Monday, February 28, 2011

Introducing DJ Derek: 70 Year Old Reggae DJ Proves Multiculturalism Is Alive And Thriving

As February comes to an end, we bid Reggae Month farewell (though truthfully its always reggae and ska month where I am!).   As such, I thought it would be fitting to pay homage and respect to DJ Derek (AKA: Derek Morris) who has been spinning ska, rocksteady and reggae for nearly 50 years in Bristol and throughout the U.K. As the recent Reggae Britannia documentary so beautifully demonstrated, reggae has become the music of black and white in the U.K. and around the world. And it was pale-skinned musical pioneers like DJ Derek (a former accountant who quit to DJ full-time) who respectfully promoted their love affair with Jamaican music and culture and paved the way for many others who also love the music. In fact, on almost any given night of the week here in New York, reggae DJ's of all colors, ages and persuasions can be found spinning and it is a testament to DJ Derek and others.

According to DJ Derek, he found solace in reggae music and acceptance from the black community in Bristol:
I went through two marriages and lost both my parents. And I didn't feel like sitting behind a desk totting up figures relating to chocolate bars. I was working for Cadbury's at the time. And I jacked it in, I nearly had a nervous breakdown actually, and a Jamaican friend of mine took over a local pub called The Star and Garter in St Paul's, and he said, I know you've got the records - come down and play records for me. Because it's traditional in Jamaican pubs, they have DJs. Usually it's black guys. But they knew I had the music. They said to me, 'if you don't play for us we'll have to go to Jamaica to get a DJ. You're the only guy we know got all the music. And I just started doing it and then another guy opened a club and he said the same thing, 'You must come and play for me' and I started doing wedding receptions and parties and everything like that. Until apart from when a white guy or girl was marrying somebody of the opposite colour, predominantly the dances I was doing were black dances. 500 people from all over the country [and DJ Derek breaks into a Jamaican accent] 'Why have you got a white DJ' - 'You wait till you hear his music!' And then they'd come back to me at the end - 'Where do you get your music, man - sweet memories' And I called myself DJ Derek - Sweet Memory Sounds.
Watch video director Jamie Foord’s excellent documentary about the charming patois chatting DJ Derek who is still spinning reggae tunes all over the U.K. He's a veritable walking history book about the history of reggae in the U.K. as well as a happy reminder that we live in a multicultural world and the sooner foolish politicians and others accept it the better. Happy Reggae Month!

DJ Derek's reputation is such that he has released his own album 'DJ Derek Presents' in 2006 that includes his favorite ska and reggae songs. Dizzee Rascal also included him in the video for his most recent single 'Dirtee Disco'.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Movie About A Vampire Rude Boy With A Ska Soundtrack By Neville Staple Of The Specials?

In honor of the Academy Awards tonight, I wanted to do a quick ska-related movie post about 'Vampires Anonymous'. Its an enjoyable B-movie that takes a comedic look at the vampire genre that may have escaped your attention when it was released in 2003.

The plot centers around a vampire named Vic Weller (I kid you not!) who during a moment of clarity after draining his latest girlfriend, realizes that he wants to give up the vampire lifestyle, and admits he has a problem. He contacts Vampires Anonymous and they set him down the twelve steps to a normal lifestyle. He is given a sponsor, played by a bearded Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde from 'Resovoir Dogs') and relocates from California to North Carolina.  The movie deserves a second look from ska fans based on a few key ska related details.  First, the vampire protagonist Vic wears pegged pants, Ben Sherman shirts, a maroon flight jacket, skinny ties and a pair of two-tone Spectator wing-tip shoes. He also drives a modified P200 Vespa with crash bars and lights!  He's a reluctant rude boy vampire!

Second, the soundtrack to the film is chock full songs by Neville Staple and The Hitmen. Who you ask?  The Hitmen were a band of California-based musicians Staple recruited in the late 90's and early 2000's when he re-located to Los Angeles and served as a Godfather to many up and coming third wave ska bands like Rancid and No Doubt.  Staple has a cameo in the film as a vampire. The Hitmen included:

Chris Clawson - drums
Chris Colonnier - trombone, keyboards, vocals
Ed Karpwirth - bass, keyboards, vocals
Travis Law - guitar, vocals
Jesse Wilder - guitar, vocals, keyboards

Staple's songs with The Hitmen on the 'Vampire Anonymous' soundtrack are a mix of 2-Tone flavored ska-punk, heavy on the horns and distorted guitars with Staple's unmistakable baritone.  Its clear from the sound of the songs that Staple had really soaked up the the California ska sound of the late 90's. Staple and The Hitmen prominently featured during the 2000 Van's Warped Tour. Have a listen to the the three songs from the movie soundtrack below.

