Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Wailers Alternative Discography #7: "Return of the Wailers"

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 #7
    Return of the Wailers
    (July 1967, Wail 'N Soul 'M)

    Side One
    1. 2:42 Bus Dem ShutBob with Peter, Bunny
    2. 2:43 HypocritesBob with Peter, Bunny
    3. 2:43 Nice TimeBob with Peter, Bunny
    4. 2:43 Lyrical Satyrical — instrumental
    5. 2:31 Bend Down Low — Bob with Peter, Bunny
    6. 2:47 Freedom Time — Bob with Peter, Bunny
    Side Two
    1. 3:08 Stir it UpBob with Peter, Bunny
    2. 3:29 Mellow MoodBob with Peter, Bunny
    3. 2:41 Hypocrites Version — instrumental
    4. 3:35 Thank You LordBob & Bunny with Peter
    5. 3:37 This Train — Bunny with Bob, Peter
    All tracks recorded June 1967,
    except "Bend Down Low" and "Freedom Time" November 1966.
    All tracks produced by the Wailers.

    The Wailers are: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer.

    Yes, it's a generic title I've chosen for the first 'freedom time' album from the Wailers, working finally on their own and not under the benevolent-dictatorship auspices of Clement Dodd. Yet I stand by my chosen album title: not only is it authentic in the style of album titles of the nineteen sixtied, but it represents a very genuine 'return' in three crucial ways:

    First, it is the 'return' of Bob Marley - and thus of the 'classic' line-up - back in Jamaica after a stay in Delaware, where he was saving up money to start a record label and, based on current evidence, writing songs as well. Second, it's a 'return' also inasmuch as there had been a gap, lengthy by the standards of the 1960s, between these recordings and the final Studio One recordings - a gap no doubt precipitated by the logistical difficulties in starting up a new label. Thirdly, though, it's a 'return' as in a return to form - musically. Armed with a new determination and focus, a new genre and a new superlative stash of songs, the Wailers set out to reconquer Jamaica and recorded a series of songs that, had they been brought together as an album like I'm doing, would have been one of their very best.

    That's no mere hyperbole: in 1992, Island Records put together a 4-cd 'box set' called Songs of Freedom that brought together highlights from throughout Bob Marley's storied career. Two discs are devoted to the Wailers era, and on those two discs the compilers find room for only four tracks from the Studio One era, an era that I devote six full albums to. And yet from this current crop of tracks, fully seven tracks are considered good enough to merit inclusion in this best-of-the-best overview. This material is that good.

    The collection holds together remarkably well, despite coming from disparate sources. The final two tracks on side one, 'Bend Down Low' and 'Freedom Time', were both sides of a 'transitional' record, one produced by the Wailers but produced at Studio One with the Studio One band, and released on the Wailers' own Wail 'N Soul 'M label, but distributed through Coxsone Dodd's channels. Though the genre is earthy rock steady, the sound is muffled in the lamentably classic Coxsone style. They're brilliant songs, but they feel different, and as such are kind of isolated in their own world at the end of side one.

    They're separated by 'Lyrical Satyrical', an instrumental that like the remake of 'This Train' that closes the album is recorded on acoustic guitar and nyabinghi. Sublime casual recordings, the fragile beauty of these pieces is tough to resist but makes these two songs further stand out from the 'core material'. And given that I also have included an instrumental 'version' (something I do on occassion on the subsequent discs), there remain only six 'core' songs. And every one of them is a classic.

    To be honest, for me the low point is perhaps 'Stir It Up', the song that would become an epic masterpiece a few years later when re-recorded for an international audience (on the back of Johnny Nash's successful cover, I hasten to add). Here, while the rocksteady pulse is quite wonderful, the song itself seems incomplete, improvised: a groove in search of a song. That's little to complain about, though, and on most other albums it would stilll stand as a highlight. For romance, 'Nice Time' and 'Mellow Mood', yearning works of beauty both, are far superior.

    Apart from those, the other tracks return to the other two main Wailers obsessions: religion and politics. 'Thank You Lord' is a sublime example of the former and 'Bus Dem Shut' and 'Hypocrites' great takes on the latter - the second song boasting a groove so hypnotic that I thought it bore hearing a second time, an instrumental buffer between matters of the heart and matters of the soul on side two.

    After two albums' worth of Peter and Bunny stretching out in Bob's absence, it's a bit of a disappointment to find them both firmly in the background this time, though I imagine it's because Bob returned from his exile itching with things to say. And who's to complain when confronted with material as undeiably great as this?

    Though they can be had elsewhere (none of these songs are exactly 'rarities'), every song here can be found on the Fyah Fyah box set. The Songs of Freedom tracks are arguably a bit cleaner and brighter sonically, but you miss out on 'Freedom Time', the 'version' of 'Hypocrites' and the two nyabinghi tracks.

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