Tag Archives: Island Records

Rare dub album part of crucial Burning Spear reissue

R-1350951-1211931142_jpegIn the 70s Bob Marley & The wailers took the world by storm and he rose to global stardom. Bob Marley became synonymous with reggae and no other reggae singer or reggae band have even come close to what he has achieved.

But back in the days when Bob Marley was on his way to conquering the charts, labels were keen to find other acts to follow in his footsteps. Several tried, but no one managed. One who tried was Burning Spear, who – just like Bob Marley – was signed to Island Records.

Burning Spear started his career in the 60s; just as Bob Marley did. But his music was darker and rootsier from the beginning and Coxsone Dodd – who was the first to record Burning Spear – was at first reluctant to release the recordings due to its controversial messages and dread approach. Somehow, this draw the attention of Island Records who thought his music was for the masses.

Well, Burning Spear has recorded plenty of classics, but I think it’s fair to say that most of his albums and singles are far from commercial. His excellent 70s output for Island is slow, dark and dense and often lack hooks. His messages were regarded as revolutionary and Burning Spear often calls for repatriation and black consciousness set to a backdrop of smattering percussion, devastating bass lines and throbbing drums.

But Island believed in him and obviously still does since they only last year reissued his album Social Living, or Marcus Children as it was titled in Jamaica. This superb album is now expanded with another nine tracks when adding its rare dub counterpart Living Dub. And it’s the original version from 1978 and not the mixes from the early 90s that were put out on Heartbeat.

Social Living was Burning Spear’s second self-produced album and followed two albums each with Coxsone Dodd and Jack Ruby. It’s a coherent and accomplished set – and even more so with the added dubs – and presents Burning Spear at the peak of his career. It’s bold and edgy with plenty of spiritualty and references to the messages proclaimed by Marcus Garvey.


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Virgin pushed the reggae front line forward

Virgin Records started releasing reggae albums in 1974, and the label’s initial release was B.B. Seaton’s Dancing Shoes, but it wasn’t until 1977 that Virgin decided to start a subsidiary – Front Line – dedicated to put out only reggae music.

So, in early 1978 Sex Pistols’ front man John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, went to Kingston to interview and sign the hottest new acts. Richard Branson – founder and owner of Virgin Records – had booked an entire floor at a Sheraton hotel, and artists and groups like Big Youth, U Roy, I Roy, Culture, The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds and Johnny Clarke were signed.

Over the next 18 months or so, the Front Line imprint put out 46 albums and 26 singles absorbing roots, dub, lovers, instrumentals and dub poetry. It was reggae of the highest calibre and among the very best Jamaica had to offer. But the label’s ambitious journey soon and suddenly came to an end, and in 1979 Front Line was dropped by Virgin.

Now – 35 years after Front Line’s demise – a new celebratory 5CD collection demonstrates what made Front Line so special and why the label is regarded as one key proponents in making reggae available to a broad audience. And Front Line managed – just as Island Records – to popularize reggae on the global arena in the late 70s, just when Bob Marley became a superstar.



Virgin Front Line – Sounds of Reality features no less than 92 tracks, of which several are long forgotten and previously unreleased gems that make their debut on CD and digital download. Each of the first three discs comprise tracks from original Front Line albums, while disc four highlights a dozen of the discomixes released by the company between 1977 and 1979. The fifth CD brings together some of the long lost gems that until now were left all but forgotten in the vaults.

The package also includes a 52 page booklet, jam-packed with images, facts and recollections, with contributions from John Lydon, Front Line’s label manager Jumbo Vanrenen and designer Brian Cooke, ensuring the most authorative history of the label ever told.

When Virgin started the subsidiary they wanted to capitalize on Bob Marley’s stardom and Island Records’ success with him along with several other key reggae artists, including Burning Spear.

But Front Line’s albums were more dread, more eerie, compared to what Island put out. Just look at each label’s logo. Island had a palm tree. Front Line had a clenched black fist, gripping a length of barbed wire with blood dripping down the wrist. Front Line was Island’s unruly, anti-establishment cousin from the tough streets of Kingston.

