Some people mellow as they get older. Bob Marley gets angrier and wiser. Following the relaxed, self-fulfilled "Exodus" and "Kaya", "Survival" marks a surprising but welcome return to the frontline of political entertainment with a passion strengthened by reasoned analysis….
"Survival's" firm grounding in the three Rs—Rasta, Rebellion and Rhythm—informs without preaching and entertains without condescension. It's a fiery mix and a potentially difficult one, but it's made possible by the Wailers' oozingly confident playing and the expressive simplicity of the songs.
If the language is readily comprehensible, the songs themselves fall into a larger, complex framework which outlines the problems facing Africans both inside and outside Africa and the more subtle methods of oppression used against them. The album ends with an insistence on black pride and culture, which is both the core and method of resistance….
The separate strands of identity found in Rastafarianism (dreadlocks), a consciousness of cultural roots and reggae music itself are neatly pulled together in the wonderful, teasing "Ride Natty Ride", which conjures up for me a Rasta alternative to the peacable James Stewart character in the Western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", in which he is backed up by the cleansing power of good guy John Wayne's guns. Righteousness and force combine to bring civilisation to the sprawling, grasping violence of the West—in this case Babylon.
Again, Marley's deep-rooted beliefs are at the heart of the resistance: "Everywhere the fire is burning. / Destroying and melting their gold / Destroying and wasting their souls". The chorus supplies the cowboy clean-up connection; "Natty Dread rides again / Go deh dready, go deh / Riding thru the storm / And we riding thru the calm"….
The musical strength of the Wailers is the clincher because if the music was any less attractive it would be just another collection of strong songs sung for the (relatively) few converts. This would be a criminal waste, for "Survival" should reach out to the listeners won by "Kaya" and "Exodus".
Marley has learnt his lessons well: win hearts first, sway minds later. Only further exposure reveals the sorrows and anger of Marley the militant.
I doubt if I'll hear a more provocative or worthwhile album of popular music for a long time to come.
Chris Bohn, "Heart of Darkness: 'Survival'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), September 29, 1979, p. 37.