Friday, August 14, 2009

The Wailers + More!

The running joke is that there are a lot of reggae fans out there but only about 10% of them have anything other than Legend. However, on the flip side, there are reggae fans out there who dismiss a lot of Bob Marley's work because he was/is internationally famous (it's not like he ever pulled an Inner Circle and went from classics like "Tenement Yard" and the Killer Dub and Heavyweight Dub albums to doing "Bad Boys" and "Sweat"), and everyone equates him as the personification of reggae music. There is a happy medium and that's what I'm going to be writing about tonight.

Bob Marley brought reggae to a wider(whiter) audience and though he wasn't the first (Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" was a number one hit in the UK, and Johnny Nash had a few reggae hits in America even if he wasn't actually Jamaican) he did it on a much more massive level with his albums on Island Records. However, there is more than Exodus and Legend so I'm going to explore the Wailer's musical realm and hopefully you'll come across a few new gems in the process. If not, maybe you'll pick up some interesting info on these classic albums.

The Wailers-African Herbsman

This is a compilation album put out by Trojan Records in 1973. The Wailer's gained commercial recognition with Catch A Fire, their Island Records debut, but they had actually released a few albums before that. One was a ska record for Coxsonne Dodd's Studio One label in 1965 called The Wailing Wailers. Their next album was called Soul Rebels, this time for Lee "Scratch" Perry's Upsetter label. Both are great and highly reccomended, but African Herbsman compiles tracks from their second album for Scratch called Soul Revolution, which came out in 1971, with a few singles from the period. Actually, all but 2 songs from the Soul Revolution album found their way onto the set. Not only is this classic Wailer's material (a lot of these songs would end up resurfacing on their Island albums) but its got that classic Upsetter production. Many people consider the Wailer's time with Lee Perry to be their best and I have a hard time disagreeing with them. Just listening to "Put It On," "Kaya," and "African Herbsman" will prove it. While I am a fan of Marley's later work, none of the re-recordings of these songs recapture the beauty of these original versions. The CD reissue also offers up 10 bonus tracks, including a Peter Tosh melodica instrumental called "Memphis" and 9 dubs and versions, including a deejay version of "Keep On Moving" done by Big Youth.

Also of note, there was a dub companion to Soul Revolution
aptly titled Soul Revolution Part II. It is considered the dub
companion to the album, however there is no echo or delay or anything
to hint at the dub albums Perry would release in the following years.
They are actually just the rhythms, with the vocals turned down,
though still audible in many cases. This album was reissued as
setter Revolution Rhythm with a bonus version of "Kaya".

The Wailers-Catch A Fire

This was the album that "started it all." It was The Wailers' Island Records debut, released in 1973 (though, like all of Marley's work for Island, it was released by his own Tuff Gong label in Jamaica). It really is a classic album from start to finish. There are remnants of Lee Perry's guidance, but the music lacks the Upsetter feel which dominated the African Herbsman and Soul Rebels material, which is neither good nor bad. The band has instead found their own sound. I'm not sure whether this was the case for their entire Island catalog, but for Catch A Fire there was a Jamaican version of the album, and a version for rest of the world. The album which was released in Jamaica was played by a band consisting of Marley on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Peter Tosh on piano, organ, guitar, and vocals, Bunny Wailer on congas, bongos, and vocals, Aston "Family Man" Barrett on bass, and Carly Barrett on drums, with Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths providing backing vocals. This version was released as disc 1 of the Catch A Fire Deluxe Edition. It also contains two songs not included in the final Island record, the beautiful "High Tide or Low Tide" and "All Day All Night." For the "English" version, Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records, enlisted the help of some session musicians to add instrumentation which he felt would appeal more to rock fans which included lead guitar played by John "Rabbit" Bundrick, synth played by Wayne Perkins, and more percussion and organ. Also Robbie Shakespeare (of Sly and Robbie fame) overdubbed a new bass part on "Concrete Jungle." While I prefer the more organic feeling Jamaican version, there is nothing wrong with the alternate version. Also, Peter Tosh wrote and sang two songs on this album: "400 Years" and "Stop That Train." While Bob Marley was the frontman, Peter and Bunny were also important parts of the group.

As a fun vinyl note, the original pressing of the LP came packaged like a Zippo. The top third was on a hinge and actually opened up like a Zippo to reveal the disc and the Zippo flame. This design had to be done by hand and became too expensive so only 20,000 were made. All subsequent pressings were pressed as the instantly recognizable photo of Marley smoking a massive spliff. Needless to say, they have become collectors items. The cheapest I've seen them go for on the internet was $40-50, but they tend to change hands for much higher amounts. I've kept an eye out for a copy for years, so far I haven't had much luck in finding a copy I could afford.

The Wailers-Burnin'

This, the Wailer's second album for Island records, was also released in 1973. This one is much more a collaborative record and also contains a fair amount of re-recorded songs from the African Herbsman material. For this album Peter Tosh wrote and sang "One Foundation" and "No Sympathy" and Bunny Wailer wrote and sang "Hallelujah Time," "Pass It On," "Reincarnated Souls," and "The Oppressed Song." That's 6 out of the 13 songs on the album not sung by Bob Marley and also Tosh sings a verse on "Get Up Stand Up," which happens to be my favorite part of the song. The 3 songs which were recycled for this album are "Put It On" (which was originally recorded for Studio One, then re-recorded for Perry, making this the third version), "Small Axe," and "Duppy Conqueror." The songs are stripped of that signature Upsetter sound, and given a whole new life. Though I prefer the original recordings simply because I am a huge Lee Perry fan, these versions are great as well. They have the roots feel that The Wailer's were perfecting at this time, rather than the crunchy, early reggae style Perry did so well.

