Bob Marley’s Exodus: An Album That Defined the 20th Century
In the first room of the new Bob Marley One Love Experience at London’s Saatchi Gallery, you’re immediately struck by the Jamaican reggae megastar’s extraordinary catalog of recordings with his band, The Wailers.
Along the wall displays, a gold record sleeve radiates its own regal presence: the pivotal 10th album Exodus (1977), created when Marley and his comrades lived a short walk from this Chelsea location.
Now in its 45th year, it’s a powerful transitional work: arguably confirming Marley’s true global status and continually connecting with new generations of listeners.
The mind of Exodus is multi-layered; its title track evokes the Old Testament story of Moses leading his people to safety, and its parallels with Marley’s Rastafarian faith.
It also reflects Marley’s own flight to London, amid the brutal turbulence of the Jamaican election and following an assassination attempt in December 1976 which injured him and his wife, singer Rita Marley.
It will spend more than a year in the British capital, during which Exodus (and its relatively airy 1978 sequel, Kaya) were created.
Exodus was named the most important album of the 20th century by Time magazine, which hailed it as “a political and cultural nexus, drawing inspiration from the Third World and then giving it a voice around the world”.
In the 21st century, the term “Third World” should be consigned to history, but the power of this album certainly lives on. Exodus songs permeate the One Love experience, including the uplifting hymn that gives this exhibit its name.
During my visit, Marley’s daughter, creative artist and entrepreneur, Cedella, gave Saatchi Gallery an approving look: “Jonathan [Shank, exhibition designer] is a visionary,” she says.
“In every room you get a bit of Bob – and a bit of Mom [Rita Marley] as well as children and grandchildren. Beyond its run in London, this exhibition is on the move, via Toronto, Vancouver, LA, Chicago, NYC, Miami, Amsterdam, Seoul, Tel Aviv, Tokyo and Kingston, Jamaica; Marley’s reach is global.
Exodus isn’t exactly an angry record; it’s truly a scream about every type of situation he’s been through – Cedella Marley
Exodus has been re-released in various stages, including a 40th anniversary version mixed by Cedella’s brother (and occasional bandmate) Ziggy Marley.
It remains a captivating listen; on vinyl, the album’s distinct halves are particularly pronounced: the political and spiritual forces of side A (from the haunting groove of the Natural Mystic opener to the catchy title track with its refrain “Jah people move!”) ; the romance and optimism of the B-side (including several smash hits, such as Jamming; Waiting In Vain – a rumored dedication to Marley’s girlfriend, Cindy Breakspeare; Three Little Birds and the ubiquitous One Love/People Get Ready, which mixes Marley’s songwriting with US progressive soul artist Curtis Mayfield).
In digital form, it transports the listener through relatable emotions: angst; challenge; finally peace and hope.
As Cedella Marley notes: “The message is still relevant. Unfortunately, not everything has changed for the better, and as I grow up and my children grow up, I say, “wow”; in the late 1970s, Jamaica was in turmoil. Dad could have gone anywhere in the world to record, but for some reason he chose London. Exodus isn’t exactly an angry record; it’s really a shout out about all the situations he’s been through.
Bob Marley was a household name at the time of his exodus to London; in 1975 he and The Wailers had played a packed concert at the city’s Lyceum Theater, captured in their first live album for Island Records.
In 1977, London itself was in flux: torn between politics, royal pageantry and the booming punk and disco scene; Exodus also channels that restless creative energy and Marley’s curious reactions.
Music writer Vivien Goldman was present for the recording of the album and captures its backdrop and atmosphere in her excellent work The Book Of Exodus (2006); she writes, “Exodus was a creative leap, a journey of a familiar style and technique in search of another unknown, retaining the reggae patois of the music while making it intelligible to a wider community.”
Cedella Marley recalls: “When Bob came to London. I was angry because he left us in Jamaica…but he really did something special here. Every time I hear the track Punky Reggae Party [originally the single B-side to Jamming; included on later versions of Exodus], I can imagine him in a flat somewhere here in London, and just a bunch of people walking in: the smoking, the music and the vibe. He experimented with musical sounds that weren’t reggae, and he wasn’t afraid to do it.
Marley’s presence in London had also had a huge impact on “baby dread” DJ and aspiring filmmaker Don Letts, who attended the Lyceum concert in 1975.
“It was absolutely an epiphany,” says Letts, who was moved to follow Marley and his team to their hotel and get to know the Jamaican artist.
In 1977, Letts was spinning reggae records at the prototype punk club The Roxy, and his fashionable bondage pants drew the ire of Marley (“You look like one of the mean punk rockers”) when they got together. met on Kings Road.
This clash of cultures is nicely chronicled in a new documentary about Letts’ life and work (including his famous films for artists from The Clash to Marley and Elvis Costello): Rebel Dread (released in March).
“Bob lived next door to me, and we had this argument about punk; in the months that followed, he became familiar with the scene, thanks to journalists like Viv Goldman and [Marley’s biographer] Chris Salewicz, and after that a better informed Bob was brought in to write the song Punky Reggae Party,” Letts told BBC Culture.
“I think the point of the story is that I had the courage to stand up and disagree with him. But he was initially dismissive – and I said, ‘You’re wrong, mate there’s something going on. And he found out that there was actually something going on. London had this style-driven subculture that changed every three or four years; that shit didn’t happen anywhere else. was driven by the class system, but it was a positive that came out of the negative.
Bob meant so many different things to different people and different generations – Jonathan Shank
On Exodus, Marley put rebel music to the sweetest melodies and influenced multi-genre homages, from protest soundtracks to Stevie Wonder’s dazzling 1980 hit Master Blaster (Jammin’) on various international occasions, including a 21st century “global singalong” of One Love featuring talents such as Latin music star Manu Chao, Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga and Los Angeles bluesman Keb ‘Mo’.
It’s an undeniably conflicting legacy; Marley’s designs have since featured on everything from football shirts to ice cream flavors, and the One Love experience includes plenty of photo opportunities and Insta-appropriate lyrical slogans – Shank explains: “Bob meant so many different things to different people and different generations. at this stage. What struck me was that when you look at the lyrics in print, the message resonates more than ever today.
At the same time, the exhibition highlights Exodus on an ongoing politically conscious journey, including the final studio albums by Marley and The Wailers: Survival (1979), Uprising (1980) and Confrontation (released in 1983, two years after Marley’s death from cancer).
The songs are hugely significant, at a time when countless people are still uprooted from their homes, by political strife or injustice, including the British government’s Windrush scandal. Music resonates as much as it does because there is always fire blazing beneath beauty.
Letts is typically blunt about why Exodus strikes a timeless chord: “A lot of it has to do with the fact that the disparity between haves and have-nots hasn’t really changed.
His audience will always be massive; he’s the most recognized artist on the planet – not necessarily because he sells more, it’s just because more people with no money are getting screwed. As long as those numbers stay that way, Bob will be the man.
The Bob Marley One Love Experience is at the Saatchi Gallery in London until April 18, 2022.