Article: How Marley Caught Fire

An interesting WSJ article from a number of different standpoints, especially if you’re interested in music, marketing, and/or Bob Marley. Cheers!

How Marley Caught Fire
Repackaging the Reggae King As a Rock Star Helped Sell His Music to the World
By CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY
April 27, 2006

The reggae star Bob Marley never sold out, but he understood the importance of selling well. He came to terms with the necessity of marketing at an early age.

He began his music career in 1962 in Trench Town, a ghetto area of Kingston, performing the jittery Jamaican dance music known as ska, before settling on reggae — a warm, rhythmically mesmerizing music that was also born and bred in Jamaica. Initially, he made so little money that he relocated to America for a short time to work in an automobile-assembly plant to support his family.


Most music executives in the early 1970s saw Mr. Marley as too edgy for mainstream acceptance. He spoke with a thick Jamaican accent; he was also a vocal believer in Rastafari, a religion whose creed includes the wearing of dreadlocks, the smoking of marijuana as a sacrament and the divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

But Chris Blackwell, the British-born founder of Island Records, sensed Mr. Marley’s star potential. In 1972, he repackaged the group that had been known as Bob Marley and the Wailers, giving a rougher rock ‘n’ roll edge to their gentle reggae grooves and presenting them as a black band even while adding white backup players. The transformation helped spark Mr. Marley’s ascension from local hero to global icon.

Wall Street Journal editor Christopher John Farley drew on original interviews with some of Mr. Marley’s closest associates and family members for his new book, “Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley.” An adaptation:

Bob Marley was 27 years old in 1972 when he began recording “Catch a Fire,” the album that introduced him to the world. Twenty-seven is a tragic age in rock. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana would commit suicide at that same age. Mr. Marley had lived a full life by 27. He had several albums, several children and several extramarital affairs under his sturdy belt. But something else was in store for him instead of musical martyrdom at rock’s traditionally appointed hour. The reggae performer Bob Marley would indeed pass away, in a sense, at age 27. But through producing, packaging and promotion he would be reborn — as a rock star.

In 1972, Mr. Blackwell met in London with the members of Bob Marley and the Wailers: Mr. Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. He was so taken with their charisma he gave them £4,000 (about $7,150) on the spot to record an album. Later that year, Mr. Blackwell flew from London to Kingston to hear what the Wailers had recorded.

Mr. Blackwell recalls he heard only five or six tracks that day. It was enough. The group had conjured the sound he had dreamed about. The music was intelligent and mysterious. It evoked images of sex and revolution. Tears came to his eyes as he listened. “When I heard those mixes, it was such a high point for me,” Mr. Blackwell said later. “That money I had given them, it all went in there.”

Mr. Blackwell loved what he heard in Kingston. He loved it so much that he wanted to change it. He felt he had to make it as good as it could possibly be. Island had started as a label for Jamaican music. It had become a rock label. Rock was what was selling. Rock was what the critics respected. Mr. Blackwell wanted to turn the Wailers’ reggae album into a reggae-rock album. He flew back to London.

Mr. Marley wasn’t happy with the idea of tinkering with what he had created in Jamaica. He thought the album was something special. Now he was concerned. He had been cheated and abused by a long line of producers. Would Mr. Blackwell compromise what the Wailers had done? How could British musicians possibly play reggae? Mr. Marley didn’t want to leave the album in someone else’s control. He flew to England to monitor the album postproduction. He was ready for a fight.

Mr. Blackwell, engineer Tony Platt and Mr. Marley began overdubbing and mixing the tracks at Island’s Basing Street studio in London. Mr. Blackwell immediately axed two songs from the record: one felt too R&B, and the other seemed too sentimental. “There are nine tracks on ‘Catch a Fire,’ ” said Mr. Blackwell, “because to me, a 10-track album was a pop album. A nine-track album — that’s a rock album.”

Mr. Blackwell wanted fewer tracks, but he wanted each track to be longer and weightier. “So what I did is mess with the tape, make a copy of a track and then edit it and double the length or triple the length,” he recalls. “I think with ‘Stir It Up,’ I tripled the length. I wanted to make it more like rock was and less like pop.”

To flesh out the material, Mr. Blackwell brought in several American rock session players. He recruited keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick, who had played with the rock band Free and would go on to work with the Who. He also brought on board Wayne Perkins, a 20-year-old guitarist with the American band Smith Perkins and Smith, which also had a contract with Island. Mr. Perkins’s father wouldn’t let him listen to music by black performers when he was growing up; his mother had to smuggle the records into the house.

