One Drop – Bob Marley & The Wailers
“What’s your favourite Bob Marley song?” asked Chris.
It is a legitimate question I think. It was the early afternoon of a North London autumn day in 1997. Paulette & Beverley Randall had accompanied Jenny and myself to visit a new baby in NW6 : Jemima, first daughter of : Chris Skala and Emma who had met at Paulette’s legendary Club 61 event which convened regularly for vodka, music and slow dancing (see My Pop Life #60) and they had danced together, chatted, kissed, wooed and then <swoon> married in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park in the summer of 1993. Chris – who it should be noted is an American (guvner) – had invited me to his stag night earlier in ’93. Where it was and what we did I simply cannot recall due to the excessive intake of alcoholic beverages and marijuana.
Beverley, Paulette & Jenny 1997
But here we were in his flat where the new baby was being oohed and aahed over but where Chris was diligently aware of his DJ-ing duties.
“C’mon Ralphie. Favourite Bob Marley song?”
I flicked mentally through my Bob Marley albums. I think there were three : Exodus, Live ! (at the Lyceum in 1975: which all white people owned – it was a law) and Legend – aka The Greatest Hits, which Jenny had brought with her when she moved into Archway Road five years earlier. We may have had another one – Kaya perhaps or Catch A Fire, but there were less than five. In other words, not really enough to make an informed choice. It struck me as a moment of weakness – which isn’t really fair, but that’s how it struck me anyway – like someone asking what my favourite Beatles song is and only having twenty songs in my head, all from the Red or Blue albums. I think I said “Jamming” at the time, which was the truth – probably the best Bob Marley song. The best meaning, as always, my favourite, at the time, because THE BEST doesn’t actually exist, it can only ever mean MY FAVOURITE. But when you are young you always say THE BEST. Because it goes without saying that your favourite is the best.
To be fair, I wasn’t a huge Bob Marley fan at that point in my life, but because I was with Paulette & Bev, whose parents were Jamaican, and who clearly represented, in my mind at least, and possibly my ears, the Jamaican Music Police I couldn’t possibly say that. I just couldn’t because I sensed that my not being a huge Bob Marley fan was based on ignorance rather than on massive exposure and discerning judgement. It is a feature of my intellectual and possibly over-educated friends (AND I INCLUDE MYSELF IN THIS GENERALISATION) that we will make strange musical and cultural judgements which are not based on knowledge but on some other odd refraction of the universe which manifests itself as a kind of pyramid of taste which we then climb. Indeed, many of these cultural discernments are passed around the cognoscenti, whether educated or not, as a kind of badge of knowledge. If you state, for example, that you prefer Motown to Stax, you will lose points. If you prefer pop music to New Orleans R’n’B you will lose points. If you prefer The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss (My Pop Life #157) to Mahler’s 8th Symphony you will lose points. Lou Reed beats Gilbert O’Sullivan. Charlie Parker beats Stan Getz. And Burning Spear beats Bob Marley.
I think it is an invisible race to an invisible point. A refined narrowing of the portal of acceptance where popularity somehow disqualifies the artist from the ultimate pinnacle of art. For only the cognoscenti can see, or hear, the genius that is true art. Not all the masses who buy the song because it’s catchy – what do they know for fuck’s sake? No, the best kind of music is always a little bit secret, a little bit of an acquired taste, only for the in-crowd, the connoisseur, the adept. And really only for the young. As I have aged I have ditched this poverty disguised as philosophy and gone back to Strauss, Stan Getz and Marley, loved Motown all over again, and been proud to acknowledge that yes, I am and have always been, a pop tart. No such thing as Guilty Pleasures. Just pleasures.
