Late legend Bob Marley would’ve turned 74 today. Associated most readily with warm, sun-lit reggae – the smiling simplicity of ‘Three Little Birds’ and ‘One Love’ – the singer’s legacy is monumental.
A ubiquitous figure, you’ll spot his likeness everywhere from the stalls of Camden Market to Kingston; printed on endless t-shirts, posters, lighters, key-rings, rizla packets, lip balms, and virtually any other product you could ever care to name. As ironic as Marley’s merch-based immortalisation may seem (an anti-capitalist, the musician’s final words were “money can’t buy life”) it’s also testament to how far his influence reaches.
Bob Marley passed away aged just 36, leaving behind a trove of now-iconic material. As we remember a musical icon, here are some of his most essential tracks.
‘Three Little Birds’
Inspired by the canaries that came to perch on Marley’s window-sill at his home on Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica (or possibly the musician’s three backing singers, depending who you ask) this feel-good anthem bottles up pure sunshine.
Marley’s close association with carefree, laid-back reggae is a bit misleading; much of his discography instead mounts a pointed protest. His first big hit ‘Simmer Down’ – recorded with the Wailers – seems jaunty and brass-covered at first glance. Look closer, and it’s really a confrontation (albeit a peaceful one) directed towards violent crime; calling for tempers to cool down.
‘Get Up, Stand Up’
One of Marley’s best known tracks, ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ is also universal shortcode for refusing to be silenced. A call to wake up and smell reality’s freshly brewed coffee, so to speak, the Wailers urge listeners to stand firm in the face of injustice. “I want people to live big and have enough,” he once said, speaking about the track.
‘I Shot the Sheriff’
Telling the story of a narrator who shot a sheriff in self-defense – “but I didn’t shoot the deputy” – ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ is the final straw in musical form. After endless unfair hassling from the authorities, Marley’s narrator grows sick of being targeted, and fights back back against extensive police corruption and brutality. As police forces around the world continue to discriminate disproportionately against people of colour, Marley’s protest song remains just as relevant today.
Thanks to Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State of Mind’ the expression “concrete jungle” brings to mind the infinite possibilities of New York City. Meanwhile, Marley’s own ‘Concrete Jungle’ is a desolate town riddled with the impossible.There’s no sun shining, no “high yellow moon” out to play, and even if there are no physical chains to be seen, the inner workings of the system makes escape impossible. “I’m not free,” Marley sings I know I am bound here in captivity”. A down-tempo track outlining profound inequality, it’s also one of his most powerful moments.
‘Could You Be Loved’
Written on a plane as the Wailers experimented with guitars, ‘Could You Be Loved’ is a much-needed reminder to be generous to one another. In being kind and loving, it’s inevitable that you’ll mess up along the way; in Marley’s world being the first person to call out a mistake won’t do you any favours down the line. “The road of life is rocky; And you may stumble too,” the song proclaims. “So while you point your fingers, someone else is judging you”. Apt advice for next time you yell at someone on Twitter, perhaps?
‘Is This Love’
Stripping love back to its essence – looking out for each other, no matter what – ‘Is This Love’ is up there with Marley’s love-struck best; a swaying throwing of his cards onto the table.