Sunday, 27 April 2014

Bob MARLEY and The WAILERS: Legend: The Best Of Bob Marley And The Wailers





(#299: 19 May 1984, 12 weeks)

Track listing: Is This Love/No Woman, No Cry (Live)/Could You Be Loved/Three Little Birds/Buffalo Soldier/Get Up, Stand Up/Stir It Up/Easy Skanking/One Love-People Get Ready/I Shot The Sheriff/Waiting In Vain/Redemption Song/Satisfy My Soul/Exodus/Jamming/Punky Reggae Party

(Author’s Note: The edition of Legend used is the 2002 CD remaster which includes, not only the two bonus tracks originally available only on the cassette version of the album, “Easy Skanking” and “Punky Reggae Party,” but also full-length album cuts rather than 7” single edits, i.e. all seven minutes and eight seconds of “No Woman, No Cry,” all seven minutes and forty seconds of “Exodus,” etc.)

One way, perhaps the commonest Western way, of looking at Bob Marley is as a figure capable of sketchily realised studies of human conflict, greed, failure and hope whose generally smooth and pliant surfaces brooked no immediate awareness of the abyss-sized socio-political gulfs into which most of the souls for whom he claimed to speak appeared to be swallowed up. I emphasise the “Western” of that first sentence because the default critical perspective of Marley tends to be that of a musician who, though treated as an idol and perhaps even a potential Messiah by his followers, purposely aimed his music at, and watered down his music because of the need to placate, the audiences of the West. Legend – a very carefully and discreetly selected compilation of his biggest hits and most immediately recognisable songs – has, as a result, received a less than worthy reputation; it continues to appear intermittently on the British album chart, and in the Billboard Top 200, thirty years later, it has sold something like twenty-five million copies worldwide, including fourteen million in the States and 2.8 million copies in Britain, and it is perhaps regarded by some who ave bought it the only reggae record that they need – hence nice middle-class types, much like the well-meaning but utterly misguided hippies who came over to Jamaica in the early seventies in one last attempt to drop out, can say they “like” reggae yet only know Legend, just as Kind Of Blue is their token “jazz” record.

This accusation – of Marley effectively being a Jamaican Elvis whose early spark and power (the sixties Coxsone singles, the late sixties/early seventies Lee Perry sides which have become Marley’s equivalent of the Sun sessions) was deliberately diluted into a pale shadow, fit only for people who claimed they liked reggae but wouldn’t want to live next door to it – cannot be disregarded, particularly as Jamaica, a country which could best be described, as Louis Moholo once referred to South Africa, as a “divine hellhole,” that most exploited and contradictory of nations, whose destiny, and in the case of a large proportion of its citizens its suffering, have remained subject to the economic whims of international interests, be they Spanish, British or American. So in one sense, critics view the music Marley created with Chris Blackwell’s Island label as the ultimate duppy conqueror; put your kids to Ikea bed, light up your spliff, watch Teletubbies, listen to Legend, a compilation which, for the most part, would appear to avoid, studiously, most of those inconvenient politics and try to sell Marley as Jamaica’s own Johnny Mathis, a source of light, uncomplicated love songs. As though to underline the latter point, Island released a companion collection, Rebel Music, in 1986, but marred by obtrusive dance remixes and inferior live recordings (the “War” here is not the definitive Rastaman Vibration version but the reading from the underwhelming 1978 Paris-recoded double live album Babylon By Bus, as the first half of a medley with “No More Trouble,” from the Catch A Fire album), it failed to make the Top 50 or the Billboard Top 100 at all, and vanished quickly.

