(September 5, 2020). What becomes a legend most?
That was the famous tagline accompanying a picture ad campaign for Blackgama mink during the late-20th century. It ran for 25 years and featured glamour shots of iconic female celebrities who were all luminaries in their respective fields. While rhetorical by its inclusion in the ads, the question was no less provocative and has sparked many a conversation about what actually makes a legend.
In answering the question, many might agree that a legend is anyone – or, in the case of this article’s subject, anything – whose contributions to the world exceed who or what they were as individuals.
That could easily be said of reggae god Bob Marley (and, by extension, his band The Wailers) and the album Legend, a 14-track posthumous greatest hits compilation (later extended to 16 songs) which has gone on to sell more copies and be streamed more than any other reggae album – and most albums of other genres – in history.
It is also likely the biggest-selling posthumously released album in history. It’s an album that transcends its assigned genre, which, admittedly, has still never received any consistent respect in America – where this blog is based – certainly not to the extent of other genres like rock or hip-hop, or to the degree reggae has in other parts of the world like the U.K. and Canada.
This month, Legend reaches a significant milestone. Released in May 1984, the album is 36 years and four months old, exactly one month older than the 36 years and three months that Bob Marley lived.
With this month’s 3 Old Guys review – the fourth in the series – it is easily the highest profile album we’ve tackled to date, one that proved to be a daunting, even somewhat intimidating task for one or more of us (you be the judge as you read on).
It really is an album that needs no further introduction – there are plenty of facts, figures, opinions, historical anecdotes and other trippy items explored by each of the three reviewers, which include myself and my two regular, equally rapidly aging, ride-or-die partners Dean Michaels and Scott Bloomfield, a/k/a “Bloomberg.”
So without any further ado, let’s get right to it. Here are the three individual takes on Legend – The Best of Bob Marley & the Wailers by DJRob, Bloomberg and Dean Michaels, and not in that particular order.
And feel free to offer your views in the comment section at the end of the article, or on any of the social media feeds featuring this post.
Bob Marley & the Wailers – Legend
Bob Marley passed away at age 36 from cancer on May 11, 1981. A late-blooming greatest hits release of the last and most widely known phase of his career, Legend was released on May 8, 1984. I mention these dates to explain why Legend is the go-to Bob Marley & the Wailers album for the masses.
He had released many worthy albums in his career. A couple of those made Billboard’s Top Twenty on the Pop and the R&B Album charts. Notwithstanding this, the fact remains that most of the American public caught up with Bob Marley with the Legend collection.
It should be mentioned that two of the songs included therein were Top Twenty Billboard hits via cover versions. Most of us of a certain age know that Eric Clapton rode “I Shot the Sheriff” all the way to number one. Also, closer-to-reggae Johnny Nash was seeing very clearly when his remake of “Stir It Up” shot up to number twelve. So, it wasn’t like Bob was an unknown commodity. This was a situation where the dam was going to burst and unfortunately it happened three years after he died.
Essentially, Legend was a collection of Marley’s British singles. Fully half of those songs on the original 14-song track list were at least top twenty hits there. As such, it has gained the reputation of lacking the artist’s more political side.
However, five of these cuts are protest songs in nature including the later releases “Buffalo Soldier” and “Redemption Song.” “No Woman, No Cry” could be interpreted in that light as well, although the main theme is about not forgetting your past. Militancy does not get any more straightforward than on “Get Up, Stand Up.” Peter Tosh sings the bridge. In fact, that is the only song here that contains a lead vocal from anyone other than Bob. It comes from Burnin’, the last album the band did before Bob was given top billing.
Of course, Bob knew how to write a love song, too. “Is This Love,” “Stir It Up” and “Satisfy My Soul” are tremendous examples. He also composed songs of hope and celebration. It does not get any better than “One Love”/“People Get Ready,” “Jammin’” or “Punky Reggae Party,” which along with “Easy Skanking” appears as a bonus track on later releases of this album. “Three Little Birds” is a song I want played at my memorial service. That is how much I believe in Bob Marley’s power of positive persuasion.
