BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS-CATCH A FIRE.
BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS-CATCH A FIRE.
If you ask most people to name just one reggae singer, most people will say Bob Marley. Back in the 1970s’, he was hugely influential in increasing the popularity of reggae music. It was the release of Exodus, an album I’ve previously written about, that gave Bob Marley his first hit outside Jamaica. Exodus was hugely significant in raising his profile, and in increasing the popularity of reggae music. Before that, although reggae music was something enjoyed by some people, it hadn’t crossover and gained mainstream appeal. Thankfully, Bob Marley was instrumental in raising reggae music’s profile. However, Bob Marley was more than a musician, he was a political activist, someone who spoke up for the Jamaican people, someone who was a force for good and peace. Bob Marley was also a deeply religious man, a devout Rastafarian, someone who religion played an important in his life. Tragically, his life was cut short, dying age thirty-six of cancer. In this article, I’ll look back at his 1973 album Catch A Fire, one of his ever albums, one that was critically acclaimed on its release.
Catch A Fire was Bob Marley and The Wailers debut album for a major record label. This was his first album for his new record label Island Records, owned by Chris Blackwell. Bob Marley and Chris Blackwell had first met in London in 1972, when Bob Marley and The Wailers were stranded in London. They’d entered in a deal with CBS Records, and gone on tour with Johnny Nash, the American soul singer. However, things went badly wrong, and Bob, stranded in London, thought he’d approach Chris Blackwell about recording a new single. Instead, Blackwell said he wanted the group to record a whole album. This, at the time, was unheard of, but Blackwell was adamant. He asked Bob how much an album would cost, and he said between £3,000 and £4,000. Blackwell gave Marley £4,000 and headed back to Kingston, Jamaica to record Catch A Fire.
Now that Bob Marley and The Wailers had the funds to record a new album, they headed for Harry J’s recording studio in Kingston. It had an eight track recording studio, the type that rock bands were using then. Again, this was a first, as previously, no reggae band had used such a facility. Blackwell wanted more than a reggae album, he said he wanted “more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a reggae rhythm.” To achieve this, Bob travelled to London to oversee Blackwell’s overdubbing of the tracks. Chris Blackwell had enlisted the help of Wayne Perkins and John “Rabbit” Bundrick, two American musicians. Perkins was responsible for re-recording some of the lead and rhythm guitar parts. Bundrick meanwhile, added organ, synths, clavinet and electric piano to the UK mix of the album. Another of Blackwell’s decisions, was to lessen the heavy bass sound. Two songs were then left off the album. This “new mix” didn’t go down well back in Jamaica. However, music critics love the album. Their reception was positive, now the only people to convince were the record buying public.
On Catch A Fire’s release in April 1973 it initially sold 14,400 copies. Although this wasn’t going to make Bob Marley a star, it had increased his profile and gained a good reception from music fans. Catch A Fire was hugely instrumental in launching Bob Marley and The Wailers. After Catch A Fire, the band embarked on a period where they released several classic albums one after another. Suddenly, after many years of trying, Bob Marley and The Wailers, were household names. One thing that saddens many people, is how the original Wailers weren’t part of this success story. They’d split up in 1973, tired of struggling for success. Little did they know in 1973, that success was just a year away.
One of the attractions of Catch A Fire for critics and music fans alike, were Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’ lyrics. They were both socially aware and militant. Neither Marley, nor Tosh, were afraid of raising subjects and issues that would be deemed confrontational. Both wished for a future where people in Jamaica, and elsewhere, would be free from oppression. Their view of the world was an optimistic one, and this is apparent in their music. Although the subject matters are, in some ways, controversial, the music on Catch A Fire is outstanding. There are nine tracks, all of which, showcase the talents of Bob Marley and The Wailers. On its release, it may not have been their most successful album, but it has stood the test of time well, and the messages within it, are as relevant today, as they were in 1973.
