Perfect Sound Forever


Ska days
Book excerpt by Richie Unterberger
and interview with Unterberger by Jason Gross
(October 2017)

ED NOTE: the folllowing is an excerpt from Bob Marley and the Wailers- The Ultimate Illustrated History, pubilshed by Voyageur Press. Here we hear about the early years of Marley's band the Wailers when they first started recording in the mid '60's.

Also see Richie Unterberger's website.

There were some cool moments in their covers, but the Wailers' ultimate strength lay in their originals, at this point mostly composed and sung by Marley. Yet as strong as the first of those to catch on ("Simmer Down") had been, a good number of the others were on the callow and derivative side. Some of the songs remained quite indebted to slow, dreamy, mid-1950's doo wop, a style that by 1965 was dated to the point of being pass . Sometimes they even used melodies and lyrics from big American hits, "Dance with Me" appropriating bits of the Drifters' "On Broadway" and "Ska Jerk" taking a lot from Junior Walker's "Shotgun."

The Wailers were at their best not as balladeers or faux American soulsters, but as forceful skasters. From their very first sessions, "I Don't Need Your Love" and "I Am Going Home" have a frenetic, joyful energy that almost slides the discs off the turntable, stopping just shy of careening out of control. Peter Tosh proves himself capable of helming a similar stomper on "Maga Dog," the first recording on which he takes lead vocals. With some other hits (though none as big as "Simmer Down") in the Wailers' clutch of early singles, Dodd became somewhat more generous with his new stars, putting them on a weekly salary of three pounds each. He also let Marley sleep in the audition/rehearsal room of Studio One, partly in appreciation for his extra work in helping to rehearse other artists recording there.

In their lyrics and appearance, the Wailers were still fairly conventional. The words they sang largely stuck--as most American soul acts of the time did--to declarations of love and celebrations of partying. They wore the same kind of conservative suits and ties (and, when Kelso and Green were still aboard, dresses) as most US soul artists did, even if they couldn't afford anything close to the fancy wardrobes of the Supremes or the Temptations. Marley, Tosh, and Livingston sported short, natural haircuts that wouldn't have been out of place in any visiting soul ensemble, though Tosh's extreme height, compared to his relatively diminutive bandmates, did something to make them stand out from the crowd.

Yet as they gained more writing and recording experience, their songs started to reflect more of the Trench Town culture in which they were immersed. It was a lifestyle, and area of Kingston, of which very few tourists of Jamaica's famous resorts were even aware. Even in their good-time party songs and fashionable outfits, they gave voice to the rude boy culture of which they were a part, if only as entertainers and observers.

"Simmer Down" had been a message of sorts to rude boys, and in 1965, some of the Wailers' songs were more explicitly inspired by that part of their constituency. After a power outage at their Christmas 1964 concert at Kingston's Palace Theatre ignited a mini-riot, they sang about the event, if a bit obliquely, in "Hooligans," a kinetic stomper complete with dramatic opening brass fanfare and drum bashes. Hooligans and the Palace melee were also referenced in "Jumbie Jamboree," another of the first Wailers tracks to prominently feature Tosh on vocals. This was but a warmup for their hit "Rude Boy," largely sung in unison more as a hypnotic ska-rhythm chant than a conventional tune. Significantly, it also in parts used the Jamaican patois--sometimes using "me" in place of the more standard "I"--that would have made it impenetrable to American listeners had it been played in the States at the time. By using local slang and manners of speech, the Wailers were becoming spokespersons of sorts for younger Jamaicans who had little voice in the media. After the group became internationally famous, their (in particular Marley's) use of patois in interviews, however, would often make their spoken statements difficult to understand for many non-Jamaicans.

In Bob Marley: The Untold Story, Skatalites trumpeter Johnny Moore, speaking of the Wailers' early work, remarked, "The uniqueness of the sound they projected was specifically local and really good. The subject matter was clean, and the lyrics were really educative. The statements might be a bit serious, but the way they projected it you could absorb what they were saying. There were some good lessons, we had to admit that."

Not all of the Wailers' first socially conscious songs were about rude boys and riots. "One Love," the earliest of their songs that would find a much wider audience when it was re-recorded in the 1970's, gave thanks to a deity and urged love among a community rather than love between a boy and a girl. With "One Love," the Wailers were likely influenced by Curtis Mayfield, several of whose songs for the Impressions were starting to carry a message of black pride and optimistic exhortations for justice, often with gospel overtones. Marley would combine "One Love" with Mayfield's "People Get Ready" when he recorded it more than a decade later for the Exodus album, and the Wailers covered Mayfield's "I Made a Mistake" not long after they committed "One Love" to tape. The Impressions, Bob's soon-to-be wife, Rita, goes as far as saying in Rebel Music, were "all they listened to most of the time."

