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.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

An Interview with Chris "Kid Coconuts" Acosta of The New York Citizens

Much in the way that 2-Tone Records was really the label for The Specials and The Selecter, in its early days, Moon Records was the label for The Toasters and The New York Citizens (NYC's). While The Toasters hewed to a 2-Tone inspired sound, The NYC's created a compelling musical stew with ska as its base, but that also drew inspiration from '60s Stax, British punk, new wave and 2-Tone, as well as funk and hard rock. In fact, you could make a case that along with Fishbone, The NYC's helped give birth to a uniquely American version of ska (AKA: ska-core) that proliferated after they had broken up. Though The NYC's were contemporaries of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who took the ska-core sound and ran with it in the 90's), it was The NYC's who were among the very first American ska bands to try the kitchen sink musical approach  that helped give birth ska-core.  If you don't believe me just give Helltown a spin!

The NYC's had their origins is a band called Legal Gender which included singer Robert Tierney (read my interview with Tierney here), Mike Hicks (drums), Dan Marotta (guitar) and Paul Gil (read my interview with Gil here) on the bass. While attending Manhattan College, Marotta met keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik. Initially, Legal Gender had a new wave/punk sound with some ska influences, but it was the addition of Chris 'Kid Coconuts' Acosta (the Chas Smash of the band) and the recording of the song 'Overcast' (as a split 7" for Moon Records) which set them on the way to a new sound and a new name.

My first encounter with The NYC's came when my band Bigger Thomas (then known as Panic!) opened a show for them at Rutgers University in September of 1988. My first impression of them was that they seemed like a gang.  They had an intimidating swagger on and off the stage. Though it was our very first show (we had been together about a month), we must have made an impression, because The NYC's were initially responsible for passing word about us on to others around the New York ska scene including Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters.

Over the early months of 1989, The NYC's invited us to play other shows with them in New York and New Jersey. Though we always sensed a bit of a rivalry with the band and they tended to treat us as outsiders because we weren't part of the New York City ska scene, they were also responsible for giving us a lot of early breaks. By the time we started playing shows with The NYC's they were an established act and I learned a lot by watching them -- particularly Tierney and Acosta.

As a singer and a front man, Tierney embodied the best elements of a sneering Johnny Rotten and an eloquent Morrissey. Though the band were unpredictable and edgy and always seemingly ready for a fight, underneath their bravado lay Tierney's lyrics that revealed a sensitive, literate and socially conscious soul. And right beside him was Acosta who played the role of Dave Collins (of Double Barrel fame) and Flavor Flav egging on the crowd and showing off the dancing skills he honed in clubs around New York City before he joined the band. Acosta was the perfect foil to Tierney, playing the hype man to a tee.

I recently re-connected with Acosta after nearly 25 years when I bumped into him at The Selecter show in New York City this past October and then again when The Skints played in Brooklyn this past December.  We spent some time catching up and sharing stories and he agreed to conduct an interview with me.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I grew up in North Brooklyn (Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick) on the Bushwick/Ridgewood, Queens border. My landlord (and surrogate grandmother) was this little old Italian lady from Bari, Italy (Rosa Amendolare -- we shared the same birthday). We used a photo of her clothes line with our "Boxer Shorts" for the "Stranger Things Have Happened " album cover, and then a photo of her on "The Truth About The New York Citizens" album.

What was the first record or single that you bought? What was it like to grow in New York City in the 80's? 
As far as music, I can say I am very fortunate to have grown up in New York City in the late 70's and 80's. Around 1978-1980 I would go with my buddies to all those illegal "school yard" or public park DJ parties. The DJ's would spin stuff like Jimmy Castor's Just Begun, Archie Bell & the Drells Tighten Up, Booker T & MG's Melting Pot, James Brown's Give it up or Turn it Loose, and The Jackson 5's Hum Along and Dance. We would "up rock" (before break dancing). I used to belong to a dance crew called Touch of Rock!

As I got a little older I went out with my older sisters who initially were into rock and disco but some how made it to underground places like the Loft (David Mancuso) and the Paradise Garage (Larry Levan). It was there that not only did I hear stuff I was familiar with, but stuff that sounded familiar but that I had never heard.

Hearing Time Warp, Walking On Sunshine and Living On The Frontline by Eddy Grant, Kraftwerk, Another One Bites the Dust by Queen, Talking Heads, The Clash and even The Police at the Loft really influenced me. I suppose then during my sophomore year in high school (I went to James Madison, which was a mix between Guidos, Rockers and West Indians) I got into "Electro" and "New Wave". We'd go to places like Danceteria, the Mudd Club and the Pyramid. This was also when I heard for the first time groups like The Specials, Madness and The Selecter as well as The Smiths, New Order and The Cure.

