Bob Marley and the Wailers- ‘Small Ax’-The Complete Upsetter Singles 1970-1972

by | May 11, 2014 | 0 comments


It’s a slow burn this evening in the rock room, fresh from a vacation in Jamaica, reggae is the order of the night. Spinning currently is the collection Bob Marley and the Wailers- The Complete Upsetter Singles 1970-1972, which compiles through 36 tracks all of the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry era Wailers tracks in a tight little set. These tracks will be familiar to the informed Wailers fan from various collections, but this particular set is nice because it puts them all neatly in one stash box. Many versions are in mono as some of the gear Perry and Wailers were working with was still pretty primitive even at the date of these sessions.

The music highlights the original Wailers line up featuring, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and Marley in addition to backing by the ‘Upsetters’ band, spotlighting eventual Wailers veterans the Barrett brothers on drums and bass respectively. Glen Adams and Alva ‘Reggie’ Lewis add keyboards and addition guitar to the proceedings. What started out as a rocky and almost bloody relationship between Perry and the Wailers became a definitive and revelatory conglomerate of inspiration and sounds. Perry and Marley would continue their ascent into the hierarchy of reggae and dub music throughout the 1970’s, both through their respective relentless hard work and unparallelled creativity.

‘My Cup’ begins on a jumpy ska groove, the first recording and single of the collaboration between Perry the producer and the Wailers as the band. Groovy falsetto vocals mingle with Marley’s heavily echoed voice. The detailed backing by the group is flirtatious and ticklish in its attack, with Aston Barrett’s bass scurrying across the fretboard like a spider to shadow. This Summer of 1970 cut documenting the formative stages of the Perry and the Wailers relationship is the perfect place to lift off from.

For the second single ‘Man To Man’, a Perry/Marley collaboration, the Wailers sound has congealed into a revolutionary blend of spirituality, commentary, melody and soul. Marley would later re-cut this track and also rename it, “Who the Cap Fit’ on the Rastaman Vibration LP. This version is definitive, beautiful and a product of a perfect moment of collaboration. The three part harmonies of the Wailers are at their finest here, the studio is blue with ganja smoke, and the instrumental balance is perfect.

The Wailers big single of the moment in September of 1970 was ‘Duppy Conqueror’ the next track on the collection. The uptempo ‘one drop’ groove is accentuated by clip clopping percussion and Tosh’s empty cave scratch rhythm. Short keyboard interjections color the embryonic version of a song later re-cut for 1973’s Burnin’ LP. Similar to the aforementioned ‘Man To Man’, its hard to replicate magic twice and this version contains a special ambiance and vibe that makes it essential listening.

‘Mr Brown; follows and is a hearty spoonful of studio madness and ingenuity. The track sounds like a haunted ‘Louie, Louie’ bellowing out call and response graveyard vocals using the previous ‘Duppy Conqueror” ‘riddim’ with additional overdubs performed by a creepy slithering Tosh on heavy keyboard. Marley’s rap flows as water through the Glen Adams penned lyrics, dripping over the morphed Duppy groove like sparkling ocean currents. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s vital contributions and forward thinking musical experimentation is wonderfully demonstrated on this track. His manipulation of the mix as well his ear for the perfect ambiance of a record while using a primitive four track machine is astonishing. This is what ‘dub’ is all about and this track illustrates it achieving amazing and creative success.

 The fat fruity bass of ‘Kaya’ thumps heartily, while the reggae rhythm shakes like a street corner band, the groove revealing itself based on the direction of the breeze. Breathy, irie vocals, hopeful and thankful for the ‘Kaya’ on a rainy day, illicit the stony pull of the herb. Marley’s vocals the sweetest green, while Peter and Bunny support with hopeful tribal additions. Its my opinion that while the 1978 Island Records remake of this song on the LP Kaya is sonically superior, this version puts you under the rusted roof of a roadside shanty bar, clouds passing by, rain in a free fall, followed by steamy sun, huge spliffs fill the tropical air with a fog, while this song plays on a busted up transistor radio balanced on a concrete windowsill. Yeah.

Possibly the finest early recorded moment for Perry while working with Marley is the track, ‘Small Ax’. Recorded with a full horn section and using the house band from Dynamic Studio’s, ‘Small Ax’ is a true collaboration between Perry and Marley despite the numerous errors during previous publishing of the tune’s songwriting credits. This type of confusion was common for the era in Jamaica. Marley has never sounded more expressive, hopeful and youthful vocally.The chorus hides a warning shot to the big recording company’s in Jamaica, sung so sweetly you would never notice the threat. Perfect.

The popularity of ‘Small Ax’ caused Perry to release an alternate version, now days known as a ‘remix’ of ‘Small Ax’, titled ‘More Ax’. The alternate track contains a fantastic shimmering soul Stax groove, wah-wah’d guitar and an alternative vocal performance by the Wailers.

