Catch a Fire
Bob Marley & The Wailers
Released: October 1973
Chart Peak: #171
Weeks Charted: 5
Although in the last of his too-few years Bob Marley deteriorated into a mere popularizer of reggae music, he started out as a true innovator. Under the wing of Jamaican pop icon Joe Higgs, the teenaged Marley formed the Wailers with Peter Tosh and Neville "Bunny" Livingston and two other members, and came up with a vocal-group sound that suggested a tenser brand of doo-wop. These early years are well-documented on The Birth of a Legend (1963-66) (Epic) and One Love (Heartbeat), both of which are highly recommended. In 1969 the Wailers -- the Marley, Tosh, Livingston vocal trio plus the rhythm section of Aston "Family Man" Barrett and drummer Carlton "Carlie" Barrett -- hooked up with producer Lee Perry. The last two were crucial members of Perry's studio band, the Upsetters, and they made slashing reggae records (listen to Soul Revolution I and II on Trojan) that were very popular in Jamaica but couldn't break out of the island. Marley started writing for American pop singer Johnny Nash, and the group seemed doomed to being well-known in an extremely small market.
Chris Blackwell, owner of Island Records, changed all that. Blackwell's commercial acumen, inarguable as always, led him to sign the group and work to break them out internationally. Knowing that the pop audience bought records by people, not some amorphous overseas pop movement, he changed the name of the group to Bob Marley and the Wailers, setting the stage for the departure of Tosh and Livingston in 1974. Marley's remarkably coherent visions, unlikely when Rastafarian concerns predominate, and his charismatic personality (captured on the recent Island anthology Talkin' Blues) went a long way toward making these new rhythms palatable Stateside.
Catch a Fire was the group's first Island record, their first conceived as a full-length LP, and it remains their finest. Loping guitars carry the group (this was one of the first lasting reggae albums with a top-heavy mix), and the attitude and occasional fury here owe more to traditional rock-and-roll groups like the Rolling Stones than reggae vocal groups; it's no accident that Peter Tosh eventually wound up signed to the Stones' label. Everything on the record moves hearts and feet. Among its many instant reggae standards, the ones that remain the most open-ended and inviting are the chunky "Stir It Up" and the experimental "Midnight Ravers," the latter of which approximates a trenchtown version of Booker T. and the MG's. Marley's not the only lead singer; this is very much a group, as proved again in the nearly equal follow-up, Burnin', which featured more well-known songs like "Get Up, Stand Up," and "I Shot the Sheriff."
- Jimmy Guterman, The Best Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time, 1992.
"Reggae" is a Jamaican rhythm, first heard here on a national scale in 1968 when Johnny Nash, an American singer, recorded "Hold Me Tight" and "Cupid." More recently Paul Simon used a reggae band as the instrumental backup for his hit "Mother and Child Reunion." American and English artists are now visiting Jamaica to record there, much as they visited Memphis a few years ago. Reggae itself is a charming, sprightly, syncopated rhythm. Whether or not it has the wit and power of calypso I don't know: I haven't heard enough of it to say. But I would guess that reggae, like calypso, depends for its total effect on the abilities of the songwriters/performers.
Although the Wailers are described as one of the most popular and influential bands in Jamaica, this record does not prove them to be anything more than competent, professional musicians with a dearth of material. Perhaps they do not really represent reggae any more than Harry Belafonte, pro though he was, represented calypso. I would be interested in hearing more reggae but not necessarily from this band.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 8/73.
Unless your ears have been taking a sabbatical, there is no need to inform you that this is the year of that wonderfully cheery musical form known as reggae. Jamaica fathered the rhythm, and the Wailers are by no means novices; they've been practicing their craft for well over a decade. Lead vocalist Bob Marley penned all but two of the selections. Best cuts: "Stir It Up," "Baby We've Got A Date (Rock It Baby)," "Kinky Reggae" and "Midnight Ravers."
- Billboard, 1973.