By the summer of 1983 I was going to Hardcore matinees at CBGB's seeing bands like Kraut, Agnostic Front and Warzone. However, all along it was the 2-Tone sound that influenced me the most. This is what made growing up in NYC great, being able to make friends with people of different musical tastes and having the choice of either getting into or not. Everything was always just a subway ride away...

How did you first meet Robert Tierney and the other members of the band? 
I meet Rob in 1985 at New York City Technical College in downtown Brooklyn. We were both studio graphic arts students. We shared the same musical taste as far as new wave and ska. Rob told me about a band he had called Legal Gender along with Dan Marotta (guitar), Mike Hicks (drummer) and Paul Gil (bass) and later Gerry O'Sullivan (keyboards) and John Pavlik (sax).  I particularly got along with Dan Marotta!

How did you become Kid Coconuts?
At first I was just helping Legal Gender get gigs (I had a buddy who worked at CBGB's). But then I sort of became their "dance man" and added the coconut sound as part of an inside joke between us from watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the Knights couldn't afford horses so they used two coconut halves to make the "clicking" sound of the hooves...). So ever since then I became sort of an "act," the only musician to buy his "instrument" at the produce section of a super market.

Could you describe the mid-to-late 80s NYC Ska scene for the benefit of those who didn't experience it? Which were some of your favorite bands from that time?
As far as I can remember at first there weren't a lot of ska type bands. I remember seeing The Toasters and Second Step like in 1986. I remember being particularly impressed with Cavo and Lionel of the Toasters. I felt they brought that urban NYC vibe to the sound. The scene was not big but cool. It was nice going to dive bars like Blanche's and Sofie's in a shark skin suit.

You worked for Moon Records right? At first I helped do the art work for a couple of the album covers for the Toasters and a few of the compilations.
I first helped Moon Records to broker some of the catalog to Spain for distribution and vice versa. Then after wards I helped put together two Latin Ska compilations with bands from Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean. It was a of fun putting those comps together I made a lot of friends in far places.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows in New York City that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
I remember taking all the beer from The Ramones dressing room (in front of their fucking faces) at City Gardens in Trenton; smoking a huge joint with Rita Marley while waiting to go on before Ziggy Marley. Also the huge fight we had with a bunch of Nazi skinheads at a show in Los Angeles. We were playing on stage and we were exchanging spit with each other until we said fuck it "let's fight! you fuckin' soft pussies...!"

Tell me about recording “On the Move” in 1988 which is the quintessential NYCs’ record. What was it like working with Bucket in the studio?
Working with Rob Hingley helped us grow in my opinion. We had our own sound, it was clear we weren't trying to revive 2-Tone but rather mix in our own New York City influences. We tried to capture that with this initial album.

Both our bands were part of the "NYC Ska Live" album recorded at the Cat Club in 1990. Do you have any memories of that show and what are your thoughts about the album?
I remember that there were a lot of bands on the bill! It was great to do a live recording with all these bands! I think I also did the art work for that album...

Our bands shared the stage at City Gardens in Trenton, N.J., quite a few times. What are your memories of that iconic club? You recorded a fantastic live version of “Lemon Jelly” there that appeared on “The Truth about the New York Citizens.”
We used to love playing at City Gardens, the crowd there was extremely receptive to our sound! The 'Lemon Jelly" recording was so much fun! I love the sort of droll voice from the sound man at the end.."Well..., there you have it...that's the New York Citizens..."

The band also recorded 'Stranger Things Have Happened' in 1990 which had some classic songs including “Shut Up and Listen" and “Boxer Shorts” What are your memories of that recording session?
I think personally this was my favorite album as far as concept because we tried to "string along " all the songs so it came off a "mixed tape". We sampled everything from the radio to a small snippet from The Skatalites.

I've read that the band was never completely happy with its recorded output - that the studio recordings didn't fully capture the NYCs’ live sound and energy. Are there any live recordings in the NYC vaults that might be released at some point down the line? And which studio recordings come close to meeting your expectations?
I think we all felt that our sounds worked best live on stage. I'm sure a lot of bands probably felt like that. So it's hard to capture raw energy when the recording studio engineer asks you to do several more takes.

The band did a few national tours and opened for a number of national acts like Big Audio Dynamite, Fishbone, The Ramones and more. Did the NYCs have an agent or did you book your own gigs?
We did have a good buddy of ours help with the booking, Tom Perna. Then later either myself, Dan Marotta or Rob Davidman (also friend) handled booking.

