Here’s a record that means a great deal to me that I almost never listen to, mind you I’ve heard it so many times in my life that I possibly don’t need to, its rhythms are probably always reverberating somewhere deep down inside. Ladies and gentlemen I offer Bob Marley & The Wailers Natty Dread to you with my fondest commendation.
As the child of a huge reggae fan* I grew up with far more exposure to Jamaican sounds than was the norm for someone growing up in my corner of rural Wales, hell, there’s a good possibility that I grew up with more exposure to reggae sounds than was the norm for children in Trenchtown. I just assumed this normal and that everyone knew their Bunny Wailer from their Burning Spear. In our house Bob Marley’s death in ’81 caused even more lamentation than Lennon’s had in ’80. Right from an early point I knew Bob Marley & The Wailers were special, I was told they were and I could hear they were. There are chunks of his catalogue I don’t own, but if you were to put it on I could sing along, easily.
Post-Bob and post-Legend everyone knew him, but frustratingly for me, for us, it was only the lighter, poppier stuff that registered – I have no love for ‘Jammin”, or ‘One Love’** AND don’t get me started on how reggae in general and Bob in particular, is just used as short-hand for dope smoking these days. This all sells him so far short as the tough, soulful, social revolutionary he really was, it makes me seethe. Fucking seethe, to be precise. Just check out the cover art by Island house designer Tony Wright, all manner of fire and brimstone bubbling away n the background.
Natty Dread was a real new beginning for Bob Marley, having shed Peter Tosh^ and Bunny Wailer he rather audaciously nabbed the name they had released their records on, The Wailers and added it to his own name, attaching it to his new cohorts. And what an astonishingly great band they were! My favourite reggae rhythm section ever Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett and Carlton Barrett^^, the I-Threes whose female counterpoint act like a Greek chorus on the best songs here and the brilliant Al Anderson, the sole American in the group. Now Al is one of my very favourite players, he just plays with such precision and economy, really cutting to the point on a lot of tracks and contrasting brilliantly with the loping, relaxed rhythms. I only found out the other day that he was a contemporary of Pat Methany at Berklee and early friend of Aerosmith in Boston, hanging out with the guys and selling them guitars.
One thing I think is really important about Natty Dread in particular and Bob Marley & The Wailers in general is the international nature of their music. This was not straight Jamaican reggae, by any means. Chris Blackwell’s production sensibilities saw to that as did Anderson’s rockier guitar and the fact that this album was recorded in part in London, serving the neat trick of making elements of the music less alien to record buyers in the 70’s but without watering either the music, or the sentiments driving it, down. It’s also worth thinking about just how much all the early Jamaican reggae artists were influenced by the American sounds on the radio, Curtis Mayfield being a name that crops up time after time in interviews.
Few albums start off with a track a gazillionth as good as ‘Lively Up Yourself’, never has a song so sparse sounded so stonking – I know reggae is all about the spaces in the music, but the band push it brilliantly here. That rhythm is almost just suggested at times and the guitar flourishes just fix it all in place. The only song that cheers me up as much as this is ‘Here Comes The Sun’ – pure aural anti-depressant.
But enough happy stuff, I’m here for the aggro. ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ has always stuck with me right from childhood, the simple politics of ‘a hungry mob is an angry mob’ has/was and will always be true. Forget the parts about forgetting your troubles and dancing that sugar the pill, this track is a call to/warning of violent revolution to come,
Cost of livin’ gets so high,
Rich and poor they start to cry:
Now the weak must get strong
and hey, you can dance to it too. The female harmonies on this one are just sublime. You think punks invented songs about being shaken down and hassled by the cops in 1976? try ‘Rebel Music (3 O’clock Road Block)’, about being the victim of a Jamaican police stop on a dark night, a situation that at the time could easily have carried a very serious health risk indeed. Forget about being hassled for having orange hair, try getting singled out for being a Rastafarian, for singing too much revolution and for being a threat to civil order by armed, largely unaccountable policemen; oh, and it’s about having to throw away ‘my little herb stalk’. The harmonica playing on this one is a real treat.
‘Talkin’ Blues’ wends its mournful way, talkin’ poverty and hardship but revolutionary Bob hits the peak with the closer, umm, ‘Revolution’. Again in a masterfully sugared pill, against a backing that echoes the grandeur of some of the social soul hailing from the US, we get a call for the oppressed to rise up, ‘It takes a revolution to find a solution’ and ‘to wipe them out of creation’. This is no Jamaican tourist board friendly reggae pop, the repeated chant of fire, lightning, brimstone and thunder sees to that. On the other hand just close your eyes, shake your head to the beat and you easily miss just how damn radical this album is.
Okay so in order to argue my piece about Natty Dread I’ve ignored the poppier songs, the religious songs and the smooth, smooth, smooth lover’s rock of ‘Bend Down Low’. That’s the beauty of a great album though, there are enough shades of meaning and variation here for it to be entirely different things to entirely different folk, what isn’t up for interpretation though is just how well conceived, played and produced the album is. Make no mistake Natty Dread is a great album and the one that really set Bob Marley and The Wailers on their ever upward trajectory. The individual tracks roll wonderfully well by themselves and together add up to something much grander than the sum of their parts.
So far so great for 1974. What provides a bit of a sour coda for me is the fact that Bob Marley apparently gave the royalties to certain songs on this album, songs he almost certainly wrote himself, to others. This seems to have been done partly due to contractual skulduggery and also to reward people he cared about, for example ‘No Woman, No Cry’ probably the best known track on the whole album was credited to Vincent Ford, a man who befriended and stopped a young Bob starving to death. The Marley estate, which seems from an outsiders’ point of view to be a sprawling, complex and highly litigious beast, sued to take back ownership and won. I leave it to you gentle readers to decide on the level of dignity shown and to what extent it acted to enforce the wishes of the gentleman whose name it bears. As Marley sang in, ironically, ‘No Woman, No Cry’,
In this great future, you can’t forget your past
Amen to that.
PS- Sadly, for entirely understandable reasons of ethno-religious sensitivity Lego don’t do much by the way of Rastafarian mini-figures, so the Lego-osity tonight isn’t up to par.
*to clarify, I had a father who was obsessed with and consumed by all things reggae, I don’t mean that he was 7’8″, although that would also have been cool (sadly he is a mere 6’2″).
**although if you put them on in my presence I’ll enjoy every last second of them. So maybe I just don’t have any abstract anticipatory love for them.
^one of my favourite artists, period and much, much mourned in my house in ’87.
^^they get the nod, just, over Sly and Robbie.