Dog eat dog; that was the reality of life in the ghetto and in Kingston's music and recording scene. Producers ruled the roost, paying musicians and singers a nominal one-time fee for recording and reaping the subsequent profits. Nevertheless, in 1966, the Wailers took on the system, leaving Sir Coxsone's stable (a move tantamount to professional suicide) to start their own record label, Wail 'M' Soul 'M', and produce the sessions themselves.
"Yes, people rob me and try fe trick me, but now I have experience," Marley said, adding later, "I know, and I see, and I don't get tricked. Everybody that deals with West Indian music . . . thieves!"
If you're listening chronologically to Island's exemplary four-CD set Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom, the move into self-production comes as a dramatic departure. For the first time, the singers and musicians seem to be breathing the same air, producing a superbly organic group sound. The Wailers' 1967-68 rock-steady sides for Wail 'M' Soul 'M' are the trio's first unalloyed masterpieces: "Mellow Mood," "Bend Down Low," "Thank You Lord" and the rest still move, instruct and delight.
After Marley took time off to write songs for the American pop-soul singer Johnny Nash (who recorded "Stir It Up" and "Guava Jelly"), the Wailers met Lee Perry, a former sound-system DJ for Sir Coxsone who was beginning to bring a new sense of space and mystery to Jamaican music. Among the session players who worked for Perry were the two Barrett brothers, drummer Carlton ("Carly") and bassist Aston ("Family Man"). As rock steady mutated into the even trickier, more fluid grooves of reggae, the Barrett brothers staked their claim as the music's definitive rhythm section.
With the hypercreative Perry, a k a Dread at the Control, behind the mixing desk, the wailing Wailers and the Barrett brothers made an imaginative leap into a new and entirely unanticipated sonic landscape. Marley was now a songwriter in a class by himself, and the Wailers-Barretts-Perry team was able to create and sustain a powerfully specific mood and presence for each of his gems. Many hardcore reggae fans consider these recordings, collected on such albums as Soul Rebels and African Herbsman, the high point of Marley's entire career. That's debatable; the music's blinding brilliance is not.
Dog eat dog. Almost 10 years in the forefront of one of the most hectic, intensely creative music scenes on the planet, and what did the Wailers have to show for it? They were still living in Trenchtown, below the poverty line. They never heard their records played on Jamaican radio. "It's because the music shows the real situation in Jamaica," Marley said. "Some people don't like to hear the real truth." And outside Jamaica and the West Indian communities in the U.K., they were utterly unknown, as was reggae itself.
Through Marley's Johnny Nash connection, the Wailers, Barretts in tow, went to England, hoping to tour and stir up some interest on the part of a major record label. They managed to secure a bit of session work, record some demos and play a handful of dates in clubs and schools. They awoke one morning – cold and hungry – to find that their erstwhile management had left the country, stranding them cold and penniless.
Enter Chris Blackwell, a white Jamaican who had done well leasing hits from Kingston for the U.K. on his Island Records label and who was currently scoring major pop successes with the likes of Traffic and Cat Stevens. He still thought reggae could win an audience in the wider world, and to that end he gave the Wailers the budget to record an album. This in itself was an innovative move. Any other label honcho would surely have seen the group's outspoken stand against oppression and exploitation and its embrace of a Rastafarian belief system as potential impediments to commercial success at best. Blackwell encouraged the Wailers to be themselves.
The Wailers' first two Island albums, Catch a Fire and Burnin' (both from 1973), represent another new beginning for Marley. Both albums freely raided his enormous back catalog of songs, and while some of the versions issued earlier may be the definitive ones, as albums, Catch a Fire and Burnin' are themselves definitive Marley records. They are the powerful, unified masterworks of an artist at the height of his powers.
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