I Am The Son Of The Lightning, You Cannot Move I At All. (Peter Tosh)

At around 9 p.m. on December 3rd 1978 an already groovy day was about to get go-go . A lazy Sunday afternoon with good food, good friends & similar dope (lots of Lebanese hash around in 78/79, they had a war to finance) had been a more than pleasant overture to the evening’s main event. I was dancing in the stalls of the Manchester Apollo, with my best gal by my side, grinning like a shot fox (ee-yew !). Peter Tosh, the star of the night’s show, had opened his set with the double whammy of  “400 Years” & “Stepping Razor”. A thought occurred that if the day was to end right here, right now then it had been a fine time. 30 minutes later Tosh graced us with a run of “African”, “Burial” & “Equal Rights”. The night had gone into orbit…sent to outer space to find another race. “Them want I, them want I, Com’a them funeral”…Oh yeah !


Peter Tosh, the tall one in the Wailers was also the natural musician of the trio. He taught & inspired the others to play, The man who tutored Bob Marley in the guitar. The young band of brothers’ progress from wailin’ rude boys to Rasta natural mystics was not always easy. Bob left for the USA, Bunny did a stretch at the Richmond Farm Prison but these guys were on a mission from Jah, driven to improve & succeed, the sum of their three characters being greater than the parts. Their ambition for recognition outside of Jamaica meant that deals had to be made with Babylon, the music was changed by commercial pressure not artistic progress. Bunny was the first to go, reluctant to leave Jamaica &, like Peter, who did not hang around much longer, confused just how his group had become Bob’s backing band. Man, I am lucky to have seen that “Catch A Fire” tour. That is a lot of talent on one stage.

In 1976 we were blessed with “Blackheart Man” by Bunny, Bob’s “Rastaman Vibration” & Peter’s debut LP “Legalize It”. Pick one, go on, just one. Can’t be done, no point anyway, those are 3 terrific records. Tosh’s title track is an international anthem for the international herb.While he is regarded as the most directly militant of the Trenchtown trinity this record is no polemic. Tosh often expressed his anger &  dread about colonialism & injustice but the last track he recorded with his group, “One Foundation”, is a melodic call for birds of a feather to come together. “Legalize It” collects similarly straightforward, steadfast songs. “Igziabeher” & “Ketchy Shuby” capture the sacred & profane of Jamaican life, “Brand New Second Hand” sounds like a hit record & “Why Must I Cry” is as good as this…

“Legalize It” is a conscious, infectious work of art, guaranteed to cheer. Next year’s “Equal Rights” is 8 tracks of serious, glorious business, guaranteed to stir. Peter saved his version of “Get Up Stand Up”, recorded by all three Wailers, for this set. When he picked which side he was on the man assertively & eloquently let you know the score. The band played 4 of these tracks that night, any 4 from 8 would have been the thing. This is “African”.

Peter had an  international reputation, ambitions for this muscular, tough music. His band, Word,Sound & Power, picked from the studios of Jamaica, were absolutely up to the job. Drummer Sly Dunbar & bassist Robbie Shakespeare had played with the Upsetters round at Lee Perry’s yard, Black Ark. They were with the Revolutionaries over at Channel One while over at Bunny Lee’s studio they were with the Aggrovaters. (I’m not sure how the Roots Radics coped without them). They were reggae legends before they toured with Tosh, they were ready to be heard, ready for the love they deserved. Mikey “Mao” Chung knew what a reggae rhythm guitarist did & knew how important it was to the sound…a master. Skully Simms & Sticky Thompson would have got the job because of their appreciable nicknames though they were crackerjack percussionists. I’m not the biggest fan of extended guitar solos in what is primarily a rhythmic music (I strictly Roots) but this was Reggae Rock, looking for an audience big enough to fill a stadium. Al Anderson was the lead guitarist of choice for both Peter Tosh & Bob Marley at this time.

We got to see a world class band give a world class show that night. It’s ridiculous how many accomplished musicians emerged in Jamaica at this time. Peter Tosh had 2 classic LPs, his new release, “Bush Doctor”, was on Rolling Stones Records. He strutted around the front of the stage like it was his time, like the star he was. Man, he was nobody’s sideman but we knew this anyway. I’ve been to some memorable reggae concerts which turned into outstanding parties but seeing these artists at the top of their game could not be better. We stepped out into the night & the world seemed a better place.

You saw the same people at these Manchester reggae gigs. That very young kid with the stoned, supercilious smile & the ginger dreadlocks always seemed to be a bit of a prick. I guess we owe the world an apology because he grew up to be the lead singer of Simply Red & we did nothing to stop that terrible Hucknall happening…sorry.

