Monday, May 23, 2011

The Wailers Alternative Discography #5: "The Toughest"

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 #5
    The Toughest
    (August 1966, Studio One)

    Side One
    1. 3:12 The Toughest — Peter with Vision 
    2. 2:42 Let Him Go — Bunny with Peter, Vision
    3. 3:09 That Ain't Right — Rita with Peter, Bunny, Vision, a
    4. 2:28 Jerking Time — Bunny with Peter, Vision
    5. 2:55 Lemon Tree — Peter & Bunny with Rita, Vision, a
    Side Two
    1. 2:42 A Deh Pon Dem — Rita with Peter, Bunny, Vision, a
    2. 2:53 Rock Sweet Rock — Bunny with Peter, Rita, Vision
    3. 3:05 Who Feels it Knows It — Bunny with Peter, Vision
    4. 2:34 Friends and Lovers — Rita with Peter, Bunny, Vision
    5. 3:07 Sinner Man — Peter with Bunny 
    All tracks recorded July 1966,
    except "Sinner Man" March 1966,
    "The Toughest" May 1966,
    "Let Him Go" and "Who Feels It Knows It" June 1966.
    All tracks produced by Clement Dodd.

    The Wailers are: Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley and Vision Walker.
    note: 'a' is Marlene Gifford

    Between December of 1965, when the last of the songs that I included on my previous 'album' were recorded, and July of 1966, when the last of the current crop was recorded, three seismic events happened to conspire to rock the Wailers to the core: it's a very different group that emerges on this album from the one before it, despite a mere half-year gap.

    The first earthquake was the departure of the 'main' Wailer, Bob Marley. Given our current understanding of who the Wailers are, an album that does not include Bob Marley would seem as illegitimate a 'Wailers' album as, say, the post-Lou Reed Velvet Underground album or the Crazy Horse album that doesn't include Neil Young. But the facts are actually a touching expression of solidarity, as during this era Marley went temporarily to the USA to work in a car factory, saving enough money to return and allow the Wailers a measure of independence outside of Clement Dodd's Studio One label. So while, outside of Jamaica, it's impossible to imagine the lead singer of a band who had scored several number ones and been compared to the Beatles needing to work in a car factory to supplement income, this reality shows in fact Marley's determination and team spirit.

    In his absence, Peter and Bunny soldiered on rather erratically, with the help of 'sister band' the Soulettes. The Soulettes were another trio signed to Coxsone Dodd's label, featuring Rita Anderson (now called Rita Marley upon marrying Bob before his stateside sojourn), Marlene Gifford and Constantine 'Vision' Walker. Without Bob the distinct membership of these two trios began to disappear, and Soulettes appear on sides attributed to the Wailers and vice versa. For my purposes, I've accepted Vision and Rita as full members and treated Gifford as a backup singer. Vision appears on every side here save one, while Rita tends to appear only alongside Gifford and Walker. Yet unlike those two, she gets three leads here - in fact three of the best songs on the disc. And she carries the surname of the absent member as well.

    The second earthquake was the death of ska. While I can't quite call this a rocksteady album,. it's certainly not a ska album either, featuring experiments on side one like the roller-rink organ of 'Jerking Time', the American influences of 'I'm the Toughest' (a future Tosh standard that was born of the American hit 'I'm Your Puppet') and 'That Ain't Right' (which puts a Jamaican groove over a pretty standard American R&R twelve-bar) and the Latin 'Lemon Tree' (an international folk standard done as a harmony number with theo two main Wailers sharing lead).

    Side two, on the other hand, features the martial herky-jerk of ska softened into a much more supple and sensual groove: proto-rocksteady, recorded at a time when rocksteady had taken over Jamaica but Dodd's crew were rather slow to respond. Rita in particular shines on the second side, with two gorgeous songs sung so well it's a pity she spent much of her career as her husband's backup singer. Bunny and Peter sing the remainder, religious songs finishing with Peter's remarkable 'Sinner Man', cover of an old spiritual. For someone who had previously not taken a single solo lead, Bunny in particular is all over this album, a creative rebirth born, perhaps, of the removal of his half-brother's long shadow - yet it's also partly my fault. A bit of confusion while tracking this album and its follow-up meant that I misrecorded two Bunny songs on this album as Peter songs, and for balance I put three Tosh songs recorded alongside the bulk of this 'album' in July 1966 aside for the follow-up. I decided not to change the tracklistings, though, meaning the Peter's only solo leads on the disc are the opening and closing tracks. Though highlights they both are.

    'Sinner Man', in fact, was the first track recorded on this disc, back in March: an oddly prescient Christian spiritual laid down right before the third major upheaval in the Wailers' lives: the visit to Jamaica of Haile Selassie I, the word-made-flesh of the Rastafarian religion that all three Wailers would soon, and ever more, be passionate adherents of. Peter Tosh commemorated the event with a song called 'Rasta Shook Them Up' that I would love to have included here. But since it features no other Wailer I figured it distorted the intention of this project, which aims to present the Wailers as more than an anonymous backup band for a solo performer.

    The difference between ska and reggae is not merely tempo: while Bunny's 'Let Him Go' serves as a final rude-boy paean, from now on the lyrical glorification on order would be of something much higher than petty Trenchtown crooks.

    Once again, this material can all be found on the Heartbeat releases described in the Simmer Down entry, but since the main trio is in pieces during this era, much of this material can be found collected on the Wailers and Friends various-artists collection or the Peter Tosh retrospective The Toughest (which shares its name with my 'album' - probably for the same reason, namely that it's an album highlight and also an attention-grabbing boast). This is probably the single most obscure era in the Wailers' history.

    No comments:

    Post a Comment

    Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...