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Bob Marley et al: Jamaica

As promised, I continue the celebration of Bob Marley’s birthday by sharing an informative article written by Mitchell Cohen and published in the Phonograph Record in October 1975.  In the article, Cohen explores the emergence of reggae as a new musical force, and profiles its two torch-bearers at the time: Bob Marley and Toots Hibbert.  It includes a brief interview with Marley at his home on 56 Hope Road.

Bob Marley, London, 1975

© Kate Simon

Bob Marley et al: Jamaica
Mitchell Cohen, Phonograph Record, October 1975

FIRST DAY, RAIN. Thick clouds and then more rain. It is, I’m told, the wetter of Jamaica’s two wet seasons.

In the cab from the airport to the hotel, the radio plays Eddie Fisher and the Hollies and two very BBC voices, one male, one female, discussing the condition of Lima’s economy. The coffee shop is piping in Petula Clark, and one begins to wonder where the Jamaican music is. This area of New Kingston, except for its duty-free shops and native foliage, could pass for any predominantly black modern city in North America. I sit by the pool, sip Red Stripe and await the call that will set up my meeting with Bob Marley. This morning’s Daily Gleaner calls him “The undisputed king of Jamaican reggae.” I have never talked with royalty before. The talk, it transpires, will not be held until the very last hours before my departure. There is time to reflect.

Within a few months Kingston will be, if it is not already, a major music capital of the world. Record companies from the states will be knocking each other down to sign local talent (CBS Records has, it is said, purchased the island’s Federal label), American and British artists will head down in even greater numbers to see if some of the musical spirit can rub off on foreigners, we’ll be hearing choppy, infectious music on our radios. Some of us have been predicting the emergence of reggae as a primary musical force since the turn of the decade, and now it finally looks like the timing is right, and all the pieces have at last fallen into place. With the first American LP release and tour by Toots and the Maytals imminent, the Wailers working on a follow-up to Natty Dread, and a great deal of creative energy pouring out of Jamaica, it could be that reggae is passing through the barrier of “minority music,” beloved by a handful of well-placed rock critics, the Cambridge college community and isolated cult pockets in Cleveland and San Francisco.

Odd as it may seem, until the early 1960’s there was no real, indigenous Jamaican pop music that could be identified as such. Harry Belafonte was singing songs like ‘Jamaica Farewell’ (“I’m upside down, my head is turning around/I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town”) in the 50’s when some of the industry was predicting the death of rock, but that brand of calypso music was Trinidadian in origin. It wasn’t before some years later that Ska (defined by Melody Maker as an acronym for Stay and Katch it Again), a hybrid of Latin American rhythms and North American soul influences, became a style to be reckoned with, performed by artists whose names meant less than nothing to American audiences: Owen Gray, Laurel Aitken, Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond. One transitional record between Ska and the Rock Steady (or Blue Beat) that followed it, did become a sizeable hit in the U.S.: Millie Small‘s ‘My Boy Lollipop’. A slower, less strenuous rhythmic pulsation marked the bluebeat sound, which eventually evolved into reggae.

Max Romeo, who has had hit records in England with such salacious reggae singles as ‘Wet Dream’ and ‘Mini Skirt Vision’ described the form in these terms: “the bass plays rock steady, the guitar plays ska, the organ plays calypso.” Fine and dandy, as Toots Hibbert might say, but that simplistic formula doesn’t come close to explaining why this new combination became so successful in Great Britain, with artists like Desmond Dekker, Romeo, the Tennors, the Pioneers (‘Long Shot (Kick the Bucket)’) and Lee Perry and the Upsetters (‘Return of Django’) gathering a rather large audience. It was the make-up of this audience – primarily a group of violence-prone rowdies called skinheads – that gave reggae a stigma to the more sophisticated music aficionados who considered much of it simplistic, mechanical rubbish.

