It’s a terrible cliche for a pop critic to say he prefers an artist’s early work, but with Bob Marley I’ll take that cliche. It’s partly that his big Island records are overplayed, but the production never grabs me like the tracks he recorded in the 60s and the two albums of “rebel soul” that the Wailers laid down with Lee Perry in 1970-1. Of course it was the Island albums that made him an international icon — when I visited Kenya a few years ago, Marley’s face was still all over buses and shanty town walls — but I prefer the music he made when he was part of the hustle and bustle of the Jamaican industry, rather than a global superstar. From the end of my chapter on reggae:
In death, as in life, he seemed to float above the rest of the reggae world, and even Jamaican politics. On 21 May, following a national day of mourning, a state funeral ceremony was held at the National Arena, with speeches from both Manley and Seaga. Afterwards, accompanied by an unofficial escort of thousands, his body was ferried to a hilltop mausoleum for burial. One houseful of mourners at the bottom of the hill blasted Marley’s music into the night: the final track on his final album, ‘Redemption Song’. Significantly, it wasn’t even reggae at all, but an old-fashioned folk protest song with a Rastafarian twist, and it would travel further than anything that came out of the Black Ark, because it was not constrained by style or context, and because it spoke of hope rather than apocalypse, and hope is always an easier sell in the long run.
So, on the 30th anniversary of his death, instead of the inevitable Redemption Song here are three personal favourites: Black Progress (his reggaefication of James Brown’s Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud), Soul Rebel and the quasi-psychedelic Mr Brown (both from the Perry sessions).