By Dave Thompson
It has been ranked among the greatest albums ever made, if not the greatest. Certainly Time magazine once thought so, back in 1999, as it tabulated the best records of the past century, and explained, “every song is a classic, from the messages of love to the anthems of revolution. But more than that, the album is a political and cultural nexus, drawing inspiration from the Third World and then giving voice to it the world over.”
More modestly, VH-1 ranked it the 26th best (2001), and Rolling Stone the 169th (2003). And while the truth probably lies somewhere in between the first two, in terms of reggae music, and its impact upon culture, art and music, Bob Marley & The Wailers’ “Exodus,” released 40 years ago in June 1977, is a record that impacted everybody who heard it.
It is an album of two halves. Indeed, if the CD age has one crime to answer for, it’s that albums can no longer be split into two sides, two moods, that exist absolutely independently of one another. “Exodus” is one of those albums which suffers immeasurably from its translation to CD, its intrinsic divisions of (natural) mystic night and (one) love-soaked day utterly lost by the seamless transition from the eight minute grind of “Exodus,” closing side one, and the jaunty groove of “Jamming” kicking in at the start of side two. (Or maybe that’s what the pause button’s for?)
Yet “Exodus” was not simply a musical triumph. Time and place, too, conspired with its genius and, if the album has any downside whatsoever, it is that the moods into which it so effortlessly tapped in 1977 are no longer a part of either the musical or the cultural landscape. New ears come into “Exodus” expecting to hear Armageddon and the sound of two sevens clashing; they depart with “Three Little Birds” and “Waiting In Vain” ringing in their ears, and no sense whatsoever of the zeitgeist that the record once unflinchingly absorbed.
Introspection hung heavy over the recording sessions. On December 3, 1976, just weeks before recording began, and on the eve of a massive free concert in Kingston, Jamaica, Marley and his entourage narrowly escaped death after six armed men piled out of a pair of cars and, while two stood guard outside, the other four began shooting wildly into The Wailers’ home base on Hope Road.
Marley’s wife Rita was grazed on the head by one bullet; his manager Don Taylor was hit five times in the side and leg. Marley himself was hit once, by a bullet which grazed his sternum.
Undoubtedly the attack (which forms the backdrop to novelist Marlon James’s breathtaking “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” published in 2014) was politically motivated. Jamaica’s streets at the time were akin to the wild west, the entire island seething beneath the rival claims of the two main political parties.
Despite his past support for incumbent Prime Minister Michael Manley, Marley this time had no intention whatsoever of endorsing either candidate. But with the free concert, dubbed Smile Jamaica (and celebrated by a new Wailers single of the same name), falling barely two weeks before the election, clearly the two events could not help but be twinned in people’s minds.
In Marley’s eyes, if the concert had any political purpose, it was to unify the warring parties on the streets. But what if the parties did not want to be unified?
As news of the assassination attempt spread, the concert itself hung in the balance; even on the day, nobody knew whether the show would, or even could, go ahead. Marley’s bandmates were in hiding, scattered across Kingston. Rita lay in hospital with a bullet fragment lodged between her scalp and skull. Taylor had been airlifted to an intensive care ward in Miami, with a bullet lodged in his spinal cord. Marley was in shock.
Yet the show did happen; and even more importantly, Marley and his band would make an appearance, heavily bandaged (Rita still wore her nightgown and hospital robe) but unbowed. As the musicians took their places behind him, Marley announced they would play just one song, “War.” In fact they played five, following through with “Trench Town Rock,” “Rastaman Vibration,” “Want More” and “So Jah Seh.”
The following morning, however, Marley left Jamaica for Island Records label head Chris Blackwell’s home in Nassau, in the Bahamas. His family joined him the following day, his band the following week. A month later, the entire party relocated to London. They would not return to Jamaica for more than a year.
