Wednesday, January 24, 2018

I'm Writing A Book About The Birth Of The American Ska Scene!

Hello! I want to wish any of the readers of this blog a belated Happy New Year!  While I have neglected to post here regularly, its because I've signed a deal with DiWulf Publishing to write an oral history about the birth and origins of the American ska scene and its place in American sub-culture!

The initial purpose of this blog was to collect stories and research the histories of well-known and overlooked American ska bands who helped lay the foundation for the explosion of the genre in the early 90's and its ongoing popularity. My as-yet-untitled book will be told through the recollections and anecdotes of the people who lived it: the musicians who were heavily influenced by 2-Tone bands from the UK, the clubs and booking agents who supported the scene from its infancy, the bands that made music and toured relentlessly, and the fans who fell in love with the American counterpart of a beloved British subculture.

Right now I'm in the earliest stages of gathering material and research. My publisher is looking towards the end of 2018 as a tentative release date. I am already hard at work interviewing a who's who of American ska and reggae musicians, DJs, club promoters, artists and fans who helped develop ska scenes across the U.S. and supported its growth.  I'm hoping to create the most comprehensive look at the birth of American ska.

Over the next year, I'll post updates on the research process, who I'm interviewing and my overall progress. 

Thanks again to the many readers who continue to visit the site.  I'm writing this book for anyone who loves ska as much as I do!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Anti-Theresa May Protest Ska Song Heads To The Top of The U.K. Charts

A catchy ska song that lists British prime minister Theresa May's hypocrisies as well as current crises with the country's health and education systems, is racing up the U.K. charts ahead of the country's general election. The horn drenched "Liar Liar" features May's speeches and interviews interspersed with clips of other senior members of her Conservative government with the chorus, “She’s a liar liar, you can’t trust her no, no, no”.  The song was originally released 7b years ago as a critique of the then Conservative and Liberal Democratic coalition government and reached number 89 in the charts.

The band behind the song -- Captain SKA -- are a London-based group made up of session musicians who have performed with Vampire Weekend, Paloma Faith, Girls Aloud, The Streets and more. As of today, the song is currently at No. 1 in the iTunes UK download charts, tops Amazon's listing for songs downloaded in Britain and has more than a million and a half YouTube views, despite receiving no airplay from U.K. radio stations because of impartiality guidelines regarding political content. In spite of the radio ban,  growing awareness and media coverage may push "Liar Liar" to number one in the U.K. The band has also announced it is donating all proceeds from sales to to food banks across the U.K and The People's Assembly Against Austerity.

If you live in the U.K., Captain SKA are playing their official launch gig for the song on Wednesday June 7th at Brixton Jamm. Get your tickets here.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

In Memory Of Lionel Augustus Martin: The Man Known As Saxa

I heard the sad news yesterday that Saxa, the inimitable saxophonist for The English Beat passed away at 87 years old.  And so, I wanted to share a post I wrote several years ago about what he meant to me and to other music fans who fell in love with him as a musician and a kind and loving soul. While the band were a unique union of many talents and personalities, Saxa was the glue that held the band together and his haunting and beautiful horn melodies was what set them apart. Sadly, I never saw Saxa perform live, but like many, I felt like I had always known him in a way.  He was the kindly, father figure we all seek out.


I love the sound of horns but I really love the sound of the saxophone.  Indeed, if I had had more musical talent and technical skill this blog might have been called 'Marco On The Sax!'  I did take a few sax lessons in elementary school and dabbled again as a teen but sadly it was not meant to be.  However, I owe my love of all things saxophone to one man in particular -- Lionel Augustus Martin -- better known as Saxa!

The Jamaican-born Saxa was a late addition to The Beat, joining as a session musician to add some saxophone to their first single, a remake of Smokey Robinson's 'Tears of a Clown'. Saxa's experience, gained while playing with ska and rocksteady royalty like Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, and Desmond Dekker, absolutely contributed to the instant success of The Beat as the band's first single rose to Number Six on the pop charts (influencing Saxa's decision to join the group permanently). In fact, Rolling Stone in reviewing the band's first album 'I Just Can't Stop It' gave credit to the saxophonist describing it as "a rambunctious cluster of singles held together by tenor saxophonist Saxa's winning, authoritative blowing and a rhythm section ... that cared more about adventure than duplicating antique reggae."