Working Hard - Neville Staple and the Hitmen

What Can I Do - Neville Staple and the Hitmen

Take A Look At Me - Neville Staple and the Hitmen

The three songs were later included in an unreleased solo album Staple recorded with The Hitmen in 2001 that has been floating around the Internet for a few years now. Titled 'Neville Staple From The Specials' the album features a total of 16 songs that were recorded in Costa Mesa, California and Coventry, England.  Staple later used The Hitmen to re-record a number of songs by The Specials which was billed as 'The Specials Greatest Hits' that was released in 2006.  Not surprisingly the CD received less than stellar reviews! Enjoy the Oscars!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Introducing the Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society (GRASS): Brooklyn Jazz Collective Play Jamaican Riddims

One of the new features of this blog in 2011 will be to highlight current ska and reggae artists from around the globe that you might not be familiar with, but who deserve your attention. The first artist that I want to profile is the Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society (AKA: GRASS) who take their name from the neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York where they live and rehearse. The band is an 11-piece collective featuring a who's who of jazz and instrumental musicians, who originally came together for impromptu jam sessions that lead to a one-off show to perform 'The Harder They Come' soundtrack in its entirety in 2009.  Based on the positive response they received, the collective decided to carry on and have dedicated themselves to bringing the sounds of classic ska and reggae with a jazz twist to Brooklyn and beyond.

GRASS has released two albums, the most recent is 'GRASS On Fire' which is an instrumental jazz-tinged take on Bob Marley & The Wailers 1973 classic 'Catch A Fire'. Imagine if The Skatalites had all gone to the best jazz and music programs in the U.S. and you get a sense of the GRASS sound. To that end, the album received a sterling review in All About Jazz  this month, 'The band makes it quite apparent, from the opening track 'Concrete Jungle,' that the musical structure is of its own invention. The underlying reggae beat drives the music but the soloists bring their own sense of development to the table. It is fathomed in the arms of bop, free charging jazz harmonies, rock improvisation and swing, to make the whole a tantalizing sweep of giddy delight.' 

I recently connected with band leader and bassist J. A. Granelli to learn more about GRASS and their approach to performing classic ska and reggae.  I was pleased to learn that Granelli was initially inspired by 2-Tone before discovering the classics of the genre.

Were you a fan of ska and reggae music growing up?
Yes I was. Although at the time my exposure to ska was through the English version (The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat). I had also gotten some Aswad records as well as getting really into Sly & Robbie via the Grace Jones classic 'Night Clubbing'. I was always a Bob Marley fan even though I didn't really know much about his story or importance to Jamaican music. Later in life I became very interested in the Jamaican roots of the English ska I had loved.

Do you remember the first ska or reggae single or album you bought?
I think it was the sound track to the movie 'Dance Craze.' I also had a Specials record and I bought 'Special Beat Service' at some point shortly after it came out.

What is it about ska and reggae that inspired a group of trained jazz musicians to start a band?
Although we are all primarily from a 'jazz' background, we are also all students of American musical genres. I for one have spent a lot of time playing blues, old school R&B and funk. All of this music and   ska/rocksteady/reggae share many of the same musical roots and influences so it was not a very big stretch to get into Jamaican music for us.

How did you get involved with GRASS? What brought all 11 of you together?
The band started as a series of what we called 'big ass play dates' over at Nate's house (keyboardist Nate Shaw). We would all bring the wives and kids, barbecue and jam on a few reggae tunes that we all agreed to learn beforehand. After a few of these Nate and I decided that we should sort of formalize the band. We then had the idea of creating a Society of sorts kinda based on old scholarly societies that would be devoted to the study and preservation of a particular subject. So the thing just grew because liked minded people wanted to get together and learn how to play this music. It was a very organic process.

For readers living outside New York, can you explain a bit about Gowanus and why you chose it as part of the name of the band?
Well we chose it for a few reasons. We mostly all live in neighborhoods around the Gowanus canal in beautiful Brooklyn. The canal itself is a very interesting place surrounded by old factories and is very beautiful in a kinda strange faded industrial kind of way. Did I mention that it is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the county? But seriously I think the vibe in this part of Brooklyn is about working hard and striving to do something really well, kind of being very focused on one thing and doing that thing as well as possible. We very much are like that with old school ska and reggae.

