Happy 40th Anniversary to Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Exodus, originally released June 3, 1977.
“Men and people will fight ya down (Tell me why!) / When ya see Jah light (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!) / Let me tell you if you're not wrong; (Then, why?) / Everything is all right / So we gonna walk - all right! - through de roads of creation / We the generation (Tell me why!) / (Trod through great tribulation) trod through great tribulation”
– Bob Marley, “Exodus” (1977)
Throughout his prolific canon of recordings, the man born Robert Nesta Marley frequently and eloquently examined the shared adversities endured by “Jah people,” his global community of spiritually kindred brothers and sisters. But Bob Marley was no stranger to trials and tribulations in his personal life, particularly in the years and months that preceded the June 1977 release of his ninth studio album and magnum opus, Exodus.
In April 1973, ten years after Marley founded the Wailers with Hubert Winston McIntosh (a.k.a. Peter Tosh) and Neville Livingston (a.k.a. Bunny Wailer), the band released their major label debut album Catch a Fire through producer Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Capitalizing on the newfound acclaim that greeted their inaugural effort for Island, the group released the follow-up LP Burnin’ just six months later.
It would be the final recording crafted by the original Wailers lineup. Tosh and Wailer left the band in 1974 to embark upon their respective solo careers, decisions largely precipitated by the pair’s feelings of marginalization driven by what they perceived to be Blackwell’s favoritism of Marley as the band’s clear-cut leader.
Marley retained the band name, adding his name to the fold to create the expanded moniker, Bob Marley & The Wailers. He also employed a handful of new band personnel, including the vocal trio of Marley’s wife Rita, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths, collectively known as the I-Three. The reimagined band roster released Natty Dread in 1974 and Rastaman Vibration in 1976, both excellent albums in their own rights, which sold relatively well even in the United States. Nevertheless, international ubiquity and superstardom continued to exist just beyond the band’s grasp. That would all change in the spring of 1977, of course. But more on that in a moment.
As 1976 approached its conclusion, Jamaica was riddled with an upsurge in political unrest and violence, as supporters of the country’s two preeminent political factions—the social-democratic People’s National Party (PNP) and the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP)—clashed repeatedly.
Two days before Bob Marley & The Wailers were slated to perform at Prime Minister and PNP leader Michael Manley’s December 5th benefit concert billed as “Smile Jamaica,” armed gunmen stormed Marley’s Hope Road compound in Kingston, wounding him, his wife Rita and manager Don Taylor. Following the (thankfully) failed assassination attempt—which many have speculated was politically motivated, a response to Marley’s perceived tacit support of Manley’s PNP—Marley, his family, and his band were understandably frazzled. But they remained defiant as well. So much so that the obstinate Marley trudged on stage and performed at the Smile Jamaica event two days later.
Marley would leave Jamaica for the United Kingdom by the end of 1976, finding exile in the safer haven of London, where he and the band recorded Exodus at Island Records’ Basing Street Studios soon after arriving, in the early months of 1977. As the title affirms, and as it parallels Marley’s own experience of absconding from his native land to England, the overarching theme of the album is movement. Movement in its many forms, whether spiritually, culturally, politically, or physically. Movement from peril to safety. From darkness to enlightenment. From evil to good. From oppression to freedom.
Originally comprised of ten tracks, Exodus is an album of two halves. Side one is the more overtly spiritual of the two, with an underlying aura of angst and dread, as Marley condemns the wicked ways of the world and its morally bankrupt leaders. Nowhere is the doom and gloom more pronounced than three tracks in, on “Guiltiness,” in which amidst foreboding horns and dense percussion, Marley takes the world’s authority figures to task for their decadence and preoccupation with self-gain at the expense of the needs of the people, calling out “the big fish / Who always try to eat down the small fish” and “would do anything / To materialize their every wish.” It’s a sobering yet salient message that still resonates profoundly across the world four decades later. For those of us paralyzed and befuddled by our current political quagmire here in the states, Marley’s incisive diatribe rings particularly loud and true.
Propelled by a sinister groove and Junior Marvin’s slick guitar licks, “The Heathen” explores the inevitability of holy war, envisaging the triumph of the righteous over evil. Through the repeated refrain “The heathen back dey 'pon de wall,” it’s as if Marley is summoning the sinners’ demise through the sheer force of his will, while inspiring his brethren to embrace the notion that “the hotter the battle / The sweeter Jah victory.”
