This was my first reggae album ever and remains my favorite from Bob Marley's catalog. I was one of those white suburban punks drawn to the message of social consciousness which permeates roots reggae and the political ideology behind "Survival" got through to me big time: A global struggle by people of all colors & creeds coming together to rise up against ignorance, brutality, injustice and indifference to suffering. By contrast Marley's more popular music came across as party tunes for potheads who wanted something mellow to drone out to. I've since learned more about who Marley was, that even his most populist releases have a unique depth of content. But truly feel that "Survival" was the moment when he pushed himself furthest as an artist, crafting otherwise meandering rootsy vibrations with political awareness that few others in the genre shy of Burning Spear could equal without coming across as trite. The album lacked a big single and was not promoted as enthusiastically as his "classic" era releases but perhaps has more strength as a unified whole than anything he had released since "Rastaman Vibration".
Rear cover art, with clever juxtaposing of the band in posed settings conjuring
up the image of African freedom fighters living in the hills.
In fact I'd call "Survival" to be one of the most successful efforts for crossing cultural barriers with accessible sounds comfortably steeped in just enough of the Rastaman sensibility for non-reggae audiences to be comfortable with, hit single or no. The album doesn't beat listeners over the head with reggae for the sake of it, but instead just happens to be an album by a reggae based artist reaching out to literally embrace the other music forms he had encountered since his formative years: Influence of soul, rock, folk, jazz and psychedelia, traditional American "western" themes, with the riddims and reggae vibe holding it all together like a stew. Various flavors bubble to the top with a world-class group of musicians at the height of their skills. I'll say it for good measure, that there is no reggae album I am aware of which sounds remotely like "Survival", which might be indeed because the reggae music boom (at least for roots artists like Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, et al) had indeed begun to putter out by 1980.
CD inlay reproducing the lyrics & production credits.
"Survival"'s use of modern synthesizers alone to create a roots album would prove a rarity as dancehall and DJ vibes oriented towards the more contemporary forms of reggae began to become prevalent -- Bob Marley's untimely death at 36 in 1981 likely directly contributing to what might be regarded as the demise of the classic reggae era. Artists like Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh never quite achieved the lasting global prominence of Marley who was certainly an international star and leader of his particular idiom. By the time "Survival" was released his own superstardom had declined to a degree, with the sluggishly stoned but still enjoyable "Kaya" from the year before critically assailed for being complacent in regards to the changing cultural dynamic of the late 1970s. Its music also wasn't as interesting as what had come before it and Marley very wisely re-imagined himself as almost a folk hero spreading a message of unity through his art, the idea perhaps finding literal form in the marvelous "Ride Natty Ride", which enjoyed a 12 inch mix aimed at nightclubs and may have served as the album's de-facto under promoted single.
Ride Natty Ride 12" mix.
Marley did indeed respond to his "Kaya" critics with a zeal that may itself have created something of a backlash as commentaries of the era often remarked about the album's overt politicization as coming across as forced or preachy in spots. Rock music writer Robert Christgau even citing the design of a slave ship layout on the front cover as being the most effective political statement on the album, which he found to be lacking alongside Marley's earlier work. And retrospective comparison to his catalogue does find the lyrical pre-occupation with social consciousness on the album to be laid on pretty thick, but that's what appealed to my peace punk ideology in 1982 or so when I obtained the LP. My first reggae music purchase and sold me on the music genre just by being almost exactly what I was looking for from it: An almost confrontational departure from the AOR guitar rock that defined the Central New York listening spectrum at the era that a fifteen year old kid had access to.
Please, no more Journey ... anything but Journey.
One curious note about the album is how much more satisfying it was as a proto-concept record with the running order found on the original North American LP releases opening with the life-affirming "Wake Up and Live" and closing with the title track, which sums up the album's threads of ideas into a vocal tour-de-force for Marley. The current CD release order starting with the purposefully dreary "So Much Trouble in the World" seems to want to get the downbeat songs out of the way first and re-structure the order to be more party-friendly, ending on the high note of "Wake Up and Live" and a bonus track extended remix. It makes for not just weaker beginnings and endings for the record but less intensity of precived purposefulness to the running order. And while it appears every other release maintains the current CD running order it may have just been a fluke that the album hit home with me due to whatever restructuring took place. Thankfully the iTunes era allows the album to be heard any way one sees fit via playlist creation. No sweat on it, brudda, just my opinion.
including an MP3 download option.
