Bob Marley’s Exodus: An Album That Defined the 20th Century

Bob Marley was a household name at the time of his exodus to London; in 1975 he and The Wailers had played a packed concert at the city’s Lyceum Theater, captured in their first live album for Island Records. In 1977, London itself was in flux: torn between politics, royal pageantry and the booming punk and disco scene; Exodus also channels that restless creative energy and curious reactions from Marley. Music writer Vivien Goldman was present for the recording of the album, and captures its backdrop and atmosphere in her excellent work The Book Of Exodus (2006); she writes, “Exodus was a creative leap, a journey of a familiar style and technique in search of another unknown, retaining the reggae patois of the music while making it intelligible to a wider community.”

Cedella Marley recalls: “When Bob came to London. I was angry because he left us in Jamaica…but he really did something special here. Every time I hear the track Punky Reggae Party [originally the single B-side to Jamming; included on later versions of Exodus], I can imagine him in a flat somewhere here in London, and just a bunch of people walking in: the smoking, the music and the vibe. He experimented with musical sounds that weren’t reggae, and he wasn’t afraid to do it.”

rebel fear

Marley’s presence in London had also had a huge impact on “baby dread” DJ and aspiring filmmaker Don Letts, who attended the Lyceum concert in 1975. “It was absolutely an epiphany,” Letts said, who was moved to follow Marley and his team to their hotel and get to know the Jamaican artist. In 1977, Letts was spinning reggae records at prototype punk club The Roxy, and his fashionable bondage pants drew the ire of Marley (“You look like one of the mean punk rockers”) when they are encountered on Kings Road. This clash of cultures is nicely chronicled in a new documentary about Letts’ life and work (including his famous films for artists from The Clash to Marley and Elvis Costello): Rebel Dread (released in March).

“Bob lived next door to me, and we had this argument about punk; in the months that followed, he became familiar with the scene, thanks to journalists like Viv Goldman and [Marley’s biographer] Chris Salewicz, and after that a better-informed Bob was brought in to write the song Punky Reggae Party,” Letts told BBC Culture. “I think the point of the story is that I had the courage to stand up and disagree with him. But he was dismissive at first – and I said, “You’re wrong, mate; Something is happening. And he found out that there was indeed something going on. London had this style-driven subculture that changed every three or four years; this shit didn’t happen anywhere else. It was driven by the class system, but it was a positive that came out of the negative.”

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