Guitarist Don Kinsey had quit the band, returning to the U.S. in the aftermath of the shootings; he was replaced by Jamaican-born, London raised guitarist Junior Marvin, leader of the blues rock band Hanson, but whose credits also included stints alongside Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and T-Bone Walker.
Like his predecessor in The Wailers, he came recommended by Chris Blackwell. But, more importantly, he played with a tight, economic style that lent itself perfectly to the new music fermenting in Marley’s mind.
Throughout the gestation of what would become their new album, the band listened closely to the other music pouring out of their homeland — the roots reggae of Culture (whose apocalyptic “Two Sevens Clash” was both anthem and portent throughout 1977), Max Romeo, Junior Murvin and former bandmate Peter Tosh, toasters Prince Far-I and U-Roy, and so many more. Music that documented Jamaica’s suffering.
Marley even toyed with the idea of devoting his next album to dub, the bass and echo-heavy soundscapes that so many of his contemporaries were now throwing themselves into, and which his ex-producer, Lee “Scratch” Perry, had transformed into an art form.
That idea (sadly) never came to fruition. But still the music he was writing was darker, heavier and angrier than any he had written before, scarred by the turmoil that was tearing Jamaica asunder, and jarred by the assassination attempt.
Neither was he alone with such ruminations. Britain, in 1977, was in the grip of punk rock, a musical movement that valued militancy above any other attribute, and a cultural milieu whose hatred of the establishment was something that Marley instantly identified with — for what was the Babylon of Rastafarian lore, if not that same establishment?
The almost symbiotic link that later histories detected between punk and reggae was born from this same correlation and it was no mere accident that the best of the U.K. punk acts were those whose own musical educations had included a healthy immersion in the waters of the Caribbean.
Marley’s own greatest contribution to the ensuing punky-reggae party was a song titled precisely that. In July 1977, Lee Perry himself arrived in London to produce the new single by one of the most fervent punk-reggae crossover acts, The Clash. Entranced by their ideology and intrigued by their fascination with Jamaican music (they had even recorded a version of “Police and Thieves,” the original of which was a Perry production), Scratch lost no time in communicating his enthusiasm to Marley.
The pair immediately went into the studio to record their own tribute. The marathon, ten minute “Punky Reggae Party” featured backing from the British reggae band Aswad and, though it would be several months more before an edited six minute version was released in Britain, Jamaican Tuff Gong pressings were on the streets of London within weeks.
By which time, “Exodus” was already awaiting it.
The new LP was not a wholly new statement, at least in terms of songs. Rehearsing in Miami shortly before moving to London, The Wailers were recorded working through the songs that have since been released across such albums as “Down South Miami” (MVP) and “Another Voice of Bob Marley” (AMJ). All are cursed by sub-standard sound (the bass appears to be auditioning for a very bad dub album), but meaty versions of sundry oldies (“Easy Skanking,” “Crazy Baldheads” and “Roots” among them) are present, alongside a spellbinding nine-plus minutes-worth of “Rastaman Chant” and an early incarnation of “Jamming,” here titled “Jammin’ to the People.” It’s a little more ponderous than the familiar take, but there is no suppressing Marley’s joie de vivre. And all signpost the direction towards the savage denouement of “Exodus.”
Ensconced in London’s Basing Street Studios, from whence The Wailers would sally out nightly, to become familiar faces on the London nightclub scene, a string of marathon sessions saw the band tackle at least half a dozen songs from their back catalog — “Natural Mystic,” “One Love,” “Satisfy My Soul,” “Sun Is Shining,” “Kaya” and “Keep on Moving.” There was also a reprise for the “No Woman, No Cry” melody, in the form of “Turn Your Lights Down Low.”
Other songs dealt with the assassination attempt and Marley’s refusal to be cowed by the bullies. “So Much Things to Say,” “Guiltiness,” “The Heathen” and a stab at Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” rank among Marley’s most solid political statements.