In the states, such a cultural dispute never had the chance to erupt. Over the past ten years there have been a number of popular songs that can be described as reggae, but almost without exception, from Prince Buster’s ‘Ten Commandments’ through ‘The Israelites’, ‘In the Summertime’, ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People’ and ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, they have been fluke hits, novelty records with a bright, airy, optimistic lilt that is uncharacteristic of most mainstream reggae. Even Eric Clapton’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ blunts the point of Bob Marley’s declaration. All along there were isolated signs that reggae might be accepted on its own terms, through developments like the Island This is Reggae Music sampler (volume two is just out), Capers and Carson’s minor hit with ‘Guava Jelly’ in ’72, Johnny Nash’s ‘Stir It Up’, the signing of Mighty Sparrow to Warners (one LP came from that deal), and a visible boom in such locations as Brooklyn’s Jamaican community, which produced its own reggae band, the Wild Bunch.

It was The Harder The Come, a film by Jamaican Perry Henzell, that really stirred things up. A landmark event in many respects: a birth of a country’s movie identity, a strong political/cultural study, and a “cult” film that is actually a superior movie, Harder put the myths and music of Jamaican life up on the screen, earning a place alongside Blackboard Jungle and A Hard Day’s Night as a symbolic recognition of something powerful going on in music. Harder laid it all out, and subsequently focused on Jimmy Cliff, its star, as the reggae performer most likely to reach a wider audience, a move that backfired. His records for Warner Brothers and Island have made it clear that he lost his direction, leaving the soundtrack LP and Wonderful World, Beautiful People as testaments to what might have been.

Which brings us, at long last, to why we are in Jamaica. When Cliff in effect abdicated his leadership in the field (Nash, a non-native, could never be anything but a translator), it was left for two bands and their respective leaders to step in and become the standard-bearers for reggae: Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Toots Hibbert and the Maytals, each entirely worthy of wearing the crown. The Maytals have been hampered by a lack of exposure outside of their country (their recent signing to Island, home of Marley, should alter that), so Marley’s Wailers are, for now, the center of attention. Coming off of a very successful American tour (especially in terms of press coverage), with a new album being prepared for November (re-issue of Catch a Fire) while Natty Dread is still hanging on the charts, and a nationwide television debut on The Manhattan Transfer’s Summer Show, Marley is on the verge of something big.

Marley’s house – the one he works out of, at any rate – is on Hope Road. This property has been bought partially as an investment, partially as a site for a recording studio. Rehearsals for an upcoming concert, and for the next album, the songs of which are in such rough form that Marley would prefer we don’t hear them right now, are going on there through these nights, and in coming by at intervals throughout the day for a chance to chat, one hears a harmonium part being prepared and tentative meshings of instruments. We are led from a totally darkened room into his lair, where earlier in the evening Marley was composing a lovely new ballad on acoustic guitar – that, and the Wailers running through, sans Marley, a jaunty reggae riff, is as close as we come to a peek at what the next album (untitled until its completion) will bring. Marley has been on edge all day – there was a flare-up at a record store, a problem of a mis-labeled single called to his attention by his manager and the definite feeling is that he’d rather do anything else in the world than answer questions. In the states, in hotel rooms, he is cooperative: he has no other options. Here at home base, there is freedom outside.

Inside, Marley is seated in a chair facing the interviewer. There is a single light bulb behind Marley’s head that halos his famous locks (“These come from meditation, from education.”) and nearly blurs his features into a mask – it’s like addressing an inscrutable black prince with a spliff between his teeth. Once in a while, when he’s driving home a particularly urgent point or breaking into a hearty, illuminating smile, his face emerges from its rigidity and its shadow to become an expressive instrument. He speaks in disjointed sentences (not made any clearer by a language barrier) and complicated religious parables.

