"We are revolutionaries, y'nuh," says Bob Marley, early in Rhino's video recollection of the creation of Catch a Fire. True in a double sense: The Wailers were emphatically political, while most reggae bands of the day were not, and they were the first aggressively to construct a crossover album with studio budgeting and full access to standard industry technology.
Rhino's recounting of the record's history -- featuring new and stock interviews with the Wailers as well as non-Wailer session musicians; Bob's wife, Rita; Rastafarian leaders; and producer Chris Blackwell, who gives a listen-through of the mixing process -- is a story as enlightening as it is entertaining in its own right.
Released in 1973 to American and British audiences that historically couldn't have cared less about reggae, Catch a Fire weathered slow initial sales upon its first appearance, partly because of its subject matter. "There were things that had to be dealt with," recalls Bunny Wailer, "that singin' about love could not deal with." Simultaneously fighting the apathy of white audiences toward the genre and prejudice against Rastafarians throughout Kingston's record and radio business, the Wailers wrote songs about poverty, slavery, and militant resistance to oppression.
Having completed the initial recording in Kingston, Marley took the tapes to England, where he and Blackwell set out to make the raw album palatable for European and American ears, expanding the boundaries of reggae and popular music in the process.
Doubling the album's original eight tracks and layering them with John "Rabbit" Bundrick's keyboard and Wayne Perkins' guitar, Blackwell worked the board while Marley directed. "It was about what he could teach you," says Bundrick. "I started playing a line, and he comes over and yells at me, "No, no, bumba claat, the organ part go like,' and then he hits the keys in rhythm... he couldn't play the piano, but he showed me the rhythm to go under that chink-a chink-a guitar part."
Hearing Blackwell fade in the layer as Bundrick talks through Marley's stern instruction, it becomes astonishingly clear how minutely crafted this deceptively simple-sounding album was. It also illustrates, as Timothy White observes in his classic Marley bio of the same title, that the man had a specific vision for his brand of reggae, knew the kind of work it would take to sell it outside Jamaica, and performed that work tirelessly.
Recognizing quick bursts of classic songs in their rough mix, of course, is a special treat for fans of Catch a Fire, and Rhino's documentary offers these aplenty, closing with a complete, live video of the young Wailers performing "Get Up, Stand Up" in Edmonton, England, on the album's promotional tour. Just before the band rips into what would become reggae's most lasting and recognizable protest anthem, Marley winks at some fetching young thing in the front rows and says, utterly charmingly, "Yah, smile then, baby." And then the roof comes off.
Rhino's Bob Marley: Catch a Fire captures the Wailers shrewdly selling an entire musical genre to an audience that didn't even know it was buying, in a track-by-track buildup that demonstrates that it wasn't a matter of white listeners finally being "ready" for reggae. This particular message came so well-crafted that it was impossible not to listen, and the world -- musicians and listeners alike -- couldn't help but be changed.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.