Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Interview with Sean Flowerdew of Pama International: How The Special Beat Helped Break Ska In America

The full bloom of 2-Tone did not occur in the United States until more than 10 years after it had captured the attention and imagination of the United Kingdom in 1979. In an ironic twist, it was a band made up of assorted members of The Specials and The Beat who can and should be given credit for breaking ska in this country. Indeed, the 3rd wave of American ska bands (Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Save Ferris, Reel Big Fish) who were signed to major label deals and who garnered a significant amount of radio and MTV attention in the early and mid 1990's is due in large part to the influence of The Special Beat.

The band had come together quickly in 1990 and arrived in Atlanta for their first show in October of that year, steadily barnstorming their way across the country playing shows to sold out houses wherever they went. When they finally arrived in New York in December of that year, the city's legendary ska scene was ready to greet them like conquering heroes. In fact. the show remains one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life for one significant reason: My band had been picked to open the bill (which also included The Toasters). Not only did we have a dream gig playing a sold out show for a super group of our 2-Tone heroes but my band mate Roger Apollon and I were interviewed for a BBC television show who had trailed the band to New York to report on America's own 2-Tone ska revolution. As far as high points in my musical experience it doesn't get much better than that! (see the 'Rapido' BBC segment below).

While the earliest (and best) incarnation of The Special Beat was led by Ranking Roger and Neville Staple (along with very important support from Horace Panter on bass and John Bradbury on drums) it was a cadre of young musicians including Sean Flowerdew and Finny who had been recruited from the popular and recently broken-up band The Loafers who absorbed the experience and learned valuable lessons. Its no surprise that both of them now lead one of the best and brightest UK-based reggae bands currently writing and recording new reggae music that moves the sound and genre along.

Pama International's new album 'Outernational' (which features Lynval Golding and Horace Panter of The Specials) is being released in the U.S. (via Lawless Street Records) on Wednesday April 20th. The album is being promoted through a series of listening parties. The New York listening party will be part of the 'This Art 2-Tone' events/after parties each night following The Specials two shows at Terminal 5 on Tuesday April 20 and Wednesday April 21st. Below is a short promo for the new album.

I recently connected with Flowerdew who was kind enough to take the time to tell me about his musical upbringing as well sharing his own firsthand experience of touring with Special Beat and watching ska catch fire in the U.S. in the early 90's. For more information on Pama Internation or to buy their new album visit their Web site.

Where did you grow up in the UK?
I was born in Zimbabwe and came to England when I was 6, in 1976. I grew up and went to school in Newbury in Berkshire, which is an hour west of London.

What were some of your earliest musical influences? Has it been ska and reggae from the very beginning? Did you listen to any other kinds of music?
I've always listened to all kinds of music but of any consequence and from when I started taking music seriously I guess yes, it was ska, or more accurately 2 Tone that influenced me. Madness were always a huge influence. Them and the Dance Craze film and of course The Specials and The Beat. Through those, like many others I discovered Toots, Prince Buster, Harry J, The Pioneers and The Skatalites and then other Jamaican artists. I loved the compilations, Club Ska'67 and Reggae Chartbusters Vol.2. Around the same time I was listening to Booker T & The MGs. I remember taping a concert of theirs off the TV and watching it over and over, until my brother taped the FA Cup final over it. Other then that I was listening to stuff like Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Dexys, UB40 and The Jam.

When did you make the conscious decision to become a musician? If you weren't in Pama International what kind of work would you be doing?
From very young I wanted to be a musician. I met The Loafers drummer Nasser Bouzida (now in Big Boss Man and The Bongolian) when I was 8. He was always a brilliant drummer even that young. That pushed me to want to play in a band. Everything I've done since I started out, be it in The Loafers, Clubland, Special Beat, Skanga or Pama Intl or making fliers, promoting and running labels, I've learnt from and has led me to where I am today. Writing and recording my own music. That now manifests itself as Pama Intl. I don't see that I could be doing anything else.

Do you remember the first live concert you ever saw? The first record you ever bought? What sort of impact did they have on your musical development?
The first live concert I saw... I must of been 5 or 6 years old in Zimbabwe and it was the top pop band of the day there '4 Jacks & A Jill'... kind of Zimbabwe's equivalent to Abba, though I don't remember to much about it. I think I fell asleep. I remember my Mum took us to see Petula Clark because she thought it'd be educational. It was, but probably not for the reasons she expected it to be. The first gigs me and my two Loafers mates (Nasser and Johnny-guitar) went to see were Madness at a Artists Against Apartheid show at Brixton Acadamy and UB40 at Southampton Gaumont. We must of been 14.

