Peter Tosh Part I

Peter Tosh Part I

Peter Tosh: the Wailers years

Peter Tosh (Winston Hubert McIntosh) was born in 1944 in Jamaica in a rural area, and like so many of his countrymen, moved to the capital in search of better opportunities, a better life when he was in his late teens. By the early 1960s Tosh was hanging out on street corners, playing songs on his guitar. He eventually met two other aspiring singers, Bob Marley and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer), and they began to write songs and to rehearse them, coming under the tutelage of Joe Higgs, who by then was already famous as a member of the former R’n’B and ska duo Higgs and Wilson. Higgs coached the young singers, teaching them how to sing in harmony and how to control their breath. In 1963 they were taken to Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One for an audition by the Rastafarian elder Mortimer Planno, who had gained fame in Jamaica by greeting the Emperor of Ethiopia outside the plane on his first visit to Jamaica in 1966.
The three young men began a recording career under the name “The Wailers” or “the Wailing Wailers” and recorded many songs for Clement Dodd until a parting of the way finally came in 1966 over the group’s Rastafarian beliefs and over the lack of remuneration under Dodd.
By the mid-1960s the Wailers were in limbo with Bob Marley in the USA working to raise some money to start a label and Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer recorded several tunes without Bob Marley. On Bob’s return the group began working for the young producer Clancy Eccles, tried to get their label off the ground, recorded an album for the producer Leslie Kong and finally joined hands with Lee Scratch Perry between 1969 and 1970, recording two albums for him.
By that time Peter Tosh had started a solo career while still being a member of the Wailers and had recorded several 45s for the producers Bunny Lee, Lee Perry and Joe Gibbs. In 1972 the Wailers finally recorded their first album for a major label, Catch a Fire (Island) and its follow-up, Burning, came in 1973. Recording for a major international label meant that the group now had to tour regularly to promote the albums and also meant that the Wailers were marketed as a “rock band” with a leader that journalists and the public could focus on. The touring and the insistence on a visible leader exacerbated the tensions in the group over the choice of songs to be recorded and to be performed in public. The Wailers had been working as a group for a bout ten years then and Peter Tosh felt that his songs were being overlooked in favour of Bob’s songs and that his own career was neglected. Things came to a head in early 1973 after a British tour when Bunny Wailer said that he was leaving the band. The group continued without Wailers for a while , touring the USA with Joe Higgs as a replacement, and then flying to Britain without Higgs for a series of concerts. In November 1973, after a gig in Northampton, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh exchanged blows and Tosh never toured with the Wailers again. The group officially split up in January 1975, but by late 1973 the old Wailers were over.
So Tosh worked and recorded with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailers for about ten years, maintaining a solo career which started around the late 1960s as an outlet for his musical output which was being passed over during recording sessions. During these ten years Tosh would record several versions of the same songs and would develop a style which was markedly different from Bob Marley’s or Bunny Wailers’ one. Tosh’s songs seemed to reflect his militant outlook and bleak view of life, but also a noted interest for European pop music, calypso and mento, and for gospel.

While recording as a Wailer at Studio One Peter Tosh demonstrated an early interest for rock and roll by recording a song he was to return to several times in his career: “Can’t You See”. He was also clearly interested in calypso and sang lead on a version of the famous song “Shame and Scandal” as well as on a reworking of the calypso classic “Archie Buck Them Up” entitled “Rasta Shook Them Up”(1966) to celebrate Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966. The Wailers may have become familiar with that tune through Lord Creator’s version recorded for Studio One and to be found on his LP Jamaica Time. These show Tosh’s willingness to experiment and his ability to resort to different musical styles.
Tosh’s interest in calypso or mento also appears in a 1971 recording entitled “Leave My Business” which his reminiscent of the old mento tune “Nobody’s Business but Me Own”, recorded by Jackie Opel for Studio One.
Tosh’s way with words and lyricism can be heard on a song he was to record over and over again: “Maga Dog”. While at Studio One, he also recorded a version of the old Spiritual “Sinner Man” which is particularly powerful.
In the late 1960s the Wailers founded their own label, called Wail’N’Soul’M, which, though short-lived, carried some very good recordings by Peter Tosh, with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailers on backing vocals. The first of the these singles, “Pound Get a Blow”, a topical song about the devaluation of the British pound in 1967, features only Bob Marley on backing vocals as Bunny Wailers was in jail then, but it is a powerful tune on account of its driving horn line and “riddim”. One of his songs for the label, “Fire Fire”, was to be remade by other reggae artists like Max Romeo and Niney the Observer.
By early 1969 the Wailers were recording forLeslie Kong. Tosh contributed three numbers: a remake of “Can’t You See”, “Stop That Train”, and a version of “Go Tell It On The Mountain”, which shows again Tosh’s love of spirituals. On that recording his voice is loud and clear and his tenor soars effortlessly over the musical backing. The lyrics of “Stop That Train” might have been an allusion to his dissatisfaction with his career in the Wailers: “All my life, I’ve been a lonley man/ teaching people people who don’t understand/Even though I try my best/ Istill cvan’t find no happiness/ Stop that train, I’m leaving”.

