Friday, November 28, 2008
As an impressionable young ska fanatic, I was deeply affected by the song and it moulded my world outlook and personal politics. I also remember thinking that the song might finally bring the band the recognition they needed to help mount a comeback and that I might finally get to see them perform live in the U.S. (despite the fact that they had effectively dissolved after the release of their album "In The Studio"). Nevertheless, I played the song constantly and it was a staple of the many mix tapes I made for friends at the time. The lyrics were simple and direct and told Mandela's story powerfully. It was sung with grace and determination by Stan Campbell who had been recruited by Jerry Dammers to replace Terry Hall. Indeed, looking back on the impact of the song, Dammers commented that "Maybe Terry Hall wouldn’t have been as convincing as Stan Campbell singing "Free Nelson Mandela" anyway." As much as I love Terry, I have to agree with Jerry.
Campbell joined The Special A.K.A in 1983 with a hope to make it rich and famous, but his plans were thwarted by endless time locked in the recording studio with Dammers and then the lack of commercial success for the resulting singles. In fact, he left the group right after the recording of "Nelson Mandela" and the release of the video for the song and had to be co-erced into rejoining briefly for a live appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1984. Following that one TV appearance, Campbell left for good, skipping out on a live appearance on Channel 4's "The Tube"where he was replaced on short notice by Elvis Costello who sang instead. Here is video of Campbell's performance with the band on Top Of The Pops in April 1984:
Campbell then had a try at solo work after signing a deal with WEA in 1986. The self titled album was recorded at UB40's DEP Studio in Birmingham with local musicians and included originals and covers of various musical styles - reggae, jazz, soul, blues. Campbell's debut came out right about the same time as the first release from another pop/soul artist by the name of Terence Trent D'Arby, but unlike D'Arby's debut, Campbell's album never built up much momentum and quickly faded. And that's a shame because the songs still stand up, after twenty years. Campbell's renditions of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", "Crawfish" and "Strange Fruit" are memorable and his smooth, smoky vocal delivery ranks with among the best soul singers of all time. While garnering some good reviews - his versions of Elvis Presley's "Crawfish" has been said to be better than the King's - the album and its singles failed to chart and Campbell disappeared from the musical scene.
Here is a video of Campbell's 'Years Go By':
Unfortunately Campbell's story takes a very sad and tragic turn. According to news accounts from Coventry papers and information I've gathered from a variety of web sites, its been reported that Campbell's mental health began to take a turn for the worse following the failure of his solo record and while in London, he was involved in a number of sexual harassment cases. He later returned to Coventry where his mental health deteriorated and its been reported there were times that he was homeless. In 2002, he was arrested for his involvement in a sex crime against a young woman, and was convicted of the charge. Campbell has been sectioned indefinitely under the UK Mental Health act to a psychiatric hospital to serve his sentence. The sad irony is that Campbell sang the song that helped to free Nelson Mandela but is now imprisoned himself. The Special AKA song "Bright Lights" proved to be prophetic for Campbell with its warning about the seduction of fleeting fame and the hard reality of what can happen.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Following fast on the heels of the incredibly popular Amy Winehouse Ska EP from earlier this year comes yet another UK chanteuse eager to show her affinity for The Specials and 2-Tone. Rumour has it that Lily Allen has also released a fan club edition ska 7".
The A side is reportedly Lily's version of "Gangsters" recorded live with Terry Hall and Lynval Golding at Glastonbury 2007 while the B side is rumoured to be her studio version of "Blank Expression". The single will apparently be available with two different covers and rumored to be limited to 750 copies. I haven't been able to find the single on line yet. If you want to buy a legitimate copy you can visit Jump Up Records who are selling it via Pay Pal.
Otherwise, take a look at the videos below that feature the two songs on the single. The first is a live version of "Blank Expression" featuring Lynval Golding from a show in 2007:
Here is Allen performing "Gangsters" with Lynval and Terry Hall at Glastonbury in 2007:
Allen will release her sophomore album, "It’s Not Me, It’s You" in February 2009. It will reportedly mark her move away from ska to electro/pop sounds. However, the fan club single would suggest Lily still has a soft place in her heart for ska and for The Specials.
