BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS Catch A Fire (Tuff Gong)

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS Live! (Tuff Gong)

"Catch A Fire" is the Wailers' third album, following the Lee Perry-produced "Soul Rebel" and "African Herbsman". Recorded after Marley gained the patronage of Chris Blackwell, who signed the band to his Island label and co-produced the album, "Catch A Fire" could be regarded as the album on which reggae went truly European (as opposed to "Natty Dread", the record most frequently credited with internationalising it). In fact "Catch A Fire" now sounds almost quaintly Londoncentric (as much as any album recorded in Jamaica could be, I suppose) with its playful lyrical references to Piccadilly Circus on "Kinky Reggae" and the rear cover photograph of the band lounging in an urban environment populated by Anglias and Maxis.

If it appears born of mixed geographical and cultural parentage, doubts that it may have sapped the qualities of the music evaporate when you actually listen to the album. Rarely has a group sounded as focussed as the Wailers do here. The band's arrangements may sound sparse and prickly, until you realise that not a note is wasted, with each instrument playing different but melodically essential lines - for example Peter Tosh's burbling organ notes that power "Slave Driver". "Catch A Fire" establishes the mixture of protest and lovers rock that all subsequent Marley albums would adhere to to some degree, but also displays a freshness and vitality that had arguably been swamped by the time Marley became an internationally-recognised superstar in the late 70s.

"Catch A Fire" may be an essential Marley album, but it's not, for my money, his best, and neither is "Legend", despite the millions of units that perennially popular compilation continues to shift. To get to the real heart of what made Marley and his music so great I'd suggest "Live!", sometimes known as "Live At The Lyceum". Recorded during an incendiary London concert in the summer of 1975, it blends the personal and the political sides of Robert Nesta's persona better than any of his other albums, all captured in front of an adoring audience by the Rolling Stones Mobile parked outside, one of those happy accidents that occur too infrequently in popular music.

Here you'll find the full length version of "No Woman, No Cry", a full three minutes longer than the edited single and totally different to, and far superior to, the studio version released on "Natty Dread" the month before, "I Shot The Sheriff", fresh from Clapton's canonisation (sadly lacking the "If I am guilty I will pay" bridge, but otherwise immaculate), two of Marley's most exuberant but often ignored (i.e. not on "Legend"!) compositions in "Trenchtown Rock" and "Lively Up Yourself" and a balance of heartfelt politicking in the form of "Burnin' & Lootin'", "Them Belly Full" and "Get Up, Stand Up"...all this in only 35 minutes - astonishing! For me, "Live At The Lyceum" is one of the greatest live albums ever recorded (James Brown? Lightweight!), one of those rare exceptions-that-test-the-rule that restore a little shine to a genre often rightly dismissed as the first refuge of stopgap, contractual obligation cashins. As the MC says, "This, I want to tell you, is a Trenchtown experience", and quite rightly so.

A quick word about the sound quality of these platters (which I managed to pick up new for under 6 per). Both have been digitally remastered, a process that, for once, hasn't wreaked sonic havoc on some respectable original recordings (in marked contrast to what its done to the entire Beatles catalogue, he says ascending his hobby horse once again...). Compared to a late period analogue Island issue of "Live At The Lyceum!", the Tuff Gong pressing sounds a bit 'dried out' and lacking in bass (and, let's be honest, with a Marley album that's hardly an asset), but reasonably listenable nevertheless.

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS Burnin' (Tuff Gong)

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS Rastaman Vibration (Tuff Gong)

These newly-minted 'Definitive Edition' reissues of the Marley back catalogue arrive in protective plastic wallets that boast of remastering from the original two track master tapes, original artwork & tracklisting, whatever that may conspire to mean, and are pressed on chunky 180 gram vinyl. They also come with inners that contain details of Island's complete Marley inventory, which includes the deeply suspect-sounding offering "Dreams Of Freedom - Ambient Translations Of Bob Marley In Dub".

