A brief history of seven Bob Marley songs

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Marlon James’s wonderful novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was the worthy winner of last year’s Man Booker prize. It takes as its starting point a dramatic real life event — the attempted assassination of Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley in December 1976.

Marley survived the attack, defiantly performing at the open air benefit concert which sparked the controversy that led to the shooting. Later he addressed his assailants in the song “Ambush in the Night”.

Sadly he lived for less than five years after that, dying of cancer in 1981 at the tender age of 36. Fortunately, however he and his band the Wailers left a rich catalogue of music.

Shamelessly riding in James’s slipstream, therefore, I’ve chosen seven songs that help us to understand the man, his music and his cultural significance.

We must begin with “Simmer Down”, the Wailers’ first number one single from 1964. It’s a good example of ska, the musical precursor to reggae, the genre that Marley popularised.

The song’s lyrics also offer an early glimpse of his focus on social issues. It is addressed to Kingston’s unruly youth and highlights the alienation experienced by these so called Rude Boys in the aftermath of Jamaican independence, which had come just two years earlier.

Catch a Fire was the brilliant breakthrough album that catapulted Marley to international stardom after the Wailers were signed by Chris Blackwell to Island Records.

Instead of a track from that 1973 release though, my second selection is “Get Up, Stand Up” from its follow-up, Burnin’.

It’s a song which showcases the Wailers’ militancy, but it is noteworthy that the lyrics were written by Peter Tosh, not Marley. It is often cited as proving that it was Tosh who gave the band its politics.

It’s a moot point, but what should certainly be said is that while Bob was clearly the band’s leader, both Tosh and Bunny Wailer made important contributions before their controversial marginalisation by Blackwell and their eventual departure.

“I Shot the Sheriff” is also from Burnin’ but must be included because of the pivotal role it played in the establishment of one of Britain’s great cultural movements. It was his vastly inferior cover version which revived the ailing career of blues guitarist Eric Clapton.

Despite the debt he owed to black music, Clapton launched a truly toxic tirade against “black wogs” at a Birmingham gig in 1976, which culminated in a declaration of support for Tory bigot Enoch Powell. It was in response to this that two young music lovers, Roger Huddle and Red Saunders, wrote the letter to the New Musical Express magazine that kick-started Rock Against Racism.

As well as a great body of political and spiritual music, Marley wrote some wonderful love songs, including “Turn your Lights Down Low” and “Waiting in Vain”. Allegedly those tracks were written for his lover Cindy Breakspeare with whom he had a son, Damian.

His long-suffering wife Rita was one of the Wailers’ backing singers and it is believed she always refused to perform the songs. As a tribute to her therefore, my choice is the live version of “No Woman, No Cry”, a beautiful song which captures the intimacy of the couple’s early courtship in Kingston.

Exodus is the Wailers’ most widely acclaimed album and I would happily recommend anything other than “One Love” or “Three Little Birds.”

Ultimately, though, my choice is the title track itself. The thumping drum and bass line make it a great tune to dance to and, importantly, its lyrics highlight Marley’s commitment to the Rastafarian faith.

Marley’s 1980 album Survival is arguably his most internationalist release. Its cover features the flags of 48 African countries alongside an image of a slave ship. One of its finest songs is called “Africa Unite”.

Again, selecting a single track is tough but the choice has to be “Zimbabwe”. It was enthusiastically adopted by the liberation movement in British-controlled Rhodesia.

Following the struggle’s success, Marley was delighted to accept an invitation to perform at the new country’s independence celebration in April 1980. Sadly while he was there Bob had a horrific foretaste of what was to come under Robert Mugabe’s rule and he learned a lesson about who “the real revolutionaries are”.

Our final track has to be “Redemption Song” from Uprising, the last studio album released before Marley’s death. Many of Bob’s closest friends suggest that he knew his time was short and that he was desperate to get his message across.

On “Redemption Song”, Marley lays himself bare. There are no other performers, just Bob strumming an acoustic guitar and urging his followers to help him “sing the songs of freedom”. Back to basics, it stands as a sober, stunning last testament.

Bob Marley: Roots, Reggae & Revolution by Brian Richardson is published by Redwords at £7.99.