I was a 15 year old kid brought up with the radio playing the Beatles, Stones, Glam Rock and my Mum’s Perry Como, light Opera and Easy Listening collection. I used to hang around with my mates at one of the local record shops, quite often when I was supposed to be in school, and the shop owner tried to educate us in rock, new wave, Iggy Pop, Rush, New York Dolls, even Yes (that never worked). I was at that stage where everything was new. If I found a band I liked, they may be someone no-one else had heard of, or maybe they’d been around for years and had albums of back catalogue to discover. I’m still envious of kids in that position now.
I’d not heard it all though, one day shopping in Uxbridge, walking past a record shop I heard a sound that was totally new, yet somehow familiar. I had no idea who it was, so in I went, it was “No Woman No Cry”, and imagine the effect on that 15 year old white kid, who thought black music was Disco, The Supremes and The Drifters. Here was something with an edge, a dirtiness and raw honesty that punk aspired to, a voice from the downtrodden, proud. In some ways, the back story wasn’t that different to the punk message, but the attitude was so different. Am I being unfair to punk if I say this Reggae music was more mature?
The punks told us everything was shit, (and in mid 70’s England it was, believe me) and it was going to get worse, and there’s nothing you can do except help it on its way to total decay. But here was Bob Marley, singing “Everything is gonna be alright, no woman, no cry”. That was some optimism, given the backdrop to this song, “My fear is my only courage” these are brave, proud and defiant words. You can do what you like, we’ve had it all, taken it, and we’re still here, heads held high, no woman no cry. “All that we’ve got, it seems we have lost”, had he given up? No way, you can’t take a man’s pride.
So I bought Bob Marley and the Wailers – Live! I discovered a whole world, Reggae yes, but with rock/pop sensibilities, the guitar solo on No Woman No Cry would not sound out of place on a Stones album. This music didn’t set out to alienate this teenage white kid, it spoke to me. I had nothing in common with these guys, nothing in my life experience was in any way close to the picture they painted of life in Trenchtown, but I still heard and felt every message. The punks were moaning, but Bob was talking of oppression, and he wasn’t walking away, and I loved him for it. I heard this album, my world had grown.
I didn’t understand half the words, but I got the gist easy enough, the beats were all new to me, nothing like anything else in my collection, yet this one record became a favourite, something I still listen to today. If you’re feeling everything is getting at you, listen to this album, the optimism burns through, and warms your heart. To me it still retains that edge, the rawness, after all these years. I’ve never found anything quite like it, maybe it’s the memory of the impact that it had on that 15 year old white kid, it will always be a special album to me.