Battersea Park, 1977
I have also realised that it is all right to say “I don’t know” when asked a question of any kind. When I was 30-something it was simply illegal to say I don’t know at any point, because of course all young people know everything, and to acknowledge that one of you perhaps has a gap somewhere or simply hasn’t acquired that piece of knowledge yet is tantamount to social suicide, from which there is no recovery, or at least, let’s face it, an extremely long road uphill. It’s too humiliating. And maybe this is only true of men, those of us who use a specialised area of knowledge as our castle, our control-space where most people will defer to us because they haven’t put the hours in and built the encyclopedic walls. And to have a Bob Marley-sized hole in the battlements is a weakness, as I originally experienced it. Of course you can always say “I don’t care” but a) that is a lie, and b) that is even weaker in most cases. Unless you have no desire to specialise, no desire to have any power or control over anything, in which case you are not being entirely honest with us are you?
Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer early 1970s
My usual journey into an artist is via a song – probably the big hit, then the greatest hits, then dive in deep if you really like them. If they don’t really have hits (like Spirit or Burning Spear or Little Feat) then your first listen may be in someone’s bedroom passing a joint around, maybe at a Festival somewhere passing a joint around, or maybe you were just curious and you bought an LP in a crate somewhere like a car boot sale or a vinyl junkie shop. But if the artist is popular – pop tarts beware – then all kinds of other criteria pollute your experience. Build ’em up, knock ’em down for example (Boy George, Amy Winehouse etc). People whose identity you don’t share, or don’t feel that you do, suddenly declaring a love for your favourite artist because they saw them on TV (but they’re mine!). Familiarity breeds contempt. Your favourite artist becomes so famous that they are interviewed and they say something stupid or controversial. You defend them. Or you quietly go off them. Or you read some piece of chattering-class space-fillage about the phenomenon of David Bowie‘s white soul period or The Ramones being middle-class or – yes – Bob Marley having Catch A Fire produced for the white market and his sound being tailored to break through – which it then did – and you kind of think – well, I prefer the rootsy rasta sounds of Burning Spear and Prince Far-I, Culture and Lee Perry, to the cleaned-up Americanised version of reggae that Chris Blackwell and Island Records sold to us with Catch A Fire in 1973.
But that isn’t fair, is it ? It’s blown out of all proportion. Musical snobbery indeed. Because Robert Nesta Marley had been singing and writing and playing music since 1963 with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, playing mento and bluebeat and ska, making records with Lee Perry and Leslie Kong, touring with Johnny Nash and others before evolving the sound in the late 60s – actually around 1970 – with Carlton Barrett on the drums and his brother Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett on the bass forming the bedrock of the roots reggae sound that would go around the world and back and eventually signing with Island Records. This consequently precipitated a change of line-up since Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh didn’t want to tour ‘freak clubs’ due to their rastafari faith, and didn’t like Blackwell (Chris Whiteworst was his nickname). They presumably didn’t like that Wayne Perkins, a Muscle Shoals session guitarist, was overdubbed onto Concrete Jungle by Blackwell, to sweeten the flavour for white listeners. They certainly didn’t like that the band was now known as Bob Marley & The Wailers, rather than The Wailers. And this backstory, given the success of the LP, was the sub-plot to the take-off of the world’s first genuine 3rd World Superstar. (Yes, I know, Developing World <sigh>). In other words, once an act becomes successful, editors demand more copy, the story has been told, now come on give us another fold in the narrative, find another level of knowledge that people will consume, let’s have more fodder, more writing, more product. And once something becomes hugely successful, the story becomes warped with their success, and the fans simple love of the music is tainted by all this extra information. Certainly the original cognoscenti move along to the next secret discovery, always having to be there first, and not wanting to be a small part of a large crowd. This way we miss out on much pleasure.