Mr. Blackwell stopped Mr. Perkins as he was heading down the spiral staircase at Island. “I’ve got some Jamaican music here, and I need something different on it,” he announced. “It’s kind of got a Latin feel to it, but it’s a little different than that. It needs something different…You know, that southern thing you do, that rock-guitar thing you do.”

Later that afternoon, Mr. Perkins went down to the recording studio on the lower level of the Island facility. The lights were turned down low. Mr. Perkins could make out dreadlocks in the dim light. It was Mr. Marley. He looked like a palm tree silhouetted against the moon. The studio had been transformed into the Caribbean. The smell of herb was in the air. Weird music was pumping out of the speakers.

Mr. Perkins spoke into the darkness: “Chris, can you give me a clue as to what’s going on here?”

Mr. Blackwell shot back: “Well, first off, you forget the bass. The drums are on one and three, you forget the bass — he’s a melody guy. Occasionally, he’ll play some ones, but you don’t rely on him.”

“Gotcha. What else can you help with?”

“The keyboards are all on the upbeats.”

And with that, they launched into the song “Concrete Jungle.”

It would be a long night. Messrs. Marley, Blackwell, Platt and the session players worked from the afternoon until early the next morning. Mr. Marley stayed the entire time, recording new vocals and guiding and advising the participants. He had been concerned about Mr. Blackwell’s meddling, but now he was won over. He gave Mr. Perkins his highest accolade — he offered him a puff on his personal spliff.

“He had an air of quiet confidence that somehow set him apart,” Mr. Platt said of Mr. Marley. “Of course it’s easy to romanticize an iconic character such as him, and perhaps one should offer the perspective gained from going back and listening to the raw multitracks of ‘Stir It Up’ and ‘Concrete Jungle.’ He could sing out of tune just like anyone else.”

After the mixing of the album, Mr. Blackwell had a final task. He remixed the Wailers’ image, starting with the moniker of the group, dropping the name “Bob Marley” and calling them simply the Wailers. “I wanted to change it to the Wailers because I wanted to present them as a black group,” he said.

The group needed faces to go with the name. The trio had begun as a vocal group. If the Wailers were going to be a band, they needed to have a band. Mr. Blackwell asked Mr. Marley if there were any Jamaican musicians with whom he was comfortable working. Mr. Marley named two of the Upsetters — Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother Carlton Barrett. Mr. Blackwell wanted to make them official members of the group — at least when it came to photos. “I said great, let’s get them, take a picture with them. So the picture on the back of ‘Catch a Fire’ was taken in London with the five of them, to give the impression of a group, because they weren’t really a group at that time,” says Mr. Blackwell.

Because he wanted to promote the image of a black group, the two white Americans who had contributed to the album were left off the credits (decades later, their names were included on CD reissues). Complains Mr. Perkins: “They still don’t want to admit to me being part of that situation. I’ve never been invited to one Bob Marley festival.”

Mr. Blackwell realized white audiences wanted reggae that had the rough edge of rock. But they didn’t want black music that seemed like it was trying to pass for white. It was a paradox. The Wailers solved it. Their music made concessions to the marketplace. But they were so cool, so confident, that their credentials could not be challenged. They were able to segue painlessly into the international rock scene.

Blending reggae and rock fit in with Mr. Marley’s musical philosophy and his life. Mr. Marley’s mother, Cedella, is black, and his father, Norval, was a man of color who was accepted as white. Mr. Marley’s parents separated when he was young. Race had divided his family. Race had divided Jamaica. Race had divided music. Race had divided the world. Mr. Marley wanted his music to bring it all back together again. As a child, Mr. Marley had gotten in scuffles with bullies over his mixed heritage. Now, as a musician, he had turned his background into a marketing edge.

“Catch a Fire” was released in America on April 13, 1973. The album was not an instant bestseller, but it drew rave reviews from the music press in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Mr. Marley would go on to become an international symbol of revolution and freedom. His name and music would inspire a museum, a restaurant, a footwear line, a clothing line and countless other musicians. His greatest-hits album, “Legend,” is still on the Billboard charts, more than two decades after its release. The BBC named “One Love” as the song of the 20th century. Yet he never got to see a good portion of his runaway global success.

Bob Marley died of cancer in Miami on May 11, 1981. He was 36 years old.

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