In a 1992 review of the Songs Of Freedom four-CD box set, Ian Penman dismissed the Blackwell/Island Marley as a “knotty rude boy being weakened by rock osmosis” and finally no more than “a dread Eric Clapton”; while in last year’s Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley suggests that this Marley was “as niche-marketed and musically simplified as the Bay City Rollers” (and that Marley might have been marketed as Jamaica’s Hendrix). But this entry has been delayed because I have not only been listening to everything by Bob Marley that I have in the house, but also closely reading Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, the late Timothy White’s biography-cum-cautious hagiography which I suppose, in the absence of much or anything else, will continue to be regarded as definitive, even though structurally it was as amorphous and self-renewing as, say, Roger Lewis’ The Life and Death of Peter Sellers; with each new edition there seemed to be new information to impart, new discoveries, and no doubt had White not succumbed to a heart attack in an elevator in Billboard’s New York building in 2002, aged fifty, he would have carried on revising his study and we would now be on the twentieth or so reprint.

The purpose of all this is to try to provide an argument in favour of the latter-day Marley, although Catch A Fire is finally too irritating a book to do that on its own. Make no mistake; nothing is likely to be more definitive a “Life” of Marley than White’s – he spoke to everybody that he could who was still alive and healthy enough to speak with him, including Marley himself, whom he encountered on some two dozen occasions between 1975 and 1981, as well as all of his living family, friends, enemies and musical colleagues; interviewees ranged from Peter Tosh to Michael Manley. Moreover, it is clear from reading Catch A Fire that, unlike most of Marley’s critics, White at least put in the legwork; he visited Jamaica on innumerable occasions, often at considerable personal risk to himself (for instance, while Jamaica was under martial law in the second half of the eighties), and it may well be that this accumulated toil, as well as the responsibilities of being Billboard’s Editor-in-Chief, helped hasten his premature end. Catch A Fire bears the hallmark of being the work of a lifetime; if in doubt, read the blurred and confused account of fellow writer Lester Bangs when he accompanied White and photographer Peter Simon to Jamaica, and to Marley, in the mid-seventies; the piece, entitled “Innocents in Babylon,” appeared in the June-July 1976 issue of Creem, and some of the things that Bangs writes about may well have happened.

But Catch A Fire is a book of two halves, much in the slightly surprising manner of Morrissey’s Autobiography. Its first 230 pages or so comprise a mostly brilliant and hypnotising account of Marley’s early years, as well as a preliminary potted history of Jamaica and in particular Rastafarianism, complete with a pocket biography of Haile Selassie, which, though providing a long build-up before the entry of the gladiator, does set the scene in terms of describing the society in which Marley grew up and which influenced his music. Early on in the book, White warns his readers that they must be prepared to accept as part of the central course of Jamaican and Rastafarian history the notions of “supernature” and “magic.” Hence the life of the young Marley is regularly interrupted by otherwise inexplicable events that give the book an air of magic realism; it reads like Thomas Hardy (with St Ann and Nine Miles standing in for a hotter, less forgiving Wessex) meeting the recently departed Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The extensive patois dialogues give the life the air of a novel, and in this respect only Nick Tosches’ Hellfire and Dino come up to Catch A Fire’s standards. Descriptively, White cannot be surpassed; when the young Marley, with or without his mother or carer, gets in the bus for the long ride from Nine Miles to Kingston, you feel every sharp bend in the road, you hear the bus driver’s derisive comments, you smell the damn bus. The rise of ska, rock steady and reggae slowly rises in parallel with the story of a young man who is already ambitious, already not prepared to settle for what he has, or is fated for. Even with the sometimes jarring incursion of patois into White’s narrative prose, the story is a hugely compelling one.

Once we reach the seventies and Island Records, however, the book dries up somewhat. There seems a rush, as if trying to cram too much into too small a remaining space. All the important events remain intact – the attempted assassination attempt, the One Love peace concert, the untreated football toe injury – but the music, which is the focus of attention as far as Legend is concerned, receives short shrift when compared with the pathway of Marley’s life. Which is fair enough – this is, after all, “The Life of Bob Marley” rather than “The Music of Bob Marley” – but the comparative lack of attention that his Island work receives creates an imbalance; 1978’s Kaya, for instance, a record which is the source of four songs on Legend, receives just one passing mention, and although White is adequate at explaining the whys and wherefores of records like Survival and Uprising, he is not as good telling us what it was in this music, rather than in “Simmer Down” or on African Herbsman, that made Marley, in some countries, like Elvis, Dylan and Christ combined. The previous narrative structure, too, is largely jettisoned in favour of dull statistics.

