Hard to believe 40 years have passed since we lost Bob Marley. Reggae’s first and probably only true superstar.
Though never really comfortable with celebrity status, Marley was shrewd enough to know his popularity enabled him to sing about the struggles of black people both in his home country of Jamaica and throughout the world. Not only sing about it, but to be heard and more importantly listened to.
Bob Marley was not your conventional rock star, and I believe that’s what set him apart from most others. His singing career began in the ’60s when he formed the Wailing Wailers with his friends Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingstone and Peter Tosh.
Recording with the likes of Lee Perry, early songs such as Simmer Down showing the promise of what was to come. However a falling out with Perry led to a parting of the ways. It was when they signed with Chris Blackwell and Island Records that things began to take off.
The first time most British people would have been aware of them was when they appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test promoting their Catch A Fire album, indeed it would have been most British people’s first introduction to roots reggae.
They played two songs that night, Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle by the time they came back to the UK in 1975, both Tosh and Bunny Wailer had departed. The band were now known as Bob Marley and the Wailers, Marley was now well and truly in the spotlight.
This 1975 visit resulted in the classic Live At The Lyceum album. For a great account of this gig and the night itself, I would urge you to check out the Don Letts book There And Black Again.
1976 brought was is in my opinion the first true classic Marley album, in fact it’s my favourite of all he has done. Rastaman Vibration. I love this record, the song Positive Vibration (good name for a reggae festival that!) sets the tone, other great tracks include Rat Race and Crazy Baldhead. The album also contains Johnny Was, a track which caught the imagination of a young Belfast lad called Jake Burns, so much so, that he decided his band Stiff Little Fingers should cover it.
After an attempt on Marley’s life in Jamaica, he made his home in London for a while, and in 1977 produced the album that really propelled him to fame. Exodus.
People went overboard for this record, and the title track is a remarkable piece of work. The UK tour to promote it resulted in the legendary Rainbow gig, which has you can see from the DVD has the band on fire.
For me his last great album was the live double set Babylon By Bus, recorded on the Exodus world tour. I’ll never forget the night John Peel played it in it’s entirety, I was in heaven, it’s a truly beautiful record.
While Marley was now established as Jamaica’s first true superstar, back home in Jamaica things were looking very bleak, political violence was rife, with people being killed on an almost daily basis. Marley went back home to organise and play the One Love Peace Concert – the gig featured a who’s who of reggae, U Roy, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Culture, and to round off the night Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Sadly the peace didn’t last but the sight of Marley getting two bitter enemies, Manley and Segar to hold each others arms aloft on stage is one of the most powerful political images of the 1970’s.
By this time Marley had been diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him, but he still delivered amazing music. One of the last things he left us with was the remarkable Redemption Song. The song was unusual as it was just Marley and an acoustic guitar, no hint of a reggae beat at all. Some of the lyrics were based on a speech by Marcus Garvey from 1937. It is a classic song.
As we know the cancer eventually got him. But his legend is cemented in our hearts and minds forever. People saw him as a rock star, he saw himself as just a human being who was in a privileged position which enabled him to do good in the world.
“Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don’t complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don’t bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality’.