The current in-print Tuff Gong CD release track listing, which reflects the running order of the original LP release everywhere outside of North America:
So Much Trouble in the World
Ride Natty Ride
Ambush in the NIght
Wake Up and Live
Ride Natty Ride 12" Mix (Bonus Track)
And while currently unable to locate my record ;[ here's the US & Canadian LP song orders as confirmed by discogs.com, which has info on the album's release info dating back to 1979:
Wake Up and Live
Ambush in the NIght
So Much Trouble in the World
Ride Natty Ride
For the sake of thoroughness, click here a YouTube playlist I created featuring the above playing order, or just listen along below with playback links to the individual tracks.
So for whatever reason, Island Records re-arranged the album for release in North America sticking "Wake Up and Live" first and "Survival" as the closing track which I argue creates a stronger conceptual structure to the album. I've had a CD of the album since the mid 90s and have never been able to get used to the running order. Here's what I remember being so inspired by starting at about the age of fifteen.
Wake Up and Live
Wake Up and Live: Superb album opener for any record complete with a countdown for the proceedings to commence, its blend of brass and soulful background harmonies with rock guitar touches owe as much to James Brown and Sly Stone as it does to Natty Dread. Placing it last in the running order denies the album its climaxes in "Ambush in the Night" and especially "Survival", which echoes some of its sonic attributes, neatly bookending the LP on upbeat notes. The placement of the track at the end also seems to be an effort to conjure up the infectious moods generated by "Jammin'", Marley's traditional set closer from his live act, and to dilute comparisons to "Lively Up Yourself"'s similar message to just get up & get on with things as an LP opener.
Africa Unite: Settle-down track with an upbeat, infectious message about all the peoples of a continent uniting to live together in the face of tyrannical indifference. "Woodstock" as a reggae song and just as believable of a vision of utopia formed by music, art, culture and understanding. Would that things were though it gives us all a model to aspire towards, with an interesting backbeat and major chord sequence which is quite listenable even with its overtly political message.
One Drop: The album's overlooked top-100 R&B crossover hit, though from all reports germane to the album's release its overtly politicized ideas turned off the pop music promotion machine which had been so enamored with Marley prior to 1979. My favorite track from the LP during the era it inevitably ended up on the turntable at least once a week between listenings of The Clash, XTC, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel and the other post-punk material which had been influenced by reggae/world beats. Superbly placed as a third track picking the pace back up & giving the reggae traditionalists their own anthem with a song literally named after an attribute of the musical form.
Top Rankin': The album's "cautionary tale" cut, bringing down the high of "One Drop" musically while positing the idea that those commanding the power structures may not be too enamored by this idea of the peoples of the world living in harmony. There are those with a vested interest in seeing the fussing and fighting continue and vigilance is needed to get around such cynicism. Easily the least accessible and the darkest track on the LP after "So Much Trouble", which I suspect is why it is placed 3rd on the CD track listing to get it out of the way and refit "Survival" sound like more of a party album for the bulk of its runtime.
Ambush in the Night
Ambush in the NIght: I do recall hearing this more than once on our local college FM radio station's "Jamaican Hour" on Sunday nights and being impressed enough to make sure the cut was on "Survival" when purchasing it. Recants Marley's own brush with assassination and the evangelical effect it eventually had upon him. The whole album is almost a conceptual nod towards the global perspective he had obtained and the duty he felt to employ his music to defy such barbarity. Some humor may be found in comparing the cut to comedian Eddie Murphy's timeless "Kill the White People" militant reggae parody from Saturday Night Live, conceived of shortly after the album's release.
