Friday, April 1, 2011

Preserving a Musical Legacy

I'd like you to imagine for a moment the following scenario:

When the Beatles, considered by most people to be Britain's finest and most revolutionary rock group, split up in the early 1970s, John Lennon and George Harrison go on to modestly successful solo careers while Paul McCartney, together with Ringo Starr, George Martin and some new recruits, carries on as "Paul McCartney and the Beatles".

A career of very well-recorded albums follows, mixing new songs with rerecordings of old Beatles classics. They sell extraordinarily well, due in no small part to the aggressive international marketing of McCartney's record company, while the classics from the 1960s languish in obscurity, issued haphazardly on chintzy small-label compilations.

A compilation released toward the end of the 1970s, Myth: the Best of Paul McCartney and the Beatles has gone on down the years to be the music industry's most successful 'catalogue release' and one of the best-selling albums in history. While it's an hour of wonderful-sounding and generally good music, it's a sad distortion of history, with latter-day hits like "Mull of Kintyre" and "Jet" overrepresented. "Drive My Car" and "We Can Work It Out" are on it, but in slicker late-seventies remade versions. Only a small smattering of golden-era songs are included, and only one, "Revolution", features John Lennon. Today's generation, university kids who buy Myth to play in their dorm rooms, are more likely to attribute the song and its strident political message to Paul McCartney.

Ultimately, John Lennon and George Harrison have been washed out of the picture. They're not unknown, but they're thought of today primarily for their meagre solo careers, not as members of the Beatles. If you ask the average music fan to name the 'original' Beatles, where most everyone would confidently list McCartney, most others would hem and haw past that. People see the Beatles as Paul McCartney's backup band, little more.

Those songs that burned up the charts in the 1960s are all but forgotten, their primitive recording and tinny sonics make them less an essential purchase than an inaccessible curio for interested fans, and the money to remaster them properly has just never been put forth. McCartney's latter-day record company has a vested interest in promoting those 1970s hits, and as such every few years puts out another compilation to compete with Myth that once again focuses on those latter-day albums and remakes instead of the originals. The vast majority of the Beatles' actual 'greatest hits' remain all but unknown today, seen as inferior to McCartney's 1970s work and, even more oddly, seen as stylistically 'not representative of McCartney's genius'. The 1970s songs are good, but they're a half-legacy. The other half of the legacy (arguably the more important half), and the contributions of John Lennon and George Harrison, are given an embarrassingly short shrift.

Such a situation as I've described it would be all but impossible to imagine. But while Britain's finest 1960s act has been spared it, Jamaica's finest act has not. The prolific and revolutionary ten-year recorded output of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, one of the most perfect 'supergroups' ever to enter a studio, is a joke, buried beneath a handful of 16-track studio productions made on Island Records in the 1970s, after Peter and Bunny had jumped ship.

People might be bothered at me equating Bob Marley, perhaps the closest thing the modern world has to a genuine prophet, with Paul McCartney, the eager-to-please vaseline-smile showman. But within the group dynamics, the more strident, angry and political Peter Tosh is John Lennon, while the quieter, more down-to-earth Bunny Wailer is George Harrison. Bob Marley was clearly the most prolific of the three and the one most likely to compose 'feel-good' songs. Plus, there ain't nothin' wrong with Paul McCartney. He's created a lot of great music, both with John, George and Ringo and without.

I'm slowly going through the Wailers' 1960s material and want to share with you what I find. This then is merely a shout out loud that such a rich legacy of music is so poorly treated. I don't want to slight Bob Marley, who I think is an amazing musician deserving of his reputation. It's more that I want to exalt Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who could use a bit of that lustre that Bob Marley has posthumously come to possess.

1 comment:

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