Classic Album: Catch a Fire The Wailers

After the sad passing of Bunny Wailer in March, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the legacy of The Wailers. While many have said Bunny Wailer was the last of the original group, comprised of Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Bob Marley, that’s not really accurate. This focus on the three vocalists in The Wailers omits the significant contributions of rhythm section and brothers Carlton ‘Carly’ Barrett and Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, the latter of which is still alive and well. Family Man helped define the very foundations of the Reggae genre as it morphed out of Roots and Ska, and played on many of the genre’s greatest albums. So what of those five or so players, or the multiple backing vocalists and session players who joined them in crafting the album that would propel The Wailers name, and that of their now iconic lead vocalist, to global fame? Here we look at the fraught story of ‘Catch a Fire’ and how it came to be a pivotal moment in the expansion of Western musical culture.

The first album by The Wailers to be released on Island Records, it’s surprising looking back to consider that the album may never have happened. Having recently completed a UK tour in late 1971 the band was low on funds and had few resources to get themselves back to Jamaica. Taking an offer of a comfortable advance for their next album from Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, the band set off home to lay tracks down on tape. The issue, however, was that the band already had a contract with CBS which led to delays and a final court resolution granting the rights to Island.

Upon completion of the sessions Marley returned to London with the master tapes. The tracks took a step away from the bands early Roots and Ska sound and continued a move further into Reggae that had begun with a pair of albums The Wailers had recorded with the legendary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry; the very recordings that had attracted the attention of Blackwell and Island. Blackwell, however, wasn’t entirely satisfied with how far the band had developed their sound, feeling that the album still required some finessing to bring it more in line with British and American tastes. Contracting American session players to add Rock and Pop Soul leaning bridges, guitar solos and assorted keyboard and synth overdubs, Blackwell, advertently or inadvertently, began a move towards a more global brand of Reggae as he produced the final mix. That move, along with other shifts and grievances, would bring superstardom for Marley but ultimately lead to the dissolution of the original Wailers band.

Listening back to opening track ‘Concrete Jungle’ now, nearly fifty years after its release, and comparing it to the original Jamaican mix not released until 2001, there is a clear difference in approach. While the Jamaican mix features a prominent and consistent off-beat staccato chop, the original Blackwell mix, as released in ‘73, begins with a prolonged guitar intro, adds fills, and drops the rhythm guitar deeper in the mix while also reducing the walking bass to a minimum. The result was an album with huge crossover success and a group of musicians who would begin to fracture as they moved further from their musical and cultural roots.

This is not to decry or diminish the quality of the original, however. ‘Catch a Fire’ is a supremely impressive album that, no matter which mix is considered, moved the band on from their pre-Island releases towards a more rounded sound that spoke to audiences across the globe. Whether tackling the legacy of slavery or creating anthemic love songs in album highlight ‘Stir It Up’, the duo of Tosh and Marley created emotionally engaging, passion filled music that had lyrics, melodies and rhythms that captured imaginations and enamoured audiences. In doing so they positioned the Reggae sound as one that could speak to Pop audiences while still appearing relevant and conscious but most importantly of all, authentic.

Acclaimed immediately by audiences and critics, the album has continued to grow in stature since. Yet, within months the album would be usurped by the band's swan song follow up ‘Burnin’’. Due to conflicts between the nature of global touring and strict Rastafarian beliefs, musical and personal differences, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer would leave the band after that album while Marley would lead a revamped version of Bob Marley and the Wailers on to superstardom.

In many ways ‘Catch a Fire’ was the beginning of the story of Bob Marley as a global star and the beginning of the end of The Wailers. As it played out the future of Reggae, Rock and Pop music was rewritten, paving the way for future breakthrough acts like Burning Spear but also widening the opening of the door for future musicians from outside the UK and US markets to their audiences. An important addition to the musical lineage of Reggae, ‘Catch a Fire’ more importantly helped transform the legacy of the genre from a localised stylistic trend into a worldwide phenomenon.

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