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.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Happy Birthday Terry Hall!: Watch Rare Solo Gig Performance From 2014

Today is Terry Hall's 58th birthday!  While he is best known as the lead singer of The Specials, Hall has a large (and somewhat overlooked catalog) of non-ska music that is amazing in its depth and variety. Hall's musical journey includes fronting Fun Boy Three (a personal favorite of mine), The Colourfield, Terry, Blair and Anouchka, Vegas (with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics) and a solo career that included collaborations with Ian Broudie (lead singer of Lighting Seeds who produced Hall's album "Home") and Damon Albarn (of Blur). 

To celebrate Hall's birthday, I've posted a video from a one off, solo show he played back in January 2014, that was hosted by clothing giant Fred Perry on the closing night of London Men’s Fashion Week. For the show, Hall enlisted the musical talents of fellow Specials’ band mates, Horace Panter on bass and John ‘Brad’ Bradbury on drums as well as Lightning Seed’s front man Ian Broudie, with whom he had co-written a string of hits, keyboardist Angie Pollock, who worked with him on "Home," and Specials’ trombone player, Tim Smart.

The group performed a short set comprising some of Hall’s favorite songs and classics from his own back catalogue, including "Sense," a hit for both him and the Lightning Seeds, and the Fun Boy Three chart-smash, "Our Lips Are Sealed."

And finally, here is a rare and brilliant version of the Talking Heads classics "Psycho Killer"that Hall performed with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Story Behind 'Love Of The Common People': From Country Ballad To 70's Reggae To 80's New Wave Hit

The first time I heard 'Love Of The Common People' as sung by 80's blue-eyed soul singer Paul Young, I was struck by the lyrics to the song. In contrast to much of the other cheery new wave that dominated the airwaves at the time,  the lyrics tell a bleak story of poverty and joblessness. There is a mention of 'free food tickets,' a reference to government food stamp and welfare programs, and the mention of clothes and shoes with holes that is offset by family love and the power of dreams. Only later did I learn about the songs reggae and 2-Tone connections -- Young's version was based on a cover of a reggae version of the song popular in the U.K. in the 70's and the searing trombone solo in the middle eight of Young's version is played by the one and only Rico Rodrigues of The Specials!

"Love Of The Common People" has an amazing history and is the rare song that has been performed and covered in a verity of musical genres including punk, reggae and 80's pop. The song was written as a Woody Guthrie-like folk ballad by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins in the late 60's.  Though Hurley and Wilkins did not expressly convey it the lyrics, the song is a protest of what they saw as the failure of the American government to do more for the poor and unemployed than it already had. As we endure the first few months of the Trump Administration, I could not think of a more appropriate song to write about, as a Republican dominated Congress seeks to cut and limit more and more of the safety net of the Affordable Healthcare Act, unemployment insurance, and other benefits that the millions of Americans have used to support themselves.

The song was first released in January 1967 in the U.S. by The Four Preps but gained prominence when it was recorded by Country singer Waylon Jennings.   However, the most powerful versions of the song are the soul and reggae takes.  The first was recorded by Washington, D.C soul/funk band The Winstons in 1969. However the definitive version --in my humble opinion -- was recorded by reggae vocalist Nicky Thomas in 1970, reaching number 9 in the UK Singles Chart. It was Thomas's only major hit single, and became his signature song, coming to define the term 'pop reggae'.

The story of how Paul Young came to record the song is very interesting.  Young met Jake Burns of Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers at one of their concerts.  The band had added the song to their live set and Young asked Burns whether Stiff Little Fingers were planning to release the song as a single. When Burns told them they weren't, Young asked if they minded him releasing it as a single. They said he could, not thinking the single would do well. Burns later self-mockingly stated in an interview, 'Pfft! Go ahead. You'll never get anywhere with that, mate. Yeah, number 2, that'll teach me!'. The Stiff Little Finger's version has a great punky reggae feel.

Young initially released his interpretation of 'Love of the Common People as a single in 1982, but it failed to chart. It was only when Young had his first hit in 1983 with 'Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)' that his record company decided to release the song again. The single peaked at #2 in the UK, and reached the number one spot in Ireland and the Netherlands. The song features a wonderful trombone solo in the middle which was provided courtesy of the one and only Rico Rodriguez. The trombonist had just endured the break-up of The Specials and decided to branch out and was tapped by Young to join his band.  Rodriguez mentioned the song in an interview.
Q: And it was time to escape the English raining to some sunshine for a change.
A: Yes, and before me go to Jamaica me do one recording with Paul Young, a song from Nicky Thomas, 'Love Of The Common People', and I think Paul Young made a hit out of it.
Q: OK, pop stuff.
A: Yes, and I did the solo in that. And when I was in Jamaica I used to hear it on the radio in Jamaica, but since I'm in Jamaica here nobody don't even know is me who do the solo on that record. But it got regular play, it was regularly played on the radio.
Look for Rodrigues in the video of the song below.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Madness Play Madmen - The Story Behind Their Early 80's Honda TV Ads

Madness fans are generally quite familiar with the songs 'In The City' and 'Driving In My Car'. They are both classics of the band's trademark 'Nutty Sound.' However, chances are that if you lived outside of Japan in the early 80's you might not have known that Madness appeared in a series of incredibly entertaining television ads for the Honda City, a small sub-compact car that came with a small folding motorcycle called the Motocompo that fit snugly in hatchback.

