Peter Tosh: 1976-1987
Peter Tosh’s solo career began for good with the release of Legalize It in 1976. The album was well-received and the title-track was a huge hit in Jamaica after it was banned by the government on account of its provocative lyrics. Indeed the song is a kind of catalogue of the many virtues of marijuana and also gives a list of the people who smoke it. This was to become a favourite topic with Tosh. The album included a mixture of “conscious” tracks (“Igziabeher – Let Jah Be Praised”, “No Sympathy”, “Burial”) and lighter material (“Watcha Gonna Do”, “Why Must I Cry”). It is still very much a Wailers album with one song co-written by Bob Marley (“Why Must I Cry”) and another by Bunny Wailer (“Till Your Well Runs Dry”) who sang backup on the album. This album reflected Peter Tosh’s two sides: a dread, serious, militant side, and a more folksy, light-hearted one. Some of the songs, like “Till Your Well Runs Dry” or “Burial”, have a bluesy feel and reflect Tosh’s love of the guitar as an instrument. Others, like “Watcha Gonna Do”, have a mento-calypso flavour.
In 1977 Equal Rights was released and benefitted from the presence of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the drum and bass team who was rocking reggae’s boat at the time. This album was much more militant and political than the previous one, with uncompromising tracks like “African”, the title-track (“I don’t want no peace. I want equal rights and justice”), “Jah Guide”, “Apartheid” and “Stepping Razor”, a song written by Joe Higgs but popularized by Tosh. The song reached a wider audience thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack to the film Rockers by Theodoros Bafaloukos. For many reggae enthusiasts, Equal Rights came to embody what Peter Tosh was all about: a dread seriousness, a militant stance, and powerful songs with strong rhythmical formats. Tosh began to tour with an all-star reggae band led by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and called “Word Sound is Power”. In 1978 he appeared at the One Love Peace Concert organised by the two main political parties to bring back peace to Jamaica after years of political violence. Two ” ghetto enforcers”, Bucky Marshall from the People’s National Party and Claudie Massop from the Jamaica Labour Party, had contacted Bob Marley during his exile in London after his assassination attempt in 1976, and later had hooked up with Marley in Miami. The idea was to bring Bob Marley back to Jamaica as a powerful symbol of peace and to show the people that a new era was beginning. The concert took place in April 1978 and featured the cream of reggae talent at the time (Culture, Dennis Brown, Inner Circle, Leroy Smart). Peter Tosh agreed to perform at the concert, but his performance was different from what everyone expected. Tosh made a long speech and criticised the Jamaican class system and insisted that very few things had changed since the days of slavery, with the Whites at the top, the “Browns” in the middle, and the Blacks at the bottom of the social ladder. His rendition of “Four Hundred Years” echoed these themes: “Four hundred years/ And it’s the same old-time bucky-massa philosophy”. That performance is now available on the CD Live at the One Love Peace Concert (JAD Records, 2000). Tosh stated that the concert would change nothing, and punned on the word “peace”: “PEACE is the diploma yu get in de cemetery. Seen ! On top a you grave dat is mark “Here Lies de Bady of John Strokes, Rest in PEACE. Seen !””. The fiery singer also lit up a big “spliff” on stage, which offended the authorities and the police who were present at the concert. A few weeks after the concert, Tosh would be arrested by the police, taken to a police station ,and severely beaten up.
The Once Love Peace Concert had attracted overseas visitors and on that day Mick Jagger was in the audience and was so enthused by what he saw that he offered to release Peter Tosh’s next album on the new Rolling Stones label.
Bush Doctor thus came out in 1978 on the Rolling Stones’ very own label, which ensured the record huge publicity (good and bad) and wide distribution. The record has a totally different sound from Equal Rights, a more “international” sound influenced by rock music and pop. Guitars and keyboards are well in evidence and percussive instruments too. The big hit was a cover of the Temptations’ “Don’t Look Back” recorded as a duet with Mick Jagger and which led to several TV appearances in America. The Wailers had recorded that song for Coxsone in the 1960s. Three other songs (“Soon Come”, “I’m the Toughest” and “Dem Ha Fe Get a Beatin'”) were new versions of tunes Tosh had recorded with the Wailers or as a solo artist in the early 1970s.
