Bob Marley and me

20:50, Aug 14 2011

The first Bob Marley song I was ever aware of was Buffalo Soldier - it was a posthumous hit, released in 1983. And of course it became one of Bob's biggest hits.

A year later the compilation Legend turned up. I was a young kid but this album blew me away. I now have a copy on vinyl but I've owned it on cassette tape and CD. I've worn out two CD copies - it was a student-flat favourite, a family get-together favourite, a car favourite. Bob Marley's Legend is one of the very few albums I figure you can play to cater to a wide audience and you'll (mostly) get it right. Even people who claim to dislike Marley - or have never really listened to his music - will enjoy (or at least not be put off by) Legend.

I still consider it one of the greatest Greatest Hits albums of all time; one of the absolute best Best Ofs. And I'm clearly not alone - as far as I'm aware Legend is the greatest-selling reggae album of all time.

Across the 1970s the version of reggae that Bob Marley and The Wailers presented to a worldwide audience was a mixture of reggae's roots and soulful pop music.

I don't listen to Marley's music that often these days: the huge amount of awful reggae music that seems to have been created in vague tribute to Marley - you even sometimes see a shout-out to the spirit of Marley in the CD liner notes - has put me off. That might sound stupid, it might seem petty but it's the truth. And much as I love/d Legend - it was just, well, done to death. By me. By everyone.

New Zealand seems to have a special connection to Bob Marley's music - and Marley was certainly interested in New Zealand, in Maori culture. His birthday coincided with our Waitangi Day and, apparently, Marley was somewhat touched by this, and thought it was pretty cool.

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But the downside of this connection is that so much of the reggae music that has come from New Zealand has been embarrassing, painful - so clearly missing the mark. It has given reggae a bad name. Well, that's how I see it. Just the same two-chord skank and some stoned wannabe-aphorisms and repetitive peace and love messages.

Anyway, I realised that the best thing to do was actually play some Marley, not hide it and consider it tarnished.

Recently - as a result of the new shelves - I found my copy of Babylon by Bus, a double live album by Bob and the Wailers, one of the first LPs I ever bought. I hadn't listened to this in years and instantly I was hit by this powerful music. The live albums are great; it was always a killer band but I especially love the work of Carlton Barrett on drums and Aston "Family Man" Barrett on bass. The twin guitars of Al Anderson and Junior Marvin add some rock and blues to the songs live. And Bob Marley was a fantastic rhythm player.

The first step in my Marley re-appreciation was the release, this year, of Live Forever: The Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA, September 23, 1980 - the final concert before Marley's death in 1981. Like other Marley live albums (1975's Live! is another vinyl favourite), this is a killer set of songs by a killer band. There's energy and intensity from both band and audience - in keeping with the music there's the right build and follow-through in terms of call and response.

Bob Marley is a rightful King of reggae, a gateway drug: the person who took reggae to the mainstream, but did it without compromising his message, his songwriting - the music we got to hear was the sound of his soul, the story he had to tell.

And so Babylon by Bus and the other live albums sent me back to my picks from the studio albums. Catch a Fire (1972), with so many great Marley and Peter Tosh songs as well as Bob really rising up as the superstar of reggae. I always loved 1974's Natty Dread - probably because it was one of the first LPs I ever bought (I picked it up at the same time as Babylon by Bus) but what a great way for an album to start with Lively Up Yourself, No Woman, No Cry and then Them Belly Full (But We Hungry).

Exodus (1977) is another fave - I hunted this one out after the Natural Mystic compilation. Kaya (1978) is part of my collection because I was so hooked on Babylon by Bus I wanted to get hold of the album that tour was in support of. And I'm a fan of Uprising (1980) too; the final album - with Could You Be Loved and Redemption Song being the songs everyone knows.

There was so much great music from Bob Marley - and I'm only talking about the material from the 1970s. There was a decade of music before that, moving through ska and rocksteady as well as reggae. The Wailers disbanded in 1974 and from there it was Bob Marley & The Wailers. So many groundbreaking songs, so many stunning performances. And albums that influenced some great (and sadly some truly awful) music.

It's been nice going back through some of the Bob Marley material. I'm sure I'll head further back to the original Wailers from here.

What do you think of Bob Marley? Is he reggae's guiding light and gateway drug? Or did you never quite understand the hype? What are your favourite albums? What's your favourite period of Bob's music? And who do you think carries the torch, if anyone?

This is my story. This has been about Bob Marley and me. Now tell me about Bob Marley and you.

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