i like my reggae with a good solid political message...public enemy, steel pulse, peter tosh (he talked the talk but also walked the walk)........a real political activist......
Just over nine years ago violence silenced the voice of one reggae’s greatest artistes, Peter Tosh, christened Hubert McIntosh. Peter had a long history in the music business and his career went through many phases. He, along with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailers, were founding members of the Wailers, which to many students of Jamaican music made the greatest contribution to the development of popular music in Jamaica. Unlike Bob, Peter’s music has never received the acclaim it deserves, and hid forthright advocacy of the legalization of marijuana brought him into conflict with local authorities. I have always found an attempt to compare the relative merits of Peter,as opposed to Bob or Bunny, to be pointless exercise, as each in his own way made a monumental contribution to the music. First, there was Bob, the most profilic writer, initially of love songs and exhortations to dance and then later as his horizons broadened, of songs of protest. Bunny, for me, was the mystic, with whom I will always associate the classic, “Dreamland”. Then there was Peter, with the most powerful voice, and always the militant from the early days when he did a version of “Go Till It On The Mountain”. He was also the most accomplished musician of the three.
The early years of the Wailers demonstrated their attempts to simultaneously develop their own style as well as to copy the stylings of American signing groups. In that regard, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions had a profound impact on them. During that period, even whilst they recorded together, they each released singles for which was primarily responsible with the other two providing harmony. From Peter, we had classics such as “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” “Funeral” (later recorded as “Burial”, (Stepping Razor” (written by Joe Higgs and later re-recorded for the Equal Rights album), “Maga Dog”, Ha Fi Get a Beaten” and Mark of the Beast”. One cannot forget “Can’t Blame the Youth” which inexplicably he never re-recorded. During these years, the group put out three albums - The Wailing Wailers, Soul Rebel and Soul Revolution II The latter two were produced in collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. The signing with Chris Blackwell and Island Records in 1972 brought the Wailers great opportunities and exposure, but led, almost inevitably, to the disintegration of the group. The two island albums, on which all three performed, were not commercially successful, but served as the launching pad for Bob’s solo career, as the music world became aware of this “breath of fresh air” from this unique group. Whilst Bob dominated the first two albums, the cuts which were Peter’s were reflective of what would continue to be dominant features of his lyrics; the fight against exploitation, and his call fro unity among oppressed persons. Hence, “Stop That Train,” “Four Hundred Years” lamenting the plight of blacks 400 year’s after slavery had been abolished, and “One Foundation”. However, the most impressive output from that period was the song “Get Up, Stand Up,” co-written with Marley which has become an anthem for protest groups worldwide.
By 1974, both Peter and Bunny had gone on their own. Many of us lamented this development at first. However, the separation brought an unpresedent outpouring of creativity as the talent of each of the three was allowed unrestrained growth, even while reflecting their common roots. I feel that three, individually and collectively, contributed as much to pop music as a more renowned group - the Beatles. Bob’s development as a solo artist is well documented as he became and remains one of the pre-eminent stars in the history of pop music. The fact is that Peter’s output deserves far more acclaim than it has received and this article is an attempt to bring some attention to the efforts of his prodigious talent. His first solo album, Legalise It was done for Atlantic. It reflected a theme which he pursued to his death -that marijuana be legalised. The album was adequate but not outstanding , although it demonstrated the wonderful harmonization between Peter and Bunny on cuts such as “When the Well Runs Dry”. The second and last album for Atlantic, Equal Rights remain to me the finest reggae album ever made. There is simply no bad cut on it; in fact, there are perhaps too many good songs. After nearly 20 years of listening to it I still have difficulty in deciding which is my favourite piece although the screaming lead guitar on “Stepping Razor” still gives me a thrill. At the same time the deep base line and the stuttering organ on the title track, “Equal Rights” with Tosh in relaxed vocal mood, must not be under-estimated. But where do you rank “African” which has inspired so many in their search for their heritage? Or where do you put the assertive “I am that I am?” If you have ever listened to this album, you owe it to yourself to spend 45 minutes doing so. I am convinced that you will come away totally captivated by Tosh’s lyrics, vocal talents and equally by the tightness of his backing band.
