I’m mildly perturbed by Chris Kornelis’ well-meant article in L.A. Weekly commemorating the 30th anniversary (can it be?) of the release of Bob Marley’s Legend: The Best of Bob Marley. My exasperation flows when I read that the album is some act of marketing “genius” that minimized Marley’s militant side as well as his position within the genre of reggae generally. I’ll grant you that if your friend from work has one reggae CD in her collection, it’s probably this one (remember when it used to be the soundtrack to The Harder They Come?), but focus groups aren't needed to figure out why that is. And Marley aimed far beyond reggae-the-genre, even if he was singularly its envoy to America: Lloyd Bradley notably excluded Marley from his brilliant exegesis of Jamaican music in Jamaica (get it?) Bass Culture (confusingly called This Is Reggae Music in the U.S.).
As for lack of “militancy”, Legend includes two songs about slavery, a song about shooting cops, and "Get Up Stand Up". As distinguished Irish DJ Liam MacGabhann notes, “Doesn’t sound too bleached to me”, anymore than Parliament’s Uncut Funk-The Bomb (also from 1984) whitewashed P-Funk. (Also from 1984: Queen’s Greatest Hits, Air Supply’s Greatest Hits, and Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits Volume 2, her least militant best-of.) As marketing goes, let’s point out that Legend didn’t sell all that well at first: That it became such a genre-exploding high water mark has much more to do with Marley’s ecumenicism and ambition (and genius, sans quotation marks) than it’s oh-so-carefully selected song sequence or packaging. And I’d argue strenuously that no one not named John Lennon took as militant an approach to L-O-V-E love as Marley did—but whereas Lennon wrote about love first-person first, Marley’s agape was both cultural and much more libidinal.
Even in 1984, it was impossible to think about Legend without considering it’s place in context with Marley’s solo albums (setting the two Island albums with the Wailers, as well as everything pre-Island, aside). All are worth hearing, but each with its own issues. If you had copies of Live and Rastaman Vibration on vinyl, then Legend was the logical digital upgrade. And if you feel that Marley could matter even when he wasn’t on his A-game, like I do, then you might want to own all of his records. But you’d still need a copy of Legend for those times when you want to be overwhelmed by how Marley used his stoned patois to tunefully message his universal resistance to oppression. Could he have been a better person? Sure. Should he have walked it like he talked it? You bet. As mentioned above, see “Lennon, John”. But Marley still oozed moral grace, and to play around with the idea that at least a big chunk of the alleged 27 million people who bought Legend don’t realize that is a minor insult both to Marley and to the consumers.
If you don’t have a copy of Legend, by all means grab one now, guilt-free. And if you want an aural upgrade of your original CD, I hear that the 30th anniversary version brings the goods. But in the spirit of broadened horizons, let me suggest a few selections that you’re not likely to find in the CD collection of that reggae fanatic friend of yours who’s got 50 single CDs plus the Marley box set and Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music. If you want some credibility, crave reggae music that’s slightly off the beaten path, or simply desire a good listen, seek these CDs out. After you’ve got your copy of Legend.
The Gladiators: Proverbial Reggae (Virgin Frontline 1978)
Originally released without U.S. distribution, this Joe Gibbs production is probably the best known record in this batch, although let’s put some perspective on that: The album was out of print for almost 20 years until it was reissued on CD by EMI in 2002. The Gladiators had a rougher harmony style than their better known peers, the Mighty Diamonds, and had punchy lyrics to fit, which moved them in the direction of trio-era Wailers. The Gladiators were also a real band, at least for this album, one that happened to have Sly Dunbar behind the drumkit. Albert Griffiths penned a handful of reggae classics for this set, the lascivious “Stick A Bush” and “Best Things In Life” among them.
Ijahman Levi: Are We A Warrior? (Island 1979)
Just for this one album, you’d think that Al Green circa Belle went Rastafari. Ijahman lacked the rough edges and danger of the Cool Crooner, Gregory Isaacs, but since Ijahman started his career with Jimmy Ruffin and Otis Redding covers and did hard time in the early 70’s, perhaps his heartfelt (but lyrically muted) Rastafarianism moved him beyond. (“Lift not your arrow from your bow” indeed.) Or perhaps Ijahman just got lucky this one time: Are We A Warrior? surpasses any single Isaacs album, even if Isaacs has superior scope and vocal chops. Here Ijahman trills like a castrated skanking Barry White. Sly and Robbie keep the tunes moving along, labelmate Steve Winwood doesn’t get in the way. A reggae pillow.
Justin Hinds & The Dominoes: Jezebel (Island 1976)
Hinds (or Hines on the cover of this album, which is anomalous) was among the very first Jamaican singers to record a song fitting the modern definition of ska, 1963’s “Carry Go Bring Come”, and in the years preceding his lung cancer death in 2005 Hinds shared a friendship with Keith Richards, who recorded and released the rustic Rastafarian Wingless Angels as a kind of tribute to his pal. In between, Hinds had virtually no visibility outside of Jamaica, where his popularity was steadfast. The twin foundational LPs of his roots reggae period bore striking cover art by the same unnamed artist, and I favor Jezebel over Just In Time slightly on the basis of cover art and groove. If as devout a Rastafari as Marley, one gets the sense that after a bowlful of sensimilla, Hinds was more inclined to watch Daffy Duck cartoons than engage deep thought about oppression (cf. the contemporaneously Jack Ruby-produced Burning Spear). Hinds’ slinky sing-song throwaways (the comically upbeat “Natty Take Over”, the stoned reprise of “Carry Go Bring Come” itself) gather depth rather than dust underneath the laconic Ocho Rios moon, which is about as mystical as this sleeper gets. Insights regarding the cover art are welcome.
Black Uhuru: Anthem (c. 1983)
OK, you know this one, only you probably don’t know the version I’m talking about. Island gussied up this (ahem) anthem with 80’s synthbeats (and a Little Steven cover) for UK and US release, creating a zen arrow for stoners with a Duran Duran fetish. But the original, Jamaica-only vinyl release (which I still have in all it’s crackling glory) without the superfluous techno-gloss was intimidating and confrontational in ways that Bob Marley never bothered to attempt. If you grew up with the Anthem remix and are an MTV aficionado, by all means tread water. But if you thought that Anthem was too glitzy and lacked the gravitas of Uhuru’s Red or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, give the Jamaican mix a try. Maybe someone who forked over for the 4-CD Complete Anthem Sessions will loan you a copy to rip, or try the digital download of this version of Uhuru’s best album.
Punky Reggae Party: New Wave Jamaica 1975-1980 (Sanctuary Records 2002)
This semi-misnamed and semi-recent (i.e., this millennium) CD is out of place here going by release dates, but it’s one of my favorite reggae compilations so allow me to introduce Trojan Records (ta-ra!), which found a market for reggae singles and vinyl compilations among Jamaican ex-pats in Britain in the 70’s. Some of those singles found their way into the possession and/or ear-holes of British punk monarchs, thanks to DJ Don Letts (ta-ra!). You’ll recognize a few that crossed over (the ephemeral “Uptown Top Ranking”) and others from punk covers (the Slits’ foreboding “Man Next Door”). After a few spins though, you’ll hear these bass-burdened post-roots one-shots as a singular document of a place and time, and a peculiarly British one—like the mods or the Teddy’s, only much more so, the British punks were a scene defined by an admixture of imported music and reaction thereof. Punky Reggae Party removes the reaction from the punk moment and explores one inexplicable catalyst.