Remembering Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’ 40 years on

Recorded in London following an assassination attempt, ‘Exodus’ saw Marley become much more than just the dreadlocked Rasta of popular renown

 Bob Marley performs on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl on June 7th, 1980 in London. Photograph: Peter Still/Redferns

Bob Marley performs on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl on June 7th, 1980 in London. Photograph: Peter Still/Redferns

 

Some pictures are worth a thousand words. One of the photos which accompanied various recent pieces about Uruguay legalising the sale of marijuana featured three dudes lighting up at a protest in Montevideo. Predictably, two of the three chaps are wearing Bob Marley T-shirts.

For many, this is completely on brand. The Jamaican singer may have been a global superstar, but he also remains a sort of shorthand for would-be rebellious youths everywhere to signify that they’re alternative and on the side of the good over The Man. Smoking dope, listening to Marley and looking to overthrow the system seem to go hand in hand.

Such symbiotics naturally ignore Marley’s musical legacy. It’s 40 years this week since the release of Exodus, the album which remains at the top of the list when it comes to assessing his skills as a pop performer. Other albums such as Arrival or Survival may have had more political fire in their belly, but Exodus was Marley flexing his pop muscles.

What’s striking about Marley when you assess his overall legacy is how much of an album artist he was. Certainly, it’s one of those aspects which Island boss Chris Blackwell always credited with helping him become an international superstar. And you could make a fairly good argument that Exodus is probably top of the list when it comes to his songwriting.

Exodus has a nasty back story but one which is pivotal in the Marley narrative. The previous December, Marley was set to play the Smile Jamaica concert at Kingston Racecourse, which had been organised by the office of the country’s prime minister Michael Manley.

Two days before the show, Marley, his wife Rita and his manager Don Taylor were gunned down at the singer’s house on Hope Road. There are many theories about who was behind the hit – from gunmen attached to the rival Jamaican Labour Party to various criminal interests – but two days later, Marley played the show in front of 80,000 people despite his injuries.

The assassination attempt saw Marley move to London and it was there that he recorded Exodus. Perhaps it was that sense of taking stock and realising that he was lucky to be alive that accounts for the mellow vibes on the album. It’s songs such as One Love and Three Little Birds which set the tone as much as the title track. For once, Marley seemed to think that there was enough drama going on on his real life so there was no need to return to the righteous messages of I Shot the Sheriff or War and decided to highlight more laid-back moods.

He’d a cracking band by his side. That magnificent rhythm section of Aston Barrett (bass) and his brother Carlton (drums) embellish the songs with a beautifully pitched soundbed, while the lead guitar work of Julian ‘Junior’ Marvin really spotlights tracks like So Much Things To Say.

Exodus also shows that Marley could really do pop. Remember that his style of reggae wasn’t really what dominated Jamaica at the time and, in fact, it doesn’t sound a whole lot like any reggae which came before it. Exodus is much more rooted in blues and soul and catches a trace of the rock which Marley was beginning to pepper throughout his material.

Even at a remove of 40 years, it’s a record which still shines brightly and makes the case for Marley to be viewed as much more than just the dreadlocked Rasta of popular renown.

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