Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Wailers

Note: song links will take you to You Tube. Lists were created with iTunes.

Nesta Robert "Bob" Marley, Neville "Bunny" Livingston and Peter (McIntosh) Tosh

Most people know of Bob Marley and the Wailers, but the original Wailers consisted of three giants of Jamaican music: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer). Bob sang lead on and wrote half of their original music, but Peter and Bunny had significant compositional input and, in my opinion, better voices. Sometimes called "the Jamaican Beatles", parallels can be drawn between the two groups. Bob was a charismatic and dominant frontman who excelled with melody (Paul). Peter Tosh was the acerbic, confrontational militant (John). Bunny Livingston was the introverted and spiritual member, whose younger age allowed for a later blooming (George). The original group split in 1973 after the album Burnin'. From here on, Bob Marley used the name "The Wailers" for his backing band, confusing the matter. To be fair, the other two quit the band and didn't make a claim on the copyright. Bunny co-opted the name for his own purposes. Bob was known to say that he missed his bandmates and wondered why they left him.

Anyone who knows me well would be surprised to find me obsessing over this musical act. Many people have been over-exposed to Bob Marley's "Legend" compilation and were turned off. I know this was my experience. Much like the Grateful Dead, Phish or Jimmy Buffett, it's hard to recognize the quality of music when it's being oversold. I find much good in all of the above and The Wailers (and their solo careers to a lesser extent).

The Wailers first became a quintet in Kingston, Jamaica in 1964, originally with Junior Braithwaite and Beverly Kelso as extra vocalists. For a more complete history, see Wikipedia. The Wailers only recorded five proper LPs in their tenure, but recorded scores of singles for DJ purposes in Dance Hall settings. I've divided their non-LP material by year (more or less) and created LPs for the sake of digestion.  Below are their albums as I've created them with all relevant non-LP material.

(left to right: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beverly Kelso, Bunny Livingston. 
Junior Braithwaite is not pictured)

The Wailers' first single "Simmer Down" was a breakout hit in Jamaica in mid-1964. Ska was the genre of the day and the lyrics of their first single was a call to ease the political tensions that were flaring in Kingston. The group was produced by Clement "Coxsone" or "Coxson" Dodd at his Studio One. This material is relentlessly upbeat and could be compared to Merseybeat to some degree. It's true that The Beatles were an influence on the group, but Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions provided the most inspiration (they covered "Amen" among others). Another highlight is Tosh's "Maga Dog", which he would revisit throughout his career. Often, if the A side was written by Peter Tosh, the credit on the label would read "Peter Touch & The Wailers". The Climb The Ladder collection reflects the fact that these singles were not issued to be compiled, as there is often similarity between tracks. This material, along with the rest of the Volume One cuts can be found on various compilations on Heartbeat Records with "Studio One" in the title. It's difficult to collect The Wailers' material on disc without duplicating tracks repeatedly, which is why I've compiled them in a chronological fashion.

The Wailing Wailers was the actual name of a compilation LP released on Coxson Dodd's label. It was re-released a few times and the song sequencing was slapdash. For our purposes, I've collected all of the 1965 sides chronologically under this title (which was released in 1965). Braithwaite and Kelso had departed by this point. This year was the year of the "Rude Boy" (aka "rebel without a cause"). The Wailers gave voice to this trend in many of their songs in 1965, such as "Hooligans" and "Good Good Rudie". The traditional tune "This Train" was recorded for the first time in 1965 and later revisited in 1967 and 1970, a pattern that the band continued until their split. In such cases, I've chosen the best rendition to add to my lists. The most memorable tune from this batch is "One Love", which Marley famously re-recorded. Disc 2 is composed of alternate takes and a curious instrumental version of The Beatles' "I Should've Known Better" which appeared as an uncredited B side.

1966 was a year of change for the Wailers. They were still recording with Coxson Dodd, but felt they were being exploited and had little to show for their efforts. Bob moved to Delaware with his mother to work in factories and gather some money to take back to Kingston to further the group's career. In his absence, Peter and Bunny recorded further with Rita Marley (then still Anderson) and Constantine "Vision" Walker. Peter Tosh had written a few of the Wailers cuts up to this point, but now had the latitude to develop his musical personality. Despite being a re-write of James & Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet", "I'm The Toughest" is quite enjoyable. Tosh's take on the traditional folk number "Sinner Man" was later revisited as "Downpressor Man". Bunny Livingston, however, took most advantage of the opening to unleash his singing and writing skills. "Sunday Morning", "I Stand Predominant" and "He Who Feels It Knows It" are a testament to his dormant talent as a writer and front man.