Worse comes with the revisions, which throw the book completely out of kilter, in particular the chapter “Time Will Tell,” one hundred and two of the most tedious pages I have ever read, of interest (like the second half of Autobiography) chiefly to people who get a kick out of court reports and transcriptions (the long legal battle over who got control of Marley’s estate, although some of the testimony does point to a less cuddly Marley than the Legend legend would have us believe; his sometime manager, Don Taylor, who took most of the bullets intended for Marley in 1976 but managed to survive, spoke of heavies going round Jamaican radio stations and throwing out and/or beating up DJs who wouldn’t play Marley’s music, or weren’t playing it enough. Similarly, the contradiction between Marley’s “One Love” persona and the father of numerous children by numerous mothers isn’t really touched upon – White, wanting his subject to be seen in as favourable a light as possible, skates over people like the one-time Miss World Cindy Breakspeare, whose affair with Marley was certainly the first time that mainstream Britain took note of his name, complete with terrible calypso parodies on The News Huddlines, and so forth).

Interminable legal reporting is one thing; quite another is the possible reason why the music of Marley isn’t much talked about in the book, that is, that White was a lousy music critic. As Marley rests less than peacefully, and the eighties move on remorselessly – just to put things into context, Legend appeared at the moment when dancehall had begun to emerge as the main way forward; it was, I can attest, impossible to walk two blocks in south London in 1984 without hearing Frankie Paul’s “War Is In The Dance” pounding out from some shop or car or window – White sees the Roman Empire beginning to collapse; according to him, dancehall was “an audacious reggae techno-hybrid that ate its young and old in one ghoulish gulp,” and suddenly he turns into Malcolm Muggeridge, wasting valuable pages on a potted and quite irrelevant rundown of the Decline of the Reagan Eighties, as well as fitting in as many conspiracy theories as he can find. In this sense, too, his writing ability deserts him (“Ghastly fighting raged in Lebanon, in Afghanistan..”), and the collected works of Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers are treated with unnecessarily elongated reverence, as though they were the Beatles’ back catalogue, and written about in a style worthy of, say, Ray Coleman, and about as valuable (“Bob’s intensity resided in Ziggy’s sharp chin, high cheekbones, keen eyes. It was the face of a peacemaker: kind, focused, adamant”). You have to admit that when far more attention is paid to Ziggy Marley’s albums than those of his father’s, the book becomes less than adequate.

Even on the occasions when White does deign to talk about Marley’s albums – and Charles Shaar Murray, almost alone amongst critics, was perceptive enough (in a 1978 NME interview with the man) to observe that “Marley’s albums show a clear continuity – or rather, they have done so ever since he started making albums as albums at the beginning of the Island deal” (the italics are Murray’s) – he does so bafflingly; does it really help any newcomer to the music to be told that Burnin’ was “the first completely unique musical offering to arrive in record stores since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – and what does that even mean?

It is not really possible to get away from all of this with Legend, since White wrote the sleevenote and, with Island PR man Rob Partridge and following consultation with Marley’s family, since this was intended as an “official” memorial album, more or less picked the songs which appear on it. Given the common vocal debt owed to Sam Cooke by Marley and Rod Stewart, it is sadly inevitable that my copy of Legend comes, as did Stewart’s Greatest Hits collection, with a merchandising inset offering, amongst other tacky things, an “incense assortment – 6 packs, 144 total sticks” ($12) and even an embossed Bob Marley licence plate ($10).