Legend is itself anchored with the Exodus album. It contains five of the latter album’s original cuts. When I say original, I use the term loosely. The Wailers have versions of at least two of these songs that date from earlier than Legend’s scope and “No Woman, No Cry” is the epic live version. The studio cut is from Natty Dread which is otherwise unrepresented.
It should be also noted that two other studio albums, Survival and Rastaman Vibration (Bob’s only Top Ten American album while he was alive) are absent as well. Legend also misses the highest charting single in America, “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” but that seems not to have been pulled for a British single so its omission is understandable. I also wish that the powers that be had found room for “Lively Up Yourself” as well, but as it was never a British single either, I am not complaining.
This brings up another point.
I realize for many people Legend will fulfill their Bob Marley needs, but most of these people would not be reading this (unless they happen to be DJRob’s mom, but for all I know she loves Bob too!). If you do want to expand your Marley collection, I would first recommend any of the regular releases – both studio and live – that fall within Legend’s timeline.
If that seems daunting, there is a career-encompassing box set called Songs of Freedom. It contains some live material and some extended versions as well. Most importantly it has a disc-and-a-half worth of pre-Island Records work going all the way back to “Judge Not,” Marley’s first single from way back in 1962 when the beat was blue, and the sound system was definitely mono.
There are other single-disc collections worthy of your time as well. Rebel Music was released a couple of years after Legend and was Island/Tuff Gong’s error correction to Legend’s supposed weakness politically. Natural Mysticwas an attempt to expand on Legend and is probably the way to go if you are still interested in merely dabbling.
There is also a huge number of budget releases devoted to the Wailers’ years recording in Jamaica. If you find one that has a song called “Soul Shakedown Party,” I suggest you purchase it immediately.
Legend is one of those greatest hits albums that works as a stand-alone view of an artist despite its flaws. It compares with Greatest Hits albums by Simon & Garfunkel and Sly & the Family Stone in that regard.
In all those cases, the albums superficially show the listener what he or she need to know about the respective artists. They are such great listens that one is loathed to explore the artists’ catalogues further although the original source albums offer a rich listening experience on their own.
Do not let Legend be your only Bob Marley album. Truth.
Typically, the only debate surrounding Bob Marley’s Legend is whether owning it truly makes you a fan of reggae or Marley himself, particularly if it’s the only reggae album you happen to own or if Marley is the only traditional reggae artist with whom you’re familiar.
Case in point: If many Legend owners had to quickly name at least three other true reggae artists – or even three other albums in Marley’s catalog – then many of the millions of people who’ve purchased or streamed Legend over the past 36 years would fail the reggae litmus test…miserably.
Still it remains that Legend should be on every reggae fan’s shelf, and even most non-fans’ playlists for that matter. If it’s your only exposure to the music, it’s not a bad place to start and end (although it shouldn’t be the latter).
Admittedly, despite the smattering of No. 1 songs over the years on Billboard’s mainstream Hot 100 chart by reggae artists – faux or otherwise – my exposure to true reggae riddim was extremely limited prior to Legend’s 1984 release (and I’ll shamefully point out that, with this post, it’s the only full reggae album that has gotten any ink on this blog to date).
Prior to 1984, my Marley intake had been restricted to one or two tracks – most notably his 1980 discofied single “Could You Be Loved” (released 40 years ago this month!), which garnered R&B radio and dance club play and even made a personal weekly Top-75 list I compiled during my early teenage years (“Loved” peaked at No. 20 on that list – some 36 positions higher than it did on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart – billed as Hot Soul Singles at the time).
Later in ‘84 and throughout my college years in Blacksburg, Va., I became familiar with Black Uhuru, a reggae band that made frequent tour stops at Tech’s campus.
Other than that, my reggae consumption consisted of reggae fusion or reggae-associated acts that included Jamaican band Third World (1978’s “Now That We Found Love” and ‘82’s “Try Jah Love”) and Jamaican singer Denroy Morgan (1980’s I’ll Do Anything For You”), and maybe a few others.