While Saxa's inimitable sound (there is something existential and haunting about the tone and timbre of those solos -- particularly on 'Mirror In The Bathroom') took the band to a new level musically, more importantly he served as equal parts mentor, talisman and shaman.  Old enough to be the father of many of the band members when he joined The Beat, he was revered by band members and fans alike for his spiritual and mystical take on music and life.   Upon joining the band for his first live show, Saxa was asked by guitarist Andy Cox if wanted to know the keys the songs were played in.  In classic response he said 'No man!  You boys just play and me'll blow.  Me'll blow.' Guitarist Dave Wakeling in particular credits Saxa with helping him as he adjusted to life as a musician:

“He’s like the Dali with a saxophone in his hand. When he’s talking to you, you feel like the only person in the world because he can focus all his energy on you, and he just touches you by the way he moves a hand or speaks; it’s almost as though you’re receiving transmitted knowledge. Being in his presence allows you to understand what he’s talking about more than just reading it in a book, you just get it.”
Wakeling went on:
“I would throw up before shows; [one time] I’d just thrown up and he grabbed me. He said, ‘You see all them people out there? They’ve all come on the bus in the rain…soaking wet, waiting to have a good time with you. You don’t understand—you’re the lucky one.’ I never threw up after that. He put it into perspective…the only thing you can really do that’s gonna work consistently is sing the song from your heart to theirs.”
Ranking Roger also spoke of Saxa's unique personality and effect on his younger band mates in Heather Augustyn's book 'Ska: An Oral History':

"I've never met anyone like him.  Out of this world, totally. A brilliant fellow. As soon as he plays a note, he's got everybody in a trance.  He's said some profound things. At first you start thinking, 'This guy is bloody mad,' but them when you're in bed alone at night and you're thinking about it, 'What did he mean by that?' and the all of a sudden you see there's a lot of truth in the things he said. So he's kind of a mystic man, I would say."
Augustyn states (and I agree) that Saxa's ubiquitous sound and contribution to The Beat may have paved the way for saxophone use in many band's the followed in The Beat's wake like Romeo Void and Oingo Boingo and may have lead to the proliferation of the cliche sax solo in songs by bands like Duran Duran, INXS, Spandau Ballet, Wham and Wang Chung.

In 1982 poor health forced Saxa to retire from touring (too much
'Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dubweiser' while on the road in the U.S. according to the long out-of-print 'Twist And Crawl' band biography released in 1981 ). His replacement, saxophonist Wesley Magoogan, previously a member of Hazel O'Connor's band, was seen as a worthy successor to Saxa because of his discipline as a musician. However, Wakeling's comment to Musician Magazine in the early 80's proved prophetic: "[Saxa] was one of the cornerstones [of the band], and the idea of losing someone that important had us worried that the whole thing might fall apart." Nevertheless, Saxa makes a cameo on the 'Special Beat Service' album cover -- he's dressed as a sheik surrounded by the band who are dressed as security guards.

Saxa did re-emerge following his stint in The Beat playing some memorable solos for both General Public and Fine Young Cannibals (his solo on 'Funny How Love Is' may be one of his finest).  He later joined drummer Everett Morton in The International Beat, a short-lived Beat-inspired band that eventually led to the creation of the Special Beat and the second incarnation of General Public in the mid-90's.  And it was emphatic exhortation to David "Shuffle" Steele, the band's bassist, to join a band reunion during an episode of Band's Reunited, that will always stay with me.

Below is a cornucopia of songs featuring some of Saxa's greatest solos including 'Big Shot', 'Can't Get Used To Losing You', 'Hands Off She's Mine' 'I Am Your Flag' 'Psychedelic Rockers' (one of my personal favorites) and 'Funny How Love Is'. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Clash Star in Rare, Long-Lost 1980′s Gangster Parody 'Hell W10'

Behold fans of The Clash! I present for your viewing pleasure a very rare gangster parody film titled 'Hell W10' (named after the post code of Notting Hill in London) that Clash frontman Joe Strummer wrote and directed during the summer of 1983. It features his band mates and was filmed while the band was on a break from touring. Its bittersweet to watch, as this is the very last creative project the band worked on together before Jones was ousted from The Clash in late 1983.