Possibly the only way to get away from any of the above is to listen to the sixteen songs themselves. Before I go any further into Legend itself, it is important to heed what White says on page 239 of Catch A Fire about the Wailers – who in 1972 still comprised Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston – being “defiant in their crazy belief that Rasta reggae was not parochial, not just shantytown sankeys for pariahs – that it was music that could interpret, explain and beat back the planet’s moral turpitude and racial oppression.” Whether or not it was the case that Marley was heavily influenced by Mortimo Planno in terms of conveying the Rasta creed to the wider world, it is documented fact, confirmed by all involved parties, that it was Marley’s idea to approach Chris Blackwell and Island Records, that it was Marley’s idea to broaden out the Wailers’ sound so that it would communicate to people beyond their own community. Keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick was enlisted because he led Johnny Nash’s backing band, the Sons of the Jungle (a.k.a. Rabbit and the Jungles), not because of his work on the final Free album, which was recorded after the first Wailers album; Muscle Shoals reliable Wayne Perkins was hired for guitar overdubs on three songs (including “Stir It Up”) at Blackwell’s request, as he was busy recording an album of his own upstairs at Basing Street Studios at the same time as Catch A Fire was being taped (“Listen,” Perkins told Marley after the session, “I’m from the South, you’re from the islands. But when the tape rolls, we’re communicating”). And finally, the Wailers became Bob Marley and the Wailers because Marley was clearly the group’s leading songwriter and also the member most anxious to push their music forward; the rightness of this decision may be considered when thinking of the decidedly erratic post-Wailers solo output of Tosh and Bunny Wailer.

And Marley’s aim, as a skilled marksman focuses on his target, was to spread the message of a group of people which, even within their own society, were regarded as the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth, with their non-working, funny cigarette-smoking ways, and try to make people who had no idea what a government yard was, or how it marked a step up from a tenement yard, or even what or where Trenchtown was, aware that this wasn’t bottom-of-the-evolutionary-chain gibberish – even though the prospect of holy Armageddon, the final destruction of all this imposed evil and greed, was always in Marley’s mind. Hence the “everything’s gonna be all right” refrains heard in at least three songs on Legend – one of which even mentions “holy Armagideon” – is a warning as much as a reassurance; true believers will be spared in the coming conflicts, but not enemies. That this message is expressed in a musical language less outwardly revolutionary than that of Keith Hudson, the Congos or Burning Spear is really neither here nor there; the intention being that this music should penetrate hitherto indifferent souls and reward those who really listened to it, rather than watching out for easy slogans and outrĂ© sound-effects.

In any case, Marley’s “pop” is as differently constructed from any other pop as anything I can remember since Dylan. By and large, his tunes were amplified riffs and patiently modified chants rather than “songs” as such, but the tireless repetition of key phrases and exhortations suggest that one could have said as much about early rock ‘n’ roll or R&B – and New Orleans R&B, an acknowledged influence on Jamaican pop, is never far away from these surfaces; it is easy to picture Fats Domino tackling the gently rolling gait of “Three Little Birds” (although the song is in turn also a ancestor  of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”). But even the more obviously structured songs owe their power to the quiet ingenuity of their arrangements. Consider, for instance, “Is This Love”; a standard and fairly direct love song which combines the romantic, the spiritual (“JAH provide the bread,” in either the word’s nutritional or financial sense) and the political (“my single bed,” “We’ll share the same room”). But it is a song, fundamentally, about indecision, and note how the guitars and keyboards continually strive to pull the song in two different harmonic directions, thus reflecting the agonised nature of the lyric.