Why did the NYC's break up?
I suppose because of different views, kind of hard to say now that all this time has passed.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The NYC’s?
My favorite moments come with the latter line-up: Rob Cittandino on bass, Dave "Ma'Horney" Mullen on sax and keyboards, and Rich Zukor on the drums. We'd hang out a lot and sort of rolled like a gang that happened to be in a band. We'd get into arguments or some times into fights with other folks and then realized "oh shit..., we gotta go on..!"

What are you up to these days? 
I'm married to my lovely wife Wanda. We live in Williamsburg (same place since 1998) and I work as Park Manager for NYC Parks. I started as Park Ranger in 2005. From 2000 to 2005 I owned a small Espresso & Wine bar with Rob Cittandino.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Amazulu + Jerry Dammers? Check Out Moonlight Romance From 1984!

Amazulu were a guilty pleasure of mine. Arriving on the UK music scene in the early 80's just as 2-Tone had run its course, this 6 piece multi-racial band of mostly self-taught musicians initially launched themselves as a serious reggae and ska band and helped fill the void for fans like me who were just catching up to all the post 2-Tone music being released . In fact, the original version of the band drew attention with their political tinged songs, capturing the attention of noted music Svengali Falcon Stuart (who discovered X-Ray Spex and took Adam Ant mainstream) as well as BBC radio DJ John Peel who was an early fan and recorded two radio sessions with the band.

The band's first single was the political tinged 'Cairo' backed by 'Greenham Time' which was an ode to the women protesting the placement of U.S. Cruise missiles at Greenham Common military base in the early 80's. Despite their relative lack of musical experience, 'Cairo' is a catchy if serviceable slice of early 80's era reggae and the edgy video was miles from the the lush pop videos the band would later produce. The B-side 'Greenham Time' is the more interesting of the two tracks. Its a chant down Babylon/feminist reggae rocker that would have sounded right at home on The Slits first few albums.

What I never knew until recently was that Amazulu's reggae growing bona fides brought them to the attention of Jerry Dammers and Dick Cuthell (taking a much deserved break from recording The Special AKA 'In The Studio' LP) who took the band under their wing and produced the sunny 2-Tone sounding ska of 'Moonlight Romance' and directed the corresponding video. Dammers and Cuthell also mixed a dub version of the track -- which I have to confess I like more than the original! It has great little flourishes of African hi-life guitar sounding like a distant cousin to other Dammers compositions like "Winds Of Change,"  "Jungle Music," and "Free Nelson Mandela."

Though the single failed to chart, the band and 'Midnight Romance' were prominently featured performing a more ska sounding version of the song in an episode of the 'Young One's' which guaranteed them national exposure and set them up for the pop success they would have with later material like 'Excitable', 'Don't You Just Know It' and 'Montego Bay.'

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Dead 60s Reform For UK Tour!

Great news for fans of The Dead 60's!  The Liverpool-based band have announced they are reforming for a short UK tour this coming April.  The shows -- including a headlining spot at the 2017 edition of the London International Ska Festival -- will be the band's first since they stopped playing in early 2008. The band's lead singer Matt McManamon shared during a recent interview that the band are excited about the return to performing live and will see how the tour goes before deciding on any next steps.

I originally learned about the band and their first self-titled album when they were profiled way back in 2005 in the free AM NewYork newspaper they used to hand out for free on the New York City Subway. The review compared them to the musical love child of The Clash and The Specials, two of my favorite groups of all time. I HAD to do some further investigation. I was not disappointed. Their most memorable tracks, "You're Not the Law" and "Control This" were a brilliant updating of The Specials "Ghost Town" sound and The Clash's forray's into reggae --  ominous hammond organ and dubby bass paired with a vocals that communicated a sense of dread and claustrophobia. Those two songs alone sold me on the band and served as an excellent substitute for many of us pining away for The Specials and other 2-Tone era bands during the mid-2000's. I can't recommend their first album enough!

And when you’re done digging into their first album, you’ll want to give the hard to find "Space Invader Dub" version a spin.  The LP was distributed for free in a limited-edition release in the UK (and as an expensive import in the U.S.). The dub versions of the songs --  which were re-mixed in proper, late-’70s, flying faders, Mad Professor-style are excellent! I was always impressed that the band followed in the footsteps of their UK ska/reggae forefathers like The Clash and UB40 and released dubbed out version of their songs. I give them a lot of credit that they had the confidence in their songs to strip them down to the bone and remix them.

