Certain Songs #111: Bob Marley & The Wailers – “Brain Washing”


Album: African Herbsman.

Year: 1971.

What even is this song? That was my thought when I first heard it in the early 80s. After being blown away by both Catch a Fire and Burnin’, I went both forwards and backwards with Bob Marley and the Wailers, but landed hardest on African Herbsman, which is basically a compilation of songs they recorded with the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry. 

Despite – or maybe because of – the much poorer sonic quality as compared to Catch a Fire & Burnin’, I was nearly as enthralled by these records as I was those impeccably produced records. And “Brain Washing” accounted for much of the enthrallment.

Seriously: the bubbling, infinitely circular bass line that Family Man Barrett uses to drive this song has no ken in modern music. With an organ chirping like a robin in the background and somebody’s – let’s say Marley’s – guitar coming in at the end to square the bass circle, “Brain Washing” is so hypnotic musically I never even knew what was about until I read the lyrics to write this post.

For years, I would only catch snatches of what Marley was singing, which was snatches of nursery rhymes and fairy tails:

Cinderella and her long lost fellow
In the midnight hour, she lost her silver slipper
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
While Jack and Jill had themselves a fall

But the chorus, which I never caught, makes it so much deeper:

It’s just the poor’s brain washing
And I don’t need it no longer, I don’t want it no longer

In other words: instead of just singing snatches of fairy tales, Marley is basically saying “stop believing in fairy tales, they ain’t going to come true!” And suddenly a song that I’d ever believed was musically deep becomes lyrically deep as well.

And once again, with that bassline, it doesn’t even matter.

Fan-made video for “Brain Washing”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

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