As we all know, the Wailers’ album Catch a Fire (1973) became a turning-point in the international development of reggae music. But its impact has been controversial, particularly in the way its original sound – the music of the Wailers themselves – was augmented by hired rock musicians designed to broaden its appeal. The ‘deluxe’ two-CD Catch a Fire (2001) provided a rare opportunity to compare the ‘original’ Jamaican versions of the songs alongside the album as released in the UK, and to re-evaluate the music within.
Prior to the early 1970s, the UK market for reggae had largely been confined to singles. These varied massively in nature and quality. Marcia Griffiths’ and Bob Andy’s Young Gifted and Black (1970) was straightforward reggae based on drums, rhythm guitar and bass, with the unfortunate addition of an overblown string arrangement intended to boost commercial appeal (try to hear the original without the strings – for instance on the Trojan Records sampler CD 2002, TJPCD 001 – it’s worth it). Jimmy Cliff’s Vietnam (1970) was a thoughtful attempt to move toward new audiences. Other releases maintained the depressing British tradition of the novelty reggae single: did anyone really buy Johnny Reggae by the Piglets (1971)? Apparently so, as it reached the top 3. In contrast, the socially conscious Jimmy Cliff got to no 46.
With the release of Catch a Fire, the place of reggae within UK music changed in several ways. First, reggae became album music. Second, the market expanded to include a record-buying and concert-going white rock audience. Third, the music became international (though more strongly in Europe than the USA, then and now). Fourth, reggae adopted increasingly political themes, though not to the exclusion of its traditional prurient interests, represented on Catch a Fire by Kinky Reggae.
The album contains several classic songs, including Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle, Slave Driver and Stir It Up, and Peter Tosh’s 400 Years. The instrumentation reflects the role of Island Records boss Chris Blackwell in promoting the album for Western audiences. Blackwell added keyboards and synthesizer from John Bundrick (keyboard player in Free) and lead guitar from accomplished American musician Wayne Perkins, who freely acknowledged his difficulty in adjusting to the unfamiliar rhythms of reggae. Perkins’ guitar solo on Concrete Jungle provides an instrumental break straight out of rock, and although reggae purists may have their doubts, this solo appeared to find favour with the band. Indeed, the Wailers’ line-up would later include even more prominently the rock-based guitar twiddlings of Julian (‘Junior’) Marvin. Later still, Lauryn Hill would credit her powerful song Forgive Them Father as an ‘interpretation’ of Concrete Jungle, using its strong bass line and rhythmic structure.
Stir it Up, in contrast, suffers from the unnecessary attentions of session musicians. These detract from the simplicity of a song that is altogether more convincing in its ‘unreleased Jamaican’ version. Similarly, Baby We’ve Got a Date (Rock it Baby) is given a cluttered arrangement, including a country-rock guitar that is singularly out of place. The unadorned version allows a better appreciation of a strong reggae tune. A couple of the tracks on the Jamaican version never made it to the UK release at all. High Tide or Low Tide, a melancholy love song, was perhaps regarded as too reminiscent of ‘old school’ reggae to merit inclusion on a UK release for new audiences.
Catch a Fire is just one example of the trend toward rediscovery of the ‘original’ version. For instance, the Beatles’ Let it Be…Naked (2003) also revisits a classic album in search of the ‘authentic’ original. It includes a version of Across the Universe. Although this is undoubtedly better than the over-produced track on Let It Be (1970), it is difficult to say which is the more ‘original’: both versions were assembled by producers and engineers at a particular time and place. And what about the first released version, from a World Wildlife Fund charity album in 1969, complete with flapping of wings and other wildlife noises? Which one of these is more original than the other two?
So it is with Catch a Fire. It is a significant album, and it comes in two versions. The stripped-down, simple, Jamaican version now sounds the stronger of the two. But were it not for the first release – with all of its additional musicians, elaborate production, rock-band packaging and commercial marketing – perhaps no-one beyond the enthusiasts would have noticed reggae music at all.
Catch a Fire album Island ILPS 9241 (1973), ‘deluxe edition’ double CD Island/Tuff Gong 314 548 635-2 (2001)