The deluxe edition of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1973 breakthrough, Catch a Fire, is like one of those before-and-after photos of dieters: Disc One offers the unretouched — and little-heard — original Jamaican mix, Disc Two the familiar international version produced several months later by Marley and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. This is the rare reissue project that expands what we know about a classic; the lavishly illustrated Deluxe Edition provides a glimpse into the engine room of one of the most important rhythm sections of the Seventies, and offers a new way to appreciate enduring calls to consciousness such as “Slave Driver,” “400 Years” and “No More Trouble.”
But it’s also the chronicle of a crossover dream that worked. The Blackwell version of Catch a Fire introduced reggae to hundreds of thousands of British and American ears; its production is a tale of canny studio sweetening that managed to preserve, and actually enhance, the essential character of the music. When they set out to bring the Wailers to the world, Blackwell and Marley started with a big advantage: tracks that were exceedingly crisp and open enough to accommodate additional instrumentation. Employing session musicians such as keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick and guitarist Wayne Perkins, they added squabbling, soloistic organ and electric guitars that strayed a bit from the conventional chinking offbeats (“Stir It Up” blossoms under Perkins’ spangly steel-guitar line). Then, using the sweeping filters and other effects common to rock and R&B records of the day, they created a spacious, welcoming atmosphere — a realm of interlocking rhythms and shimmering reverb, an ethereal mix unlike anything else happening in reggae.
The first disc includes two songs not on the international Catch a Fire — Marley’s gorgeously sung appeal for Jah guidance, “High Tide or Low Tide,” and “All Day All Night” — and reflects the order in which the songs were originally completed. Many listeners will no doubt still prefer the familiar mix, but the original is important not just as a point-of-origin artifact but because its stark clarity takes us straight to the heart of Marley and the Wailers — into the calming, hymnlike melodies, the impassioned voices, the sense of hope and faith that gave these songs the resonance of evangelical crusades.