Keep on moving

Hailed as the best album of the 20th century, Bob Marley's <em>Exodus</em> is 30 years old next mont

The Exodus sessions took place in two west London studios: a converted Victorian laundry at the back of the Island Records headquarters in St Peter's Square, Chiswick, and a former church in Basing Street, Notting Hill, parallel to Portobello Road Market. From January to April, from winter to spring, wherever the Wailers worked was crowded with supporters.

At the time, Island was a pioneering inde pendent record label. Unlike virtually all record companies today, its offices housed almost all aspects of making and selling records. I was briefly a member of Island's PR staff in 1975 and I remember the buzz when the Wailers would come in at four o'clock in the afternoon to rehearse for their career-changing Lyceum show. Famous for always being first on the tour bus, Bob Marley often led the way through the loading door in the car park to the very basic rehearsal room. When the phones were quiet, I wasn't the only worker to nip downstairs to the canteen, hoping to peek round the heavy rehearsal-room door and get a quick hit of the Wailers.

Later, as a journalist, I spent a lot of time with the Wailers. Perhaps Bob trusted me because he had first got to know me as his publicist. So it happened that I was researching a non-Marley story in Jamaica when Bob invited me to stay at 56 Hope Road, his gracious great house in uptown Kingston. At this busy Rasta commune, in an elite street right next door to the prime min ister's residence, dreads and downtown dons rubbed shoulders with foreign musicians and media. Bob was conducting a social experiment: he described it as "bringing the ghetto uptown".

The day after I left, 3 December 1976, proved to be a turning point. Bob was taking a break from rehearsal for the following day's Smile Jamaica gig, a free concert designed to cheer the island up before the imminent, violently contested election. The mellow afternoon abruptly turned into a nightmare when three gunmen stormed in, spraying bullets. Bob was hit in the upper arm, escaping death by millimetres.

Those bullets ricocheting round the narrow kitchen sent Bob on his own exodus: the Wailers fled to London, which Bob told me was his "second home". There, they set about recording Exodus, which would introduce the Jamaican shaman to his largest audience yet. In trying to silence him, his attackers only succeeded in turning up his volume.

Night after night, those precious sessions were attended by a large rotating cast that usually included the members of the young west London reggae band Aswad and their manager, Mikey "Dread" Campbell, King Sounds, the Sons of Jah, Delroy Washington, Lucky Gordon (the excellent Jamaican chef who had won notoriety as Christine Keeler's lover) and Pepe Judah of the Twelve Tribes, the Rasta organisation to which Bob belonged. Bob fed off the energy of that small community. Just as many much-loved Marley lines are lifted from the Bible or old Jamaican folk wisdom, so his quick ear tuned in to snatches of conversation or street slang.

At times, it seemed like Bob had exchanged Kingston's front line for another - that of All Saints Road, a short block away from the Basing Street studio and a centre for black activism. The studio was on the route of the West Indian carnival, which had been founded in the early Sixties but erupted into a war between black and white youths and the police just months before the Exodus sessions. Inevitably, the stress of the streets intruded at times. Early one Saturday evening, Angus "Drummie Zeb" Gaye, Aswad's teenage drummer, came in seething because he'd just been arrested under the "sus" law, which had been designed to allow the police to control vagrancy by apprehending people suspected of loitering with intent but was now being widely used, particularly in Notting Hill, to harass young black males. Bob cried, "Come on, Aswad, me gonna mash up all a dem!" and a game of fussball defused the tension.

The broad arc of Exodus is an archetypal survival narrative so powerful that it seemed as if the album had sprung fully formed from Marley's head as a strategic, spiritual self-help manual on outlasting conflict and betrayal. Yet when these tracks were cut, there was no idea of the running order later selected from a cornucopia of material by the producer, Chris Blackwell.

With no road map, the Wailers just kept on recording, in a mood of exuberant creativity. They were always well rehearsed and didn't like to leave the studio with work unfinished; a Wailers session generally had an atmosphere of relaxed discipline. Most of the musicians were trained through years of working in - indeed, helping to create - the fiercely competitive world of Kingston recording sessions.

Many of the rhythms that still shake the world three decades on were built in a single take. Searching for the perfect intonation and inflection, Bob would test each line, shifting the stress on a word or flipping the rhythm of his delivery. This exploration took its time, but Bob never stopped experimenting until he was satisfied.

Throughout the recording process, he kept on writing songs: "Exodus" itself came quite late, and there was a fizzing excitement around that track from the moment it was first laid down. The song had so many meanings for all the mu sicians present, as many of them were exiles. And, of course, the song referred to the common Rastafarian concern with repatriation to Africa, which Bob and the Twelve Tribes were actively engaged in organising, on land made available by Haile Selassie in Shashamane, Ethiopia.

Bob was preoccupied with movement at that time. "It's movement time!" he would cry when marshalling the troops. "How you feel in life?" he asked me one night. "You feel - movement?" When I affirmed, he nodded, "Good." This was no time to stand still. Bob frequently debated the events of the day, including the struggles in South Africa and Rhodesia (which was shortly to become Zimbabwe), with the assembled crowd when he wasn't needed in the studio. Not surprisingly, he was usually cynical towards governments and the media. During one discussion about media corruption, he flashed me a knowing look and said, quite sharply, "Even if you wanted to write more 'bout Africa, [the editors] probably not gonna print it."

When the night came to finish the "Exodus" track, the Basing Street studio was alive with excitement. From the start, the song had its own impetus. Various pairs of hands - the Wailers bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett, Blackwell, sometimes even the young assistant engineers Dick Cuthell and Terry Barham - all danced around adjusting the levels of the mix. Every pass sounded superb, but at four o'clock in the morning a moment hit when the whole room knew that this one was it. "Exodus" was militant and liberating, and as we all skanked and sang the chorus, Bob moved as if the track was live-wiring his whole being.

Basing Street was a fine location to road-test the track. The area was dotted with shebeens - Jamaican after-hours joints in abandoned buildings and basements. Shebeens were the laboratory for the mid-Seventies London sound which remains the basis of so much popular music, and that Bob memorably called "Punky Reggae Party". The Clash, the Slits, the odd Sex Pistol, Chrissie Hynde and Boy George were found in shebeens with reggae artists such as Aswad and Steel Pulse. At the Metro Youth Club, right by the studio, Family Man showed up one night with a mix of "Exodus". The mostly school-age dancers - Britain's first home-grown Rasta generation, in red, green and gold tams and belts, the "dawtas" in headwraps and knee-length skirts - started stepping as soon as needle hit wax - the song was speaking directly to them.

Bob appreciated those Metro excursions, but generally hung back in the shadows. He liked to watch how the people felt the music. And over the coming years he would have plenty of opportunity to observe dancers being galvanised by Exodus. The album consolidated his position on the international music scene, effecting a transition in his life and career. His future took shape during the winter months at those west London studios, which somehow held the whole world.

© 56 Hope Road Music/Blue Mountain Music, 2006

This article is an edited extract from "Exodus: Bob Marley and the Wailers", edited by Richard Williams (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25)

Vivien Goldman's "Book of Exodus" (Aurum Press, £9.99) is out now

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state