But it was the title track, almost eight minutes of slow burning rhythm wrapped sinuously around a call for Jah’s people to re-inherit their African homeland, that dominated, spiritually as much as musically. Add the dub version that accompanied the inevitable single’s Jamaican and U.K. releases (and which has since been appended to the “Exodus” deluxe edition), and it remains one of the most startling pieces of music, let alone commentaries, of its age.
The album was enormous. In Jamaica, “Exodus” ruled the airwaves for much of the rest of the year; in Britain, it spawned three hit singles during 1977 alone (and a fourth in 1980), and broke the band into the Top 10 album chart for the first time. In the U.S., it readily consolidated the breakthrough success of the preceding “Rastaman Vibration.” “Exodus” was the peak of The Wailers’ development, the masterpiece they had been threatening for so long, and it was instantly proclaimed as such.
Indeed, when the remainder of the Basing Street recordings were released the following March, even the knowledge that much of the bodyweight of “Kaya” was drawn from the “Exodus” sessions could not garner it anything more than lukewarm reviews. And why? Because it wasn’t “Exodus.”
Not that Marley had intended it to be. “Exodus” was brooding, “Kaya” was sunshine. He knew it would have been impossible for any single album to follow-up “Exodus,” and “Kaya” didn’t even try. In fact, had it only been possible, a far wiser approach would have been to release the album as a warm-up for the main attraction, setting the scene without revealing the secrets.
Few of the reworked oldies actually improved on the originals, and a flashy mix and production lessened their power even further. It’s a nice album. But nice isn’t necessarily a compliment and, for all the commercial success that would attend the release of “Kaya,” it is still best appreciated via the handful of cuts that made it onto the later “Legend” compilation (“Is This Love,” “Satisfy My Soul,” “Easy Skanking”), and for the one bonus track appended to the 2001 reissue, the instrumental “Smile Jamaica” that made it out as a U.K. B-side.
Yet if “Kaya” fell, still “Exodus” was not alone in bottling the lightning that one associates with it. A host of related numbers, gathered together on the deluxe CD edition of “Exodus,” are equally impressive. Dub versions of “Exodus” and “Jamming” are just the best of the gems that were restored to their spiritual home, there to be joined by the moody “Roots,” the “Rastaman Vibration” out-take released on the B-side of the U.K. “Waiting in Vain” single; an alternate take of “Waiting in Vain” itself; unreleased mixes of “Keep on Moving” and its dub counterpart; the full nine minute-plus version of “Punky Reggae Party” (plus its version B-side) and, finally, five tracks recorded at The Wailers’ biggest British show yet, at the London Rainbow on June 4, 1977.
Although it would ultimately remain shelved for the next 30 years, a full rendering of this same gig was originally scheduled to become The Wailers’s next album; with a Christmas 1977 release date already penciled in before Marley had second thoughts about it.
It was not necessarily his smartest decision. The Rainbow saw Marley step fully formed into the persona that has now become his legend — part man-of-peace, part mischievous rabble-rouser, part pacifist leader, part urban guerilla. Faced with an audience that itself was split between the warring factions of Rastas, skinheads and belligerent cops, flash points in a sea of ever-shifting, ever-dancing black, white and blue, Marley both calmed and coshed the agitators in a smoldering show that still echoes with the energies — for good and evil — that shocked the British social system that summer. And, replaying the music (or watching the concert footage, available as the Live at the Rainbow DVD) all these decades later, it still invokes any number of memories that history itself might have otherwise sidelined.
“Exodus” sparkles beyond The Wailers, too. The band Chalice ventured towards Marley’s original blueprint for “Exodus” with the release of their own dub version of the set, and it is magnificent to behold.
But the album that most unerringly reiterates all the majesty, magnificence and, when it is called for, malice of The Wailers’ original masterpiece is a now scarcely-remembered (and, for a long time, barely available) set by Jamaican toaster I-Roy.
