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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bob Marley: The Best Of The Wailers


1) Soul Shake Down Party; 2) Stop The Train; 3) Caution; 4) Soul Captives; 5) Go Tell It On The Mountain; 6) Can't You See; 7) Soon Come; 8) Cheer Up; 9) Back Out; 10) Do It Twice.

This is a fairly weird entry in Marley's yearbook. To «the best of» my knowledge, this is the only The Best Of... album in existence that is not actually a true «best of», but rather just a collection of tracks recorded during a brief time period, none of them previously issued. Namely, these songs were recorded by The Wailers circa 1969-70, prior to the band's engagement with Perry and under the supervision of equally notorious (back then, at least) producer Leslie Kong. Some­thing stalled or backfired, though: the band did not get along with the man too well, eventually abandoned him for Perry, and the tracks remained shelved for about a year and a half.

As the band started gaining traction, though, Kong decided to capitalize upon those leftovers, and released them under this super-arrogant title — translated to «you thought the Wailers with Scratch Perry were good? you ain't heard nothing yet, you silly amateurs!» According to urban legend which is too awesome to be true, Bunny Wailer, upon hearing Kong's plans, told him that it would really only be the «best» Wailers if the man didn't live long enough to hear anything else by the band — and, true enough, Kong died of a heart attack, aged 38, one week upon release. I'm positive Bunny just invented that story post-factum, but the fact does remain that the album was released without the band's consent, and with a stupid title to boot.

Not that there's any serious reason to complain, because, best or not best, these ten short tracks (making up for a «mini-LP» at the most) are really quite good. Without Perry around to make them concentrate on the basic essence (or should I say «bassic essence»?), they are somewhat croonier, poppier, and doo-woppier than anything on Soul Rebels, and, in fact, the whole album still gravitates more towards old-fashioned ska than newly-born reggae. The atmosphere still reminds of the early days when the Wailers used to wear suits and ties, and cut their hair short — but the music is already bubbling with fine songwriting ideas, and the «social value» of the songs, while not immediately jumping out at the listener, is already quite deeply embedded.

The only number to appear on later releases in a re-recorded format is Tosh's ʽStop That Trainʼ, showing a Sam Cooke influence (ʽGood Timesʼ), but completely readapted for the sound and style of the wailing Wailers — Peter's powerful delivery and barely concealed desperation makes the song every bit of the band's equivalent for the Beatles' ʽHelp!ʼ: a "lonely man" brought down by something that is hard to express in words and searching for refuge/salvation, all the while clothing his desperation in poppy choruses and friendly rhythm patterns. And his sheer vocal strength and soulful conviction, both here and on the traditional hymn ʽGo Tell It On The Mountainʼ, are two more reasons to sorely lament his parting ways with Marley, since he is every bit the better, or, at least, definitely the more «epic» singer of the two.

Interestingly enough, at least half of the songs are credited to Rita Marley rather than Bob, showing that her stature within the band was even more prominent in those early years than later (although she is still responsible for a good bunch of the Wailers' mid-period classics, like ʽCrazy Baldheadʼ etc.). Like her husband, she is not specializing in any particular direction: ʽSoul Shakedown Partyʼ, for instance, is a quiet love celebration (the best thing about which is its simple, instantaneously memorable organ riff), whereas ʽSoul Captivesʼ and ʽCheer Upʼ are quiet by-the-rivers-of-Babylon-style anthems of hope and liberation: danceable rhythms, relaxed, optimistic Caribbean/surf lead guitar parts, and statements that "freedom day will come", so we might as well start rejoicing on the spot.

Other than ʽStop That Trainʼ and ʽSoul Shakedown Partyʼ, the only true standout is once again Tosh's — ʽSoon Comeʼ, another dissatisfied rant about expecting stuff and not getting it (techni­cally, complaining about being constantly let down by a love interest, but allegorically inter­pretable as complaining about being let down, period). The trivial hook — song title made into a falsetto mantra — bites into you at once, and focuses your attention on one of Peter's finest examples of «getting into character», whereas Bob, throughout the album, is playing it cool, never letting himself get carried away. Funny, yes, but at this point it was not at all certain who would eventually come out «on top» within the Wailers.

Although, technically, this is more like a footnote in the story of Bob Marley, the record is still an essential acquisition for all the fans of Peter Tosh, all the admirers of Rita Marley as a songwriter in her own rights, and all those who want to remember Leslie Kong as one of the first influential Jamaican record producers, responsible for the rise of reggae. For those who just love good music, it is probably not so essential, but there is nothing whatsoever to dislike — amicable rhythms, pleasant solos, cool organ riffs, catchy harmonies, and some social value. Thumbs up, closing our eyes on the ridiculousness of the title. 


  1. Nice review of an early Wailers album again! As far as the "Rita Marley" credits - that'd be a misprint or misinformation. Perhaps confusion with "R. (Robert Nesta) Marley". On my recent Universal reissue, all but the Peter Tosh tunes are correctly credited to Bob Marley. Anyway, I bought this recently, but not listened to it yet. I will rectify that now pretty quickly!

  2. Don't forget Sparks! Their "Music You Can Dance To" album was re-released as "The Best of Sparks", making that an even more laughable misnomer than this one. Record company shenanigans cross all cultures, I guess.