The Wailers’ “Catch a Fire”

Cover of The Wailer's album "Catch a Fire"

This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ fifth album “Catch a Fire” from 1973. Caribbean music was only just starting to get noticed by the rest of world. This great album combined with an international tour, drove the band and reggae into world-wide fame.

The closest thing to reggae we listened to in my house growing up was Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue.” In my late teens, I actually gave some reggae a listen. I was intrigued by the heavy use of syncopation. Attempts to emulate the strumming patterns on guitar challenged me. It wouldn’t be until my mid-twenties that my girlfriend’s music collection gave me a decent introduction to the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. I came to appreciate his music and stop simply associating it with hippies and stoners. This was real, passionate and sincere music with immediate socio-political concerns. There was more rebellion here than just some smoke.

Concrete Jungle

The Wailers open the album with “Concrete Jungle.” Marley sings about Moving from Jamaica to an American city to find the big city life to just as oppressive, only in a different way. While the song definitely reggae, there’s something about the sound and rhythms that also remind me of Stevie Wonder’s funk. This could be an intentional incorporation of the music of American cities, or perhaps just a cross-pollination of genres in the early 1970s.

The song follows a I-I-vi-IV chord progression for the verses and the chorus, with a I-IV pre-chorus. The rhythms are particularly interesting to me. The way guitar is used is one of the defining features of the genre. The guitar is firmly a member of the rhythm section. Short syncopated percussive claps of guitar chords emphasize the upbeat. A quick stroke of the pick hits these strings and they are immediately muted preventing the chords from ringing out. The Wailers will often use two electric guitars.. on that plays on the eight-note upbeat and the other adding an additional hop by playing an adjacent sixteenth note.

The bass guitar rests a lot more than we often hear in rock and pop music. There will be a deep bass note on the first beat of the measure, with a waking melodic groove until the third beat and then rest. While in most of the music I listen to will have the kick drum emphasize the first and third beat of each measure, that is not the case here. There is still often a snare or timbale on the second and fourth beat, but not always.

Stir It Up

Probably my favorite song on the album is the mellow “Stir It Up.” The Wailers released this song as a single in 1967. A cover of the song by Johnny Nash had found success internationally in 1972, leading to The Wailers joining him on an international tour. For this album, they re-recorded the track. The “Catch a Fire” version starts with an up-beat double-sixteenth chop pattern. A Moog synth provides a deliciously modulated pad that provides the memorable sound of the track.

The song follows a basic I-I-IV-V chord progression throughout. The muted electric guitar keeps the syncopated rhythm pattern. A Clavinet supports the guitar with its equally percussive chops. A percussive bass groove hits the first and second beat then rolls through rest of the bars rising. During the verses, the bass takes more rests, hitting that first beat still, providing a restrained lower end. And while all of this might seem like it’d be chaotic in description, its actually very smooth and relaxing.

Overall, I was disappointed when I started with this album, because I was hoping for songs like “Redemption Song.” Now, I see that that is from a much later album. However, after a week, many of these songs grew on me. They have strong melodies and accompaniment. There are hooks throughout that I found myself singing throughout the day when not listening to the album.

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