But my experience wasn’t unique. America’s relationship with reggae in general has been shameful at best, even downright pitiful. This is especially true when you consider that we never really gave Marley a top-40 pop crossover hit – during his lifetime or after – and just gave him three on the soul chart: “Exodus,” “Waiting in Vain” and “Roots, Rock, Reggae” – the highest peak of which was No. 19 (“Exodus”) and the latter of which (“Roots…”) was inexplicably excluded from Legend.
Instead, Billboard loosely counts the following in its short list of “reggae” songs that have topped the Hot 100 in the chart’s 62-year history:
“I Can See Clearly Now” – Johnny Nash (1972); “I Shot the Sheriff” – Eric Clapton (1974); “The Tide is High” – Blondie (1981); “Red, Red Wine” – UB40 (1988); Close To You” – Maxi Priest (1990); “Snow” – Informer (1993); “Can’t Help Falling In Love” – UB40 (1993); “Here Comes The Hotstepper” – Ini Kamoze (1994); “It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel” (both Shaggy in 2001); “Get Busy” – Sean Paul (2003); “Temperature” – Sean Paul (2006); “Beautiful Girls” – Sean Kingston (2007); “Rude” – Magic (2014).
Really? Try skanking to some of those riddims.
And just because an artist happens to be born in Jamaica (Kamoze, Shaggy) or lived there (Nash, Kingston) or have Jamaican parentage (Priest) doesn’t automatically make their music reggae.
Oh, and calling Clapton’s remake of Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” reggae would be blasphemous if it didn’t also earn Marley his only No. 1 song – albeit as a songwriter of the original.
Still it’s no wonder Marley left this earth in 1981 just months after Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” became the closest thing to authentic reggae (and yes, that’s a compliment to Debbie Harry and Co.) to top the chart in his lifetime – Nash’s and Clapton’s No. 1 hits notwithstanding.
To pop music’s credit though, things have picked up in the past five years with dancehall and reggaeton – both offshoots of reggae – having dominated with more frequency:
“Cheerleader” – OMI (2015); “Work” – Rihanna ft. (2016); One Dance” – Drake (2016); “Cheap Thrills” – SIA (2016); “Shape of You” – Ed Sheeran (2017); “Despacito” – Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee (ft. Justin Bieber; 2017).
But reggae-influenced pop and straight-up reggae are still two different things, as Marley has so educated many a pop head – myself included – over the years, and particularly with Legend.
During my college freshman year in fall 1984, the album was blasted from dorm rooms left and right and it immediately expanded my palette from that lone Bob Marley/Wailers song I had consumed regularly before then to include classics like “Three Little Birds,” arguably the most popular of all Marley’s songs (it currently sits at No. 2 on the iTunes reggae chart), and “Is This Love” – arguably the best of all reggae love songs (no offense to the stellar “Waiting in Vain”), with its poverty-ridden yet hopeful lyrics (“we’ll be together, with a roof right over our heads; we’ll share the shelter of my single bed…”).
Of course, by now all the songs on Legend are so familiar, so ensconced in our collective musical memory (even if it’s just their choruses that’s most of us know), that tunes like the extremely commercialized “One Love,” the forlorn “No Woman, No Cry” (the 1975 live version of which found its way here, rather than the 1974 Natty Dread original) and “Jammin’” – one of the five songs from Exodus that dominate Legend’s tracklist and one that inspired Stevie Wonder’s classic No. 1 R&B/top-5 pop hit “Master Blaster (Jammin’) in 1980, have themselves become indelible.
“Jammin’” is the song that ended the original Legend album track list before “Punky Reggae Party” was later added as one of two bonus tracks.
The other bonus was “Easy Skanking,” the leadoff track from Marley and the Wailers’ 1978 album Kaya, which means marijuana, and the subject of the posthumously released live album Easy Skanking in Boston ‘78 many years later. Notable on “Skanking” are the backing female vocals of ex-wife Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths (of “Electric Slide” fame) and Judy Mowatt, famously known as the I-Threes, whose call-and-response with Marley place them front and center. Can’t you just picture the three of them actually skanking on stage as they sing the lines “easy skanking…skanking it slow”?
