The Great (Live) Albums: Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘Live!’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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Live!, Bob Marley and The Wailers (1975, Island/Tuff Gong)

As a classic rock nerd growing up in the ‘90s, I was not always—I’ll admit—super-quick to embrace music that fell outside my own narrowly defined white suburban purview. Basically meaning if it wasn’t Korn or Stone Temple Pilots, I wasn’t interested. Bob Marley was, of course, one of the rare exceptions; an artist everyone in our dumb high school seemed to like, if only as part of the ritualistic aural tapestry of smoking pot (usually out of makeshift dented-Pepsi-can-bong.)

And while much has been made of the Best-Of collection Legend’s perennial favor among stoned Caucasian undergrads, for those of us getting slippery in the intermountain West during the dog days of the Clinton administration, our album of choice was 1977’s Exodus—mostly because of the song “Jammin,” which had been cemented in the suburban imagination ever since its use in 1997 episode of The Simpsons (the one with Bart’s new dog, “Laddie.”)

But really, the thing that we all failed to understand about reggae back then was that it was fundamentally the music of protest and praise—not of partying. Which is crazy, since it takes less than 10 seconds of listening to almost any Bob Marley song to become aware of his larger socio-political intent; vivid with images of oppression, combat, and the yearning for reordered social structures.

Live! is credited to Marley and his longtime band the Wailers: drummer Carlton Barrett, bassist Aston Barrett, keyboardist Tyrone Downie, lead guitarist Al Anderson, percussionist Alvin Patterson, and backup singers Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths—aka the “I Threes.” The eight-song LP was recorded across two concerts at London’s Lyceum Theatre on July 17-18th, 1975 and released later that year on December 5th.

Things begin with the mid-tempo anthem “Trenchtown Rock,” cleaner and tighter here than on its somewhat desultory studio version—released as a non-album single in 1971. By the time of Live!, the Wailers had evolved musically, morphing from a slightly more frenetic ska-inflected approach to the unhurried power-slouch of what we now think of as the classic reggae sound. Though derived from R&B, jazz, and calypso, reggae was a truly modern form of music—minimalist even, with enough empty space left hanging in the air inside each song that the music felt almost elemental. There’s room for nature in reggae. But also for community and assembly. Which is what makes it good party music, but extremely good protest music.

 Bob Marley

Bob Marley

This is borne out by the next two tracks, the politically-minded “Burnin’ and Lootin” and “Them Belly Full But We Hungry,” both of which conjure the darkness of Jamaica’s mid-‘70s social and political tumult, with escalating street violence concurrent to encroachments on Jamaica’s sovereignty by outside forces, including the American CIA. The unedited Deluxe version of the Live! dwells in this agit-prop mode for one additional track, the slinky Caribbean noir of “Rebel Music (Three O’Clock Roadblock)”—a great Natty Dread track that regrettably didn’t make the original version.

Instead, things move swiftly into the upbeat “Lively Up Yourself,” given shape by Downie’s muscular Hammond (I think?) organ, which along with the liberal use of guitar wah on the album is key in conjuring the Wailers’ signature watery instrumental tone.

Side Two kicks off with Marley’s iconic “No Woman, No Cry,” another Natty Dread track that, by the time of the Lyceum shows, had already gone supernova—just listen to the audience’s full-throated sing-along. The Live! version of “No Woman” was a huge radio hit, but my preference is still for the studio recording. To my ears, the version here sounds a half-beat too slow, like it’s being played out of a Walkman as it slowly looses battery power. But what do I know? Next up is the dopey murder ballad “I Shot the Sherrif,” which continues to perplex as to its protagonist’s character motivation—like, wouldn’t shooting the sheriff be way worse than just shooting the deputy? That’s extremely poor legal strategy.

The original pressing of Live! concludes with the stirring “Get Up, Stand Up.” Which, ss a piece of rabble-rousing punctuation, helps retroactively give shape to the album. Newer editions of the album (though not the Deluxe version mentioned earlier) end with bonus track “Kinky Reggae,” a lightweight crowd-pleaser notable for its extended “band intros” section, in which the song is reduced to its component parts and rebuilt, instrument-by-instrument.

Live! captures Marley hitting his full stride as a creative visionary: a man whose talents would come to define not just an entire genre of music, but an entire island nation—not too bad for the denizens of a government yard, in Trenchtown.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)