It’s a simple fact that Bob Marley was the first rock star of reggae. The leonine, dressed-down, kickabout messiah looked and sounded like he could lead an exodus anywhere, any time he liked.
His music transcends politics, language, and cultures. His songs resound on every continent and are especially embraced by the oppressed and those seeking spiritual fulfilment. They will live on for time immemorial, but just how much of a commercial success was he while he was alive? Reputation or record sales? On the 75th anniversary of his birth, a timely reminder of how death seals that legendary status.
It’s Monday 11 May 1981. It’s the month before my twelfth birthday and thus, my last few weeks at middle school before upgrading with the big boys after the summer holidays.
Milton Keynes is way too shiny and new to be be affected, but many deprived areas of Britain are burning, thanks to a triple header of recession, race and riots against Margaret Thatcher’s austerity government, most notably in immigrant areas like Brixton in South London, a mere stone’s throw from where I’d spent the first three years of existence in Clapham.
Amid this turbulent backdrop, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer still go through with their enforced arranged marriage that July, just a week after Ghost Town, The Specials’ savage response to what was happening in the UK, conveniently slipped away from the top spot.
Throughout that month of May the “number one sound”, as some old hoary Smashey and Nicey type Radio 1 DJ would have described it at the time, happened to be the first proper pop record I ever bought, Stand And Deliver by Adam and his swashbuckling merry band of Ants. For me, a new royal family but a whole new window into that wonderful world of music.
Two days older than me, my oldest friend Joanne cried when she heard the news in Bletchley, but when I caught a vague rumbling five miles from her that Bob Marley had died in Miami, my first reaction was “Bob who?”
By the way, these are her shoes. And the bust of Bob.
But then again, just five months the before I wasn’t entirely sure who that English bloke out of some pop band from my parents’ time was either, the one who’d just been brutally slain in New York.
“Jack Lemon, I think his name is,” came my achingly disinterested reply.
Clearly, I had a lot to learn.
Though I think the point I’m trying to make is that, unlike John Lennon, Marley’s legend was of a limited scope prior to this death.
His role in turning reggae into a worldwide phenomenon is one of the reasons the category of “world music” was invented, in 1987, to help stars break out from beyond America and Europe, many of whom inevitably get described as the Bob Marley of their homeland. But again, it’s a sadly posthumous achievement.
Between his British chart debut in 1975 and his death six years later, Bob Marley & The Wailers had enjoyed precisely eight Top 50 singles and the same number of albums, with three 45s and three LPs making the all-important Top 10.
His highest charting song, the brilliant Buffalo Soldier only came in 1983, and the following year the posthumous Legend collection not only gave him the first Top Three album of his career, but it started its lengthy chart life with a staggering twelve weeks at the top spot.
This was the kind of gold carat commercial success the wailing wonder could have only dreamed of, particularly on that final tour of the States where he was reduced to support band status, opening for Lionel Richie and The Commodores.
Just as we learned about America from the movies, we learned about Jamaica from reggae. Just as musically hungry residents of the fifth largest island country in the Caribbean got their jazz and R&B from US forces radio in the Fifties, which helped fertilise the birth of ska and rocksteady, in the UK the generation before me relied heavily on the likes of Island and Trojan for our understanding of reggae, which first infiltrated the charts through Eric Clapton before demand for the real thing took over.
Cloaked in the smoke of myth and misinformation, reggae and Rastafari seemed exotic and aspirational: the big hats, the dope, the dub plates, the low-speed patois, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, the uprising against colonial thumb. Punk embraced it. Britain embraced it.
But despite the spottery chart stats, no one metric captures the scale of Bob Marley’s posthumous legend except, perhaps, the impressive range of items adorned with his likeness. There are T-shirts, hats, posters, tapestries, skateboard decks, headphones, speakers, turntables, bags, watches, pipes, lighters, ashtrays, key chains, backpacks, scented candles, room mist, soap, hand cream, lip balm, body wash, coffee, ice cream, dietary-supplement drinks, and cannabis (whole flower, as well as oil) that bear some official relationship with the Marley estate. There are also lava lamps, iPhone cases, mouse pads, and fragrances that do not.