Catch A Fire opens with Concrete Jungle, a track that begins somewhat hesitantly, with a guitar, bass, organ and drums combining. Quickly, the track opens out and brilliant rhythms emerge as Bob sings, accompanied by The Wailers. Behind him, the arrangement has an understated quality, with a bass reverberating, an organ gently playing, drums steadily keep the beat. The track gently pulsates, as instruments emerge, joining and leaving the mix. A guitar soars, but is played subtly. One constant is the buzzing bass, which is a feature of the track. Like all the tracks on Catch A Fire, the lyrics deal with important social issues. Here, the issue is the poverty and conditions faced by people in the poorer areas of Jamaica. These lyrics, the arrangement, Bob Marley’s vocal and The Wailers’ playing combine to make this a brilliant track.
Slave Driver deals with the effrontery that was slavery, one of the most abhorrent shameful things in history. Bob Marley’s lyrics deal with the subject really well. Likewise, the arrangement is just as good. Drums and organ, accompanied by backing vocals, open the track. When Bob sings, he surrounded by reverberating rhythms, that sound melodic, yet the bass sounds slightly brittle. The arrangement has a similar understated quality to Concrete Jungle, it meanders along, never threatening overpower Bob’s vocal. This suits the song, allowing the you to focus on Bob Marley’s vocal and his righteously angry lyrics. Overall, it’s a great track that deals with one of the most shameful and despicable things in history, slavery.
The militant Bob Marley can be heard on 400 Years. It’s a track that starts with a dark, heavy, sound, very different from the two previous tracks. Even Bob’s voice sounds different, it’s deeper, there also is an edge to it. Maybe it’s because he’s airing his frustration and anger. Likewise, the arrangement is fuller. Back is that brilliant buzzing bass, accompanied by drums and guitar. Backing vocals provided by The Wailers are the perfect accompaniment to Bob’s vocal. They drench his vocal beautifully, bringing a real spiritual feel to the track. All of this, contributes towards a powerful track, which demonstrates both Peter Tosh’s talents as a songwriter and Bob Marley and The Wailers talents as singers and musicians.
One of the best known songs on the album is Stop the Train I’m Leaving, another song written by Peter Tosh. It begins with drums, guitar and organ combining, with the drums almost cracking, whilst in contrast, the organ is melodic as it meanders in and out of the track. When Bob sings, his vocal sounds strong, yet relaxed. His vocal sits right at the top of the arrangement. Behind him, one of the best arrangements on the album is emerging. A chiming guitar, throbbing bass, subtle drums, a dreamy melodic organ make a potent, musical combination. When you add Bob’s powerful, charismatic voice, you’ve the recipe for one of the highlights of Catch A Fire.
On Baby We’ve Got A Date (Rock It Baby), we see another side to Bob Marley. Here we see his romantic side, on what is a much lighter, brighter track. This is apparent when the organ plays, gently and melodically. Drums play, they’re subtle, similarly, the bass is way back in the mix. Neither overpower the organ which is a constant presence, nor do they overpower Bob’s vocal. It’s very different, it’s gentler, the edge that was present on earlier tracks is gone. Instead this is Bob Marley the romantic, the lover. Quickly, Bob’s vocal is surrounded by the most beautiful arrangement on the album. It reverberates and chugs along, a magical musical combination, supplemented by some stunning female backing vocalists.
Another track that may be familiar to many people is Stir It Up. This is one of the tracks Chris Blackwell changed, bringing in Wayne Perkins to redo the lead guitar on the track. The rhythm section begin this track, a bass reverberates, the same not played constantly, whilst drums plays. They’re joined by Perkins guitar and the bass then throbs way down in the bottom of the mix. Like the previous track, Bob’s voice sounds lighter, he also sounds happier. By now, music is emerging in waves, beautifully washing over you. Although Perkins’ guitar playing is of the highest standard, and really lifts the track, it does tend to overshadow other instruments. You’re drawn to his spectacular solos, and in doing so, miss other things that are happening, and emerging during the track. Another guest artist plays on this track, Tyrone Downie plays organ here, and while his playing isn’t as spectacular, it’s just as good, and is much more suited to the track. Having said all that, Stir It Up is one of the albums highlights, but it would’ve been interesting to hear what the track sounded like before it was overdubbed by Chris Blackwell. Maybe, it would’ve been even better without the addition of the overdubbing lead guitar parts.