“Bush Doctor” was a variation on the theme developed in “Legalize It”, that is the many bounties of marijuana, but this time with a more aggressive tone, both musically and lyrically. Two tracks were truly astounding: “Pick Myself Up” and “Stand Firm”. The former is a “feel good”song about the necessity to keep on keeping on, and to take heart in the face of adversity. The latter is a philosophical tract about the kind of organized religion that Tosh was famous for disliking. In the song he is approached by various characters called “Jacket and Tie”, “Clean Clothes” and “Baldhead” who tell him that he must put on some proper clothes, go to church and pray to Jesus to be saved. “Bullshit !” is his reply. What matters is the work you do and the stance you take:”Live clean, let your works be seen/ Stand firm or you’ll feed worms”. The guitar playing on this track, probably by the American blues guitarist Donald Kinsey, is first-rate.
1979 saw the release of Peter Tosh’s second album on the Rolling Stones label: Mystic Man. This album contained a new version of “Can’t You See”, the rock’n’roll number that the Wailers had recorded for Coxsone and for Leslie Kong in the 1960s. The 1979 version had a more aggressive sound and featured a searing guitar solo by Ed Elizade. On the whole, the album was a return to militancy and fire and brimstone rhetoric but with a more international sound, mainly keyboards and guitars. “Fight On” and “Recruiting Soldiers” are what reggae fans by then had come to expect from Tosh while the title-track was a lecture on the dietary habits of a Rastaman who stays away from Babylon by refusing to eat hamburgers and to drink sodas. Other tracks like “Crystal Ball” and “Rumours of War” were dismal prophecies about the state of the world and mankind’s inability to work for peace. “Rumours of War” featured a monster rhythm track propelled by Sly Dunbar’s drums and Robbie Shakespeare’s bass guitar. But the track which raised the most eyebrows at the time was “Buk-in-Hamm Palace”, a very danceable and disco-oriented song whch sounded like nothing Tosh or any reggae artist had recorded before. Dominated by a driving bass line and punctuated by funky horns, the track had a kind of “futuristic” sound thanks to the use of synthesizers. Percussions added a Latin or disco feel. The lyrics were similar to U-Roy’s “Chalice in the Palace” from 1976 and were about smoking a spliff with the Queen in Buckingham Palace. The song is also about the power of reggae music which has a “hold” on the singer and puts a “spell” on him. The track is certainly hypnotic and highly danceable. It was released at a time when disco was increasingly popular in Europe following the release of Saturday Night Fever and may well have been an attempt at cashing in on that phenomenon. After all, Bob Marley had released “Jamming” in 1977, a track which found its way onto many dancefloors too. “Buk-in-Hamm Palace” was also released as a twelve-inch with “The Day the Dollar Die” on the flip side, which made for an interesting contrast as “The Day the Dollar Die” is totally different from “Buk-in-Hamm Palace”: a dread serious, “conscious” reggae number about the influence of the USA in the world. As the title indicates, Tosh resented that influence and stated that things would get better when “Daddy Dollar” died.
After performing at Reggae Sunsplash in 1980, Tosh released the LP Wanted Dread and Alive in 1981. The cover featured a dramatic photograph of Tosh in the style of the Wild West wanted ads made popular by western movies. The title-track had a country-and -western feel to it and the lyrics used Western imagery to tell the tale of a man wanted, not by the law, but by “evil forces”. The lyrics recalled an earlier track entitled “Keep on Moving” about a wanted man and released by the Wailers while they were with Lee Perry. The LP as a whole was characterised by its variety, from the heavy roots of “Coming In Hot” (which used more Wild West imagery), to the bounce of “Wanted Dread and Alive” to the rock’n’roll drive of “Oh Bumbo Klaat”. “Coming In Hot ” is really a showcase for the skills of Robbie Shakespeare as the bass line drives the song and gives it its momentum. The same could be said about “Reggaemylitis”, a song whose lyrics are just a pretext for Sly and Robbie’s band to strut their stuff. There was also an R’nB track with “Nothing but Love”, a duet with the Jamaican singer Gwen Guthrie which was released as a twelve-inch too and which was obviously aimed at the American market.