Happily, however, that's not up for consideration here. "Burnin'" was the fourth Wailers album, originally released in 1973, and one that I had hitherto avoided in the belief that it probably consisted of a handful of classics that I already knew ("I Shot The Sheriff", "Get Up, Stand Up", "Burnin' And Lootin'") with the balance made up of sanitised retreads of earlier material that I probably didn't want to ("Put It On", "Small Axe", "Duppy Conquerer"). Initial listening confirmed my suspicions, but after a few spins "Burnin'" limbers up and flies right, sounding not unlike a distant Jamaican cousin of Stevie Wonder's roughly contemporaneous "Talking Book". There's a sweetness at work here that is rarely heard in reggae, with giant steps made to ensure that the rougher, political work is always balanced by the personal and emotional material. Even songs such as the initially disparate sounding "Hallelujah Time" shape themselves into something approaching classic, harmonious reggae in time. It still ambles rather drearily to its conclusion, inspiration sagging before the album's end, and it piles on the contradictions at the centre of Marley's public persona (contrast the line "All them drugs are gonna make you slow" with the back cover illustration of Robert Nesta puffing on what resembles a small tree), but "Burnin'" is far from the disaster area my prejudices had suspected, and which had caused me to steer clear of the album for years.

"Rastaman Vibration", in comparison, seems rather thin gruel, even before you consider that it followed the epochal, good-vibes-drenched "Live At The Lyceum" set. Throughout the album The Wailers sound as if they're cruising on half-power, and there's a depressing lack of killer singles that you might recognise from the ubiquitous "Legend" compilation. Admittedly proceedings snake towards better during the second side: "Crazy Baldhead", familiar from the "Rebel Music" collection of Marley's more overtly political works (a project intended to sit neatly on the shelf next to the more commercial "Legend" that eventually sold about six copies, one of them to me) is fairly fine, and "War" is notable for having its lyrics stitched together from a speech by Haile Selassie. But otherwise, just about every quality that might attract you to the music of Bob Marley & The Wailers in the first place is conspicuous by its absence here. For once it almost seems as if the music is a secondary consideration: the sleeve is littered with biblical quotes and the recommendation "This album jacket is great for cleaning herb", whatever that may mean.

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS Exodus (Tuff Gong)

Tuff Gong's Definitive Edition series of Bob Marley reissues reaches "Exodus", the 1977 album on which his commercial appeal went supernova. It takes the smoothness and production trickery that characterised his previous outing, the somewhat clay-footed "Rastaman Vibration", and adds some of the most sophisticated and broadly appealing songs that Marley had yet written. Tellingly, the political and personal aspects of the man are afforded a side of vinyl apiece. The more sombre songs on the first side deal with religion, war and oppression, culminating in the full eight minute director's cut of the title track. Even amidst all this serious subject matter there are moments to marvel at, for example Marley's scat-like singing as he flutters around the rigid, metronomic rhythm of "So Much Things To Say".

Flip the disc and you're treated to Robert the loverman and musical figurehead, topped and tailed by the gorgeous paeans to togetherness and community "Jamming" and "One Love/People Get Ready", backed up by the Persil-advert brightness of the untarnishable "Three Little Birds" and the gently wistful "Waiting In Vain". Unashamedly commercial this music may be, but even in the year punk broke folk were buying albums by Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra and Abba as if harmony and melody were about to be outlawed (which arguably they might have been), and "Exodus" dovetails perfectly into the prevailing mood. Perhaps the final comment lies in the fact that half of the songs presented here also feature on the sterling "Legend" compilation, to which "Rastaman Vibration" contributes nothing.

Again this reissue arrives with a sticker promising "remastered, original artwork & tracklisting". The sonics are as good as they need to be, although no better, and the reinstatement of the textured sleeve is a pleasant value-added touch.

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS Trenchtown Rock (Anthology '69 - '78) (Trojan)

This treasure trove is a bargain priced (under 25p a track!) double CD crammed with just about as much Trojan-era Bob Marley And The Wailers tunes as it could reasonably be expected to take. And the dates above aren't, as I'd originally assumed, a typographical error or a cheap trick to expand the range of this compilation beyond its proper grasp: Marley still recorded the odd tune for Trojan well into his Island period. Factor in the presence of early versions of many songs that formed the core of his later repertoire and the production handiwork of reggae legends such as Leslie Kong and Lee 'Scratch' Perry and this package should prove irresistible to anyone with even a glancing interest in the man's work.

