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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bob Marley: Burnin'


1) Get Up, Stand Up; 2) Hallelujah Time; 3) I Shot The Sheriff; 4) Burnin' And Lootin'; 5) Put It On; 6) Small Axe; 7) Pass It On; 8) Duppy Conqueror; 9) One Foundation; 10) Rastaman Chant.

Once something has caught fire, it then usually proceeds to burn — a simple truth that, until 1973, found no expression in a succeeding line-up of album titles, though. But clearly, the underlying idea of Burnin' was to dispel the popular myth of the Rastafari movement as just some local Jamaican version of the hippie wave. As per Bob Marley, reggae people may be friendly and pacifist, but that does not mean that they completely reject forceful activity or even violence in their behaviour and their music. Branding and condemning Babylon is noble enough, but there's nothing like watching Babylon burn, really.

The sociopolitical ferocity of Burnin', reaching such levels of energy, passion, and explicitness that all of the Wailers' previous efforts seem like Tiny Tim in comparison, has arguably led all the politically correct people to somehow overrate the album. Technically, it was recorded in a bit of a rush, forcing the Wailers to fall back once more on their back-stock from Kingston (at least three tracks are re-recorded from earlier times), and this time, there are no overdubs from addi­tional session players, so the sound returns to Spartan standards. (Still, there is no Lee Perry any­where in sight to rev up that bass: the Wailers would never again return to the same «skeletal» type of sound they'd been awarded on Soul Revolution).

Most commonly, Burnin' is known and revered for its rebellious classics — ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ, ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, ʽBurnin' And Lootin'ʼ, to a lesser extent ʽSmall Axeʼ as well — and almost certainly, much of that knowledge and reverence has been stimulated by the Eric Clapton cover of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, which became a major hit in 1974 and probably made millions more people aware of Marley and reggae in general. To be fair, Eric Clapton singing ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, a song very much rooted in the realities of Jamaican life, is as awkward as if Jimi Hen­drix decided to put his stamp on ʽLa Donna E Mobileʼ, but he does always play a mean guitar on that song, so let us not be too harsh on the «white boy perversion» that did help bring reggae to a larger audience, and ended up making the world a better place (we hope!).

ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ is not so much rebellious, though, as it is fatalistic: the gradually descending melody of the verse is like the grim pull of destiny, swirling and spiralling and eventually cutting the thread in one final desperate flash. The lyrical matter is pretty much the same kind of stuff you can find in so many folk, blues, and country-western songs, but Bob sings it in the first per­son (Clapton once pressed the man into telling him whether the story was true or not, and Marley said that parts of it were, but he wasn't going to say which ones), and the effect is intimately haunting. It's all simple and accessible and unforgettable — the falsetto harmonies on the chorus may take some getting used to (mainly because that kind of voice has become so firmly associa­ted with disco, post-factum), but they do provide the important hookline that helps draw your attention towards the rest of it (and, come to think of it, the verse part of this song is far more emotionally resonant than the catchy chorus).

Likewise, ʽBurnin' And Lootin'ʼ is more of a philosophical mourning, or a bitter justification of Jamaican violence, than a direct call to action. As if to enhance the understanding that the chorus is not to be taken too literally, the Wailers expand upon the initial "that's why we gonna be bur­nin' and a-lootin' tonight" with the metaphorical "burnin' all pollution tonight, burnin' all illusion tonight" — for those who want to hear it, of course. The slow, gently swaying groove is nowhere near «aggressive», either: the chorus sounds more like a cross between a lullaby and a funeral march than anything «punkish» or genuinely violent in nature. At the same time, you do have your "how many rivers do we have to cross / before we can talk to the boss?", which, as has been previously noted, is like a clever retort to Jimmy Cliff's ʽMany Rivers To Crossʼ, and implies that real burnin' and real lootin' is not a totally excluded solution, either.

The most aggressive and militant song on the album, of course, is ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ — one of the few songs in the Wailers' catalog that could really be called a revolutionary anthem, and one that would certainly have rallied plenty of troops around the banner of Jah in case of need. For the first time, Bob is properly and intentionally feeding upon negative energy, learning how to throw thunderbolts, and even Peter Tosh, replacing him for one of the verses, is adding an angry vibe to his formerly epic, but peaceful tone. It is more of a sermon than a song, instructing people to search for Heaven on Earth rather than wait for a time when "Great God will come from the skies, take away everything and make everybody feel high". But it is set to one of their most tightly focused, clenched-teeth grooves ever — just as lyrically it disbands the myth about Rastaman people «feeling high» all the time and not giving a damn about much of anything else, so, musi­cally, it can dispel the myth of reggae being «relaxed», «lazy-sounding» music. ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ has as much rocking power as ʽSuperstitionʼ or ʽSatisfactionʼ, if «rocking power» is to be understood as the impulse that shoots extra adrenaline into your brain and makes you feel as if you could take on the world with your bare fists.

In between these particular landmarks of class struggle reflected in music, the rest of the tracks on Burnin' veers between hit and miss. Side B, in particular, has always felt like a relative letdown to me: the «socially relevant» material there seems to lose some of the energy and focus, either degenerating into too much monotonousness (ʽRastaman Chantʼ — with its ʽLouie Louieʼ-ish musical attitude, this one does feel like everybody finally got high at the end of the sessions) or swerving into too much pleasantness (Tosh's ʽOne Foundationʼ is way too friendly in comparison with the first side's barn-burners). On the other hand, Side A reaches near-perfection with the addition of the gospel-reggae chant ʽHallelujah Timeʼ and the hypnotic feel-them-spirit mantra of ʽPut It Onʼ — also monotonous, but it does convey a good impression of somebody being taken over by a benevolent spirit and busily merging the manly and the godly in one's own person.

It is hard to tell whether the legend of Burnin' owes more to the quality of the music or the loud­ness of the expressed social feeling — I would personally suggest that, from a sheerly musical point of view, Catch A Fire contains more original and exciting ideas, but about half of the songs on that one are love songs, whereas Burnin' is completely dominated by tunes «with a message». But then again, this is reggae we are talking about, where the power of the groove is always more important than any melodic hook, and in terms of power, the first side of this album easily trumps Catch A Fire and would not, in fact, be matched until the appearance of Exodus. So let us just call this another relative triumph, give it a thumbs up and, just in case somebody stupid lands on this page, remind one more time that Bob Marley and The Wailers are not advocating violence, and that they'd rather you burn up your illusions than anything physically flammable. 


  1. I never realized how political I Shot the Sheriff was until you mentioned how the WIlers are not advocating, but justifying violence. He admits to shooting John Brown, and he will pay if he is guilty, but he denies ever shooting the deputy. Where was the deputy? It is obvious the song is not about shooting at the police, as so many rappers would want to believe, but it is about injustice on a grand scale.

    1. Yeah, that's true eh? They're trying to conveniently pin on him the second killing, after he'd been systematically hounded and set up by the sheriff (ie. those in power I guess). The law sometimes loves a convenient member of the voiceless underclass who can be "guilt until proven innocent". Great writer, that Marley!

      It's fantastic to see these comprehensive and finely thought-out reviews of the mighty Wailers, especially from someone who isn't at all limited to a reggae perspective.