just as “I Shot the Sheriff” celebrated the violence and revenge of the oppressed on their oppressors, “Let Him Go” takes the side of the downtrodden, the have-nots, in their fight against the authorities keeping them down.
Despite all this, however, Trenchtown Days is more for Marley fanatics and completists than casual fans. Not only have these 20 tracks been reissued many times in the past but, on the whole, they are more interesting as the foundation on which Marley built his later work than for any worth in and of themselves. After 50 minutes of lo-fi reggae grooves and grating doo-wop harmonies, the Wailers’ sound gets a little stale. But mining the album for Marley’s sound and worldview in its infancy would reward the search of any dedicated fan.