Friday, 1 June 2018
Bob Marley & The Wailers - Catch A Fire (1973)
Released April 1973
Recorded at Harry J's, Kingston, Jamaica
It is impossible to understate the cultural importance of this album, particularly for reggae as a genre. It was, certainly, the first “serious” reggae album, marketed as an album, as opposed to a vehicle for hit singles.
Tapping in to the burgeoning black consciousness vibe that soul artists such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & The Family Stone, Isaac Hayes and The O’Jays amongst others were expressing in the early 1970s, with songs that particularly concentrated on the slavery experience, such as “Slave Driver” and “400 Years” with lyrics such as “I remember on the slave ship, they brutalised our very soul…”, this was very much a cutting edge album. Tracks like “No More Trouble” and “Midnight Ravers” related to contemporary Jamaican social problems - poverty and police/governmental oppression and, strangely, the latter appears to be about cross-dressing. The ostracisation from mainstream society of the Rastaman was also a readily expressed sentiment, although this would be a more stridently vocalised protest on later albums.
Despite its clear message contained in much of its material, there were also several simply gorgeous reggae “pop” songs - romantic seductions such as the beautiful “Stir It Up”, the catchy rocksteady of “Baby We Got A Date” and the easy skanking grooves of Peter Tosh’s addictive, smoothly energising “Stop That Train”. There was also the laid back rootsy rock of “Kinky Reggae”.
What was unique about this album was that some guitar parts played by mainstream rock guitarist Wayne Perkins (who had no idea what reggae was all about) were dubbed on to tracks like the powerful opener, “Concrete Jungle”, which saw a potent solo at the end and the distinctive wah-wah on “Stir It Up”. He also featured on “Baby We Got A Date”, with a country-style pedal steel slide guitar. These were touches applied by producer Chris Blackwell in order to aid with the crossover from cult backwoods Jamaican “yard” band to mainstream rock group, appearing on shows like “The Old Grey Whistle Test”. It worked. Rock music fans may not have “got” reggae in its essential forms (that would not come until the punk/rasta crossover in the years 1976-79), but they lapped up this album. A star was born. No, a great band were born. Although Peter Tosh would leave soon for solo success, The Wailers were one of the great, if not the greatest, reggae rhythm section.
Check out that melodic bass on “Stir It Up”, the skanking rhythm and Perkin’s wah-wah. Still my favourite Bob Marley track.
On the “deluxe” version, the original, non-dubbed “Jamaican” versions of the songs are available. They are more “rootsy”, more obviously Jamaican and they have their appeal, but despite the “westernisation” of the eventually-released album, it still is the definitive version, in my opinion. The “western” parts never detract too much from what is an essential piece of ground-breaking reggae.