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The Anatomy of Bob Marley's Legend Album

Bob Marley's Legend compilation has come to define the reggae singer's career, but is that a good thing?
Bob Marley's Legend compilation has come to define the reggae singer's career, but is that a good thing?

Look no further for proof of Bob Marley's legacy than the vast number of bands influenced by his work and the multitude of Marley posters that adorn dorm-room walls. More than 30 years after his death in 1981, Bob Marley and the Wailers touch people of all ages. Mostly because of the mind-boggling success of his greatest hits album, Legend, which his label released posthumously in 1984.

Legend: The Best of Bob Marley & The Wailers is the best-selling reggae album of all time. Yet the 14 tracks represent a slender, if satisfying, slice of the Marley pie. That is, Legend's portrait of the complex Jamaican singer is incomplete; Marley's musical accomplishments go far beyond the songs on this record.

See Also: How Bob Marley Was Sold to the Suburbs

Just what is the role of greatest hits collections? Only legendary artists get them. Many are released either post-death or post-breakup. Even fewer transcend the albums from which they are collected. But some come to define an artist. Take, for example, Jimi Hendrix. The Ultimate Experience, which contains 20 of Jimi's best songs and for many is the beginning and end of their Hendrix fandom. The Best of the Doors bears a similar burden -- to be the end-all source of stature for anyone wishing to have a perfunctory knowledge of music history. Queen's Greatest Hits is much of the same.

(Of course, the Eagles' Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975, is one of the best-selling albums of all time. But no one really attacks the album as unrepresentative of the Eagles' musical legacy since few are invested in the Eagles' musical legacy. Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Freddie Mercury were legendary rock stars who inspired cult followings and fervored late-night discussion about what it all meant. Eagles songs make great karaoke.)

Greatest hits albums typically don't satisfy serious music fans, usually for two reasons: One is that such records reflect popularity rather than quality. The other is, why bother?

Greatest hits albums that are no more than mixtapes of the best songs an artist has written basically are worthless to diehard fans, which is why so many releases include b-sides or live versions -- little extras to convince serious listeners that the compilation is worth their dollars. If you ignore the diehards and the compulsive record collectors, you ignore a sizable chunk of the record-buying populace.

The first argument is more difficult to define. After all, it is understandably difficult to condense a lifetime of artistic output (in Marley's case, 12 or 13 studio albums, depending on how you count) into a single representative disc. So should we really fault greatest hits records for serving as anything more than a gateway to the artist's complete catalog?

The problem arises when a compilation album, after its release, becomes the most popular album that an artist released, and Legend falls into this category. Legend certainly is a collection of great songs, but its tracklist (based on the original 1984 tracklist, not the deluxe edition released in the early 2000s) skews heavily toward the end of Marley's career, skims the middle, and ignores the beginning. The album also chooses to focus on the "One Love" Marley, the Marley who preached compassion for his fellow man while almost ignoring the political Marley, who was about curing social injustices and helping the poor.

The tracks of Legend are as follows: "Is This Love," "No Woman, No Cry," "Could You Be Loved," "Three Little Birds," "Buffalo Soldier," "Get Up, Stand Up," "Stir It Up," "One Love/People Get Ready," "I Shot the Sheriff," "Waiting in Vain," "Redemption Song," "Satisfy My Soul," "Exodus," and "Jamming."

These songs come mostly from Marley's stint with Island Records, which is not surprising, since Island released Legend. But Marley's career is much more than that; some consider the records he and the Wailers made with Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry to be their most compelling work. The two albums, Soul Rebels (1970) and African Herbsman (1973), are absent from Legend. Instead, the album contains five tracks from Exodus (1977), the mainstream's consensus pick for greatest Marley album; two from Uprising (1980); one from the posthumous Confrontation (1983); two from Kaya (1978); two from Burnin' (1973); one from Live (1975), though the particular track, "No Woman, No Cry," comes from the 1974 album Natty Dread; and one from Catch a Fire (1973).

Legend isn't entirely apolitical. "Buffalo Soldier," though cryptic, addresses the cruel tragedy of black slaves brought to America only to later fight against other indigenous peoples victimized by European colonialists, Native Americans.

 

The exact target of "Get Up, Stand Up" seems tough to parse, but it's actually progressive. It deals with the radical yet not uncommon idea that slave owners used Christianity to pacify captured Africans with promises of an eternal paradise in the afterlife in exchange for terrestrial cooperation. It's plainly there in the lyrics, as Marley calls for the oppressed to focus on improving their situation while they still live:

"Most people think / Great God will come from the skies / Take away everything / And make everybody feel high / But if you know what life is worth / You will look for yours on Earth / And now you see the light / You stand up for your rights."

The Legend version also includes the verse, "We sick an' tired of-a your ism-skism game / Dying and going to heaven in Jesus' name." If you don't know what "ism-skism game" means, you're not alone. Luckily, Talkin' Blues, a compilation of live and studio tracks released in 1991, contains a much clearer version, in which Peter Tosh sings "bullshit" instead of "ism-skism."

"Exodus" is the final song conjuring politics on the album. There's a line, "Send us another brother Moses," to presumably lead Jamaicans back to Africa.

And, yes, Legend contains two songs from Uprising, which has to be politically themed, given the title, right? Yes, but the two songs chosen are "Could You Be Loved" and "Redemption Song." The politics of the former are buried deep in the lyrics, and "Redemption Song," though undeniably beautiful, is perhaps the cuddliest, introspective revolutionary song ever recorded.

What's missing from Legend? The earlier sounds of the songs Marley and the Wailers recorded in Jamaica, as well as his most explicitly political songs. Remember, in 1976, Marley was shot just before performing a concert in Kingston in support of Jamaica's People's National Party.

As Dave Robinson, who constructed the tracklist for Legend, tells writer Chris Kornelis in this week's cover story, the tracklist for Legend deliberately was designed to appeal to white audiences. Island Records had viewed Marley as a political revolutionary, and Robinson saw this perspective as damaging to Marley's bottom line. So he constructed a greatest-hits album that showed just one face of the Marley prism, the side he deemed most sellable to the suburbs.

And, apparently, the suburbs do not buy politically provocative records. Therefore, you get the exclusion of "Talkin' Blues," from 1974's Natty Dread, which starts with descriptions of poverty -- "Cold ground was my bed last night, and rock was my pillow" and then rejection of Christianity. "'Cause I feel like bombing a church / now that you know that the preacher is lying'" (Bob Marley and the Wailers: the original black metal band). You get the exclusion of "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)," one of Marley's greatest songs, an explicit call-out to wealth inequality. Nowhere in sight is "War," a song whose lyrics derive from a speech Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who, for much of Marley's life, was a living god to the followers of Rastafarianism.

If you're looking for mass-market appeal to secular-progressive America, you don't include songs that invoke collective guilt over the slave trade, nor do you address the inconvenient truth that the bucolic Jamaican lifestyle of reggae, sandy beaches, and marijuana embraced by millions of college freshmen, exists only because of the brutal slave trade.

The reality of Bob Marley's politics is complex. But one aspect is clear -- the songs on Legend offer just a brief glimpse into his music. The definitive album of the most important reggae singer of all time is a hodgepodge collection of love songs, feel-good sentiment, and mere hints of the fiery activist whose politics drew bullets in the '70s.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Legend's songs undeniably are great, even if the hokey "Three Little Birds" gets priority over songs with more bite.

But Legend is a sorely incomplete look at Marley's music -- a huge success at selling a revolutionary to the masses (more than 15 million people bought it) but a failure at capturing what made Marley great.

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