Album opener “Natural Mystic” builds slowly but dramatically, with its airy and seemingly innocuous soundscape belying its grim subject matter, which explores the dire straits of the human condition, with apocalyptic allusions to the end of times. The song ultimately unfurls as Marley’s clarion call to his fellow man and woman to listen to the “natural mystic,” or the unspoken yet unavoidable truths that the earth is trying to convey regarding the fractured state of humanity. Indeed, the fatalism felt in the early moments of the song is soon tempered by glimmers of a pragmatic resolve and commitment to persevering in the face of hardship, as evidenced in lines like: “One and all have to face reality now / Although I've tried to find the answer to all the questions they ask / Although I know it's impossible to go living through the past / Don't tell no lie.”
“So Much Things to Say” is Marley’s grand lament for the persecution of those who have devoted their lives to fighting injustice. He namechecks Jesus Christ and the Jamaican socio-political activists Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle, implicitly likening himself to these heroes of the people, and vowing to resist the throes of the world’s evil forces: “So while they fight you down / Stand firm and give Jah thanks and praises / 'Cause I'n'I no expect to be justified / By the laws of men - by the laws of men.”
As one might expect, the title track is the album’s thematic centerpiece. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes and containing the most literal imagery borrowed from the Bible among the songs collected here, the sprawling “Exodus” unfolds as an insistent, battle cry-like hymn dedicated to the almighty Jah who offers the spiritual ammunition required to defeat tyranny and evil. It also serves as the bridge between the album’s two halves, with the latter half comprised of more jubilant and romantic fare.
One of Marley’s most universally recognizable compositions, the buoyant and rhythmic “Jamming” is an open invitation to unite through song and dance in the name of the lord. Biblical references are peppered throughout, but the song adopts a discernibly more light-hearted and whimsical tone relative to the five songs that precede it.
Arguably one of the sweetest feel-good songs ever recorded, “Three Little Birds” radiates positive energy and draws power from the simplicity of its core message, reassuringly encouraging the listener, “Don't worry about a thing / Cause every little thing is gonna be alright.” Amen to that. No wonder then that this remains a staple song that many parents impart to their children, and in my own case, it’s one of the few popular songs that my two young daughters can recite verbatim. The vivid and comforting imagery of the three little birds likely has much to do with this, and the source of inspiration for Marley’s feathered friends has been debated. Some have suggested that they were inspired by three pelicans that would perch on the windowsills of Marley’s Hope Road home and sing for him. Others believe that it may be a refence to the I-Three vocal trio, or perhaps even representative of the Holy Trinity.
Originally recorded by the Wailers in 1965 in the traditional ska style and re-recorded for Exodus, the anthemic closing track “One Love/People Get Ready” encapsulates Side Two’s positive vibes and calls for unity, while repudiating evil and sin. The closing lines of the 2nd verse (“Is there a place for the hopeless sinner / Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own beliefs? / Believe me”) and 4th verse (“Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner / There is no hiding place from the Father of Creation”) lift liberally from The Impressions’ 1965 single “People Get Ready” written by Curtis Mayfield, who is officially credited as a co-writer here. Interestingly enough, “One Love”/”People Get Ready” was not formally released as a single until 1984, as part of the promotional push behind the career spanning Legend compilation.
An exquisitely crafted and emotive torch song that has been covered by many artists over the past four decades, “Waiting in Vain” finds a lovelorn Marley imploring the object of his affection to be careful with his heart, so as not to fill him with false hope and pure heartache. The simmering ballad “Turn Your Lights Down Low” follows, with a languid sonic structure akin to Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” which, coincidentally, was recorded around the same time as Exodus’ release.
The aforementioned best-of compilation Legend is not just Bob Marley & The Wailers’ greatest selling album of all time, it’s the biggest selling reggae album of all time. It still routinely shifts hundreds of thousands of units worldwide each year, and has generated global sales in excess of 25 million units to date. Astounding figures, though Legend’s ubiquity should surprise no one, considering the undeniable brilliance of the music contained therein. But for me, Legend has always seemed like a “greatest hits volume 2” of sorts, as a compelling case can be made that the ten songs that comprise Exodus constitute a best-of collection in and of itself.
“Exodus was successful everywhere in the world,” Chris Blackwell explained in a 2007 BBC documentary. “It was the record. I think it was the album that was the right record, at the right time.” In a more pronounced way than any of his fellow musical heroes, in both life and death, Bob Marley has successfully neutralized ethnic, political and spiritual barriers to unite and enliven the people of the world through song. And Exodus will forever serve as a glorious affirmation of his unparalleled legacy.
As a testament to one of the most prolific recorded repertoires in music history, ask anyone what their favorite Bob Marley album is and you’ll invariably receive a multitude of responses. For me, my favorite seemingly changes by the day. One day it’s Kaya (1978), the next Survival (1979). Natty Dread (1974) rises to the top from time to time, and Uprising (1980)—the final studio album Marley released before his death in May of 1981—even sneaks in there occasionally.
Today, if not tomorrow, I’m going all in on Exodus.