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In another of the "Classic Album" series produced by the Brits, this episode tackles the impact that the Bob Marley and the Wailers' Catch a Fire album had on the music world.
Reggae musician Bob Marley and his band the Wailers had already become stars in Jamaica with songs like "Simmer Down" and albums like Soul Rebel. However, there was a rapidly increasing craving for things Jamaican or, at the very least, West Indian, and interest in reggae music was climbing. Enter Island Records and producer Chris Blackwell, who signed Marley and his band to a record deal. With the Island albums like 1972's Catch a Fire and the follow-up Burnin', released a year later, the kismet-like circumstances surrounding the popularity of reggae, combined with the Wailers' music, equal parts powerful melody and political messages, helped bring reggae to the forefront of music, giving more of an international flavor to the R&B and soul that many were used to. Eric Clapton helped to push reggae further into the mainstream with his cover of Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" in 1974. Marley continued to release records, even after the departure of bandmates Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh (both of whom had respectable careers as solo artists), that pushed him further into the stratosphere of international popularity. He released albums like Exodus, Natty Dread, and Rastaman Vibration until his untimely death from cancer in 1981. It's the adoration of fans that have never seen Marley live which continues his legacy to this day; the compilation album Legend is one of the greatest-selling albums of all time.
The original Wailer lineup is the focus of this disc. Marley, Tosh, Wailer, and Family Man Barrett were quite possibly the closest thing that reggae had to a supergroup, and the recording sessions for Catch A Fire were mainly done in Jamaica at the time. However, studio musicians "Rabbit" Bundrick and guitarist Wayne Perkins were brought to Island's London location to fatten the sound up a bit, so the feature includes interviews with the surviving band members and their contributions to the album. There are some pluses and minuses on the disc as a whole. The plus is the oodles of video footage of Marley and the band, be it in rehearsals, at home in Kingston, or even in the occasional concert performance; these 1974 films help show the charisma and power that Marley had as a frontman, long before the rest of the world realized it. The rhythms still inspire, as more recent bands like No Doubt show with sounds influenced from Marley. Marley's lyrics are about empowerment and bringing power to the people, ideas that are clearly found in today's rap songs. Songs like "Slave Driver," "Stop That Train," and the legendary "Stir it Up" are examined in detail by those who helped make them musical staples, as Tosh, Bunny, Blackwell, and others discuss what they thought when they first heard them, what was done to them later, and the way Marley reacted when he heard the specific tweaked versions on some of the cuts. That type of stuff is kind of fun, but there's not enough of it, which segues into what I didn't like about the disc. The minus is the apparent re-creation of certain events. These minor reenactments—of scenes like some guy holding a joint or some rastafarian disc jockey playing "Get Up, Stand Up" on a BBC radio station or something—weren't really necessary. Frankly, more time could have been spent on interviews with the relevant figures.
While the interviews with the surviving members of the Wailers, along with Rita, were nice to see, this was really more based on recollections that were either nothing new or just seemed to be glossed over by some of the studio musicians who were involved in the process. To the credit of those involved, that is the tough part about things like this when you look back at an album a quarter century later. It's hard to determine exactly at what point lightning was caught in the bottle, since years of touring, albums, women, and chemical enhancements may have blurred things for those involved. It's still an interesting look at the making of the album, even if it seems vastly incomplete.
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