Like many Americans, my first encounter with reggae came via Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff,” which was on his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard. Clapton deserves praise for bringing this music to a wider audience, and his version of the Bob Marley song was sufficiently interesting that it sent me in search of the original. It was only when I found it, on the Wailers album Burnin’, that I realized how relatively tepid Clapton’s version was.
The Wailers were founded in Kingston, Jamaica in 1963. They were still very much a band when Burnin’, their fourth album, was released by Island Records in 1973. While Marley wrote and sang lead vocals on most of the songs, there were contributions like “Hallelujah Time” and “Pass It On” from Bunny Livingston, a.k.a. Bunny Wailer, and “One Foundation” from Peter Tosh. Burnin’ was the last album that the three made together. The following year, Tosh and Livingston left the band, which then became Bob Marley & the Wailers.
Make no mistake about it, this is rebel music. That is apparent from the classic call to action that opens the album. “Get Up, Stand Up,” co-written by Marley and Tosh, is a direct statement of principles from the band. While Livingston’s songs tend to be more religious in nature, Marley was never one to mince words, and “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” and “Small Axe,” are further blows against the empire. Several of the songs on the album including “Duppy Conqueror,” “Small Axe,” “Put It On,” and “Pass It On,” are re-recordings of previously released Wailers songs.
Burnin’ is a mystical album. It was, at the time, unlike anything I’d ever heard. Those vocal harmonies that seemed to come from another world were all at once completely foreign to American sensibilities, and yet somehow utterly compelling. The music’s percolating rhythmic foundation, as provided by Earl Lindo, Carlton Barrett, and Aston “Family Man” Barrett, opened the door to a completely new universe for musicians. The profound influence of this music runs like a mighty river through so much of what we hear today. If you’re only familiar with Marley’s later work, the unearthly sound of this album will be a revelation to you.
Burnin’ was going to be the Wailers shot to break out of Kingston and conquer the world. Island owner Chris Blackwell came aboard to produce, and the band re-recorded several songs in the hope that people all over the world would hear what they had missed the first time. It didn’t exactly work out that way. The album only made it to #151 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart. Recognition of the album’s greatness came many years later. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it number 319 on their Top 500 Albums of All Time list, and in 2007, the Library of Congress added Burnin’ to the National Recording Registry for its historical and cultural significance.
Tosh and Livingston left the band, and found some success in their solo careers. Bob Marley went on to become one of the most revered figures in the history of popular music, his legacy still thundering down through the decades. Burnin’ was my first reggae album, and it’s still my favorite.
The first video is incorrectly credited to Bob Marley & the Wailers. It is, in fact, the Wailers of the Burnin’ era.