The Rhythm A Go Drip Like Sugar And Spice (Bunny Wailer)

Any list of the best Reggae  LPs (no greatest hits) is dominated by the roots, Rastafarian outbreak between say 1974-79. A junction of a rising generation of young Jamaican musicians with a new international audience stimulated increases in creativity & output. The 3 original Wailers, Culture, Burning Spear, Lee Perry, King Tubby, the Congos. It’s an easy & obvious choice but there’s 8 of them while I’m going to fight for the Wailing Souls’ inclusion because they rock. There was still great reggae music to come but by 1981 & the premature passing of Bob Marley, many of the artists mentioned were producing variations on & versions of a theme of chanting down Babylon which had already been well covered.

 

I’ve written about “Blackheart Man” (1976), the nonpareil debut solo record by Bunny Wailer. There’s a case to be made that Bunny was more spiritual than Bob Marley & Peter Tosh. His melodicism, his abilities as an arranger & producer, created a collection which stirred the head, heart & hips, often all at the same time. His annual releases were still of a high quality but lacked the consistency of his classic opening statement. At the beginning of the new decade Bunny Wailer released 4 LPs. 2 of them are contenders for that all-time list.

 

 

While Bob Marley became an international superstar & Peter Tosh was recording with Mick & Keith, Bunny cultivated his garden back home. He disliked travelling so avoided the album-tour-album routine & could take his time to make his records. “Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers” was just what the Bush Doctor ordered. It was a thoughtful trawl through the back catalogue, the Coxone Dodd 60s, Lee Perry in the 70s. It was not a Greatest Hits. Bob was cherry-picking the tunes he wanted for his new group, Bunny took time over his selections of songs to take a second look at & it showed.

 

“…Sings the Wailers”  is such a satisfying record. Bunny travelled a long road with his fellow Wailers before the involvement with Island records led to a split.There’s a sense of closure, of settling with the past about his treatment of this labour of love. Bunny was not ready to embrace the beefed-up stadium reggae of his friends.His vocal style never really suited such declamation.  I have always loved the probity, the dignity of the Wailers’ music. Peter’s indignation, Bob’s credence & Bunny’s more reserved assurance synthesized into a powerful whole. With the great rhythm section of Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare this is a record which is modern but retains a roots clarity. “Walk The Proud Land” gets the nod because…well, just listen. There are a lot of contenders, the running order seems as consequential as a concept album. “Ska Quadrille” indeed !

 

 

 

 

If ever “Rock ‘N’ Groove” (1981) gets neglected then rescued from the back of the stack you think, as you dance across the room, “Man, I must play this more often”. It’s Jollification Time ! The Wailers started as young pop kids, Impressions wannabes having some hit records played on the radio. Reggae had got a little dreader than dread, the dub-wiser ran on more than Budweiser (thank you !) & more power to all of it. Bunny Wailer had made some of the best of that music. He knew that the great music of his youth would nice up the dance too. “Rock ‘N’ Groove”s big idea was that reggae belonged in the dancehall

 

This time around Sly Dunbar got to play with his syn-drums. Sly, Robbie & the rest of the Roots Radics played a clean, uncomplicated, modern reggae. Copyists, & there were many when “Dancehall” became the thing in Jamaica, were less restrained when let loose in the toy box of a 1980s recording studio. The immediate appeal of “Cool Runnings” & “Rootsman Skanking” is irresistible but there is not a bad track on the LP. Blimey, there’s not a duffer in the 8 or so tracks which did not make the cut first time around. The songs are not Selassie-I this, Marcus Garvey that but Bunny’s music will always have a social & political dimension. The songs are short with no, now traditional, dub extension. The spare arrangements allow intimations of aural explorations, the dub is left to your imagination. “Rock ‘N’Groove” is on that list of great reggae LPs.

 

 

Bob Marley died on May 11 1981. A genuine world music superstar, he led the export of Jamaican music to just about every place on the planet. Bunny & Bob were raised as stepbrothers in the same house. Their musical education & ideas were shared too. Of the many accolades & memorials whatever Bunny had to say & sing carried the swing. Unfortunately the time & care taken on “…Sings the Wailers” was not repeated for “Tribute” (1981). There are out-takes from earlier, rushed, even uninspired versions of obvious songs. Hey, I’m being tough on an artist who has made some perfect music. “Tribute” is a Bunny Wailer record which which means it is interesting & will reward repeated listening.

 

After this burst of creativity Bunny continued with studio experimentation which often found him ahead of the game in Jamaican music.A good friend, his long term memory function impaired by marijuana use, promised to get back to me with the title of a 90s LP that he thinks is the bizz. There was a pile of great music to come. By 1986 he was assuming the role of dignified elder statesman of reggae & began to tour. I have friends who remind me of the 27th of June 1990 when I missed a triumphant return to London. In my opinion Bunny Wailer made more great reggae records than anyone else. That all time great list is tough to make (just remembered Big Youth, Dr Alimantado !) but “…Sings the Wailers”, a digest of past achievement & “Rock ‘N’ Groove”, a dual triumph of dance music & future reggae, will take some shifting.

