Happy 35th Anniversary to Bob Marley & the Wailers final studio LP Uprising, originally released June 10, 1980.
If youre a fan of reggae music, no matter how casual or passionate your support of the genre may be, chances are better than good that you own Bob Marley & the Wailers Legend. In fact, more broadly speaking, most fans of pop music likely have shelf space reserved for this greatest of greatest hits compilations, alphabetically positioned right between their Madonna and Bruno Mars records. Originally released in 1984, Legend is the biggest selling reggae album of all time, still routinely shifts hundreds of thousands of units worldwide each year, and has generated global sales in excess of 25 million units to date. Astounding figures, though Legends ubiquity should surprise no one in his or her right mind, considering the undeniable brilliance of the music contained therein.
Legend, however, has never been part of my record collection. Much of it has to do with my stubbornif not borderline snobbishaversion to the very notion of best-of or greatest hits collections. The whole premise of a record company determining what constitutes an artists top material and what does not, as typically informed by more commercial measures of success (i.e., sales), has always struck me as somewhat absurd. I suppose I just prefer to curate my own greatest hits of a given artist, based on more thorough exploration and personal interpretation of their full repertoire, from original studio albums to live recordings to B-sides and beyond. And for no other artist has this proven more true than Bob Marley & the Wailers.
I know that I must have heard and appreciated Bob Marleys songs from time to time throughout my younger childhood, but it wasnt until my early teenage years that I became a devout follower. In fact, I recall the exact, transformative day that the light switched on for me, though I wish the circumstances surrounding my revelation would have never come to pass. Roughly twenty-five years ago, when I was just beginning junior high, a close friend of my older sister was tragically killed in a car accident while riding home from school one day. A few days later, an inspired memorial service was held in his honor in our K-12 schools gymnasium, and one of the songs played in tribute during the ceremony was Bob Marley & the Wailers Waiting in Vain. I remember being floored by the songs melancholic poignancy, fitting for the somber context of that afternoon. For weeks afterwards, the song reverberated in my mind, stoking the empathy I possessed for my sisters grief and evoking the best memories I had of the young man whose life had been incredulously, irrevocably stolen from him.
Soon thereafter, I discovered that Waiting in Vain was originally released on the 1977 album Exodus, and I promptly added the record to my fledgling music library. A collection of supremely sublime compositions that can very well be considered a best of in its own right, five of Exodus songs are included on the Legend compilation, the highest tally from any of Bob Marley & the Wailers studio albums. But beyond the more recognizable fare like Jamming and Three Little Birds, my ears gravitated toward the less universally embraced tracks like album opener Natural Mystic, So Much Things to Say and Turn Your Lights Down Low. The entire album is dynamite, and upon repeated listens, I was intrigued to learn more about the albums that preceded and followed this grand, seemingly career-defining achievement. Though I was admittedly cynical that any of the groups other works could even remotely compete with the crystalline beauty of Exodus.
Fortunately, my skepticism proved unfounded. In the year or so after my Exodus revelation, I proceeded to buy Bob Marley & the Wailers albums in succession, a new one every few weeks. In particular, I focused on the groups unprecedentedly prolific period between 1973 to 1980, during which they released eight studio LPs and two live recordings. All are bona fide classics in my opinion, and together, represent one of the most fruitful threads of consecutive recorded output the music world has ever witnessed. And while tens of millions of people primarily honor Bob Marleys musical legacy nowadays through Legend, and understandably so, I prefer to connect with him by spinning Catch a Fire, Burnin, Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Kaya, Survival, and Uprising on the regular.
Most of these albums will invariably find their way into the Long Play Love column at some point, surely. But today, my affection and respect are focused squarely on the latter. Uprising is Bob Marley & the Wailers twelfth and final studio album, recorded and released just eleven months before Marleys premature death from cancer at the young age of 36. Just one year younger than your author is now, to place things in perspective.
As the story goes, Marley actually envisioned Uprising as the thematic centerpiece of a three-album trilogy, bookended by 1978s underrated Survival and Confrontation, which would eventually surface posthumously in 1983 as a compilation of previously unreleased material. Arguably the most overtly religious album of the groups canon, most of Uprisings songs are unequivocally pious hymns that venerate the glory of Jah and the sanctity of Rastafari (Forever Loving Jah, Work), while exploring the inherent conflicts between the spiritual and secular worlds.
More than any of the bands previous works, Uprising is an album propelled by heightened introspection and duality. Sanguine songs of hope that celebrate life and love (Could You Be Loved, Coming in From the Cold, Zion Train) are juxtaposed with apocalyptic songs of doom and gloom that fatalistically lament the worlds wicked ways (Real Situation, We and Dem). But whether the tone is jubilant or foreboding, the underlying message seems to be one of perseverance in the face of adversity. The albums front cover artwork exemplifies the sentiment through its depiction of a physically stout, mythological-like Marley rising defiantly from the earth beneath the ascending sun. When interpreted in light of the physical deterioration that was enveloping him at the time of the albums release, the visual also appears to represent the enduring cultural vitality of Marleys spirit and voice.
Two tracks disrupt the more universally applicable messages of the album by introducing more plaintively personal and anecdotal subject matter to the affair. Bad Card alludes to the rift between Marley and his longtime manager Don Taylor, who allegedly pulled a bad card by cheating his client out of a substantial portion of his earnings and threatening to defame Marleys reputation upon being confronted about his embezzling ways. The anti-romantic Pimpers Paradise is a cautionary tale of a fashion models unraveling at the hands of drug abuse and her own narcissism, which may (or may not) be a veiled reference to Marleys relationship with Cindy Breakspeare, as some have speculated.
Uprising concludes with the albums most conspicuous sonic departure in the form of the stripped-down acoustic folk of Redemption Song. Echoing Bob Dylans masterful songcraft, Redemption Song is one of Marleys most stirring compositions across his plentiful repertoire and one of the most eloquent protest anthems ever written. The beginning of the songs second verse (Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds!) draws inspiration from a 1937 speech by the Jamaican-born Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, whose philosophies of black nationalism and empowerment provided the ideological foundation for the Rastafari movement. And as if Marley had already been resigned to the inevitable fate that awaited him at the time, the tunes chorus (Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom? / Because all I ever have / Redemption songs) serves as a prescient clarion call for the poetic prophets brothers and sisters to faithfully carry on his messages in his absence.
More often than not, when artists churn out album after album after album with fevered frequency, the quality of their songs tends to eventually suffer and their listeners grow increasingly indifferent. Indeed, rare are the acts whose twelfth album sounds just as vital and fresh as their initial handful of offerings. Uprising proves the triumphant, soul-affirming exception to this rule and offers testament to the creative stamina of Bob Marley and his band. Arguably to a greater extent than any other musician in history, Bob Marley has successfully neutralized geographic, ethnic, spiritual, and socio-economic barriers to unite the worlds population through song, and Uprising will forever serve as a magnificent manifestation of his unparalleled legacy.
My Favorite Song: Redemption Song
Could You Be Loved (1980)
Pimpers Paradise (Studio Session, 1980)
Interview on Gil Nobles Like It Is (1980)
BUY Bob Marley & the Wailers Uprising