Below is my highlights list from the Coxson Dodd era, spanning 1964 to 1966:

When Marley returned from the USA, The Wailers reconstituted and started their own record label, Wail N Soul M. After releasing one single in late 1966, still produced by Coxson Dodd, they began to produce their own records as well. This completed the shift from frenetic ska to slower-tempoed rocksteady, and the results were great. Many of the songs they recorded in this era were re-recorded in a reggae style, most notably, "Stir It Up".  I chose to include both versions in my collection. Other highlights include an "Bus Dem Shut" and "Thank You Lord" as well as "Pound Get A Blow", Peter's theme song "Steppin' Razor" and the sublime "Nice Time". The latter track was afforded an instrumental version (shown on disc 2, which is my convention); more on this trend later. Sometime in 1967, Bunny Livingston was arrested for cannabis possession and sent to prison for 18 months. He wouldn't return to the group until later in 1968.

At this juncture, Bunny Livingston was in jail, so the act momentarily became Bob, Rita & Peter. They signed a non-exclusive production deal with JAD Records, founded by singer Johnny Nash (of "I Can See Clearly Now" fame), percussionist Arthur Jenkins and businessman Danny Sims. Only the "Bend Down Low" single was released from these sessions (see image above), but loads of demos were recorded and embellished, but left unreleased for decades. Some recordings were overdubbed in the 1980's and 1990's to sound "contemporary" (see disc 3), angering many Wailers fans. The unadorned demos are on disc 2. The original 1968 recordings on disc 1 are of a high production caliber, owing to the fact that the overdubs were recorded to sound native to the original time and place of conception. Once again, many tunes were revisited, including "Bend Down Low", which Bob re-recorded with his solo Wailers. Standout tracks include the infectious "Rocking Steady", "What Goes Around Comes Around" and "Hammer". Bunny Livingston rejoined the band in late 1968, and The Wailers briefly became a four-piece vocal group.

1969 was a strange year for The Wailers. Bunny had returned to the fold and Rita left for a solo venture. The group released more titles on their Wail N Soul M label. This moment in their career feels bleak in that the material was sparsely produced and ill-advised covers were attempted. On this album I've constructed, I included material that was self-produced in late 1968 and early 1970, such was the dearth of output in 1969. Highlights include Bunny's bubblegum track "Tread-O", "Comma Comma" and "Adam And Eve". The major event for the band was the embrace of the Rastafarian movement. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I was considered by Rastafari to be the second coming of Christ, who would lead the peoples of Africa to freedom and prosperity. Selassie visited the island in 1968, heralded by the single "Selassie Is The Chapel" (a variation on "Crying In The Chapel") and greeted by thousands of Jamaicans. Another development during this period was the practice of putting an instrumental version of the A side on the B side of a platter. The B side would often share the title of the vocal version, but would have the word "Version" added to the title to denote that it was an instrumental or semi-instrumental version. Disc 2 of Selassie Is The Chapel is composed of these "Versions". As the trend went forward, multiple instrumental mixes would be attempted and named differently from the A side. Eventually, this would become "dub" reggae, a phenomenon unto itself.

Below is my highlights list from the Wail N Soul M / Danny Sims era, spanning 1967 to early 1970:

Though a fully new studio release and not a compilation, The Wailers' first proper LP was titled "The Best of The Wailers" by their producer and Beverly's label owner Leslie Kong. Contending that this was the best material The Wailers ever did, Kong received consternation from the band. Bunny was so livid, he reportedly told Kong that it was only the best material because it was the last of their material he'd ever hear. Kong promptly died of a heart attack after the record's release. Despite all of this, I consider it to be their strongest LP. "Soul Shakedown Party", "Can't You See" and "Stop The Train" are worth the price. Their sound was morphing from rocksteady into reggae and Kong employed the Beverly's All-Stars (actually Glady's All-Stars, featuring Carly and Aston Barrett, later of The Upsetters and The Wailers) studio band to great effect.  After this record was released, the band went back to self-producing singles. "Feel Alright" sounds like Jamaican garage-psychedelia, having been recorded by the group with little accompaniment and sounding downright scary. Disc 2 contains some "Versions" of tracks from this batch.

In mid-1970, The Wailers began their fruitful but turbulent creative relationship with eccentric producer Lee "Scratch" Perry. This partnership fostered the most creative period in the band's history. Soul Rebels was the first release to be recorded with Perry and his studio outfit The Upsetters. The title track and "Soul Almighty" are among the highlights on this album. Also included here are some non-LP singles, most notably "Small Axe" which they later revisited. Lee Perry was also known for producing many "Versions" of vocal tracks, as is evident from their preponderance on disc 2. As these tracks are not fully-blown dub, they are of collector interest only.

