After two stunning gigs at the Lyceum in London, Bob Marley found himself universally hailed as reggae's first superstar. Karl Dallas watched the Wailers in action and talked to their leader about music, prejudice and Babylon. This piece ran in Melody Maker on July 26, 1975——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Columbo's is a mostly black-patronised disco in London's Carnaby Street. The only white face on the stairs is the autographed picture of Peter Falk in the role of the club's eponymous (but differently spelled) TV hero. A black bouncer, who looks like a heavy in a Raymond Chandler yarn, is keeping a crowd of ticketless gatecrashers at bay with less effort of his ham-like fist than it would take him to crack a walnut.
Inside, Bob Marley is partying. He's a little guy, lean and wiry, but it is easy to see him as he bends his knees and straightens them in that characteristic Jamaican strut he does on stage as he plays, and it's neither the spike plaits of his natty dread locks nor the eerie luminiscence of the towel he wears around his neck like a heavyweight champion in the flashing glow of the UV strobes which enables you to pick him out.
It is the way the admiring crowd opens and closes round him as he moves from one part of the dance floor to another, wiping the sweat off his face with the towel with one hand, grabbing a black girl round the waist with the other as she moves to and fro for a beat or two, then moving away to another part of the floor.
You wouldn't think he had just played a tough, almost continuous one-hour set to a packed Lyceum, London, with no proper encore because it looked as if the crowd was about to pull him off stage in its blind enthusiasm, or that he was to meet the press at noon for a conference encompassing subjects like revolution, what he does with his money, how he felt when two members quit his band after their last British bummer of a tour, and what is his favourite piece of reggae music.
He parries them all, answers most of them with a mild urbanity that belies his reputation of being occasionally difficult, and confirms his own report that the vibration on this tour is decidedly different from the last.
If superstardom consists of being elusive, evasive, incoherent, unpunctual, enigmatic, all-round difficult, then Marley is no superstar. But if it has anything to do with that over-worked word, charisma, with knowing what you are doing and not being diverted from the main object in view, with a burning conviction and a dazzling talent united to communicate, then Marley is possibly the greatest superstar to visit these shores since the days when Dylan conquered the concert halls of Britain, never looking back.
At that Lyceum concert I found myself thinking of Dylan several times, first when he stabbed a pointing finger at the audience during 'No Woman No Cry', remembering Dylan's reported dislike of "finger-pointing" songs, and I wished he could be here crammed into this neck of humanity to feel how effective they can be in the right hands.
And then, as the mass of Afro-topped black heads swept up over the ineffective crash barriers and became a snake-pit of reaching arms, grabbing at his ankles, his wrists, the belt round his pants, I thought of Phil Ochs' comment that if Dylan ever walked through his audience they would kill him, literally tear him to pieces out of sheer love and adoration, and I understood straight away why there was no encore, a feeling which was confirmed, not dispelled, by the howl of booing when they put the house lights up to show the crowd that the show was indeed over.
And yet, as he moved through the people at Columbo's a couple of hours later there was no anxiety, no danger, no threat. Strange, the ways of crowds.
The next day, after the press conference, I asked him if he had been scared by the crowd at the Lyceum. "No," he said, "it no worry me so much. The only thing, I didn't want them pull me off the stage or hurt me. Them guy held me too hard. Them too strong, real big guys."
The excitement had started building long before 9.32pm, when he came on to the cries of Radio London DJ Steve Barnard: "Are you ready? Are you ready?" It had built through Third World's excellent opening set, through the interlude of black music Barnard played to keep them happy as they waited. The crowd milled about, drank from beer cans and bottles, jigged a bit to the music. But as the music continued, as disc followed disc, the cries began to rise out of the crowd like startled birds. "Bob Marley," called a voice. "Bob Marley," repeated another.
The house lights go out, and though roadies are still prowling about the stage, all eyes are riveted on it. At one side, a large backdrop with Marcus Garvey, the father of the back-to-Africa movement, in ceremonial and civilian clothes, both European. On the back wall, a fairly small picture, ringed with the red, yellow and green colours of the Ethiopian flag: Halle Selassie, embattled Emperor of Ethiopia, Lion of Judah, considered by the Rastafarians to be the godhead, "Almighty God is a living man" as the song says.