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A questionable view on reggae history

Island Records, the legendary label founded by Chris Blackwell in Jamaica in 1959, has put out a huge box set titled Sound System: The Story of Jamaican Music, as a celebration of Jamaica’s 50 years of independence. It follows the 1993 release Tougher Than Tough – The Story of Jamaican Music.

Sound System: The Story of Jamaican Music comes in a massive cardboard package and collects almost 130 tracks on eight discs along with a 100 page hardcover coffee table book by respected writer Chris Salewicz and photographer Adrian Boot.

This is an ambitious and impressive project, and for the reggae novice it’s a bona fide treasure chest of widely known, as well as lesser known, tracks from the 60’s up until the early 2000’s covering ska, roots, rocksteady, dancehall, dub, instrumentals and ragga. The emphasis is however on the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Smash hits such as Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come or Ken Boothe’s Everything I Own rub shoulders with Buju Banton’s Bogle Dance and Val Bennett’s exquisite rocksteady gem The Russians Are Coming.

The tracks are randomly put together and those longing for a set of Bob Marley tunes must look somewhere else. Because the only Marley represented musically is Damian with his Welcome to Jamrock. And his contribution is actually also the only tune released in the 2000’s. If I didn’t know better I would have thought reggae disappeared after the 90’s.

But nothing could be more wrong. Reggae is perhaps more alive than ever before with producers, artists and labels making themselves heard from the four corners of the globe.

And it’s a shame that Island decided to focus on the so-called golden years of reggae and didn’t bother to recognize the impact reggae has had over the last ten years.

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The story behind Island Records unfolded

Does the name Chris Blackwell ring a bell? No? Don’t sweat it, he is not that well-known to most people I guess.

Anyway, he’s the founder of Island Records, one of the most influential labels of the twentieth century.

This pioneering company acquired by Polygram in 1989 and today part of Universal Music Group  introduced the world to acts such as U2, Tom Waits, Eric B & Rakim, Roxy Music and the late Amy Winehouse. But also a large number of successful reggae singers and bands. Bob Marley being one of those.

The story behind Island and its artists has now been described in the beautifully illustrated celebration The Story of Island Records – Keep on Running, edited by Suzette Newman and Chris Salewicz, and released in conjunction with the label’s fiftieth anniversary.

The story of Chris Blackwell and his label is a fascinating and impressive one. A true entrepreneur with a determination to present new music to the world.

Chris Blackwell’s biggest accomplishment is probably bringing Jamaican music, and especially reggae, to the mainstream. He did so initially with his own production Boogie in My Bones, an early Jamaican shuffle/RnB tune by Laurel Aitken put out in 1958.

The first worldwide hit on Island was Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop released in 1964. And from there on the success stories just pile up, especially with UK rock music and reggae.

In the 70’s and 80’s Island put out several of the most acclaimed reggae albums to date, including Catch a Fire by The Wailers, Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear, Funky Kingston from Toots & The Maytals and Black Uhuru’s Sensimilla as well as the soundtrack to the cult movie The Harder They Come.

Island also put out a number of wicked albums from UK reggae bands such as Aswad and Steel Pulse. The label was also responsible for a bunch of forward-thinking releases, for example Ijahman’s Haile I Hymn and The Upsetters’ Superape.

Chris Blackwell was a clever marketer and knew how to promote reggae to the general public, and the white European middle class.

In the 70’s Island was challenged in the roots reggae market, especially by another UK independent label – Virgin. Richard Branson and his colleagues managed to sign artists such as The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Culture, Johnny Clarke and U Roy.

Viewed in retrospective it seems that Island probably reached a broader audience, while Virgin put out albums that were more for hardcore enthusiasts.

The Story of Island Records gives a broad picture of the label and includes essays by ten contemporary music critics, including well-known reggae authors and writers such as the aforementioned Chris Salewicz, who has written several books including the authorized biography of Bob Marley titled Songs of Freedom, Lloyd Bradley, responsible for the comprehensive Bass Culture, Vivien Goldman, who has written two books on Bob Marley and David Katz, who has written People Funny Boy and Solid Foundation.