And while the band's recorded output is stands the test of time -- including their overlooked follow-up album "Time To Take Sides" (give "Seven Empty Days" a spin) which preceded their break-up -- it's their live show that drew raves. Indeed, the "The Black Sessions" a rare bootleg of a live performance the band performed at the height of their powers in Paris, France in October 2005 and broadcast on French radio. The Black Sessions were the brainchild of French radio DJ Bernard Lenoir (the French John Peel).  The recordings are high fidelity, live recordings recorded in one take in front of an audience of 200 people. If you are going to any of the shows this April, give this a listen!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Equators Release New Music Ahead of London International Ska Festival 2017

Great ska news out of the U.K! The Equators, the 2-Tone era ska band from Birmingham who were signed to Stiff Records and released the criminally overlooked cult album 'Hot' in 1981, have released a new song "Bed Of Roses." The band, who reunited in 2011, will perform during the London International Ska Festival 2017 which will be held from April 13-16 at venues across London.

The Equators were way ahead of their time. I remember borrowing a copy of 'Hot' from the original guitar player of Bigger Thomas when we first met. He told me that he wanted our band to sound like the songs on this record. I remember listening to the album and wondering why I had never heard of the band or why they weren't more popular. The album captured an effervescent and upbeat 2-Tone ska and reggae sound that included rock and new wave as best represented by songs like 'Age Of Five" and their own fantastic cover of The Equals 'Baby Come Back' which should have been a massive hit.

Formed in 1977 by the brothers Bailey (Donald, Leo and Rocky), the offspring of Jamaican immigrants to England, The Equators were discovered by Stiff Records’ President, David Robinson, performing with The Beat (which shared The Equators’ Management team). Robinson, ecstatically impressed with the raw energy of their concert performance and the soulful innovation of their ska-pop-reggae sound, moved to sign the band to the label which was also the home of Madness and Elvis Costello.

Stiff Records released their album during 2-Tone mania and it should have had the same level of success as The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter. In my mind they suffered from I call "Fishbone Syndrome." That is that they were an amazing band that was doing something way ahead of its time and that didn't fit preconceived notions of what black or white music should sound like. Instead it was a melting pot of different musical sounds performed by an all black band and it seemed to throw a lot of people off. That, and Stiff totally mismarketed The Equators as a reggae band when they should have been marketed as a ska band.

Despite that, the band remain hugely influential if sinfully overlooked. Dave Wakeling of The English Beat recalled:
"The Equators were brilliant. In our earliest formulations of The Beat sound we discovered that if one played an all punk set, the audience would get burnt out; And if one played an all reggae set, the audience would fall asleep. Therefore our music would encompass the energy & intensity of punk & the hypnotic, laid-back groove of reggae, a punky-reggae hybrid. But just when we thought we discovered something new, we discovered The Equators, right in our home town of Birmingham, who had already come up with a similar formulation. Whereas we were a bunch of kids searching out, learning, and adopting this music, The Equators were first generation Jamaicans in England.  Prince Buster was part of their own heritage. It was from The Equators that The Beat learned to stylize this blend in a soulful, delicate manner. It was from The Equators that we learned lightness and depth of touch in playing’ this music."
Jerry Miller of The Untouchables was also a fan of the band:
"Man, it was because of bands like The Equators that we formed The Untouchables. We were very big fans of 2 Tone, but with The Equators, that’s where it was at with us because it was so groovin’ and soulful. Their recordings were sacred to us. We used to listen to ‘em in the dark and take in their influence. I remember when The Equators toured the U.S. in 1981. My friends and I went to see ‘em at the Reseda Country Club dressed in our best mod & rude boy get-ups and attitudes. Then The Equators took the stage, a bunch of black guys dressed in sweat pants and such. At first our mod-fashion heads were taken back. ‘Where’s the style in this?’ we thought. Then they started to play and by the end of the show we were questioning our own mod and rube boy identities. Who were we to judge when The Equators’ music, style & performance was so real, so smooth and so authentic."
"Bed Of Roses" was written by lead singer Donald Bailey -- who still performs with his brothers Rocky on keys and Leo on drums who are joined by Ian Harper on bass and Robin Giorno on guitar.
The song draws its inspiration from the Bailey's father who immigrated to England from Jamaica in the 1950's in search of a better life for his family.  According to Donald Bailey, their father used to say, "Life was hard, but you can achieve any goals or dreams with hard work.  But he would remind me that life is not a bed of roses!"

The band are considering releasing an EP of new music -- they have 4-5 songs already recorded -- and decided to share "Bed Of Roses" to see the response to it ahead of their performance at the LISF. Give it a spin and if you are in London for LISF be sure to see the band!