What is it about ska and reggae artists from the 60's and 70's that have served as inspiration for the songs the band performs live?
There are so many things. Music from that time was played by a cast of really amazing musicians, much like what was happening at Motown or Stax/Volt or Muscle Shoals around the same time. These were really masterful musicians who could improvise on a very high level and would just churn out great song after great song for years on end. There is a certain looseness but deep groove that is very inspiring to us. We also really like the freedom in the music to be able to play specific parts as well as do your own thing within the form. Basically this music just really speaks to us and inspires us to play it as much as possible.

Tell me about the approach you have taken to the recording of your most recent album 'GRASS On Fire'. What is about 'Catch A Fire' that inspired the band to cover it?
'Catch A Fire' appealed to us in a couple of ways. First off, it was the album that put reggae on the musical map internationally. Most people know some of the songs form the album and for lots of people this album was the first time they ever heard reggae. We felt that it was a great vehicle to do our thing to and to help people re-visit the album that they remember.

Also the album is a really interesting mix of Jamaican and rock influence due to all of the overdubs done in England to make the music more acceptable to rock audiences. We spent a lot of time with the original Jamaican versions of the music and tried to cop that vibe as well. We also made sure that we recorded and mixed using all vintage gear, as well as mixed to tape to get as much of the warm fuzzies as we could. When we recorded we were all in the same big room and payed the whole thing down live.

Does the band have any plans to cover other classics of the ska and reggae genre? Any plans to write any original compositions?
Other than the 'Catch A Fire' music our normal book consists of tons of ska, rocksteady and early reggae tunes that we have learned from records. Our current favorites are Alton Ellis and Hugh Mundell. We have also done a concert of all of the music from the 'Harder They Come' soundtrack. Currently Nate and I are really into dub and have been working on doing that in a live setting. Original music will come I think, but right now there is so much great music to learn and play.

GRASS has been performing shows around New York City. Check out the band's web site for details and gig dates. Please give the GRASS version of 'Catch A Fire' a spin below and if you like it please purchase it directly from the band via Bandcamp.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gig Alert: Dirty Reggae Party in Brooklyn This Friday February 25th: Show Highlights The Diversity of NYC Ska & Reggae Scene

Here is a heads-up to anyone looking to experience the burgeoning Brooklyn ska and reggae scene: Dirty Reggae Party VIII is this Friday February 25th at The Lake in Brooklyn, New York.

Like most shows at The Lake (an underground club in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn (read a great review of what its like to see a show there from the Duff Guide To Ska) the line-up features a diverse mix of the New York City ska and reggae scene including: the Latin ska of Kofre; Jah Love & The Valentinians (a super group featuring Jah Point and members of The Slackers, The Hard Times and The Forthrights) performing Lover's Rock classics; the soulful rocksteady/skinhead reggae of The Hard Times (with guest vocalist Elizabeth Goffe who wowed the crowd at the Punky Reggae Fest in January) and old school NYC Ska favorites the Rudie Crew. There will also be DJ sets by 100 DB's (who is The Slackers tour DJ) and Crazy Baldhead Sound System (featuring Agent Jay of The Slackers, Jah Point, Rata & co.)

I'm particularly excited to see the Rudie Crew featuring lead vocalist Roy Radics (who often toasts with my band Bigger Thomas) because they will be previewing songs from their upcoming Megalith Records release 'Skragga'.  The band have been mainstays of the New York Ska scene for many years with members who played in The Boilers, The Beat Brigade and later Skinnerbox and Stubborn All-Stars and their new record should help spread their inspired sounds to a much wider audience beyond New York City where they tend to play most of their shows.  True to its title, 'Skragga' is a great mix of 2-Tone and 70's and 80's British-style reggae (particularly early UB40, Aswad and Steel Pulse which Radics and saxophonist El Hussey listened to growing up in North London). Add Radics' patented ragga-style chatting and toasting on top and you have a classic in the making.

The band shared a few promotional tracks from the album with me which can be streamed below.  The first track 'Propaganda' is already a live favorite featuring a great hook courtesy of the band's horn section of Hussey, trumpeter Dan Dulin and trombonist Chris Malone. I'm also a big fan of 'S.U.V.' which takes the owners of the gas guzzling vehicles to task for all the pollution they spew around New York City.

