Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Wailers: Catch a Fire

The name Bob Marley and the word "reggae" are virtually synonymous to most people familiar with both.  While there are many other great reggae bands and performers, from Burning Spear to Toots and the Maytals to Culture to Black Uhuru to individuals like U-Roy, Prince Far-I, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and I-Roy, Marley was the one musician to emerge from Jamaica and
become the biggest international figure in reggae and remains so to this day, just over 30 years after his death from cancer in 1981 at age 36.

It would also be easy to have the compilation album Legend be the primary record to focus on relative to the work of Bob Marley and the Wailers.  In fact, YHB's first exposure to reggae was when that album was released in 1984 and it is a fantastic compilation that will be covered here eventually.  However, anyone looking to delve further into the amazing career of Marley should probably start with the earlier work of what was called The Wailers.

This was a vocal trio, formed in 1963, with Marley, Peter Tosh and Neville Livingston (a.k.a., Bunny Wailer) joined by three other members.  It was the heyday of ska and the band moved through the end of the decade into rock steady and then reggae working with such legendary producers as Coxsone Dodd and Lee Perry.

The move to international recognition came in 1972, when The Wailers were signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records.  Island had just lost major star Jimmy Cliff, who was the first Jamaican reggae musician to receive a significant following outside the country, and Blackwell believed Marley was a star in the making.

Albums as such were not part of the Jamaican musical scene, but Blackwell prevailed on The Wailers to deliver one and they had just recorded a series of tracks in Kingston that they self-produced.  Though impressed with the results, Blackwell felt that more was need to appeal to the international market and restructured the sound of these original versions by adding a number of uncredited musicians.   He also withdrew two songs that were in the earlier recordings.

Two American musicians, including Wayne Perkins who guitar is prominent on "Stir It Up" (which is significantly longer in the released version) and keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick, were brought in, as were future Jamaican notables Robbie Shakespeare, now a legendary bassist, who is heard on the opening track "Concrete Jungle and keyboard player Tyrone Downie, who was on that song and "Stir It Up" and later joined Marley's band.  There were additional percussionists and some female backing vocals provided by Marley's wife, Rita, and Marcia Griffiths, already a known figure in Jamaica--these two later became, with Judy Mowatt, the I-Threes backing group for Marley.

In April 1973, Catch a Fire was released and, while it did not sell hugely, it did attract positive critical reviews and garnered attention to a music largely unknown to those outside Jamaica.  Notably, the initial pressing of 20,000 copies listed the band as "The Wailers" and used an unusual lighter package, in which the lid of the paper lighter flipped open to reveal the vinyl record.  The following pressing, however, had a photo of Marley taking a hit off of a massive spliff and the band was referred to as "Bob Marley and the Wailers."  Blackwell was banking on the charisma, songwriting talent, and leadership of Marley over Tosh and Livingston.

The Island release is impressive, with political rockers like "Concrete Jungle," "Slave Driver," and "400 Years" leading off and lighter, but melodically and rhythmically strong tracks like "Stir It Up" and "Kinky Reggae" anchoring the middle part of the album.  The closer was the dynamite "Midnight Ravers" which, as with much of the record, showcased the tight harmonies of Marley, Tosh and Livingston.  It is also notable that Tosh's vocal features are the very strong songs that he penned: "Stop That Train" and "400 Years."

In 2001, Marley's Tuff Gong imprint on Island Records issued a "deluxe edition" that paired the 1973 Island album with the never-released Jamaican originals, which included the two excised songs, "High Tide or Low Tide" and "All Day, All Night."  While Blackwell's editorial decision may have made for a stronger album, these are fine songs and one of the many things to like about the Jamaican versions is the greater emphasis placed on the incredible Barrett brothers, bassist Aston "Family Man" and drummer Carlton "Carlie," whose playing is up front and not as masked by the variety of sounds Blackwell introduced in the reconstituted, official versions.

In any case, Catch a Fire was not as big a seller as Burnin', Natty Dread, or Exodus, other generally proclaimed masterpieces by Marley and the Wailers, but it is every bit as good as anything that followed it.  Those curious about the broader career of The Wailers, with Tosh and Livingston, and that of Marley after those two left the band in 1974 for solo careers that featured some significant successes, might want to start with the surface overview, however, brilliant, of Legend, but then extend their investigations into the individual albums, beginning with this stunning debut.

The Wailers:  Catch a Fire (Island, 1973)

1.  Concrete Jungle  4:13
2.  Slave Driver  2:54
3.  400 Years  2:45
4.  Stop That Train  3:54
5.  Baby We've Got a Date (Rock It Baby)  3:55
6.  Stir It Up  5:32
7.  Kinky Reggae  3:37
8.  No More Trouble  3:58
9.  Midnight Ravers  5:08

2001 Deluxe Edition Jamaican Versions

1.  Concrete Jungle  4:11
2.  Stir It Up  3:37
3.  High Tide or Low Ride  4:40
4.  Stop That Train  3:53
5.  400 Years  2:57
6.  Baby We've Got a Date (Rock It Baby)  4:00
7. Midnight Ravers  5:05
8.  All Day All Night  3:26
9.  Slave Driver  2:52
10.  Kinky Reggae  3:40
11.  No More Trouble  5:13

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