After moving to the Lee Perry stable in 1969-70 Tosh’s output became more sombre and militant with important songs like “400 Years”and “No Sympathy”. “400 Years” was about the situation in Jamaica a few years after Independence and the blighted perspectives for the population after som any years under colonial rule: “400 years, and it’s the same mentality”. The Wailers traded vocals on “Keep on Moving” and the words sung by Tosh sound loud and clear. Around that time he was learning how to play the melodica and his skill at the instrument can be heard on a dub version of “Trenchtown Rock” which is very moving.
Many of the songs Tosh recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like “Rightful Ruler” (1970), “Black Dignity” (1971), “Here Comes the Judge” (1971) and “Arise Black Man” (1971) reflected the rising influence of the Rastafarian movement at the time and Tosh’s own militancy which was there right from the beginning. In 1971 Tosh had a big hit with a new version of “Maga Dog”, originally recorded for Studio One, but this time produced by Joe Higgs. The song became popular with deejays and Winston Scotland released a version of the song entitled “Skanky Dog” in 1971 too, adding to the song’s popularity.
But the two songs from the early-1970s which stand out in terms of lyricism were released on Tosh’ own label Intel-Diplo (short for Intelligent Diplomat for His Majesty) and are “Can’t Blame the Youth” (1972) and “Mark of the Beast”(1973).
You can’t blame the youth, you can’t fool the youth,
You can’t blame the youth of today, you can’t fool the youth.

You teach the youth to learn in school that cow jump over moon,
You teach the youth to learn in school that the dish run away with the spoon.

You can’t blame the youth ( when they don’t learn), you can’t fool the youth,
You can’t blame the youth, you can’t fool the youth.

You teach the youth about Christopher Columbus,
And you said he was a very great man.
You teach the youth about Marco Polo,
And you said he was a very great man.
You teach the youth about the pirate Hawkins,
And you said he was a very great man.
You teach the youth about the pirate Morgan,
And you said he was a very great man.

Chorus

All these great men were doing is robbing, raping, kidnapping and killing,
So-called great men were doing is robbing, raping, kidnapping and killing.

Chorus

When every Christmas come, you buy the youth a fancy toy gun. (x2)

Chorus

What was hidden from the wise and prudent now revealed to the
Babes and suckling,
What was hidden from the wise and prudent now revealed to the
Babes and suckling.

Lord call upon the youth for He knows the youth’ll be strong,
Jah-Jah call upon the youth for He knows the youth’ll be strong.

Chorus

Peter Tosh’s “Can’t Blame the Youth” was released as a single in 1973 on the singer’s Intel-Diplo label and was recorded at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio in 1972. It soon became part of the Wailers’ live repertoire and a stirring version of the song can be found on Talking Blues , the 1991 album that features the recordings done by the Wailers for a San Francisco radio station in October 1973 after being dumped by Sly and the Family Stone on their first American tour.
“Can’t Blame the Youth” can be said to epitomise Peter Tosh’s outspoken and straightforward style, both lyrically and musically. Indeed the song’s intro sounds like a rock’n’roll riff and Tosh’s electric guitar is quite prominent in the final mix.
The year when the song was recorded, 1972, was the year when Michael Manley’s People’s National Party was victorious at the polls, and the singer’s confident tone might have reflected the new mood of optimism that swept the country at the time. Manleys’ government was soon to announce sweeping reforms in the field of education and a literacy programme.
In “Can’t Blame the Youth” Tosh condemns the colonial education system that was the legacy of British rule in Jamaica, and that colonial system is symbolised in the song by the nursery rhymes every school kid had to learn by heart. Indeed the “cow” jumping “over moon”, and the “dish” running away “with the spoon” are references to the well-known nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle”.
The other aspect of that colonial education system was the glamourisation or glorification of the “deeds of arms” that had resulted in the colonisation of the New World by European powers like Spain and England. The reference to “the pirate Hawkins” is particularly appropriate as William Hawkins and his son John were two of the first Englishmen to be involved in the slave trade in the 16th century. They were instrumental in setting up the triangular trade between England, Africa and the West Indies and were notorious for their cruelty.
“The pirate Morgan” refers to Henry Morgan, a Welshman who fled from a poor existence in his home country to work as an indentured labourer in the West Indies. He then became a pirate, committed many atrocities before finally being sent back to England to be tried for his crimes. He was then knighted and became Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica in 1674.
In Tosh’s song, the pirates Hawkins and Morgan are mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo, which leads the listener to conclude that Columbus and Polo were “pirates” too.
What is interesting in “Can’t Blame the Youth” is the link which is established between Jamaica’s violent history and the then high crime rate, or the problem of youth crime. The singer implies that Jamaica’s crime problem is a direct result of the island’s history and that that history led to a glorification of violence and machismo, hence the lines “When every Christmas come, you buy the youth a pretty toy gun”.
The song concludes with a quotation from the Gospel according to Luke (10:21) which recurs in many reggae songs from the 1970s and which implies that great news shall be revealed to little children while clever and learned men will remain in ignorance. Ending the song with this passage ensured that the final message remained one of optimism and hope, not one of recrimination and despair. Of course the reference to “Jah-Jah” in the final line is important too as, at the time, Rastafarianism was a rising force among Jamaican youths but was still considered as the pariahs’ religion.

References:

Garnice Michael, “Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Mento Roots”, The Beat, Vol.25 #2, 2006.

Skills

Posted on

13 June 2022