The Wailers' road manager, Tony Garrett, comes out to invite the sell-out crowd to participate in "a Trench-town Experience " and the place goes wild as the opening words of 'Trenchtown Rock', "hit me with music," literally hit everyone in the polar plexus. Aston "Family Man" Barrett on bass wears a bowler hat; his brother, Carlton on drums is in faded denim. Two of the old Soul-ettes, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths, working as I Three (three because every rasta includes Selassie with himself), are resplendent in long, poppy-emblazoned gowns. They move a little awkwardly, as if they are making up their stepping routines as they go along, as well they might, but their movements coincide perfectly, a blend of professional precision and spontaneous fun.
From where I stand, we can see neither Guitarist Al Anderson nor keyboard player Touter, but we can hear the first's buoyant melody lines soaring gently up above the tune, the latter's organ growling along a funky bass.
Marley, he is everywhere, never still, bending his knees sharply on the third beat of every bar. Turning his back on the audience and retreating to stage rear to signify the end a song.
The band goes straight into 'Burnin'' and thence into 'Rebel Music' and Marley clearly feels confident enough in his control to relax a bit. He breaks his guitar rhythm to sip from a paper cup. The music is tighter than it used to be, though still fairly loose. So far there have been no solos, until the band swings into 'Stir It Up', first of Marley's songs to become a worldwide hit (for Johnny Nash) and Touter takes a brief keyboard excursion.
"What we need is some positive vibration," Marley cries at the end of the song, although he's had little reason to complain at the response so far. He is working with the crowd, keeping his introductions brief, his movements economical, but all the time he is driving along not only the band, but also the crowd.
He begins 'No Woman No Cry' with his arm over his face, forsaking his lilting offbeat guitar to give his hands the opportunity for full expression. He makes the lyrics live, and, incidentally, acquits the rasta of all charges of male chauvinism in this sensitive paean to black womanhood. And when he gets to the words "Everything's gonna be alright" his finger splits the air like a searchlight.
And so it goes, building and building. They open up the roof. Back in the balcony a hundred 20p programmes are waving back and forth in a vain effort to cool the temperature, but what is causing the sweat here is something more than physical heat.
At the end of the song, Marley cries "Jah — Rasta far-I," the only time we hear the old rasta slogan in the whole evening. 'Natty Dread' brings out all the street urchin cheek of its argot, mockery turned back upon the mockers, with love instead of hate. This ought to be the single, not its B-side.
A new intro foxes the crowd for a while until he sings out the words of 'I Shot The Sheriff' and if you thought the crowd was wild already, the roar of response at the opening words shows that we haven't reached the high point.
Looking down at the crowd, I notice a strange thing. Earlier, it had been a fairly even mix of black and white, but now all the heads I can see at the front are Afro-topped (virtually no dreadlocks, by the way). And I see that they have invaded the barely protected photographers' area and they are bidding fair to invade the stage itself.
There have, of course, been a crowd of anonymous black faces round the sides of the stage all the way through, and at the end of the song Marley and the band disappear into them. It is 10.21 and the band has played for less than an hour.
Clearly this is a rehearsed encore, as the band comes out again and strikes up 'Get Up, Stand Up'. I Three are punching the sky with power fists and the kids in front are grabbing at Marley. One guy pulls off his jacket and throws it on the stage, it is not clear why.
It is almost as if we have been invaded by a Bay City Rollers crowd, though there is no screaming.
Marley is repeating the words "Don't give up the fight" so that it becomes a hypnotic litany: "Don't give up the fight...don't give up the fight...don't give up the fight..." He does it ten times, then the guitar takes up the five-note phrase and turns it into a riff, in which it is joined by the organ.
Each time a fist grabs at Marley he smiles slightly, as if to himself, and tries to shake himself free. He never actually looks at any of the guys (they are all males), who do it. By now roadies, DJs, anyone, has been pressed into service as a steward, arguing with the one or two kids who actually make it on to the stage, persuading them to get back down.
The song ends and Marley leaves the stage. There is no way he can come back for more. He has played for almost exactly an hour. The crowd stays for almost half that time again, clapping and stamping in unison, shouting more, but in vain.
No one could have followed that, not even the man who did it.
Noon the next day, and you might expect Marley to be showing signs of strain. He has had maybe five hours sleep. He looks fresher than any of us, still wearing the same denim jacket he wore on stage and in Columbo's the night before. He and his manager, the American Don Taylor, sit behind a table clustered with the cassette recorders of reporters from France, Scandinavia, everywhere. One black guy with his hair only just beginning to sprout into dread locks says he has come ten thousand miles from New Zealand just to see him.