The production here might sound a mite primitive compared to the works that broke him as reggae's first (and arguably only - UB40 don't count!) international ambassador, but there's a delicious otherness to the early Wailers sound, almost comparable to the first time you heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo's close-meshed harmonies, Baghiti Khumalo's slithering bass and Ray Phiri's chiming guitar on Paul Simon's "Graceland" album. The music here dips far further into gospel and ska than you might expect, and Lee 'Scratch' Perry's mad dubbed-up production leaves some tracks propelled by nothing but bass, percussion and Marley's vocal line, with the remainder of The Wailers seemingly bound and gagged in a dark corner of the studio. And then there's the songs, many of which the casual Marley browser will already be familiar with ("Sun Is Shining", "Four Hundred Years", "Small Axe", "Kaya", "Lively Up Yourself", "Concrete Jungle", "Natural Mystic"). My favourites would include the insane tale of "Mr Brown", who travels around town in a coffin, "Man To Man", a version of "Who The Cap Fit" with a spine-tingling, pleading (nay wailing) vocal by Marley, "All In One", a kind of reggaefied "Stars On 45" that should by rights be cringingly tacky but somehow works and Peter Tosh's brilliant "Brand New Second Hand".

I must admit that I was initially sceptical about "Trenchtown Rock (Anthology '69 - '78)", which could so easily have been the product of an unscrupulous record company parcelling up a barrel-load of old tat - when you start to venture outside Marley's Island catalogue there seems to be a wealth of material from minority sources. But this is nothing of the sort, of course: it's charming, heart-felt, funny and fantastically funky music, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS Natural Mystic (Tuff Gong)

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS Talkin' Blues (Tuff Gong/Island)

With "Legend" rightfully enshrined as one of the most successful - by whatever artistic or commercial measure you may wish to judge it - compilations ever conceived, Island have attempted on several occasions to replicate its appeal. First came "Rebel Music", a collection of Marley's most overtly political material, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to set charts alight in quite the same fashion. Next, in 1995, came "Natural Mystic" which, to make its intentions as clear as possible, is subtitled "The Legend Lives On".

"Natural Mystic" appears to be predominately a random selection from his later Island albums - the groundbreaking "Catch A Fire", "Burnin'" and "Natty Dread" remain resolutely unpillaged - knocked together in the hope that biographer Chris Salewicz's assertion "that Bob Marley never once wrote a bad song" will ensure the results are listenable and marketable. Which, to a limited extent, they are - imagine an all new "Legend" filled with songs you haven't heard - whilst also cruelly underlining the reason why the songs on the original volume effectively picked themselves. Add to this the three booklet pages wasted plugging Bob Marley Official Merchandise and the whole package leaves a rather nasty taste.

There's some great music on here, of course, even if has arrived by accident. "Crazy Baldheads" still has that itchy, insistent organ backing that makes it so addictive, and the terrific performance of "Trenchtown Rock" is taken from the landmark "Live!" album, simply one of the greatest concert recordings ever taped. The pleading "Who The Cap Fit" is as fine as ever, whilst "Pimpers Paradise", extracted from his final album, "Uprising", seems to display a move to more international, universal concerns. It would be nice to think that "Time Will Tell" is included because of its intrinsic merit rather than the fact that it has been covered by The Black Crowes: it's a lovely, delicately arranged song that, musically if not lyrically, travels beyond reggae towards something bigger. Conversely, the two tracks exhumed from fragments and tarted up in the 90s - "Iron Lion Zion" and "Keep On Moving" - have dated badly, being full of synthetic sax and percussion. (Can you think of any proper Wailers recording that has saxophone on it? I can't, off the top of my head.)

But overall "Natural Mystic" is a disappointment, and not because of the songs, most of which sound sweet and dandy in their original locations. As a collection it just seems second-rate, like "More Abba Gold" compared to "Abba Gold" or "The Best Of Van Morrison Volume 2" compared to "The Best Of Van Morrison".

"Talkin' Blues", however, is a much more appetising proposition. Originally released in 1991, it combines a session recorded for San Francisco radio station KSAN-FM (shortly after the band were unceremoniously dumped from a Sly & The Family Stone support slot for upstaging the headliners) with a smattering of outtakes from the "Natty Dread" and "Live" albums, all stitched together with fragments from a 1975 interview.

The amount of interest to be derived from the latter is proportional to how well the listener can decode Marley's tangled patois, but the music contained on "Talkin' Blues" thankfully speaks a more universal language. These tough, political songs ("No Woman, No Cry" is conspicuous by its absence!) emanate from arguably the most interesting period of Robert Nesta's career, and here they're treated to fantastically taut and sinewy performances, muscular and playful and without a trace of flab.

