Emerging from the tactical fumbles of its Frampton Comes Alive! and Blind Faith rereleases, the juggernaut that is Universal Music's "Deluxe Edition" series has taken a rapid and happy turn for the better. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On received a loving treatment in February, and now comes 1973's Catch a Fire, the album that first sold reggae to international audiences.
You'll recall that the basic tracks were laid down in Jamaica, then flown to England where Chris Blackwell and Marley oversaw their remixing and overdubbing. The final product was unlike anything European and American audiences had ever heard, but there always existed that tiny kernel of curiosity, stoked by a few raw inclusions on the Marley boxed set Songs of Freedom, regarding what those original tracks must have sounded like. Wait no more, beloved. Disc two of this Deluxe Edition is Catch a Fire in its originally released, now-remastered form, and disc one is given over entirely to the original tracks, laid down in 1972 in several Kingston studios.
What's really remarkable about this edition of the Wailers' cornerstone record, aside from hearing very familiar songs in a clean but rudimentary setting, is how well the Wailers' own musicianship comes through. Peter Tosh's keyboards, largely muted by John "Rabbit" Bundrick's powerful overdubs on the original commercial release, shine out as the most welcome surprise. Scratchy and hesitant, Tosh's piano and organ lines seem to strip tight, angry tracks like "Slave Driver" and "400 Years" down to their barest essentials. Similarly, Marley's vocals, which received a sweetening postproduction treatment from Blackwell, sound barely controlled in the original mix, and hover just on the near side of outright rage. Even Tosh's voice on "Stop That Train," a comparatively soulful cut, sounds ragged, bloodied but unbowed: "All my good life I've been a lonely man/Teaching people who don't understand."
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Lyrics and original album packaging -- the famed expensive "Zippo" cover -- fill out the historical value, but UK journalist Richard Williams veers dangerously close to crediting Blackwell as the group's breakthrough musical adviser in the booklet essay. That's a serious misrepresentation. The Wailers knew what they were doing at all critical points, as the music herein attests, even if they welcomed and unilaterally approved of Blackwell's intense postproduction work (in which, contrary to the information given here, Marley played an equally strong part). Even in the raw mixes Marley and Co. were pushing what passed for "mainstream" Jamaican reggae into different and pop-friendly forms, and in the process they built the template against which all subsequent reggae music developed. Suffice to say, those who have somehow missed out on owning this album don't have any more excuses, and those who do can happily trade in their copies for a fuller and eminently satisfying version.