Back in 1972, however, even with the involvement of Blackwell and expensive recording studios, Catch A Fire, the album, was as starkly luscious a reflection of exquisite inner turmoil as its unlikely counterpart, the eponymous first Roxy Music album; few records pack the subtle punch of the album’s first side, with its sequence of “Concrete Jungle” (in 1972, perhaps the most desolate opening track any album had ever had), “Slave Driver,” “400 Years” and “Stop That Train.” No rock rhythm section, not even Watts and Wyman, had quite the same elegantly disjointed sense of swing as the Barrett brothers. After the mood is lightened with “Baby We’ve Got A Date,” reminding us that once the Wailers sought to be Jamaica’s Impressions, we get “Stir It Up,” harmonised by all three Wailers and a slowly rippling plea to be loved, to do that thing, with eddies of sustained keyboards and guitar continually flowing into the song’s undertow, as though Yes were attempting to hijack a Revolutionaries session (Johnny Nash covered the song in the same year, backed by the Wailers, and thus was the first artist to take Marley’s music into the international pop charts).

Burnin’ followed in 1973, and was more coherent and urgent, its key songs including the coruscating “Burnin’ And Lootin’” and revisits to Perry-era songs like “Small Axe” and “Duppy Conqueror.” Legend visits the album twice; both “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot The Sheriff” posit the trio as a kind of Kingston Temptations – as with contemporary Norman Whitfield productions like “Law Of The Land,” the unisons are gruff (in “Get Up, Stand Up” they could almost be termed “proto-punk”) and the music expansive but still, fundamentally, uncompromising; the collective falsetto electric shocks of the “I Shot The Sheriff” chorus, worlds away from Clapton’s more placid approach, remain startling, and the way in which the song proceeds to vapourise into echoes of itself, following Marley’s exclamation of “If I am guilty I will PAY!,” wasn’t being reproduced anywhere else in the pop or rock of the period, except perhaps by Rundgren, Can, Wonder and Eno (although Jamaica itself was a different story, as a listen to Keith Hudson’s explosive Flesh Of My Skin, Blood Of My Blood will confirm; it uses many of the same production tricks but to far more aggressive and upfront an approach).

By 1974’s Natty Dread, Tosh and Livingston had gone, but in truth Marley hardly needed them by now; although not excerpted on Legend at all, songs like “Lively Up Yourself,” “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” “Rebel Music (Three O’Clock Roadblock)” and “Revolution” render the record unmissable. Its most famous song, “No Woman, No Cry” is inevitably reproduced here in its live reading, at the Lyceum Ballroom in London, in the second of two shows that they gave there on 17 and 18 July 1975. Charles Shaar Murray was in attendance, to review the show for the NME, and despite the somewhat regrettable wording of his piece, did manage to give his readers a good idea of how significant and guard-changing an occasion this was; the aroma of ganja was inescapable, you didn’t trespass on the known territory of others, you had to keep a keen eye on your handbags or wallets. Overall the air was of a revivalist gospel meeting, as is evident throughout “No Woman, No Cry” in particular – or perhaps Sankey’s Sacred Songs And Solos, published one hundred and two years earlier, was still remembered – although by all accounts the intensity and atmosphere were more redolent of a Grounation ceremony. The entire audience were already singing the song, full-throated, before Marley had even opened his mouth, and when he did, his voice was full of compassion and openness as well as vulnerability. But even in this sanctified setting, the song concealed a warning: “In this great future,” sang Marley, “you can’t forget your past.” Al Anderson’s guitar solo was controlled and deeply felt. The song also popularised cornmeal porridge for the first time since Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones.”

To put the occasion into context, at the time the Wailers played the Lyceum, Johnny Nash – of all people – had just vacated the number one slot in the British singles chart, to be replaced by the Bay City Rollers. Meanwhile, the ghastly “Barbados,” a George Mitchell Minstrels parody of black culture conceived by white session musicians Typically Tropical, had sped from 13 to 5, getting ready to top the chart. Judge Dread had also climbed into the top ten with his end-of-pier smut reading of “Je T’Aime.” When released as a single, the Lyceum “No Woman, No Cry” did not make the Top 20; audiences of the time appeared to prefer the smut-lite pop-reggae of “Fattie Bum Bum” and “Big Ten.” But change was clearly, if slowly, afoot.