With the departure of more than half of the group in 1981 to form Fun Boy Three, Jerry Dammers, Horace Panter and John Bradbury, were left with the dilemma of how to keep the spirit of The Specials alive. After a short trip to Germany to back Rico Rodriguez, the three remaining Specials returned to the UK to sort matters out. Because of legal red tape, they could no longer use the name The Specials, so they reverted to the old Special A.K.A. moniker.
The first project was to record a single with Rhoda Dakar, 'The Boiler', which Jerry had first attempted early in 1981. The song was an old Bodysnatchers number, a harrowing tale of rape, and despite a great production, it was never going to feature on too many radio play lists. The single was released in January 1982, and credited to Rhoda With The Special A.K.A. Horace didn't actually play on the record, his place being filled by ex- Bodysnatcher Nicky Summer, and a new guitarist, John Shipley of The Swinging Cats was also present.
The record got a lot of attention, if not airplay, due to the sensitive subject matter, and eventually reached a very credible No.35 on the chart. A follow up single 'Female Chauvinist Pig' was planned but never emerged. Instead the next single to feature the band was 'Jungle Music', by Rico And The Special A.K.A. A catchy number that despite some good airplay failed to chart. Jerry, Brad and Horace also contributed to Rico's second album for 2-Tone, 'Jama', released in May '82.
Dammers tried to rebuild by signing two new bands, first The Apollonaires, and then The Higsons. Both bands had leanings toward jazz funk rather than ska, and it came as no surprise when the 4 singles that the bands issued all failed to chart. A new look Special A.K.A. soon appeared. Dammers had recruited vocalist Stan Campbell, and a friend of Rhoda's Egidio Newton, to provide vocals, and Gary McManus joined shortly after to replace Horace on bass, who had decided to call it a day.
The band released a new single 'War Crimes' in a flurry of publicity, but like 'The Boiler' previously, the subject of the song prevented it from getting the airplay it deserved. 'War Crimes' became the first single by The Specials not to gain any chart placing. Dammers however, was happy to sacrifice commercial success to get his message across.
The next move was to take the band into the studio to record a new album. It was a long hard process, and the first that the public got to hear of their labours was 8 months later, in August 1983, when the single 'Racist Friend/Bright Lights' was released. The single found Roddy Radiation making a guest appearance on guitar, and took the band to the lower reaches of the chart, with a No.60 chart placing. (Roddy later revealed that he did not actually play the lead guitar solo that features prominently on "Racist Friend", instead it was lifted from a demo of the song he had played on earlier. He never actually set foot in the studio, having had a falling out with Dammers.)
The inspiration for 'Racist Friend' came from Jerry's observation that the more famous he got, the more friends he accumulated. He found he was seeing less and less of his family and real friends, and spending more time with the hangers on. One day he took out his address book, and as a starting point to decide who to get rid of, he scribbled out the name of anyone with racist tendencies.
The other side of the single, 'Bright Lights' summed up Stan Campbell's attitude to the band perfectly. The lyric goes along the lines of moving to London and joining a band, with the naive belief that "the streets really must be paved with gold". Campbell joined the Special A.K.A. expecting immediate fame and fortune, after all he was working with the guy who started 2-Tone. When this success was not forthcoming, Campbell became very irritable, threatening to quit on an almost daily basis.
To make the recording of the album even more stressful, some members of the band lived in Coventry, while some still lived in London. Just getting the group together was a nightmare. Rhoda also has unhappy memories of the recording: "My memories are of going home in tears after singing one line of a lyric over and over for about five hours. I went home sobbing in a cab most nights." With the recording costs beginning to rise at an alarming rate, Chrysalis tried to recoup some of the cash by issuing the compilation album 'This Are Two Tone'.
The next thing to emerge from the studio was the classic 'Free Nelson Mandela' single in March 1984. The recording, produced by Elvis Costello, also featured Lynval Golding, now a free agent after the Fun Boy 3 split, and Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling, formerly of The Beat. The single brought the plight of the ANC member to the attention of many for the first time. If 'Ghost Town' was Dammers greatest commercial success, 'Free Nelson Mandela' was his greatest artistic achievement, although he rarely gets the credit for it he deserves. The record shot to No.9 on the chart, and Jerry was soon busy organising the Artists Against Apartheid' concert on Clapham Common. The Special A.K.A. did not appear on the bill, possibly because Stan Campbell had finally quit the band shortly before the release of the new single.