Below are videos of all the bands performing this Friday.  First up are headliners the Rudie Crew performing another new track from 'Skragga' titled 'Tottenham Flow' which is a reggae anthem dedicated to all the footballers who have suited up for Tottenham Hotspur (Roy Radics is a rabid Spurs fan.)

The Hard Times with Elizabeth Goffe perform a smoking version of Max Romeo's 'Chase The Devil':

Kofre performs a latin ska version of the Andean classic 'El Condor Pasa'

Here are the show details:

258 Johnson Ave. (east of Bushwick Ave)
E. Williamsburg/Bushwick, Brooklyn
L Train to Montrose Stop
$6 8pm
Sorry, NO BYOB!

For more info: visit: 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Return Of Kid British! - Band Distributes 'Northern Stories' EP For FREE

I am very happy to report that Manchester ska pop seven piece Kid British are back!  The band are offering a four song EP titled 'Northern Stories' for free as a way of giving something back to fans who have stuck by the band during a long break between the release of their first EP 'It Was This Or Football' in July 2009 and their debut long player out sometime later this year. I've always believed that the band has a lot of potential to pick up the torch for British ska and while they mix up a variety of influences including ska, pop, indie rock and hip-hop, its clear that they are fans of 2-Tone era music including The Specials, Madness and UB40 (who they toured the U.K. with late last fall).

The band, who recently finished recording the new album, have released the EP as a free download featuring four tracks which won't be included on the debut long player.  Three of the four songs - 'Northern Quarter', 'Tib Street' and 'Piccadilly Gardens' - are named after Manchester areas while the fourth is titled 'Bookies'. Each song has a distinct sound from upbeat indie ska to reggae to an acoustic track and they all touch on real stories the band and their fans are experiencing on a daily basis. Like Madness and The Specials, who they take song writing inspiration from, the band is writing about what they see around them. Fans can download the EP and artwork here:

In conjunction with the free release, the band has also distributed a nearly 15 minute 'web-zine' interview with music journalist John Robb:

Kid British have three shows booked for early May as a lead in to the launch of their new album which they are providing a sneak preview of on Soundcloud.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The London International Ska Festival: News & Updates

Its just exactly two months out from the start of the London International Ska Festival and if you have not made your travel plans or purchased your tickets yet you better do it soon. One day tickets for the show on Friday April 22nd are nearly sold out. Here's the latest news and updates leading up to the festival:

The Loafers, featuring festival organizer Sean Flowerdew, had their very first rehearsal in 22 years this past weekend!  The band is scheduled to play a one-time only reunion show as part of the festival on Friday April 22nd. See the picture below:

There is now a London International Ska Festival YouTube page that includes great videos of all the bands that are performing over the 4-day festival.  Below is a video that profiles soul singer James Hunter who will be performing on Thursday, April 21st and video of Boston-based Bim Skala Bim (one of the only American bands playing the festival) who will be performing the final night of the festival on Sunday April, 24th.

The other big festival related news is that Dave Wakeling and The English Beat have announced an additional show in the U.K.  Following their performance at the festival on Saturday April 23rd, the band will play a headlining gig at the 2-Tone Central Museum in Coventry on Saturday April 30th. They will be joined by a who's who of 2-Tone musicians including Roddy Byers of The Specials, Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers and The Special A.K.A and Jennie Matthias of The Belle Stars. Tickets are still available from the 2-Tone Central web site.

Finally, below is the festival schedule with the list of bands performing each night:

Thursday April 21, 2011 - 7pm-3am
KEN BOOTHE (Jamaica)*

RHODA DAKAR (Bodysnatchers/Special AKA)
TAKESHI OKAWA (Japan-The Ska Flames/Sun Shot)

Friday April 22, 2011 - 6pm-3am
THE LOAFERS (one-off reformation)*
HOTKNIVES (orig.line up)*
SKAOS (Germany)*

GAZ MAYALL (Gazs Rockin Blues)

Saturday April 23, 2011 - 6pm-3am

LYNVAL GOLDING (The Specials)*

Sunday April 24, 2011 - 6pm-2am


*exclusive UK shows

Full details and tickets available

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ziggy Marley's 'Marijuanaman' Graphic Novel Released on April 20th

In a month that has seen the launch of the Rastamouse children's television show and the airing of the 'Reggae Britannia' documentary on the BBC in the U.K., comes news that will warm the heart of those among us who love reggae and comic books.  Ziggy Marley, the Grammy-winning reggae star and son of the legendary Bob Marley, will be releasing a 48-page graphic novel, Marijuanaman - 'a hero for a new generation' - through Image Comics.  The novel will be available in the U.S. on April 20th (AKA: 4/20).

