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Meaning

Catch A Fire was the album that introduced the world to Bob Marley, the first international reggae superstar. And "Concrete Jungle," as the first track on the album, was the song that introduced listeners to Catch A Fire. So this is arguably the song that launched the transformation of reggae music from a purely local Jamaican art form into a global pop phenomenon.

The story of "Concrete Jungle" is thus a story of cultural globalization. Like most such stories, it's one that contains more than a little irony; the process by which Jamaica's beloved national music went "outernational" began to transform the music itself, making reggae—or at least Bob Marley's brand of reggae—perhaps a little bit less Jamaican even as it introduced Jamaican culture to much of the world.

Jamaican pop music came into its own in the 1950s and '60s as island musicians, combining local folk and gospel music traditions with the country and R&B influences being broadcast into the country via AM radio from Miami and New Orleans, created a distinct national sound. First came mento, which ruled Jamaican dancehalls in the 1950s and sounded a bit like Trinidadian calypso. By the early 1960s, mento was mostly displaced by ska, a scorching uptempo style featuring prominent horns and a characteristic rhythm skank on the off beat. By the late 1960s, the running ska beat slowed down to a more mellow stroll and reggae was born.

By the time reggae conquered Jamaica's dancehalls and radio waves, The Wailers were established veterans on the local musical scene. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer) began playing music together as teenagers in the West Kingston slum of Trench Town. They recorded their first single—a Marley ska composition called "Judge Not"—in 1961, and scored a huge #1 Jamaican hit two years later with "Simmer Down," an infectiously uptempo call for an end to the violence already raging through Kingston's ghettos. "Simmer Down" established The Wailers as one of Jamaica's hottest ska bands, and the group remained popular on the island through the rest of the 1960s, successfully making the stylistic transition from ska to reggae by 1969.

In those early years, the band was not "Bob Marley & The Wailers"; it was simply The Wailers, and Marley, Tosh, and Livingston served as co-equal partners in a formidable harmony trio. All three wrote songs and took over lead singing duties on different tunes.

By the end of the 1960s, The Wailers had established themselves as regular chart-toppers in Jamaica, but struggled to gain international acceptance (or lucrative foreign record deals). They endured a miserable, freezing tour of Britain, attracting some support from the UK's emigrant West Indian community but mostly failing to reach white audiences. They also tried but mostly failed to gain airplay in the USA; they even recorded a number of tracks with Aretha Franklin's band in hopes of breaking through to the soul market, but American audiences didn't immediately take to the music's inside-out rhythms, its Motown soul-style backing notwithstanding.

By the end of 1971, Bob Marley was frustrated, broke, and marooned in England following another failed Wailers tour of the UK. The day before New Years Eve, Marley walked into the London headquarters of Island Records and asked to speak to Chris Blackwell. Blackwell was the Anglo-Jamaican descendant of the colonial planters who ran Appleton Estate (of rum fame). He had been born in London but raised mostly in Jamaica; in the early 1960s, he had founded Island Records as an exporter of Jamaican singles to the UK. By later in the decade, he relocated to London and shifted his focus from Jamaican music to rock and roll, although he never lost track of what was going on in the Jamaican music scene. By the time Bob Marley turned up in his office, Blackwell had become convinced that the time was ripe for reggae to break through to white rock audiences in Europe and America. Marley asked Blackwell to pay for The Wailers to record a new single; Blackwell instead offered the band the princely sum of £4000 to record an entire album of new tunes. That record, Catch A Fire, would go on to become the most important album in reggae history.

In part, that's because it was really the first album, period, in reggae history. In Jamaica, records were sold almost exclusively as 45rpm singles; the whole concept of an album (a coherent whole representing more than the sum of its parts) was a rock and roll thing with no real Jamaican equivalent. Blackwell wanted The Wailers to apply that concept to reggae, creating an album that could be sold to rock fans. In Bob Marley, Blackwell saw the perfect messenger to carry reggae to the world: "I was dealing with rock music," Blackwell later said, "which was really rebel music. I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music. But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in he really was that image."

The Wailers returned to Jamaica and laid down eleven new tracks for the Island album, producing their own material to capture the raw, heavy sound then predominant in reggae music. Those original mixes—which were released by Island in a special-edition reissue of Catch A Fire in 2001—featured fat basslines, atmospheric organ backdrops, sparse guitar work, and rich vocal harmonies from Marley, Tosh, and Livingston. Catch A Fire, in its original version, embodied early-'70s Jamaican music in its most wicked form.

