The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Bob Marley Ascends to Superstardom
After two stunning gigs at the Lyceum in London, Bob Marley found himself universally hailed as reggae's first superstar. Karl Dallas watched the Wailers in action and talked to their leader about music, prejudice and Babylon. This piece ran in Melody Maker on July 26, 1975——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Columbo's is a mostly black-patronised disco in London's Carnaby Street. The only white face on the stairs is the autographed picture of Peter Falk in the role of the club's eponymous (but differently spelled) TV hero. A black bouncer, who looks like a heavy in a Raymond Chandler yarn, is keeping a crowd of ticketless gatecrashers at bay with less effort of his ham-like fist than it would take him to crack a walnut.
Inside, Bob Marley is partying. He's a little guy, lean and wiry, but it is easy to see him as he bends his knees and straightens them in that characteristic Jamaican strut he does on stage as he plays, and it's neither the spike plaits of his natty dread locks nor the eerie luminiscence of the towel he wears around his neck like a heavyweight champion in the flashing glow of the UV strobes which enables you to pick him out.
It is the way the admiring crowd opens and closes round him as he moves from one part of the dance floor to another, wiping the sweat off his face with the towel with one hand, grabbing a black girl round the waist with the other as she moves to and fro for a beat or two, then moving away to another part of the floor.
You wouldn't think he had just played a tough, almost continuous one-hour set to a packed Lyceum, London, with no proper encore because it looked as if the crowd was about to pull him off stage in its blind enthusiasm, or that he was to meet the press at noon for a conference encompassing subjects like revolution, what he does with his money, how he felt when two members quit his band after their last British bummer of a tour, and what is his favourite piece of reggae music.
He parries them all, answers most of them with a mild urbanity that belies his reputation of being occasionally difficult, and confirms his own report that the vibration on this tour is decidedly different from the last.
If superstardom consists of being elusive, evasive, incoherent, unpunctual, enigmatic, all-round difficult, then Marley is no superstar. But if it has anything to do with that over-worked word, charisma, with knowing what you are doing and not being diverted from the main object in view, with a burning conviction and a dazzling talent united to communicate, then Marley is possibly the greatest superstar to visit these shores since the days when Dylan conquered the concert halls of Britain, never looking back.
At that Lyceum concert I found myself thinking of Dylan several times, first when he stabbed a pointing finger at the audience during 'No Woman No Cry', remembering Dylan's reported dislike of "finger-pointing" songs, and I wished he could be here crammed into this neck of humanity to feel how effective they can be in the right hands.
And then, as the mass of Afro-topped black heads swept up over the ineffective crash barriers and became a snake-pit of reaching arms, grabbing at his ankles, his wrists, the belt round his pants, I thought of Phil Ochs' comment that if Dylan ever walked through his audience they would kill him, literally tear him to pieces out of sheer love and adoration, and I understood straight away why there was no encore, a feeling which was confirmed, not dispelled, by the howl of booing when they put the house lights up to show the crowd that the show was indeed over.