In 1999, Time magazine declared Bob Marley‘s Exodus (Island Records), released on June 3, 1977, the best album of the 20th Century. Whether any one album (even one as significant as Exodus is within Marley’s esteemed catalog) can justifiably merit such a sweeping and nearly incalculable designation is a topic for vigorous debate. What’s undeniable, though, is that a dramatic set of circumstances led to the recording of Exodus and helped shape a more complex aural identity for Marley and his extraordinary band, The Wailers. Upon Exodus‘ release, it was initially criticized as too polished but later regarded as visionary in taking reggae to a wider audience.
In 1976 amidst escalating political violence in Jamaica, Marley, by now internationally recognized, agreed to headline a concert in Kingston to help cool things down until the pending election. The Smile Jamaica concert, so named for Marley’s pacifying single released in November, would be held on Dec. 5. Following the announcement of the concert date, Prime Minister Michael Manley called for elections to be held shortly thereafter, which somewhat tainted the event with a partisan affiliation. Two days before the concert, as Marley took a break from rehearsals and was eating a grapefruit in his kitchen, three gunmen invaded his Kingston home and fired numerous rounds. A bullet grazed Marley’s chest and penetrated his arm; his wife Rita was struck, a bullet lodged between her scalp and her skull. Marley’s friend Lewis Simpson was shot in the stomach and his manager Don Taylor took five bullets, including one close to his spine. Upon Marley’s release from Kingston’s University Hospital, he retreated to Strawberry Hill, a compound nestled high in the hills above the city, owned by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. Bob’s participation in the Smile Jamaica concert, (wrongly) perceived by some as an endorsement of the incumbent party, has long been speculated as the catalyst for the shooting.
Two days after the ambush at his home, following much deliberation, his arm still bandaged, Marley performed a 90-minute set at the Smile Jamaica concert before a crowd estimated at 70,000. Shortly thereafter, he boarded a private jet for Nassau, Bahamas where he and his entourage spent Christmas before flying to London in early 1977. During their 14-month London sojourn Bob Marley and the Wailers recorded numerous songs, which Chris Blackwell divided into two albums, Exodus and its follow-up, Kaya, released in 1978. Exodus, in fact, sounds like two distinct albums: side one is a revolutionary call to action, each track inspired by or directly commenting on the shooting; side two is dominated by love songs, whether romantic or humanitarian, as in the anthemic “One Love” that closes the album.
“Exodus was a very important album for Bob because he was very depressed after the assassination attempt and really shocked that people in Jamaica would want to kill him,” Chris Blackwell told Billboard in a May 2017 interview. “Then he went to England and found that the people there loved him and his music so he got inspired again and worked on Exodus, which is just a wonderful album. The first side is more political, the second side showed him being happy, in a good mood,” Blackwell continued. “At the time, people said that he had gone soft for writing songs like ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’ and ‘One Love’ but he was happy, and he was real, so he wrote happy songs.”
According to Vivien Goldman’s The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Album of The Century, Marley’s bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett found a movie soundtracks album in a London thrift shop featuring the “Theme From Exodus,” from the 1960 film starring Paul Newman. The grandiose composition by Ernest Gold underscores the film’s depiction of the hope and anguish associated with the Jewish migration to the state of Israel. Family Man played Gold’s Exodus for Marley and before long he composed an equally majestic track, documenting his Exodus from Jamaica to London as well as Rastafari’s stated aim of African repatriation.
Produced by Bob Marley and the Wailers and recorded at London’s Fallout Shelter and Basing St. studios, Exodus peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard 200. This year, the Marley Family, Island Records and UMe will mark Exodus‘ 40th anniversary with a series of four reissues.
Below, Billboard revisits Exodus‘ 10 original tracks, which elevated the reggae star into a global phenomenon.
A thunderous bass line and a skanking rhythm guitar fade in, subtly growing louder, when Carly Barrett’s kick drum gives way to Bob’s heart-wrenching vocals on this somewhat forlorn contemplation on life’s injustices. With its majestic horn arrangement seemingly heralding Judgment Day, this is a more persuasive version of the song Marley originally recorded for producer Lee “Scratch” Perry in 1975.
“So Much Things to Say”
Directly addressing the assassination attempt, Marley recalls betrayed Jamaican National Heroes Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in his riveting crusade against “spiritual wickedness in high and low places.”
An adamant warning to the gunmen and those who might have ordered the hit on Marley that justice, karmic or otherwise, will be served. The straightforwardness of Marley’s lyrics, “guiltiness rest on their conscience,” is embellished by The Wailers’ tightly meshed rhythm, anchored in Family Man’s formidable bass line, and the I-Threes’ stunning harmonies.
Defiant and resilient in the face of adversity, Marley’s mesmerizing chanted vocals inform the nonbelievers that their time is up. Junior Marvin’s searing guitar lead and Tyrone Downie’s swirling synth riffs build as Marley encourages the sufferers to “rise and take your stand again” on this brilliant segue into the title track.
Having established a predominantly white college age fan base in America, in addition to Caribbean expats, Marley openly courted an African-American audience. The scorching mash-up of funk, reggae and disco, punctuated by blasts of regal horns, was Marley’s first single to receive widespread airplay on black radio stations in the U.S.
Its soulful piano lines and alluring, danceable groove make “Jamming” a great opener for side 2 but the song’s lyrical fearlessness more closely aligns with side 1’s uncompromising stances. Marley reminds us he “neither can be bought nor sold,” thunders “no bullets can stop us now” and invokes “Jah seated in Mount Zion, He rules all creation” — words that aren’t typically associated with a feel-good party song, as “Jamming” is (somewhat inexplicably) regarded.
“Waiting In Vain”
A captivating song about un-reciprocated love featuring a luscious blues-flavored guitar solo by Junior Marvin. The radio-friendly “Waiting In Vain” cracked the R&B top 40, has been covered by Chuck Jackson/Cissy Houston and Annie Lennox, among others, and is the only Wailers track to utilize a drum machine, several years before their widespread usage within the digital reggae explosion of the mid-1980s.
“Turn Your Lights Down Low”
A slow R&B ballad of renewed love that never quite finds a rhythmic flow as enticing as Exodus‘ other tracks. Cindy Breakspeare, reigning Miss World 1976 representing Jamaica and mother of Bob’s youngest son Damian (born in 1978), has said this song was written for her on the back steps of her London home.
“Three Little Birds”
A joyful, optimistic and thoroughly engaging song, with its easy sing-a-long, sweetly melodic quality making it a children’s favorite. One of Marley’s best known hits, in 2013 “Three Little Birds” was remixed for a Hyundai ad, a rare instance of commercial licensing of a Marley song; Bob’s grandson Skip Marley recorded a version of “Three Little Birds” that was adapted for a 2016 No Worry campaign for Jamaica’s Sandals hotel chain.
“One Love/People Get Ready”
Originally recorded by The Wailers in 1965, “One Love/People Get Ready” interpolates Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” (Marley gave Mayfield a writing credit on “One Love”). The beguiling, lullaby-like innocence of “One Love” (“one love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright”) is contrasted by references to the pain inflicted by “hopeless sinners” and its unity call to “fight the holy Armageddon.” Ultimately “One Love” stands as an unwavering testimony to the spiritual strength and profound inspiration Bob Marley derived from his Rastafari way of life.