“Time is my ammunition,” says Bob Marley in a room at the Chelsea Hotel in July of 1973. Now 40 years have passed — longer than Bob himself strode upon this earth singing his redemption song.
The night before we spoke, I had watched transfixed as the Wailers played Max’s Kansas City, opening for Bruce Springsteen. Not that it was an unusual billing for Max’s: A week later Iggy Pop would headline three midnight performances; in mid-August Tim Buckley was scheduled; coming attractions included the New York Dolls and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
The Wailers fit right into this spatial mix. It was their first time in New York, and they brought with them the harbingers of a reggae poised to become a world music, breaking out of its West Indian shantytown stylee. After years of transmuting American pop songs into the characteristic loping rhythms of Caribbean music, a beat off-centered and on-kiltered, the cultural exchange was beginning to flow upriver: Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” Johnny Nash’s version of Bob’s “Stir It Up,” Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” the soundtrack to The Harder They Come. Infused with a sense of destiny, preaching the apocalyptic tenants of Rastafarian poetics, the sacrament of ganja amid lofty Biblical invocations, this was music ready to ignite.
Catch A Fire was the Wailers’ calling card. They were no strangers to recording, with a lengthy career dating back to 1963, when they made their debut under Leslie Kong’s aegis, and then worked with ska-master Clement Dodds, and through to the inimitable Lee Perry. If there is anyone responsible for turning the group from a harmony trio (Bob, Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh) into a more expansive mode, it’s Perry. “Scratch” was on the verge of losing himself in the welter of effect and reverberation that made his later dub-work so hallucinatory. But he administered tuff-love to the Wailers by tightening their rhythm section, a turnabout that became fair play when the Wailers hired the backbone of Perry’s Upsetters rhythm section, the brothers Barrett, Aston and Carlton, masters of the one-drop bass drum.
Chris Blackwell, who ran Island Records, had lived a hybrid life. He grew in Jamaica in wealthy circumstances (his family was in the rum business), and was aware of the bubbling-under sounds emanating from Jamaica. He founded his record label in 1962, and had leased early Wailers singles. Though his label was primarily known for its rock acts, from Traffic to Roxy Music, he had broad tastes (Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” was one of his early hits in Britain and America), and instinctively understood the global possibilities of the infectious riddim of Jamaica. He was an investor in the movie The Harder They Come, had partnered with Trojan Records at one point, and saw in Bob’s songwriting ability and forward-looking acumen and charisma the only performer who might take the music to another, more international level. He even leased the early Wailers singles. His opportunity came when the Wailers found themselves stranded in London after a proposed European tour had fallen apart. He paid for their air fare home, and advanced the capital to record in Kingston. Then the group returned to England to complete the masters.
As co-producer on Catch A Fire, Blackwell suggested touches to make the album more appealing to non-reggae ears and seductive to non-reggae radio programmers. He enlisted studio musicians — Wayne Perkins, a Muscle Shoals regular, whose lead guitar lines bring a taste of southern-rock to the album opener “Concrete Jungle” and the long-form “Stir It Up,” which also features “Rabbit” Bundrick adding synthesizer and keyboard touches — and overdubbed them on the tapes Bob had recorded in Jamaica. Released in April of 1973, the album was acclaimed in the rock press, scraping the bottom of the Top 200 in America, serving its purpose to alert the world of reggae’s approaching firestorm.
Catch A Fire also marked a turning point in the evolution of the Wailers. The album is credited to the group, but Marley’s increasing preeminence in their stage show and his dominance as the group’s chief songwriter inevitably led to more emphasis being placed on his leadership role. Bunny would leave the original trio soon after, preferring to return to Jamaica and not tour, and though Peter Tosh writes two of the album’s best songs — “400 Years” and “Stop That Train” — his own solo career would soon inevitably be underway. Bob might have been increasingly drawn to the mystic groundations of Rastafarianism, but the album still offers such pop-ish material as “Baby We’ve Got A Date (Rock It Baby)” and “Kinky Reggae.”
When I spoke to him at the Chelsea, he was already shifting into the rhetoric of revolution and salvation that would, as the ’70s progressed, make him a spokesman for unity and spiritual transcendence and cultural brotherhood. Drawing deeply on a spliff, he preached the word to me, an eager congregant. “Take off your face, and strip down y’old self, and see who you is, that is who you really is. Rasta. We can’t pretend. I a Rasta. I live…”
And so he does, his message resounding, in this future prophesized by the burning bush that is Catch A Fire.