Friday, June 3, 2011

The Wailers Alternative Discography #6: "Dreamland"

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 #6
    (December 1966, Studio One)

    Side One
    1. 2:47 Dancing Shoes — Bunny with Peter, Vision 
    2. 3:13 Making Love — Peter with Bunny, Vision, a, b
    3. 2:59 What am I Supposed to Do — Bunny with Peter, Vision
    4. 2:53 Treat Me Good — Peter with Bunny, Vision, a
    5. 2:54 Dreamland — Bunny with Peter, Vision
    Side Two
    1. 2:42 Can't You See — Peter with Bunny, Vision
    2. 2:42 Rolling Stone — Bunny with Peter, Vision
    3. 1:52 Don't Look Back — Peter with Bunny, Vision
    4. 3:05 I Stand Predominant — Bunny with Peter, Vision
    5. 2:34 When the Well Runs Dry — Peter with Bunny, Vision, a
    6. 3:07 I Need You So — Bunny with Peter, Vision
    All tracks recorded August 1966,
    except "Making Love", "Don't Look Back" and "When the Well Runs Dry" July 1966.
    All tracks produced by Clement Dodd.
    The Wailers are: Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Vision Walker.
    note: 'a' is Rita Marley, 'b' is Marlene Gifford

    Exit Coxsone Dodd. While obviously as the Wailers' first main benefactor, his importance to world music is tough to exaggerate, the fact is that the Wailers left him behind musically and left him at the right time. Sonically, across these six 'albums', the tracks range in quality from atrocious to, by the end, merely 'quite bad' - this is a form of progress I suppose, but after this album we start to get sonics that stand up to proper scrutiny. Musically, however, the progress was slower. Based on this evidence, it seems that Dodd was perfectly suited to recording the ska era of Jamaican music but less essential in subsequent eras: as rocksteady was taking over the island, Dodd and his Studio One label seemed to be falling behind, and risked taking the Wailers with them.

    There is essentially no ska at all on this final Studio One-era collection. But what much of the album feels like, instead, is not rocksteady but a kind of easy listening for American ears, a smooth and jazzy supper-club 'exotica' that takes from international sources without possessing any real authenticity. That's not to say the music isn't good: it is indeed. But it's not really representative of what the Wailers had been until this point or what they would become. It's merely a brief detour. A novelty.

    Bob is still absent, and Rita is barely present for the clutch of songs recorded in August 1966 that make up the bulk of this album: the Wailers on this album are then a trio of Bunny, Peter and Vision - though it's only the first two who take leads, in a strict alternating fashion: a Bunny track, then a Peter track, then a Bunny, then a Peter... all down the album. With six leads, the opening track, the closing track, and the title track, Bunny 'claims' this album lik eno other in the Wailers' genre. The quiet man in the background suddenly becomes the star here - and holds his own commendably.

    Perhaps with their eyes fixated in Bob's direction, Peter and Bunny seem to have been listening to current trends in rock music, as the main stylistic departure on the album comes in the form of an impressively authentic straight late-sixties rocker, 'Can't You See', which Peter uses to bring side two to life after a rather sleepy side one. Though he would later recast the song as a more genre-appropriate, though still beguiling, reggae, the recording here makes one speculate about roads not taken. Bunny follows it with his rock homage, turning Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone' into a song that sounds nothing at all like Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone', though it's a gorgeously-sung rocksteady groove.

    That phrase also applies to Bunny's signature song, appearing at the end of side one here in its first of many recordings. 'Dreamland' is also a stateside tribute, being a cover of an obscure R&B tune. But Bunny claims it as his own, singing its dependable melody over the calmest of a lilting rocksteady beat. Sublime.

    The album also ends with a showstopping Motown tribute: Bunny's 'I Need You So', a weeper that sounds like it came from Smokey Robinson's pen, and indeed does (making three of Bunny's most memorable performances on this album all covers). It follows Peter's 'When the Well Runs Dry', a more Jamaican-sounding song that is still a show-stopping weeper. It's one of three Peter tracks on this 'album' that, as I mentioned while discussing the previous 'album', got left behind from those earlier sessions largely because of a mistake I made while compiling the discs. The others are 'Making Love' and 'Don't Look Back' - amazingly one of two Smokey Robinson compositions on this disc.

    The album is ultimately quite scattershot. But it's still an enjoyable piece of work, and anyway it's most significant as a goodbye. Goodbye to Clement Dodd, goodbye to treading water. Bob Marley is about to return and bring his childhood friends thoroughly into the modern era. This is a good enough album, but we're about to see what an exemplary Wailers album looks like.

    This is the second album in a row to have a title track: not just because the Bunny classic is the 'heart' of this album but also because the title evokes (a) Jamaica, and (b) the hazy dreamlike murmuring of much of this album. Most of this album comes from Heartbeat's One Love collection, but several of the Peter songa re from The Toughest and two each come from Climb the Ladder and Destiny. So chaos reigns in the Dodd era. Thankfully, that's all over now.

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