Highlights are legion: the skittering, smoky organ bubbling behind "Kinky Reggae" never fails to make me smile (but when will the even finer version from the b-side of "No Woman, No Cry", taped at The Lyceum, be resurrected from the vaults?), whilst the uncensored lyrical outburst during "Get Up, Stand Up" also surprises. "Walk The Proud Land" is an old, old song treated to a spirited, sparky revision, whilst "You Can't Blame The Youth" would later be recorded by Peter Tosh, who sings this gentle finger-wagging at the cycle of violence endemic in Jamaican society here.

In fact the only sour note in the entire package arrives, yet again, courtesy of the advertisement for "officially licensed Bob Marley merchandise", which this time round offers tempting delights such as incense assortments and license plates. If you can ignore that, this "Definitive Remasters" edition of "Talkin' Blues" - which arrives a-bustling with extra tracks adding the remainder of the KSAN-FM session omitted from the original release - is a cracking disc.

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS Uprising (Tuff Gong)

"Uprising", the last album Bob Marley released in his lifetime, came out in 1980. Although much of it is head-noddingly pleasant it doesn't really seem to catch fire, despite the obvious commitment of all involved and the sunshine in Marley's singing voice. The melodies aren't sufficiently distinctive, the lyrics don't offer any fresh revelation, although who among us wouldn't recognise the sentiment in "Bad Card": "I want to turn up my disco/Blow them to full watts tonight".

The best material here is already familiar from compilations, showing how, at the time of his death, Marley was moving beyond reggae towards more westernised musical forms. "Pimper's Paradise" balances on the brink that "Could You Be Loved" topples headlong over, sliding seamlessly into disco. It may not be the greatest song The Wailers ever recorded but as an indication of the direction in which they were headed could be one of their most significant. And then there's "Redemption Song", which is folk music, pure and simple - why else would The Chieftains cover it?! - a timeless clarion call for the dispossessed, and as the last song on the final Bob Marley album it carries a piercing clarity. If only the rest of "Uprising" had the charge of these isolated moments of greatness; as it doesn't there are better ways to hear them.

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS Fy-Ah Fy-Ah (JAD/Hip-O)

Apparently part of a concerted effort to present Bob Marley’s early music in a manner that befits its status (and to ensure that the deserving get paid in full), this three disc box set is a little light on declaring its roles and responsibilities. Its 69 tracks were apparently recorded between 1968 and 1970 for a profusion of labels including JAD and the Wailers’ own Wail’n Soul’m imprint: the evocative if idiosyncratic booklet notes capture a real sense of how Kingston’s music scene was dependent on a cottage industry of independent record companies. There are lashings of contemporary photographs and, of even greater interest, press clippings, including Swing magazine’s priceless obituary for sometime Wailers producer Leslie Kong who, we learn, “kicked the bucket on Monday, August 9th just when we thought we’d get some advertising revenue from him”!

Musically, “Fy-Ah Fy-Ah” is a real random grab bag, a trove of unfamiliar material – although there’s some overlap with Trojan’s equally excellent “Trenchtown Rock (Anthology ’69 – ’78)”. It’s in no way as polished as his Island-era work, being rougher and grittier than anything you’d find on “Legend”, the sound cardboard boxy and opaque but thrillingly evocative. Marley’s magpie mentality lead him to pick and choose from American pop trends, whether it be lifting a line from “You Can’t Hurry Love” for “Play Play”, or a throwaway but exquisite cover of The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”. “Selassie In The Chapel”, a Rastafication of Elvis’ “Crying In The Chapel”, utterly transcends its source material, with its wooden percussive clank, tribal drums, acoustic guitars, angelic harmonies and one of Bob’s most persuasive vocals. On similar territory – perhaps more that most Marley compilations, “Fy-Ah Fy-Ah” seems balanced right on the precipice between the religious, the political and the carnal – the gospel “This Train” has some lovely, liquid guitar and sleepy locomotive percussion, “Funeral” a lone trumpeter and old testament brimstone. Here “Stir It Up” is little more than a lightly embellished groove, subject to considerable polishing before it emerged in more familiar form on “Catch A Fire”, and “Bend Down Low” sprouts the first buds of the keyboard introduction it models on “Natty Dread”.