Lyceum, London, 1975

© Kate Simon

He proved to be as hard to pin down in conversation as he is in physical presence or in political philosophy. He talks uneasily, and the long delays and straining circumstances of the meeting takes its toll on both interviewer and subject. What does come across, more in his melifluous voice and moments of animation than in anything he actually says, is a mercurial man, serious about his work and his life, but with flashes of enthusiasm and conspiratorial humor. Marley cannot be made to say anything negative about other musicians, insisting “if the people say yes, we say yes,” although admitting at the same time that there could be something false about outsiders attempting to do reggae (not Paul Simon, however; Marley called ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ a great record). He wouldn’t mind at all working with Clapton (who he’s only spoken to on the phone) or Dylan. When he thinks of a record that pleases him, like ‘18 With a Bullet’, he brightens considerably. Asked if he’s heard Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, with whom he’ll be playing next month, he says, “What songs they do?,” and being told ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’, he sings the first lines of the song, smiling, in what in some sense was the warmest moment of the discussion.

On matters non-musical he was less likely to be charitable. The subject of the death of Haile Selassie (the God of the Rastafarian cult to which Marley belongs) saw him launch into a sermon on Jah the Master and Astral Traveling, and cut off any further discourse by repeating over and over, “Can’t kill God. Can’t kill God.” Getting radio play is “a game; everybody take bribes, J.J.,” and when told what happened with the recent television appearance, he summed up his reaction with one word: “sabotage.”

Ah, yes, the Manhattan Transfer show, or Meanwhile, back in the states… How ironic that the Wailers should be displayed from coast to coast on a sterile summer replacement show. The Transfer coddle their audiences with slickness and a dash of condescension. Marley, thank goodness, is threatening and passionate. It was a contrast that could not be missed. If MT, who have vocal talent, want to be the ’70’s Modernaires, that’s O.K., but Marley is after something bigger.

So there he was on the tube, playing for 20 million people. Strange things had been happening. He was scheduled for the opening show of the series and postponed; almost scotched all together. The group had taped two numbers; only one was broadcast, and that song ‘Kinky Reggae’, was made acceptable by clever editing of Marley’s body language. But there, after a particularly offensive jive deejay intro by Tim Hauser, they were, tangled up in black. Marley is made to look more like band leader than volatile personality, and the whole thing is kind of bizarre; sort of loose and intense at the same time, comparable to the Stones’ debut on Hollywood Palace. Not exactly auspicious, but in context a success. The encouraging thing is that they scared a network and a show that the same night had two zoot-suited Negroes hoofing to ‘Take the A Train’. Now, what’s more likely to start a race riot?

There is that aura of violence surrounding Marley and the Wailers, and incendiary message carried by the titles of their first two American-re-leased LPs Catch A Fire and Burnin’. On the back cover of Rasta Revolution there’s a photo of Marley and two cohorts in guerilla gear, pointing their guns in all directions, and it looks like a still from a late-period Godard Maoist movie; Wind From the East, for example (Producer Lee Perry, with whom Marley is now working again, takes responsibility for the shot. Marley shrugs it off as an effect, a pose, a “sign of the times.”) In fact, I can imagine Marley writing a score that would compliment a Godard film in the way the Gato Barbieri’s erotic, bracing lyricism added a strong dimension to Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. Marley, like Godard during his best years (Masculine-Feminine through Weekend), joins image and ideology, politics and aesthetics, movement and introspection.

This being the case, it is obvious why the Wailers’ music, and all good reggae, embraces contradictory emotional effects. It is, like the blues more than any other type of music, deepseated and compelling, born of anger, of the Jamaican people’s roots in slavery (most are descendants of blacks brought from Africa), and their strong religious background. As far back as 1926, there was an article in Musical Quarterly called “Possible Survivals of African Songs in Jamaica” that discussed “repitition of single short musical phrases,” “quick and syncopated rhythms” and “keen appreciation of the comic and tragic,” all qualities that are still very much present in the best reggae. More recently, the influence of American soul music took hold in Jamaica, inspiring singers like Cliff, who cites Fats Domino as one of his heroes, Marley, who was extremely fond of Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions, and Hibbert, who learned from Ray Charles records and describes reggae as ghetto music.