The first record album I ever bought was the soundtrack to 'My Fair Lady' at a jumble sale for 2p. I must of been about 6 or 7. I didn't get into buying music till a few years later. The first single I bought was Sgt.Rock by XTC. The records had very little impact on me, although Nat King Cole's version of 'On The Streets Where You Live' from My Fair Lady is wonderful. The Madness and UB40 shows had a profound effect on me and really inspired me to want to play live.

Were you a mod, rocker, hippie or skinhead?
None. I was just a kid who loved the music. By the time we were setting up The Loafers, dress wise I leaned towards the 2 Tone rudeboy sort of look... ben shermans, loakes loafers, three button jacket, sta-press. But the music was far more important to me then any dress code. I did love the tribal environment that existed in the late 70's/early 80's in the UK, which hung about, to a lesser degree, right up until the whole rave thing. With Pama Intl now, I'm very proud we attract a very diverse audience.

I've heard many people describe hearing The Specials first record like being hit by a bolt of lightning. How did you first experience 2-Tone? Did you see all the 2-Tone bands live?
I was a little young for 2 Tone. My bother Kevin is 3 years older then me so he had bought Madness-One Step Beyond and a bunch of The Beat singles. And Nasser's brother was a skinhead and has all the 2 Tone releases. I did love The Specials first album (Stupid Marriage and Concrete Jungle being my favourites as a kid), but it was really Dance Craze, their singles (Ghost Town ep, Rat Race) and their second album that did it for me.... Man At C&A, Do Nothing, Hey Little Rich Girl... the very forward thinking Stereotypes and International Jetset... fantastic stuff. I didn't get to see any of the bands during the 2 Tone period but did get to see Madness before they split up.

You started The Loafers when you were quite young. How big an influence was 2-Tone on the formation of the band? What was it like to have John Bradbury produce your records? What was he like as a producer in the studio?
The Loafers first gig was in 1985/86. Four of us had been playing in the band together under different styles and names (The Jungle Burgers, The Man From Tneopoo) and really just learning how to play since 82/83. There were always originals in the set, and covers like Liquidator, Time Is Tight (Nasser told me he'd written it), Wipe Out (early on), Bed & Breakfast Man, Ranking Full Stop. 2 Tone was a huge influence on us.

I met Brad through Maroon Town. He'd produced their first ever 7" a cover of Prince Buster's City Riot. He was always our favourite drummer on 2 Tone. The fact that he hadn't produced anything of any note, except Sock It To Em JB on More Specials didn't bother us. We just couldn't believe we had The Specials drummer producing us. Pretty much he was just balancing but he did bring some sampling to the album and had some good ideas. We all wanted to impress, so it helped having him there. What didn't help was we recorded through the night to save money. Bit shortsighted. Our feeling about Brad was if he was in a band that great he'd make us sound great! It was a lot of fun working with him. Exciting times for sure. We were part of the spearhead of the UK ska scene. Things seemed to be on the verge of going really big and we had The Specials drummer producing us!

Can you share any memorable experiences of your time in The Loafers? What was it like to work with Laurel Aitken's as a young musician?
It was wonderful working with Laurel. I stayed in touch him with over the years, and proud to count him as a friend. We always had a laugh together. When we worked with him as The Loafers we were to young to appreciate what he was telling us or trying to show us. He wanted the songs to go on longer and be tighter and more solid, but The Loafers was all about enthusiasm and energy. I don't think we were capable then of playing how he wanted us to, but I do think we can all look back and understand it now. So, he did teach us, it just took awhile to sink in. I spoke with Laurel about working together again, much later on, but then he got ill. I wish he could of been on the Trojan album we recorded. He should of been.

We had some great times as The Loafers. Headlining The Astoria Theatre in London was a big highlight. As was getting to play alongside bands like Potato 5, Maroon Town, Hotknives, Desmond Dekker, Napolean Solo and of course Laurel. Playing in Paris (the only time I have, although Pama Intl have just been booked to do a show there on 18 June) was a great experience. As were doing our first TV appearances. Being written about by the biggest music and daily press. Getting to meet Brad and Lee from Madness. Playing at Gazs Rockin Blues, when it was still at Gossips in Dean Street, was wicked. I saw so many good bands down there... Ska Flames from Japan, Derrick Morgan, The Trojans, Maroon Town. It was incredibly exciting times, but ran it's course very quickly.

The Special Beat project came together quite quickly right? What was the timeline? Who was involved and what were the original plans for the band? Was the plan to focus exclusively on touring the U.S.?
Yeah, there is differing opinions on how it came together, but it was very quick. 6 weeks. Ranking Roger had done a big show with International Beat in California in 1989/90 I think and some shows with Lynval and Neville in 1988. So he always cites he got it together. I suppose to a certain extent he did.