Of course no mention of Legend or Marley is complete without noting the spirituality and social consciousness of tunes like “Get Up, Stand Up!” – the quintessential political protest song of reggae and an ode to Rastafarianism, “Exodus” – the title track of Legend’s most represented source album, and “Buffalo Soldier,” a song from Confrontation, an album released by Rita two years after Marley’s death, but a jam that would’ve been hit-worthy even during his lifetime.
Legend, with its combination of love, celebratory, hope-inspired, political and protest songs, has earned its place as the quintessential reggae album, one that serves as the best introduction to the music for newcomers and one that practically defines the genre.
Consider these numbers:
With an estimated total sales ranging from 25 to over 33 million copies (depending on the source), Legend is easily the biggest selling reggae album of all time – and one of the best-selling albums of any genre.
All of the albums reviewed by Three Old Guys to date were released before 1985. Legend is the only one of those albums that is still on the Billboard 200 album chart today (it ranks at a highly respectable No. 50 on the chart dated Sept 5, 2020). It now stands at 641 non-consecutive chart weeks, the second-longest run of all time behind Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
Its endurance is so great that Legend has ranked among the 100 best-selling albums of each of the past four years and is on pace to do so again in 2020.
With vinyl’s recent resurgence, Legend is the seventh-best selling vinyl LP of this year (to date), with 47,000 units sold as of June 30.
The fourteen songs on the album’s original release are so popular that many of them still regularly occupy spots on the iTunes Top 100 reggae tunes chart. They’re so etched in the public consciousness that you’ll realize just how familiar you really are with them upon one listen.
Of course, don’t just take my word for it, see what Bloomberg has to say about it next.
OK, my follow oldguys, I don’t mind stating that I was looking towards this latest entry with some trepidation (as well as a lot of excitement), ‘cause I listen to so little reggae/dub music that I’m largely without my usual reference points. I’m not one of the 28 million souls (incl. 27 million strawman fratboy trustafarians) who’ve bought the ubiquitous album in question, an album that seems as though it’s always existed, the one reggae album owned by people who are satisfied with one. (Said strawmen- or -women presumably file it on top of their Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme CD, whichever their representative jazz LP is.)
I mean, I didn’t intentionally AVOID buying it for these last 36 years (and counting!); I definitely considered it once or twice, and even double-checked my shelves before starting this just to make sure I definitely hadn’t followed through!
But no…I’ve owned a few Wailers albums and I know most (certainly not all) of the material on Legend, but reggae is just a genre I had only moderate interest in, for many years; its unhurried simplicity, all hypnotic repetition with subtle dynamic shifts, didn’t often mesh with my particular wiring. (Certainly, more frequent access to cannabis in those oldtyme daze would’ve set me right.)
Anyways, for these reasons, I’m especially glad that you, my two distinguished colleagues, are consistently more rigorous than myself in providing detail, context, a sense of the artist’s importance; because you’re both more qualified than myself to give an overview of the importance of the huge figure that Bob Marley was, and of the stature of Legend itself. You guys will add proper detail, I’m sure, bless ya.
Anyways, as usual, let’s have a listen!
(Oh, and I’m gonna take advantage of our selection’s compilation format to freely deviate from the actual track sequence. Unlike, say, Stevie Wonder’s “Musiquarium” collection, there doesn’t seem to have been any attempt to arrange the sides thematically, or in any real order at all, so I don’t feel any compunction about grouping these 14 tracks into three groups.)
OK, first let’s cover the really solid stuff.
“No Woman, No Cry” begins with uplifting gospel organ chords and the instant cheers of recognition from the Lyceum audience – very much a part of this legendary performance, they start singing the soothing refrain even as the instrumentalists join in, the backing singers cooing. Despite the crowd, it’s a very intimate band performance, relaxed.
Bob reminding little sister of the terrible tragedies they’ve overcome and will do so again, channeling Chaplin in “City Lights” (“Buck up – never say die, we’ll get along!”), and the I-Threes dutifully spread the word. “Everything’s gonna be all right,” it really is, if we all believe it, and the participating audience certainly does. (I really have to acknowledge the I-Threes contributions to these songs throughout; an invaluable part of the group sound, and their minimal 1-or-2 handclaps punctuating every second bar palpably reinforces the intimacy.)