This album was also the last album Bob, Peter, and Bunny would do together. After this album the three parted ways, and Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer went on to pursue their own solo careers. The story is that Bob Marley was becoming very ambitious at this point in their career, while Peter and Bunny wanted to spend more time in Jamaica as opposed to the constant touring the band was starting to do due to their rise to fame. After this album The Wailers became Bob Marley and the Wailers, and went on to make such critically acclaimed albums as Natty Dread in 1974, Rastaman Vibration in 1976, and Exodus in 1977. While these are the albums which are generally considered the best and most important, I don't think Marley's music ever topped the music made by the original Wailers, which goes to show how integral Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were to the group though they never became household names like Bob Marley did.

Peter Tosh- The Toughest

This is a collection released by Heartbeat Records compiling nearly all of Peter Tosh's solo recordings for Studio One and Upsetter (only two songs are missing from this set and both are covers from his Studio One years. "Lemon Tree" was released as a single, but according to the liner notes, a decent copy has yet to turn up. He also recorded Dylan's "Blowin In The Wind" but it was never released and the tape couldn't be found). The Studio One songs were recorded between 1963 and 1966, and the Upsetter songs were recorded in the late 1960's/early 1970's. The earlier tracks cover the Ska and early Rocksteady periods while showcasing a heavy R&B/early Rock 'n Roll influence, specifically on tracks like Nina Simone's "Sinner Man," the Temptations' "Don't Look Back" (which he would later re-record in 1978 on his Bush Doctor album as a duet with Mick Jagger), "When the Well Runs Dry" (which is a straight ahead R&B song with no signs of ska or rocksteady anywhere in the recording), and the straight ahead rock 'n roll of "Can't You See" which would have fit right in with anything from the 60's mod scene in England. The Upsetter portion of this set is the early reggae Lee Perry does so well, however it is much more dread minded than what the Wailer's were doing at the time. "Rightful Ruler" is a straight up nyahbinghi, which features a spoken introduction from Tosh, first spoken in Ahmaric then followed by the English translation. It is also an important record, because it was U-Roy's first appearance on wax. Many of these songs would be re-recorded: "Don't Look Back" was re-recorded for Bush Doctor, "When the Well Runs Dry" was re-recorded for Legalize It, "400 Years" was re-recorded for Catch A Fire, "No Sympathy" was re-recorded for Burnin' and Legalize It, "Brand New Secondhand" was re-recorded for Legalize It, and "Downpresser" which is a re-recording of "Sinner Man" was re-recorded for Equal Rights.

note: There is also a Peter Tosh best of called The Toughest which just compiles 10-12 songs from his albums. The CD reviewed above is worth getting, the other best of is not .

Peter Tosh-Bush Doctor

Peter Tosh released his debut album Legalize It in 1976. That album is fairly well known, and the song has become a standard for every weed smoking teenager. He followed that up with the equally classic Equal Rights in 1977. However, it was in 1978 that he released Bush Doctor, his third album in 3 years and the one I find most interesting. When discussing Peter Tosh's post Wailers career, everyone brings up Legalize It, and if it goes any farther than that, Equal Rights will be mentioned, but I hardly ever hear any mention of Bush Doctor. It was Tosh's first album after being signed by the Rolling Stones to their label. In fact, the album opens with a cover of the Temptations' "(You Gotta Walk) Don't Look Back" with Tosh singing it as a duet with Mick Jagger. The album is a mix of fun reggae songs ("Don't Look Back", "I'm The Toughest", "Soon Come") and spiritual roots ("Moses The Prophet", "Stand Firm", "Creation"). Of course, there is also a song which calls for the legalization of marijuana, "Bush Doctor." Two of my favorite Tosh songs are also found on this album: "Soon Come" and "Dem Ha Fe Get A Beatin." "Soon Come" is just a perfectly crafted song, it's catchy, it has great distorted lead guitar which mixes well with the synth and horns, and a female chorus for backgound vocals. "Dem Ha Fe Get A Beatin" is a beautifully infectious song. It's got a groove you just can't deny which mixes with a heavenly female chorus singing oooh's and aaah's on top of funky clavinet and horns.

Bunny Wailer- Blackheart Man

Like Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer released his solo debut in 1976. Blackheart Man is a landmark roots album from the opening of track one with Tommy McCook's beautiful flute playing on "Blackheart Man" to the very end of the 8 1/2 minute long "This Train." This is one of the most beautiful roots reggae album ever recorded because of the beautiful songwriting and also Bunny Wailer's beautiful voice, which was one of the best parts of the vocals on the early Wailer's recordings. Wailer re-records 2 of his Wailer's songs for this album with amazing results. "The Oppressed Song" has an added beauty in it's slightly slower tempo, and the addition of the horn section playing the melody between verses instead of the synth found on the Burnin version makes it sound more organic this time around. "Reincarnated Souls" is funkier on this album than it was in its original version. The rhythm is turned around and it's got a funky groove. Bunny's vocals are much more soulful due to his change in phrasing, and once again the addition of horns, especially Tommy McCook's jazzy improvisations during the verses give it a fresh new life. Also of note is Bunny's choice of musicians. He borrowed heavily from past Wailer's musicians, including The Barrett brothers (who played with them during the Upsetter and Island years), Tyron Downie (who played organ on the Island albums), and Tommy McCook and Dirty Harry (who played horns on the Upsetter recordings). Also featured on the album is Peter Tosh playing guitar on almost every track, and lending his vocals to a few, and Bob Marley lending his vocals to "Dreamland." I can't reccomend this album enough.