“The Lord Will Make Away Somehow” is more gospel pop than reggae, its common time rhythms landing just to the side of where the ear expects them. “Chances Are” is an almost Ray Charles-like slow, bluesy ballad, over which a jazzy saxophone roams unfettered. Allegedly The Wailers’ sole instrumental (perhaps the satire lies in its lack of lyrics) “Lyrical Satirical I” is a gentle, twining acoustic guitar/percussion thing that, for some reason, reminds me of “Whistle Stop” from the soundtrack to Disney’s “Robin Hood”, despite sounding nothing like it. All three discs here close with a smattering of instrumental versions, intended for sound system MCs to toast over or producers to dub to extremes, the ghost of the original vocals hovering wraith-like in the distance.

Many of the songs on the second disc are kinetic bundles of elastic rhythms – listen to “Cheer Up” or “Stop The Train”, for example. There’s a small but significant increase in sophistication evident here, as The Wailers’ sound edges from its roots towards reggae. Perhaps it’s due to the guiding production hands of Leslie Kong, lending the material a multilayered density lacking in the earlier work. “Caution” is a prime example, all that harmony, rhythm, melody and meaning wrapped up in an irresistible package. “Soon Come” glows with a cheeky charm The Wailers rarely, if ever, recaptured in their later years; “Go Tell It To The Mountain” is more joyous gospel reggae, carried higher by Peter Tosh’s throwaway “I’m beggin’” interjections. With its long spoken introduction in heavily encoded patois, “Mr Chatterbox” is impishly mischievous right down to the comic book lyrics “Bif, baf, boof, those are the blows you’re gonna get”. “Adam & Eve” is astonishingly politically incorrect, with its “woman is the root of all evil” premise, an unquestioning Bob seemingly failing to condemn oppression for once. Of the closing versions, “Soon Come Version” has its vocals dropping in and out for fractured phrases at a time, and “Mr Chatterbox Version” is severely pared back right to the rhythm track.

The music on the third disc was recorded for the JAD label, who, in an attempt to break the lucrative American market, drafted in a crack troop of session musicians to back the Wailers, including Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Eric Gale and Hugh Masekela. Sonically a step forward, what’s also immediately apparent is the influence of American pop music on these songs – consider the breezy “How Many Times”, for example, or Marley’s casual namedropping of American cities during “Gonna Get You”. Still, it all serves to dilute Bob’s input, the results being pleasant but not staggeringly memorable.

“Soul Rebel”s elaborate horn and vocal arrangements lend it a near-jazzy feel; “Hammer”’s honeyed, lilting harmonies are somewhat at odds with the violent lyrics. “Fallin’ In & Out Of Love” treats some pop froth to an impassioned delivery it barely deserves; about as far from reggae as this set travels, it could almost be a Supremes demo. Similarly, “Milk Shake & Potato Chips” is as insubstantial as its title suggests, “Splish For My Splash” is a nauseating novelty equally unworthy of the artist’s attentions, and “What Goes Around Comes Around” features a cast of nursery rhyme characters that includes the old woman who lived in a shoe, who spends her days doing the boogaloo. Compensating to a degree, “The World Is Changing” is a polyrhythmic Mardi Gras soundtrack.

Fy-Ah Fy-Ah” doesn’t possess “Legend”’s sophistication and cohesion, but it’s crammed with tiny roughshod delights. If its intentions are cloudy at times, the music is far less so.

MARLEY

After his death, did reggae get smaller or did Bob Marley just get bigger? It’s notable how many of the interviewees score an associate or executive producer credit of some kind on this lengthy, amiable documentary, which might be accused of soft-pedalling its subject to a degree. The sole shocking moment of real dissent occurs when, in an archive interview, the late Peter Tosh refers to Island Records founder Chris Blackwell as “Chris Whitewell”. Marley’s legendary philandering isn’t ignored; in fact, his wife Rita all but admits to being something of a sacrificial doormat, giving up on her husband’s fidelity in favour of what she perceives as humanity’s greater good. Bob’s parenting skills aren’t exactly given a glowing endorsement either, although his shortcomings in this area are more alluded to than spotlighted: especially poignant is his daughter’s forlorn hope that she might finally be able to spend some time alone with her father in the days before his death. There’s also a great deal of music in this documentary, but it doesn’t exactly reshape the genre: despite the undoubted excellence of director Kevin MacDonald’s previous work (which includes “One Day In September”, “The Last King Of Scotland” and “Touching The Void”) no moulds are broken here. It’s not going to play spectacularly outside the target demographic in the way that, for instance, “Senna” did, and at 144 minutes it could have benefitted from being a tad leaner. Nevertheless, in “Marley” the reggae figurehead finally gets the cinematic epitaph he deserves, albeit one that plays it safe.

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