Catch A Fire
introduced much of the world to reggae music, helping to define the sound of reggae for thousands of non-Jamaican listeners. And while the record's final production varied in some important ways from the dominant Jamaican styles of the time in order to make the music more accessible to foreign audiences, songs like "Concrete Jungle" still retained the core elements of classic reggae music.
The most important of these elements is the beat, known to reggae fans as "the one drop." Reggae, like almost all forms of pop music, is played in 4/4 time, with four beats in each bar. But while rock n' roll, R&B, and most other popular styles emphasize the backbeat (the second and fourth beats in each bar), the one drop turns the rhythm completely inside out by emphasizing the third beat with a booming drum shot played on both the snare and bass drum simultaneously. The first beat, meanwhile, is left completely empty, while reggae's characteristic skanking rhythm guitar chop falls on two and four. The one drop gives reggae its distinctive rhythmic structure, while still leaving plenty of space open in the sonic mix for the bass and vocals to develop the melody.
A semi-common complaint among rock fans unaccustomed to Jamaican music is that "all reggae songs sound the same." But that's only because their experience in listening to rock n' roll has trained them to focus their attention only on the guitar parts, and also on the backbeat hitting on two and four in each bar. In reggae, the guitar chords on two and four are not, as in rock, the key to the music, but are instead the simplest and most repetitive part of the rhythm—the accented off-beat upstroke. They really do all sound more or less the same. But in reggae, the guitars only help to provide a song's skeleton; the meat on those bones can be found elsewhere… mainly with the bass guitar.
The bassie is, along with the drummer, the most important player in any reggae band, because in reggae the bassline is
the tune. (Jamaicans tend to identify a song by its "riddim"—the distinctive combination of bassline and drum pattern that defines its tune—even more than by its vocal melody. Therefore, to Jamaican ears, Sizzla's "I'm Not Sure"
and Coco T's "Hurry Up & Come"
would both be considered versions of Marley's "No Woman No Cry"
riddim; listen carefully, just to the bass
, and you'll hear it.) If you're a rock fan who thinks all reggae sounds the same, you might just need to ignore the skanking guitars for a second and focus your ears on the bassline. In reggae, the bass is the melody.
"Concrete Jungle" features a typically fat bassline, laid down by The Wailers' talented Aston "Family Man" Barrett, which carries the tune from the song's slow buildup, through Marley's emotive singing, and under Wayne Perkins's overdubbed guitar solos to the outro. Barrett's bassline provides "Concrete Jungle" with its heart and soul; when Lauryn Hill used "Concrete Jungle" as the basis for her own song "Forgive Them Father"
in 1998, it was the bassline—and only
the bassline—that she borrowed.
Beyond the one drop drumming and heavy bassline that provide "Concrete Jungle" with its foundational rhythm, the song also features other elements that epitomized the classic reggae style. Jamaica has a long tradition of favoring vocal harmony trios, and here The Wailers incorporate the style to good effect, with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer serving as much more than mere backup singers to Marley's lead. Reggae music also often makes heavy use of a bubbling Hammond organ; the organ part is present in "Concrete Jungle" (and especially noticeable right in the beginning), although Chris Blackwell's production moved it far into the background of the mix; in the original Jamaican version of the song, the organ plays a much more prominent role.
The one drop, a wicked bassline, rich vocal harmonies, skanking rhythm guitars, and a bubbling Hammond organ: this was the recipe that had made The Wailers chart-topping reggae stars at home in Jamaica. To this traditional reggae foundation, Chris Blackwell added the one final ingredient that made "Concrete Jungle" so irresistible to international audiences: a soaring rock-and-roll electric guitar solo, laid down by the Alabama-born southern rocker Wayne Perkins, whose band was also signed to Island Records and who happened to be in the studio the day Marley and Blackwell were working on finalizing the track.
At first, Perkins had a hard time catching the beat. "I had never heard of [reggae], like the rest of the world," Perkins later recalled, "and I couldn't find the first beat of this weird music to save my life… I didn't know if I should build a bus or a bomb shelter! Anyway, the first thing they played was 'Concrete Jungle' and on about the third take I hit 'The Solo.' Bob came running out trying to cram this giant spliff in my mouth and I didn't understand one thing he'd said. I just knew he was pretty happy."
West Kingston, Jamaica was a long way from Muscle Shoals, Alabama—musically, linguistically, culturally—but Perkins and Marley somehow found common ground in "Concrete Jungle." The rest, as they say, is history: "Concrete Jungle," four parts Trench Town reggae and one part southern rock, carried Jamaican music to new audiences in Europe and America, and eventually in Africa and Asia as well. Bob Marley was well on his way to becoming a global icon. (And poor Wayne Perkins didn't even get a credit on the album sleeve.)