After two long, hard years in the making, the Special A.K.A.s 'In The Studio' album was finally unveiled in August 1984. It had very little new material as half of the tracks were already available as singles, and another, 'What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend', was released in September. 'What I Like Most...' actually featured Jerry on lead vocals, and the video was a classic, with Dammers playing the part of an alien who comes to Earth and takes an instant attraction to another guy's girl in a bar. The single, which struggled to No.51, was to be the last from the 'original' Specials camp. 'In The Studio' proved a financial disaster for Chrysalis, and the last that anyone saw of the Special A.K.A. was on Channel 4's Play At Home series, where the band made a video for each of the tracks from the album.
Here are videos for the songs "Nelson Mandela", "Racist Friend", "Housebound", "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend", "Alcohol", "The Lonely Crowd" and "Break Down The Door":
Caron Wheeler - backing vocals
Stan Campbell - vocals
Rhoda Dakar - vocals
John Shipley - guitar
Jerry Dammers - keyboards, organ, piano, vocals
Gary McManus - bass
John Bradbury - drums
Claudia Fontaine - backing vocals
Dick Cuthell - flugelhorn
Nigel Reeve - saxophone
Egidio Newton - vocals, percussion
Here is the track listing and the download link is below:
1. Bright Lights (4.11)
2. The Lonely Crowd (3.52)
3. What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend (4.50)
4. Housebound (4.11)
5. Night On The Tiles (3.04)
6. Nelson Mandela (4.07)
7. War Crimes (6.13)
8. Racist Friend (3.49)
9. Alcohol (5.01)
10. Break Down The Door (3.33)
The Special A.K.A - In The Studio
Thanks to Andy Clayden of The Ska, Rocksteady & Reggae web site from which much of the background and history of The Special AKA for this post was derived.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Almost as much as the music of 2-Tone, the label’s visual identity defined the ethos of the label, much the same as Jamie Reid’s cut-up collages for the Sex Pistols. “It was very much an anti-design ethos,” recalls designer David Storey, who, with John “Teflon” Sims, was responsible for translating Jerry Dammers’ ideas into reality. “Any talk of an art movement or ‘ism’ with Jerry would have raised a laugh. Stiff Records had popularised the, Fuck Art, Let’s Dance, slogan, and that was very much the bottom line. There's an honesty to what Jerry did, like punk in a way, but friendlier.”
From a crumpled carrier bag at their first meeting, Dammers unleashed the component parts that identified 2-Tone: the black-andwhite checkerboard line work; the rude boy label mascot known as Walt Jabsco; the powerful, stark simplicity of the content and presentation. Walt Jabsco had a curious genesis. The name came from an old American bowling shirt that Dammers owned, though he modelled the hands-in-pockets figure (which Sims drew) on a picture of Peter Tosh, in shades and pork-pie hat finery, from the cover of The Wailing Wailers album. The look, which Dammers described as “defiant, Jamaican and hard”, infiltrated all 2-Tone artwork, from sleeves to posters, T-shirts to badges. “What made 2-Tone different to everything else at that time was that Jerry directed all the visuals,” confirms Storey. “He’d say, run the checkerboard pattern right across, move this figure two millimetres to the left… We’d sometimes create these immaculate pieces of artwork, as we did for all Chrysalis bands, but he’d insist we roughed things up. He hated things looking clean and stiff.”
“The cover of More Specials was a Polaroid snatched from the photo session – Jerry wanted things to be home-spun, nothing highbrow – which wasn’t as easy as people think. We’d end up spending twice the time on 2-Tone material than mega budget concept sleeves for the likes of Jethro Tull or Blondie.” As the label progressed, Storey and Sims started bringing ideas to the table, most famously the postcard that Storey found of two skeletons – one upright at the piano, and the other slumped on a chair that became the Ghost Town cover. Another picture Storey found, of an African mask, was used for Rico’s Jama album (representing what Storey calls Rico’s “very lived-in face”), while a book of old advertising art contained the crestfallen pose copied for Selector’s Too Much Pressure cover.