Perry and The Wailers continued in 1971 with the confusingly titled "Soul Revolution Part II". This confusion occurred when the LP of "Versions" was given this title, but the vocal version was reissued with the "Part II" appended to the title. Such was the Jamaican music scene: brilliant but disoriented. "Duppy Conqueror" (also later re-recorded along with "Kaya" and others) could be my favorite Lee Perry-era track. Note: the track "Who Is Mr. Brown" is just a new vocal take over an old backing track for "Duppy Conqueror", with the bass notes of the vox organ as a clever hook. The Tosh instrumental "Memphis" and a remake of "Put It On" are other choice cuts. The early single version of Peter's "Second Hand" is also a treat as is an update of Bunny's "Dreamland". The original Soul Revolution II contained loads of "Versions". Disc 2 contains those and the many other "Versions" found on various singles and such.

Below is my highlights list from the Leslie Kong/Lee "Scratch" Perry era, mid-1970 to early 1971:

After disassociating with Lee Perry, Bob Marley created the Tuff Gong label to release The Wailers' singles. Peter Tosh likewise created the Intel-Diplo label and Bunny the Solomonic label. At this juncture, the principal members began to pursue more solo projects while The Wailers became more dominated by Marley. Tosh was especially active as a solo artist in 1971. Livingston would become more active on this front in 1972 and 1973. This could be labelled their "White Album" period, as the band was starting to drift away from each other into their own pursuits. The upbeat "Trench Town Rock", an ode to their neighborhood of origin, is a bonafide classic. Other highlights include "Redder Than Red", the original version of "Lively Up Yourself" and "Lick Samba". Disc 2 is the usual assortment of "Versions". Disc 3 is composed of demos that Bob Marley recorded with John "Rabbit" Bundrick and Johnny Nash for a film that, once released, didn't contain any Marley tracks. They were overdubbed much later. Bob reportedly took Johnny Nash's guitar as collateral. Through his networking, Bob was able to attract Chris Blackwell to produce The Wailers' next LP for his Island Records label. Thus, the band was reconvened with backing from the classic Wailers band: Carly Barrett on drums, Aston "Family Man" Barrett on bass (both former Upsetters) and Earl Lindo on keyboards. They set about recording Catch A Fire in Jamaica.

For whatever reason, the Jamaican version of the Catch A Fire LP (on disc 1) was scrapped and the album was re-recorded in England. Both versions are now available. This was the beginning of Bob Marley's super-stardom and the dissolution of the group. The obvious standouts on this disc are the slinky update of "Stir It Up" and the classic and "Concrete Jungle". The charm of the lo-fi Jamaican recordings was now replaced by state-of-the-art 24 track recording, and something was lost. However, international stardom was gained. Bunny's non-LP single track "Arab Oil Weapon" is an indication of his increasing artistic independence. Several other non-LP tracks are collected at the end of disc 1. Disc 2 is the English recording of Catch A Fire along with alternative mixes and "Versions".

Burnin' was the end of the line for the original Wailers. Tosh and Livingston were disappointed with Blackwell's attempts to make Bob Marley the official focal point of the group. Peter Tosh began to refer to him as "Chris Whiteworst". Bunny was the first to leave after a world tour playing mainly to Caucasian college students in what he called "freak clubs". Bunny became prolific and recorded a lot of material for Burnin', only some of which was included. The album contained chesnuts such as "I Shot The Sheriff" and "Get Up, Stand Up", along with remakes of "Duppy Conqueror" and "Small Axe" - both of which I think are inferior to the originals. An additional four tracks recorded during this project but not included on the project are added to the end of the LP for the sake of completion. Joe Higgs, their original vocal coach, replaced Bunny for one more tour (the live LP "Talkin' Blues" is from this incarnation), but then both he and Tosh departed. While Bob continued to use the Wailers name to much success, Peter Tosh released Legalize It and Bunny Wailer (no longer Livingston) released Blackheart Man, both classics from 1976.

Below is my highlights list from the post-Lee "Scratch" Perry era 
through the Island Records era mid-1971 through 1973:

In summary, the original Wailers were the most influential group from Jamaica, which is no small feat considering the immense talent the island has produced. The continued use of the name has obscured the contributions of Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. Their career was confusing in so many ways, and solo ambitions were obvious throughout, but the evolution of Jamaican pop music is no better represented than by their ten year history. Their definitive takes on ska, rocksteady and reggae (and the beginnings of dub) are a great starting point for anyone interested in Jamaican music. All three principal members produced great recordings after the split, but though Wings were great, I'd rather hear the Beatles any day. Below is an alphabetical list of all their recordings. The header "Grouping" refers to the recording's producer.


  1. Chris, this is very impressive, to put it mildly. I knew so little about this group. If you are as thorough with the Small Faces and other acts, I will have a lot to read and hear. I think this is a good project for you,but I amazed at your productivity. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Jeff! I'm awaiting the remastered version of The Autumn Stone in order to complete my Small Faces collection. Then I will spew forth.