The Guide to Getting into Bob Marley
We’re going to go beyond the posters, beyond the weed smoke, beyond 'Legend.'
Illustration by Efi Chalikopoulou
We've all met this person.
They're informed. They know a little about this, a little about that. Their tastes are eclectic and they usually know all the "in" bands. And it doesn't stop there. They claim they listen to everything.
You say, "everything?"
They repeat, "everything."
You say, "country?"
They say, " From A Room by Chris Stapleton is in my heavy rotation."
You say, "reggae?"
They say, "I love Bob Marley."
Suddenly a red flag goes up. Aside from the fact that Bob Marley has been dead for 36 years now, and that there are countless reggae artists, a person turning to Bob Marley as their choice for reggae is a cop out.
You investigate further. "Which era?"
They respond proudly, " Legend."
Legend. Legend. Ask most people their favorite Bob Marley songs and they will likely name songs off of that album, a 14-song posthumous compilation drawing from six different albums. That is pretty much how Bob Marley's career has been summed up.
But we're going to help you see Bob Marley and avoid being the cliché. We're going to go beyond the posters, beyond the weed smoke, beyond Legend.
Unlike any star from the Caribbean before or after, Bob Marley brought the regional music, reggae, to the world, rising from obscurity to a world renowned spokesman for freedom against oppression in less than a decade. He was a musical ambassador who transcended genre, nation, and even death, with a legacy that only grew after he passed away from cancer in 1981, at the young age of 36.
Bob Marley is still the best-selling reggae artist of all time. There are countless albums and compilations of his music on the market, which have kept his myth as large as ever. But those many options also make it difficult to figure out where to start for a newcomer looking to go deeper. We're going to give you an operative guide to Bob Marley, so you can wade into the waters of one history's greatest musicians.
The unfortunate thing about becoming an icon is that you're usually reduced to a speech (e.g. "I Have a Dream," a line in a movie ("You can't handle the truth!" or an album, in Bob Marley's case, as mentioned above, Legend.
But Bob Marley's career can be traced to the earliest days of the Jamaican music that would become reggae. In fact, Bob Marley came of age as the island was finding its identity. Marley was 17 when Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962. That also was the year that Jamaican musicians matured past their American R&B influences. As a result, Marley's career intersects with many of the pioneers of Jamaica's then-fledgling industry.
Prior to 1962, Jamaican artists either played mento, calypso, or their best rendition of American R&B, a style coined Jamaican boogie. Ska was upbeat and uplifting; it's often considered the music of liberation, as it coincided with Jamaica's independence. Horns accented the two and four beats, and it was more uptempo than R&B. That's what made ska distinctly Jamaican. But the carryover from America was the four-part harmony popular in the doo-wop sound of the time.
Bob Marley knew as early as 15 that he wanted to make music. The Jiving Juniors, The Magic Notes, and most importantly Jimmy Cliff were putting out music that rivaled US R&B in popularity. Marley's mother made him get a trade welding, but that didn't last long.
"But I loved so sing, so I thought I might as well take the chance," Marley recalled in the 24 February 24, 1973 issue of Melody Maker. "Welding was too hard! So I went down to Leslie Kong at Beverley's Records in '64, and made a record on a single-track machine. Jimmy Cliff took me there—he was Beverley's number one man."
If you're going to claim Bob Marley, you have to know these songs—even though no one knew them when they were originally released.
When Marley recorded again, this time with his band, The Wailers, he did so after being taught harmony by Higgs & Wilson, a duo that had scored the first local hit, "Manny O." Joe Higgs also played a role in two other things: Marley learning the guitar, and Marley becoming Rastafarian.
In these recordings, you can hear Marley becoming more confident in his lead voice. And, in what would become a pattern, Marley made songs like "Stir it Up," which he later developed, repackaged, and rereleased with greater success.
The ska songs are obvious, but it takes a trained ear, an expert to distinguish between rocksteady and reggae. The best marker of that is the year. Many of these songs were issued as 45s and were never on an album until the extensive 1992 box set, Songs of Freedom.
While ska and rocksteady Bob dealt primarily with non-political, party type songs, Rudeboy Bob has Bob Marley and the Wailers reporting on Jamaican current events.