According to the press release announcing the launch date, the novel, based on Marley's concept, 'tells the tale of a noble extraterrestrial champion, who has arrived on Earth to deliver an important message and at the same time save his own planet.' The novel was created in collaboration with writer Joe Casey and illustrator Jim Mahfood who stated, 'Ziggy Marley is a visionary. Marijuanaman is not going to be what people except it to be.'

Still don't believe this project is for real? A giant ad for Marijuanaman was flashed on one the giant video screens here in New York City in Times Square earlier this week to promote the project.

Marley's newest and fifth solo album, 'Wild and Free', will be released along with Marijuanaman this spring.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Brooklyn Rocksteady: Documentary Aims To Capture The Brooklyn Roots & Sounds of New York Ska

Having experienced the New York ska scene of the 80's and early 90's as both a fan and a musician, it gives me a feeling of great satisfaction and excitement to see ska, reggae and rocksteady music flourishing again in the Big Apple.   While the music has never completely disappeared, the last two years or so has seen the scene grow, evolve and move its nexus to Brooklyn.  While established bands like The Slackers have made Brooklyn their home-base for many years, a younger generation of bands, DJs, promoters and fans are being nurtured by the band and are themselves helping to develop a thriving ska and reggae scene in New York City.

Historically, the New York Ska scene was based in Manhattan.  During the 80's and early 90's, New York City was home to a multitude of clubs that catered to and booked ska.  The granddaddy of them all was CBGB's, but others like The Continental, The Cat Club, New Music Cafe, SOB's and later The Wetlands and The Knitting Factory centered the scene in Lower Manhattan and the Lower East Side and helped give rise to The Toasters, Skinnerbox, The N.Y. Citizens and others.  As rents skyrocketed in Manhattan in the early 2000's, many clubs (and most musicians) were priced out as their leases and rent doubled and tripled.  As a result, many clubs closed, stopped booking ska and focused on selling drinks and booking cover bands or in the case of The Knitting Factory, picked up and moved to new digs in Brooklyn.

Over the last several years, a new cadre of band's who are all inspired and nurtured by The Slackers including The Forthrights, The Hard Times and The Frighteners now call the largest borough in New York their musical home. There is also a thriving DJ scene led by Agent Jay of The Slackers that includes 100 Db's, Grace Of Spades and others who regularly spin at shows, bars and pubs around Brooklyn.  There are also regular ska shows like Version City parties hosted by King Django at The Knitting Factory and Dirty Reggae parties hosted by Agent Jay at The Lake in Bushwick. All together they have created a ska music renaissance in the city that helped give birth to the American ska scene.

A young film student and ska fan named Samuel Gursky is working to document the roots and culture of the Brooklyn Rocksteady scene.  Gursky has grown up in the ska scene and like many young fans started out as a fan of ska punk.  Over time he, like many other young fans has embraced the slower more soulful sounds of traditional ska and rocksteady which seem to be the sound of choice for many Brooklyn-based bands. I recently caught up with Gursky to learn more about his project which he is hoping to fund through Kickstarter.

What is it about Brooklyn in particular and the ska scene there that inspired you to develop the documentary?
What it really is about Brooklyn in particular and the ska scene there that has inspired me to develop the documentary is that I have grown up attending ska shows since I was 12 and booking ska shows since I was 16 (I'm 19 now) and I have seen many of the people deeply involved now grow and change to be involved in completely different projects and scenes. It's been a really strange but amazing experience.

For instance, my first encounter with Jimmy Doyle (of The Forthrights) was in 2005 at a club in Farmingdale, NY called The Downtown. His band The Fad opened up for Catch 22. At the time, Jimmy was a rambunctious front man jumping around. Now he now plays with The Forthrights, singing and playing guitar. He has calmed down quite a bit. Another example would be Jesse Litwa (of Royal City Riot). My first encounter with him was in 2006 I believe, his band Kickboxing Fury was opening up for Badfish at The Crazy Donkey in Farmingdale, NY. A teen with huge hair, he was playing ska, but nowhere near the same type as he plays today in Royal City Riot.