The story behind how Madness came to be pitchmen for Honda is one full of corporate intrigue and perseverance and ultimately success for the car maker and the band.  The Honda City was supposed to be a game changer for the Japanese car maker which at the time was stuck in a sales drought. Much thought and energy was put into its design and once it was ready to be shipped to dealers it needed an ad campaign. Looking to connect with a younger consumer, Honda's marketing team unexpectedly turned to Madness, then riding high in the charts, hoping they might just be perfect for a series of super-frantic TV spots. According to the Honda web site: '...the sales promotion staff attempted something completely different. They tried to create original music for young people, paying extra attention to rhythm in order to build a sense of pace and anticipation for the product. To that end, the production staff flew to New York in the hope of gathering musicians to create a City band. It was then that someone passed along the information that there was an English band that played a unique form of ska music, and that their dance style also was quite unique. The band was virtually unknown to Japanese music fans, but the staff decided to employ them anyway, attracted by their oddity and novelty. Upper management, however, simply would not hear of it.'

There was much back and forth between the promotion staff and Honda senior management, but finally, after multiple proposals, the executive in charge of bringing the car to market gave the marketers the green light and Madness were invited to Japan.  According to Honda: 'The recording, photo sessions, and commercial filming were completed in rapid succession. In fact, production took only two-and-a-half days during the band’s four-day stay in Japan. With the completion of the scene featuring the Centipede Dance [Nutty Train] to the music of the now-famous “Honda, Honda, Honda” tune'.  The ads had the intended effect and Japanese consumers fell in love with the band. As soon as the commercials began airing, the “Honda, Honda, Honda” melody and the 'nutty train' dance became a huge hit throughout Japan, popping up at school festivals and parties. As for the Honda, they had a hit on their hands as well.

As it turned out, the band liked the jingle so much that they expanded it into a three minute song and released it as a b-side (B/W "Cardiac Arrest") that reached #14 in the UK charts. It was also included on Complete Madness, the band's best-selling greatest hits compilation from 1982. The longer version of "In The City" replaced the repeated brand name "Honda Honda Honda..." with the more generic "doomba doomba doomba". Later ads for the Honda City featured snippets of  the song 'Driving In My Car' which was also a hit for the band.

Below are videos of the band's ad's for Honda as well as the video's for 'In The City' and 'Driving In My Car'.

The band have continued to serve as pitchmen, most notable in the early 90's for Sekonda wrist watches. More recently the band's lead singer Suggs has served as spokesperson for Birds Eye fish fingers and in 2011 the band partnered with premium lager brand Kronenbourg 1664, to record an amazing, slowed down re-arrangement of 'Baggy Trousers' (re-titled 'Le Grand Pantalon) for a music-centered ad for the brand's ‘Slow the Pace’ campaign.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

An Ode to John 'Brad' Bradbury of The Specials: Prince Rimshot Defined The 2-Tone Sound

On what would have been his 64th birthday, I want to pay homage to John 'Brad' Bradbury.  While the The Specials have always been defined by its front men and songwriters, as a bass player I've always focused on the fantastic chemistry that existed between Bradbury and his rhythm partner bassist Horace Panter.

I think its fair to say that the timeless quality of The Specials sound was defined by the sound of Bradbury's drums. He played crisp, clean patterns that combined the energy and power of punk with the technical prowess of ska, rocksteady, reggae and soul. Bradbury's trademark bass drum and cymbal hits, Latin-inspired rolls and hi-hat figures set the standard for the 2-Tone sound and he elevated the 'rimshot' to a musical art form earning himself the nickname 'Prince Rimshot' along the way.  Below is an interview that Bradbury did with Rhythm Magazine in 20111 about his cool 2-Tone Pearl drum kit.

Bradbury always played Pearl Drums.  In fact, Pearl Drums were so popular with 2-Tone drummers that the company took out a print ad in 1980 at the height of 2-Tone's popularity (see below) that featured Bradbury, along with Jane Summers of The Bodysnatchers and Charley 'H' Bembridge of The Selecter.