From mine and Brad's perspective, I had introduced myself to Roger and started to try and do a bit of writing at his home studio in 1990. We did a couple of tracks, but never really furthered them. I'd remained friends with Brad since working on The Loafers album. On one occasion, drinking in the King of Corsica in Soho, the Loafers had split up and I suggested we should do a band together and should ask Roger to be involved. Brad said he'd ask Lynval and Neville. He went home and phoned Ian Copeland (brother of Miles who ran IRS Records and Stewart from The Police), who ran FBI booking agency. He'd previously been the agent for both The Specials and The Beat I believe. He loved the idea of members from The Specials and The Beat working together in one band. It was Ian who suggested the terrible 'Special Beat' name. 3 weeks later we were in rehearsals in Birmingham and 3 weeks after that (31 Oct 1990) we landed in Atlanta to start a highly successful 7 week tour. The original line up was Brad, Horace and Neville from The Specials, Ranking Roger from The Beat, Bobby Bird from Ranking Roger's solo band (and now Higher Intelligence Agency) and Finny and I from The Loafers. Horace left and Lynval joined in 92. On the first tour I had the awful task of having to do brass on the keyboards. Something I refused to do ever again. Thankfully on the second tour they got Chico and Graeme Hamilton (from Fine Young Cannibals) in as a brass section. Anthony Hearty joined in 91. He'd previously played in the Style Council and Wayne Lothian joined in 92. Wayne now lives in California and plays in Dave Wakeling's band. Dave would guest with SB whenever we hit California. We also had Rico and Saxa record with us.

I think the original plan was just to do the first US tour and see how it went. It was soon obvious that there was a lot of interest. There wasn't interest back in the UK though. Our first shows here got cancelled through lack of sales. I ended up promoting our first London gigs. Stateside was really where it was at and Japan. So the focus was on America for 3 years. We went to Japan twice as well.

I was only 19 and a bit naive. I had envisaged that we'd do new material and a few classics from the outset, and have a new band name, but for me 3 years on only having 2, sometimes 3 new songs and 2 new covers in the set I couldn't carry on with it. We were running out the same show with the same 'ad libs' between songs they had used back in 2 Tone days (and still use now!). It could of been brilliant and at times was, but there wasn't enough foresight or writing ability to take it forward. I see their still doing gigs as Special Beat now, but it's pretty much just a cash cow cabaret. Can't knock someone for wanting to work, but that's no reason to let standards drop. And that's certainly not how it started, well not for me anyway.

Its fair to say that Special Beat had a lot to do with launching ska in the U.S. What are some of your memories from the touring you did here in the U.S. in the early 90's with the band? Do any shows stand out?
Yes definitely. I think Special Beat weren't credited enough for it's part in building the popularity of the so called '3rd Wave' US ska movement. From 1990-92 Special Beat did 29 weeks touring USA at a very decent level. No Doubt supported us through the Midwest in 92 before they went global. We took the 2 Tone sounds to a massive audience. More so then another band at the time on the scene. More so then The Specials had originally done in America. We did 4 weeks with Steel Pulse playing to 5,000-10,000 a night. We opened for Sting for 5 weeks, playing places like Madison Square Gardens and Red Rocks and did some great shows in our own right. We definitely got a lot of new people tuning into ska. I left to record new music before the last US tour in 93 with Finny- lead singer, Lynval and Specials sound engineer Dave Jordan. Special Beat did one more US tour, with Skatalites, reformed Selecter and The Toasters, with SB being an inferior version to the original but still the main draw.

I absolutely loved touring America. I got to visit every state except Alaska and Hawaii. I got not only to meet but play in a band with people I had once idolized. I got to meet Albert Collins, Aaron Neville, Lloyd Knibbs, Andy Cox (Beat/FYC), Fishbone, Dream Warriors, Saxa and Everett Morton from The Beat, H from Selecter, Miles and Ian Copeland, Rico, and some of the UB40 guys. I got to play alongside; Was Not Was, Burning Spear, Lucky Dube, Sting, Steel Pulse and one of my favourite US bands Bim Skala Bim. And of course Bigger Thomas, at a very memorable NYC show. Playing Red Rocks and Madison Square Gardens was amazing. As were the Greek Theatres in LA and Berkeley. The opening shows with Sting were outside of Seattle over looking a canyon, with the sun setting as a backdrop. Absolutely breathtaking. We played some diversely wonderful venues like... the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, the original 930 club in DC (complete with 100s of rats) and a place in Tijuana that was like something out of Mad Max. I always loved doing the Channel Club in Boston. The last night of the Steel Pulse tour I got to play 2 tracks on stage with them. Loads of great memories but all a bit jumbled up now! I think the show that stands out the most for me in my time with SB wasn't that big, but was our first London show at the T&C2. Only 500 people but it sold out and repeatedly gets cited to me by people who were there as the best live gig they've ever been to. The energy that night was insane.

