Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Wailers Alternative Discography #1: "Simmer Down and Other Hits"

Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were incredibly prolific in the 1960s, topping the local charts so regularly they became known as 'the Jamaican Beatles'. Much of what they recorded before meeting Chris Blackwell was magnificent, and almost all of it needs to be heard.

I'm presenting a series called 'The Alternate Wailers Discography' - a kind of imaginary discography of 'should-have-been' albums that didn't, and don't, in fact exist - though the songs on them do. There are two aspects of the Wailers' legacy that trouble me, and I aim to address both of them:

  1. In the 1970s and beyond, the name "the Wailers" became little more than a suffix to the phrase "Bob Marley and". While I'll not even attempt to deny Bob Marley's greatness, or even his primacy, the Wailers were a trio. The logo of their early record label Wail N Soul M showed three hands holding each other's forearm to form a triangle. All for one, etc. It's sad and insulting to see Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer presented as merely Bob Marley's early-years backup singers.
  2. Throughout the 1960s, the principal medium of record distribution in Jamaica was the 7". The hordes of songs they recorded that decade were almost all released haphazardly on singles, never to be collected until years later on cheap, chintzy compilations: incomplete, unannotated and often overdubbed. By the standards of the modern music industry, this dilutes the music's impact, allowing the Wailers' 1960 work to be seen as a minor prelude to Bob Marley's 1970s albums in Island Records. Island surely bears much of the blame for this - it is in their interest to promote their own property at the expense of material they don't have the rights to - but it is yet another thing that distorts our perception of this supergroup.
With the aid of a relatively extensive selection of recent compilations and the absolutely essential Bob Marley and the Wailers: a Definitive Discography by Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson, I've gone about creating an 'alternate discography' of the Wailers - what their discography might look like if the Jamaican record industry in the 1960s had cared about the 12" album. While the albums are figments of my imagination, the songs that make them up are not, and the albums are perfectly compilable, provided you have the originals.

This is not a project designed to aid in the illegal distribution of Wailers music. I would love to allow you to listen to the albums I've put together, as I think they play very well as albums. But that would be illegal. The best I can do is tell you how to assemble them yourselves. I've also attempted to repect Steffens and Pierson's copyright by (a) not including every song the Wailers recorded and (b) not including certain discographical details. I have, though, trusted Steffens and Pierson implicitly and built the entire project around the details as they've presented them.

For a more detailed background, read this earlier blog post.

    Album #1:
    Simmer Down and Other Hits
    (August 1964, Studio One)

    Side One
    1. 2:50 Simmer Down — Bob with Peter, Bunny, Junior, Beverly
    2. 1:56 Climb the Ladder — Bob with Peter, Bunny, Junior, Beverly
    3. 2:32 Straight and Narrow Way — Junior with Bob, Peter, Bunny, Beverly
    4. 3:05 Maga Dog — Peter with Bob, Bunny, Junior, Beverly
    5. 2:31 Your Love — Bob with Bunny, Junior, Beverly, a
    6. 2:30 Go Jimmy Go — Bob with Peter, Bunny, Junior, Beverly
    Side Two
    1. 2:50 Do You Remember — Bob with Peter, Bunny, Junior, Beverly
    2. 1:59 Destiny — Bob with Peter, Bunny, Junior, Beverly, b
    3. 2:11 Habits — Junior with Bob, Peter, Bunny, Beverly
    4. 2:12 Tell Them Lord — Bob with Peter, Bunny, Junior, Beverly, b
    5. 2:38 Amen — Peter with Bob, Bunny, Junior, Beverly, c
    6. 3:40 I Am Going Home — Bob with Peter, Bunny, Junior, Beverly
    All tracks recorded July 1964.
    All tracks produced by Clement Dodd.

    The Wailers are: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Junior Braithwaite and Beverley Kelso.
    note: 'a' is Joe Higgs, 'b' is Blossom Johnson, 'c' is Clement Dodd

    Listening to these primitive early recordings, you see where the Skatalites (the backup group on these recordings) were coming from when they say ska came in no small part from marching-band music. Several of the Skatalites were trained in a boys'-school marching band, and it shows. The lightness of touch ska requires is present here, but you get a sense they ought to be in a parade at times. According to Bunny Wailer's recollections, every track on this disc was recorded in a single month, July 1964, and as such probably represents the Wailers' repertoire at that point. So being a ska group, this is a pretty unrelenting ska album - twelve tracks with a strong emphasis on that very particular rhythm.

    Having said that, though, there is diversity. The final track, Bob's remarkable "I Am Going Home" is a rewrite of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that mixes American spiritual music with jazz improvisation, all behind that native ska pulse. Running almost four minutes, it's far more radical than anything the Beatles offered up on their début.

    Bob Marley is clearly the lead singer of this quintet. Core members Junior Braithwaite and Beverley Kelso would only be in the line-up for a few months more, but they are definitely full members here. Bunny is silent in the background, and both Junior and Peter get two cracks at the mic (well, the single shared mic): Peter does well with both "Maga Dog" and the quirky "Amen", but while Junior's "Straight and Narrow Way" is respectable enough, "Habits" gets a bit grating after a while: Junior's beautiful voice is best in isolation, and this album frequently presents five singers all trying to scream above one another, less 'harmony' than cacophony.

    Since Bob gets the most leads, he gets the most filler as well. But the catchy "Simmer Down" hit #1 for good reason, and "Go Jimmy Go" is a pretty great floor-filler. The other voice worth mentioning is of their mentor Joe Higgs, who takes Peter's place on the otherwise unremarkable "Your Love" and makes it his own with a charismatic line or two in the chorus. His is the only guest vocal on the whole album.

    The main unavoidable issue - the thing that makes these songs curios instead of international treasures - is that the sound quality truly is atrocious. I mean, even by 1962 standards it's atrocious. Frank Sinatra recordings from twenty years earlier are much, much clearer. This is where you realise that this material really was made in a third-world country; while the label on the package says 'produced' by Coxsone Dodd, it was recorded on one-track - probably by a mic hanging in the middle of a large room with all the musicians and singers crowded in there. I'm sure the set-up was primitive, but I also wonder if there hasn't been a lot of degeneration over the years, perhaps through poor handling of the masters: the nature of the distortion varies from track to track, though some of that is inevitably people after the event mucking around with the tapes. But Coxsone Dodd was recording this material primarily for use in his own sound systems - so it's tough to imagine these songs rocking any blocks back in the day unless the tapes were much brighter sounding before half a century's degeneration had worsened them.

    For some reason, Clement Dodd's treasure trove of early Wailers recordings has never been properly released, in any kind of logical box set form. What we have is out there on a handful of rather random collections, mostly released on the 'who are they?' "Heartbeat" label. The sound quality is all over the place, some songs have obtrusive drum machines and guitars overdubbed, and the collections look like chintsy knock-offs. Well, they are, but it's all we've got. The first six of my 'albums' will cover the Dodd era, and my sources here are Heartbeat CDs entitled One Love at Studio One, Destiny, Climb the Ladder, Another Dance, Wailers and Friends and The Toughest. The last one is attributed to Peter Tosh, though not all of the songs on it feature him.

    In the 1960s, many albums were released with 'cash in on the hit' titles like the one I've given this one. Since 'Simmer Down' is a worthy hit, was their début and their first number one, it seems worth commemorating in an album title. One day when I get around to making covers for these, expect this one to look pretty cheesy.

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