Now watch Bradbury in action on the kit performing 'Monkey Man' during The Specials 2010 tour stop in Toronto, Canada. Its a very unique overhead camera shot which gives you a birds eye view of the man doing what he did best. The secret for me is the timbale like tuning of his snare and the cymbal crashes which are the heart and soul of each and every song by The Specials.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

VH1 Bands Reunited Officially Kills Any Chance Of A Reunion by The Beat

Though 2-Tone officially died in the early 80's when The Specials and The Selecter split, the musicians who performed in these bands as well as other bands associated with the label like The Beat, Madness and Bad Manners have kept its legacy alive over the last 30 years. While other bands have risen from the ashes of 2-Tone and retained some of the essence and magic -- Fun Boy Three, General Public, Fine Young Cannibals, The Madness, Crunch, Buster's All-Stars and Special Beat -- there is nothing like hearing, seeing and experiencing the original versions. I think that explains the initial excitement and joy surrounding the The Specials reunion shows and the ongoing longevity and fan support for Madness (who released Can't Touch Us Now in late 2016), The Selecter (who released Subculture in 2015 and are touring the UK this spring ) and the dueling versions of UB40 (UB40 and UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey) that continue to tour and release new music. Sadly, none of these bands -- aside from Madness -- include the original founding members. It may be unrealistic to expect band members to stick together over the years, but they often reunite. And that got me thinking about an aborted attempt to reunite the original version of The Beat thirteen years ago.

Back in 2004 there was a very entertaining program on VH1 called Bands Reunited. I am not ashamed to admit that I was a regular viewer and thoroughly enjoyed each and every episode. Part of the show's allure had to do with nostalgia but also the possibility of reconnection. There was a great quote from the shows executive producer Julio Kollerbohm, who was quoted in an Entertainment Weekly interview at the time saying that he believed viewers were responding to the universal theme of mending broken relationships. 'These bands are like dysfunctional families that haven't spoken in sometimes 10 to 20 years. They're making peace with that period in their lives,' he says,'Even if [the reunion doesn't happen], it's going to make for good TV.'"

And so, for one short moment in time, the program attempted to do what no one has been able to do before or since -- convince the original members of The Beat to reunite. Like The Specials, The Beat occupy a very special place and time in musical history and in the hearts of their many fans, Like The Specials, the bad feelings and acrimony between the original members lingers to this day with both Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger leading their own versions of the band separated by the Atlantic Ocean and bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox estranged from one another and on to other endeavors. Nevertheless, way back in 2004 there seemed to be an opportunity for a reunion, or so the producers of Band's Reunited and its chirpy host Aamer Haleem, would have lead us to believe.

For the uninitiated, Bands Reunited consisted of the shows host, producers and crew hunting down the ex-members of the band one-by-one, and convincing them to agree for the one-time concert; the members were "contracted" by signing a record album by their former band. The band members were then interviewed, usually focusing on the reasons for the breakup. The final segment would consist of the formal reunion of the band in the rehearsal studio, and a joint interview about why the group originally parted ways. If the reunion was successful, the episode ended with a final performance before a sold out club full of gleeful fans.

Like all reality shows, the outcome was often known in advance. By that I mean the 'will they or won't they' of whether or not a band would reunite was pretty clear to the show producers as they documented the process of tracking down band members. In fact, the behind the scenes string pulling and contractual negotiations with band members have been detailed. Kurt Harland, the lead singer of Information Society detailed his negative experience with the program on his website, and how they differed from the portrayal of events as broadcast. Its a fascinating read.

Alas, VH1 did not deliver a happy ending on The Beat's edition of Bands Reunited. Cox and Steele, despite an impassioned plea from the aging Saxa, refused to reunite with their former band mates. When one of your band mates is pushing 80, opportunities to reunite grow dimmer by the year. And that was that. Or so it would seem. In a newspaper interview back in 2008, Wakeling provided an inside look at the maneuvering that took place behind the scenes as the producers for the shows tried to make something out of nothing.

According to Wakeling, the whole experience was unpleasant. "It was a beast. It was funny as well, knowing what was going on behind the scenes. I don’t want to say much about it. I knew that it wouldn’t work to get the group back together. I was being interviewed and agreed to be a part of it, knowing that it wouldn’t happen. There were two people in the group that refused to even be in the same room together. I phoned VH1 and said I can’t do this, it’s going to take me away from my family and it’ll take too much time. They came back and said we’ll take you and your family and pay all your expenses to fly back to England. At that point, I felt I didn’t have a choice because it was such a great offer. Then the whole thing became comedic because they were staking out Andy Cox. What they didn’t realize, is that he takes that sort of thing very seriously and he started monitoring them! He could look out his window and see their reflection in the windows across the street. He showed me a log he started keeping, tracking when they were in front of his house. Roger got a gig while we were there and they got all the instruments together and set up chairs for everyone. Not everyone showed up, but they asked those of us that were there, to play a song. We agreed and started to set up when suddenly Roger went mad and made them turn the cameras off and take away all the instruments. But I had a great two weeks in London for free and my family enjoyed it. I think the premise of the show was good, but they started to get desperate and I think that The Beat got a whiff of it and that caused it to fail.