Kinky Reggae has a a lovely laid back feel to it when it begins. It just gently pulsates, as it emerges out of your speakers. Straight away, it’s beauty just washes over you, and envelops you. This is a glorious sounding track, straight from the opening bars of the track. It’s a combination of bass, drums and guitar that greets you when the track opens. As the track builds up, Bob sings. Again, his voice is much more relaxed, happier as he sings lyrics loaded with not so subtle innuendo. Backing vocals join in, they suddenly emerge, to accompany and compliment Bob’s vocal. What I love about this track is the laid back feel, and the beautiful rhythms and melodies that unveil themselves. That combination and Bob’s lovely vocal, make this a track to treasure.
It’s a combination of spacious sounding bass, drums and backing vocalists that open No More Trouble. Here the tempo, is slow, pedestrian even, laden with drama as the song opens out. There is spiritual sound to the backing vocalists, and eventually, when Bob sings, his vocal is equally spacious and dramatic. This track sees Bob sing about peace, and a cessation to trouble and war, which back then, was tearing his country apart. Although the track is both spacious and dramatic, it’s understated and dignified. During the track it’s punctuated by drums and percussion, which have the effect of reinforcing the issues raised in the song. No More Trouble was written by Bob Marley, and demonstrates how brilliantly he was able to get a message across with his music. I’ve always loved both the song, and the arrangement, which has an understated quality and is spacious and dramatic.
Catch A Fire ends with yet another great track Midnight Ravers. Again, this is another of Bob Marley’s protest songs. Here, he was ahead of his time, when he wrote about the problem of pollution. A drum roll opens the track, a guitar plays, as the song meanders along. Backing singers join in. Then, when Bob sings he and his backing singers combine masterfully and melodically. Gone is the happiness and joy that was previously present in Bob’s voice. Instead, he sounds almost sad, as if saddened by the destruction he’s singing about, and it’s effect on everyone. Behind him, glorious rhythms can be heard, they play brightly. This is a complete contrast to Bob’s vocal. There is almost a darkness present in both his vocal, and that of The Wailers. Midnight Ravers is a powerful song, brilliantly sung by Bob and played magnificently by The Wailers. Such a powerful song that sadly, is even more relevant today, is a fitting way, to end such a great album.
Catch A Fire was the album that announced Bob Marley and The Wailers arrival to the wider world. Before that, they were a huge success in Jamaica, but after Catch A Fire, their popularity spread far and wide. Although Catch A Fire wasn’t a huge commercial success, as later albums would be, it’s just as good as many of his later albums. Maybe albums like Natty Dread, Exodus and Kaya would be more successful, but since the release of Catch A Fire, it has been recognized as a classic album. Nine great tracks, which feature some wonderful lyrics. These lyrics are both militant and socially aware, dealing with some of the problems affecting the people of Jamaica. Many of these problems affected people worldwide, and sadly, these problems persist today. In some ways, it was brave of Bob Marley to include such songs on the album, as many people would be put of by his militancy. However, it was these subjects that made this album what it is, that made it such an important and potent album. To me, it’s one of Bob Marley’s greatest albums, and if you’ve never heard it, it’s well worth buying. Every song is of the highest standard, and features Bob Marley’s brilliant vocals and The Wailers’ wonderful playing. Two other albums by Bob Marley and The Wailers that I’d recommend are Exodus, which I’ve written about previously, and Natty Dread. Anyone wishing to buy some Bob Marley albums, these three albums are some of Bob Marley’s best. Standout Tracks: Stop the Train I’m Leaving, Baby We’ve Got A Date (Rock It Baby), Kinky Reggae and No More Trouble.
BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS-CATCH A FIRE.