The conference was bedevilled by a certain amount of mutual incomprehension, because some of the reporters speak English rather poorly. One Frenchman asks Marley if it is his intention to "free the niggers" and for a moment we sit, horrified a little at the explosion about him using the forbidden word, assuming that he has got his négres (French) mixed up with his negers (German) and forgetting that it is English we are talking.
"Niggers?" asks Marley. "Niggers?" he repeats, a little more loudly. "Nigger mean doom. I a rasta. You can't free death. I life."
And then, a little humorously: "Where you get that word nigger from?" The reporter fails to reply, but Marley has successfully defused the situation himself.
Despite the linguistic barriers, he handles the press conference brilliantly. One man asks him why he wants to go back to Ethiopia.
"Forward," he replied curtly, and when the roar of laughter has died down he says nothing, absolutely nothing, for ten seconds, and then allows a second wave of laughter to rise and fall before he shakes his head in appreciation at the smart appositeness of his own reply, and whoops: "Ooooh."
Someone asks him what is more important, the words or the music. "Sometime the music," he says. "Sometime I can dig music, I can dig instrumental music. But lyrics important. Well, I want to tell you the whole thing complete is the important thing."
Another questioner asks him what about the people who like the music and don't listen to the words.
"People who listen to the music and don't listen to the words soon start listening to the words," he says. "Let them hear the music first. But as long as you want to listen, you might hear the words, mebbe not unnerstand everything.
"Like if I write a song, 'Them Belly Full But We Hungry', can you understand that?" The questioner is a Scandinavian and, slightly cruelly, Marley has mumbled the title of the song rather quickly.
"No, he can't unnerstand that," he says in an aside to Taylor. "That's a patois. It's not straight English you can write. Sometimes we sing in patois."
There are the obvious questions about personnel changes. He agrees that the music is tighter now, but says: "I don't think it because them leave. I feel it mostly because the type of vibration we had in the studio. We did have a good vibration."
Pressed, he refuses to be despondent about losing Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston.
"You not supposed to feel down over whatever happen to you," he says. "I mean, you're supposed to use whatever happen to you as some type of upper, not a downer. Say if a brother say he don't wanna play no more music, then you have a little time to work out what is to be, what must be.
"I feel Peter Tosh was want to have adventures himself, him talented enough and mebbe him want something better than this."
On why he chose an "outsider," American Al Anderson, to play lead guitar, instead of a Jamaican, he was particularly scathing: "We really not deal with people in categories like if you come from Jamaica you have the right. Regardless of where on earth you are you have the right. I can't deal with the passport thing. To me him prove himself not an outsider, because if him can play with us then him no outsider."
And then they wanted to talk about money, whether his new-found fame and assumed wealth was going to cut him off from his fellow Jamaicans, and they asked about the future of reggae if it became too commercial.
"I don't see reggae music as like the twist, I see reggae music as music," he said. "When people say reggae them expect a type of music. As far as me is concerned, I never give it a name. Just play music.
"Once you put it in a bag and call it reggae and then mebbe you listen with your ear and think you hear a single thing. Because music wide, music go everywhere.
"That's why people expect reggae to be a one type of thing but it's not that. This music, man, is not music of a day. It have to be real."
Upstairs in the Kensington Hilton hotel, sipping canned orange juice in a plush room overlooking the main motorway into London from Shepherds Bush, I started by returning to the question of where he was heading as he became more popular. Wasn't he getting closer to Babylon as he became more successful? I asked, using the rasta term for the sins of this world represented by the Hiltons and everything they stood for.
"Babylon is everywhere," he replied, after a moment's thought. "You have wrong and you have right. Wrong is what we call Babylon, wrong things. That is what Babylon is to me. I could have born in England, I could have born in America, it make no difference where me born, because there is Babylon everywhere."
In Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, too?
"Yeh. What important is man should live in righteousness, in natural love for mankind.
"I was born in Babylon. My father, who got together with my mother, was a English guy who was a captain of the army, who go to war. You can't get more Babylon more than that. My mother was a black woman from the inner centre of Jamaica, real country, and this was a man who come from England and go war. He come to Jamaica and find my mother, way up in the country, so look how far Babylon come from England.
"A certain word can hold you out from the truth a long while, like people can use the word Babylon and have no understanding of what Babylon is. So he becomes an idiot, he becomes more chained, 'cos a thing is right or wrong. If you're right you're right, if you're wrong you're wrong."
