I can just about guarantee that if you have ever experimented with cannabis, you have probably been in a situation that went like this:
Friend: Want to get high?
Friend: I’ll roll one up. You got any Bob Marley?
And you flip through your playlist until you reach your stash of Bob Marley’s greatest hits. We’ve all heard them. They appear on the radio as friendly pop melodies your mom can sing along to, and in cafés as mellow background tunes.
But you know what? I fucking hate “I Shot the Sheriff”. I even hate “Buffalo Soldier”. Everytime I hear these songs I cringe and people look at me funny because they think I don’t like Bob Marley. From their reaction, I can tell that their adoration for Bob Marley runs about as deep as their adoration for their Toms shoes. Those songs, and the large repetoire of love songs that go so damn well with summer sunshine, represent the commodification of Marley, both as myth and musician. They are the easy brand you can wear, like Toms, that show that you are hip and trendy and care just enough to spend money but not actually do anything different. Marley lived by the antithesis to this ethic.
But what I want to say is that if you cringe whenever you hear a neat pre-packaged Marley classic played on the radio, there is relief.
My relief came by chance—I found the record in a bin at a time when records were being sold for quarters because thrift shops couldn’t hold enough. And I was fortunate, apparently. Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Reggae Rebel (1982) is out-of-print. The album does not appear on comprehensive discography lists, which makes me wonder whether this record is some kind of bootleg. An internet search reveals that U.R.T.I. Records, which pressed the album, is an inactive record company out of smalltown Quebec, Canada, incorporated in 1977 with Corporations Canada but otherwise completely untraceable.
The track list is similar to 1970’s Soul Rebels, except that titles on the B-side differ. But in all reality, researching for that little historical diddy was the most I ever cared to look into the album. Because irregardless of its history, it is always exciting to find a rare record. In a musical landscape where mostly anything is attainable (to add to your playlist, even if obligatorily, so that if an acquaintance checks your iPod they will be reassured that you have all the necessities to stay hip and current and cool), the search for physical evidence that a song once existed is obsolete. I saw a small family band play at a conference once, and liked them enough that I went searching for more—the next day, on YouTube, I could enjoy their performance all over again without the constraints of time and space.
ReggaeRebels’ opening song on Side A is fitting for Marley & Wailing crew. ‘Soul Rebel’ captures the folk-heart reggae sound that pervades this brand of Marley music—not the politically-infused polemics or the humanist hymns. “See the morning sun…on the hillside […] Said I’m a living man…I’ve got work to do,” Marley characteristically belts out, touching cynical ears like mine with its pragmatic back-to-the-land ethic. I can imagine Marley mumble in his heavy Jamaican patois in front of a computer, saying something like, “Naw mon y’cunt touch ‘pon a screen and see de eart’ mon, de eart’ liv’n’breathin’ all’a de things. Y’got to sit ‘pon de ‘illside ‘n see de sun ris’n’fall.”
Reggae Rebel is remarkable in that it makes you notice how essential the Wailers were to Marley’s music. ‘Try Me’ and the following song, ‘It’s Alright’, feature some of the Wailer’s best vocal melodies. Without them, it would be hard to imagine Marley carrying those songs. The back-up vocals have elements of soul, Jackson 5-era funk, and call-and-answer tribalism. In post-Wailer years Marley said, “I was alone long time before me had any friends,” emphasizing that he was a stark individualist apart from everything, which was absolutely true. But to imagine Marley making it on his own, like a Jack Johnson or a Bob Dylan, is difficult because Marley was bolstered by the choral qualities that the Wailers were always able to carry as a backdrop to his dreadlock antics. And in our age of seemingly ubiquitous individualism, we too can remember that we probably are nothing without our Wailers, whoever they are.
The original ‘Sun is Shining’ recording follows, bringing a dissonant brooding mood to the album. Contrasted against the brighter joy in the first opening songs, and most of the songs on Side B, this tune is a hint at the somewhat darker complexion of reggae that is a depressed shade of mellow. The bass is rude; the organ teases; Marley is a rainbow and wants you to know. “To the rescue…Here I am!…Want you to know just if you can, here I stand!” It’s a desperate kind of call to harmony, only a step away from nihilist gruge with its am-who-I-am understatement.
‘No Sympathy’ follows like a short annex, a troubled reminder of the nature of loneliness—maybe a hint at the tensions in the band; now a trying call to fellow Rebels, speaking to the isolation that innovation, dissidence, and change entails. The song would be suitable montage music for a future period-piece movie about the internet boom, or the scattered end of the Occupy movement.
Side B flips back to the smoother reggae aspects. ‘My Cup’ is a thoughtful Rastafarian hymn, although it could be a symbolic song for losing a lover. It’s hard to tell with Marley. Like any good shaman, his religion and sexuality are inseparable at times. ‘Corner Stone’ is a clearer religious song. The Wailers are strong here again, filling in with a down-tempo fifties rock melody. One line plucks out from the middle of the song: “The things people refuse, are the things they should use.” I can’t ask, so I have to assume that Marley meant things like walking in nature, that awkward silence in restaurants, the taste of food you’ve grown yourself, kissing before sex, and being at the mercy of the climate inside your home. Just my guess at it.
The two songs that fill the next inch of vinyl are unnotable. Except for bubbling back-up vocals in ‘No Water’, and that ‘Soul Almighty’ is one of the band’s few covers, the songs are hard to get into (the cover is a Lou Perry original; Marley asks us to do the funky chicken and the mashed potato). It doesn’t help that for whatever reason, these two songs play quieter on my record, like they are meant for background consumption only. Maybe Marley allows us some time to chat while we roll a spliff for the next record.
‘Reaction’ ties back to the themes on Side A: a little depressed, a little funky, a little reggae, a little hierophant—“To every little action (yeah, yeah, yeah)…there is a reaction (yeah, yeah, yeah).” Like ‘No Sympathy’, with its implicit pains and division, ‘Reaction’ echoes the call of the Occupy movement—but with a haunting note that the movement has only started. In the movie soundtrack, this would play through the credits, hinting at a triumphant sequel (which sounds like an oxymoron, I know).
I would be remiss to urge you to go out and find this album, because you may not. If you are ever in the middle of nowhere I invite you over to listen. We can roll something, open the windows (if it isn’t snowing) and listen to some grounded reggae. If you don’t plan on being isolated anytime soon, I’m sure you can find the songs elsewhere and collate them yourself.
Because there is a authenticity in Reggae Rebel—and not because it doesn’t contain any shiny hit single songs. There is something humble, passionate, and punk about it. It has all the cacophony of humanity’s moods, chanelled through the Wailer’s vocal chords. It’s also an album that strikes a vibration through time, from its seventies roots to our millenial twigs; from their blossoming cynicism to our systemic cynicism; from their reggae to our rebellion.
Which is one of many reasons why Reggae Rebel is worth the search.
Then on that next swelteringly hot summer day you can head outside, with good friends and portable speakers nearby, with your back turned to the downtown spires of everything troubling in human existence, and sit ‘pon the hillside watching de sun rise’n’fall, rise’n’fall.
Jack Caseros is a Canadian writer, scientist, and psychonaut whose other creative non-fiction has appeared in Steel Bananas, Drunk Monkeys, and The Fiddleback. His first novel, Onwards & Outwards, was released in 2012 to zero acclaim. You can read more about Jack (but not much more) atwww.jackcaseros.webs.com.