In 1973, a lot had changed, and was changing, and pretty rapidly. Not that I can claim to have been alive for what many consider that last of the hippie years and the unofficial beginning of the “Me” decade. As a staunch music nerd with a voracious and unquenchable thirst for knowledge in the area of all things music, I’ve heard stories, read books, watched movies, listened to and collected tons of albums, watched YouTube videos, you name it, all in the name of learning about the cultural and societal impact of music during out times. And April 13 will mark the 40th anniversary of one of those moments. Arguably, one of the most important musical moments of that year, of the 1970s and in modern music as it’s known today.
These days, music fans worldwide celebrate Bob Marley as an unquestioned music icon that popularized a genre of music that, at the time, was considered everything from progressively revolutionary to incomprehensible and downright strange in Reggae. But in 1973, as the story goes The Wailers were yet another struggling band from Jamaica that had toured Great Britain with American pop star Johnny Nash and were trying to find money to make it back home. By a stroke of luck, a promoter that had seen The Wailers perform contacted Island Records owner Chris Blackwell, who would eventually finance the album’s creation and promotion.
Catch A Fire was not the official debut album of Bob Marley and The Wailers, or more properly at that time, The Wailers. It was actually their fifth album. But it was the first to be released on a major label by Blackwell, and considered by many to be the album that introduced them to music fans in the Western world, especially the U.K. It’s simultaneously no secret and part of music folklore that Chris Blackwell knew that he wouldn’t be able to sell Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and their band to the expanding African American music-buying public simply because they were black, so he decided to market them as a progressive black rock group to the counterculture, Rolling Stone magazine crowd. And with songs gurgling with a rebellious outlaw swagger, searing and militant melodies and lyricism, a heavy Biblical undercurrent and the reproduction of previously recorded hits in Jamaica made to fit the tastes of American and British ears, Catch A Fire was their first official attempt.
And many of the qualities and elements that would make Bob Marley an international superstar years later and crystal clear throughout Catch A Fire: the raspy, rhythmic desperation in his voice on “Concrete Jungle”; the pounding, fat-bottom bass and Marley’s world-weary combativeness on “Slave Driver”; his overtly raunchy, innuendo-fueled singing on “Kinky Reggae”; his delicate plaintiveness on the slow groove of “Stir It Up”; and his stalwart references to the book of Revelations on “Midnight Ravers”. All of these characteristics and many others would go on to define Marley and his musical mission on later albums like Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Survival and Uprising, and put him on the same level as Jimi Hendrix as a posthumous musical and cultural icon.
And beyond just the obvious, Catch A Fire was the album that would set the stage for the solo careers of Marley, Tosh and Wailer, as they would record only one more album together and eventually break apart. Both Tosh and Wailer would go on to have legendary careers of their own, but with the band eventually being rebilled as Bob Marley and The Wailers and Chris Blackwell’s confidence and belief in progressive black music, Marley’s star would burn the brightest, collaborating and touring with the likes of Stevie Wonder and having his music covered by rock & roll royalty Eric Clapton. Further, Bob Marley’s music would go on to influence widely diverse generations of artists like U2, Sinead O’Connor, The Fugees, Wyclef, Lauryn Hill, Snoop Dogg, Movado, Rihanna and Bruno Mars.
Truthfully, it’s harder than we think to imagine popular music without the influence of Bob Marley and The Wailers. And it’s even harder to imagine what Bob Marley would have been if he and The Wailers had not created Catch A Fire 40 years ago. The Wailers were certainly not the architects or creators of Reggae, nor was this album the first Reggae album. But in many ways, Catch A Fire is without a doubt one of the most important and indispensible albums in the history of music.