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'Catch a Fire' begins the Marley legend - 15th Annual Bob Marley Symposium draws strong crowd

Published:Sunday | February 19, 2012 | 2:00 AM
Professor Mike Alleyne speaks during the 15th Annual Bob Marley Lecture at the University of the West Indies, Mona, last Thursday. - Photo by Mel Cooke

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

In delivering the 15th Annual Bob Marley Lecture at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, last Thursday evening, Professor Mike Alleyne quickly established the parameters of the analysis.

'For the Record: Bob Marley's Island Albums and the 40th Anniversary of Catch a Fire', put on by the Institute of Caribbean Studies and Reggae Studies Unit, pulled a strong audience to the N1 lecture hall.

Alleyne's focus was on the studio albums the Wailers released through Island Records during Bob Marley's lifetime - from Catch a Fire to Uprising (1980) - and how they were recorded, packaged, and critically received.

The latter used Rolling Stone magazine as its source, as the analysis was centred on the United States. And the emphasis of Alleyne's lecture was on the "often undervalued" aspects of audio and visual presentation.

He quickly established the "conceptual, critical and musical links between Catch a Fire and other Island Records albums released in Marley's lifetime", then set out to show them, paying close attention to the rock influence in both the music and the mix, as well as the cover art.

Alleyne described Catch a Fire as a "crucial fulcrum and starting point ... . rather than being a full manifestation in itself".

In making the links, he showed Island Records boss Chris Blackwell's input as critical. Alleyne executed a very smoothly delivered audiovisual presentation in which he utilised music, recorded interviews, and photographs in an engaging flow.

"It is fair to say that Blackwell's role was quite important," Alleyne said, suggesting that through Catch a Fire "Island created a reggae-marketing template".

Rock influence

An interview with Blackwell established the rock influence from the start, as he said the intention was to establish Marley as a black rock act. So the original recording from Kingston was not only substantially remixed in England, de-emphasising the bass frequencies, but keyboard (by John 'Rabbit' Bundrick) and guitar overdubs (of which Wayne Perkins' introduction to Concrete Jungle is perhaps the best known) gave a distinctive rock tinge to the album.

Engineer for those mixing sessions, Tony Platt, made it clear that Bob Marley was there from the very start and very much a part of the process.

"He was quite aware of where it was going to take him. At the same time, he was pretty much aware it was a message he wanted to get across," the lecture audience heard.

Alleyne demonstrated the sonic difference between the mixes, fused into a single recording for the lecture's purposes, to good effect.

The original Catch a Fire album cover, which opened lighter style, was described as representing "the epitome of inventive album packaging", a picture of the Wailers on the back.

Alleyne established the connection with the next album, Burnin', which he said was mixed in the same way as Catch a Fire, Rolling Stone commenting that it "offers a more representative sampling of the Wailers unique wares than Catch a Fire".

The distinctive cover art (Ras Daniel Heartman's contribution never officially recognised) was again a strong point, Alleyne pointing out that at the time, outside of jazz, it was unusual for black artistes to have conceptually designed album covers. For the Wailers albums, he said, "The covers assume extraordinary significance far beyond mere packaging".

For Natty Dread, Alleyne illustrated the difference between the original painting and eventual album cover, the apocalyptic destruction of landmark buildings in New York removed for the album jacket.

After playing a part of Roots Rock Reggae, Alleyne said the Rastaman Vibration album signalled Marley's arrival at the place Marley wanted to reach when making Catch a Fire as part of the Wailers.

The album reflected "a sophistication some listeners had not yet associated with reggae", he said.

Exodus (which earlier in the lecture Alleyne said echoed a key aspect of Catch a Fire in its commercial aesthetic) came before the critically maligned Kaya. Rolling Stone said that on Kaya "Marley aims high, misses big", Alleyne noting that as a statement of legitimate protest Catch a Fire loomed large, despite its sonic enhancements.

Rolling Stone was back in Marley's corner for Survival (which was originally going to be named Black Survival), saying that the album saw him "close to his peak". In a recorded interview, Neville Garrick explained his use of African nation flags on the album's cover, the slave ship image standing for the African diaspora.

Then came Uprising, an "extension of Catch a Fire's direction".

In looking back at Catch a Fire, Alleyne said the Wailers, reggae and pop music "would not have been the same without this iconic record". And, in the question and answer session, he pointed out that the changes in sound were endorsed by Marley as the message was more important. Plus, when they played live, they could play the songs any way they wanted.

Professor Claudette Williams, director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies and Reggae Studies Unit, welcomed the audience and Dr Dennis Howard introduced Alleyne. Dr Julian Cresser chaired the 15th Annual Bob Marley Lecture.