The unvarying 8-bar melody can be a bit numbing over 7 minutes (some obligatory-for-70s live-album guitar soloing adds a bit of variety), but this is still a legendary performance, one that surely put the man on many hundreds of white rock fans’ radar through FM radio airplay. It floats to a finish, and the crowd roars.
“Is This Love?” is basically a pop song, Bob *wants* to feel it, sure; but…The transition to a minor key mirrors his trepidation, only to return to major when he lays his cards down and succumbs: “We’ll share the shelter of my single bed, and Jah provide the bread!” Very relaxed, this one, with its lead-guitar sighs, like Clapton recording a solo from a hammock on a private island in the tropics. Nice.
“Huh? What the hell is ‘Three Little Birds??” is what I asked myself a few weeks ago upon reading the unfamiliar title of Bob’s single most-Spotified track, until five seconds passed and the familiar “Don’t worry…” refrain kicked in – aha, so it’s THIS song! and hey it’s about BIRDS! and it’s birds who are singing it! Cute.
There always seemed to be a hippieish vibe around Marley, with the spiritualism and ganja and love of children, and so he gets away with such childlike naivete here, with the I-Threes’ chirping backup especially welcome.
“Redemption Song” is a real anomaly – a folk ballad, just Bob alone, with his acoustic guitar, and his voice and his eternal songs of freedom; his guitar sounds very battered, ancient as the pirate slaving ships that begin the tale. “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/Have no fear of atomic energy” and by the grace of Jah, everything gonna be alright. There’s a hint of a Sam Cooke rasp in his heartfelt vocal, and I think I can hear that other iconic kinky-haired folkstrumming Bob taking latter-day vocal cues. A spellbinding performance.
OK, four very good selections there; now I gotta talk about four I’m less enthused over. “Waiting In Vain” and “Satisfy My Soul” find Bob singing alternately about romantic satisfaction and dis-satisfaction. “Please, don’t you rock my boat…” he cautions; but “Satisfy…”‘s beat and melody don’t exactly rock mine; I find this the least engaging track here. By comparison, “Waiting in Vain” has the more delectable chord changes and an irresistible jiggliness, even if the subject matter isn’t particularly weighty.
Next is the overfamiliar “Jamming”; it grooves nicely (why yes, I do like jamming too, thank you, I-Threes!) and gets extra credit for inspiring Stevie Wonder’s biggest classic of the ’80s.
Best of these four lesser lights, though, is “One Love”, a “let’s get together” anthem that’s probably as beloved (and ultimately as overexposed) as Lennon’s “Imagine”. But whereas Lennon imagined no religion, Marley envisions a righteously pissed-off Father Of Creation smiting the wicked on Armagideon Day! (And the wo-o-o-o-rld will live as one…)
Such apocalyptic imagery came as a surprise when I encountered it on the lyric sheet, negated as it is by the lilting folk melody. Really, it’s kinda impossible to dislike, and now I’m wishing I put “One Love” in that higher-tier grouping instead. (And maybe “Jamming” too; but I’m not gonna rewrite this paragraph because I’m lazy; sorry, DJRob 🙂
…Anyways, enough of my mealymouthed equivocating about the album’s relative valleys – it’s time to move on to the absolute peaks!
“If you know your history/Then you know where you’re coming from.” Peppered with jolly horn interjections atop a cowpoke-lope tempo, the supremely catchy “Buffalo Soldier” nonetheless tells a horrific tale: “Stolen from Africa/Brought to America/Fighting on arrival/Fighting for survival,” the narrator is conscripted into the U.S. Cavalry to fight Native Americans in the Indian Wars, finding himself both a victim of and pawn in America’s (sadly ongoing) agenda of white supremacy.
Bob sings the verses with earnestness, reverting to stoic resignation the choruses; and as the narrator is eventually driven from the oppressive mainland to the bosom of the Caribbean and Jamaica, he gifts us with Legend’s biggest hook: a defiant, celebratory “Wo-yo-yo/Wo-yo-yo-yo!” refrain. One of the most moving tracks here. (In an absurd footnote, it should be observed that said hook uncannily resembles the refrain of “The Tra-La-La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)” by “The Banana Splits,” a fictional children’s-television rock band of the late ‘60s that dressed like mod elephant/gorilla/dog furries.
