Although for some, Legend, the best-selling anthology of Bob Marley’s music originally released in 1984, is their gateway drug into the world of reggae music, most hardcore reggae fans would have no use for the album at all. Frankly I’m one of them. Legend, to me, is (with the exception of a few tracks) the blandest of the bland, on par with Phil Collins or Billy Joel. But there is a reason for that… a pretty interesting reason that I’ll get to in a minute.
I think the matter has long been settled, though, on Legend‘s status as an all-time classic album—it’s sold well over 27 million copies worldwide and continues to sell another 250,000 copies annually in the United States alone—and the occasion for this post isn’t to bestow (inflict?) my opinion of it upon you or anything. That reason would be UMe’s new 30th anniversary edition of Legend which came out yesterday, as remastered in stereo and 5.1 surround by producer Bob Clearmountain, one of the best in the business.
I may have just stated that I’m rather lukewarm about Legend, but holy shit does this sound amazing (Thankfully UMe issued the anthology on a Blu-ray disc (along with a CD) and not just a regular DVD). If you are already fan of the collection, I’d have to say that this rates a “must buy.” Hearing Marley’s music—even the inoffensive selection on Legend—opened up into the wide sonic vistas that the multi-channel format allows for, Clearmountain’s surround sound revisioning of these songs is quite remarkable. If you already own Legend on vinyl or CD (or both) you won’t feel like a chump at all for buying it again. Like I say, it’s pretty impressive on the audiophile level, almost like hearing these songs for the very first time.
In many respects, the song selection of Legend provides the listener with a misleading notion of what Bob Marley was all about. Where were all the songs about hunger, survival and ghetto uprising? Aside from “Get Up Stand Up,” where’s the militant Marley represented?
It turns out that the militant side of Bob Marley is how Island Records owner Chris Blackwell originally wanted to memorialize his friend, but the man he handed the job of making Legend happen to—Island’s UK manager Dave Robinson (co-founder of the Stiff Records label)—had a different vision: Robinson wanted to sell Bob Marley albums—boatloads of ‘em—to white people.
Of course Bob Marley was a worldwide superstar during his lifetime, but he wasn’t a platinum-selling artist (Exodus sold about 650,000 copies in America, 200,000 in Britain). The track selection on Legend was made very carefully and justified by focus groups along the way to appeal to just about everyone and offend no one.
In “The Whitewashing of Bob Marley,” the fascinating cover story of this week’s LA WEEKLY, writer Chris Kornelis describes how Marley’s music came to be sold to the suburbs:
It’s not that Bob Marley didn’t have white fans when he was alive. Caucasian college students in the United States - particularly those around Midwestern schools, including the University of Michigan, Prevost says - constituted a large percentage of his fan base. But for the compilation to meet Robinson’s lofty sales goals, those students’ parents had to buy the album, too.
Robinson had a hunch that suburban record buyers were uneasy with Marley’s image - that of a perpetually stoned, politically driven iconoclast associated with violence. So he commissioned London-based researcher Gary Trueman to conduct focus groups with white suburban record buyers in England. Trueman also met with traditional Marley fans to ensure that the label didn’t package the album in a way that would offend his core audience.
Less than a decade before violence and drugs became a selling point for gangsta rap, the suburban groups told Trueman precisely what Robinson suspected: They were put off by the way Marley was portrayed. They weren’t keen on the dope, the religion, the violent undertones or even reggae as a genre. But they loved Marley’s music.
“There was almost this sense of guilt that they hadn’t got a Bob Marley album,” Trueman says. “They couldn’t really understand why they hadn’t bought one.”
Legend may be a “tame” “lite FM” version of Bob Marley, but nearly 30 million albums later, who can quibble with any of it? And trust me, the new 5.1 surround mix of the album will blow your doors off and make you want more… The more militant stuff, but I’m sure that’s to come.
Below, Bob Marley accepts the UN Peace Medal at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, June 15, 1978. You will probably want to turn on the subtitles.