Perfect Sound Forever

Peter Tosh:
the Wailers years

By Eric Doumerc
(December 2009)

Peter Tosh (Winston Hubert McIntosh) was born in 1944 in Jamaica in a rural area, and like so many of his countrymen, moved to the capital in search of better opportunities and a better life when he was in his late teens. By the early 1960's, Tosh was hanging out on street corners, playing songs on his guitar. He eventually met two other aspiring singers, Bob Marley and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer), and they began to write songs and to rehearse them, coming under the tutelage of Joe Higgs, who by then was already famous as a member of the former R'n'B and ska duo Higgs and Wilson. Higgs coached the young singers, teaching them how to sing in harmony and how to control their breath. In 1963, they were taken to Coxsone Dodd's Studio One for an audition by the Rastafarian elder Mortimer Planno, who had gained fame in Jamaica by greeting the Emperor of Ethiopia outside the plane on his first visit to Jamaica in 1966.

The three young men began a recording career under the name "The Wailers" or "the Wailing Wailers" and recorded many songs for Clement Dodd until a parting of the way finally came in 1966 over the group's Rastafarian beliefs and over the lack of remuneration under Dodd.

By the mid-1960s the Wailers were in limbo with Bob Marley in the USA working to raise some money to start a label and Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer recorded several tunes without Bob Marley. On Bob's return, the group began working for the young producer Clancy Eccles, trying to get their label off the ground, recording an album for the producer Leslie Kong and finally joined hands with Lee Scratch Perry between 1969 and 1970, recording two albums for him.

By that time, Peter Tosh had started a solo career while still being a member of the Wailers and had recorded several 45's for the producers Bunny Lee, Lee Perry and Joe Gibbs. In 1972, the Wailers finally recorded their first album for a major label, Catch a Fire (Island) and its follow-up, Burnin', came in 1973. Recording for a major international label meant that the group now had to tour regularly to promote the albums and also meant that the Wailers were marketed as a "rock band" with a leader that journalists and the public could focus on. The touring and the insistence on a visible leader exacerbated the tensions in the group over the choice of songs to be recorded and to be performed in public. The Wailers had been working as a group for about ten years then and Tosh felt that his songs were being overlooked in favour of Bob's songs and that his own career was neglected. Things came to a head in early 1973 after a British tour when Bunny Wailer said that he was leaving the band. The group continued without Bunny for a while , touring the USA with Joe Higgs as a replacement, and then flying to Britain without Higgs for a series of concerts.

In November 1973, after a gig in Northampton, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh exchanged blows and Tosh never toured with the Wailers again. The group officially split up in January 1975, but by late 1973, the old Wailers were already over.

During these ten years in the Wailers, Tosh would record several versions of the same songs and would develop a style which was markedly different from Bob Marley's or Bunny Wailer's one. Tosh's songs seemed to reflect his militant outlook and bleak view of life, but also a noted interest for calypso and mento, and for gospel.

While recording as a Wailer at Studio One, Tosh demonstrated an early interest for rock and roll by recording a song he was to return to several times in his career: "Can't You See." He was also clearly interested in calypso and sang lead on a version of the famous song "Shame and Scandal" as well as on a reworking of the calypso classic "Archie Buck Them Up" entitled "Rasta Shook Them Up" (1966) to celebrate Selassie's visit to Jamaica in 1966. The Wailers may have become familiar with that tune through Lord Creator's version recorded for Studio One and to be found on his LP Jamaica Time. These show Tosh's willingness to experiment and his ability to resort to different musical styles.

Tosh's interest in calypso or mento also appears in a later 1971 recording entitled "Leave My Business" which is reminiscent of the old mento tune "Nobody's Business but Me Own", recorded by Jackie Opel for Studio One.

While at Studio One, the Wailers recorded a Peter Tosh mento-influenced number that the singer was to go back to several times: "Maga Dog." The song is based on a well-known Jamaican proverb that warns against being too friendly with people. In other words, familarity breeds contempt:

"Sorry fe maga dog,
Him turn around and bite you!
Jump outta frying pan,
Jump inna de fire!"
The Wailers also recorded a version of the old spiritual "Sinner Man" on which Tosh sang lead and which is particularly powerful.

In the late 1960's, the Wailers founded their own label, called Wail'N'Soul'M, which, though short-lived, carried some very good recordings by Peter Tosh, with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer on backing vocals. The first of the these singles, "Pound Get a Blow," a topical song about the devaluation of the British pound in 1967, features only Bob Marley on backing vocals as Bunny Wailer was in jail then, but it is a powerful tune on account of its driving horn line and "riddim." One of his songs for the label, "Fire Fire," was to be remade by other reggae artists like Max Romeo and Niney the Observer.

