Early on in their relationship, someone asked Bob Marley if Island Records owner Chris Blackwell was his producer. Bob said "No Mon, he's my translator". While that was a good joke, because of Bob's heavy accent, Bob might have been more accurate is saying that Chris was his interpreter for the work he did on the early Wailers albums.
Eagle Rock Entertainment has released Bob Marley And The Wailers: Catch A Fire as part of their new DVD series Classic Albums. The purpose of the series is to take a closer look at how some of the seminal works in pop music came into being. In the case of the Wailers' Catch A Fire, it was the first attempt by any reggae group to seriously crack the British and American mainstream album markets.
Until Catch A Fire, the only reggae music that had done anything on the charts in England had been silly novelty songs or the occasional mainstream musician utilizing some of the unique rhythms in their own material. But a full-length album of serious reggae music had yet to meet with any success at all.
The DVD takes us back to 1972 when the core of the Wailers was still Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Bob Marley. They had traveled over to London, England in an attempt to try and score a record deal or at least get someone outside the Jamaican community to pay attention to them. Considering how renowned all of these men — especially Bob and Peter Tosh — have become since then, it was surprising to hear of the antipathy that most of the popular music world felt toward reggae music at the time.
The producers of the disc have put together interviews with many different people to get their perspectives on the disc. The session men hired by Blackwell to do overdubs on the album, the original studio musicians in Jamaica who recorded the original eight tracks that Island Records worked with to make the final cut, and various other figures in the lives of the three principles of the Wailers at the time.
I'm not quite sure what I was expecting from this behind the scenes look at the creation of an album, but I don't think I expected it to be this interesting and informative. One of the main things it did for me personally is it revised my opinion of Chris Blackwell of Island Records quite substantially. Listening to him talk about what he was trying to do for the music and Bob, I was impressed with his humility and the commitment he was willing to show an unknown band performing music that had no history of sales – either in mainstream America or Britain.
He gave them four thousand pounds (about $10,000) to go off and record the album and trusted them to bring him back something he could make use of. When the disc switches back to Jamaica, they inter-cut old footage of the recording session and interviews with the session men who appeared on the original disc. They focus especially on the drummer and bass player from the old band who try to explain how a reggae song builds on itself while it is being played.
One of the interesting things about the recording sessions is as I was sitting watching the old videos of them in the studio I realized they were all in one room together playing. Initially I thought these were just the rehearsals prior to the band members going off to record individually, but these were the actual sessions. But thinking about what the drummer had said about a song evolving as it's played, with the drummer and the bass feeding off the leads to add frills to their playing it made a lot of sense for them to record "live".
When Bob brought the tapes back to London to play them for Chris Blackwell and his engineer, they had had to double up on most of their tracks because they only had eight to work with in the first place. With the entire band recording at once, there was also a lot of spill over of instruments into microphones that the Island engineer had to cope with as well.
Bob and the rest of the Wailers realized they would have to make some compromises with their sound in the initial albums in order to break through and attract an early 1970's audience. So it was with their blessing that Chris Blackwell brought in a couple of session players to smooth out the edges to make it more palatable for, specifically, the North American market.
One of the most fascinating parts of the DVD was when they focused on the actual remixing of the material. The people at Island Records made the master tape and the board available for the shoot. Chris Blackwell and the original technician than sat down and took us through track after track and what they did with it.
They would then switch over to the session men who talked about how they tried to make what they knew about music fit in with Reggae and how they came up with the added bits you had just heard through the board. At one point the keyboard player, John "Rabbit" Bundrick, was describing how Bob Marley was showing him what he wanted and laughing because of the way in which he would do it. (Not caring about what keys he was hitting, just giving him the pattern to fit the music rhythmically)
Bundrick looked into the camera like he was looking into the past and said, "He was playing from the heart and I learned that from him. As a musician you're always wanting to learn something new". This is more then thirty years latter and it sounded like he was talking about yesterday. Wayne Perkins (a guitar player brought in for the sessions) and he both talked about not understanding how the music worked initially and how they had to let both it and Bob work with them to find the groove and the proper touch.
Perkins was especially funny. An American from the South, he said it didn't sound like anything he had ever played before "from Blues to Church music". Then as he was trying to figure out what the hell he was going to do it came to him – "It was backwards". From then on he had no problems. (If you listen to Catch A Fire again and the song "Concrete Jungle" that guitar leading off the song and sustaining through it for a while is Perkins. He said when he finished that bit Bob was so excited he came bounding out of the booth and tried to stuff a joint the size of a two by four in his mouth.)
There's a lovely scene near the end where Chris Blackwell and the engineer are sitting listening to the original eight-track recording, just smiling and ever so slightly Blackwell is shaking his head. When the music stops he gets sort of a wistful expression on his face and says something to the effect of, "We could have released it just like that, it sounds so great you wonder why we didn't. But I thought we had to do what we did if they had a chance of it breaking into the big markets. We all thought that"
That's where I really gained new respect for the man because I could hear the regret in his voice for tampering with something so good. Even now he was still second-guessing his decision – even though it was probably the right one. Even with the modifications the album only sold 40-thousand copies that first year. Over the years as the band gained in popularity sales eventually amounted to over a million. But in those early years there was no guarantee of reggae or Bob Marley ever achieving the fame and popularity he and the music have obtained since.
Chris Blackwell took a sizable risk on signing the Wailers, they were an unproven commodity, but as this documentary shows they were astute enough to realize they would have to make some compromises at first in order to achieve their dream of spreading their message. Bob Marley And The Wailers: Catch A Fire is a wonderful documentary on the process of building a great album and the birth of a new musical form. Anybody who has an interest in Bob Marley or reggae will find this DVD both fascinating and a pleasure to watch.