Vinyl Dust-off: Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire

This week, sonic archeologist Lliam Easterbrook digs up Bob Marley.

By Lliam Easterbrook
[senior features writer]

4/5 records

What can be said about such a classic reggae album? Well, if you’re sober, nothing really. Ideally, you need to be in the right headspace to view an album like Bob Marley and the Wailers’ roots reggae opus Catch a Fire. I suppose Bob might suggest a toke or two—and that’s exactly what I did, entering that rarefied space through the plant sacred to Rastafarians worldwide. I can’t enter their space, of course, but I can enter the music’s, which I did, letting The Wailers’ soft melodies wash over me like the Caribbean sun, if I can be shamelessly cliché for a moment.

Lliam Easterbrook / The Runner

The Wailers’ debut album, Catch a Fire was released on 13 April, 1973 on Island Records. Traditional reggae for the most part relies on a subsidiary beat, with guitars typically emphasizing the off-beat also. This is called “skank,” and thus the term ‘skanky reggae.’ Musically, Marley and the gang cut the grooves deep on subsequent albums, some of the skankiest. But not on Catch a Fire, unfortunately. Upon completion, the original tapes were flown to England where the album was remixed and changed. American studio musicians were brought in, and many dynamics were altered. Essentially, what was removed in those remixes was the skanky flavour, which rendered the album an Anglicization of traditional black music.

A political album if ever there was one, CAF was immediately successful, establishing Bob Marley and his band — in particular fellow vocalist Peter Tosh — as influential world-conscious songwriters. The album garnered acclaim for its politically libertarian lyrics that many deemed controversial at the time (and sadly many still do). What are essentially songs crafted as an amalgamation of Jamaican rhythm/blues, ska, and calypso — a subsequent evolution of African music — CAF’s nine tracks predominantly focus around the lyrical themes of love over hate, freedom over oppression, and egalitarianism.

On “400 Years,” Marley comments on the importance of youth posterity (“400 years, 400 years/ of the same philosophy/ and the people, they still can’t see/ Why do they fight against the youth of today?/ and without youths, you would be gone/ all gone astray”), criticizing the establishment for failing to recognize the importance of listening to its youth. “Concrete Jungle” is a lament about what Marley feels to be the dehumanizing aspect of urbanity: “no chains around my feet/ but I’m not free/ I know I am bound here in captivity/ . . . in this concrete jungle.” In an almost bittersweet way, unfortunately, these songs are timeless — just look at Occupy.

Not just an album for the mind, though, Catch a Fire is an album for the body, for movement and energy. “Baby, we’ve got a date” sways like Caribbean life, slow and easy. “Stir it up,” their first successful song outside Jamaica, is a classic love song—it does the same thing to the ladies as Marvin Gaye or Barry White, and it’s actually (more than) listenable.

These relatively simple (and obvious?) concepts Bob Marley and the Wailers (and many others) conveyed through their music, at that time, are struggles that many are still fighting to overcome today. You just have to pick up a newspaper to see that struggles for equality and protests to end flagrant social disparity are catching fire all over the world. And he’s just talking about love, people, love and freedom. This album is as important now as it was then.

Play it loud. Play it proud.