In fact the LP was released in two different versions, with the American release featuring three songs which were not on the European one: “The Poor Man Feel It”, “Cold Blood” and “That’s What They Will Do”, three heavy reggae tracks with “Cold Blood” as the jewel in the crown. This song echoes Prince Buster’s “Judge Dread” and pits the Rastas against the forces of Babylon symbolised by the judicial system. The spoken introduction features a judge asking the defendant to repeat the words “So help me God” and the Rasta obstinately repeats “So help I Jah !”, to the judge’s horror. “That’s What they Will Do” deals with the same theme as “Guide Me from My Friends”, the track released on the European version, and reflects Tosh’s pessimistic and sombre view of the human race: your friends will in the end betray you.
But the two outstanding tracks which were released on the two versions of the album were “Rastafari Is” and “Fools Die”. The former is a Rastafarian chant in the vein of the Wailers’ “Rastaman Chant” or Jimmy Cliff’s “Bongoman”, and is a showcase for Tosh’s skills as a percussionist too. The guitar playing is beautiful too. “Fools Die” is perhaps one of the most overlooked pieces in Tosh’s repertoire and is a quiet and meditative ballad on wisdom and life in general. The instrumentation, based on the use of keyboards and flutes, creates a melancholy mood which suits the lyrics very well (“The lips of the righteous teach many, but fools die for want of wisdom”, Proverbs 10:21). In fact this is an old Wailers tune recorded in the late 1960s and which resurfaced as Marley’s “Stiff-Necked Fools” on the posthumous Confrontation LP (1983).
On the whole, Wanted Dread and Alive was characterised by some beautiful playing by Sly and Robbie, Mikey Chung, great horn arrangements and tight harmonies by the Tamlins, and featured an eclectic mix of R’n’B, pop and roots reggae. The American version did have a stronger selection though, which may be why the album was not so well received in Europe.
Tosh then took a two-year hiatus from recording, and bounced back in 1983 with Mama Africa and a massive international hit, a reggae version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B.Goode”. The album was very strong, with a heavy yet pop sound on tunes like the Chuck Berry cover, “Not Gonna Give It Up”, “Glass House”, and “Feel No Way”. Once again the horn arrangements were great and there was some wonderful guitar work by the American blues stalwart Donald Kinsey (the solo on “Johnny B. Goode”) and the Jamaican studio musician Steve Golding. The title-track was a surprise for reggae listerners as it owed more to Afro-Beat than to roots reggae, but this was entirely appropriate given the song’s theme. One of the most outstanding tracks was “Peace Treaty” on which Tosh commented on the outcome of the 1978 Peace Movement which had culminated in the One Love Peace Concert. Tosh came back to the same themes that he had developed in his 1978 diatribe and flatly stated that all the people who had signed that treaty in “Killsome City” were now “in the cemetery”:
Do you remember the peace treaty
Them signed ina Killsome City ?
Do you remember the peace treaty
They signed ina Killsome City ?
And now this one have a gun, that one have a gun,
When it bust, Lord, Babylon run, him run.
That one have a gun, and this one have a gun,
When it bust, Lord, soldier run..
All who signed that peace treaty now rest in peace
in the cemetery (x2).
The LP also featured two new versions of old Tosh tunes, “Stop That Train” and “Maga Dog”. The latter was perhaps unnecessary as Tosh had recorded that song several times previously.
The release of Mama Africa was followed by a period of extensive touring during which Tosh performed all over the world with an M16-shaped guitar.