“The Ten Commandments,” released in the U.K. by Virgin’s Front Line subsidiary in 1978, rephrases nine of the original Exodus album’s 10 cuts (“Put It On” substitutes for “Turn Your Lights Down Low”) with apocalyptic power, Biblical wrath and foreboding instrumentation, each of its tracks preluded with a growled recitation of the relevant commandment. It is an album that Marley himself could never have made. But he should have.
The aforementioned tour of Europe, and a visit to the U.S. were scheduled, naturally, to follow the release of “Exodus,” but early into the former, during an impromptu soccer match between The Wailers’ crew and a team of French journalists, a rough tackle damaged a toe that Marley had already injured once before, under similar circumstances in Trench Town.
A French doctor examined the wound and recommended Marley stay off his feet for a few weeks, but of course that was not possible. The tour continued and so did the soccer games, and the wound simply refused to heal.
Some nights, Marley took his right boot off to find his sock soaked through with blood, and the toe livid with infection. Finally, with the pain now so acute that he could barely walk, he visited a foot specialist.
The diagnosis was appalling. Melanoma cancer cells were detected in the wound, and the only even halfway sure cure was amputation of the toe and part of the foot. An alternative course of action involved removing part of the toe and some adjacent flesh, and hoping that the disease had not spread further. Both options necessitated canceling the American tour.
Marley chose the second course, and the operation was carried out at Miami’s Cedars Of Lebanon hospital — the same hospital that saved Don Taylor’s life following the shooting. Within two months, Marley had apparently made a full recovery; two months after that, he was out playing soccer again. By summer 1978, The Wailers were again on the road.
Live recordings from that season’s European tour abound, beginning with the newly scheduled concert souvenir, “Babylon By Bus.”
It remains a contentious album. We will probably never know why Marley ever chose to abandon plans to release the Rainbow show as The Wailers’ next album, in favor first of “Kaya,” and then a mishmash of tracks cut in concert the following year. But if the two studio albums are glorious night and lackluster day, then the same can be said for “Live at the Rainbow” and “Babylon By Bus.”
The later recordings may be more celebratory, the audience singalongs a shade more lusty, the pace a little hotter (too hot, sometimes; “Exodus” races by like a Ferrari). But the tension between artist, song and audience had been irrevocably distilled by the band’s worldwide emergence as a vital commercial force; and, for a long time, the greatest asset of “Babylon By Bus” was the only long-playing source for “Punky Reggae Party.”
Attitudes towards the album have changed somewhat in recent years — again, who knows why? Recorded live in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen during June/July 1978, “Babylon By Bus” was originally spread across four sides of vinyl — today, the full thing fits onto a single CD, and maybe that has brightened the outlook.
But it remains little more than a conciliatory “best of” collection — only “Is This Love” truly expands upon its familiar territory in the manner for which the live Wailers were renowned, clocking in at around twice its studio length; other numbers eschew the band’s love for extemporization, in the race to get to the next song as quickly as possible.
Several other live albums from this period were released in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, few offer up little more than average-sounding recordings of, in the latter instances, no-more-than-average shows; and while recordings of The Wailers’ triumphant return to Jamaica for 1978’s One Love festival are better, again the improvement is relative.
“Exodus” fell into memory, but the moment it preserved, and the momentum it unleashed, they would both sustain. Fresh studio albums “Survival” (1979) and “Uprising” (1980) both consolidated and furthered Marley’s superstardom; by the turn of the decade, Marley & The Wailers were the most successful band in Jamaican musical history, and one of the biggest in the world.
Yet Marley’s death in 1981 robbed us of more than a musical icon and a commercial guarantee. It also stripped us of one of the 20th century’s most vivid cultural icons, and that rarest of all musical beasts, a politically-conscious pop star who actually knew what he was talking about.
Neither renta-quote placebo nor gusting streak of bleached hot air, Marley was and remains the real thing. And “Exodus” is the album that lays that reality bare.