More than just barrel scrapings, Climb the Ladder – a collection of some of Bob Marley’s earliest recordings, offers a rare opportunity to hear Marley delving into dancehall and ska, showcasing his talents as a front-man and performer while also illustrating The Wailers’ many strengths and charms.
By the time Bob Marley caught on in 1975, following the unexpected breakout success of “No Women, No Cry,” he’d already been a sensation in Jamaica for over a decade. Climb The Ladder is a collection of sides Marley recorded in the mid-60s at the legendary Studio One with the equally legendary Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. These early recordings even predate the well-known sessions with Lee “Scratch” Perry found on so many bootlegs and compilations. The 17 tracks on Climb the Ladder find Marley working in a different mode, focusing on sunnier ska and dancehall than the slower, murkier reggae that would later make him famous.
Marley’s recordings with Coxsone, originating from the mid-60s, aren’t that dissimilar from a lot of other Jamaican records of that era. To put it plainly, Climb the Ladder sounds a lot like a top-notch soul band mixed with a doo-wop group, playing sunny harmonies over light, breezy upbeats. It’s undeniably infectious, the sound of pure joy. If the lighthearted skank of “Dancing Shoes” doesn’t get you going, you might want to have your pulse checked.
Most of Climb the Ladder follows a similar template, with tasty horn stabs and melodic guitar licks over the relentless upbeat skank. This makes it an ideal feel-good record, perfect for nice days with the windows open or backyard BBQs. The tempo occasionally drops, though, giving Bob a chance to deliver some of his iconic sultry slow jams. “Sunday Morning” is particularly sweet and lovely, deserving a coveted space next to some Otis Redding on your next bedroom playlist or mixtape.
Although other collections of early tracks are better known, Climb the Ladder has some standout tunes that can hold their own next to other early masterpieces like “Soul Rebel” or “Small Axe.” “Dreamland” could’ve been as big of a hit as “Under the Boardwalk” in another world.
It’s follow-up, “Lemon Tree,” is the sweetest, funkiest “Pop Goes the Weasel” you’ve ever heard.
Last but not least is the inclusion of “Sinner Man,” whose biblical apocalypticism would be reimagined a few years later as “Downpressor Man” on Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights.
We’ll be honest – a lot of Climb the Ladder‘s sound quality is rough. Anybody who’s spent any times listening to old 45s and 7″s knows the thick ocean of hiss and fuzz that’s possible on old vinyl. In light of the somewhat muffled, cottony sound quality, Climb the Ladder is mostly going to appeal to Bob Marley completists and reggae fanatics. Those with the willingness to peer through the murk are more than encouraged to do so, though. It offers a rare opportunity to hear Marley delving into dancehall and ska, for one thing. At the bare minimum, it’s a chance to hear Marley over a tight ’60s soul/funk band. In no universe could this be a bad thing.