In 2016, Forbes calculated that Marley’s estate brought in twenty-one million dollars, making him the year’s sixth-highest-earning “dead celebrity,” and unauthorised sales of Marley music and merchandise have been estimated to generate more than half a billion dollars a year, though the estate disputes this.
In So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley, the reggae historian Roger Steffens estimates that at least five hundred books have been written about Marley. There are books interpreting his lyrics and even collecting his favourite Bible passages, parsing his relationship to the Rastafarian religion and his status as a “postcolonial idol,” reconstructing his childhood in Jamaica and investigating the theory that his death was the result of a CIA assassination effort.
Subscribing to a millenarian, Afrocentric interpretation of Scripture that took hold in Jamaica in the 1930s, Marley had brought Rastafari, long seen as an outlaw cult, into the mainstream. By conventional Western standards, the Rastafarian movement can seem both uncompromising (it espouses archaic archly conservative views on issues of gender and sexuality and requires a strict, all-natural diet) and appealingly lax (it has a communal ethos, which often involves liberal ritual use of marijuana).
Indeed, reggae, Rastafarianism and reefer seemed inextricably linked.
But the religion of the master Rasta would also prove to be a factor in his death. Marley died from an acral lentiginous melanoma, a form of skin cancer which had been diagnosed in 1977, spreading from under a nail of his toe. When doctors discovered the cancer, he was advised to have his toe amputated, but refused as his Rastafarian faith considers it a sin to have a part of the body ‘temple’ removed. He did consent to a skin graft but this didn’t stop the disease spreading throughout his body by the summer of 1980.
Marley is buried at Nine Mile in the Saint Ann Parish of Jamaica, the very place he entered the world on 6 February 1945 to a white father and black mother. But hey, when it comes to Bob Marley, it’s probably best not to delve too deep into the biography and just enjoy the richness of the music. This introduction to Robert Christgau’s Salon review of Chris Salewicz’s bio of the singer songwriter gives you one reason why you don’t want to go there:
As Chris Salewicz’s Bob Marley: The Untold Story isn’t the first to report, many human beings worldwide — he cites Hopis, Maoris, Indonesians and, of course, Africans — regard Bob Marley as a “Redeemer figure coming to lead this planet out of confusion,” and some consider him nothing less than the literal second coming of Jesus Christ. Say what you will about the adoration accorded John Coltrane, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Um Kulthum, this is another order of iconicity. Say what you will about the religious dimensions of pop fandom, Marley’s Rastafarianism renders the metaphor literal. These mystifications bode ill for Marley’s biographers, who number at least 15 or 20 by now. Take, for instance, Stephen Davis, who closes with two triple-indented lines: “Bob Marley lives. He’s a god./’History proves.’” And Davis’ bio is one of the good ones.
In addition to the problems presented by idolatry, several writers have expressed shock and dismay regarding Bob Marley’s treatment of women. He fathered several children, in and out-of-wedlock, and had his wife Rita take care of some of the children born to those other women. In her book No Woman, No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley, Rita claims he forced himself on her several times, “and I call that rape.” In Bob Marley’s defence, his actions reflected Rastafari patriarchal beliefs that emphasise the subordinate status of women and strongly encourage reproduction. Given the simple truth that anyone can find a scrap of text in any religious dogma to justify the most appalling behaviour and the most despicable prejudices, it’s not much of a defence, but there it is.
While you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who is as anti-patriarchal as I am, I don’t think it’s fair to single out Bob Marley for a remarkably active sex life grounded in male entitlement. Shit, if I had started this blog by refusing to review any music performed by men with sexist, superior attitudes, I wouldn’t have had much to write about.
I’ll also point out that public figures—especially those who have transitioned to The Great Beyond—always suffer from the disadvantage of having the most private aspects of their lives exposed to feed the public’s passion for dirt. Since they’re not around to respond to the allegations, you only get one side of the story, and sometimes that story is twisted to either make some money or make the secret-sharer look good. Unless there is a relevant piece of biographical information or an aspect of Rastafari that is vital to understanding a particular song, I intend to ignore the noise and let Bob Marley’s work speak for itself.
And as I don’t believe in gods and angels in any form, I’ll approach Bob Marley’s work under the assumption that he was a flawed human being like the rest of us and had his share of hits and misses. He was a man with ample musical talent and heightened social consciousness who had the great misfortune of living during a period when people elevated celebrities to god-like status. Almost forty years later, he’s still revered as a national hero to his countrymen in Jamaica.
As esteemed author Charles Shaar Murray noted in his fascinating book Crosstown Traffic, “Marley developed into possibly the most extraordinary figure in the history of Western pop culture: not only the acknowledged leader of his chosen musical idiom, but the world’s most prominent spokesman for a religion previously unknown to almost all but its practitioners, and finally the most politically influential recording artist of the 20th century.”
Marley has influenced countless musicians. His first notable disciple, Eric Clapton, turned a cover of I Shot the Sheriff into an international hit in 1974. “Bob Marley was a wonderful songwriter and a great rhythm guitarist,” Clapton said. “He was just an amazing musician.”
Others drew from Marley’s heartbeat reggae – Paul Simon, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, The Clash, and UB40 among them. Stevie Wonder wrote Master Blaster as a tribute to the man. The Police likewise came under his spell. “Bob Marley’s singing had a great effect on me,” Sting said, “and I would cite Bob as a major influence on The Police. Bob Marley was the touchstone between my interest in black American music and jazz.”
For the world at large, Legend, released on the third anniversary of his death, is a very good starting point for an exploration of Bob Marley and the Wailers, a compilation album that spans a good chunk of their discography. 35 years later, it has sold squillions of copies worldwide and is now one of the longest-charting albums in history,
The set, however, has been sometimes castigated “for being a deliberately inoffensive selection of Marley’s less political music, shorn of any radicalism that might damage sales,” and according to one source, compiler Dave Robinson selected the tracks most likely to appeal to white audiences. There’s some truth to that, but one could also argue that loading the collection with more accessible songs was a subtle way to open the door to listener radicalisation. I have a bit of a hard time believing that only a few of those buyers stopped with Legend. Most people who hear Bob Marley want to hear more.
So, wha’ppen to make it so great?
Any record collection without Legend needs to be remedied, fast. And given it’s spent coming up to 500 consecutive weeks in the Billboard Hot 200, not many collections go without it. Easily reggae’s biggest seller, it showcases Marley’s masterful hold on music that could be uplifting and politically defiant all at once. He wrote more political songs in his foreshortened lifetime and poppier ones too. The best reggae lyrics – in common, perhaps, with country’s – do not mince words. While not everything is literally spelt out, it’s unlikely to be obfuscated by metaphor.
Bob Marley proved himself a formidable albums artist, and yet this first posthumous compilation sealed his reputation as one of the century’s master singles artists. His exceptional gift for melody and honeyed voice may have made it easier for the masses to hear his expressions of joy, but that talent came with a downside: his music is often so pleasant that people don’t pay much attention to the words.
The world could really use a heavy dose of Bob Marley right now to remind us that injustice and oppression are unacceptable options guaranteed to bring more misery to the human race, and that we all need to take some time away from the struggle against mental slavery to replenish our energy though liberal indulgence in life’s simple pleasures.
Interview with Kevin McDonald, Director of Touching The Void and Marley:
“Q: Why do you think Marley’s music has proved so enduring?
A: He wrote incredibly good tunes. Bob wrote more standards than almost anybody else, apart from Lennon and McCartney.” Did he? Standards? I Shot The Sheriff, Redemption Song, One Love, Three Little Birds, No Woman, No Cry, sure, but are his songs covered regularly, in the way that standards are? Marley’s number 211 on the SecondHandSongs database, a pretty comprehensive list of the most-covered songwriters, some way below Ozzy Osbourne and Marvin Gaye.
I’ll bet you that half the people who bought Legend just wanted some nice background music for parties, or perhaps they had a lovely vacation in Jamaica safe behind the patrolled walls of the resort compound and wanted a musical souvenir to remind them of the pleasures of privilege.
Best tracks: Could You Be Loved, Buffalo Soldier, Three Little Birds, No Woman No Cry.
Big omissions: Sun Is Shining, Easy Skanking, Punky Reggae Party (though the latter two were included on the original cassette as bonus tracks).
Caution: According to Discogs there are almost 300 versions of Legend. No shit. I have no idea why that is; I only mention it here because my content may not match your content. There is also the ongoing confusion regarding “The Wailers.” The original Wailers disbanded in 1974, but Bob continued to record as “Bob Marley and the Wailers,” and the backing band was occasionally labeled “The Wailers Band” to differentiate them from the Peter Tosh-Bunny Wailer group.
I’ll just simplify things by calling all the manifestations “The Wailers” and give Peter and Bunny credit where due. But until you’ve actually learned precisely when to go “Ow!”, you’re a reggae weekender. And while we’re at it, here’s a newly animated video for Redemption Song, the spiritual folk ballad which elegiacally seemed to sum up everything the singer represented.
For the record, Legend is currently battling it out with Queen’s Greatest Hits to become only the second album in the history of the British charts to pass 900 weeks. Interestingly, all three LPs are currently distributed by the media monolith Universal.
What are they trying to catch up with? Only the all-conquering ABBA Gold, which, having only been released in 1992 is the baby of the trio, having amassed well in excess of 5,600,000 sales to become the UK’s second biggest selling album of all time, with Queen the biggest seller and Legend in 16th place on 3,400,000 units. ABBA’s figures are all the more remarkable when you remember none of the Swedish awesome foursome had to die to achieve such record-breaking plaudits.
Angel or legend, I don’t care, for in front of that score there is Swede.
BONUS: Did you know David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s first choice for their Live Aid duet in 1985 wasn’t their let’s have a tumble and twirl take on Marvin Gaye’s Dancing In The Street but Bob’s One Love?
You do now.
In his 2013 book The Eighties: One Day, One Decade, Dylan Jones reports that the choice of song was instigated by Bob Geldof (no doubt inspired by USA For Africa’s much more nauseating charity cheesiest We Are The World), but “after several attempts at working out a way to make it work, they eventually decided that this wasn’t going to happen, and so went off to a nightclub together and spent the evening trying to outdo each other on the dance floor. This gave them the idea of recording a cover of Dancing In The Street to be broadcast at the event and released as a single.”
The Don Letts-directed video for One Love was issued in 1984 as a promotion for the Legend album, and features an all-star cast including Paul McCartney, Bananarama and The Belle Stars’ Clare Hirst, who would go on to play in Bowie’s Live Aid band a year later.
BONUS 2: Bob acknowledged 11 children with seven women in his lifetime. His eldest son David Nesta “Ziggy” Marley was born in Kingston Town in 1968, and there are competing theories of how the future musician and leader of the sunny horn-fuelled Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers was given his pet name. One version claims that his father nicknamed him Ziggy in reference to a big spliff (as in the French Zig-Zag brand of cigarette papers which are used to roll a joint).
The alternative explanation is that he was nicknamed Ziggy in reference to Bowie and his 1972 album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust. Possibly with a healthy dollop of post-rationalisation, Ziggy told Melody Maker magazine in 1988: “Me name David but me big Bowie fan. So at the time of the Ziggy Stardust album, me call meself Ziggy and now everyone do.” Quite.
Q: You are a big David Bowie fan. Did you ever meet him? And what did he mean to you?
A: I met David Bowie once, and even he asked [how I got my name]. People like David Bowie and Prince, they are creative and innovative, and they made their own music their own way. They were both great inspirations to me, the idea that you can create music that is your own music and nobody else’s music.
Finally, in a tenuous full circle thing, Zachary Alford, Bowie’s drummer for the omnipresent Outside and Earthling album/tour/album periods in the mid 1990s, did name his daughter Marley while on the road with Bowie, and you can guess the inspiration. My feet is my only carriage.
Lively up yourself, lovelies.