'Hell W10' is a 50 minute-long, Super-8 silent film that plays like Mean Streets on a shoestring budget. It tells a tale of gang warfare between a brigade of punks led by bassist Paul Simonon and a bunch of sharp-suited gangsters fronted by guitarist Mick Jones. The film is an amateurish, funny, gory, and fascinating document of the early 80's.  It was lost to time until a pair of fans found a copy at a garage sale a few years back (the film was later released as part of the Essential Clash DVD collection).

While it's not exactly the kind of thing you watch again and again, it's worth viewing at least once for the images of London in the early '80s and the gusto with which the band members throw themselves into their roles -- Jones camps it up like a pantomime villain as Mr. Socrates, while Simonon plays his Jimmy Cliff-channeling rude boy nemesis Earl.  Strummer puts in a cameo as a mustachioed crooked cop (prefiguring his later movie work in Alex Cox's 'Straight to Hell' and Jim Jarmusch's 'Mystery Train'). Both Tony James and Martin Degville who later went on to form Sigue Sigue Sputnik also feature in the film.

The plot focuses on Earl (Simonon) and a drug-lord/porn director/crime lord named Socrates (Jones). Earl's girlfriend gets involved with Socrates and soon enough Earl becomes the man's number one enemy. Socrates tries to get his goons on Earl's case, especially after he sells a batch of Socrates' X-rated films, but Earl manages to wrangle up a group of his friends to rebel against them.

Watcher be warned: 'Hell W10' is no masterpiece. The camera work is sloppy at times and individual scenes last longer than they need to. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy any movie with an all-Clash soundtrack, and I got a huge kick out of watching Mick Jones scowl in his white tuxedo like a silent-film Scarface.

The soundtrack is a highpoint and features excerpts from a mix of instrumentals of well known Clash songs, as well as a few rarities including in order "Version City", "Rudie Can't Fail", "First Night Back in London (Instrumental)", "Know Your Rights (Instrumental)", "Long Time Jerk (Instrumental)", "Cool Confusion (Instrumental)", "Ghetto Defendant (Instrumental)", "Junco Version (Instrumental)", "Atom Tam (Instrumental)", "Silicone on Sapphire", "Wrong 'Em Boyo", "Overpowered by Funk (Instrumental)", "The Call Up", "Red Angel Dragnet (Instrumental)", "Jimmy Jazz", "Mensforth Hill", "Junkie Slip", "Time Is Tight", "Armagideon Time", "Listen", "The Equaliser", "Police on My Back", "One More Dub" and "Rock the Casbah (Instrumental).

Without further ado I present in its entirety Hell W10:

Friday, April 7, 2017

Rude Boy George: 80's New Wave Goes Ska!

In the shameless self-promotion department, the band I'm in  -- Rude Boy George -- has just released its first single of 2017! Its part of a suite of ska and reggae versions of 80's songs we've been recording and releasing every few months during the last year and a half (stream the latest songs on Bandcamp or listen to our first album "Confessions" released in 2014 on Spotify.) The latest song is our new wave meets reggae version of Blondie's "Atomic. "  It joins our 2-Tone ska and reggae take on other 80's tracks including songs by Soft Cell, The Cure, Wang Chung, Kim Wilde and Howard Jones.

Truth be told, the twin pillars of 2-Tone ska and 80's new wave music sustained me through much of a challenging youth during the 1980's. 2-Tone revealed harsh economic, social and racial injustices with a power and a fury that was undeniable but also danceable. It forever influenced my world view and moved me to learn an instrument and start a ska band -- Bigger Thomas. Though I tend to be a religious secularist, I've worshipped at the Church of 2-Tone for most of my life.