The problems, Wakeling shared, emerged once it began to look as if a full reunion of the Beat wasn't possible. "At that point, I suppose the producers have a dilemma of how to create some drama to make an interesting TV show, so they started to play games behind us, trying to get that band members to phone this band member, or to get that band member to go around another band member's house," Wakeling said. "After it was all over and done, the people who were reluctant to do it felt they'd been publicly ridiculed by VH1. They said, 'there's always been an off chance of the full band reuniting, but that VH1 show was the nail in the coffin.'" "So VH1 finally killed the Beat," Wakeling laughed. "Thanks a lot."

In case you missed the series or the episode featuring The Beat when it originally aired in 2004 or live outside the U.S., I've posted the entire episode below. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Conversation With Matthew "Pegleg" Roberts of Peg & The Rejected/The Dingees

When we fall in love with a song, an album or a band, we're not making a cognitive decision. Its primal.  It's inexplicable. We feel it in our bones and our nerves.   The music that we fall in love with becomes part of our emotional DNA. It takes up home in our heart and soul.  It sparks neurons that light up our brains.  We hit play. Then hit rewind as soon as the song ends. And then hit play and rewind again and again.

And so, late last year, after the Presidential election, when I was grappling with some dark thoughts and fears about the sea change taking place in our country, someone sent me a link to Peg & The Rejected's album "4th Wave." The album cover art piqued my interest.  It was a hodgepodge of 2-Tone iconography including the album title:  4th Wave?!  After reading hundreds of debates about the various waves of ska, I laughed at the idea of a 4th Wave of ska.  And so, with no preconceived notions or any idea who Peg & The Rejected were, I played their album and my neurons started sparking! And then I played the album again and again. Soon the songs on "4th Wave" took up home in my heart and soul.  These are songs that deserve to be heard by a much larger audience.

Who the hell are Peg & The Rejected you ask? This Long Beach, California based band are better known as the 90's era ska punk/reggae band The Dingees who came together in the mid-90's when Matthew "Pegleg" Roberts was working on the road crew selling merchandise for Orange County Christian ska band The OC Supertones. He befriended the band's sax player Dave Chevalier and they talked about the burgeoning Orange County ska scene.  Soon after they returned from the tour, Pegleg and Chevalier recruited other musicians and began performing as The Dingees (a reference to one of the band members smelly "dingy" feet!)

Things moved quickly for The Dingees -- who honed a ska punk sound and started playing out around Orange County.  They were soon signed to Tooth & Nail Records recording three albums in four years -- Armageddon Massive (1998), Sundown to Midnight (1999) and The Crucial Conspiracy (2001) -- and touring non-stop.  Shortly after the September 11, 2001, the band learned that they had been dropped by Tooth & Nail.  At that point, the band went into DIY mode and over the next few years worked to home record, self-produce and independently release Rebel Soul Sound System for free in 2010. And now, nearly seven years later, the band has released "4th Wave,"

I often joke that I worship at the Church of 2-Tone and in my opinion, the songs on "4th Wave" add chapter and verse to the canon of 2nd wave ska music created by The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat.  And while Peg & The Rejected are essentially The Dingees, they have refined their punk meets reggae sound to record a truly 21st century version of 2-Tone ska that is worthy of the 4th Wave moniker by embracing the ideas and concepts of protest, resistance and social criticism inherent in original 60's ska, 70's reggae and 2-Tone music.

I interviewed Pegleg about how he became a musician and how he started The Dingees and now Peg & The Rejected.  I also spent a good deal of time talking to him about the songs on "4th Wave" and how his views on years of U.S. imperialism abroad have impacted his world view.

Heard in our current cultural context, "4th Wave" can legitimately be called the first Trump-era ska album that mixes the best of The Selecter, Operation Ivy/Rancid, Fishbone and The Skatalites into an original mix of thoughtful, heartfelt and thought provoking songs about the current state of the world. Its an album about life in the U.S. today -- secrecy, lies, fake news, propoganda, income inequality, police brutality, US aggression abroad -- and its effects.  There are so many memorable songs on the album, including the bittersweet"Stray Bullets" which is an instant classic. It features a chorus that could have been written by Pauline Black, the best 2-Tone lyricist ever -- "Stray bullets could only catch the innocent/guilty finger pointing trigger and pulling it."

Below are videos for many of the songs from "4th Wave" that I interviewed Pegleg about.