I also had an interesting experience recently after touring with The Forthrights, Vic Ruggiero & Chris Murray this past July.  We had stopped in Niles, Ohio to record for a few days with Nate Mackey in his then brand new studio space that he had built in his house, which was later named "The Treehouse". I ran into him at Punky Reggae Fest and he told me that the 3 days we had spent there really had a huge impact on his life, recording with people who he looks up to and feels that he really learned from (Vic and Chris) and recording The Forthrights, who he described as "The Next Slackers." I truly realized that there was something very special going on in our little community, and the fact that someone was able to have an experience like that, and that I was able to be there for it was a truly amazing thing to me, and I want to document this to share with everyone who has any interest, or who may down the line. I have a few hours of studio footage from those sessions that will be included in the documentary, as well as live footage, interviews and some behind-the-scenes footage.

All of these people coming together, drawing influence from the same place, while retaining a distinctly different sound, is what truly drew me into this scene, and seeing the affect of it on the lives of people involved, and the people who decide to become involved has made me decide to create this documentary.

What bands (beyond The Slackers), parties, DJs, clubs best illustrate what you are aiming to capture in the documentary that illustrate Brooklyn Rocksteady?
I plan to include The Forthrights, Royal City Riot, The Hard Times & The Frighteners in the documentary as my focus for current local bands that I believe are truly doing something special and that I feel embody the Brooklyn Rocksteady idea as well as sound. I'd love to include the Dirty Reggae & Version City parties, as well as any other events that may occur in the upcoming months. I'll definitely be including shows at Matt Burdi's house, The Lake, some stuff from the old Bushwick Music Studios, some stuff from the short lived "New Bushwick Music Studios" and the Brooklyn Knitting Factory. As far as DJs, I'd love to chat with Dan 100dbs about what he does, as I seriously enjoy his style, Grace of Spades, Agent Jay and more for sure. This all together I believe will help to paint a picture of what's going on in Brooklyn right now, I'm definitely open for suggestions, and if anybody believes that I have missed anything please feel free to email me with things you believe should be included and I'll do my best to include them!

Watch video of The Hard Times performing 'Colussus' from The Punky Reggae Fest at The Lake this past January:

Why rocksteady and not ska or reggae?
Rocksteady is the perfect infusion of the two, mixed with soul and whatever else these bands choose to throw into the mix.

Have you started to shoot interviews yet?
I'll be using footage that I shot this past summer on tour with Vic Ruggiero, Chris Murray and The Forthrights, and footage that I have shot on tours with Royal City Riot and tons of live footage that I have just hanging around at parties at Bushwick Music Studios, etc.  I have interviewed Vic Ruggiero (of The Slackers), Victor Rice (Bassist/Producer/King of all that is Dub) and Marcus Geard (of The Slackers) and I plan to continue with the process this month.

What is the timing for finishing the doc?
The project is due out in Fall of this year, and you can find a teaser up now on the Kickstarter, but if you keep updated by checking out the Facebook page or my Kickstarter, which I am using to raise money to travel and document these artists in different parts of the country, as well as possibly other countries, and talk to fans, promoters and friends of these artists in different parts of the country, as well as other countries to properly capture Brooklyn Rocksteady: The Roots, The Scene & The Culture.

Below is a preview of the footage that Gursky has in the can so far.  Have a look and please consider supporting his efforts through his Kickstarter page.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Who Was The 'Charles Dickens of 70's Skinhead Pulp Fiction'?: 1996 BBC Documentary Unveils The Real Richard Allen

It would have been harder to find a more unlikely person to chronicle and popularize the skinhead sub-culture of the late 60's and early 70's in the U.K. then James Moffatt. Using the pseudonym Richard Allen, this middle-aged, Canadian hack writer was hired by the New English Library publishing house in 1970 to write a pulp fiction 'exploitation' book about the skinhead movement which was then a social phenomena all across Britain.

Spending just three days in and around East London to interview a few skinheads, he used their true life stories as the basis of his first novel 'Skinhead' which was written in just five days time. Despite the formulaic quality of the book, it went on to sell over one million copies. Before Allen, most youth novels were written from an adult viewpoint and the heroes always mended their ways - usually under the influence of a benevolent or socially concerned teacher. Allen's heroes never mended their ways. As such, it's quite possible that 'Skinhead' was more widely read among British teenagers than any other novel of the day.

