In 1973, Bob Marley & The Wailers
were already a reggae phenomenon. Bob had been a sound system regular with his singles from Leslie Kong and Coxsonne Dodd for ten years, and in the last five years the Wailers' records with Lee "Scratch" Perry
had turned them into a chart topping success in Jamaica. But Bob, with further ambitions to move the band up in the world, signed a deal with JAD Records alongside his agreement with Perry (a common practice in the Jamaican recording industry at the time), and this turned out to be the fateful arrangement.
While Perry's dubs generated major dollars in Jamaica, and Leslie Kong's rereleases and compilations, though they hurt the image Bob and the band were trying to establish, continued to spread the name around (before Kong fell victim to duppy business), Bob took a trip to Sweden to cut a soundtrack for a film, Want So Much To Believe
. Bob never ended up writing any music for the soundtrack, but his trip to Europe prompted manager Danny Sims to propose a speculative Wailers tour in England. The full-fledged tour never materialized, either, though the somewhat random streak of gigs they played garnered significant support in the U.K. But the band was spending most of their time uncomfortably cold in the winter of 1971, rehearsing in a cellar in Surrey. Suddenly, they found themselves without a manager after Sims skipped town for Miami to pursue other interests, but this turned out to be the most fortunate development in the Wailers' career so far.
Through promoter Brent Clarke, who the Wailers hired as their temporary manager when Sims departed, the band was hooked up with Island Records' Chris Blackwell, who had released many of the Wailers' early Jamaican singles for U.K. distribution years earlier and thought very highly of the band. Clarke gave Blackwell an advance of "8000 to produce a Wailers LP. The band returned to Jamaica in early '72, purchased studio time at Dynamic Sounds Recording, and churned out the recordings that would become their major label debut by the end of that year.
Bob returned to England with the masters, and he and Blackwell collaborated on the final product, enlisting the help of musicians of the caliber of Wayne Perkins
, who happened to be recording in the upstairs studio at Island's Basing Street facility at the same time Blackwell and Marley were working downstairs. Perkins recorded the lead guitar for the album's opener, "Concrete Jungle," in one take, and went on to play on "Stir It Up" and "Baby We've Got A Date" as well. Also notable, Robbie Shakespeare
, half of the inseparable rhythm section (with drummer Sly Dunbar
) that many consider to be the definitive purveyors of the reggae sound, other, of course, than the Barrett brothers from The Wailers, played bass on "Concrete Jungle." On April 13, 1973, Catch A Fire
was released in its original, remarkable Zippo lighter jacket.
The first pressing, 20,000 copies, sold out quickly, but the hand-manufacture the elaborate sleeve required hindered production, so the subsequent pressings were released with a new cover, now as iconic as the first sleeve, featuring Bob pulling on an impressively, intimidatingly, untenably large spliff.
The track listing was as follows:
- "Concrete Jungle" (Marley)
- "Slave Driver" (Marley)
- "400 Years" (Marley/Tosh)
- "Stop That Train" (Tosh)
- "Baby We've Got A Date (Rock It Baby)" (Marley)
- "Stir It Up" (Marley)
- "Kinky Reggae" (Marley)
- "No More Trouble" (Marley)
- "Midnight Ravers" (Marley)
The album consists almost exclusively of some of the Wailers' best songs, some of which were already well known in Jamaica in previous versions ("Stir It Up" as an early single, and "400 Years" on many of the records cut with Lee Perry). But Catch A Fire
had a new sound, as deep as a cutting-edge studio record but as raw as the sound of the Kingston ghettos about which many of the lyrics were written. The aesthetic shift is made explicit on "400 Years," which begins at the mid-tempo rocksteady pace at which the group often played the tune live (still somewhat slower than the previous version produced by Perry), but as soon as the first chorus begins, the tempo swirls downward into a slow, soulful reggae groove that contrasts sharply with the feeling of the early Wailers.
The album is driven by the urgency and lyrical eloquence with which Bob Marley and Peter Tosh presented their message of dissatisfaction with the Babylon system. This is the element that set the Wailers apart from the competition to begin with in the sound systems of Kingston, but the heat has been turned up for the Wailers' international debut, with nearly every song crackling with revolutionary fervor. Indeed, some of the songs on Catch A Fire
would rank among Marley's (and Tosh's) best socially conscious songs they ever wrote.
But the most obvious evolution from The Wailer's LPs with Perry to Catch A Fire
is in the arrangements. The facilities at Basing Street were superior to those in which the band had worked before, and the roster of instrumentalists was, as always, impressive, but the most important influence on the sound was the production team of Chris Blackwell and Bob Marley. This band had transformed from a top Jamaican act into an international force, and the new sound the duo forged for the Wailers reflected this new status.
From this very first major label LP on, it is clear that Bob Marley & The Wailers had created something transcendent. Even on the apolitical love songs that make up the middle of the album, the sound still manages to feel definitive, as if Marley was not just singing about love but doing for love what his political songs do for his righteous cause. The lush backing vocals and instrumental textures from Tosh and Bunny Wailer, the unstoppable groove of Aston and Carlie Barrett, and the sheer intensity of Bob Marley's presence combine for a sound of near-universal significance, but Catch A Fire
retains a street rawness particular to the appeal of the early Wailers, an appeal that did not diminish so much as simply change over the length of their recording career.
In order to fully experience Catch A Fire
, I suggest you pick up the double-disc double-disc [url=http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000059ZT4/sr=8-2/qid=1152025827/ref=sr_1_2/002-6196933-6180009?ie=UTF8]Deluxe Edition[/url]. This release contains two extra tracks, the rockin' "All Day All Night," which recalls the R&B charm of the Wailers' early ska records, and the indispensable, gorgeous ballad "High Tide Or Low Tide." But more importantly, the first disc, which also has the extra tracks, contains the Jamaican masters of the tracks from the album that Marley brought to England and expanded with Blackwell. These are the songs of Catch A Fire
stripped of their extra production, nothing and no one but The Wailers and their music. Listening to the Jamaican versions is like being in the room with the band, just Carly, Family Man, Peter, Bunny, and Bob, as they burn through the raw essence of the songs that Marley and Blackwell later made deeper and more complex. But the finished product alone exudes the full power of The Wailers as they began the ascent to their peak, and the second disc of the deluxe edition contains Catch A Fire
as it was released.