Who would have thought that a ska group which was singing the Bacharach/David song "What`s New Pussycat" in 1965 would in 1973 be singing songs like "Concrete Jungle" or "Burnin` And lootin" and would eventually come to be known for the social and political content of their songs?
Yet this is the main reason why the majority of the pop press have been acclaiming The Wailers - more than any other Jamaican group - since the release of "Catch A Fire", their first "important" album as some writers put it.
It`s true that The Wailers are one of the best Jamaican bands around. Reggae fans have been aware of that for some time. But the weight of praise - no matter how hard won and deserved - that is being heaped upon them alone will indirectly hinder the progress of other stalwart, and other smaller JA bands who have never had the opportunities of big business that The Wailers have been blessed with. And it will compel The Wailers to develop musically along the lines of the commercial pop machinery which produces pop stars, a system which is inhibiting and is contrary to the idealistic nature of the band.
Now that the second album has been released it confirms that the social/political/musical path which they took with their last LP has been adhered to strictly. But the refinement in the music and in the dialectic quality of the vocals only go to show that the search for commerciality has meant a loss in authenticity, no matter how small.
The Wailers have woven a complex texture of rhythms which form a perfect backdrop for the drive and lyrical depth of their emotive songs. The result is a very strong piece of music which is uniquely representative of their sound (the rebel music) although for me this album lacks the sheer beauty of "Catch A Fire" and lacks the ethnic quality evident in songs like "Concrete Jungle" or "Midnight Ravers" from the same album.
Of course, the Wailers have been conscious of the relationship between themselves and their society for a long time. Back in the mid-60s they still found it necessary to reflect the social conditions of their W. Kingston surroundings in the first ever song about the rude boys ("Rude Boy") which they followed up with "Let Him Go" (Rude Boy Get Bail), themes which triggered off a whole area of JA music concerning the rude boys of Kingston Jamaica.
One of the most popular of those numbers was Desmond Decker`s "007" or "Shanty Town" which had the lyrics "Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail - a Shanty Town/Rude boy a weep and a wail - a Shanty Town". This description of the rude boys rioting in the town is a situation which Marley foresees (or which he expects will recur) in the slow melodic "Burnin` and Lootin`" from the new album. The song`s lyric reflects anxiety and near despair: "How many rivers do we have to cross/Before we can talk to the boss/All that we got it seems we have lost/We must have really payed the cost/That`s why we`re gonna be burning and looting tonight" "Weeping and wailing tonight."
In "Small Axe" too Marley issues another (less immediate) warning "whosoever diggeth a pit shall fall in it" but since this time he also makes reference to Jah, he is speaking on behalf of al Rastafarians. "Why boasteth thyself oh evil men/Playing smart and not being clever/You`re working iniquity to achieve vanity... but the goodness of Jah Jah endureth for ever/If you are the big tree, we are the small axe sharpened to cut you down, to cot you down." It is obvious that this song, originally issued early in 1971 was used here because of the political message, but unfortunately much of the real anger of the original has been bypassed for more melody and a greater depth of sound.
By means of a Western analogy Bob Marley shows what can happen if the warning issued in "Small Axe" is not heeded. "I Shot The Sheriff" is a cowboy ballad in which the hero is being hunted for the killing of a deputy (which he denies) when he admits only to the killing of the sheriff which he justifies. "Sheriff John Brown always hated me for what I don`t know/Everytime I plant a seed he say kill it before it grow." Near the end, the bass and drums which had been dominating the rhythm all along the fade out on their own, illustrating perfectly the unique percussive blend that Aston and Carlton Barrett have become known for in reggae music. The sound they make conjure up an image of the wanted cowboy riding off into the lonely horizon.
Lee Perry was the producer who helped The Wailers get back on their feet when the group had been struggling after leaving producer Coxsone Dodd. Bob Marley has always been the group`s life blood. When he left Jamaica to go on a tour with Johnny Nash in 1968 The Wailers entered a period of non-productivity and his jail sentence, plus the trouble that Marley, MacIntosh, and Livingstone had with their first record label "Wailin Soul" did not help either. Undoubtedly The Wailers` association with Lee Perry (The Upsetter) helped them tremendously in regaining their confidence and musical direction. During that time some of their best tunes including "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror" were made.
In a way "Duppy Conqueror" continues the `cowboy` story if you accept that the guy who himself had served a jail sentence for a ganja rap has said of the song "It was really for every prisoner who came out at that time because it was so good just to be back on the street again." There is a punch line in the song which goes "If you are a bull bucker, I`m a duppy conqueror." In the Jamaican dialect a "duppy" is a ghost, or an evil spirit, so in the context of the song duppy refers to the evil forces within the oppressive establishment of Jamaican society. The lyrics explain it: "Yes I`ve been accused and wrongly abused/But through the power of the most high they got to turn me loose." Unlike "Small Axe", "Conqueror" does not lose any of its original sharpness, this slower more melodic version is a slight improvement on the 1970 single, released on The Upsetter label.
Bunny Livingstone`s lead vocals on "Hallelujah Time" are more akin to soul than reggae and show the influence of Curtis Mayfield. Bunny adheres to the doctrines of rastafarianism more closely than any of the others in the band, and this reflects itself in the pessimistic view of Jamaican life that he reveals in the song. "But now it`s not rain that waters the cane crops/But the sweat from man`s brow the substance from our spine/We got to keep on living, living on borrowed time..."
Bunny takes a much more optimistic view in "Pass It On" (since after all he is talking about `the kingdom of Jah!) in which he preaches brotherly love. "Be not selfish in your doings - pass it on/Help your brothers in their needs - pass it on/In the kingdom of Jah man shall reign - pass it on." The song has a Jamaican church `feel` similar to "Rivers Of Babylon" by The Melodians and if not for the reggae riff it might have been The Impressions singing.
Pete MacIntosh (Tosh) has the same kind of message in "One Foundation" but the lyrics are too trite: "Got to come together cause we are birds of a feather/Or there will never be no love at all." His straightforward approach in "Get Up Stand Up" which he co-wrote with Marley is much more significant especially after the stand he took in "400 Years" last time round. In "Get Up Stand Up" Tosh sings "We know and we understand, almighty God is a living man/You can fool some people sometimes but you can`t fool all the people all of the time."
"Rasta Man Chant" brings us full circle from the "What`s New Pussycat" group to the band which now identifies strongly with the doctrines of Rastafarianism. It`s the first time that The Wailers have recorded in the rasta style (percussion/chant), and already this traditional number is being heavily featured on Sound Systems. the harmonious fusion of the voices is like church singing, it`s totally hypnotic: "I hear the words of the rasta man say/Babylon your throne gone down."
Ultimately, the corrupt element in the society has been defeated. "I say fly away home to Zion (Ethiopia). Fly away home"..."One bright morning when my work is over I will fly away home."