I asked him later if his songs had a message for white people or only the black, and he returned to this theme of his origins: "My songs have a message of righteousness, whether you black...Listen, man, you know I'm not prejudiced about myself.
"Because my father's white, my mother's black. You know what them call me, half caste or wh'ever. Well, me don't dip on nobody's side, me don't dip on the black man's side nor the white man's side, me dip on God's side, the man who create me, who cause me to come from black and white, who give me this talent.
"Prejudice is a chain, it can hold you. If you prejudice, you can't move, you keep prejudice for years. Never get nowhere with that."
We spoke again about the sudden cancellation of the last tour.
"Yeh, well, the thing was, some of the members of the group can't stand the cold. My thing is, it's a compulsion, I have to leave Jamaica a certain time of the year."
He had spoken of many of the things that were wrong with his native land. I asked him if he had any hope for change in Jamaica.
"I wish things could change without hurt and righteousness reign for ever, let righteousness cover the earth like the water cover the sea," he quoted. He often quotes, but the poetical, lilting quality of his speech (so impossible to reproduce in print) makes it hard to distinguish the quote from the straight statement. They all come out as a kind of poetry.
"My future is in a green part of the earth," he said, "big enough me can roam freely. I don't feel Jamaica gonna be the right place because Jamaica look a bit small. That mean we put a circle some time round Jamaica, mean my thing will have finish, need somewhere new, Ethiopia, adventure, know what I mean?
"You can start live. I suffer this all our life, so we can't settle, need some adventure, enjoy ourself, and the only place we can do that is in Ethiopia, Africa, big enough. Jamaica a little small island, you know."
With many poor rastas saving their pennies and actually making it out to Africa, I asked, how come Robert Nesta Marley hadn't made it to the promised land yet?
"The reason I don't go to Ethiopia is why I am going to Ethiopia, to spy? To spy if the land is nice and I want to live there? When I go to Ethiopia it have to be natural like. It can't be just because me have the money for go. Ethiopia is more than that.
"I mean, when we go to Ethiopia, that'll be something. It can't just be a vacation, you know, foolishness. That'll be real."
Getting down to the message of his songs, it struck me that his most popular song, 'I Shot The Sheriff', didn't have too much of a message.
"That message a kind of diplomatic statement," he said. "You have to kinda suss things out. I shot the sheriff is like I shot wickedness. That's not really a sheriff, it's just the elements of wickedness, you know. How wickedness can happen.
"But the elements of that song is people been judging you and you can't stand it no more and you explode, you just explode. So it really carry a message, you know. Clapton asked me about the song because when Clapton finished the song he didn't know the meaning of the song. Him like the kind of music and then him like the melody and then him make 'I Shot The Sheriff'.
"I don't know if it's because Elton John say 'Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player', Bob Dylan say, 'Take The Badge Off Me, Ma, I Don't Want To Shoot Them Any More' and this one man say 'I Shot The Sheriff'.
"That song never fit no-one else but Eric Clapton, right beside Elton John, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton."
Earlier, he had told the press conference how the Jamaican musicians had developed ska into blue beat into reggae to keep one step ahead of the commercial record companies, but he had refused to predict what might follow reggae, if it became spoiled by commercialisation. I asked him the question again in private.
"I don't care what people do with the music," he said at first. "Every time I play I get that fresh inspiration. It fresh, and no-one can hear a song that you write until it out on a record. So people can capitalise upon reggae as much as they want. People have all sorts of music they can play.
"We can play different music from the kind of music that we play now."
Different in what way?
"Just different," he murmered, almost to himself. "Different, just different, so if somebody try and catch up with we, we can leave and change again. Because that's what we been doing over the years. Every time that we make some music, they catch up with we, so we change, just like ska, rock steady, reggae.
"If them come too much and call it reggae, we go to nyahbingi music, the first music."
And what did that mean?
"It mean 'Death to black and white oppressors'." His voice was low but clear, as if he were saying something very important, drawn from deep in himself.
"But that type of music it come from the heart." He beat his chest with a fluttering palm. "Just like that. Every time you hear the drums you hear it, sometime soft, sometime frightening, you get to know it. Like when I first hear rasta drumming, I think it something terrible going to do with me, because it's something that we no understand.
"And yet it's so near to me. And then we get to understand it and everything become natural again."
Bob Marley is a natural man.
© Karl Dallas, 1975
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