Rastaman Vibration followed, to the disappointment of some, in 1976, but contained some of Marley’s most inflammatory songs to date, “Johnny Was” (later covered by Stiff Little Fingers) , “Who The Cap Fit” and the aforementioned “War” amongst them. But 1977’s Exodus, no less than half of which makes it to Legend (though, sadly, not my favourite track, “Guiltiness”), was the real breakthrough; Culture’s Two Sevens Clash may have been the year’s most definitive reggae statement, one which arguably shook Jamaican society to its core (as it fearfully awaited apocalypse on the seventh day of July of that year), but Exodus made the most incendiary waves internationally; the title song, here reproduced in full, was a richly deserved Top 20 hit in a summer chart dominated by the Sex Pistols, and despite the absence of Tosh and Livingston still betrays a Temptations atmosphere of apocalypse – specifically “Ball Of Confusion” – with its maniacal Arthur Brown cackles, its strangely triumphant procession through imminent ashes (“We’re leavin’ Babylon, y’all” – sometimes Marley’s voice reminds the listener as much of Dylan as it does Cooke), the dramatic spoken call and responses (“Men and people will fight ya down/TELL ME WHY!”), the gathering echoes of revelation (“MOVE! MENT! OF! JAH! PEO-PLE!”), the way Anderson’s guitar suddenly springs up at song’s end, pushing through its structure.

“Jamming” is a lovely stroll through spiritual self-awareness, but we note that as the song moves from the physical to the spiritual (“We’re jammin’ in the name of the Lord”) the Wailers, just as surely as the Melodians did with “Rivers Of Babylon,” are actually anticipating the imminent downfall of the society which surrounds them. “Waiting In Vain” skates across the landscape like the sweetest of all old Motown songs, and with its closing thoughts (“It’s your love that I’m waiting on”) even provides the other bookend to the similar but utterly opposed gruff, chest-beating desperation of Future Islands’ “Seasons (Waiting On You).” I have already mentioned “Three Little Birds,” but the “One Love-People Get Ready” medley, also released as a single to promote Legend, makes explicit what Curtis Mayfield politely implied; happily carousing rhythms and voices (the I-Threes, whom I really should have mentioned more here), all still telling us that the end is near. “As it was in the begin-NING!” Marley unexpectedly roars, “So shall it BE in the END!”

1978’s Kaya was the necessary light relief, a pause, a reflective stopping point on the road to revolution, and as luxuriously threatening as Steely Dan’s Aja. “Satisfy My Soul” gives the I-Threes a great opportunity to show how indispensable they had become to the Wailers’ sound, though note how the song becomes gradually more distended and dissolute as it proceeds – Carlton Barrett’s strange, tennis-ball ricochets of rhythm, echoing back on themselves and serving no explicit rhythmic function, acts as a bridge between Will Menter’s Wind and Fingers and Elton John’s “Song For Guy,” and in its second half the song becomes much more dub-like, more spacious, less graspable, more evanescent.

Survival (1979), recorded with the late Alex Sadkin, found Marley’s lyrical militancy renewed but the accompanying music rather subdued and bloodless. By now Marley was spending far more time in Miami, New York and London than Jamaica; Uprising (1980), the last album released in his lifetime, saw some improvement, although it is unclear whether either of its two songs included on Legend has anything more than the most tangential relationship with reggae. As far as Miami is concerned, “Could You Be Loved” is a terrific dance number with a considerable sonic debt, particularly in the keyboard work, to KC & the Sunshine Band, but it is a call to his countrymen – and women – not to lose faith or belief, but to, as it would be, keep calm and carry on, but an unexpectedly militant variation on the theme (“So go to hell if what you’re thinking is not right!” he exclaims at one point). At fadeout, Marley calls on “reggae” and “rockers” to “say something” – anything.

