Light bounces off the walls of the bright Wrensilva Listening Studio in West Hollywood, and sparkles through glasses of golden Blackwell Rum punch. With rum punches in hand, friends and fans of Wrensilva admire the eclectic record collection lining the showroom. The library includes U2’s The Joshua Tree, Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, and Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, to name only a few. Although the shelves hold records of broadly differing flavors, the common ingredient tying them all together is their place in the production catalog of recording luminary, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records.
During a recent Wrensilva Presents: One Record listening event, Blackwell is joined by curator Jason Bentley for a discussion on an album with significant influence in Blackwell’s life. In the listening space, perched atop the elegant M1 turntable console, is an original pressing of Catch a Fire by The Wailers. Bentley flicks open the top of the record sleeve, which flips like a Zippo lighter, its flame the vinyl peeking out of the top. “I wanted it to have some impact…something which was different,” Blackwell remembers of the sleeve design, “because I was convinced that Bob Marley was going to be a big star.”
Chris Blackwell unveils a rare first-pressing of The Wailers' 'Catch a Fire.'
Though in its initial release, Catch a Fire sold slowly, its impact bringing reggae music to the mainstream has eventually landed it on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and become a token of reggae’s rich history. For Blackwell, it marked a turning point, both in his career at Island Records and the career of Bob Marley. Low on funds and without tickets back home to Jamaica, Marley and the Wailers were introduced to Blackwell in London and given an advance to record an album under his label. The band expressed to him their determination to break through to black American radio, where they would be competing with soul and motown legends like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. “It just popped out of my mouth a bit strong, [but] I said ‘You have no hope,’” Blackwell recalls of the band’s goal, “because [at the time] black American radio couldn’t have been less interested in Jamaican music.”
But Marley was eager and persevering. On Marley’s disposition, Blackwell reminisced, “He wasn’t difficult at all, he was quite the opposite—he was always the first person sitting on the bus with the band.” To get over the hurdles of popular radio listenership, their collaboration would require an angle from which they could familiarize the sounds of reggae music. When asked about his intention to bring reggae to the ears of a rock audience with The Wailers, Blackwell reflected, “Bob was somebody whose lyrics and what he sang about had a lot of meaning, and I thought that that could touch people.” To further catch listeners’ attention, Marley and Blackwell amplified the use of guitar to pepper the album’s production, giving Catch a Fire the extra edge needed for its delivery to mainstream rock listeners.
Chris Blackwell stands before a curated record collection at the Wrensilva Listening Studio, a testament to the Island Records founder.
As the needle hits the wax, a rootsy, sultry guitar emerges through the faint crackle of the early pressing. Opening the album is “Concrete Jungle,” a track written by Marley after moving to the United States from Jamaica. The laidback coos of Marley and The Wailers sail out of the M1’s 2-way bass reflex speakers, enveloping the room in the track’s warmth like steam floating off hot pavement in a summertime city. Once the guitar solo resurfaces, it soars through the listening space with lucidity. From under the needle, it is crystal clear why the sounds of Catch a Fire remain classic throughout the reggae rock canon and beyond.
Blackwell shared he had just come to LA via Las Vegas, where he was witnessing U2—another prominent act under the Island Records label—perform a massive concert at the Sphere. He said of the sensory overload experience, “It wasn’t like a band playing so much.” Seated in the showroom, the turntable plays as an icon of the polar opposite: sensory focus. Intentionality is required in the meditative rituals of vinyl, be it brushing the dust off, dropping the needle just so, or adjusting the volume knob. In one such ritual, Bentley flips the record to its B-side to play “Stir It Up,” a mellow, rocksteady love song. The crisp tick of the drum beat underlines the guitar’s woozy wah-wah pedal. In bright, gentle harmony, The Wailers drawl with a wide vowel sound, “Stiiiiir it up, little darling.”
Regarding the intimacy of listening to the vinyl record, Bentley observes, “For all the new ways that technology has allowed us to experience…coming back to this format still seems so meaningful to me, because you have to be intentionally listening.” There is a reason the phonograph retired, and nobody gathers around a tape deck—the turntable remains a centerpiece for communing in the ongoing celebration of sound and history.
A rare, first pressing of The Wailers' 'Catch A Fire,' with its sleeve crafted in the form of a hinged 'Zippo' lighter.