Peter Tosh
Legalize It and Equal Rights Deluxe Editions

In the realm of reggae music, Bob Marley casts a long shadow, one that often eclipses his contemporaries and those who came before and after him. This is especially true when it comes to his bandmates in the Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, both of whom, like Marley, launched solo careers after the Wailers split up in 1974. As much as their more famous bandmate, Tosh and Wailer were architects of the reggae sound, with the former’s rhythmic guitar playing as important an element as any.

Tosh released his solo debut, Legalize It, in 1976 on CBS Records, and though he and the Wailers had officially dissolved as a band, they hadn’t completely disassociated from one another. Marley partially financed the recording of the album (the rest of the bill was ironically picked up by a marijuana dealer in Miami), while Wailer contributed backing vocals, as did two thirds of Marley’s I Threes, his wife Rita and Judy Mowatt. Aston and Carlton Barrett, the Wailers’ rhythm section, also play on the record.

Legalize It makes a strong impression as a debut. With its cover shot of Tosh puffing on a pipe in a field of greenery and its title track, Tosh immediately became identified as a proponent of the legalization of marijuana (NORML even commissioned him to record a public service announcement, which is included on the set’s second disc) and as the quintessential Rastafarian. But though the hippie element would latch onto the record’s pro-pot angle, those songs taking up the cause are the album’s weak spots. The ruddy funk of “No Sympathy,” highlighted by Tosh’s choppy playing and Carlton’s one-drop rhythm, reveals a greater complexity, both musically and lyrically. “Why Must I Cry,” which Tosh wrote with Marley, is in the tradition of great love-lost laments, as set to a pop-leaning melody. Still, while Legalize It is a good start, it is not Tosh’s best work.

That would be Equal Rights, released the following year. For this album, Tosh replaced the Barretts with the rhythm twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, while Al Anderson continued in his role of lead guitarist. The record leads off with a version of the Tosh-penned “Get Up, Stand Up” every bit as powerful as the one the Wailers recorded. Like the rest of the album, it is both modern, with synth squiggles woven in and out, and rooted in tradition. More importantly, with a violent political campaign erupting in Jamaica while the record was being made, Tosh concerned himself with political topics of more weight than legalizing marijuana. On “Downpressor Man,” he gives injustice a face as the world’s oppressors are embodied in the title character. Even in the Cartesian “I Am That I Am,” Tosh identifies himself in a political context and emphasizes the power of the everyman.

But by far Tosh’s most powerful statement is the title track. Setting himself up as the Rastafarian Malcolm X to Marley’s Martin Luther King, he sings, “Everyone is crying out for peace, none is crying out for justice. I don’t want no peace. I need equal rights and justice.” It is a militant bent that contrasts sharply with the cut’s (musically) laidback vibe. Elsewhere, he broadens his sights to take on Africa and the problem of Apartheid with nearly equal potency.

For each of these reissues, Legacy has augmented the original (remasted) albums with a healthy, but not overwhelming, amount of auxiliary material from the time. Shopping for a label, Tosh had sent tapes of the original recording of Legalize It, which he had mixed himself, around to Island and EMI, as well as CBS. Ultimately, deciding against the album, the Island execs tossed the tape in the trash. Fortunately, some forward-thinking employee rescued it, and that original mix is included on the second CD. It’s sparser than what CBS ultimately released, and probably inferior, but interesting nonetheless. While demos are also included, the best bonuses here are the dub versions of tracks like “Burial” and “Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised),” with Aston Barrett’s heavy bass brought to the forefront.

The most welcome additions to Equal Rights are a set of seven songs recorded at the same time as the rest of the record, but ultimately left off. The Marley co-written “400 Blows” is no great revelation, but the nearly seven-minute gospel-flecked “Hammer” certainly is. “You Can’ Blame the Youth,” which hearkens back to the Wailers’ earliest recordings, is another gem. Otherwise, the dub and alternate takes included on the second disc are inconsequential, though enjoyable. Equal Rights’ original eight tracks carry enough weight as it is anyway.
Stephen Slaybaugh