January 29: Reggae special – Burning Spear, Bob Marley, The Specials, Peter Tosh, UB40, that’s it

Hello and welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. I’m your host, JT Wilson, and this week we’re looking at the reggae and ska portion of the list.

Ska, rocksteady and reggae have a long, storied history beginning in the late 1950s and there have been loads of critically acclaimed and commercially successful acts who play this style. We’ve already covered one Bob Marley album, the hits-stuffed ‘Exodus‘, but that shouldn’t mean we’re out of reggae albums to cover… right?

Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Catch a Fire’

The earliest Wailers album on the list and the first on Island (after four early albums, one confusingly called ‘The Best of the Wailers’), ‘Catch a Fire’ has more needless Spotify obscuring as it originally plays the “original Jamaican” version. Anyhow, if the album sounds like standard reggae, it’s probably due to the influence the band had in codifying the genre to a non-Jamaican audience. Yet the sonic palette expands beyond the usual forms: the first track has a funky clavinet, Peter Tosh leads on organ on ‘Kinky Reggae’, and Alabaman guitarist Wayne Perkins (previously unfamiliar with reggae) adds bluesy bottleneck guitar on ‘Baby We’ve Got A Date’ and wah-pedal soloing on ‘Stir It Up’ (a song which also features a Moog). It doesn’t seem as good as ‘Exodus’, mind, given the songs tend to rely on endless chorus repetitions.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Natty Dread’

I wouldn’t normally review two albums by the same artist in the same week as I forget which is which and get bored, but we’re a bit short of material this week so here we are. By this point, original members Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone had left, leaving Marley to reform with three female backing vocalists and a regular backing band. On this album, contract disputes with his publishing company resulted in most of the songs being credited to other people (his wife, childhood friends), which charitably ensured financial stability for them. Little caught my attention on this one, with ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ and ‘Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock’ the standouts lyrically and musically; the latter features Bob being pulled over by police purely for being a radical political artist.

Burning Spear, ‘Marcus Garvey’

Confusingly there is also a Burning Spear greatest hits called ‘Marcus Garvey’ on Spotify and the original album isn’t there, so search cautiously. Marcus Garvey himself was a black nationalist and pan-African living in the early 20th Century, you can read about him here. This was the first album released on the legendary Island Records and is rife with political concern, minor-key atmospherics, horns and wheezing organs. It sounds like an album perfect for a dub plate, and sure enough a dub remix called ‘Garvey’s Ghost’ followed four months later. Both the original and the dub plate are worth your time.

Peter Tosh, ‘Legalize It’

Surprisingly, the former Wailer does not mean gay marriage. Released in 1976 after his departure from the band he founded with Bob Marley, but featuring old bandmate Bunny Livingstone and Bob’s wife Rita Marley, the album unsurprisingly plows the same mid-tempo reggae skank furrow as the Wailers. Some of the guitar sounds are familiar from contemporary rock albums: a similar hazy wah sound, and even a bluesy solo on ‘Til Your Well Runs Dry’.

Well, there aren’t any other Jamaican reggae albums on the list: no King Tubby, Lee Perry, Scientist, Toots and the Maytals, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker or Skatalites. It seems that it’s more important that I listen to Travis, ‘Butterfly‘ or Finley Quaye. Luckily, in the 1970s and 1980s, disaffected working-class Midlanders in the UK got into reggae and made some more albums that made the list.

The Specials, ‘The Specials’

As a Coventrian by adopted hometown it made sense that the 400th album I listened to was a Specials album; sadly there’s no Hazel O’Connor, Billie Myers or Selecter albums on the list. Anyway, this is a ska album with one of the Skatalites on trombone and is peppered with covers or reworkings of original Jamaican ska, even if the band’s full of white guys and Elvis Costello (who’s as black as a Milkybar) is at the controls. Of course it’s catchy and fun, designed for the dancefloor rather than home listening, even if the combination of punk and skank are more familiar now post-Reel Big Fish, Rancid etc than it would have been at the time. Oddly, ‘Too Much Too Young’ is slowed to half-speed and crawls along for six minutes, although it does allow focus on the lyrics being about cheese on toast and watching TV: a charming reflection of the working-class British sensibilities that this music was being filtered through.

UB40, ‘Signing Off’

Garbage singles like ‘Red, Red Wine’ and Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’ had solidified the Brum octet as the most odious type of Heart FM fare in my mind, so it blew my mind to find that their first album is a moody, politically conscious dub album with unpredictable stop-starts (on opener ‘Tyler’) and shifting tempos (on ‘Burden of Shame’) among the standard dub tropes of atonal reverb noise and spooky clattering percussion. I really enjoyed this combination of Thatcher-era dole-scum desperation and Jamaican dub, with the only wrong moves being a lousy Randy Newman cover and some cheap keyboard patches. The bonus tracks, mostly seven or more minutes of virtually vocal-free dub grooves including an unrecognisable version of ‘Strange Fruit’, are even better.

That’s all the reggae and ska, guys, with the exception of another Specials album. There’s a Madness album too, but although I might be splitting hairs, I don’t think the album with ‘Our House’ quite qualifies as ska. Given the amount of nondescript indie dross on the list it’s incredible to see reggae getting such short shrift here: there are only slightly more ska and reggae albums than Elvis Costello albums, most of which have at least one of the Wailers involved, and one of which is produced by Elvis Costello!

You can read about more reggae and dub choices here.

Next week: as it’s my dad’s birthday I’ll be writing about some of the albums that my parents liked, but which I never bothered listening to.

Status update: 401 of 1001 (40%), 600 remain.


Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

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