This adjustments lands Marley and gang their first hit, "Simmer Down" in 1964. It was a song that dealt with the violence and crime on the island. Marley would tap into this commentary/reportage type songwriting throughout his career—it was writing that said Bob was of the people, for the people.
A great example is how Bob relays this tale in "Johnny Was" and inserts himself in the story:
Woman hold her head and cry;
Comforting her I was passing by.
She complained, then she cry:
Oh-ooh-wo-ah, cry (ah-ah), yeah, I know now (ah-ah),
No I know, I know now: (Johnny was a good man)
Said I know, mm-mm-mm-mm-mm. (never did a thing wrong)
Ah! ah! (Johnny was a good man)
Bob Marley initially didn't fully embrace Rasta culture; he was still clean-cut and suited, as was the style of rude boys of that era. But as the 60s rolled on all of that would change....
Rasta/Revolutionary Bob is perhaps the most prominent category of Bob Marley's music, and these songs are by far my favorite.
Bob Marley's music appeals to all races and creeds. When I was young, I was always baffled to watch a group of drunk co-workers, mostly white, play "Redemption Song" back to back, shouting the lyrics, smiling, informing me how it was one of their "favorite" Bob Marley songs—the song is about surviving slavery.
Marley deals with the institution of slavery on several songs, as well as addressing the affects of colonialism, war, and greed. Most of these have become popular anthems, stripping some of the revolutionary power from them. But those songs are part of what made Bob Marley a worldwide icon.
The overriding principle in these songs is overcoming adversity. Marley never sounds like a victim. Rastafarianism was the motivating factor behind those songs. Rastafarian beliefs shaped Marley's musical perspective, and even these songs can be separated into different eras.
It's through that belief system that lyrics like "Crazy Baldhead" originate:
We gonna chase those crazy
Chase them crazy
Chase those crazy baldheads out of town
Build your penitentiary, we build your schools
Brainwash education to make us the fools
Hate is your reward for our love
Telling us of your God above
Lovers Rock Bob
It's no mystery that Bob Marley loved the women.
And they loved him. The count on Marley's children, according to the official Bob Marley website, is 11. After Rasta/Revolutionary Bob, the second-largest category of Bob Marley songs definitely are those that fall in the love category.
Naturally, there is really only one path to understanding these songs, at least in my experience. I had never professed to be an authority on Bob Marley. I knew a thing or two about him, sure, but I found out how little I knew when I met a woman in college who was totally in love and enamored with Bob. She would hear the romantic songs and scream with excitement. She loved Bob—a posthumous love, but love nonetheless.
When Marley was alive, he had that same effect on women all over the world. His thoughtful lyrics and vulnerability with them captured countless hearts—and helped a few lovers do the same for each other. Check these verses from "Turn the Lights Down Low":
Loving you is a like a song I replay
Every three minutes and thirty seconds of every day (uh, uh)
And every chorus was written for us to recite (right)
Every beautiful melody of devotion every night
It's potion like this ocean that might carry me
In a wave of emotion to ask you to marry me
And every word, every second, and every third
Expresses the happiness more clearly than ever heard (uh)
World Diplomat Bob
When Chris Blackwell signed Bob Marley to Island Records in 1972, he had a plan. Blackwell knew that in order to break Marley as an act around the world that he would need to smooth out some of the rough edges, incorporate more rock elements, and model the music as such. It began with the lighter packaging of Catch a Fire in '73 and continued up until Marley's untimely death in 1981.
As Marley's influence grew, his ideology became more Pan-Africanist in nature. He saw the influence that his music was garnering all over the world, particularly in Africa. Because of that, Bob Marley's last albums contained powerful messages over his most saccharine music. That has made the ties to reggae weaker than in other albums—some of this music I would call reggae only because Marley is reggae.
Nonetheless, I love the lyrics and especially I love how they electrified the people. People often throw titles upon Bob like "prophet" for the way he was able to look into scenarios and see them clearly. This lyric from "Zimbabwe" sums up half of the unrest in Africa:
To divide and rule could only tear us apart
In everyman chest, there beats a heart
So soon we'll find out who is the real revolutionary
And I don't want my people to be tricked by mercenaries
The messages from this era of Bob Marley are deeply powerful, and they are one large part of why he continues to be seen as an icon throughout the world.
sdq is jamming on an island somewhere (in spirit at least) and he wants to jam it with you. Follow him on Twitter.