I’m sure for a lot of people, when the words Jamaica and music are put together, have visions of dreadlocked performers playing Reggae music, with great wafts of ganga smoke billowing around their heads as the hypnotic back beat moves your shoulders and hips while slowly turning your spine into jelly. But before there was Reggae, there was still music in Jamaica, and the Reggae Rasta connection that we associate with that island country really only blossomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Great musicians like Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley don’t, however, just spring out of the ground with no prior musical experience. They must have been doing something in the pre-Wailer days.
Well for those of us who didn’t know and hadn’t heard, Heartbeat records has released a series of discs featuring the music of Jamaica that predates the great Reggae boom. Clement S. Dodd and Studio One were the focal point for the majority of the music recorded at this time. Clement opened his doors to what sounds like a who’s who of Reggae superstars; The Wailers, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, and the Heptones.
But in those days the music wasn’t Reggae, it was Ska, or it was Rhythm and Blues influenced sounds from the United States. Bob Marley And The Wailers, One Love At Studio One is a two-disc collection of 40 songs that provides an indication of the styles of music that were being performed and recorded in Jamaica from 1964-66.
From the onset you know this disc is going to defeat any expectations you might have had, because the first track is the old spiritual “This Train.” Next, there are the voices of the three vocalists, gone are the thick Jamaican accents and the patois of the streets and Rasta. Instead we hear clean, educated, English accents articulating the lyrics clearly and precisely.
No praises are being sung to Ja in this song; it’s all about Jesus and the evils of sinning and backsliding. What a difference a few years make. In five or six years’ time these same three voices will be extolling the virtues of ganga, but now, here they are, preaching the love of Christ. It’s the difference between trying to make it in the music world based on what you think you need to do to be successful and doing what you want to do.
Hearing two of the most revolutionary voices in contemporary music singing American pabulum pop music like “Teenager In Love” and sounding like Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons is not only quite frightening, it made me want to check my medication levels. I could have sworn I was having audio hallucinations.
But no, I checked the packaging and it claimed that this was indeed Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer singing, and doing a damn fine job of it. Their vocals are crisp and clean and the harmonies are spot on. The thing to remember is that this was the music that was on the charts at this time in North America, so if a pop group wanted to make it big, they would be expected to do this type of music.
In the early sixties the sound of Jamaica was Ska, and it’s pretty much the same now as it was then. Infectious dance beats with a faster groove than reggae and much lighter subject matter. But by the mid sixties the sound was starting to change and evolved into “rock steady”
Rock steady was characterized by a more direct use of the language of the ghetto, and subject matter more in keeping with the people who live in Kingston. It was the transition between ska and Reggae musically as well, as it began the process of slowing the beat down, making the rock a little more steady.
Tracks nine and ten on disc two of this set are early examples of the rock steady sound. “Cry To Me”, track nine, offers a glimpse of things to come from reggae ballads, while “Jailhouse” starts to make ample use of Kingston patois and settings, marking the transition away from simply emulating the pop sounds of England and the United States.
There are a block of songs on disc two which feature just Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, because Marley had gone to the United States for a temporary job that would make enough money for them to launch their own album. What’s interesting is what they recorded when Bob first came back from the States.
While Peter and Bunny had been dabbling in Rock, “Can’t You See”, which sounds like early Jefferson Airplane and a rock steady cover of Dylan’s “Rolling Stone”, “Bend Down Low” the first song on their own Wail ‘N Soul ‘M label after Bob’s return, is a harbinger of things to come for the Wailers.
Bob Marley’s voice is front and centre, the guitar and the rhythm have slowed down, and the voices are starting to sound like we have come to expect. All that’s missing is the distinctive backbeat of Reggae, but you can hear it waiting to be born.
Maybe that was just my ear listening for a familiar sound, but listen to “Bend Down Low” and “Freedom Time” and tell me you can’t hear it waiting to burst out. You have to wonder what happened to Bob Marley in the States that he came back with such a commitment to making Jamaican music. Perhaps it was the freedom of having their own label that allowed them to do what they wanted to do after so many years of catering to what they needed to do.
Bob Marley And The Wailers: One Love At Studio One details a time that was the formative period for three of the most influential Reggae musicians of the 1970’s. Some of the material, like their version of the Beatles song “And I Love Her” would have been better off staying lost in the vaults, and others, like “This Train”, only have historical value going for them. But if you are a fan of Reggae music, and particularly the Wailers, you’ll probably get a kick out of most the recordings.
If nothing else, it’s a chance to hear three great musicians finding their way to their true calling, and that in itself is worth the price of admission.