BOB MARLEY: CATCH A FIRE (1973)
1) Concrete Jungle; 2) Slave Driver; 3) 400 Years; 4) Stop That Train; 5) Rock It Baby; 6) Stir It Up; 7) Kinky Reggae; 8) No More Trouble; 9) Midnight Ravers.
And now we see The Wailers get in the big league. From a certain justified point of view, this is where Bob Marley «sold out to the system», making the jump from local Jamaican labels and the local Jamaican market to a major label (Island Records, which, not coincidentally, was founded by Chris Blackwell in 1959 on Jamaica, but had been operating from London as early as 1962, and was not at all limited to ska/reggae by the time Marley signed his contract) and to an international audience — Catch A Fire got all the way up to #171 on the Billboard charts, and Marley's commercial stance would only be toughening up since then, all the way to Exodus.
More importantly, and somewhat predictably, the jump was accompanied by a significant change in sound. In order to properly put Bob on the international scene, some concessions would have to be made: listeners worldwide, it was deemed, would hardly have the assiduous tolerance for the «hardcore reggae» approach of Lee Perry, meaning that the songs would have to be a little more «pop», and the arrangements would have to be a little less Spartan. After The Wailers had recorded the master tapes in Jamaica and brought them over to Chris Blackwell in London, the latter took the decision to «spice 'em up», hiring a host of session musicians, such as Wayne Perkins on guitar and Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards, to generate ear-pleasing overdubs that would put that stuff more in line with the commercial sounds of the Seventies. Marley, ever the vigilante man, sensitive to trends and striving for world recognition, did not object — yet I am not so sure about how Peter Tosh reacted to the whole thing, and whether that was not one of the reasons for the beginning of his alienation from Marley.
Nevertheless, I will admit to the «embarrassing» reality — I do find the Wailers with extra overdubs more accessible, and I do find these overdubs in very good taste. Case in point: ʽStir It Upʼ, one of Bob's most charming, tenderest reggae ballads, has a wah-wah lead from Wayne Perkins that utilizes a gruff, grumbly tone to play a suitably tender part, and adds an extra individual voice to the beautiful, but repetitive group harmonies of the chorus. Would the song have become a hit without that lead guitar, or without Tyrone Downie's organ accompaniment? Possibly, possibly not, and who cares about the exact number of sold copies anyway: the important thing is, these additional layers steal nothing from the «base» of the song, but add quite a lot. Naysayers may go back to the original two-chord ska version from 1967 — just remember that, had all of Bob Marley's output been like that original version, most likely, very few of us would have ever heard of who the hell Bob Marley was in the first place.
Quite a few other songs here are oldies as well, including both of the Tosh-sung numbers (ʽ400 Yearsʼ and ʽStop That Trainʼ) — these ones, curiously, are taken at much slower tempos than the originals, sung and played with less energy, but more «soul», that is, not necessarily with more feeling but a bit more in line with what is usually expected of the experienced soul singer / showman. This makes them no better or worse, just a little different, but ʽStop That Trainʼ does get an extra guitar riff that makes the song even more memorable.
That said, the album is really all about its first two tracks — ʽConcrete Jungleʼ and ʽSlave Driverʼ. The former is as highly tragic as Marley can ever get, putting his optimism aside for a moment and lamenting about the impossibility of escaping from this «concrete jungle» (all the more appropriate considering the Wailers' temporary relocation to the big cities). Perkins adds another suitably wailing guitar solo to the track, but really it's all about Bob losing his head and shouting "illusion! confusion!" as if banishing by name the evil demons that have turned all our lives into such a wretched mess. As for ʽSlave Driverʼ, one of the most sparsely arranged tracks on the album, well, what can be said? Other than this is probably one of the calmest, most self-contained «rebel anthems» ever recorded? "Slave driver, the table is turned, catch a fire, so you can get burned" — never was an extremist slogan presented before in such a catchy, collected, almost friendly singalong manner.
Catch A Fire leaves plenty of space to explore the Wailers' non-political side — besides ʽStir It Upʼ, there's also the equally catchy and lovable ʽRock It Babyʼ, and ʽKinky Reggaeʼ is one of those novelty numbers that veers between total absurdity and presentation of society's flipside — but it ends more or less the same way it begins, with the anthemic ʽNo More Troubleʼ demanding to give peace and love a chance and the arousing ʽMidnight Raversʼ offering a rather uncomfy apocalyptic vision, ten thousand chariots without horses and all. Clearly, there is a strong sense of purpose here: Bob knew that the album had to break in him and his message, and so there is an extra «push» to this record that would gradually weaken and abate with the coming years, right until Exodus when Bob would give himself the next such push.
Not coincidentally, Catch A Fire consistently occupies one of the top spots in the ratings of Marley's catalog — a turn of events with which it is very hard to disagree. A great, diverse, inspiring job from everybody, starting with the Wailers' core and ending with the understanding session musicians (Wayne Perkins, apparently, did not know a thing about reggae when he was asked to contribute, yet he got into the spirit immediately), and a very natural thumbs up.