Which leaves “Redemption Song,” Marley’s effective last word (it is the final song on Uprising) and an entirely solo performance for voice and acoustic guitar which acts as a summation of everything he had seen and felt. He knew that his own fight for life was probably lost, and that he had decided that it had turned out as such (“Rasta no abide amputation,” he had insisted when he still had a chance of recovery); he had appeared at the Zimbabwe Independence Day concert, had finally made it “home” to Africa, and he had seen government forces beating down people who were trying to get into the arena, he smelled smoke, he realised that NOBODY in the audience was listening to what he was trying to say…

…at which point he might have looked at you and asked: “Was it worth it? I’m singing of blood and fire and retribution and forgiveness, and people are just using this record to soundtrack barbecues and picnics?”

To which you might have retorted that yes, maybe the music should have been as hardcore and forceful as the words had been, but then do not forget that you spoke to a much wider community of people who still idolise you…your own people…

…but in the meantime here he is, alone and at the end of everything, singing that this was the only thing you had ever wanted, to sing about the freedom of people, the liberation of society, but always start by liberating yourself (“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery”). It is, in that world, still 1980, and “Have no fear for atomic energy,” the man tries to reassure his followers. “How long will they kill our prophets,” he cries, semi-rhetorically, “while we stand aside and look?” He sings this line twice and then pauses, once with a high, sardonic “Ooh!” and then again with a sneakily triumphant “Yes!” Do we have to “fulfil the book”?

He turns to face whatever world he has left to sing towards.

“’Cause all I ever had, redemption songs.” Again and again. And his songs of freedom. There is nothing more. He shuts off the song abruptly, like the turning off of a life support machine.

And that was it – 1983’s Confrontation, the obligatory album-he-was-working-on, had no major new songs, but the ruefully sarcastic, Banana Splits-quoting “Buffalo Soldier” – about the cruel irony of black conscripts forced to participate in Red Indian genocide – not only inspired U2 (“In the arms of America”; see entry #343) but also gave Marley a bigger hit single in Britain than he had managed while he was alive (it’s always the way) – and the question is: why? Why has this compilation, of all compilations, continued to have such an impact? Hot weather (the summer of 1984 in Britain was an extremely long and hot one)? Instantly catchy songs, like JA Motown? Immediate familiarity? A rare but total and indivisible unity of music and words, which despite later lapses represent as uncompromising a form of pop music as this tale has yet encountered?

Well, there is “Punky Reggae Party,” which found Marley happily reunited with Lee Perry in late 1977 London, with Aswad as his backing band, and the other half of the “Jamming” double A-side which doesn’t get played on Radio 2, and as with The John Lennon Collection it’s strangely pleasant that the most extreme musical statement is left until last, almost as an afterthought; although Marley freely admitted the song was much more Perry than him – Perry having just produced “Complete Control” – the song is irreverent and celebratory. “Rejected by so-COI-EY-TEE!” growls Marley in a perfect World’s End accent. The Damned, the Jam, the Clash and even Dr Feelgood get namechecked. “No BORING OLD FARTS!” he warns. Then there is an angry exchange about a “world of hypocrisy” and some agreeably disjointed scat singing to take the song, and the record out. “New wave, new phrase,” he chants. “New wave, new craze” – and in 1984 it was still needed. But never is Legend an aristocratic bowdlerisation of concealed blood and bones. The ring of the Lion of Judah which he wears on the cover reputedly once belonged to Haile Selassie. Marley was not so much looking out towards the West – but urging the West to look out towards him, and the people and the culture for whom he hoped he sang, understanding and articulating the human context of giving a voice to millions of people who might otherwise have never been given the opportunity to speak. There may be no higher purpose in life.

1 comment:

David Belbin said...

Great piece. Timothy White wrote very good books about the Beach Boys and James Taylor in the 20 years after his Marley book, both of which are worth checking out if you have any interest in the artists.