The most revealing image was The Specials’ finale, In The Studio, of a bare studio environment. The smiling faces of More Specials were conspicuous by their absence. “I remember that the band were fed up with recording, and it felt like the beginning of the end,” recalls Storey. Looking back, Storey recalls the thrill of “riding the crest of the wave''. It really was a phenomenon. And to see others pick up on the graphics, like the Greater London Council running bold black and white billboard adverts, and Jean-Paul Gautier’s black and white catwalk collection featuring the 2-Tone checkerboard pattern. It gained a life of its own. Even today, you often see references to it.” But, above that, Storey acknowledges the vision of Dammers. “Jerry ensured everything was consistent, which is so integral to good graphic design. The work has a wonderful holistic feel. It’s why people instinctively liked it then and still smile when they see it today.”
You can learn more about David Storey by visiting his web site where you can see more of his artwork.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Lincon Thompson started his musical career with Cedric Myton in a rocksteady group known as The Tartans in Jamaica. He later scored minor hits working with Coxsonne Dodd and then left for the UK where he signed a contract with a subsidiary of United Artists Records. At the time, he and his band, Prince Lincoln Thompson & the Royal Rasses seemed on the verge of crossover stardom with their very progressive variation of international reggae. Thompson wrote memorable melodies as well as incisive lyrics and was open to far wider influences than most of his roots compatriots and this lead to his collaboration with Jackson who helped to produce the album and along with members of his band performed on three of the tracks.
The results of the "Natural Wild" sessions are definitely worth a listen. It is distinctively a reggae album, but has a lot of little Joe Jackson traits buried in it: his piano, his band mates vocal harmonies, Graham Maby's funky bass, Dave Haughton's drumming, Gary Sanford's guitar solos and although there were reggae players involved in the recording (Ansell Collins), the three songs Jackson and his band back are colored with their feel so they stand out as a unique subtle hybrid of roots reggae with hints of pop. In many ways, "Natural Wild" had a major impact on Jackson and his band and helps explain the radical sound departure of "Beat Crazy" recorded later in 1980.
Beat Crazy was the follow-up, as well as the last album to feature the original Joe Jackson Band line up. Eschewing the new wave style of Jackson's earliest efforts in favor of a blend of influences including ska and reggae, Beat Crazy failed to chart heavily with its singles, and by 1980 the group had split up. It's clear however that Jackson's interactions with Thompson only bolstered his growing interest in music other than contemporary pop and can be seen in his later work.
Below is the track listing and download for "Natural Wild":Mechanical Devices
People Love Jah Music
Prince Lincoln & The Rasses - Natural Wild
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Saturday, November 15, 2008
So just what does 2-Tone smell like? According to Ben Sherman it smells like "An invigorating blend of cool, clean lemon, green mandarin, grapefruit and juniper berry giving way to warm base notes of precious woods, amber, musk and tonka, 2TONE gives an invigorating lift to a laid back yet sophisticated fragrance, perfectly suited to the Ben Sherman man." Hmmmm. I always thought 2-Tone smelled like sweat and stale beer, but in a good way. I'm pleased to know it has hints of grapefruit and juniper berry.
If you get a bottle of the stuff (I don't believe its available here in the U.S.) let me know how it works with the opposite sex.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Well, he was telling the truth. The Nails were another American band who dabbled in 2-Tone sounding ska at the same time the real thing was happening across the pond. The band was originally called the The Ravers and got their start in Boulder, Colorado. Like a million bands before them, they left for the bright lights of New York City where they became The Nails. Here they became a staple of the downtown New York music scene of the late 70's/early 80's and ska was a big part of their early set. The band released their third single, "Transcontinental Ska" backed by "Young And Wild" in 1980. Neither song appeared on an album (they didn't release their debut LP "Mood Swings" until 1984). The band disbanded in 1988. Their early roadie, Eric Boucher, went on to front Dead Kennedys under his new name, Jello Biafra.
