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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bob Marley: Rastaman Vibration


1) Positive Vibration; 2) Roots, Rock, Reggae; 3) Johnny Was; 4) Cry To Me; 5) Want More; 6) Crazy Baldhead; 7) Who The Cap Fit; 8) Night Shift; 9) War; 10) Rat Race; 11*) Jah Live.

Although this record became Bob's big breakthrough in the US, selling lotsa copies and yielding his most popular single in that country (ʽRoots, Rock, Reggaeʼ — supposedly American people were reluctant to buy up reggae singles that did not have the word «rock» in the title), I would say that Rastaman Vibration is somewhat less impressive than the two studio albums flanking it in Marley's discography. Natty Dread was somewhat of a challenge, in that Marley had to prove he still had it in himself to survive without the rest of the original Wailers — and the soon-to-come Exodus would be fueled with mega-ambition, some of it perhaps brewed up in the aftermath of the unsuccessful attempt on Bob's life in December '76.

In comparison, Rastaman Vibration has neither quite the impressive hooks of its predecessor, nor the undeniable grandeur of its follow-up. It is as sharply politicized as ever, perhaps even more ("it's not music right now, we're dealing with a message", Marley himself told interviewers in 1976), and in this intermediate context, such politicization means a certain unity in the groove: every track starts off with more or less the same little explosive drumroll from Carlton Barrett, after which you get more or less the same tempo, more or less the same instrumentation, more or less the same vibe, and more or less the same body temperature. Throughout.

This does not mean it ain't a nice enough vibe or temperature. By now, Marley has fully mastered the art of capturing the listener's attention with a bare minimum of means — his punch is econo­mic and simplistic, but it is hard not to feel it every time. Even when the music really occupies second place next to the message — ʽWarʼ is little more than just a famous UN speech by Haile Selassie set to a rhythmic pattern — just by simply repeating the mantra "everywhere is war, me say war" at the end of each paragraph, Bob makes his point (but note how he has this trembling wave of sadness inserted, just so you know that it is not his declaration of war, but rather his constatation of other people making war on his people: a defensive, not aggressive stance).

This bit of trouble determining whether he is on the attack or on the defense ain't accidental: there is always some sort of vague mystique, incomprehensibility, ambiguity, associated with Marley — like all great people, he was not that easy to pigeonhole. Another good case is ʽPositive Vib­rationʼ, with another unforgettable chorus hook (the "Rastaman vibration ye-e-ah, positive..." bit) that is nevertheless offset by the positively threatening bassline, which makes it seem as if the man is harassing you into "making way for the positive day" (at certain points, when they begin asking you "are you pickin' up now?", the melody once again goes straight into ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ territory — terrifying, almost!). He'd probably deny any such intention, but the fact is, even when Mr. Marley seems to be spreading that positive vibe, the music is anything but shiny and happy. Gloomy reggae, not some kiddie-happy ska here that Paul McCartney appropriated for ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ (now that was some «positive vibration» indeed).

On ʽRoots, Rock, Reggaeʼ, the band's mantraic declaration — "play I some music, dis-a reggae music" — is, in itself, stern and war-like: for Marley, new trends in music should necessarily be accompanied with new trends in spirituality, and he is unwilling to offer the people just the music without the message. The trick is that he is singing "we're bubblin' on the top one hundred / just like a mighty dread" with the same intonation he normally uses to describe the sufferings of his people in and out of slavery, and this works: you might think you're just boppin' and hoppin' around to a nice little rhythm, but in reality you're, like... joining The Cause! And the funniest thing of all, the single did get into the top one hundred, so it's not just you.

On the whole, though, Marley raises his voice noticeably high only once here — not on ʽCrazy Baldheadʼ, as one might think, whose basic seemingly-aggressive message ("we gonna chase those crazy baldheads out of town") is delivered in a surprisingly peaceful tone instead, but rather on ʽWant Moreʼ, a song that seems to be usually overlooked in the huge Marley catalog, yet it is really the strongest precursor here to the Moses-and-Aaron-rally of Exodus, with the sharpest, shrillest riff on the album, well matched with Marley's «driven-to-the-edge» point: "you get what you want, do you want more?..." "You think it's the end, but it's just the beginning" is one of the most threatening moments here in Wailers history, so do not overlook it.

Like most of Marley's output, this record almost automatically gets a thumbs up regardless of specific criticisms — not out of an act of boring political correctness, but more like a recognition of a steady genius, capable of delivering gripping material even in a temporary state of «musical inertia», so to speak. (Technically, Rastaman Vibration is somewhat innovative in that it intro­duces synthesizers into the Marley sound, but this is really so peripheral that I almost forgot to mention it in the first place). No fan, after all, could properly call himself a fan without having grooved heavily to the sounds of ʽPositive Vibrationʼ or without witnessing the peaceful consta­tation of ʽWarʼ (as opposed to, for instance, the gross misuse of the song by Sinead O'Connor, whose radical stance makes Bob Marley look like Rush Limbaugh in comparison). But in a larger context, somehow, many of these tunes seem a bit like... peanuts, maybe, for the real level of Mr. Marley and his team.


  1. Time to say that I love your blog and habe Bern following it for a long time (which doen't mean that I always agree with what you are saying. Keep on.

    1. ... sorry for the misspellings - my smartphone has a german autocorrection ...