Interview with Richie Unterberger about his Bob Marley book

PSF: How did you set out to distinguish this book from other books about Marley? (i.e. Vivien Goldman's Book of Exodus, Timothy White's Catch A Fire)

RU: There have been many books about Marley, and I realize this is not one of the longer ones, as I wrote the text for a coffee table book with lots of photos and illustrations. But I do think this tells the essential story of Marley and the Wailers in a way that's more succinct, direct, and music-focused than other volumes.

As I acknowledge at various points, there's a great deal of confusion and contradiction in Marley literature about what happened when, especially in the years before he and the Wailers released their first album with wide international distribution (1973's Catch a Fire) I also discuss the murkiest of these confusions in a three-part series on "Marley Mysteries" on my blog. I did my best to balance the reports and theories of what actually took place, noting when there were different accounts and perspectives. I also drew from quite a few stories about and interviews with Marley and the Wailers that were written at the time, not in later biographies, crediting all of the sources.

I think the first decade of the Wailers' career has been relatively underrated and overlooked, especially the years between 1964 and 1969. About one third of the book covers the pre-1973 period, when they made some first-rate ska and rock steady on the way to forging their '70s reggae sound. Discussing this work in some detail, I hope, will make some readers primarily or only familiar with their more famous records aware of their history and the quality of their early music. I hope it will also make them appreciate that Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer (whose solo careers are also discussed, though not in nearly as much detail as Marley's post-Tosh-Wailer work) were very important contributors to the Wailers as singers and songwriters, and that the Wailers were very much a group whose sum was greater than their parts before Tosh and Wailer left in the mid-1970s, not primarily a vehicle for Marley.

I have a couple other observations that I realize won't be popular with some Wailers/reggae fans. Most of the books about Marley and the Wailers give a lot of space to their Rasta beliefs and experiences, and also deify Marley in particular as a saint-like figure. While Rasta influence on their music was large and important, much Marley literature makes so much of it, and analyzes it in such a tangled and fawning way, that it can verge on what I view as mumbo jumbo. And while Marley did a lot of good with his music and some of his charitable actions and public statements, he was a very human figure with some flaws in how he conducted his career and personal life.

In my book, I focus on Marley and the Wailers' music. That's what's most important; that's why his message of justice and empowerment had an international impact; and that's why we care about them today. I also don't treat Marley's interviews and public statements as divine wisdom, as they were given to platitudes and generalities. As one fan noted shortly after his death (as quoted in the book), "As an orator, he wasn't much. But his music said it all."

I should also point out that although I wrote all of the main text, the book also includes lengthy page-long reviews of all of his albums by an assortment of critics (I wrote just a couple of these). These also summarize key musical milestones of his career in a crisp but informed fashion, helping to convey the arc of his musical progression.

PSF: Why do you think that Marley made such a splash with the international market in the '70's? Was it just the right music/message at the right time or was there something more unique about him and his music?

RU: It's a cliche, but largely true, that the three or so years preceding the rise of punk and new wave were not a high point for rock and soul music. The giants of '60s rock had broken up or dispersed into largely disappointing new projects and solo careers, and soul was devolving into disco.

The Wailers' music, which blended many elements of rock and soul with Jamaican sounds, sounded very fresh and different when it was first heard by many non-Jamaican listeners during this period. It also had a sense of social commitment and musical/personal passion missing from much then-contemporary records. So much of the international audience looking for something new and exciting seized upon it, both because of its genuine quality, and because of the relative lack of such material by other artists at the time.

Also, although reggae had been incubating in Jamaica for about a decade before Catch a Fire, knowledge of the entire genre was on the whole slight to nonexistent outside the country. This was more true in the US than the UK, where reggae music had a larger following due to the larger Jamaican population. So the music sounded pretty exotic, even if in fact quite a lot of it had already been made and released in Jamaica for years. The Wailers were fortunate enough to be the first artists really given an international push, and targeted specifically to rock listeners, though Jimmy Cliff had made some inroads in the previous years both with his records and his starring role in 1972's The Harder They Come movie.