However it was an early version of the non-ska song "88 Lines About 44 Women" on their "Hotel for Women" EP recorded in 1981 that caught the attention of RCA. The Nails were signed to RCA by Bruce Harris, also known for bringing The Clash to America. In 1984 "88 Lines About 44 Women" was re-recorded for RCA and included on The Nails' full-length debut LP, "Mood Swing". The song received regular airplay and became a staple of the 80's alternative/new wave scene. It also appears on just about every 80's New Wave compilation known to man.
For more information about The Nails you can visit their web site here.
Below is a link that will let you both stream and download both sides of the single:
The Nails - Transcontinental Ska/Young and Wild 7" Single
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The Hoovers were led by two Brits, Paul Whiting on keyboards and William Sell on guitar who relocated to San Francisco from London and carried their accents with them, making them the only California ska band that sounded legitimately like the British 2-Tone bands of the early 80's. Though the 4-piece had no horn section, they sounded very much like a Yank version of Madness. They recorded an LP in 1980 titled "Skin and Blisters" which includes a frantic ska version of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" long before UB40 decided to a pop-reggae version with Chrissy Hynde. They followed their first LP with an E.P. titled "Smut & Class" which unfortunately was their final recording. Until now.
I recently caught up with lead singer Paul Whiting who took time to conduct an interview with me and provide his insight and experiences of what it was like as an Englishman to be playing ska to crowds on the West Coast during the height of 2-Tone in the early 1980's.
Can you tell me about your introduction to music and ska music in particular?
Well early days it was all Beatles and The Dave Clark Five, Kinks too. As for ska it was mainly that which had a pop bent to it. Desmond Decker I loved, because of the pop music influence. Dave and Ansell Collins were another favourite, also Pluto Shervington of ‘Dat’ fame. Anything from Trojan I usually had time for. Of course Madness and The Specials were favourites, but we were sort of doing stuff at the same time, so perhaps not so influential.
How did The Hoovers get started? Did you know the other members of the band before you started the band?
Well it started in 1980, Bill Sell the guitar player and I both moved from England to the States. We played in England together for about five years before the move. He went to LA and I came to SF. But we got together in The Bay Area after about six months of arrival. We then advertised for a drummer and bass player who were sympathetic to what we were trying to do.
Was there a ska scene in San Francisco when the band started? Who did you play shows with? Where did you play shows?
No not really a ska scene here, but we seemed to fit on bills that were punky or new waveish. We played shows with ‘The Offs’ Romeo Void’, Eye Protection, Chris Isaak, Madness and a lot of other people but all a long time ago. A lot in San Francisco, but we traveled up to Oregon, Washington and Canada and of course many times to L.A.
Who was the main songwriter for the band and tell me how you approached the song writing process?
I was the main songwriter I would say though Bill Sell wrote a number of songs as well. I think my early stuff and well even now is certainly intensely personal, but I always seemed to manage to inject some humour and sarcasm a long the way. The songs written together were much more silly and sometimes complete nonsense, I mean listen to ‘Jimmy Jones’ a song about a man having sex with fish (say no more).
What were your first live shows like and what was the West Coast ska scene of the late 70's and early 80's like? Did you play any shows with The Untouchables or any of the 2-Tone bands when they toured?
As mentioned before we played with Madness. We did not play with The Untouchables as I think they were around a little later, though I met some of those guys at ‘The On Club’ in L.A. Most of the shows were really good, although some people did not have a clue what we were doing. But overall people were at the least polite and most times very enthusiastic.
Is it true that Jerry Dammers considered signing The Hoovers to 2-Tone? If so, can you tell me a bit about how that initially developed?
Well to be honest I first heard about this about a year ago while surfing the Internet. It is possible that he approached our record company, but we ended up in various law suits and not speaking with them for the last six months we were together, so we never heard about any Dammers offer, if in fact there was one.
Can you share any unusual stories about touring with the band or any shows that are particularly memorable?