However true-to-life Allen's books may have been, they were also probably responsible for changing the image of skinheads from multi-racial reggae lovers into violent thugs and racists. How much of this was based on Allen's own politics is unclear.  Nevertheless, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic overtones color all his novels as do a glorification of anti-social behavior. According to The Rough Guide To Cult Fiction:
'Allen’s first novel, Skinhead, uneasily combined self-righteous fascist rhetoric, nihilist indifference and the shocked voice of reason. But it succeed with its authentic portrayal of Joe Hawkins, the 16-year old gangster convinced the Cockneys had lost control of their patch, London, and whose life of rape, drink and hooliganism ends in a kind of triumph when he is jailed for beating a cop – a punishment which, he gloats, makes him king of the skinheads.'
The reaction to the publication of 'Skinhead' was so extreme that Allen added a preface to its sequel 'Suedehead' published in 1971, in which he insisted his books were not responsible for encouraging skinhead violence. Instead he blamed it on:
"leniency in courtrooms, catering to fads by mercenary-minded rag-trade merchants, a soft-peddling attitude by politicians who look for teenage votes to save their seats, and an overwhelming pandering by the news media"
Take that however you will, but its clear that his books did have a profound effect on the way that some skinheads viewed themselves and how British society and culture came to view them.  Whether or not the books popularity had anything to with the growth of right wing, racist skinheads is debatable (read a commentary on Allen as part of a review of Shane Meadows' 'This Is England'). More likely, the books were a forbidden thrill read for many a teenage boy in the early to mid 70's. To that end, the BBC aired an excellent documentary in 1996 titled 'Skinhead Farewell' about Allen that explored many of these themes.  You can watch it in its entirety below:

Not surprisingly, Allen never explored or included the true roots of skinhead culture in his books, which was decidedly multi-racial and based on a love of Jamaican music, culture and style.  Indeed, one of the most prominent skinheads in the U.K in the 1970's was Laurel Aitken.  As a counterpoint to Allen's skinhead stories, watch the short video below where Aitken and Doug Trendle (AKA Buster Bloodvessel of Bad Manners) describe the harmony between black and white skinheads who socialized together and were drawn together by their love of ska and reggae.

Monday, February 14, 2011

'Dance Craze' Film Released 30 Years Ago Today!

Yes, its hard to believe, but Dance Craze was released in theatres across the U.K. 30 years ago today -- February 14, 1981! The movie finally opened in the U.S. in New York City more than a year later. By then most of the bands had broken up or were in the process of doing so. Read Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times from April of 1982.

A few interesting pieces of trivia about the film:

  • The American film director Joe Massot originally planned to do a live documentary about Madness who he met during their very first U.S. tour.  He later changed direction to include all the bands signed to 2-Tone
  • Bad Manners appear in the film even though they were never signed to 2-Tone
  • All the footage of the bands was filmed during live performances in the U.K. during 1980 except one -- The Beat were filmed during a gig in Cherry Hill, New Jersey
  • The film features 27 live tracks but only 15 were included on the soundtrack album of the same name
  • Massot was tapped by Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters and Moon Records to direct 'NYC SKA CRAZE' which was to be an American follow-up focused on the vibrant New York City ska scene of the later 80's. For reasons still unclear, Massot skipped out the day of filming and the project was scrapped

If you haven't seen it, a long out-of-print version of the film is floating around the Internet and can be found quite easily. It is essential viewing. For those of you who never tire of watching the film here in all their glory are The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat. Happy Valentines Day!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How the very first programmable drum machine changed the sound of reggae music

As a bass player I am always listening to the drum and bass line in every song. Rhythm is what my ear is drawn to and its how I think about and conceive of music.  And as a bass player, I have a lot of love for drummers, who if you pardon the acutely American sports metaphor are a lot like baseball pitchers (or for those of you in the U.K. a Cricket bowler) who either come at the batter directly with speed and power (hard bashing players) or try to fool them with tricks and changes (finesse players).   When it comes to ska and reggae music my personal favorite drummers are John Bradbury of The Specials (who manages to somehow mix finesse into his power drumming) and Lloyd Knibbs of The Skatalites who always kept me rapt with his incredible finesse playing.

Though drum and bass rhythms drive the various eras of ska, rocksteady, reggae, 2-Tone, dancehall and beyond, drums and drummers have defined each distinct phase.  And like the divide in rock music that occurred in the mid 70's when synthesizers and drum machines began to make their way into popular music (see the brilliant BBC Four 'Synth Britannia' documentary for more information), reggae also had a similar moment when the very first drum machine arrived on the island in the mid-70's and slowly became dominant during the early 80's.