Wisdom Is Found In The Simplest Of Places (Blackheart Man Bunny Wailer)

I was on a train from Manchester to Birmingham, an old school “Strangers On A Train” train with compartments for 6 people. The other young guy in there  didn’t speak but our quiet journey was interrupted at Stoke when we were joined by 3 black kids, a Rasta (it was a fashion at the time) and his younger acolytes. They immediately got down to it and began to build a couple of spliffs. I was not going to miss an opportunity to smoke up the collie with the bredren so put my hand in the way and intercepted the joint as it was passed across. A little presumptive on my part maybe. I had better produce some credentials and sharpish. From my bag I took out an LP that, at the time, went everywhere with me. Any problem with this cheeky white bwoy was solved.

“Blackheart Man” is the first LP Bunny Wailer released after leaving the Wailers. The story of the three Wailers is told in Colin Grant’s fine book “I and I: The Natural Mystics”. As in Lloyd Bradley’s earlier history of reggae “Bass Culture” the social and political development of Jamaica is inevitably entwined with the music. The story of these young men, as close as brothers, is a fascinating one. They presented a united front against tribulation because they shared a belief in and a passion about the music they created. When the wider world came calling  there were differences about how to deal with Babylon. Bunny decided to stay in Jamaica then Peter Tosh left the group which had become Bob Marley and the Wailers. Spurred, I’m sure, by the desire to prove they could each stand alone each man delivered an LP which marked the point that reggae music had to be considered around the world not just in Jamaica and the UK.

This title song “Blackheart Man” tells of the fable warning children to “tikya” of strangers making a parallel with the ostracism of Rastafari by Jamaican society. Bunny’s lyricism, his calm, almost understated, declaration of his own beliefs makes it a powerful, convincing and uplifting work. The guy on the train handed my LP to his younger mates, “This”, he said, “tis a spiritual ting”, and he was right.

Bunny had provided harmonies and percussion in the Wailers. It is the attention paid to these flourishes which make the music on “Blackheart Man” more mellifluous than the anthems of Bob Marley (which are sweet enough). While no less an advocate of Rasta and opponent of oppression than his militant, proselytizing confederates, lyrically he concerned himself with a revolution of the spirit as much as of worldly things. Three of the 10 songs are concerned with the possibility of an ideal way of living. A fresh take on the gospel classic “This Train” closes the LP. “Dreamland” is a reverie on a Rasta African homeland and this track “Fig Tree” is a similar reflection on finding a paradise on earth. Now I’m a cynical man firmly anchored in the material world but songs as open and as fresh as this will make me think. I am not the first to make the point but there is a touch of William Blake, of the romantic visionary, about Jah Bunny.

“Fig Tree” contains the lyric “every man is a man and every mickle mek a muckle”. For years I admired this integration of Jamaican patois into the song. I was watching the great 1962 film “Billy Liar”, set in West Yorkshire, and was surprised to hear that very same phrase used. Say what !…this Scottish/Northern English saying was first recorded in the writings of George Washington in 1793 ! And I thought it was a Trenchtown thing y’knaa.

Bunny Wailer continues to make music and has made other great LPs but “Blackheart Man” is, in his own opinion, the most complete realisation of his musical and lyrical concerns. It is one of the great LPs, not just in reggae. My own admiration for him as a man and musician has endured for a long time now and will continue to do so. Listening to “Fighting Against Conviction” with it’s positive vibrations despite the struggles of life, with it’s sinuous Wailers’ groove and harmonies from brother Peter Tosh, makes a point more succinctly than I could ever hope to.

So, our conversation on the train was cut short as we entered the outskirts of Birmingham. We said our goodbyes as the boys were riding the rails and left to jump from the train before it reached New Street station. The compartment was filled with a lovely fug of marijuana smoke and I smiled to myself at the welcome and unexpected turn the journey had taken. Now I would have to get my stoned butt into shape to negotiate a crowded Friday night commuter crowd…oh shit. I took a few deep breaths and tried to centre my chakras, or whatever was necessary for me to put one foot in front of the other, when I was asked about the Bunny Wailer record. What the f…? There had been someone else in the compartment all the time. He had pulled his newspaper around his head and made himself invisible as soon as the others had joined us. He had done a good job too…I had forgotten about him. I was polite and answered his query but come on. There was a smoke to be shared, some good talk about life and music with some strangers and he had chosen to hide. That is not the way to live. As Bunny sings in “Reincarnated Souls”, “he who has eyes to see, let him look yonder”. Peace.