The Bob Marley Song That Became the Wailers’ Breakout Hit

When Bob Marley and The Wailers found international fame in the 1970s, the band had already been making records for a decade. The journey began with a lot of scrapping on the Jamaican scene. Given the sort of artists competing for airplay at the time (e.g., Desmond Dekker, Toots Hibbert), it was a rough ride.

But Marley had some exceptional company in the original Wailers. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer formed the core of the group with Marley in the beginning, and they first found success with the ska track “Simmer Down” (1963). Yet there was still a long way to go.

In the rocksteady era (’66-’67), the group cranked out tracks like “Bend Down Low,” “Hypocrite,” and “Stir It Up.” And they were winning new fans with every single. However, it wasn’t until ’71 that The Wailers truly took Jamaica by storm. It was no accident.

Bob Marley and The Wailers held No. 1 for 5 months with ‘Trench Town Rock’

Photo of Bob Marley and The Wailers glaring at the camera circa 1971
CIRCA 1971: The Wailers | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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“One good thing about music / When it hits you feel no pain,” Marley sings in the first line of “Trench Town Rock.” It’s one of his signature lyrics, and it opened a track that featured the band at its tightest (rhythmically and melodically). The song broke The Wailers for good in Jamaica.

After its summer ’71 release, it held the top spot on the Jamaican charts for a full five months. In Bob Marley (1985), Stephen Davis tried to communicate the song’s impact and decided to go with hyperbole. “[Trench Town Rock] turned Bob Marley into a national hero,” Davis wrote.

“In confirming the positive side of the Trench Town experience, the Wailers emerged as spokesmen of the ghetto and the Jamaican poor,” Davis continued. “It was an honor the Wailers would never lose.” If you’ve seen film of Marley making his way through Jamaica in the ’70s, you know Davis wasn’t exaggerating.

“I say give the slum a try,” Marley sings in a later verse of the song. “Never let the children cry.” With those lyrics matched to the band’s groove, Marley got the heart of daily life for so many people into the song. Fifty years later, you still feel the power of a track that dominated the Jamaican charts in ’71.

Marley cranked out records with the proceeds from ‘Trench Town Rock’

Bob Marley, eyes closed, points and sings into the microphone on stage in 1975
Bob Marley and The Wailers perform on stage in the U.K., July 1975. | Ian Dickson/Redferns

Marley and The Wailers worked incredibly hard in the years leading up to the success of “Trench Town Rock,” and they didn’t sit relax while the track burned up the charts. With the proceeds rolling in, Marley financed new recordings on his Tuff Gong record label.

That summer, The Wailers got right back into the studio and recorded “Craven Choke Puppy,” “Satisfy My Soul,” and Tosh’s “Stop That Train,” among others.

But the band’s level of fame wasn’t the only thing that had changed after “Trench Town Rock.” In Bob Marley, Davis includes a quote Bunny Wailer delivered in later years.

“‘Trench Town Rock’ is the tune that made us really start to search,” Bunny said. Indeed, the music took a harder edge from that point. And Tosh would set the tone with tracks like “400 Years” and “Get Up, Stand Up.”