“White kids have lost their heroes; Jagger has become a wealthy socialite, Dylan a mellowed, home-loving man, even Lennon has little to say. So along comes this guy with amazing screw-top hair, and he’s singing about ‘brainwash education’ and loving your brothers and smoking dope. Their dreams live on”.
This was how the NME greeted the arrival of Bob Marley, the near-saintly figurehead of reggae.
In the early 1960s many Jamaicans wanted to cap political independence (granted in 1962) with musical independence. Ska emerged in 1961, picked up from New Orleans R&B radio stations, but within six years it was out again and rocksteady was in – Jamaican music, with an obvious soul influence, pioneered by producer Duke Reid. A year later reggae was born.
At first the term was used to describe a new sound which united the offbeat rhythms and melodies of ska and rocksteady with lyrics full of social and political sentiments. Later reggae was influenced by political persuasions and mystical elements – not to mention the ganja smoking – of Rastafarianism.
The hook of reggae – then and now – is the juddering hypnotic pulse which flows through every track. But reggae drew on many styles.
There are traces of American rock & roll in tracks by Toots & The Maytals, while the raw soul of the Memphis-based Stax label is evident in Desmond Dekker’s work, and sweeter soul can be heard in songs by The Paragons.
But reggae caught Jamaica’s imagination, the lyrics reflecting people’s lives and hopes.
At first, songs were sent to the UK to be pressed, but many records never made it back, being sold to former ska fans in the UK. The Maytals were probably the first act to use the term ‘reggae’ in a song (Do The Reggay).
Ska veterans with producer Leslie Kong, they incorporated rocksteady and reggae; their single Sun, Moon And Stars boasting a strong Rastafarian vibe.
Jimmy Cliff was another pioneer, and his first single (Hattie Hurricane) was a big hit. Cliff starred in the 1972 reggae smash movie, The Harder They Come, but was too polished to appeal to the largely unemployed, disillusioned masses who embraced reggae, for whom Marley seemed the real equivalent to Cliffs character.
The Wailers changed line-up often, but Marley and his Rastafarian beliefs were the nucleus of the act always.
They flourished as songwriters for US acts such as Johnny Nash, but Marley wanted to sing his own songs and have them heard outside Jamaica, so he brazenly strolled into the office of Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records. What is now regarded as the first reggae album, Catch A Fire, was released in 1972.
Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer quit after internal strife, and the group – now called Bob Marley & The Wailers – played the London Lyceum, striking gold in the UK.
The band scored eight Top 40 hits before Marley’s death from cancer at the age of 37, his Rastafarian beliefs having stopped him from having surgery years earlier.
There is more to reggae than Marley – The Upsetters, Black Uhuru and Peter Tosh to name just three – but no one as powerful has come along since, and variants such as ragga and dancehall took over the hardcore audience.