Review: Vivien Goldman, Sounds, May 1977

FROM A PURELY marketing point of view, this is the one. With Rastaman Vibration’s appearance, there weren’t many music fans on the planet unaware of Bob Marley’s existence in his capacity as reggae’s only international superstar and Rasta representative.

A heavy platform, and depressing when taken in conjunction with sales figures. The prognosis appeared to be that with all the talent, money, promotion in the world, reggae wasn’t ever gonna SELL the way that rock sells.

If any album manages to break that barrier, Exodus should be it. Karl Pitterson’s usual crisp, clean sound is calculated to be springy enough for rock fans while staying punchy enough to keep the roots fans ‘just about’ satisfied. It’s a dangerous tightrope, and Marley’s treading the same one.

One of the most obvious things about the album is the way it breaks down into a “hard” side (one) and a “soft” (two). The real heavyweights start at track three, side one — ‘Guiltiness’. The album’s finest hour, stately impassioned vocals (“these are the big fish that eat up the small fish, they would do anything to materialize their every wish…”) while the track plus the I Three sound heart-rending, so poignantly severe singing about the fate of the downpressor that I’m reduced to jelly.

Then there’s ‘Heathen’, which steps so swinging, Bob’s voice beseeching, thrillingly low on the irresistible rhythms of the chorus… Carly’s drums tinkle the sound onward and upward, Family’s bass unyielding as it dances between the notes. With a rhythm section solid as that, the Wailers have to remain superb. Then on through the sombre pared-down percussion of the title track, unswerving as it beckons Jah people to Africa. Marley’s imperious as he whiplashes out the command to move… you’d have to be deaf to resist. So purposeful; it’s all delivered with an authority that convinces. Majestic.

Side two is full of surprises. Superficially, it’s a bunch of love songs, lines like “I don’t want to wait in vain for your love” complete with crooning “ooh ooh girls”. I pictured riots in Brixton when that came out. But as Marley explained to me, the message of Rasta is there for all those with ears to receive it. When you think he’s talking about a girl playing hard to get, he’s talking just as much about unheeding audiences of Babylon as he sings oh sooooo romantically, “it’s your love that I’m waiting on, it’s me love that you’re running from…” See it deh?

Equally, the chirpy “simplicity” of the world contained in ‘Three Little Birds’, a sweetly sprightly melody in which tame birds hop on Marley’s windowsill to inform him, “don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘cos every little thing’s gonna be alright”, could be construed as a manic attempt to reduce his revolutionary image to nil in three little words. Not (necessarily) so, Rasta! Checking it fully, the message is about positive rastaman vibrations again, perfectly in keeping with the savage, somber exhortations of ‘Exodus.’

Yet it’s still true that side two, functioning on two levels as it does, is the least threatening side Marley’s ever cut to white western rock ears. Marley’s answer to that was: (a) Why should he stay in the same place? Why sing ‘Burning and Looting’ rehashes just to satisfy people’s expectations? (b) It’s only a return to Wailer’s roots (remember, the original Wailers cut a single of ‘What’s New Pussycat’, released on Island over here many moons ago), and© The advantage of being more accessible is that more people get to hear the message by buying the album, and there’s no harm in that…

As far as I’m concerned, it’s restricting and regressive to judge any album purely in terms of how closely it matches traditional “requirements” of its genre. If the emphasis has shifted from soul rebel street fighting man to natural mystic (the title of the mellow opening track, Marley’s voice more silken and haunting than ever before) it’s dumb to automatically register it as a Bad Thing.

Uncharitable people have been quick to view the new silver-voiced Marley as a cop-out, a hero in retreat, backpedaling furiously after the recent gunmen’s attempt on his life. That’s dumb too. Objectively, Marley’s music has shifted into new gear, moved into a new space. OK, he sings with a new suppleness that you can describe as ‘soft’, the way the lilting ‘So Much Things To Say’ merges into the ‘Natty Dread’ style Biblical blend of sorrow, tragedy and solemn pride on ‘Guiltiness’ encapsulates the point — Marley’s exhibiting a new degree of vocal control, capable of shifting emotions subtly but unmistakably as he sings one word.

While Marley’s songwriting abilities remain as powerful as they are (and remember, there’s an album’s worth of fine material left in the can), while he continues to surround himself with musicians as excellent as the Barrett Brothers, Dirty Harry and the rest, Bob Marley will continue to remain King of Reggae in the eyes of the world.