Perfect Sound Forever


by Eric Doumerc
(December 2018)

The Wailers' Catch a Fire album, which came out in 1972, is considered as one of the most important reggae albums ever released and is often discussed in terms of its impact on European audiences as well as its "foreign" elements like the use of guitar solos and synthesizers. This album also led to a controversy concerning thr slightly sped-up mix that it was given it order to appeal to Euopean or American ears. And of course, the recod sleeves itself, which replicated a Zippo lighter, was quite an attraction too. Like the soundtrack to The Harder they Come, Catch a Fire is considered as a landmark album which opened European ears to reggae music, and in the process, Burnin', the Wailers' second album for Island Records has not always been given the attention it deserves.

Burnin' was released by Island Records in 1973, and is in fact the last album recorded by the original Wailers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston (aka Bunny Wailer). It is very different in sound and orrientation from Catch a Fire, and its sound was described as "organic, ital, more acoustic, and wooden" by Stephen Davis in his biography of Bob Marley. The album contained three songs originally recorded by the Wailers for Lee Perry, between 1969 and 1971- "Small Axe," "Duppy Conqueror," and "Put it On."

The storytelling tradition formed the backbone of some of the Wailers' best-known songs like "Duppy Conqueror," which was recorded by the Wailers in 1969 at Randy's Studio, under the tutelage of Lee Perry and was originally released as a single in 1970. The song did not make it onto the Wailers' first Upsetter LP entitled Soul Rebel, but finally appeared on the 1971 Soul Revolution album. So "Duppy Conqueror" was available to reggae fans outside Jamaica only in 1971, nearly two years after it was recorded.

The song was a hit in Jamaica when it was first released and became popular later in England. The song's popularity in Jamaica may be accounted for by the fact that it is after all a very good ghost story. Indeed, the lyrics are about a Rastaman making a pilgrimage to Mount Zion and coming face to face with a duppy, that is a ghost or a spirit, who tries to "cold him up," that is to destroy him. The main character tells the duppy that he is not afraid of him, and even challenges him to a fight, claiming that he is able to conquer him, that is to defeat him. So the story is quite simple and would have been instantly recognisable as a "duppy story." Indeed, as Laura Tanna points out in her Jamaican Folk Tales and Oral Histories, "most duppy stories involve a traveller who meets a stranger only to discover later that the stranger is actually a duppy " (Tanna 60). "Duppy Conqueror" fits that framework as the main character sets out on a journey to Mount Zion and then comes face to face with a "stranger" who might be a duppy.

But the thing is, the Wailers are telling a far more complicated tale in "Duppy Conqueror." There are at least two possible interpretations. In his Bob Marley – the Definitive Biography of Reggae's Greatest Star, the journalist Stephen Davis opines that "the Wailers were making a subtle political point in their song. If duppies are the wandering souls of dishonoured or disinterred dead, so can the iniquitous Jamaican judicial system be seen as a duppy, as a malevolent spirit from the tormented, rotting corpse of Jamaican history" (Davis 120). Davis goes on to claim that the duppy conqueror is a kind of wizard who will be able to conquer these malevolent spirits and free Jamaica from her past.

Another possible interpretation would lay the emphasis on the Rastafarian ideology which permeates the whole song. Indeed, Marley claims that he is going to "Mount Zion, the highest region" and that "Jah put [him] around." In other words, the Wailers were saying that they had embarked on a pilgrimage to Zion- their roots and that nothing would stand in their way, not even old Jamaican superstitions. Duppies are the spirits of the dead and send back to slavery, to Jamaica's past. By claiming to be able to defeat these evil forces with their new "religion," the Wailers were pointing the way forward and saying that Jamaica had to move on. This interpretation ties in with Rastafarians' well-known dislike of and even contempt for traditional beliefs or superstitions. In 1970, these old superstitons were associated with the past, and the new Rastafarian outlook symbolised the future, as Michael Manley (Jamaican prime minster) would realise just a couple of years later.

This interpretation seems to be borne out by the symbols of the bridge and of the jail used by the Wailers in "Duppy Conqueror." Indeed a bridge suggests moving from one place to another one or travelling: the Wailers were thus saying that they were moving to a new consciousness, a new level of existence. The jail the Wailers were trying to escape from could be said to the past, old Jamaican superstitions and the conservatism of Hugh Shearer's JLP government.

