If you listen to reggae a lot, it’s easy to underrate Bob Marley. Partly, the songs of his that get radio play are the more cheesy moments of his later career: the rather sacharine recut of ‘One Love’, comes to mind. But it’s also the strange paradox that, while Marley remains the international face of reggae, in many ways he’s not actually that representative of it. Think of the three most distinctive elements of Jamaican music in the seventies: versioning (in which different artists would build their own songs over the same rhythm track), DJing (famously, American hip-hop evolved from Jamaican emigrants doing to funk what they’d been doing to reggae ever since the sixties) and dub (where producers stripped a track down to its basic elements and then rebuilt it, essentially using the mixing desk as an instrument). Marley never did versions; never worked with DJs; never seemed interested in dub. He was a songwriter working with his own band in an industry based around particular studios and particular producers, a quite different musical model.
But yesterday I was listening to Songs of Freedom, the four disc Marley compilation (a million times better than the unrepresentative selection on Legend) and was struck, yet again, by what an extraordinary songwriter he was. Below, then, is a selection of tracks that I think show the range of his talent. If you think of Bob Marley as a slightly twee figure singing happy-clappy ganja songs, hopefully this will make you reconsider.
This is from 1964, the pre-reggae era, and the song’s pure kka (with the Skatalites providing the backing). The visuals provided by Youtube are completely inaccurate, for this is what the Wailers looked like at the time. Still, if they were, at that stage, trying to market themselves almost as a US-style lounge trio, you can already hear some of Bob’s later lyrical preoccupations. It’s a song about crime in the ghetto and an appeal to young men to keep things cool.
This is actually a cover of a song by Richie Halens (of ‘La Bamba’ fame), though Bob makes it both lyrically and musically his own. The Halens original ‘Indian Ropeman’ is a hippy-trippy lyric about … well, I’m not actually sure what it’s about. Marley turns it into a Rasta anthem.
‘Stir it Up’
‘Stir it Up’ was written when Bob was freelancing as a songwriter and was a hit for the American singer Johnny Nash
Bob as a folk singer, with a medley of songs (including ‘Stir it Up’). This is the second half of a longer recording, contained in full on the Songs of Freedom set. One of Marley’s strengths as a lyricist is the way he weaves folk sayings and scriptural passages into songs about everyday life, and that really comes to the fore here.
A duppy is a ghost. Bob’s now in full rebel mode. ‘Bars could not contain me,’ he sings. ‘I’m on the street again.’
‘Burnin’ and Lootin’
‘This morning I woke up in a curfew/oh god, I was a prisoner too/could not recognise the faces standing over/ all dressed in uniforms of brutality.’
‘Them Belly Full’
At last, some visuals. This is from the first live album in the mid-seventies. Lyrically, it’s pretty self-explanatory: ‘Them belly full but we hungry’.
‘No Woman No Cry’
From the same live set. We’re living in a tenement yard and cooking cornmeal porridge but don’t cry because everything will be all right somehow.Just a beautiful song.
You’ve probably heard this one a few times but it’s still nice. This is a live version, from (I think) the Babylon by Bus set.
Probably his most articulate presentation of his Rasta faith. ‘Open your eyes and look within/ Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?/ We know where we’re going/ We know where we’re from/ We’re leaving Babylon/ and moving to our Father’s land.’ I hadn’t heard this particular version before — it’s from a 1979 concert.
‘Time Will Tell’
The twelve-string guitar makes this one really distinctive.
The accoustic version of this was posthumously released on the ‘Legend’ set. Here’s the full band version: less poignant but more triumphant. ‘How long shall they kill our prophets/ while we stand aside and look?’
Eek. This has just scratched the surface but I have to go to work now. Hopefully, it’s given some idea of the depth of Marley’s catalogue.