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The controversial concert that convinced The Rolling Stones to sign reggae star Peter Tosh


The history of Reggae music is inextricably linked to the life of Peter Tosh. Alongside Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley, Tosh helped introduce reggae music to a global audience and, in doing so, taught the world about the transformative power of music. For Bob Marley and The Wailers, music was a tool for liberation; an outlet for theology, philosophy, and social criticism. Music was life and life was music.

The group’s blend of ska, reggae and popular American music redefined popular culture and saw them utilise lyrics to shed light on the realities of the poor and oppressed. Tosh’s offbeat stabs of crystal clear guitar are still, so many decades later, one of the most recognisable characteristics of classic reggae. In the UK, the work of Bob Marley and the Wailers acted as one of the key catalysts for the reggae explosion that swept through the country in the 1970s. It was the group’s pioneering influence that turned Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones on to reggae in the early ’70s, and that led The Stones to sign Pete Tosh to the band’s label a few years later.

The Harder They Come is often cited as marking the point when reggae music finally reached an international audience. It would be wrong to assume that the 1972 film was entirely responsible, however. It simply coincided with a period in which groups such as The Wailers began gaining fans in the US and, importantly, in the UK, where the genre had been bubbling under the surface ever since the Windrush generation arrived in 1948. When Chris Blackwell’s London-based Island Records released the first two albums by The Wailers in ’73, the group quickly earned numerous fans from the world of rock and roll, including Eric Clapton (who had a hit with Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sherrif ), George Harrison, and The Rolling Stones. All of a sudden, reggae was big business, so when Tosh broke from the group and launched his solo career, The Stones saw an opportunity.

By this time, The Stones had been fans of the wailers for a number of years, having seen Marley’s band perform at The Roxy in Los Angeles during a concert that was also attended by the likes of George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, and Cat Stevens. Following the gig, The Stones asked Bob Marley and the Wailers to open for them during the West Coast stretch of their upcoming tour. Marley declined the offer, feeling ever so slightly offended by the suggestion. But, by the late ’70s, The Stones had side-stepped into the reggae business for real and were determined to have the Wailers’ guitarist Pete Tosh as one of their first signings. In 1978, the chance they had been waiting for finally arrived.

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It happened during April ’78, at the one One Love Peace Concert in Jamaica’s capital of Kingston. It was here that Marley famously brought together the leaders of the country’s two warring political parties in an attempt to resolve decades of bloodshed. But before Marley had the chance to becalm the tense audience, Tosh took to the stage, lit a joint, and blew smoke into the faces of the two political leaders before embarking on a 30-minute monologue in which he berated and derided the pair in front of everyone. The most immediate reaction – aside from the intense political backlash that Tosh was subsequently met with – was a contract with The Rolling Stones. Jagger had watched Tosh’s brilliant and shocking performance from the periphery of the crowd, looking on in stupefied awe as the musician gave one of the most powerful speeches he’d ever witnessed.

The Stones’ label, Rolling Stones Records, had been around for nearly a decade by that time, but it had served little purpose other than to release Jagger and Richards’ various solo records. With the arrival of Tosh, everything changed. His first venture with the label was his duet with Mick Jagger on ‘You Gotta Walk) Don’t Look Back,’ which became a smash hit and marked a new chapter in Pete Tosh’s pioneering music career, the legacy of which is still being felt today.

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