As far as what was unique about Marley, however, he had lyrical messages that were very appealing in their championship of the underprivileged, and concise and direct enough to be understood by a wide international audience. Also, he balanced the more socially conscious material with quite a few songs about loving and partying. His production, as has been noted by a good number of critics, had more rock ingredients than most reggae. And his most popular songs, whatever the subject, were pretty catchy. This gave him a more universal appeal than the many other reggae singers who, while they might have been very talented, lacked all of these elements.

PSF: From doing your research, was there anything you learned about Marley and his life that you were surprised to find out?

RU: I was pretty familiar with Marley's career before writing the book, so there wasn't much in the way of big surprises. Putting his life in book form did bring home to me, however, just how much confusion there is about a lot of crucial incidents in his early career. As I noted, I cover some of these in my blog. But I'm particularly intrigued by his visits (some quite lengthy, especially the first one, which was more than half a year in 1966) to the US. One particularly surprising part of this was that the Wailers actually did some US appearances at the end of 1971 and early 1972, almost a year before hooking up with Chris Blackwell and Island, though the details and purpose (as is so often the case for their early career) are hazy. Were they trying to break into the American market somehow? How could that have been possible without the resources of someone like Blackwell?

It was also a little surprising, and somewhat grave, to learn about the extent of the corruption, poverty, and violence in Jamaica when the Wailers rose to prominence. This is too complicated to cover in one paragraph, but I do refer to it occasionally in the book, as it gives some context to the socially conscious dimension of the Wailers' music. Suffice it to say that as much turmoil as the US is undergoing right now, the impact isn't nearly as severe on day-to-day life as it was in Jamaica then (and some of those problems persist in Jamaica to this day).

Also, in surveying the entirety of the Wailers' discography, it's amazing how much they put out in Jamaica (again, especially before 1973), and how chaotic the Jamaican record industry was. It's not just hard to determine the dates of the releases, but also even whether some stuff came out at all. Most of the really obscure discs aren't on the level of their best work. But they again brought home how much more Tosh and Wailer (known before the mid-'70s as Bunny Livingston) did as songwriters and singers, both with and outside the Wailers, than is commonly acknowledged. Some of that material is really superb, like "Dancing Shoes" (featuring Bunny) and the original "Steppin' Razor" (featuring Tosh). It's also a little surprising to realize how heavily Bob's wife Rita was involved in their releases, pretty much taking Bunny's place for a while in the late 1960's when he was serving a jail sentence.

PSF: Author Marlon Jones (A Brief History of Seven Killings) maintains that Marley was 'dangerous' in that he held radical political, social views. Do you think that's true?

RU: I do think Marley was "dangerous" to the status quo, especially in Jamaica, where he was revered by much of the population. That is if it's believed that making the underprivileged aware of their rights and urging them to take stands and action is viewed as "dangerous." Probably most PSF readers would consider that admirable rather than dangerous, but political leaders who held it in their interest to suppress the lower classes rightfully saw this as endangering their hold on power. The circumstances surrounding the attempt on Marley's life in late 1976 are still uncertain, but I think it's quite likely it was at least partially motivated by the wishes of some powerful political figures (particularly on the conservative side in Jamaica) to see him silenced.

PSF: Marley was obviously a complex figure who's seen in a variety of different ways by different audiences including stoners, political figures, musicologists, historians. How well do you think he maintained that balance of being many things to different people during his lifetime?

RU: Considering the many professional and personal demands on his time after he became a star, I think he balanced it fairly well. He was quite prolific musically, and willing to explore different areas rather than stick to a formula, although I believe his work after Tosh and Livingston left was more uneven than some critics would have it. He allied with some progressive social movements and was pretty personally generous to thousands of people (perhaps too generous to some who wanted to take advantage of his wealth and prestige), apparently to an extent that often wasn't publicized. He undertook, at considerable personal expense, trips to and concerts in Africa at a time when that had rarely been done by performers of his stature. He wove in some then-radical Rasta philosophy into his songs and numerous interviews, though as I've noted, I don't think he was the most articulate or eloquent interview subject. He also broadened his activities into the Tuff Gong label and studio so other artists could have resources to create in Kingston, though unfortunately the full extent of his possible plans for Tuff Gong were curtailed by his early death.

