Forty years ago, three young Jamaicans walked into the offices of Island Records and sat down to make a deal with Chris Blackwell. No money changed hands that day or was even talked about. It would have sullied the perfect moment, Blackwell recalled. For Chris Blackwell recognized that when Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer (Livingston) and Bob Marley walked into his life it was a transformative moment. He was immediately aware that he was in the presence of greatness. 'They behaved like big stars,' Blackwell remembered, 'even though they were nobodies.'
Blackwell also knew that he was playing with fire. Marley, Tosh and Wailer were a band of brothers. Each was a star in his own right. Each could have been the chosen one: they were first among equals. The harmonious trio had met as teenagers in the Trench town ghetto and in the fierce competitive heat of the Jamaican music industry they had forged a uniquely powerful music. They were force ripe youths, wily and much older than their years. They were proud and knew that their music was special. But they announced with their first album for Island Records, Catch a Fire, that they would in Jamaican parlance, "throw corn but they wouldn't call no fowl" - which kind of translates as take it or leave it.
They made their intentions clear in that first album that the corrosive and combustible history of Jamaica would be writ large in songs like Catch a Fire, "Slave Driver, the table is turned." Catch a Fire and Burnin' which followed were a scorching indictment of oppression but also demonstrated their indomitable spirit and lust for life.
But it was never going to last. These outsized talents would not be able to continue to work together. They were like three bullocks who had outgrown the paddock; along came Chris Blackwell and lifted the latch, and elevated Marley. When it came to it Blackwell could not do business with Wailer and Tosh. The Wailers represented three different ways of being black in the latter half of the twentieth century: Marley was accommodating - not to say that he would sell out his talents but that he would be more practical than the other two; Tosh was the most militant (and never quite left Trench town no matter how comfortable his life became); and Bunny Wailer did not want to tour - he'd rather plant his crops and feed his chickens. There you have it: three archetypes. Accommodation, rebellion and retreat.
After ten years of working together and on the brink of international success, the wheels came off on the trio of original Wailers. But in their time they produced a powerful body of work which is both a call to arms and a balm, an instrument of repair. Even if they had produced nothing else, Catch a Fire would have secured their place in the pantheon of great musicians. Forty years on the fire is still burning.