Four years elapsed before the release of his last album, No Nuclear War, in 1987. A few weeks after the album came out, Peter Tosh was murdered in his own home along with two friends of his. His final effort got mixed reviews at the time and the consensus seemed to be that it was plodding, boring and not very innovative. However, twenty-two years later, the album is still very listenable and, although it did not reach the heights scaled by Mama Africa, it still has its moments. The only track which was definitely not indispensable is unfortunately the title-track, which never takes off because of the average “riddim” used by the musicians. “In My Song” seems to have suffered the same fate with an uninspiring “melody” and rhythm track. But there are some very good tunes on that album, like “Nah Goa Jail” and “Vampire”. The former repeats the theme developed in “Legalize It” and “Bush Doctor” and is basically a plea for the legalization of marijuana and for more tolerance on the part of the authorities. The singing is quite inspired and the track has a bounce which drives it along. “Vampire” is a new version of a song Tosh had released in 1976 in Jamaica as a 45 but which had never been available before to the general, non-Jamaican record-buying public. It is very convincing and as good as the original version. “Lesson in My Life” is a philosophical song Tosh had recorded before in the days of Bush Doctor but which had not made it onto the final version of that album. Given that Tosh was murdered a few weeks after the album was released, the track has today an eerie quality, as if the singer was taking stock of his life and setting his own house in order before leaving this world. The two final tracks, “Testify” and “Come Together”, show two contrasting sides of Peter Tosh. Indeed “Testify” is a rocking roots reggae song in praise of Haile Selassie powered by a great rhythm and great arrangements. “Come Together” is a feel-good song about the need for more love in this world and more unity: if animals unite, why can’t human beings do the same ?
No Nuclear War was not Peter Tosh’s greatest effort, but it definitely had some great moments and some beautiful playing with musicians like Santa Davis, Keith Sterling, Steve Golding, George Fullwood and Tyrone Downie lending a hand. The horn section (Dean Fraser, David Madden, Nambo, and Chico, aka the Rass Brass) shone on “Nah Goa Jail”, and Keith Sterling and Tyrone Downie provided adequate keyboard support. Tosh’s voice was still very good and powerful, as can be judged from his performance on “Testify” and “Come Together”.
A few years after his death, there were signs that Peter Tosh had acquired cult status with a documentary being made about him by Nicholas Campbell in 1992, Stepping Razor: Red X. . In 1996 the Heartbeat label released a compilation entitled The Toughest which gathered Peter Tosh’s Studio One output with tunes like “Hoot Nanny Hoot”, “The Toughest”, “Maga Dog”, and the calypso-based “Rasta Shook Them Up”. In 1997 Columbia released Honorary Citizen, a lavishly illustrated boxed set of three themed CDs, one containing very rare Jamaican singles, another one based around the “hits” and a third CD of live cuts recorded during an American tour. The Jamaican singles CD is by far the most essential with rare tracks like “Pound Get a Blow”, “Here Comes the Judge”, “Mark of the Beast”, “Can’t Blame the Youth” and “Dracula”, the effect-laden dub version of the 1976 single “Vampire” mentioned above. All these tracks had only been available on hard-to-find 45s before.
In 2000 the famous One Love Peace Concert performance was made available to the reggae-buying public (Live at the One Love Peace Concert, JAD Records, 2000). In 2001 Sony released a fiery 1976 Tosh performance in Boston on a CD entitled Live and Dangerous – Boston 1976 which featured a very rare Tosh song (“Babylon Queendom”) and in 2002 new, remastered versions of Peter Tosh’s albums with interesting bonus tracks were made available to a new generation of fans by the EMI label.
Iin 2004 Universal brought out Black Dignity, another compilation of rare material. So the Tosh archive is now available to the wider record-buying public and Peter Tosh’s place in the history of reggae is well-assured.
Mordecai, Rachel. “‘The same bucky-massa business’: Peter Tosh and I-an-I at the One Love Peace Concert”. Kunapipi. Vol.XXX, n°2 (2008).
Steffens, Roger. Liner notes to Bush Doctor. CD. EMI, 2002.
Steffens, Roger. Liner notes to Wanted Dread and Alive. CD.EMI, 2002.
Thompson, Dave. Reggae and Caribbean Music. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2002.