ROCK / The rhythm that changed the world: Catching a fire, all over again: Richard Williams on the collected Bob Marley

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The Independent Culture
THE SWEET SMOKE hung like thick velvet curtains in Harry J's studio on the hot, wet night I got taken to hear the Wailers cutting the tracks for Catch a Fire, the album that changed the face of Jamaican music, of black music, of popular music irrespective of race, creed or colour. But it wasn't just the smoke. Here, in the sombre, floating harmonies of 'Slave Driver', in the hypnotic unnhh-chakka unnhh-chakka rhythm of 'Concrete Jungle', was something so new and so amazing that you'd have to have been completely unconscious to have missed its implications. As the half-dozen musicians rolled out the warm, elastic grooves way past the length needed for any conceivable record release, the minutes and the hours seemed to exchange values.

This was in the early months of 1972. In America, a new wave of soul music was in full spate. Freed from the restrictions of the old three-minute Top 40 system, and facing down company A&R men to take control of their creative destinies for a brief, perfect moment, singer-composer-producers such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone were into their stride, daring to produce a music so confident of itself that it didn't need to go for the hard sell. And now here, in a one-storey building on a Kingston side-street, was something that seemed ready to challenge What's Going On, Superfly and There's a Riot Going On.

Even then, when the name of the group was simply the Wailers, when there was no explicitly designated leader or front-man, when Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh were contributing fine songs and characterful lead vocals of their own, there could be no doubt where the creative focus was to be found. The slight figure of Robert Nesta Marley, 27 years old, his locks not yet grown, his manner with strangers quiet to the point of diffidence, surely had some sort of authority over what was going on. For all the skill of the Barrett brothers behind the bass guitar and the drum kit, his chopping guitar seemed to be at the centre of the rhythm. And, unmissably, he had that wonderfully soulful voice, light-toned but full of wisdom and sufferation, in which he stretched and cut phrases with cunning musicianship.

What happened next became one of the key individual stories of post-war, pre-digital popular music: Elvis, Chuck, Beatles, James Brown, Beach Boys, Dylan, Aretha, Hendrix . . . and Marley, the first of them to become a bigger hero in the third world than in the first or second. By that accomplishment, by putting Harare and Lagos alongside New York and London as places where it was possible to be an international pop star, he made the world seem a much bigger and more interesting place.

More than 10 years after he died, it's hard to get through a week without hearing someone say, where's the new Bob Marley? (On Channel 4 last week somebody was trying to pretend it might be Maxi Priest, a genial designer- draped dread who is to Bob Marley as Luther Vandross is to Jimi Hendrix.) The poignant but inescapable conclusion must be that Bob Marley's extraordinary achievement was far less an example of the potency of Jamaican music than than it was an expression of individual genius. Just as there was no Marley before Marley, so there will be none after him.

All this is made starkly, tragically, thrillingly plain throughout Songs of Freedom, the four-CD, five-hour, 78-track compilation of work from Marley's entire career, beginning with 1962's 'Judge Not', the 17-year-old's first single, and ending with a version of 'Redemption Song' recorded at his very last concert, in 1980. Not only is all current reggae dwarfed by comparison, so is just about everything else. Where, in 1992, are you going to find music of this much originality, subtlety, true-heart fire, commitment to humanity? Michael Jackson? Do me a favour. Prince Rogers Nelson? Not even close. Who else - Bobby Brown?

Every phase of his long odyssey is reflected with care and clarity. The bouncy teenage ska of 'Simmer Down' charmingly evokes the early Sixties of shebeens and pork-pie hats, but listen to the precocious sense of beauty then already at work in 'I'm Still Waiting', a fragile ballad to rival Curtis Mayfield's finest. Anyone who doesn't know the pre-Catch a Fire productions by Leslie Kong can put that right with the immaculate 'Caution' and 'Soul Shakedown Party', lifted by the stuttering guitar of Hux Brown, an unsung Jamaican Robbie Robertson. And so on, through to the very end, in a kaleidoscope of alternative takes, unreleased versions and unusual items, all thoroughly annotated in a well-illustrated booklet.

What I keep coming back to is the work from 1976-77, when superstardom was still a fresh sensation. The best of these songs, things like 'Johnny Was', 'Jah Live', 'Jamming', 'War' and 'Exodus', see Marley finding his way to a blend of musical power and compassionate eloquence that seems even more monumental today than it did in its own time.

'Songs of Freedom' is out now on CD and cassette (Tuff Gong /Island TGCBX1, about pounds 30). An eight-LP version follows in November.

(Photograph omitted)