Later in their career, when they were recording with Lee Scratch Perry, the Wailers composed one of their best-known songs, "Small Axe," and the way they wrote that song is a good illustration of oral composition or of the collective nature of oral art. In her book entitled Noises in the Blood, Professor Carolyn Cooper quoted an excerpt from Stephen Davis' biography of Bob Marley in which the author recounted an anecdote about the composition of "Small Axe": "When the Wailers originally merged with Lee Perry, Upsetter Records was facing competition from the 'big three' studios in Kingston – Federal, Studio One and Dynamic. One day Bob and Peter and Scratch were playing with lyrics at the Upsetter shop and Scratch was complaining about the "big t'ree." Brash and boasty as usual, Tosh spoke up: 'If dem is the big t'ree, we am (sic) the small axe!' And one of the canniest double-entendres in reggae music was born." (Davis quoted in Cooper 119). The collective composition of "Small Axe" in Lee Scratch Perry's record shop is but one example of the oral tradition at work and of the Wailers' awareness of the power of punning and wordplay.

The other tracks on Burnin' included "Get Up, Stand Up," "I Shot the Sheriff," which was covered by Eric Clapton in 1974 and became an international hit, "Burning and Looting," two songs by Bunny Wailer ("Pass it On" and "Hallelujah Time"), one song by Peter Tosh ("One Foundation") and a traditional rastafarian song entitled "Rastaman Chant."

"Pass It On" and "Hallelujah" Time," the two Bunny Wailer tunes, are very different from the other tracks, and are evidence of the soul influence on Bunny Wailer's music. The Christian influence also appears on these tracks, which may have come as a surprise to Wailers fans at the time, on account of the band's embrace of Rastafarianism. These tracks let us get a glimpse of the tensions which may have been at work at the time within the band.

Peter Tosh is represented by "One Foundation," a song which seems far removed from the militant mode that made him famous in the 1970's and the insistance on love seems at odds with his more fiery persona. Tosh also contributed a verse to "Get Up, Stand Up" (the one about the "bullshit game") and was thus able to claim copyrights on the song. He is also supposed to have contributed the famous refrain to "Small Axe" ("If you're the small axe, we are the big tree").

The track which closes the album, "Rastaman Chant," was something of a novelty at the time, as no reggae band had yet released a traditional Rasta chant on a major label, for European or American consumption. The song was to become a stalwart of the Wailers' show, and may have originally be featured in The Holy Piby, alka the Blackman's Bible, an important Rasta book compiled by Roger Athlyi Rogers.

The track entitled "Burnin' and Lootin'," with its incendiary lyrics and revolutionary appeal. described a country gripped by violence and where people lived under a curfew and were terrorised by "uniforms of brutality."

Over the years, Burnin' has remained perenially popular as several of its songs gained a far wider audience. "Pass it On" and "Small Axe" were featured on the soundtrack to the film Countryman in the early 1980's, "Get Up Stand Up" was relentlessly performed by both Marley and Tosh in the 1970's (Tosh recorded his own version for the Equal Rights album), and "I Shot the Sheriff" was of course covered by Clapton and turned into a major hit.

In 2001, a remastered edition of the album was released, with three bonus tracks, "Reincarnated Souls" and "The Oppressed Song" by Bunny Wailer, and "No Sympathy" by Peter Tosh. "Reincarnated Souls" was originally supposed to be the title of the album, but this idea was abandoned when Bunny Wailer left the band prior to their 1973 North American tour. In 2004, a Deluxe edition was released, together with a live album recorded in Leeds on 23 November 1973, during the English tour to promote Burnin', which ended in acrimony and led to the final split of the original group. The live album is an extraorodinary document which allows Wailers fans to hear live versions of songs like "Duppy Conqueror," "Lively Up Yourself" and "Midnight Ravers," which Marley did not often perform in his international phase.

Burnin' was to be the last album the original Wailers would record together. As emphasised by Stephen Davis in his biography of Bob Marley, the last word on this period should be left with the legendary Joe Higgs, who was the Wailers' teacher in the early days and toured with them when Bunny Wailer left the group: "The heavier albums were the early ones, Catch a Fire and Burnin', dealing with experiences totally; confrontation, truth and rights, totally. No compromise: those first albums were really what was going on" (Davis 170).


Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood- Orality, Gender and the “Vulgar" Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Caribbean, 1993.

Davis, Stephen. Bob Marley – The Definitive Biography of Reggae's Greatest Star. London: Granada, 1985.

TTanna, Laura. Jamaican Folk Tales and Oral Histories. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications Limited, 1984.

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