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The Wailer’s Burnin’: It Slithered

Elephant Man, Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Beanie Man: ignoring reggaeton those are the names of modern reggae -these are the Rastaman who follows in the footsteps of the Wailers thirty-five years after Eric Clapton introduced the Western World to dubbed out calypso via Jamaica.

Reggae isn’t Juju Music, it isn’t Raga, it crossed over. Reggae was to punk what r&b was to rock: an important component of the sound. Today, dubstep, the latest dance music from the UK is seeped in reggae production.

But before there was that there was this. The Wailers’ fourth and final album, Burnin’. The line up reads like legends field : Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley with Lee “Scratch” Perry producing.This is the Beatles of reggae, every single one would go on to great careers post-Wailers. The band came together singing acapella in Kingston before writing novelty calypso hits, ska and rockeady till becoming politicized and singing with Island records. The first release was Catch A Fire. The second, this one, is Burnin’. The year was 1973 and really reggae was ALL THAT WAS HAPPENING and even that wasn’t happening. Third World pot head cults reinvent rock as a howl of indignation before getting pre-empted into the mainstream. Been there done that.

Still and even if it was the only game in town when would an album like this not change the world, an album  that includes “Get Up, Stand Up,” “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Burnin’ And Lootin'”, “Small Axe” -all up against the war songs of revolution there to take over the island and feed their children: all songs as revolutionary as anything Guthrie or Lennon EVER WROTE. And all perfect, well, rock steady, three party harmonies and heavily dubbed drums that move to the waves, that seems to slip in the sound and ululate.

Burnin’ peeked at #151 in the US pop charts and I guess that it must have sound very foreign to Western ears. It would take a year for Clapton to release his cover version and what Clapton did was tone down not the beat but the guitar, it became an acoustic hymn to standing up for yourself (on his masterful 461 Ocean Boulevard).

Listening to the album today I go back to a few things. 1) On the Marley Songs Of Freedom compiliation, there is a ten minute demo Marley did for Johnny Nash of his songs played on acoustic guitar. “Small Axe” among them. The primacy of the songs here is complete. They needed nothing. 2) Over and above everything else, the Wailers were a GREAT harmony group with three chick background singers and three lead voices. 3) It is ALL ABOUT THE PRODUCTION. Perry’s work here is seminal -it is as important as you can get because the entire album moves on its stomach. It slithers.

As an act of rebellion, as an act of musical insurrection, Burnin’ set the pace for English punk. As music, as sound, it is a great set of songs.

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