A selection of Bob Marley & The Wailers tracks that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mixtapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.
Concrete Jungle Catch a Fire was the fifth Wailers studio album, but within a year of release, it became the first album credited to Bob Marley and the Wailers. Marley wrote all but two of the songs on the record, including this opening track, a haunting take on living in poverty and oppression. The Wailers’ background vocals are in full effect, and they are a tight band. Also contributing to the track is the guitar solo by Wayne Perkins, a Muscle Shoals musician working on an album for Island Records and asked by Chris Blackwell to play on the album. Perkins ended up also providing the wah-wah flavored lead guitar line on “Stir it Up.” The original album cover was shaped like its photo of a Zippo lighter, complete with a hinged ‘lid’ that pulled back to expose the record. In 1974 the album was reissued with new cover art that put a spliff-smoking Bob Marley on the cover both in image and in name.
Rebel Music (Three O’Clock Roadblock) 1974’s Natty Dread was the first album credited to Bob Marley and the Wailers rather than simply The Wailers. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer had departed and Marley’s female backup singers, the I Threes, including his wife, Rita, made their first appearance with the band. Natty Dread was a breakthrough album for Marley outside of Jamaica, a fact that was aided by the fact that Eric Clapton’s recording of “I Shot the Sheriff” (from The Wailers’ 1973 album Burnin’) became a huge hit in the U.S. and U.K. only months before the release of Natty Dread. That helped acclimate rock music fans to the new sound and flavor of reggae. Many consider Natty Dread, with such songs as “Lively Up Yourself” and “No Woman No Cry” to be Marley’s best album. This track is probably less well known to casual listeners, but it is significant in that it has a country sound, complete with harmonica, that is authentically Jamaican. Based on Bob’s encounter with a late-night vehicle check by local police, it’s a song that could help draw new listeners deep into the band’s sound and ethos.
Lively Up Yourself Island Records chief and producer Chris Blackwell had a strategy for breaking Bob Marley and the Wailers in the U.S. and U.K. rock and pop music markets. Besides for production that was more in line with what was being done in cutting edge big label studios in those countries, he had the group re-cut many excellent tracks that had already been big hits in Jamaica. This leadoff track from Natty Dread is my favorite Bob Marley song. Its strong bass riff together with tight guitar fills and Marley’s passionate vocals make it an instant dance track, studio or live. The live version, from Babylon By Bus is faster, but no less skank worthy. The group cut a demo version for Island the year before they recorded it for Natty Dread. It is still unreleased.
No Woman, No Cry-Live at London Lyceum 1975 Marley’s gig at London’s Lyceum in July 1975 was recorded after Chris Blackwell noted the audience reaction to the first night’s performance. Utilizing the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio setup, Blackwell recorded the second show and edited together this group of performances. The album features live versions of several popular Marley songs, including “I Shot the Sherrif,” “Lively Up Yourself,” “Get Up Stand Up,” and “Trenchtown Rock.” But it is this live version of the lullaby “No Woman, No Cry’ that was the record’s defining moment. Taking over seven minutes to slowly unwind, this vivid remembrance of growing up in poverty in Trenchtown, Jamaica and the comfort provided by good friends and neighbors is truly inspiring. Robert Christgau declared it the definitive version in his review at the time of the record’s release. This is the version of the song later included on the Marley compilation Legend.
Natural Mystic Exodus was recorded mostly in London following an attempt on Bob Marley’s life in December 1976. Fortunately, the bullet only grazed his chest; his wife Rita was also shot and recovered. Having fled to London, Bob recorded an album that reflected his status as a temporary exile. The album is often described as ‘mellow’ and indeed Greil Marcus found it lacking in passion in his Rolling Stone review: “There’s no sense of the dangerous, secret messages one half-heard on earlier albums; on Exodus, there are no secrets to tell.” Marcus likens “Natural Mystic,” the album’s opening track, to “Blowing in the Wind.” But the ominous song has much more in common with the Grateful Dead’s “Estimated Prophet,” which was itself heavily influenced by Marley’s version of reggae music. The song hints at a sense of unrest and of the oppressed rising up: “This could be the first trumpet/Might as well be the last/Many more will have to suffer/Many more will have to die…” In 2017 the Marley Estate reissued a 40th-anniversary edition of Exodus, known as Exodus 40. Besides the original album, the set also included a CD of live performances and a newly curated “restatement” of the album done by Marley’s son, Ziggy. The ‘restatement’ brings Bob’s voice closer to the surface and belies the idea that Marley wasn’t fully emotionally committed to the material.