After these two initial albums with Atlantic, Tosh signed with Rolling Stones Records and this gave rise to two albums : Bush Doctor and Mystic Man . This period was characterised by two important developments. The first was the formation of Tosh’s backing group world, Sound and Power including Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and Mikey Chung, together with the Tamlins on backing vocals. The second development was an increased number of live performances. On their best nights, there was no better live act in music at that stage. During that period there was collaboration with Mike Jagger and Keith Richards, with Jagger sharing lead vocals on “Don’t Look Back” and Richards playing the guitar on various cuts. Of note in this period were reggae-disco hit “Buckingham Palace,” the chest-beating “I’m the Toughest” (an adaptation of the old hit by James and Bobby Purify, “I’m Your Puppet”) and a personal favourite, the hymn-like “Jah Seh No.” Following this period with Rolling Stones records, Tosh moved to EMI and this lead to four albums: Wanted, Dread & Alive, Mama Africa, Captured Live and No Nuclear War There are several classic hits from this era but one remains a favourite of mine: “Rastfari Is”. It was done originally for Wanted: Dread & Alive and redone live on Captured Live. This cut combines reggae rhythms, Nyabinghi drumming with a blues-rock guitar with amazing results. In fact, “Rastafari Is” indicates how true Rastas are able to combine their enjoyment of music with the worship of the Creator, without falling prey to the false divisions which inhibit more traditional believers.
Whilst Tosh’s recordings remain with us, to me his greatest talent was demonstrated in his stage appearances. I have already made reference to the tight aggregation which he put together as World Sound and Power. However, perhaps because of his great music talent, even when he lost Sly, Robbie and Mickey Chung, and they were replaced by lesser lights, he was able to harness new people into an aggregation which seemed to give nothing away in a comparison with the original group. In terms of his live performances, his greatest attribute was the element of surprise. You never knew how he would make his entrance; you never knew how he would be dressed; you never knew what new arrangements he would try; but lastly, you never knew what he would say. Among his live shows, which I had the privilege of witnessing, three confirmed in my mind Tosh’s greatness as a stage performer. The first was the Peace Concert held the National Stadium in 1978, where he not only gave a scintillating performance, but lectured the huge crowd, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the social ills afflicting the country. At first, I was angry at his outburst, but two questions from a friend silenced me. First, what had he said which was not true? Second, if Tosh did not raise these questions, who would? The second was at the first Reggae Sunsplash, held in Kingston in 1980. For some reason there was a delay in bringing Tosh on stage and so the crowd became restive. However, in addition Sly and Robbie, together with most of Tosh’s band, Word, Sound and Power, had backed most of the preliminary groups, including Black Uhuru and the Tamlins. I had become somewhat bored with the sameness of the band’s playing, and so I worried that Tosh’s performance would seem like a continuation of what had gone before. How pleasantly surprised were we! When Tosh came on stage, the band took on a totally different sound and he proceeded to give a performance such as we had never seen before from a Jamaican artist. The third great local performance, turned out be his final one in Jamaica. This was in December of 1983 at the Pulse’s Super Jam concert. Among the preliminaries were Gregory Isaacs and the Skatalites. Following these acts, there was a lengthy band change made worse by the fact that Tosh’s lead guitarist was nowhere to be found. Tosh came on stage after midnight to what initially a sullen and un-responsive gathering. After about three songs, he had us eating out of his hands,. Many would have been well satisfied if he had stopped after five songs. But he went on and on, prancing, playing the songs and his custom built guitar. It was the total performance and it is one that anyone who was present, still talks about to this day.
With time, as his records are listened to and younger artists get tuned into his music, Tosh will receive his due credit which, by and large, has not been given to date. His achievements were not due credit to his God-given capabilities but also to the work he put in as a musician. Allan “Skill” Cole, Bob Marley’s friend and confidante, and now coach of the Arnett Gardens football team, the area where the Wailers grew up, has told me that in his assessment, Tosh’s greatness lay in his skill as a musician. “Skill” says that Peter could play any instrument he put his hand on. In a letter to me in the mid 70s, Peter indicated that no less a star than Eric Clapton had asked him to tour with him and teach him to play reggae rhythms. Few people know that Tosh played guitar on the Eric Gale Album, Negril. I have deliberately tried not to engage in the useless comparison with Bob or Bunny, but simply to encourage those who may not have seriously listened to Tosh to begin to do. If you are totally new to his music, I recommend that you start by getting a copy of the album Equal Rights. I guarantee that after listening to it, you will be hooked for life.