Aston Barrett, Peter Tosh, Carlton Barrett, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer 1970
And so there I was, catching up with Bob Marley over the next 20 years with the help and assistance and encouragement of my beautiful wife Jenny Jules, who has always been a Bob Marley fan. There have been films to help me out – documentaries such as Marley (2012) which was to have been directed by Scorsese, then Demme, eventually MacDonald. And then the novel by Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings which I bought but haven’t read yet is a fictional account of Bob Marley’s life which won the Booker prize in 2016. Meanwhile back to the LPs and the songs – it’s all about the songs, and Pimper’s Paradise stood out (from Uprising 1980),
every need got an eagle to feed
as did Satisfy My Soul (from Kaya 1978) – the brass is amazing –
every little action, there’s a reaction
and Waiting In Vain (Exodus 1977).
ooh girl ooh girl is it feasible -for I to knock some more?
and Is This Love (also from Kaya – my favourite Marley album)
we’ll share the same room…Jah provide the bread…
But wait – Marley was not the world’s first 3rd-World Superstar. He wasn’t even the first Jamaican superstar to break America. No, that honour belongs to the great Harry Belafonte with Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) and Island In The Sun one year later in 1957 (the year of my birth). Belafonte went on to become a movie star and musical giant of the 20th century, creating a huge anthology of black folk music, inviting musical refugees from apartheid South Africa Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela to the United States to make records and tour, and continued to be an advocate for civil rights while making records and movies. A giant of a man and a great musician and singer.
For Marley, Catch A Fire was a door opening. Although Neville Livingstone, aka Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh both stayed in the band for one final album Burnin’ the writing was on the wall. The album contained two giant hits Get Up Stand Up and I Shot The Sheriff, while the next LP Natty Dread in 1974 included both Lively Up Yourself and No Woman, No Cry, which was Marley’s first real international hit single. The other profound manifestation on Natty Dread was the new band line-up, with the Barretts plus four new musicians, and the introduction of the I-Threes on backing vocals – Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, and Bob’s wife Rita Marley.
Natty Dread is a fantastic LP, with a different sound to Catch A Fire and Burnin’. Next came the Live ! album from the Lyceum Ballroom in London, capturing the excitement of the band’s show, followed by Rastaman Vibration with its rock guitars and synthesizers which became the first album to enter the US charts. In contrast the Bunny Wailer LP Blackheart Man and the Peter Tosh album Legalize It, both from the same year of 1976 and offered a far more rootsy sound and rasta philosophy.
But Marley was taking the rasta sound and philosophy out to the world. The arrangements on his albums from this point on – Exodus, Kaya, Survival and Uprising – while indebted to reggae and the Jamaican rhythms are astoundingly original in what is left out of each phrase, what is played and what is not. My own favourite track is One Drop which celebrates the reggae rhythm (no drumbeat on the one beat) while chanting down Babylon in a rastafarian prayer. There is no other reggae music that sounds like Marley. He was now in 1976 bigger and more influential than any Jamaican politician, so after a thankfully botched assassination attempt when Marley and Rita were shot and wounded in an incident at his house, he decamped to England in 1977 for two years.
Bob Marley & The Wailers in London 1977
Bob lived in Chelsea mainly, played football, fathered more children and made his astoundingly successful albums Exodus & Kaya. He returned to Jamaica in late 1978 for the final two albums Survival and Uprising.
Bob Marley died in 1980 of cancer in Miami as he flew back to Jamaica from a clinic in Germany. His legacy was an astonishing run of albums. His final words, to his son Ziggy, were “Money can’t buy life”.
I have educated myself since that day in 1997 and listened to all of the Marley records going back to the 1960s and forward to Confrontation, the final posthumous LP released in 1983. He rewards constant re-visiting and I hear new stuff every time.
For the record, Paulette’s favourite song was One Drop as far as I recall, which has now become My Favourite Bob Marley Song. Bev hovered between Get Up Stand Up and War, but now claims Concrete Jungle as her favourite. Jenny’s favourite is Waiting In Vain. Chris – in my dim memory – chose Lively Up Yourself, and Emma One Love.
And then we all lived happily ever after
Happy postscript : Just after posting this on Feb 6th 2017 I was in correspondence again with Emma, now living in Willesden with Christopher and all-grown-up Jemima now at University (and writing a music blog!) Feb 6th was her second daughter Lottie’s 17th birthday, and also the birthday of Bob Marley. Coincidence ?? I think not…