Due to financial reasons, the Wailers' label collapsed and, by early 1969, the Wailers were recording for Leslie Kong. Peter Tosh contributed three numbers: a remake of "Can't You See", "Stop That Train" and a version of "Go Tell It On The Mountain," which shows again Tosh's love of spirituals. On that recording, his voice is loud and clear and his tenor soars effortlessly over the musical backing. The lyrics of "Stop That Train" might have been an allusion to his dissatisfaction with his career in the Wailers:

"All my life, I've been a lonely man,
Teaching people people who don't understand.
Even though I try my best, I still can't find no happiness.
Stop that train, I'm leaving."
After moving to the Lee Perry stable in 1969-70, Tosh's output became more sombre and militant with important songs like "400 Years" and "No Sympathy." "400 Years" was about the situation in Jamaica a few years after Independence and maybe too about the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency:
"400 years, and it's the same philosophy.
400 years, and my people they still can't see.
Why do they fight against the youths of today?
And without the youths, you would have all gone astray."
Around that time, Peter Tosh was learning how to play the melodica and his skill at the instrument can be heard on a dub version of the Tuff Gong hit "Trenchtown Rock" (1971) which is very moving.

Many of the songs Tosh recorded in the late 1960's and early 1970's, like "Rightful Ruler" (1970, produced by Lee Perry), "Black Dignity" (1971, Joe Gibbs), "Here Comes the Judge" (1971, Joe Gibbs) and "Arise Black Man" (1971, Joe Gibbs) reflected the rising influence of the Rastafarian movement at the time and Tosh's own militancy which was there right from the beginning.

In 1971, Tosh had a big hit with a new version of "Maga Dog," originally recorded for Studio One, but this time produced by Joe Higgs. The song became popular with deejays and Winston Scotland released a version of the song entitled "Skanky Dog" in 1971 too, adding to the song's popularity. One year later, in 1972, in "Them A Fe Get a Beatin'," he sang about the wicked getting stronger and said that he couldn't "take it no longer."

In the early-1970's, Tosh released several diatribes on his own label Intel-Diplo (short for Intelligent Diplomat for His Majesty). In ďCanít Blame the Youth" (1972), Tosh condemns the colonial education system that was the legacy of British rule in Jamaica, and that colonial system is symbolized in the song by the nursery rhymes every school kid had to learn by heart. Indeed the "cow jumping over moon," and the dish running away with the spoon are references to the well-known nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle":

You canít blame the youth, you canít fool the youth,
You canít blame the youth of today, you canít fool the youth.

You teach the youth to learn in school that cow jump over moon,
You teach the youth to learn in school that the dish run away with the spoon.

You canít blame the youth ( when they donít learn), you canít fool the youth,
You canít blame the youth, you canít fool the youth.

You teach the youth about Christopher Columbus,
And you said he was a very great man.
You teach the youth about Marco Polo,
And you said he was a very great man.
You teach the youth about the pirate Hawkins,
And you said he was a very great man.
You teach the youth about the pirate Morgan,
And you said he was a very great man.

The other aspect of that colonial education system was the glorification of the ďdeeds of arms" that had resulted in the colonisation of the New World by European powers like Spain and England. The reference to "the pirate Hawkins" is particularly appropriate as William Hawkins and his son John were two of the first Englishmen to be involved in the slave trade in the 16th century. They were instrumental in setting up the triangular trade between England, Africa and the West Indies and were notorious for their cruelty. "The pirate Morgan" refers to Henry Morgan, a Welshman who fled from a poor existence in his home country to work as an indentured labourer in the West Indies. He then became a pirate, committed many atrocities before finally being sent back to England to be tried for his crimes. He was then knighted and became Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica in 1674.

In Tosh's song, the pirates Hawkins and Morgan are mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo, which leads the listener to conclude that Columbus and Polo were "pirates" too.

What is interesting in "Can't Blame the Youth" is the link which is established between Jamaica's violent history and the then high crime rate, or the problem of youth crime. The singer implies that Jamaica's crime problem is a direct result of the island's history and that history led to a glorification of violence and machismo, hence the lines ďWhen every Christmas come, you buy the youth a pretty toy gun."

The song soon became part of the Wailers' live repertoire and a stirring version of the song can be found on Talking Blues (Island/Tuff Gong), the 1991 compilation that features the recordings done by the Wailers for a San Francisco radio station in October 1973 after being dumped by Sly and the Family Stone on their first American tour.

Other songs released on Tosh's Intel-Diplo label in the early 1970's are "Mark of the Beast" (1973), an apocalyptic number about wickedness in general, "Burial," and "Hammer," a driving chant which insisting on the idea of "hammering down" Babylon. The song had already been recorded by the Wailers as a group in the late 1960's for Danny Simms. By the early 1970's, Tosh was ready to strike out on his own.


- Garnice Michael, "Bob Marley and the Wailers' Mento Roots", The Beat, Vol.25 #2, 2006.
- Steffens, Roger. Liner notes to Honorary Citizen. Columbia, 1997.
- Thompson, Dave. Reggae and Caribbean Music. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2002.
- White, Timothy. Catch a Fire Ė The Life of Bob Marley. New York: Henry Holt, 1983.

See the second part of our Peter Tosh article

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