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The Wailers have been around for more than ten years and most of that
time have been a first division group equalled only by The Maytals. And
they have seen some changes, from ska through rocksteady to reggae,
with ever increasing emphasis on production values.
This prompted me to slip on Wailers ‘B’ side, ‘Sunday Morning’, from 1966 on the old red & white Island label. What emerged was
charming – Bob Marley singing beautifully with perfect diction, Bunny Livingstone and Peter Mackintosh weaving close harmony support, all set to a simple bass and piano arrangement. The side reveals
the group earning their name.
Since then brothers Carlton & Aston Barrett have added their drums
and bass guitar and The Wailers have become a five piece band. The sound is funky, immeasurably fuller, and better recorded. But the singing has declined in quality and much of the soul has died under the perfectionist demands of stereo albums. The same thing happened to black American music. Remember the flabbily indulgent meanderings of Isaac Hayes? Now, suddenly, reggae is ‘overground’ and dangerously glossy.
The first three songs on the album spring from the revolutionary side of
Rastafarianism. Hardly surprising rom a one-time rudie band. Jamaica
is Babylon, still ‘colonized’ spiritually, where blacks are ‘chained in poverty’. ‘Slave driver,’ screams the new ideology, “the table is turned. Catch a fire, so you can get burned!”
The maddeningly familiar ‘Stop That Train’ is an excellent cut, with
melancholic organ and ringing guitar work. ‘Baby We’ve Got A Date’ is an
irresistible dancer with what must surely be a female chorus and a steel
guitar? But Marley’s best known composition, ‘Stir It Up’, is the
standout track, building remorselessly with fingers burning over the frets and subtle, considered use of stereo. The bass line is echoed percussively. Mackintosh makes keyboard work sound like pedal guitar, and the three founder members add vocal doo wops.
Unbelievably, every instrument loses its identity in the whole.
There are several happy moments like this, but equally often technical
striving negates feeling. With ‘Kinky Reggae’ bland sound is supplemented by facile lyrics. Totally lacking in eroticism or earthy directness it belies its title. The result is coy reggae in sore need of a ‘live injection’! The same effort characterises ‘Midnight Ravers’, a
nominally apocalyptic song full of the surreal effects endemic to rasta
writing, which fizzles out bankrupt of emotion. No righteous fire here.
And that stands for much of the set – undeniably competent, adventurous even, but hardly Armageddon.
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