The movie arrived in theaters in 1972, and Island released the soundtrack
album, which featured Cliff singing the title song, which was also the lead single. The movie arrived in theaters in 1972,
and Island released the soundtrack
album, which featured Cliff singing the title song, which was also the lead single.
Rumors circulated that the 45 never became a hit because Island ignored
store requests for more stock to prevent its success, in an attempt to make
the reluctant Cliff sign a further one-year option with the label; they were
offering 14,000GBP, and he was asking 20,000 (in 1973 Cliff wouls sign with
EMI in the U.K., and Warner Bros. In the U.S.).
More than anything before it, The Harder They Came brought reggae
and Jamaica to global attention, without any concessions to the mass market.
The characters all spoke in patois, virtually incomprehensible to non-native
ears, telling the story of a rude boy's rise and fall in Kingston. The ghettoes
were truthfully portrayed. The soundtrack steered clear of the pop-reggae
sound. While half of the album's twelve tracks were from Cliff, the others
were a selection of reggae classics
"Rivers Of Babylon" (Melodians),
"007 (Shanty Town)" (Desmond Dekker), "Pressure Drop" (Toots and the Maytals),
and of the greatest rude boy anthems, the Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad."
It was reggae at its unvarnished best, not sweetened in any attempt to win
over new fans.
Between chart success and the film, reggae how had recognition. What it
needed was one person to bring together the disparate elements - songwriting,
musicianship, and image - that could fully establish reggae both commercially
and critically. It seemed like a tall order, but the person was already there.
In 1972 the Wailers, with the Barrett brothers now part of the band, moved
to England to work for Johnny Nash. Marley had preceded the others, to work
with Nash on the score of a Swedish film starring Nash (it was never released).
Once ensconced in a cheap London hotel, the Wailers became the backup band
for Nash's I Can See Clearly Now album, and Marley signed a contract
with CBS, who issued his "Reggae On Broadway." Nash's promotion man, Brent
Clarke, worked the single hard, but with no record company support, it only
sold 3000 copies. Soon Clarke was expending all his energies on the Wailers,
moving them into a house which became a focal point for young black musicians.
When Nash left England for America, Clarke began work at Island, and gave
Blackwell a demo tape of songs Marley had written for Nash. Blackwell was
familiar with them, and had once considered signing them to Island, before
being dissuaded by their difficult reputation. Now Island were looking for
a reggae artist to replace Cliff, and the Wailers were in danger of being
deported. The timing was perfect for a deal.
For the meager sum of 8000GBP, and the right to release their own records
in the Caribbean, the Wailers became Island recording artists (actually for
the second time - Island had issued "Put It On" in 1965). Borrowing money
from Clarke, who'd brokered the deal, they returned to Jamaica to record.
At Dynamic Studios in Kingston, the tracks that made up Catch A Fire
were laid down, using not only the band, but also some session men, including
Robbie Shakespeare and Tyrone Downey.
When Marley (who at this stage did not have dreadlocks) delivered the tapes
to Blackwell in the winter of 1972, Blackwell could sense the potential. With
the right push, it could break reggae into the mainstream. However, the sound
was still too Jamaican, and so guitarist Al Perkins and keyboard player
Rabbit Bundrick were drafted in. The finished album had both a rootsy
feel and a fine rock sheen.
Island put a lot of marketing muscle behind Catch A Fire. It came
in a die-cut cover with guaranteed eye appeal. The disc, and the band, received
a great deal of press, and toured Europe and America; in New York, they played
a week at Max's Kanasa City, doing three 30-minute sets a night. But a winter
tour of the U.K. was abandoned, ostensibly because of the cold.
The three core members of the Wailers had been together for a decade, but
with the flowering of real success, cracks in the unity began appearing. Blackwell
had formed a strong working relationship with Marley, and was pushing him
as the leader of the group, something neither Tosh nor Wailer fully understood.
But Tosh, who once pulled a machete on Blackwell, was notoriously volatile
and Wailer, still the only Rasta in the band, refused to sign agreements and
contracts, a nightmare for both label and management.
Even with Island's might and money, Catch A Fire didn't make international
stars of the Wailers. The white rock world need more time to absorb the new
phenomenon (acceptance really came with Eric Clapton's cover of Marley's
"I Shot The Sheriff"). But it was the record that became the foundation for
reggae to become a global phenomenon.