Marley will never be half the singer Toots of the Maytals is, but he’s a better band leader, and he knows more about making records. Because that’s so, his music sneaks up on you, then drops back, confuses your feelings, engages your emotions. Natty Dread is a good beat with a heavy dose of mystery—likely the best album a Jamaican band has ever made, the culmination of many years of Jamaican musical revolt. One message of this music is that Jamaica’s vitality is based not in the final triumph of that revolt, but in its permanence—it is less a goal than a principle of life. That might be why one can imagine that this album has its roots in Robert Johnson’s music, even as it walks the streets of Kingston, keeping company with an African ghost.
With the release of Natty Dread, Bob Marley & the Wailers take over as the best black band in the world. Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Rufus, the Jackson 5, and Jamaica’s Toots & the Maytals have all been making fine music, and, with the exception of the Maytals, have gained the success they deserve, but there is a void left even after their best work has been absorbed, a void that has now been filled by the Wailers. It has to do with a certain feeling of distance, of standing back, of thinking before acting—in short, a blues feeling. There is a critical intelligence working in Natty Dread—and I’m not talking about the words, I’m talking about the rhythm section and the blues guitar—that has been missing from black pop music since Sly Stone put out There’s a Riot Goin’ On five years back. Sly quickly abandoned the nasty labyrinths of that album for crowd-pleasing and collapse; Marley & the Wailers have followed where he led, and no one else has really even tried. As black artists, they’ve accepted horror as a given, and worked to make a music that looks that horror in the face, somehow contains it, and finally eludes it without ever letting you forget it’s there.
City, March 19, 1975