Included in this chronological and comprehensive retrospective is also rare photographs, artist portraits and album cover art. It’s essential to every music fan or anyone interested in design.

Chris Blackwell once said “If you felt the artwork was intriguing then there must be something going on in the inside”. This is true not only to the albums released by Island, but also to this great book.


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Därför lyckades Bob Marley

Bob Marley är utan tvekan världens mest kända reggaeartist. Reggaemani har läst ett gäng Bob Marley-biografier och listat ut några av ingredienserna i hans framgångsrecept.

Desmond Dekker, Millie Small, Jimmy Cliff, Shabba Ranks, Shaggy och Sean Paul är alla reggaeartister med världshits i bagaget. Men trots stora framgångar är de inte i närheten av Bob Marleys stjärnstatus på den internationella musikscenen.

Att Bob Marley blev en stor stjärna berodde på ett antal viktiga faktorer. Han var perfektionist, en fantastisk låtskrivare som omgav sig med duktiga musiker och hade dessutom oslagbar karisma.

Men det var ett strategiskt avgörande beslut i London 1972 som förändrade Bob Marleys framtid dramatiskt. The Wailers hade gett ut singeln Reggae On Broadway på skivbolaget CBS och var i London för att marknadsföra den.

Men den sålde inte.

Frustrerad bestämde sig Bob Marley för att knacka på hos Chris Blackwell, ägare av skivbolaget Island (framgångsrikt med soundtracket till reggaerullen The Harder They Come). Marknadsföringsgeniet Chris Blackwell, delvis uppvuxen på Jamaica, förstod reggaemusik men även vad den vita rockpubliken ville ha. Han fattade tycke för Bob Marley, såg möjligheterna och signade bandet.

De två första The Wailers-plattorna på Island – Catch A Fire och Burnin’ – blev hyggliga framgångar, men det var när Peter Tosh och Bunny Wailer lämnade gruppen som det tog fart på allvar för Bob Marley.

Bredare sound
Han tog in de gospelinfluerade sångerskorna i the I-Threes och arbetade med gitarrister med tydliga rock- och bluesinfluenser. Amerikanerna Al Anderson, Don Kinsey och Junior Marvin blev en stor del i Bob Marleys nya och lite rockigare sound.

Nu ensam frontman började Bob Marley att turnera som en galning, varje platta följdes av långa turnéer i bland annat Europa och USA.

Budskap till media
Vid varje skivsläpp tog Bob Marley sig tid till att prata med media, och hade tydliga budskap om jämlikhet och mänskliga rättigheter. Han var en motpol till diskons dekadens, och medierna tog honom varmt till sina hjärtan. Detta hade en klar effekt på reggaemusikens ökade popularitet.

Även om Bob Marley hade koll på det mesta, fick han draghjälp av några slumpmässiga händelser. Eric Claptons rosade cover på I Shot the Sheriff kom lägligt sommaren 1974, och skakade av sig strålglans på Bob Marley som just skulle göra solokarriär. Även mordförsöket i december 1976 påverkade såväl image som låtskrivande i en positiv riktning.

Det är omöjligt att säga om reggaen någonsin kommer att föda en stjärna som Bob Marley igen. Garnett Silk nämndes på 90-talet som en efterträdare, men gick hastigt bort i en olycka 1994. I dag kan jag inte se någon tydlig tronarvinge, utan förutspår att dagens största stjärnor – som Sean Paul, Sizzla och Buju Banton – inte har en chans att slå igenom Bob Marley-style. De saknar helt enkelt hans kombination av karisma, viktiga budskap och förståelse för hur medierna skapar stjärnor.

Vill du läsa mer om Bob Marley rekommenderar jag biografierna Bob Marley – Conquering Lion of Reggae av Stephen Davis och Catch A Fire: The Life Of Bob Marley av Timothy White.


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