I’m going to start off by laying my cards on the table…I know next to nothing about reggae! Sure, I have owned Legend for many years now (along with pretty much everyone else) and have even gone on to add a number of Bob Marley albums to my collection, but other than that my experience has been limited to hearing the occasional Shaggy or UB40 song on the radio. I always suspected there were deeper and more rewarding veins to mine than that…but where on earth to start?
Well, good ol’ John Peel, that’s where. I mistakenly thought Peel had put a Burning Spear song in his Desert Island Discs’ collection – it turns out the song I was thinking of was Man Kind by Misty in Roots. No matter, Peel was my inspiration as I distinctly recall him playing Burning Spear at relatively regular intervals during the 15 years of so that I was an avid listener of his. At the time I would have probably have only given a Burning Spear song a cursory listen – I would have been far more interested in hearing the new Paris Angels, Telescopes or Chapterhouse offering! – but, since then, time has elapsed (and record club has happened) and my musical tastes have broadened significantly. And although the three aforementioned bands are all cultural behemoths who shifted the musical world (and, some would argue, society itself) off its axis, I would attest that Marcus Garvey the album might just be an even more significant work than anything offered up by this indie triumvirate!
Having finally acquired Marcus Garvey only recently – I tried to buy it online a few years ago but it never arrived – I was immediately surprised by its accessibility. I was expecting a much darker record, possibly due to the band’s name, possibly due to the fact that I knew Burning Spear to be a politically charged collective, possibly because Peel tended to gravitate towards the more challenging end of the musical spectrum. However, although the subject matter of the songs is highly political – Garvey himself was a key figure in the black rights movement of the mid twentieth century – the music is warm and inclusive and, although I would be the first to admit that I will always feel like an onlooker when listening to reggae, there is nothing on this album that feels alienating.
In fact, despite being released in 1975, the one thing that immediately stood out when listening to the album for the first time was the quality of the production. Every sound can be heard in crystal clarity and there is so much space in the recording that the excellence of the bands’ singing and musicianship is difficult to ignore. It’s almost impossible to not make comparisons with Bob Marley – I was trying to think of another genre of music where one single figure or band towers over the rest to the same extent…and couldn’t! – but I have to say that Marcus Garvey is, for me, a more successful album than any of the Marley albums I own (I have Burnin’, Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration). That could be because the Legend cuts have become so ubiquitous that it is almost impossible to hear them with any sort of objectivity any more and, as a result, the album tracks feel less significant than they really are. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Marcus Garvey is just a better album, perhaps, in part, due to the fact that Burning Spear were not trying to write singles that sold in their millions and could concentrate on producing an album that works as a cohesive and complete whole, rather than just another collection of songs.
So, now that I have dipped my toes in the waters of roots reggae, I am keen to expand my horizons beyond the four albums and one compilation I currently possess. Where to go next though – Misty In Roots? Steel Pulse? The Congos?… UB40? Any recommendations would be gratefully received.