Bob Marley: where to start in his back catalogue

In Listener’s digest, our writers help you explore the work of great musicians. Next up: the world’s most famous reggae star who people are turning to for solace in lockdown

The album to start with

Exodus (1977)
Picking a top Bob Marley and the Wailers LP is tough. The revelatory arc his albums form over the two-plus decades before his death aged 36 in 1981 is a progression, a string of black diamonds in which Marley found new ways to tell hard truths. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Marley’s music has been downloaded 27 times more than usual, a remarkable leap confirming that he and the Wailers provide healing sustenance in times of trouble.

Within the Wailers’ canon, Exodus holds a central place. There is a reason why it was voted album of the century by Time, why One Love was voted song of the millennium by the World Health Organization, and why it chimes with so many of our feelings right now. Exodus was the product of trauma, dislocation and exile, all crucially crowned by hope – it was a response to the politically motivated attempt on his life in 1976 at his Kingston home. Marley, with the Wailers and Chris Blackwell, executive producer and Island Records founder – distilled an immaculate album. Exodus, Jamming, Three Little Birds, and Curtis Mayfield collaboration One Love: these and others are dear to millions, partly because of their inclusion on the 1984 Legend compilation, still the top-selling reggae record ever.

A key to its appeal is the tracklisting sequenced by Blackwell, who also came up with the idea of the seductive, beckoning slow rise of the opening track, Natural Mystic. This sequencing of an enormous number of songs (the Kaya album also came from those sessions) gave the record a messianic structure, with Marley leading the listener from the cosmic Natural Mystic through the wilderness of betrayal on side one that closes in the anthemic title track. He later reaches the sunny mountaintop of side two, with One Love the flag waving at its crest. This transition was clear, as if the turning of the record signified a new start.

Gently tinted with disco drum machines and funk – to drummer Carlton Barrett’s horror – Marley’s own journey turned both inward and outward to weave Exodus. In this unprecedented time, listen to it for uplift, but also listen to The Heathen and Guiltiness to know you are not alone in your ominous suspicions.

The three albums to hear next

African Herbsman (1973)

Exodus was outsold by Culture’s rootsier Two Sevens Clash at the Rough Trade shop off Portobello Road, right near the old Basing Street studios where it was recorded. Ever since the implosion of the original Wailers trinity of Bob, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer after the release of Burnin’, their second international release on Island Records, some purists have dissed the international Marley’s supposedly watered-down flavour.

Not that I agree, but I can hear what they are getting at on African Herbsman, a collection of singles released by Trojan Records. Sonorous, sensual and prayerful, these songs proved to be seeds for several later albums. Marley once explained to me that he could see more creative possibility in these little-heard babies – and he wanted to finally be paid royalties on dearly loved early compositions. All through his work, he would revisit these songs produced mostly by the elfin dubmaster Lee Perry, plus a couple by the band themselves sung with his bred’ren. As Marley fondly said to me of those early trio days: “We used to have some nice times singing together.”

Catch a Fire (1973)

Dressed up in a costly flip-top Zippo lighter sleeve, this first international Wailers release was part of Blackwell’s campaign to stop his island’s reggae music from being filed under novelty records. He scored big when the three “dutty Rastas” who walked like lions duly delivered this knockout fiery and majestic recording. It would make these local heroes the darlings of musical cognoscenti everywhere that dug rock, but craved the Wailers’ injection of personality, offbeat rhythm and pan-African authenticity.

It was the Wailers’ first chance to stretch out, and this is chocka with classics, plus a clarity of vision and concept then unknown in reggae albums. The truth behind Marley’s image – the tender but tough revolutionary – is gorgeously present on tracks such as Slave Driver, Stir It Up and the nightlife commentaries Midnight Ravers and Kinky Reggae. The album was subtly sweetened during the mix by Wayne Perkins, an American musician recording at the same time; the bendy guitar filigrees that alienated purists were truly emotional and cemented the band’s mass appeal.

Uprising (1980)

With an estate among the most lucrative of any late musician, Marley famously died intestate, leading to decades of lawsuits. So let this monumental album, the final to be recorded and released in his lifetime, stand as his last will and testament. There is a very specific seriousness and commitment to Uprising, recorded when Marley was aware that he was gravely ill. The disco-tinged Could You Be Loved sounds as if it might be one of his tender love ballads, but is actually urging the listener to take their own moral reckoning; on Real Situation, he even manages to swing the line, “It seems like total destruction’s the only solution.” With its heartbreakingly limpid melody, Forever Loving Jah may be the most exquisite of Marley’s odes to his deity, Haile Selassie; even those cynical about Solomon and Sheba’s regal descendant must still be moved by that melody.

As ever, Marley takes care to leaven his apocalyptic perspective with optimism. A personal favourite, Bad Card, brazenly opens, “You a go tired fe see me face / can’t get me out of the race”, summing up one of his greatest gifts and lessons to us: tenacity. Deliberately, he follows We and Dem (“We no have no friends in a high society”) with Work (“We Jah people will work it out”), drawing a line between Babylonians – narcissistic, ruthless controllers of society and the system – and those of positive intent. The album closes on the tune (acoustic, at Blackwell’s suggestion) that would cement Marley’s legend: the deep hymn of Redemption Song.

One for the heads

Selassie Is the Chapel (The Complete Bob Marley and the Wailers 1967-72: Vol 2)

Compiled by reggae historians Roger Steffens and Bruno Blum from the Wailers’ early, ill-fated period with on-again off-again manager Danny Sims and singer Johnny Nash, the complete series finally allowed fans to hear Selassie Is the Chapel. Riffing on Elvis Presley’s 1965 song Crying in the Chapel, the track was written and produced by the late Rasta sage Mortimo Planno, who had managed the trio before Sims. Selassie Is the Chapel is a crossroads where streams of roots and popular music uniquely converge: the trio’s doo-wop-honed harmonies, the gospel-pop blend implicit in Elvis and Christian liturgy meld here, all grounded by serious Rasta drums. Only 26 singles were pressed and it became a collectors’ fetish.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click here; for Apple Music users, click here.

Further reading and watching

ReMastered: Who Shot the Sheriff (Netflix)
This documentary has a thorough social, political and human perspective. Disclosure: I am in it, but so are many others.

Bob Marley by Stephen Davis
The compact updated biography I assign to my Marley students at New York University.

So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley by Roger Steffens
The fruit of many years’ labour and love – and with a foreword by Linton Kwesi Johnson – Steffens reveals little-heard voices of the band’s journey in these edited transcripts for a deep Marley/Wailers dive.

• The Book of Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century by Vivien Goldman, is now available as an audiobook read by the author (Blackstone/Audible).

Contributor

Vivien Goldman

The GuardianTramp

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