‘All In One is Perry’s released medley of nine Wailers mixed into one performance, interesting, unique and another example of Perry’s new lines of production thought. The mashed songs are divided into parts I and II and extend past 4 minutes. A conglomerate of everything you would need to know about the Wailers on two sides of a 7!

‘Hailing from 1971 come the tracks ‘Dreamland’, ‘Lovelight’ and ‘Downpressor’. Here we get a Bunny Wailer spotlight and signature song, an obscure Marley love song, and a Tosh explosion against Babylon. ‘Lovelight’ highlights Bunny’s beautiful voice and contains perky bubble gum backing by the Wailer’s/Upsetters, in the sense that the song pops and percolates in glistening colors, while the vocals sit in smooth contrast with a honey sweet restraint.

 ‘Lovelight’ is quintessential Marley, containing a roots rock groove that resonates deeply ,while still retaining his distinctive musical fingerprint. A sexy off kilter sway, the song dances in silhouette against sunset before settling into a sweltering sweaty groove.

Tosh’s dramatic ‘Downpressor’ is a shady echoed mantra sounding futuristic in its representation. One of the best songs of the collection, the keyboards, pianos and scratchy guitar chirp the aggressive melodic details like birds communicating across forest treetops. The harmony filled vocal lines inflate with the applied tape echo and wobbly chorus expanding the sonic palette of the track.

The classic Wailers reading of ‘Keep On Moving’ illustrates the groups love of American vocal bands, with a true ‘R and B’ and Reggae mash up. Another amazing display of the Wailers underrepresented vocal prowess.

Based on the Richie Havens 1969 track, ‘Indian Rope Man’, ‘African Herbsman’ pops along buoyantly its groove a disparity to the content of the words. Haven’s lyrics are representative of Marley’s own expressions of oppression and freedom being generated in his own consciousnesses. Soon Marley’s messages will reach full maturity, his melodic medium becoming prolific.

‘Run For Cover’ featured on this collection as a bonus track is a single from the Escort label in 1970, the liner notes reference this being an alternative take. The songs addictive rhythm track so popular that it has been used as a bed for many other performances and ‘remix’ opportunities. This practice is also referred to as a track being ‘versioned’ through manipulation of existing tracks or additional overdubs.

Marley would record ‘Sun Is Shining’  for a 1970 single the track featured here, then later for 1978’s LP Kaya. In this version, Family Man’s bass rests in the pit of the listeners gut, while the minimalist backing track is  provided by the group the ‘Soul Syndicate’. Peter Tosh plays a whining flute like melodica line throughout the song, playing Marley’s musical foil. The song’s expansive yearning chorus even more expressive in this early version, if that is possible.

Released as a 1970 ‘B’ side, ‘Stand Alone’ is another strong and somewhat obscure track, representative of Marley’s prolific output during this era.

Another moody and rhythmically diverse Tosh track, ‘No Sympathy’ follows, a song that was supposed to be a single in England but never passed the test pressing stage. The song features again, Tosh’s big throat using his melodic sensibilities to make sense of his role in the world of Babylon. The sneaky organ and Tosh’s rhythm guitar taffy pull against the straight forward rock beat of Carlie Barrett making the song even more strange melodically. The vocals layered and stacked similarly to the style of the ‘Band’ toward the songs fadeout, making its conclusion quite disorienting.

On the last song Tosh again takes lead vocals for the tune, “Brand New Second Hand’, a straight forward ‘one drop’ rhythm with Marley and Bunny offering smile inducing ‘sha-la-la’ backing vocals. Tosh’s matter of fact vocal expression is a pleasure as he tells the lady subject of the song how he feels about her posturing. Tight and crisp, arguably some of the best Reggae ever created is contained on this set.

The remainder of this collection gathers all of the ‘dub’ versions that would appear on the ‘B’ sides of these collected singles. For those not aware the ‘dub’ versions are instrumental tracks put on the flip side so dance hall DJ’s, producers, and musicians could manipulate the ‘riddim’s’ by increasing the bass, lowering treble, slowing down or speeding up, among other practices. Sometimes these ‘dubs’ were even given alternate titles or titles that tied them to the original song. Putting these ‘dubs’ with their respective singles is a fantastic plan for the release.
While the discography of Bob Marley and the Wailers prior to their major label signing with Island in 1972 can be confusing, this collection purchased either on numerous vinyl 7’s or on a two CD set is a nice way to enjoy the single releases in one spot. The sound quality varies between songs but as a whole the sonic s are more than acceptable. This anthology, covering the vital years of 1970-1972 captures the definitive historic moments when Reggae was developing into a world changing art form. This set is essential listening for the fan already familiar with the songs and who wants them together, or for the fan who wants to experience the original Wailers prior to fame ripping them apart. The exuberance and creativity exudes from the speakers in ‘one drop’ drums, shag carpet bass and the Wailers trademark three part harmonies.

Wailers Upsetter Singles


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