Chris Blackwell

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Chris Blackwell - Savvy Svengali Page 4
By Brent HagermanIn the Wailers Blackwell recognises the elements needed to capture the all-important rock listener: "I was dealing with rock music, which was really rebel music. I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music. But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in he really was that image, the real one that Jimmy had created in the movie." This turn of events leaves many music historians wondering if Cliff hadn't left Island, whether he would be the current king of reggae.

For the first time a reggae band has access to a state of the art studio and is treated in the same way as their rock contemporaries. While the album is mainly recorded on eight-track at Harry J's in Kingston, Blackwell wants to remix it for a rock audience, creating "more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a reggae rhythm." [Quoted in the liner notes to 2001 reissue of Catch a Fire, written by Richard Williams.] Marley travels to London to oversee Blackwell's overdubbing, which includes mellowing the mix from the stark bass-heavy sound of Jamaican music and cutting two tracks entirely. Marley biographer Timothy White says of this process, "Chris Blackwell disentangled, revised and otherwise restructured Bob's primitive mixes and sometimes stiff arrangements." Blackwell brings in session players (un-credited on the final release) to help get the rock sound he is looking for, including Alabaman lead guitarist Wayne Perkins from the Muscle Shoals, who happens to be in an adjacent studio at the time. He has never heard of reggae and can't understand a word Marley says to him, but under Blackwell's direction he lays down the definitive overdriven blues licks and feedback that complete tracks like "Concrete Jungle" and "Stir it Up." Also integral to the album's sound is Texan John Rabbit Bundrick's (of Free) organ and clavinet work on all nine tracks. His clavinet on "Concrete Jungle" sets the bar for all future work by Wailers' keyboardist Tyrone Downie, and subsequently for reggae keyboard in general. The instrumental arrangement Blackwell fashioned on Catch a Fire would be the template Marley and the Wailers would use for the rest of their career. It is worth noting that both Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer used this same template, as did many of the same players for the own solo records in the late '70s. 1972 also sees the release of the debut self-titled album by art school grads Roxy Music. Produced by Island artist Peter Sinfield of King Crimson, Roxy Music breaks into the Top 10 and receives glowing reviews. The band will go on to be one of pop's most influential acts.

Catch A Fire is released in April, packaged in all its album glory like a rock record, using a unique Zippo lighter lift-top as a marketing gimmick. It does not make Marley a star, initially only selling 14,000 units, but it receives favourable critical attention. With Cliff's onscreen rebel and Marley's real life rebel, Blackwell's theory starts to show promise. Later in the year the Wailers' second album, Burnin', is released. It is not given as lavish a package as Catch A Fire and the music is not as doctored by Blackwell. Nonetheless, the stand-out track, "I Shot the Sheriff," catches the ear of Eric Clapton, who remakes it into a huge hit. Interestingly, many Jamaicans didn't like the "new improved" sound of reggae presented by Catch A Fire, but Burnin', with its less rock-centric Trenchtown style, appealed to both the reggae and newfound rock crowds. Around this time Blackwell gives his Kingston residence and company headquarters, at 56 Hope Rd. — dubbed Island House — to Bob Marley. It houses Tuff Gong Studios and becomes not only Marley's office to meet the press, but also his primary residence.

When Peter Tosh tells Blackwell he is working on a solo album and wants Island to pick it up, he is told that it would put Peter at cross purposes with the Wailers. Tosh quits the band, as does Bunny, citing a general dislike of international travel and the difficulty of getting ital food on the road. Many cite Blackwell and his favouritism for Marley as the reason for the original group's split, including Tosh himself, who feels he and Bunny are not getting a fair share of the money or attention. It is no secret that Tosh and Blackwell never got on and Tosh loves to taunt the record boss by calling him "Whiteworst." According to Timothy White, Tosh at one point even threats Blackwell with a machete during an argument. Another favourite Blackwell artist, former Vinegar Joe singer Robert Palmer, releases his first solo album on Island, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley. Like John Martyn, Palmer doesn't bring immediate commercial success to Island, but Blackwell is willing to let his creativity be his guide.
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Article Published In Feb 05 Issue