Kaya The tracks for Kaya were recorded in London during the same time period as those for Exodus, and so it’s no surprise that the albums are similar in vibe. But whereas Exodus had a few songs that could be labeled as political in nature, Kaya confines itself to two topics: romantic love and marijuana love. ‘Kaya’ is a simple song of praise for Marley’s favorite herb, and it’s the kind of track that was helping to fuel the band’s popularity with American college-age listeners, most of whom could give a damn about Rastafarianism–or history for that matter. But Marley was getting criticized in some quarters for having softened his stance and become more or less apolitical. Some writers and critics have surmised that this softer approach was partially the result of the assassination attempt that made him leave Jamaica. His health also entered the picture, with Marley undergoing a lengthy, delicate reconstructive surgery to remove malignant melanoma from his big toe. This was in place of the toe amputation that his doctors suggested, and it undoubtedly led to his continued decline in the years to come.
Smile Jamaica–Single Version In April 1978, Bob Marley and the Wailers returned to Jamaica for the first time since the assassination attempt, performing at the One Love Peace Concert in Kingston. Marley was personally invited by Prime Minister Michael Manley and his opponent, the Jamaican Labour Party’s Edward Seaga, to help unite the country. “Smile Jamaica” was written and performed at the ’76 concert of the same name, with the attempt on Marley’s life coming right before the concert. The record has a great groove thanks to The Wailers’ strong rhythm section, and of course, the band performed it on their return to the country before embarking on a tour to support Kaya.
Babylon System The group’s next album, Survival, appeared to take into account the criticisms that Marley had grown complacent and that his music wasn’t really true to the Jamaican reggae scene that spawned him. While Marley had certainly influenced rock and pop music in the U.S. and U.K., it is also true that his exposure to these music scenes influenced his music. It’s true that Bob had grown weary of Jamaican politics by this time, indicating that things never really changed. Instead, he turned his attention towards Africa. The year before Survival‘s release he visited Africa for the first time, staying for a while in a Rastafarian settlement in Ethiopia. The experience changed him much as it had such black American leaders as Malcolm X, and his new songs began to promote pan-African unity. Seeing the same topics of poverty, racism, and unified action as crucial in the same way they were in Jamaica when he first started recording, Marley recorded a fully engaged album that was by turn angry, defiant, sad, celebratory, and triumphant. The record featured the flags of all then-current African nations on the cover, and songs like ‘Babylon System’ warned that Africans and other oppressed people the world over wouldn’t always be complacent and docile: “We refuse to be/What you wanted us to be/We are what we are/That’s the way it’s going to be, if you don’t know.”
Coming In From the Cold Uprising was the last studio album released during Marley’s lifetime, coming out in June 1980. The Wailers were playing to their biggest audiences ever, opening for acts like the Commodores and Fleetwood Mac as well as headlining shows in major stadiums across Europe and large American concert halls. This opening track displays all the features of the tight band that The Wailers had become from their constant recording and touring, as well as providing some optimism. Uprising is Marley’s most unrelentingly spiritual album, dwelling on his religious beliefs and his sense of some kind of global reckoning forming on the horizon.
Redemption Song Unfortunately Bob Marley’s health began to deteriorate during 1980, and after starting the North American leg of his tour, he collapsed while jogging. It was discovered that his cancer had spread to his brain, lungs, and other organs. He gave his last live performance on September 23, 1980 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ‘Redemption Song’ is personal and unlike anything else Marley had ever written. Though he recorded a version with the band, the version on the album ended up being a stark performance featuring only Marley’s voice accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The song is the final track on the original Uprising album, and it was also the final song of his last live performance. It’s unclear whether he had any inkling that his life was nearing its end at 36 years of age, but ‘Redemption Song’ is an uncanny epitaph for the man who became reggae music’s most recognizable and biggest spokesperson. Marley lived until May of 1981, much longer than the time doctors initially gave him. Most of his last months were spent traveling to different countries in pursuit of experimental treatments. ‘Redemption Song’ leaves sadness at the realization that Marley was entering a new phase as a songwriter and a performer, wondering at the Bob Marley records that might have been had he survived.