But it wasn't quite what Chris Blackwell wanted.

When Marley returned to London to deliver the master tapes, Blackwell decided he needed a different sound to break The Wailers to a different audience trained to appreciate the very different stylings of rock and roll. Blackwell dumped two of the album's tracks entirely ("High Tide Or Low Tide," a great song that would become a favorite of Marley aficionados when finally released on compilation albums decades later, and "All Day All Night," a fairly weak effort that was wisely dropped from the project). Blackwell kept the remaining nine songs, but remixed them extensively—turning down the bass, de-emphasizing the organ, highlighting Marley's vocals by moving Tosh's and Livingston's harmonies to the back of the mix, and, most notably, adding rock-style guitar solo overdubs to many of the tracks. (For the guitar parts, Blackwell tapped Alabama-born southern rock legend Wayne Perkins, who at first struggled to understand both Marley's accent and reggae's unusual one-drop rhythm; once he acclimated himself to the strange new Jamaican sounds, Perkins laid down soaring guitar solos that utterly transformed songs like "Stir It Up" and "Concrete Jungle.")

Blackwell's production work lightened the heavy Jamaican vibe of the original mixes, making the music sound less foreign—more accessible—to international audiences. Then he put more care into marketing the album than any Jamaican record had ever received before. Catch A Fire was originally sold in a special cardboard sleeve designed to open like a Zippo lighter. (Then as now, the rebellious imagery of marijuana culture played a key role in selling reggae.) Blackwell also chose to market Bob Marley as the unique star of the group, beginning the process that would lead, within two years, to The Wailers becoming Bob Marley & The Wailers while both Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer quit the group to launch their own solo careers.

Catch A Fire thus embodied both the best and worst about the increasingly globalized record business. The changes Blackwell made to the music made The Wailers accessible to millions of new fans, helping reggae spread far beyond its Jamaican roots. But in doing so, it also did change the music, making it perhaps just a bit less distinctive and organic than it had been. That was the cost of international success.

Considering the careful approach used to put together everything about the Catch A Fire album, it was no accident that the record kicked off with "Concrete Jungle." Marley and Blackwell chose the track to serve as the world's introduction to reggae music, and it served the purpose brilliantly.

Unusual for a reggae song, "Concrete Jungle" features a long introduction in which the various pieces of the band slowly kick in, one by one, dramatically building up toward the launch of the classic reggae one-drop rhythm more than 30 seconds into the track. In Marley's original version, that buildup featured all the elements of the classic Jamaican sound—first an understated acoustic guitar, then a rich organ backdrop, followed by a thumping drumbeat and a classic skanking rhythm guitar, then finally a thunderous bassline and harmonious vocals from all three Wailers. In Blackwell's remixed take, the most Jamaican elements—the funky organ solo and the upstroking rhythm guitar—drop out, leaving only a sparse drumbeat to underpin Perkins's overdubbed electric guitar solo. The result: the listener can get 30 seconds into the song before even realizing he's listening to reggae. This was an effective move in musical terms; the sudden launch of the heavy one-drop rhythm, when it finally arrives in conjunction with the skanking guitars, sounds like a sudden revelation. At the same time, the decision to slow-play the reggae beat at the outset of Catch A Fire made sense as a marketing move, giving rock fans a chance to be drawn in by the familiar sounds of wah-wahing electric guitar before hitting them with the unfamiliar sounds of thumping bass and drums drawn straight from Jamaica's ghettos.

The original Jamaican and remixed Blackwell versions of "Concrete Jungle" are both, in their own way, brilliant songs. (It's well worth checking out the 2001 deluxe special-edition reprint of Catch A Fire just for the chance to hear both versions, side by side.) But it's also worth pointing out that, until 2001, there was only one version of the song available to the public; the success of Blackwell's international reggae sound meant that the rawer sounding original Jamaican take on "Concrete Jungle" vanished into oblivion for some 30 years. In a sense, the immensely successful sonic recipe that made Bob Marley into a global icon also killed off the organic sound that had already made him so popular at home; as Marley continued to enjoy international success through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the most popular musical styles back home in Jamaica continued to evolve farther and farther away from his own.
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