In Marley’s early recordings you can hear the traces of r ‘n’ b: quotes from the Temptations’ ‘Cloud Nine’ in ‘Rebel’s Hop’, and a frivolous reworking of ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’ in ‘Soul Almighty’: “Funky, funky chicken/And the mashed potato/Do the Alligator/Let’s do it together.” These records, although thinly produced vocally and instrumentally, have an eerily distancing effect that accentuates the Wailers’ mystery and places them in a music tradition. The merger between soul and reggae will be consumated, as it were, by an outdoor concert being held in Jamaica on October 4. There Marley, who claims he’s always wanted to meet Stevie Wonder, will get his chance when Motown’s billion dollar baby tops a bill that also features the Wailers,

Philadelphia’s Blue Notes and Jamaica’s Third World Band, a young, funky reggae group recently signed in the States by Island.

The contradictions mentioned earlier arise between the philosophy of the Jamaican artists I spoke to, and the social reality of Jamaica. Marley, Hibbert and Henzell all spoke convincingly of the power of love in the Jamaican spirit, and of the way that love is transformed into not only a spiritual, but a political force, a “positive vibration” as Marley calls it. Toots sees himself as a musical prophet delivering the word of God to his listeners (and views most rock and reggae as far too concerned with matters material and physical), and Henzell’s trilogy of Jamaican films (the second is being delayed for lack of completion money) deals with “fantasy, love and power.” He too feels that his art is less a question of asserting an artistic personality than one of finding and showing the truth about Jamaican society. This society built on love, however, has a notoriously short fuse, is in the throes of repression,. and is so precarious that The Harder They Come has now been banned in its home country for fear that it might inspire acts of violence.

Reggae is about that tension between the righteous and the sinful, between the outlaw and society (Marley tells of seeing outlaw films from Roy Rogers and Gene Autry through Clint Eastwood and Trinity), and right now there are no better exponents than the Wailers. Live, they are quite astounding (see Performances, July PRM). There have been reports of a tendency to ramble on, to get sloppy, but at his best, Marley is a magnetic performer, alternately playful and determined, with a sharp sense of timing and dynamics. One thing he is not is pacifying. None of the great rock artists ever were. And like the great rock artists, his power is contagious. Nattty Dread has had an incalculable effect on contemporary reggae. The title phrase is by now a staple, even a cliche, of the music’s vocabulary. Older reggae artists are adopting the outer trapping of the Rastafari and singing songs that are musically and thematically related to the Marley LP. No other album has sold as many copies in Jamaica, and it is still a consistent seller many months after its release. Certainly by any standards Natty Dread is an extremely important recording; the reggae Rubber Soul, perhaps. And in the wake of that achievement, Bob Marley stands at the top of the mountain. There’s only one reggae singer who can touch him.

If Marley is the sullen sorcerer of hellfire, the apocalyptic soul rebel, then Toots Hibbert is the ebullient preacher man, a deliverer of joy. Together these two Rastas, who consider each other brethren, are so dissimilar as to create almost a reggae dialectic, a dark and light side of the Jamaican musical experience. It is partially due to this contrast, and the distinct personality each gives to his group, that the Wailers and the Maytals are the two essential reggae bands. One hopes that America is ready to accept both, for each alone communicates only a portion of what is possible within the form. Toots has been at it longer, coming to Kingston in his early teen years to break into the music business. By 1964, at the height of Ska, Toots and his pair of singing partners had racked up an unprecedented six number one hits, four of which are included on the excellent The Sensational Maytals album, probably the best introduction to the soul roots of the reggae (‘Daddy’, especially, smacks of ’50’s’ N.Y. doo-wop transposed to Kingston.

