I first became aware of Bob Marley when I heard ‘Put It On’ by the Wailers, and their version of Tom Jones’s ‘What’s New Pussycat’, in 1967. These tracks in turn led me to discover the ska songs recorded at Studio One, such as the blueprint of Bob’s all- time world classic ‘One Love’ and their first Jamaican chart-topping single, ‘Simmer Down’.
However, it was the landmark album Soul Rebel, produced by Lee Perry, that really blew me away: haunting harmonies and powerful lyrics, set to a lean, bass-driven set of dense reggae rhythms, the sparseness of which provided the perfect backdrop for the glorious vocals of Bob and his fellow Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone. The Barret Brothers, Carlton (drums) and Aston (bass), provided the backbone of the rhythms and eventually became full-time members of The Wailers, after the group was signed to Island Records by Chris Blackwell.
Their first album for the label became the benchmark by which all other reggae albums would be measured: it was the first time a Jamaican band had actually been given an advance budget (£4,000) to go and record ‘an album’. The result, in its raw state as it emerged from the studio sessions in Jamaica, was impressive enough for Blackwell to proceed with the final overdubs and mixing, resulting in what is, quite simply, one of the greatest reggae albums ever made: Catch A Fire, released in 1973 to ecstatic critical acclaim.
The Wailers had arrived — but, sadly, after the second album Burnin, the three members split to pursue solo careers. In 1974, Bob Marley’s first solo album, Natty Dread, hit the streets, although he had actually started his career in 1963 as a solo artist, when he recorded his first singles for the ace Jamaican-Chinese producer Leslie Kong.
It was a live version of ‘No Woman No Cry’ from the Natty Dread album that was to give Bob Marley his first taste of UK pop chart success. Here, to mark the release of the documentary Marley, are ten essential tracks by Bob Marley and The Wailers:
Bus’ Dem Shut (Payaka)
A Wail N’ Soul production recorded at Dynamic Studios in Kingston and produced by the Wailers. It’s a classic protest song dealing with the poverty endured by so many in the western Kingston shanty towns: ‘Life is for man to live, let man live life, bread is for man to eat, let man eat bread.’
Another self-production by the Wailers, for their own independent label Wail N’ Soul, this is a joyful, uplifting celebration of how happiness can come from simple things, in spite of everyday hardship.
Slave Driver (Catch A Fire)
The haunting title track from their first album on Island Records, describing the horror of the Africans who had to cross the Atlantic at the hands of the slave drivers, and ‘how they brutalised our very souls’. Bob goes on to describe how the tables have turned, and the slave driver will catch a fire: despite abolition of slavery, the people are still chained in poverty.
Stir It Up
A beautiful love song and play on words, set to a superb reggae one drop rhythm.
Is This Love
A perfect example of Bob Marley’s remarkable skills as a songsmith, especially in affairs of the heart.
Could You Be Loved
This song has a special place in my heart, as Bob played it to me in the listening rooms at Island records not long after he recorded it and then provided me with an exclusive preview when he guested on my Capital radio Roots Rockers show in 1980.
Bob’s observations on everyday living in the Babylonian system.
Get Up Stand Up
Probably one of the Wailers best-known ‘protest’ songs, this is loved the world over.
Waiting In Vain
A song that perfectly describes the despair of a one-sided love affair.
A song for the times, given all the hostilities and oppression faced by people living in under the iron fist of despots and dictators. The song creeps into life with a heavy duty bass line, as though it were rolling in off the ocean:
‘…There’s a natural mystic blowin’ through the air / If you listen carefully now you will hear / This could be the first trumpet, might as well be the last / Many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die / Don’t ask me why!’
You can listen to the playlist on Spotify here.
David Rodigan MBE is Britain’s leading authority on reggae. He was made an MBE for services to broadcasting in the New Year’s honours list.
Original article: The Spectator