In the sleeve notes for his incredible Grime in the Dancehall mix, Paul Meme aka Grievous Angel notes that it has become fashionable in certain white boy circles to slag off Bob Marley. This is undoubtedly true. For some reggae-heads the way in which Bob has so completely monopolised the whole scene – in the eyes of the uninitiated – has proved an irritation. This probably seems bizarre for those of a Jamaican heritage where the notion of selling out has always been less of an issue. In black culture Marley’s near mythological reputation will always be unimpeachable. But Bob stands apart from his contemporaries not just for his fame. It has been well-documented how the Wailers’ sound was seized upon by Chris Blackwell of Island Records because of its potential appeal to a white rock audience. The Wailers had solos for one thing, and these were magnified on their albums, while the production leant less heavily on the low-end, allowing more space for the mid-range melodies provided by guitars and organs. While many of Jamaica’s finest relied on a slew of singles to keep their fires burning, the Wailers were an album band, and their Island LPs were lavishly produced and finely packaged. Listen to Pete Tosh’s Stop the Train off the magnificent Catch a Fire album and you can almost picture Robert Plant squalling all over it instead; Much of the Wailers’ output around this time gives more than a passing nod to the psychedelic blues of Zeppelin or the Stones. None of this does anything to diminish Marley’s reputation but it does go some way in explaining why he has managed to garner so much adulation in a cultural landscape that is by and large indifferent to the finer details of reggae music.
This footage from the Old Grey Whistle Test is perhaps one of the most spellbinding TV performances to grace the small screens. Rarely has a performer seemed so utterly in the moment, so oblivious to the glare of the camera, so lost in music. The Wailers are the perfect foil, nailing the sound to its roots foundations, with Tosh and Bunny Wailer effortlessly counterpointing Marley’s anguished vocals with feathery falsettos that drift in and out of the melody. Soon these would be replaced by the backing vocals of the I-Threes; as sweet as they were, they never captured the rugged beauty on offer here.