Now, after a number of false starts, Toots is ready to take on international success. His new road band consists of Jimmy Cliff’s ex-session men, considered the finest in the business, and they’re getting ready for a tour up their recent visit to San Francisco. One of their first chores will be to open for the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne in Anaheim. How Toots’ gospel-like fervor will reach an Asylum crowd is open to question, but he says he’s ready to turn the people on, and unlike Marley, so far, he expects to bring the black r ‘n’ b audience to his music as well. A first U.S. LP on Island is out now: Funky Kingston, collection of tracks from the Jamaican album that bears the same title and cover, In the Dark, and new songs recorded for this debut. With ‘Pressure Drop’, the title track, a surprising rendition of John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ and other highlights from Toot’ recent career, this is a perfect introduction to the Maytals’ music.

Lyceum, London, 1975

Dread and trepidation in Kingston. Men selling dope and gold bracelets in parking lots. In the middle of the city, where the real people live, reggae booms from storefronts all along the streets, becoming part of the congested, furious atmosphere. The record shops themselves are tightly-packed sweatboxes with high volume reggae coming over the speakers. The man behind the counter controls two turntables, flipping on singles for our audial inspection, playing no more than forty seconds of any given song. What results is a mad collage of similar-sounding but varied records. Under certain circumstances, this might be an efficient method of torture. On a one-hour tour of a few shops, however, guided by an agreeable black Jamaican who consented to take two cowardly white Americans around (it was a little bit frightening), it feels like being trapped in an impatient Jamaican jukebox so anxious to get on to the next song that it lurches onward before the previous song has hardly begun.

The song being heard most often in the stores and streets, although not on the radio, is by ex-Wailer Peter Tosh, ‘Legalize It’ (another new Tosh record, ‘Spook’, is also causing a controversy and it hasn’t even hit the stores yet; it’s already been banned from the airwaves). You probably could surmise that ‘Legalize It’ is an explicit demand for the right to smoke ganja freely and openly, and it’s a terrific record – tough and strident, with a properly stormy vocal and stoned lyrics (“judges smoke it, even the lawyers, too”).

As might be expected, it’s the Marley axis that’s causing a great deal of excitement, through musicians like Tosh and another former Wailer, Bunny Livingston. Toots, who believes that the role of woman is to heed the word of God as it is passed through her husband, is counteracted by a woman reggae contingent consisting of the I Threes as the Wailers’ back-up singers, as a group, and as solo artists, Judy Mowatt most significantly. Her latest single, ‘Only a Woman’, is good, if largely instrumental, but her album Mellow Mood on Tuff Gong is a sheer vocal delight. Mowatt has a clear, flexible voice that handles with sensitivity such songs as Marley’s ‘Pour Sugar on Me’, Cat Stevens’ ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’, and an original ‘Rasta Woman Chant’ as a counterpart of Marley’s. The instrumental backing is superb, and if some U.S. company doesn’t pick it up we’re all missing something. Judy Mowatt is indeed the queen of reggae.

“Reggae shows all the signs of being the surf music of the seventies.” – Idris Walters

And Idris should know, being the most perceptive, cogent and entertaining regular writer on reggae (in England’s Let It Rock). What I think that means is that reggae has the potential to musically sum up a way of life, create cultural archetypes and be a lot

of fun. Certainly a reggae rush would be welcome at this time. Never in the history of pop, I would venture to say, has so much radio music been cut from the same design, as the easily duplicated sound with its predictable layers and momentum, dominates the air. One dancing song being stretched into infinity. Anyone could have an authentic-sounding disco hit – it’s a producers medium. Reggae is an artist’s music. There are similarities to disco music: it needs the length of an album side, the pacing of a live performance, to get under the skin of the listener past the point where only the repetition is noticed, and towards the point where the distinct role of each element is appreciated in relation to the cumulative effect. Reggae, however, does not dull the brain as it moves the feet. It is, as Toots says, a combination of the spontaneous and the arranged in a delicate balance – it walks a narrow line, building on its own patterns to a rockinetic intensity, as anyone who’s heard ‘Pressure Drop’ can verify. Get up, stand up. Lively up yourself. Reggae is another bag, and you’d be wise to get in it.

© Mitchell Cohen, 1975

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Comments

  1. marco says:

    superbe article, although the crazy reckless link between Bob and Godard! 🙂

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