So Much Trouble in the World
So Much Trouble in the World: Another favorite from the era (with standout keyboards by one of the session players on the first Tom Tom Club album, Tyrone Downie) and I while I still consider it one of the premiere cuts on the album do feel very strongly that it is wasted as the lead-off cut. And indeed its introspective, purposefully downbeat nature work to set a tone for the record which works against it's strengths. As what was the first cut on side two, however, it works to relieve the high anxiety of "Ambush in the Night" and re-ground the album as a personal struggle for all of us to join in starting with our own lots in life. Lead by example, improve your own lot, others will hopefully take heart & follow.
Zimbabwe: The album's big reggae anthem success which may have played a role in how the album was re-structured for later CD releases after its legend had been established. In this case the legacy of how the track was adopted by the people of Zimbabwe adopted the song as an anthem during their struggle for independence, and how it was subsequently removed from the LP when it was first released in South America. As the positive solution followup to "So Much Trouble" it servs a more useful function in helping to put the paranoia which ends side one & opens side two to rest.
Natty Dread Rides Again
Ride Natty Ride: The album's second strongest cut after "Wake Up and Live" and one of the still most poignant both musically and conceptually some 35 years down the road, blending aspects of cowboy or Western film ideas with the Natty Dread legend. Now he's riding through the fields of corn battling oppression like a folk hero, while conjuring up the "Django" and Clint Eastwood reggae mutations Lee Perry popularized early on in the genre's history and propelled along by cowbells, woodblocks and pulsating electric keyboards that keep it just this side of psychedelia. Not bad, Mr. Bob, though between you & me the 12 inch version didn't amount to much more. I prefer the shorter LP edit, and while its inclusion on the current CD release is helpful its inclusion may very well have influenced the choice of placing "Wake Up and Live" last. I find the album more complete without it, if you get what I mean.
The stupendous Babylon System.
Babylon System: My current favorite cut from the album, a stupendous mishmash of reggae, folk rock, Caribbean music, ambient noise and positive vibrations. Punctuated by chirping birds, washes of Hammond organ glissando and Marley's laid back acoustic strumming the song conjures up images of a reggae take on "All You Need Is Love", which was just as much of a political statement as "Survival" in its own day. I can see them all sitting around on the floor in a studio playing this. It also speaks of all races & peoples uniting to rebel against complacency, build institutions of learning and peace, and co-exist for the better of each other rather than ourselves. Build them church and university -- I always liked that.
Survival: Apocalyptic death reggae it is not, but this is one serious track which loses its potency when removed from closing cut status. It not only sums up the social messages from the other tracks but provides Marley with his most expressive vocal performance on the album as he challenges the listener "Why are you still sitting there?", that we have to hurry and that not all of us will wait for long. Moving that before any of the other pleas for reason on the LP pulls them out of a pretty nifty concept which this track would otherwise bring to fruition.
Here's the complete album as currently found on the Tuff Gong release, complete
with the 12" mix of Ride Natty Ride.
Now granted, when all is said and done the LP order which I grew up with is likely a re-structuring by Island Records (or whoever published the album for them in North America) and likely not the arrangement that Bob Marley & his producers intended. But for whatever reason I strenuously maintain that it works better as presented on the North American LP release noted above. Which is curious since they are the same songs, though precedence is found in Beatles fans who preferred the American "Rubber Soul" release re-ordered to work like a folk rock album. And it's not just that I got used to hearing this order, as an artist/designer part time critic I insist that the messages echoing through the album are more potent, uniformly presented, and better bookended conceptually by the order on the American LP.
While well beyond my short haired white Rasta days I still love roots + early dub reggae music and was impressed at finding how well this album held up while contemplating this post. It also inspired me to listen again to some of the other favorites from that era who caught my attention -- Burning Spear, Big Youth, Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Peter Tosh, and the incredible body of music of all manner of descriptions made by Lee Perry and his Upsetters which I only discovered in the mid 1990s. And to my alarm the box of reggae CDs I'd saved aside when moving last is MIA and all my Burning Spear in it ... This will not do, off to empty closets.