In the mid-60s, when these Jamaicans were also known as the Rude Boys, they covered "What's New Pussycat"; now their anguished rhythms and harmonies suggest a rough spiritual analogue to the Rolling Stones, with social realism their welcome replacement for arty cynicism. At first I distrusted this nine-cut U.S. debut -- it seemed laid back and stretched out in the worst album-as-art tradition. Now I notice not only that half these songs are worthy of St. John and the Divine, but that the Barrett brothers' bass and drums save that aren't from limbo. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
The Wailers -- Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston -- began their reggae career in the mid-to-late sixties. Catch a Fire was their first American album release. When it arrived, the critics raved, but the American public had not yet developed a taste for Jamaica's music of hypnotic beats and politico-religious messages. While the polish that came with popular ascendancy is missing, the nascent power, R&B/soul roots, and messages are evident on "400 Years," "Stir it Up," and "Concrete Jungle." The Tuff Gong remix from the master tapes is revelatory, with resonant bass supporting haunting harmonies that remain a bit set back in the mix. B+
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
This was the first Wailers album on Island, their first with a real budget, their first international success. It is very nearly the birth of international reggae music -- songs include Peter Tosh's "Stop That Train" and Marley's "Concrete Jungle," "Kinky Reggae," and "Stir It Up." * * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The Wailers' two seminal albums, Catch A Fire and Burnin', put reggae and rastas, Jamaica and ganja on the international music map with their hard-edged music and uncompromisingly, socially and spiritually conscious lyrics. * * * * *
- Lawrence Gabriel, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
It got rave reviews but few sales, yet Catch a Fire is now recognized as the first "proper" Jamaican reggae album, a complete, well-produced package unlike the soundtracks and compilations that preceded it. The Zippo lighter sleeve helped, as did the mixing of Island's Chris Blackwell, who'd saved the Wailers from bankruptcy by commissioning the album in the first place. But although Blackwell's added synths got attention, it was really the songs that stood out, written by Marley who was then unknown outside of JA. Marley, the rastafarian poet of Trenchtown, wasn't afraid to tackle difficulte subjects. Slavery's legacy was covered in the lurching "400 Years" and then there was the growing urban alienation that lit up the driving "Concrete Jungle" like a molotov cocktail, making it the ultimate urban reggae anthem, with its howling guitars and impassioned neo-political lyrics. There was humour in the deadpan "Kinky Reggae," and quality love songs -- like the dynamite "Stir It Up," a chart hit for friend Johnny Nash. Catch... was a milestone in the growth of Afro-Caribbean consciousness. It also introduced Bob Marley as a serious songwriter. Only Jimmy Cliff had made waves before but Marley became, and posthumously remains, the only worldwide reggae superstar.
- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.
"Catch a Fire" hit the white rock audience with the force of revelation. At the time, the Wailers were truly a band, fronted by three extraordinary singers in Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, and the rhythm section of Aston and Carlton Barrett defined the power and sensuality of the reggae beat (anchored by the kick-drum thumping on the two and the four). "Stir It Up" and "Kinky Reggae" sway like hammocks under the Jamaican sun. Island boss Chris Blackwell subtly overdubbed and remixed the original Jamaican sessions for international ears without diluting the band's exotic power.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
After hearing the arrresting "Concrete Jungle" and "Slave Driver" and the anguished Peter Tosh ballad "Stop That Train," Island Records founder Chris Blackwell was convinced that the Wailers could attract an international following. Catch a Fire was the first experiment along those lines: The basic tracks were recorded in Jamaica, then supplemented in a London studio with rock filigrees such as U.S. guitar player Wayne Perkins' vamping on "Stir It Up" and slide-guitar licks on "Rock It Baby." You can hear the before-and-after on this deluxe version; the Jamaican version is sharp and elegant -- and sounds far less exotic today than it would have to North American ears in 1973 -- but Blackwell's tasteful overdubs on the familiar U.K. version still hold up.
- Tom Moon, Rolling Stone, 3/10/05.
In December 1971, a down-and-out Bob Marley walked into the London offices of Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, looking to catch a break. Recognizing a golden opportunity, the Jamaican-born Blackwell fronted Marley and his band, The Wailers, $6,000 to fly home to Jamaica and record an album. Upon receiving the master tapes, Blackwell recruited American session men, overdubbed some catchy rock guitar and keyboard licks, and commissioned a cool Zippo-shaped record jacket. The album generated rave reviews and set the stage for reggae's international ascent.
Not only was this the first reggae album to penetrate the rock market, it was also Marley's key collaboration with fellow Wailers founders Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston. Backed by the thick, disciplined basslines of Aston Barrett and the squeaky-clean upbeats of Tosh's guitar, the trio laid out the range of their vocal ability, broadcasting their militant message in rich harmony.
Haunting opener, "Concrete Jungle" despairs at the grinding poverty of the urban ghetto; Tosh's forceful "400 Years" and the wailing, menacing "Slave Driver" recall slavery's oppressive historical legacy; "We don't need no trouble" defiantly delivers a solution: "What we need is love." In between are forays into flirtatious romance -- the deliciously upbeat "Stir It Up," with its bouncy, rising bassline and meandering wah-wah solo (courtesy of Blackwell's overdubs) leads into the laid-back "Kinky Reggae," with its funny call and response.
Marley sings lead on all save two of the tracks, but Catch A Fire is definitely the work of a band -- one bursting with hunger and creative energy.
- Michael Woodsworth, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
The reggae godhead added a bit of rock instrumentation to the Wailers' tough, tight sound, somehow making them sound even tougher and tighter.
Catch a Fire was chosen as the 25th greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.
- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.
This was the album that introduced the whole world to Bob Marley. At the time, the Wailers were a truly unified band, fronted by three extraordinary singers in Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston. Producer Chris Blackwell remixed the original Jamaican sessions for international ears, but the Wailers' ghetto rage comes across uncut.
Catch a Fire was chosen as the 140th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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