While new wave retained the vigor and irreverence of 70's punk music that had fueled 2-Tone, it incorporated style and art in a way that opened my world to ideas of love, friendship, sex and fashion and helped give form to my own burgeoning identity. I sought refuge in new wave's incredible diversity of nervy pop (XTC), synth pop (Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Human League), new wave songwriters (Elvis Costello), pop bands (Squeeze, INXS), pop-reggae (The Police) and more mainstream rockers (Billy Idol, The Cars). Here in the U.S. 2-Tone was lumped in with new wave, so in many ways, despite their completely different musical world views they are inextricably linked in my musical consciousness. A yin and yang that forever form the soundtrack of my life. And that is how I see Rude Boy George -- a combination of the two music forms that have sustained me most of my life.

So if you like the idea of some of your favorite 80's new wave songs wrapped in a loving ska and reggae embrace, we hope you will consider giving our songs a spin. Many thanks!

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Story Behind General Public's Other, Much Darker Video For "Tenderness"

For anyone who came of age in the 80's, General Public's video for "Tenderness" was nearly ubiquitous. It featured smiling, happy children, interspersed with moody shots of Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger singing and dancing in front of swirling lights.  When paired with the songs upbeat sound, the video highlighted the brighter side of the lyrics more melancholy undertones. Otherwise, the video didn't stand out significantly from the many other pop and new wave videos of the era.

That said, if you really paid attention, the lyrics were deeper than they appeared.  According to Wakeling:

"I used to like traveling with the trucks that carried the gear. I'd always been a big fan of that TV show Cannonball when I was a kid, and thought that the idea of American trucks was very romantic. So when we came on tour, I used to love to drive overnight with the truck drivers and talk rubbish on the CB in there. And so it was as if the trucks were driving in what's called "the endless gray river." And the notion was that you were driving around in there in America searching for the tenderness, whereas, of course, it's in your heart all the time. So it's like you're looking in the outside world for something that can only be discovered in yourself, because love is a verb, not a noun. That was the notion of it. But also there was a darker side to the song, because it came out in that period of AIDS, fear of AIDS. Nobody really knew much about it, and everybody was all of a sudden terrified to touch a door handle. Being a terrific hypochondriac, and everybody was always having colds on the road on tour, it's like any time anybody sneezed, I was like, could that be AIDS? So it was to do with that, but in sort of non-obvious way."

And to that end, there was another, much darker and more adult version of the video for "Tenderness" which was filmed in the U.K. (by the director of Bronski Beat's cutting edge video for "Small Town Boy") that never aired here in the U.S. The story behind the two very different videos is a classic case of American puritanical views on sex and a U.S. record company that was aiming to place the song at the top of the pop charts (it reached #27 in the Billboard Charts) and record a video that would garner regular rotation on MTV. According to Wakeling:

We did two versions. We did one in England with Nicholas Roeg’s son, who’d just become a video director, and he’d just done a Bronski Beat video. I really enjoyed that video, and so our first one had this female lifeguard, and we’re all playing around in the swimming pool. I’d been a competition swimmer, so when they proposed a swimming pool, I said yes yes, thinking I could show off a bit. So the girl and I are supposed to be eyeing each other and then we end up in the shower, and she takes off her jacket and she’s actually a female bodybuilder with a crew cut. She tosses off her wig and embraces me, and that’s the end of the video. Everyone in England thought it was amazing. We brought it over to Miles Copeland and his crew and they said [in a barking tone] “No no no no no.” We said we didn’t have any money to re-shoot, but IRS Records came up with the money. They introduced us to [director] C.D. Taylor whom I like very much, and I think the theme of that video was that Roger and I were very attractive people at sunset. (laugh) We shot much of the performance on the A&M lot. C.D. Taylor found these eye drops that made blue eyes look even bluer with the right lens on. It ended up being my mom’s favorite video. I showed the two cuts to my mom, and she said, “ah, your eyes do look lovely in that one.” 

Check out the radically different UK version of the video for the song below. The risque visuals and storyline of a family man dealing with temptation and infidelity while on the road is far more compelling than most pop videos of the day and completely changes your view of the song forever. Too bad Miles Copeland was so shortsighted!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Remembering Fun Boy Three's "Our Lips Are Sealed"

It's hard to believe that it was 35 years ago this  month (March of 1982), that the Fun Boy Three, comprised of three ex-members of The Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple), released their first self-titled album. It's fair to say that the album had a huge impact on me as a music fan and a musician.  The Fun Boy Three succeeded in taking me out of my comfort zone and also opened my mind to the ways that music could be fun, subversive and serious all at the same time.