If there's anything he can be faulted for in his attempts to balance being many things to different people, he wasn't always so admirable in his relationships with women. Some of his statements can be considered chauvinistic, and certainly he fathered a good number of children with several women, though he married (and never divorced) just one, Rita Marley. The women in his life who've discussed him in the media have seldom been critical of Bob Marley. But many would feel his promiscuity and sometimes cavalier attitudes toward women's roles inappropriate, though women played an important part in his music (and Marley credited them for doing so), especially when the I-Threes became his background singers from the mid-'70's onward.

Also, it's sometimes felt that his ambitions for stardom and individual recognition help bring up the original Wailers, though I'm not sure he can be faulted for this. Sometimes critics fault Chris Blackwell for pushing him at the expense of Tosh and Livingston, and Blackwell certainly did feel Bob was the most accessible singer of the three.

The regret I have about this as a listener is that had the original three stayed in the Wailers longer, and Tosh and Livingston been given more space to write songs, you would have had a concentration of complementary singers and songwriters that's rare in one group, somewhat akin to the Beatles. Maybe double LP's could have accommodated more of all three of their compositions and led to some extraordinary albums that were the work of a full group, not just Marley, or Marley and a backing group, as his albums pretty much were from the mid-'70s onward. But like the Beatles' split at the end of the '60's, I think the Wailers' split was pretty much inevitable, and a continuation of their working collaboration not in the cards.

PSF: As a follow-up to that, how do you think he's generally perceived today?

RU: Marley was very popular on a global level for the last half dozen or so years of his life, and even then often treated as a spokesperson of sorts for the underprivileged in popular music, especially in Jamaica and Africa. Yet he's far more popular now, about 35 years after his death. In large part that's due to the extraordinary success of his Legend compilation, one of the most popular albums ever by anyone, having sold more than 25 million copies (which of course doesn't count many pirated ones likely in circulation). I can't fully explain why this greatest hits compilation of sorts in particular gave him a far bigger posthumous seller than anything in his lifetime, but it's certainly phenomenally commercial.

But also, he's often perceived as a symbol for peace and justice, in a way that goes beyond pop star adulation into a kind of mythology. While I was writing this book last year, I occasionally came across very young people in their twenties or younger--waiting at the bus stop, going to school, or doing everyday things people of that age do-- with Marley T-shirts, or Marley handbags (and the Marley estate, it must be said, has been very canny about merchandising his image). They probably know his music, whether well or casually. But also it's a statement that they're aware, on some level, of his social significance.

And more than almost any other artist--maybe the Beatles are comparable in this respect--Marley's popular around the globe in a way that transcends language and nationalities. I was in Sicily for a few weeks this summer, and I probably heard Marley's "Redemption Song" being played by buskers there three times. Some guy balanced a glass on his head for tips with Marley songs blasting on his boombox while we were eating in a plaza in Palermo. His music and image are omnipresent, and not just in people's record collections and on the radio.

PSF: What do you think Marley might have done if he had lived longer?

RU: This is pretty hard to say, as his whole life was an unlikely rise from Jamaican poverty to worldwide stardom. The least popular answer, but one that's certainly a possibility, is that he would have ground out more or less similar albums that stuck to something of a formula, in the manner of many classic rockers who did their groundbreaking work early in their career and then coasted for decades. Here, however, are three possible, more exciting directions he might have explored:

Musically, "Redemption Song," from his 1980 Uprising album, is unlike his previous major compositions. It's almost a folk song, with an acoustic arrangement and lyrics that are at once very personal but universal in their scope. Maybe he would have gone deeper into this somewhat singer-songwriter, less explicitly reggae-related style on future songs and releases. I think he almost certainly would have toured Africa more extensively, bringing his music both to a continent where he was already becoming very popular, and to an audience that had rarely heard black international superstars of his stature. That might have gone in hand with more social activism targeted toward empowering African people, and Third World residents in general.

As I mentioned in a previous answer, he also had plans for expanding the Tuff Gong operation so that it was sort of a hothouse combining a studio, a label, and a stellar roster of artists, producers, and session musicians. In that manner, it could have been the Motown of Kingston/Jamaica, though probably one that allowed for much more artistic freedom than the stars at Motown were usually granted. That could have been hard to pull off considering how much business acumen would have been necessary and how difficult it might have been to balance his own career with label/studio operations. But it could have been an exciting development both for his career and for the whole of Jamaican music.

Also see...

This article about Bob Marley's legacy

And this article about his song "Trenchtown Rock"

Marley's song "Rat Race" in detail

A closer look at the Wailers' album Burnin'

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER