Monday, January 11, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 41 - Bob Marley (and the Wailers)

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Before this week began, I was very familiar with Bob Marley as a person and a political figure, but I knew next to nothing about his music. Usually it's the other way around, and I'm familiar with a track or two, but ignorant about the artist who created it. Marley, however, is one of those rare musical figures whose mythos (or, dare I say, Legend?) has bled over from the musical world to our larger cultural consciousness.

I don't think I would be wrong to say that most people my age know Marley more as a political crusader then as a musician. I went to college not that long ago, and dorm rooms are still littered with Bob Marley posters, but I can't recall ever hearing any of his music while in school (though maybe I just hung out with the wrong crowd). Nowadays, we associate him with dreadlocks, Rastafarianism, Jamaica, marijuana, and an overall "chill" attitude without necessarily listening to any of his stuff.

Is this the way Marley would have wanted it? I can't pretend to say. With Marley, the political and the musical were very closely intertwined, to the extent that it's hard to separate one from the other. But somehow, his image has lived on while his music, to some degree, has faded.

Normally, when an artist's personality eclipses their art, it's for far less than enviable reasons (think of Kanye West's current embarrassments, for example). But for Bob Marley, at least, the reputation that precedes him is a favorable one. It's a shame that his music doesn't get more play today, but at least he and his cause are still remembered. Perhaps it's better that we remember the message over the music, rather than the other way around.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Bob Marley (and the Wailers)

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I remember learning about Bob Marley in middle school music class, as part of a unit about feel-good music or something inane like that. But we didn't listen to any of his music, (instead, for some reason the teacher chose to put on a song by his far less-talented son Ziggy Marley). My Marley knowledge has since been piecemeal and often erroneous. For example, up until this week I was convinced that Marley had been assassinated. I don't know what led me to believe this, other than perhaps I equate Political Figure plus Untimely Death with assassination.

So really, I didn't know a whole lot about Bob Marley going into this week.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Natty Dread (1974) every day this week. The rest of the week was peppered with Catch a Fire (1973), Burnin' (1973) and Exodus (1977), each of which I listened to twice. And as I write this, I'm currently listening to Live! (1975), a wonderfully emotive recording of a Marley concert in London.


Marley's music has an amazing sense of rhythm, but it's so subtle that it took me a few listens to fully appreciate it. In the background of every song, there's always some sort of incredible beat going on, but the performance is so casual, and Marley's singing so easygoing, that it seems like nothing at all. It's very difficult to keep a steady, difficult rhythmic beat while maintaining this sort of carefree nonchalance in one's music. Marley (and his Wailers) manage to do just that.

Really, I have a lot of good stuff to say about the back-up players on these albums. Marley's melodies and lyrics get a lot of credit (and rightfully so), but the songs are also elaborately constructed. Back-up vocals, electric keyboard, various percussion instruments, horns, hand-claps are always utilized in just the right place. There's a reason that dub music came into existence, and it's because the backing tracks on the best reggae songs are like miniature symphonies themselves. Again, it's subtle and not necessarily memorable the first time you hear it, but it's the sort of thing that makes music worth returning to.

Finally, though Marley is a competent studio musician, I'm sort of being blown away by his live album right now. For example, the song "No Woman, No Cry" is a fairly good track from Natty Dread. But in the live version, Marley manages to emote far more, and the relatively simple melody manages to portray despair, hope, nostalgia, community and perseverance all at once. I can't say Marley's voice always managed to effect me - some of his songs just feel like him going through the motions to convey a political point- but on his best songs (like this one, and the stunning "Redemption Song") he's very very personal, and very very much on the top of his game.


The 1984 greatest hits collection Legend has sold over 25 million copies, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. It's the first exposure many people have to Marley's music. I also think there's a reason for its success: you really only need one Bob Marley album.

Sure, his early work with the Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer is a little more militant, his later work a little more laid-back and intimate. But I can't say there was a major shift from album to album, at least from the listening that I did this week. I'm not saying that there's necessarily any filler on any of Marley's albums - all of the tracks are solid - but there aren’t any hidden gems, either. Once you've listened to one Marley album, you've pretty much got the idea.

WHAT I LEARNED: I learned that Bob Marley's music is actually made by "Bob Marley and the Wailers" and, in fact, his first few albums were credited merely as "The Wailers". After he parted ways with his partners Tosh and Wailer with 1974's Natty Dread, Marley continued to use the name "The Wailers" for his backup band. I mention this only because I feel that Bob Marley gets a lot of credit, but his bandmates and backing musicians are equally talented and often overlooked.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's plenty more Marley albums, including Kaya (1978), Survival (1979), and Uprising (1980), though I can't say I'm expecting any of these to be drastically different from what I've listened to so far. However, fellow Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer both have their own critically acclaimed albums that are probably worth a listen. Really, at this point Bob Marley's work is the only reggae I'm familiar with. It's a genre in which I have a lot of catching up to do.



NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: The Dire Straits