A James Brown/Fela Kuti-styled single-note guitar part drives “Could You Be Loved.” The fastest-tempoed track on this collection, all pensive minor keys and discoish backing vocals, as Bob philosophizes and ruminates about loving your brotherman, because we’re all worthy…or are we?
But he doesn’t really give or receive a definitive answer to the title question, and the tune fades, unresolved and uncertain. At the other end of the tempo-range, “Stir It Up” is 5:31 of languorous spongy creep, pure sonic molasses in its slow sweet stickiness, percussive rhythm guitar scratching an itch throughout.
It’s one of three “Legend” tracks featuring original vocalists Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, all of ’em softly urging little darlings to keep the wood in the fire/spoon in the pot/etc.; lowing Minimoog and some wah-wah soloing decorate an extended outro.
“Exodus” next, unstoppable in its on-the-one vamp, another one that would sound equally fine on a 1977 dancefloor or FM station of dreams, late at night. It’s an epic that suggests Norman Whitfield-styled psYCheDeliC pSoUL as much as anything Jamaican; guitars and organs scrape out a minor-key chord change, electronics and horns dart around the congas, and the words channel some appropriately rousing poetic militant sloganry (“Jah come to break downpression…Send us another brother Moses!”), and the bass keeps pumping and chants keep coming (“Ex-ee-dus!/Movement of Jah people”), relentless as the titular waves of humanity transcending Babylon and its ills.
Damn! whatta jam is “Exodus”; this band could’ve easily sustained it to an entire LP side and I’d be happy. Instead it fades after 7:39, a little Funkadelic/Chambers Brothers-style bad-trippery trailing in its wake.
And finally, my personal twin Legend peaks, both from Burnin’, the final Wailers album with that heavenly Marley/Tosh/Wailer vocal blend, an amazing vocal arsenal whether singing harmony or in unison. “I Shot the Sheriff,” a taut underworld tale of police corruption, captures a bit of the ‘70s Blaxploitation zeitgeist with its guitar-wah and a roving bass part by Aston “Family Man” Barrett; it’s a captivating mini-narrative on its own, the band even evoking the act-breaks by frequently winding down and restarting. (But who did shoot that deputy anyway?)
And “Get Up, Stand Up,” wow, I can’t even…what can I say, I love this track so much. An absolute killer, in the “Free your ass & your mind will follow” tradition of Black empowerment-anthems (“Dancing In The Streets,” James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” Sly’s “Stand”) that demand the simplest, most direct (initial) action (get UP!) through the undeniable fact of their BEATS.
As in “Sheriff,” many small details add to the richness of the whole production – a dramatic crescendo on tuned drums, a subtle comment from a cowbell. There’s an oddly-accented countermelody that adds a further bit of rhythmic complexity, Bob warning not to settle for afterlife herb-in-the-sky promises from self-important preachermen, get out there and demand your rights NOW! And when Peter Tosh’s voice, as sweet as Bob’s though much gruffer, suddenly leaps out to take an unexpected lead at the end, it’s a startling moment, as if Bob’s words have already reached their first mind: “So now me see the light/We gonna stand up for our rights!”
As avant-garde rhythmically and lyrically challenging as both of these classics – “Sheriff” and “Get Up!” – are, though, they’re still supremely catchy, expertly performed and arranged, downright perfect pop records. Also, they’re as funky as hell. Absolutely vital listening.
And there we have Legend!
Very, very good collection; this has been a most rewarding experience, and I look forward to revisiting these tracks in their original LP context in the near future. As for Legend itself, on a scale from 0 to 500, I rate it as a solid 420.
And that’s each man’s take on Legend. DJROBBLOG gives the sincerest of thanks to my fellow old guys – guest writers Dean Michaels and Bloomberg (a/k/a Scott Bloomfield) – who continue to wow me with their vast musical tastes and amazing writing. I couldn’t be more fortunate to have these two contributing to this series.
For previous articles in the 3 Old Guys series, click the following links:
Until next month’s installment, please stay safe! And feel free to peruse any of the other 500+ articles in this blog!
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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