BOB MARLEY: SOUL REBELS (1970)
1) Soul Rebel; 2) Try Me; 3) It's Alright; 4) No Sympathy; 5) My Cup; 6) Soul Almighty; 7) Rebel's Hop; 8) Corner Stone; 9) Four Hundred Years; 10) No Water; 11) Reaction; 12) My Sympathy.
For all those who are accustomed to Marley's Island-era worldwide hits, from ʽNo Woman No Cryʼ and ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ to ʽOne Loveʼ and ʽJammingʼ, these early albums by the Wailers, produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry and recorded back when «the Wailers» did not yet signify «any interchangeable body behind Bob's back», but meant an actual reggae band with elements of active democracy, might sound a little... tough.
Soul Rebels is a good example of «hardcore» reggae, one that does not try to render itself more accessible to the ears of the global listener — by incorporating «rock» elements, or simply by trying to be more melodic — but instead concentrates almost exclusively on groove, atmosphere, and its own type of rugged spirituality. This is Perry's typical style of work, and this why Soul Rebels is as «authentic» as these guys are ever gonna get. For proof, compare this here version of Peter Tosh's ʽ400 Yearsʼ with the fuller-arranged, slower, subtler arrangement on Catch A Fire three years later — both have their own strengths, but this early one has a brutal roughness, expressed by the prominent position of the bass guitar and the «scratch» pattern of the rhythm, without any further embellishments, that would eventually be gone.
Although the Wailers had already been around for more than half a decade, this particular incarnation, consisting of the «original» Wailers (Marley himself; Peter Tosh on guitar, keyboards, and vocals; Bunny Wailer on percussion) as well as the Barrett brothers, formerly from Perry's "Upsetters" (Aston on bass and Carly on extra percussion), was transitional — the «originals» would part ways with Marley in 1974, while the Barretts, on the other hand, would hold on until the very end. In this particular case, «transitional» might easily mean «best», the single largest accumulation of talent in the Wailers' history — except that you really have to «get it» before you can make proper use of that accumulation.
The key test, I think, is in whether one has any good words to say about the album's final track, ʽMy Sympathyʼ, which is really just an instrumental variation on the main theme of the album's vocal title song (ʽSoul Rebelʼ; for the record, the remastered and expanded CD edition of Soul Rebels adds a whole big bunch of instrumental takes on the songs). The main groove is set about in the first three or four seconds, after which nothing new happens right until the final fadeout at 2:43 — just the same rhythmic pattern, with scratch guitar and Tosh's quietly bubbling organ part in the background repeating the same chord pattern over and over again. It is the easiest thing in the world to call this thing «crap», but that could very logically lead to calling the entire album crap, and, subsequently, the entire reggae genre, or, at least, Marley's entire career.
The thing is — if the groove is well set, the groove is likeable. Just as it is possible to dig the 12-bar blues progression, per se, and dig it specifically when it is performed with extra gusto, so it is possible to feel abstract sympathy towards the skank, straight or shuffled. A whole album of instrumentals like ʽMy Sympathyʼ would soon become unbearable, but this placing of one instrumental «re-run» at the end of an album is sort of a symbolic gesture — this is who we are, and this form of music is what we play, and it is through this groove that we convey everything that we have to say, because that's how Jah set it all up, basically. One of the most fascinating things about the groove is how, despite requiring very strict rhythmic coordination, it ends up giving this impression of nonchalant friendly laziness, steaming in the Jamaican heat — I guess they don't emphasize the «offbeat» quality of the rhythms for nothing.
Still, it goes without saying that the most important part of the compositions are the vocals — leads, harmonies, tones, mantras, expressions. The primary topic, «escape from Babylon» and everything that it entails, dominates the album's theme, from the title track, now and for all time branding Marley as a «soul rebel», and right to ʽ400 Yearsʼ, sung by Tosh and serving as the album's, if not the entire movement's, definitive anthem of liberty. These two are the most memorable bits of the puzzle — ʽSoul Rebelʼ not only because of Marley's bittersweet confession, but also because of the way it opens, with Aston's soul-pumping bass brought all the way up to 11 by Perry and immediately pulling your ears down to the ground, because that sound weighs a frickin' ton, no less. As for ʽ400 Yearsʼ, it really makes you wonder why Tosh did not take up lead vocals more often — his voice, lower and more «solemn» than Marley's, was really great for taking on grand, anthemic statements. They say he was kinda lazy, though, in a Rastafari manner.
Other, less notorious, highlights include ʽNo Sympathyʼ (where the Wailers do a great wailing job, joining the lead singer on the last mournful vowel of each line) and a series of «funny» numbers that show a strong James Brown influence, such as ʽMy Cupʼ (actually a cover of James' own ʽI Guess I'll Have To Cry, Cry, Cryʼ) and ʽSoul Almightyʼ, full of references to doing the alligator and the mashed potato. Both songs are firmly reggae-based, yet even in this «hardcore» setting, they show that the Wailers were perfectly okay about interacting with other black music subgenres. Indeed, ʽSoul Almightyʼ could probably be called a halfway hybrid between reggae and funk — so much for the idea of stark monotonousness.
One thing that, at this stage in their history, the Wailers still pull off weaker than the rest is the love theme: songs like ʽTry Meʼ and the heavily allusive ʽCorner Stoneʼ ("you're a builder, baby, here I am, a stone") never really go beyond «nice» into that territory where Marley's relations with women start taking on an almost religious quality. Their little «humorous» interludes, such as ʽRebel's Hopʼ, are also relative trifles without a whole lot of replay value — in other words, Soul Rebels is not entirely filler-free. But then again, neither were the Wailers quite prepared for prime time: Soul Rebels is very much an album for «local consumption», and there is no way for most of us to assess its sound the same way it was assessed around Kingston in the year 1970. For all I know, ʽRebel's Hopʼ may have been a local smash.
In any case, the album as a whole gets a thumbs up from me, which I would never deliver solely for the sake of «politically correct» reasoning — there is no getting away from the original Wailers' charisma, no matter who they were and what cause they were standing for. I do, however, have to repeat the warning that Soul Rebels requires affection, not sheer tolerance, for reggae. It is technically possible to be completely indifferent to reggae as a whole and still love an album like Natty Dread — whether this would work with these Perry-produced records is not so clear to me. Then again, I really don't know a whole lot about the various kinds of reggae, and I seem to dig this, so maybe that's a sterner judgement than necessary.