Bob by Bill
Bob. So many memories. Even if they’re not really mine. A lot of friends were into Bob Marley when I was still in school, I think every one of them owned “Babylon By Bus”, and played it a lot too. I didn’t mind, there was a lot of crappy music they could have chosen. Marley was okay. But I spent the little money I had on other music. I had discovered Neu! and other Krautrock bands, and some strange German groups that experimented with electronic music. Compared to that, Marley was Pop.
There are four albums on my shelves that carry his name as main artist, and I have no idea how three of them entered my collection. Chances are they were part of a collection that someone handed over to me when she or he didn’t really see the point of owning vinyl anymore, alongside some albums that I will never admit possessing.
This album here is a different story altogether, of course. I know exactly how and why it became part of my collection. Simple black sleeve with a sticker, and I wonder if I would have taken a closer look at it if it had carried the same artwork as the CD. This way I could immediately see that this whole thing was remixed and produced by Bill Laswell. Back then I took a closer look at everything Laswell did. Often enough that led to a purchase decision – and I didn’t really need much of a pre listening session to get me convinced about this one.
I knew that Laswell was very much into Dub and Ambient, having followed his Sacred System and Oscillations series, his dub treatments of Jewish-Algerian singer Lili Boniche’s work and his collaborations with Style Scott and Jah Wobble. And that’s really just a fraction of the work that Laswell produced in the general area of Dub and Ambient.
The first time I noticed his name was an incredible 40 years ago when he and Michael Beinhorn were having some moderate success with their Material project, even having a bit of a dance floor hit with “I’m The One”. Beinhorn left the project later on and Material became the platform for lots of Laswell productions, even a label called Material, Inc. – which was involved in this project as well.
Today, his name pops up in my collection no less than 52 times. The artists on that list include Herbie Hancock, Motörhead, Sly & Robbie, Afrika Bambaataa, Brian Eno, George Clinton and Gil Scott-Heron. Most of these folks were more than happy to have him on board – the only guy that ever really bitched about Laswell’s work was Lemmy Kilmister. Not much of a surprise there.
And this one? Peculiar. Some people have complained that this is not really a Dub album, and others have moaned it wasn’t really Ambient either. There was unhappiness about the fact that Bob Marley can’t really be heard on this album – a comment that I find rather amusing as the whole point of Dub is to focus on the music and give it as much space as possible with the singers stepping to the side. But I can see some die-hard Marley fans picking this up like, oh look, didn’t know about this one, gotta have it, and then wtf where’s Bob?
This might have been the biggest complaint of the execs at Universal Music as well. They had bought Island Records from its founder Chris Blackwell and decided to let him stay and run the label – but they didn’t like how he put artistic quality over commercial success. Around the time this album was released Blackwell was fired (or left, that part remains unclear) and Bill Laswell’s Axiom label that ran under the Island flag was closed. I can fully imagine the conversation. Chris, what the hell is this? An album of Dub versions of Bob Marley’s music, like it says on the sleeve here. Yeah, maybe, but what’s the point of it, there’s no Bob Marley to be heard. Well, you know, that’s the general idea of a Dub version, it’s instrumental.
We can be grateful that this album got out before Blackwell did. Maybe it’s not strictly a Dub album, and maybe the dose of Ambient is mostly a moderate one, but treats Marley’s music with a lot of respect, it’s masterfully produced and full of elegant ideas and choices. One of these smart moves is to record it as one long mix with generous time provided for transitions. Of course, that’s an advantage that is limited on my vinyl version – but even split up over four sides it has the general feel of a continuous flow rather than a succession of tracks.
The degree of reduction that Laswell applies to Marley’s songs is moderate (hence the complaints about this not really being Dub), but I would argue that this is probably the only approach to turn Marley to Dub that makes any sense. The opener “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock)” is a good example. Stretched out over a good ten minutes, Laswell takes the main ingredients of this classic and gives them the room they need – the piano, the guitar and bass, the background vocals, the drums and percussions, they all get their time to explore the dub spaces. At the same time, the basic structures of the song are brought together several times to form sections that feel more like instrumental parts than dub versions.
The comparatively short version of “No Woman No Cry” sounds like a distant memory, the echoey background vocals floating over the organ theme, an unexpectedly straight beat and a warm bass. It’s as if Laswell couldn’t possibly leave it out but decided to just slip in this dreamy little homage. “The Heathen” on the other hand gets the most Ambient-sounding intro on this album, pads and echoes swirling until the main elements of the song are woven in, the background vocals followed by the main chords – and finally the wonderfully deep and warm bass and the dubby, even slightly jazzy beats – please, folks, quit complaining that this is not a Dub album, I don’t think you can turn a Dub twist on a Marley classic any better than on this song – and it fully converts on the album’s main promise to give us Ambient Translations In Dub. Love it.
Laswell keeps applying the principle of staying relatively close to the songs’ structures in varying doses, and it helps a lot that he is a truly gifted man on the bass. It doesn’t say anything like that on the list of credits but I wouldn’t be surprised if Laswell had picked up his own bass several times to play the main themes himself. Wonderfully present, deep and warm, and applied in true Dub style, they are a big reason why this is such an enjoyable album. Just listen to the moment when it enters the beautiful version of “Waiting In Vain” – it’s simply heartwarming.
This song is also a great example why the bitching about not hearing Bob himself is so nonsensical. The way Laswell treats the songs lets their beauty shine, and at the same time they showcase the many great ideas that they are made of. Or take “Exodus”, that signature song – what do we all immediately hear when we are reminded of it? Exactly. Not the master’s vocals but those of his background singers. Exodus – movement of Jah people. This is what Laswell focuses on. The main message and the song’s great structural elements – the piano theme, the main melody, the guitar and another great bass line. The question whether someone is able to treat Marley’s songs with dignity and respect on a project like this is decided on a song like this one. Nine minutes of proof right here.
Like “No Woman No Cry”, “Is This Love” is as impossible to omit as it is a challenge to transform it to Dub, and again Laswell gives it a slightly dreamy treatment, sometimes a little more light-footed, sometimes dissolving in Ambient mist, only to re-emerge gradually, as if a patch of fog had travelled through our memories of the song. As it rebuilds towards the end we are listening to a process that really shows the beauty of its elements, as if it was some kind of joyful little showcase.
Do I miss Marley on “One Love”? Again, no. Why use more than the beautiful chorus? This is what the song is about. Laswell’s Dub keeps these vocals echoing in an Ambient landscape, and when it’s time for the final song of the album, the master finally does join his vocalists as if giving the whole project a statement of approval.
Maybe this is not an album for purists that wrinkle their noses when they think that an artist hasn’t delivered to what they think are the specs for a certain style of music. For anyone that has a more liberal view of what Dub is and what Ambient can be, and even for those who appreciate the fact that a great Bob Marley song is way much more than just the man who represented it, this is a great album. After all, you can’t dream of freedom and be a blockhead at the same time.
Release for review:
BOB MARLEY – DREAMS OF FREEDOM (AMBIENT TRANSLATIONS OF BOB MARLEY IN DUB – AXIOM / ISLAND – 314-524 419-1
Buy the album on Discogs: Click