Touring the world and getting paid for it was amazing and taught me a lot. I would of done it all for free, and they would of taken me up on that given the chance!

Why didn't Special Beat record and release any original music? It always seemed like the band had an amazing opportunity to use its popularity as a touring act to follow-up with songs that could have taken the band and ska to another level here in the U.S.
Special Beat recorded a bunch of original material. 7 original tracks in total; 'Rainy Days' (SB's best track) written by Roger and later released by the reformed General Public, 'What You Thinking' and the awful 'Better Must Come' were recorded in 1991 at UB40's DEP International studios. We also recorded 4 cover versions in that session (Hypocrite, a soul track called Breakout, Prince Busters Time Longer Than Rope and Bowie's Golden Years, which actually had something about it). At another session in 92 we recorded; 'Joy', 'Welcome To The Breadline'. 'What's The Meaning of Love' and one other that I can't remember the name of. That session was awful though. Extremely lacking in direction and not resembling SB live in any shape or form.

Miles Copeland (IRS) stuck us in the studio a couple of times, but the honest truth is there were no great writers in the band. Ranking Roger was probably the best, but he only had a couple of ideas that I thought were any good. Brad, Horace and Neville weren't writers. Horace is now writing some great instrumentals, but wasn't doing that back then. To be brutality honest the writing wasn't up to the standard of either The Beat or The Specials. Infact it was nowhere near it. The songs lacked direction or any cohesion, but none of that is suprising when you look at the line up of the band.

A couple of the tracks were released. A dreadful mix of Time Longer Then Rope, which featured both Rico and Saxa on the IRS The Beat Goes On compilation (the demo we'd done was much better) and Hypocrite on a comp I put together called The Shack. SB really was an amazing opportunity to launch new material, but was sadly totally squandered.

On your last two Pama International records you worked with John Collins (of 'Ghost Town' fame) as a co-producer. Did you use any of his production techniques (recording songs bit by bit vs having the band perform together)? Can you share any production tricks you've learned from working with him?
The last two albums I've recorded/arranged and then taken the finished takes and arrangements to John to balance, and add effects. Like me he loves the sounds of King Tubby, so it was an ideal match for those two records. John's got a wonderful ear for sound placement. True professional. And very easy to work with, but he didn't have any input to the recording of the album. I did all that. When it came to the final mixes we did it the way he likes to work at his house. Very old school/8 track/mono style. I've learnt a lot from John. He's a great producer.

What is the legacy of 2-Tone and how does Pama International carry on its tradition?
Wow, you saved the big question til last! I'm not hear to carry on 2 Tone's thing. They're all still around. They should be doing that into their 80's... hopefully longer. Sure, some of them are still gigging and playing the old songs, but for me it's only Madness (who were far bigger then 2 Tone anyway) and the newly reformed Specials that have done it/are doing it to a standard worthy of the names. I've never understood why the rest of the 2 Tone artists just stuck rigidly to the past. Playing the same songs over and over and over and letting quality control go out the window. It's just ever decreasing circles. Why did they stop writing classic songs? Am I being naive again? For me if you've done it once, you can do it again. It's sad to see people resting on past glories, especially 30 years on. Dave Steele and Andy Cox moved things forward superbly with Fine Young Cannibals. Fantastic band. Better than The Beat in my opinion. They didn't stay stuck in the past like almost everyone else did and as a result they wrote huge songs that outsold the whole of 2 Tone put together. Them and Madness are the exceptions, and wayback Fun Boy 3. Too many 2 Tone people just rested on their laurels though. I loved the bands and the label and still can't get my head around why those artists (apart from Madness) aren't sill putting out new music now.

There are some ideals that 2 Tone brought to the table that I still hold very dear, but if I was trying to emulate a label and keep it's tradition going it would have to be a label like Stax or Motown.

1 comment:

Tim Lambert said...

Nice interview! I grew up near Basingstoke, down the road from Newbury, but live in Boston now and Bim Skala Bim is one of my favorites too. I agree that living in the past is a fine line to walk. I've seen Dave Wakling do his thing with The English Beat numerous times and while it is always a great show, I wish he would incorporate more of his newer stuff. There are some of us who appreciate being thrown through a loop.
Boston is cool though, I get my new music from the great scene here.