While "The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum" had a strong Specials influence --  it was the uniquely strange and hypnotic "Way On Down" along with "Alibi" and the insanely catchy "The Telephone Always Ring" (which explores Hall's agoraphobia) that helped me to appreciate the darkly weird world view and talents of Terry Hall.  As a teen in the early 80's, I was drawn to the colorful haircuts and pop stylings of these songs (their partnership with Bananarama certainly didn't hurt!), but it was hard to grasp the level of sarcasm and black humor that he brought to these songs.  As an adult, I love and relate to them even more.

The first album quickly established Fun Boy Three as pop stars and household names across the U.K.  They quickly followed-up their first with 'Waiting' released in January 1983, which in my humble opinion may be one of the best albums released in the 80's.  Produced by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, it was a beautifully produced and sleek-sounding collection, filled with tales of life's trials and tribulations, covering subjects from child-abuse and drug smuggling to racism, divorce and infidelity. That said, I'm taking a closer look at the story behind of the most popular songs from the album -- 'Our Lips Are Sealed' -- which was named one of the 100 Greatest Pop Songs of all time by Rolling Stone in 2000.

While many casual fans of the song are probably familiar with the 1981 version recorded by The Go-Go's for their 'Beauty and The Beat' LP, the song was actually co-written by the band's guitarist Jane Wiedlin with Terry Hall (which helps explain why two separate versions of the song were released within 2 years).  The Go-Go's version made the Top 20 in the U.S. while the Fun Boy Three version hit #7 in the U.K. According to an interview that Wiedlin did with the Songfacts website, "Our Lips Are Sealed' is actually the story of a secret romance based on a short 'tour affair' that Hall and Wiedlin had when their respective band's toured together:
'In 1980 we were playing at The Whiskey on Sunset Strip, and The Specials were in town from England, and they came to see us, and they really liked us and asked us if we would be their opening act on their tour. I met Terry Hall, the singer of The Specials, and ended up having kind of a romance. He sent me the lyrics to 'Our Lips Are Sealed' later in the mail, and it was kind of about our relationship, because he had a girlfriend at home and all this other stuff. So it was all very dramatic. I really liked the lyrics, so I finished the lyrics and wrote the music to it, and the rest is history. And then his band, The Fun Boy Three, ended up recording it, too - they did a really great version of it, also. It was like a lot gloomier than the Go-Go's' version.'
Wiedlin and Hall's versions offer insight into their personal take on the  affair (one upbeat, poppy and sunny and the other very dark and claustrophobic). Speaking about her relationship with Terry Hall, Wiedlin added:
"Like I said, he had a girlfriend in England, and they were talking about getting married and all this stuff. So I don't know how I got in the picture. And, you know, that's something that I did as a teenager, maybe I was 20. That's something I would never do now, knowingly enter into a relationship with someone who was with someone else. I mean, it was completely screwed on my part. Although I think when people do that, you really have to look at the person who's in the relationship, and they have to take the burden of the responsibility as well. Anyways, it was one of those things with the tragic letters, "I just can't do this." You know, "I'm betrothed to another." All that kind of stuff. And I think he ended up marrying that woman, and having kids, and of course now they're divorced, so… ."
The Go-Go's version:

A rare promo version by Fun Boy Three:

The Fun Boy Three also recorded an Urdu version of the song (yes Urdu, one of the main languages of Pakistan). There are two possible stories behind the recording of this rare b-side version. The first is that Ingrid Schroeder, a member of the Fun Boy Three backing band, read and recorded phonetic Urdu lyrics (which seems plausible given the rather flat sound of the vocal delivery). The other story (which I prefer!) is that the band brought an older Pakistani woman into the studio and had her translate and then record the lyrics. The band may have been prompted to record the Urdu version by the album's producer David Byrne, who  had recently recorded  'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts' with Brian Eno which featured a lot of 'found' voices mixed with danceable beats. Have a listen below.

'Our Lips Are Sealed' continues to have legs nearly 30 years later. The song was re-worked by Nouvelle Vague and Terry Hall in 2009. The video features an old Louise Brooks movie.