Bob Marley One Love Experience - Saatchi Gallery, London
Whether you like his music or not, Bob Marley is one of the most revered and influential musicians ever. Full stop. Before Marley you had Desmond Dekker, some novelty ska and My Boy Lollipop. OK, I'll give you Jimmy Cliff too. After Marley you had politically aware groups coming at you from every direction - Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Aswad (before 'Don't Look Back'), even the first UB40 album which was genuinely good. You also had punk bands (The Clash, The Ruts, Elvis Costello amongst many) adopting reggae and particularly dub to make political points and generate a different sound.
But now, 50 years or so from his first appearance, what most people remember is his 13 times platinum compilation, 'Legend'. And that's just in the UK. It's spent 1014 weeks in the UK albums charts - the third longest stay ever for a single album. And it's filled with songs that even my opera loving wife knows -'No Woman No Cry, 'I Shot The Sheriff' and 'Get Up, Stand Up.'
The thing is though, that Bob Marley's songs were sufficiently political to make him the subject of an unsuccessful assassination attempt on 3rd December 1976. No one was ever murdered for writing a song such as 'Three Little Birds'. The all pervading 'Legend' compilation would have you believe that Marley wrote pop songs that would trouble the Top 10, not political songs that troubled No.10. The songs are great - the soundtrack to thousand student kitchen parties and the edgy side of Magic Radio - but they're not songs to be killed or to die for.
What the world needs now is an understanding of why Marley was important. An exhibition that tells you where he came from, how he wrote the songs, what he did to put his life at risk and how he came to die at the stupidly young age of 36, is an exhibition that has something to say..
This isn't it.
They call it an experience but we all know it's really an exhibition. The exhibition is on two floors, and there are points of interest scattered throughout. What there aren't however are many words. There's no story to latch onto, no context to his life. Often it seems to be a celebration of his commercial success. One room is full of his album covers and details of how many copies were sold in each country.
There are some incongruous features too. There's a reconstructed jungle, with a heavy sweet smell. I wonder what that that might represent! There's also a swing, and there was a continuous stream of adults queuing to have their photo taken on it. There's a recreation of his 'green' room. Very cosy it looks too, but I'm not sure it tells us anything about Marley, or what it was like growing up in Jamaica or relaxing on tour. That was a problem for me. There were too many reconstructions, replicas and recreations and not enough of the genuine Marley.
The previews for the exhibition talked about a silent disco. I cringed at that but unnecessarily as it turns out to be one of the highlights. It's a reasonably sized room with film of Marley performing. You're given headphones and a choice. Listen to a Bob Marley playlist or tap into a live studio recording. The live studio recording is genuinely fascinating, a chance to watch Marley and the rest of the band perform. It's the closest you get to the real thing.
There's a room set aside for Marley's links to football, and Ajax in particular. There's a bit of text here as well, that serves to confirm how useful this would have been throughout. It gives the lie to one of the myths that's sprung up around Marley. Although football may have made him as sick as a parrot, it didn't cause the melanoma that eventually spread and killed him. The links with Ajax are also explained and it's touching, if keeping both feet firmly on the ground that Ajax's third strip at one point was designed in memory of Marley.
There are other highlights too. The pictures of Marley submitted by fans are impressive and show him to be a man who inspired creativity in others. The photos reinforce the sense of him as a committed revolutionary, and even hint at the possibility of a second coming.
I'm a sucker for set lists and there were a few on display. But, unless I missed it there was no explanation. Why this tour and gig? What personal reminiscences might there be from the musicians who joined him on tour? Is that his handwriting?
It hints though at some form of Marley's judgement and choices and he's tantalisingly present for the time it takes to read through the list.
Our new playlist alongside follows his set list for a 1976 concert in Amsterdam.
There are posters that hint at his charisma and his rebel commitment to change. They give an impression of Marley and that's the overall effect. You can construct a picture of the man from the cannabis photos, the album covers, the slogans that are everywhere. You can celebrate his contribution to music in terms of numbers and units shifted. But you can't get a feel for the passion he inspired, or the changes he aspired to in Jamaica. - in other words his importance.
It's significant that in the shop that accompanies the exhibition, there is merchandise aplenty - tee shirts, posters, mugs. But there are no books to find out more - I downloaded 'Bob Marley' The Untold Story by Chris Salewicz - for this. But worst of all there is no music for sale. No records, CDs, or cassettes. For a man who's greatest hits are compiled as 'Legend' that feels like a serious oversight.
The clue to why this exhibition is as it is may be found in the final room that celebrates his family. It's a big room filled with photos of Marley's children. As fellow musicians Ziggy and Damian feature large, but what also comes across is the family pride in Marley. I sensed that the success he achieved was of the utmost importance to them and this exhibition serves to recognise that. It's both a bid to reclaim him for the family and a personal declaration of pride in him.
With that motivation it can't be all bad, but overall it feels like a missed opportunity.