Babylon By Broadcast, 1973

Music and curation courtesy of Dubwise Garage

It’s 1971…

Bob Marley finds himself in London alongside friend and fellow musician Johnny Nash. Along with Nash, Marley had been signed to CBS International and was in London doing sessions with Nash’s group Rabbit and the Jungles. Bob’s manager at the time, a man by the name of Danny Sims, arranged for Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and the Barrett Brothers to come to London with plans for Bob and The Wailers to play a few live shows around town. The group ended up in the studio cutting tunes for Nash’s forthcoming album, I Can See Clearly Now.

Bob & Johnny Nash in a London recording studio, 1972
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The Wailers sought out freelance promoter Brent Clarke to see if he could help the band catch a fire while still in London. Clarke introduced the band to Island Records chief Chris Blackwell who agreed to front the band a meager sum to go back to Jamaica and record an album. After Clarke took his cut, the group boarded a plane to Jamaica with just £8,000 to record a full-length studio album. Sessions for the album started in early 1972, with recording taking place at three studios in Kingston, all members recording inside one room: Dynamic Sound, Harry J’s and Randy’s. Engineer Sylvan Morris recorded the sessions on an eight-track tape, which has the drum mixes on one track and piano and guitar together. In the winter of 1972, Marley flew back to London to present the master tapes. Blackwell, along with Marley and engineers Stu Barrett and Tony Platt, entered Island’s Basing Street Studios to do overdubs for the album.

The Wailers recording at Basing Street Studios in London during the early ’70s
Photos by Adrian Boot © Fifty-Six Hope Road Music, Ltd.
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The first release from the album sessions was the “Baby We’ve Got a Date” single, released in early 1973 on Island’s Blue Mountain subsidiary. Catch A Fire was released on 13 April 1973 on the Island label. The album sold around 14,000 copies in its first weeks, and peaked at number 171 on the Billboard 200 chart and at number 51 on Billboard R&B chart.

Various ‘Catch A Fire’ related memorabilia
Select pieces courtesy of Jack Low’s Archive
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The Wailers embarked on their first proper tour of England in May 1973 to play shows in support of their debut album for Island Records Catch A Fire. Their very first performance in London was a live in-studio gig for John Peel’s Top Gear Radio Show. The progressive radio show, which was broadcast on BBC Radio One from 1967 through the early 1970s, was hosted at different times by Tommy Vance, Pete Drummond and John Peel, who, with the help of sympathetic producers Bernie Andrews and John Walters, turned it into an award-winning show, while retaining the emphasis on new music. In 1971, the show merged with the FM program Sounds of the Seventies and moved from its weekend slot to two evenings a week.

Bob live in Edmonton, UK during the ’73 Catch A Fire tour
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The Wailers line-up included Bob Marley (vocals, rhythm guitar), Peter Tosh (vocals, lead guitar), Bunny Wailer (vocals, percussion), Aston Barrett (bass), Carlton Barrett (drums), and Earl ‘Wya’ Lindo (keyboards). After setting up in Studio 4 at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios on Delaware Road, Maida Vale, London, Bob Marley reasons for several minutes with host John Peel before launching into a flawlessly played three-song set of scorching reggae tunes which included “Concrete Jungle,” “Rastaman Chant,” and “Slave Driver.” It is a sound unlike anything ever played inside the walls of Maida Vale – a sound as finely tuned as Motown, as serious as Richie Havens, and funkier than James Brown.


Early Wailers Promotional Photo – Courtesy of
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Later that same day, The Wailers stroll into the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios, the famed film studio complex nestled into an unassuming residential street in Shepherd’s Bush, West London. The band is at Lime Grove to record a live set for the late-night music television program, The Old Grey Whistle Test. Commissioned by Sir David Attenborough in 1971 and aired on BBC2 from 1971 to 1988, The Whistle Test featured “serious” rock music, rather than chart hits covered on BBC One by Top of the Pops. The show’s set was characterized by a lack of showbiz glitter— bands would often perform their songs in front of either the bare studio walls or plain wooden boards. As with many BBC productions, this was as much a matter of money as of style. The show derived its name from a Tin Pan Alley phrase from years before. When they got the first pressing of a record they would play it to people they called the ‘Old Greys’— doormen in grey suits. The songs they could remember and whistle, having heard it just once or twice, had passed the ‘old grey whistle test’.

The Wailers perform on the Old Grey Whistle Test – May 1, 1973
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The televised performance is one that is as captivating today as it was when it first aired for British audiences in 1973. They perform “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up” during this set. It is one of the rare occasions where Bob, Peter, and Bunny are captured on video performing together as The Wailers. They were the first reggae act ever featured on the Old Grey Whistle Test, and this was their first ever television appearance. Author John Masouri recalls the broadcast of this momentous event in his book, Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers:

“Bands didn’t need a hit single to get on BBC2’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ – which immediately distinguished it from BBC1’s chart-based show ‘Top of the Pops’ – making it the sole showcase for album-oriented acts. The Wailers were the first reggae act to appear on the program, which was an event in itself, and their riveting performance would seal the band’s reputation as the most riveting group in Jamaica. The Wailers mimed to pre-recorded rhythm tracks for the taping with only the vocals live but the live illusion was convincing as Fams rocked back and forth, with Carly riding his kit like a champion jockey, his hands and feet in perpetual motion.”

The Wailers perform “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up” on BBC2’s ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ (1 May 1973)

Looking back, Chris Blackwell’s decision to take a chance on The Wailers by fronting them the money to record Catch A Fire is one that would change the course of music history. Blackwell has stated in interviews that he did not expect to ever see the money or the album considering the reputation Bob, Peter, and Bunny had as “rude boys.” However, this small investment of a few hundred dollars launched the career of the world’s first reggae superstar, and one of the finest musical artists of the 20th century. Without it, and without the promotional machine of Island Records, Bob Marley may never have achieved such international success and become the legend he is today. It’s times like these, and stories like these, that make us so fully aware of how greatness is never achieved without risk.

Upon Marley’s passing in May 1981, Chris Blackwell took to his next project and focused Island’s promotional might on a young new rock outfit from Ireland. They called themselves U2….

Story by Michael Watson (of
Music from Dubwise Garage (
Photo Curation by Manu Morales
Select photos by Adrian Boot (otherwise photographers unknown – email us if you have any info)
Archival materials thanks to Midnight Raver, Manu Morales and Jack Low’s Archive

The Archives

Early Wailers Bio from Island subsidiary Blue Mountain


Original Contracts for the Wailers to perform at The Speakeasy in London during the 1973 Catch A Fire tour


Island’s original guest list for The Wailers show at The Speakeasy


Island Exec Robb Winn writes a letter to The Speakeasy talent booker thanking her for her part in promoting the show


Bob Marley

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