Well the whole road experience is unusual all the time, for some reason the drummer got all the girls, (well he was gorgeous) so not much to report there. Mainly there is a lot of meals at Denny's, a lot of driving and then the shows. But it is probably the most fun you could have. Memorable shows Eagles Hall in Olympia with Romeo Void, armed guards at the door for some reason I don’t know what they were expecting, Deborah (Iyall) and I had a good laugh at this place. I mean it was the scouts hall in the middle of a field. California hall with Madness was great, as they were the nicest people you could want to meet. Memorable in a different way was The Commadore Ballroom in Vancouver Canada. A place that held 1200 people and we sold 100 tickets. I guess we just weren’t that popular up there.
Tell me about recording the "Skin and Blisters" album and the "Smut and Class" EP. Are there any plans to re-issue them?
No plans for re issue. “Skin And Blisters” was recorded in San Jose for 300 dollars, the bass player sold his old station wagon to pay for it, it was re mixed by the record company, but it was very raw still. “Smut And Class” cost considerably more but I don’t know that it was as good as the first album. Some songs bug me to this day on that EP.
How and why did the band come to an end?
Well we sank beneath the waves in 1981 our last show was at San Jose State. The record company had dumped us and us them and we just didn’t have money enough to do it full time.
What prompted you to reform earlier this year? Tell me about your new album "Toy"?
Well we just couldn’t help ourselves, I know another middle-aged band who think they still have something, but really I think we do and we love doing it. “Toy” we are all proud of, as I think it is a good mix of different styles of music. Obviously there is a strong SKA influence, but there are some other influences in there too. I think it is just good songs, that mean something to us, (cliché). But it can’t be helped.
Tell me a bit about your other musical projects outside of The Hoovers?
Well I have never stopped playing. Got a lot into Americana stuff but I’m not much good at it. Did a couple of CD’s all acoustic, but what does a cockney know about Americana. Well it has the story telling aspect I guess. Got to meet the great “Tom Russell” along the way, who just might be the best folk/Americana artist of all time. That’s a plug Tom. But I digress.
Finally, what is your take on the current state of ska in the UK/US?
Well everyone tells me ska is really big right now back home, but they say that here and I don’t see much evidence. I mean I’m not seeing many pork pie hats, short pants e.t.c. as I did when I lived in Brixton in 1978. People don’t tend to live the music anymore. Where I live the same people go to a “ John Mayer” show as go to watch “The English Beat”. And that’s good but there is no ska movement. Well least not here in sunny, spoiled Marin county…….lol.
The band have reunited and played a show earlier this year. They will be performing again on November 15th at Sweetwater Station which is in Larkspur, CA, If you live in or near the Bay Area you should check this show out. The band has also recorded a new album titled "Toy" that you can sample at their MySpace site or purchase on their web site.
Below are videos of their first reunion show in February of this year performing "World Gone Mad" and "Up The Rhythm".
Here is the tracklist and download to their long out-of-print 1980 LP "Skin and Blisters" and the 1981 EP "Smut And Class":
Skin & Blisters
1 The Good Life
2 Jimmy Jones
3 I Got You Babe
4 The Brighton Run
5 To Your Mother
6 The World Gone Mad
7 The Day They Made Him King
8 Roly Poly
9 She Want It
10 Pretty Little Blossom Song
11 Captain Scarlet
Smut And Class
1 Sofa Girl
2 Backroom Boys
3 O Deedus Nobalis
4 The Red and the Blue
Here is the download for both LPs:
UPDATE November 30, 2008: The links are fixed! Many thanks to Tone And Wave for sharing a new link to both out-of-print records by The Hoovers.
Monday, November 3, 2008
On the historical significance of Obama's pending election victory, here is an amazing clip of Senator Robert Kennedy who correctly predicted in 1968 that the U.S. could have a Black President in forty years time. What's more, the similarities between Kennedy and Obama and the times in which they ran are striking:
In anticipation of his election tomorrow, here is a short clip of Barack Obama doing the ska in time to The Skatalites "Guns Of Navarone":
Here is the Steel Pulse song "Vote Barack Obama":
Finally, here is Cocoa Tea crooning his catchy tune "Barack Obama":
If you happen to live in the U.S., please be sure to vote tomorrow. Here's to hoping we turn the page on 8 years of George Bush/Dick Cheney and look to a more hopeful future lived in harmony together with our neighbors around the world.