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Stepping Razor's Reggae

Peter Tosh
Rasta Shook Them Up: "The Toughest" displays Peter Tosh in his prime.



A retrospective album tracks the history of tough-minded reggae star Peter Tosh

By Nicky Baxter

IF THE WAILERS were the Beatles, Bob Marley would be sweet-mannered melody maker Paul, Bunny Wailer the mystic seeker George, and Peter Tosh ... well, Tosh could only be compared to John the cynic, except that Tosh was tougher.

It's highly unlikely you'd catch the lanky Rasta posing bare-assed for peace. In fact, he was the toughest. While Lennon was writing about revolution, his black counterpart was demonstrating against the white-supremacist regime "Rhodesia," an act that got him locked down in Jamaica's notorious prison system. It would not be his last clash with the island's neocolonial regime.

Before Chris Blackwell planted the seeds for the band's disintegration, the Wailers were, even more than the Fab Four, a democracy of three. Hence, it's not all that surprising that the new retrospective album The Toughest (Heartbeat) features Tosh singing mostly self-penned tunes backed by Bob and Bunny.

The material spans the years 1963 to 1970 and is interesting for at least a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it offers a comprehensive overview of Tosh's development as a vocalist and songsmith. "Don't Look Back" and "400 Years" are the most obvious examples. The former was first recorded with the Wailers in 1966 as a terse rock-steady number featuring Tosh's youthful high tenor bookended by the heaven-sent background harmonies supplied by Bunny Wailer and Constantine Walker.

Ignoring the song's advice, Tosh would go back to re-record the Temptations' tune with Mick Jagger more than a decade later. At best, this odd coupling smacked of rank opportunism on the part of both vocalists. At worst, it was a grotesque illustration of show business as usual--watching the vid-clip of the man who wrote the Pan-Africanist tract "400 Years" mugging in front of the camera with white-supremacist and misogynist Jagger was difficult to stomach.

"400 Years" was recorded twice, once for Lee "Scratch" Perry's Upsetter Records and again for Island on the band's explosive major-label debut, Catch a Fire. The difference between the two versions is day and night. For one thing, the first rendition Tosh and the Wailers laid down for Perry is taken at a much faster clip, with Tosh's urgent lead crying out like a Sankofa bird.

The backing harmonies are again prominent; Bob Marley's high-pitched, almost fragile warbling is easily distinguishable from Bunny Wailer's more sinewy voice. Though Catch a Fire's more brooding rendition ultimately delivers the deadlier blow, the original is a remarkable blueprint (despite being marred by a boomy bass).

Secondly, thanks to the disc's chronological approach, we are afforded an eye-level view of not just Tosh and the Wailers' musical evolution but also of Jamaican pop music as a whole, from ska to rock-steady to reggae.

The ska material ranges from the playful exuberance of mid-'60s folkie parody "Hoot Nanny Hoot" (Tosh's first lead vocal as a Wailer) to the biting social commentary of "Maga Dog." The more moderately paced rock-steady material is perhaps best represented by the title track, on which Tosh shares lead vocals with Bunny Wailer. Interestingly, Wailer's later cover was arguably the more definitive version. The set concludes with a half-dozen Lee Perry­produced reggae numbers.

WHILE IT'S TRUE that the Wailers were Bob, Bunny and Peter's band, the contributions of the other members cannot be discounted. In the early days, Carlton and Aston ("Familyman") on drums and bass, respectively, occupied the same lofty status as Sly Dunbar and Robby Shakespeare would in later years.

On the Lee Perry­era productions, the Barrett brothers' rhythmic genius is heard in all its glory. On "Secondhand," for instance, the role of Familyman's bass is twofold, establishing the melody and punctuating the groove. Carlton, meanwhile, nails down the beat with immaculate precision. Though the lineup would change in the ensuing years, even during its nascent stages, the Wailers as a band was a top-ranking unit.

Before the Wailers as we came to know them jelled, they worked with Jamaica's cream, most notably the Skatalites and Perry's Upsetters (check the back-to-Africa nyabhingi drumming on "Rightful Ruler"). For his part, Tosh was a more than competent rhythm guitarist; it was he who taught Marley the rudiments of the instrument, though the latter was never a match for Tosh and his emphatic down-strokin' skank.

The Toughest contains a few genuinely weird moments. The Mamas and Papas­like pop of "Can't You See" is one; the aforementioned "Hoot Nanny Hoot" another. What sticks, though, are anti-Babylon broadsides like "Rasta Shook Them Up" and "Downpresser." On these tracks, Tosh really does sound like the "stepping razor" he brags about on the title cut. That he was cut down by a robber's gunfire in his home (some contend the killing was politically motivated) close to 10 years ago doesn't change a thing; Peter Tosh was the toughest.

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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