By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Catch a fire
A sideman who stepped out front only to have his enormous myth disguise the fact his music was often mediocre, Peter Tosh's '60s output surpassed most of his later work; without the Wailers behind him, Tosh always seemed like a second-rate Bob Marley (ironic, since Tosh mentored Marley) with a first-rate rock band behind him (Mick and Keith for one, Sly and Robbie for another). His pro-ganja stance was predictable, his militancy even more so given his environment and background, but his music was the real downer: It lacked the Wailers' fire, plain and simple, the incendiary soul sound Bunny and Peter and Bob made when they got into a studio and traded hard stares. They were a force when together, mere rock stars when separated.
This collection (not to be confused with the same-titled greatest-hits released in 1988) goes back to the Wailers' earliest days together, when Tosh was just a talented sessionman searching for his own voice and his own band; The Toughest documents the birth of dub, when ska was becoming reggae and shedding its American soul-music skin. Dating from 1963 to 1966, these sessions are the portraits of young men defining their proud ideology ("400 Years" shows up in an early Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced version, and it's as intact and up-front as the take that appeared on Catch a Fire in 1973) without sacrificing humor to make their point.
The Toughest contains the stuff of quiet revelation: It kicks off with the slight folk parody "Hoot Nanny Hoot" (a ska rave-up filled with nonsense lyrics), includes the spiritual "Sinner Man" and a rollicking "Amen," goes Detroit by way of Kingston with a remake of the Temptations' "Don't Look Back," and introduces the Rastafarian ("Rasta Shook them Up") and revolutionary ("400 Years") elements that would come to symbolize the Wailers throughout the '70s.
But in the end, The Toughest is a soul collection above all else: On "Sinner Man," Tosh sings Smokey Robinson while Bob and Bunny act like his Miracles; they prop each other up, harmonize with each other where one day they would sermonize to a crowd. If the Beatles' earliest recordings prove they were nothing more than the greatest rock band in the world--tight at such a young age, imbuing '50s rock with a '60s irreverence--then the Wailers' baby photos reveal they sprung from the womb 4 feet tall. The nerve isn't there yet, the anger isn't fully formed and they aren't yet singing with fists raised, but they were still the toughest band around--in Jamaica, and most anywhere else.