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 and 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 and 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 bassist 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.
So, 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' 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]" 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 catch a bus or build 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 there 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." (Source)
West Kingston, Jamaica was a long way from Muscle Shoals, Alabama—musically, linguistically, and 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.
Poor Wayne Perkins didn't even get a credit on the album sleeve, but Bob Marley was well on his way to becoming a global icon.
"Concrete Jungle" is both a metaphor and a very real place.
As a metaphor, "Concrete Jungle" evokes the worst aspects of modern urban life. Cold structures of concrete and steel, with manmade towers casting the earth into shadow by blocking out the sun. Bleak and unnatural landscapes, with the earth paved over and living greenery nowhere to be found. People behaving like animals, competing with each other over scraps while struggling just to survive.
And as a non-metaphor, as a real place, Jamaica's Concrete Jungle might be described in more or less the same terms.
Concrete Jungle is a housing project. Its official name is Arnett Gardens, but everyone who lives there—and everyone who's afraid to go there—knows it better by its more evocative nickname, which is often shortened simply to "Jungle." Concrete Jungle was constructed in the early 1970s, a modern government housing scheme built on the edges of West Kingston's Trench Town shantytown ghetto. It's stood at the center of many of the worst problems plaguing Jamaican society ever since.
Jamaica is a democracy, with two strong parties—the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (yes, the name makes no sense) and the liberal People's National Party—vigorously competing for votes in regular parliamentary elections.
But Jamaica's democracy took a tragic wrong turn in the 1970s, when both parties began patronizing armed gangsters to terrorize each other's constituents. This politicized "tribal war" has been raging on and off ever since, transforming Kingston into one of the world's most dangerous and violent cities while making Jamaica's democracy into something of a farce.
Jamaica's political violence has a distinct geography and Concrete Jungle is one of the most important locations on its map. Jungle is one of Kingston's most notorious "garrisons," government-built housing projects filled with partisan supporters of one party or the other, and used—as the name "garrison" implies—as fortified bases for the gangsters raging tribal war.
The first garrison was Tivoli Gardens, built by the JLP in the late 1960s. A few years later, the PNP gained control of the government and built its own garrison to rival Tivoli at Concrete Jungle. JLP-affiliated bad men from Tivoli have been battling PNP-supported Junglists ever since.
The situation may be tolerable for the "top ranking" gangsters and the cynical politicians who think they control them, but it's brutal for the "sufferers"—ordinary poor people—who are forced to live in the garrisons or in the violent no man's land in between them. Mindless, endless violence has now been terrorizing Kingston's civilian population for decades. Even Bob Marley, the country's greatest modern-day hero, nearly lost his life to the tribal war when armed gunmen believed to be JLP-affiliated Tivolites broke into his uptown compound and unleashed a hail of bullets in retaliation to Marley agreeing to perform at a PNP-sponsored concert in 1976.
So, Marley wasn't joking around in his lyrics. In Concrete Jungle, the living really is hardest.
Metaphors of lightness and darkness have a rich heritage in Western culture. The Bible's full of that imagery, starting right on the first page of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
So, the contrast between lightness and darkness became intertwined with the contrast of good and evil. And no contrast is more natural than the one between lightness and darkness, so the lightness versus darkness pairing has a rich history in poetry and literature, too.
Marley trods similar ground in "Concrete Jungle."
No sun will shine in my day today
The high yellow moon won't come out to play
Darkness has covered my light
And has changed my day into night
Where is the love to be found?
Sweet life must be somewhere to be found
Instead of Concrete Jungle
By adopting this familiar metaphor, Marley transforms what could have been a narrowly local story—about the particular miseries of life in the Jamaican housing project known to its residents as "Concrete Jungle"—into something timeless and universal. The song can be just as meaningful to someone in England or America as it is to the sufferers. Though, yes, it's worth looking into the track's history and backbone, too.
And by equating light with both love and life—in the verse's closing lines—Marley invokes a Western ideological tradition as venerable as the Bible itself.