First a bit of history about drum machines.  The Eko ComputerRhythm is generally considered the very first programmable drum machine. Like the very first computers, the original drum machines were large, bulky, expensive and hard to program.  The Eko ComputerRhythm had a 6 row push-button matrix that allowed users to enter a pattern manually, or to push punch cards with pre-programmed rhythms through a reader slot on the unit. Watch a demo of one the earliest Eko's:

What the EKO lacked in accessibility and ease of use they made up for in changing the sound and texture of music and also elevated the producer to the role of musician.  This was particularly true in Jamaica where Sound Systems and later record labels were all driven by personalities who were driven to one-up the competition with new talent, but more importantly new sounds.

The Upsetters' 'Chim Cherie' is a crucial piece of music history and the holy grail of electronic reggae music.  Created as a white label dub plate for the Pressure Sounds label sometime in the late 70's, it marks the pivotal moment in time when the EKO was employed on a reggae track and this is the result of its very first use. The song marked a turning point for so much electronic dance music whose original roots all start in Jamaican recording studios over 35 years ago. The rhythm was later used to great effect in Shinehead's 1984 version of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. Have a listen to both versions:

According to the story, the drum programming for 'Chim Cherie' was handled by The Wailers bassist Aston 'Family Man' Barrett and the song was produced and dubbed out by Lee "Scratch" Perry. The dub sounds much heavier than the original, and while the sound suffers from age, the tape degradation does lend the tune an incredible, hazy quality.   Play it loud and play it often!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Madness Lyrics Featured In New Book Of Victorian Translations & New Virgin Media Ad Campaign

Thirty years on, Madness are a British institution and their music has become the soundtrack to many a 30 and 40-somethings youth, young adulthood and middle age. The band's songs have become so ingrained in the modern British psyche that they have been turned into a West End musical and have been used in a variety of jingles and advertisements. Now the band's lyrics are the focus of a new book of Victorian-era English translations and are helping to launch a multi-million pound ad campaign on behalf of Virgin Media.

Madness fan Joe Morris has just published 'Victorian Madness Lyrics' in which he has translated nearly all the lyrics to every Madness song into Victorian English. According to Morris: 'In a nutshell Victorian Madness Lyrics is a mad, wacky and nonsensical homage to Suggs and the lads in zany and incomprehensible Victorian language- in a ridiculously exaggerated style. In a way I've just translated the original lyrics into Dickensian style. I think its a wonderfully affectionate tribute to Suggs and the lads.' For instance 'House of Fun' becomes 'Establishment of Amusement', while 'Baggy Trousers' is now 'Ill Fitting Pantaloons', and the Madness anthem 'Our House' translates to 'One's Abode'.

Here in all their glory are the Dickensian-style lyrics to 'Our House' now translated as 'One's Abode':

Pater dons his Sunday apparel
Mater suffers fatigue she desires some rehabilitation
The youthful ragamuffins are amusing themselves in the lower chambers
Female sibling's breathing awkwardly in her slumber
Male sibling has got a rendezvous to maintain
He can't procrastinate

Our domicile in the vicinity of our tree bordered avenue
Our domicile in the vicinity of our

Our domicile has got a congregation
There are always frequent occurrences
And the acoustics are of the highest amplitude
Our mater is so domicile conscious
Nothing impedes her progress
And a carnage is not permissible

Our domicile in the vicinity of our tree bordered avenue
Our domicile in the vicinity
Our domicile in the vicinity of our tree bordered avenue
Our domicile in the vicinity

Pater awakens tardy for employment
Mater has to mangle his undergarments
Then she transports the infants to their groves of academia
Bids them farewell with an osculation
Mater's the one they may yearn for her presence
In a multitude of attitudes

I reminisce in the mists of time
When all was so sincere
And when we would indulge in riotous entertainment
Such an auspicious period
Such a passage of contentment
And I would reminisce on how we would engage in frolics
Simply squanders the twenty four hours
Then as a collective family unit we'd utter nothing would intervene; double fantasists

Pater wears his Sunday apparel
Mater suffers from fatigue and she needs some rehabilitation
The ragamuffins are amusing themselves in the lower chamber
Female sibling breathing awkwardly in her slumber
Male sibling's got a rendezvous to maintain
He can't procrastinate

Our domicile in the vicinity of our tree bordered avenue
Our domicile in the vicinity of our tree bordered avenue
Our domicile in the vicinity of our tree bordered avenue
Our domicile in the vicinity of our

Our domicile was our turret and portcullis
Our domicile in the vicinity of our tree bordered avenue
Our domicile that was where we formerly slumbered
Our domicile in the vicinity of our tree bordered avenue

Speaking of 'Our House', Virgin Media has unveiled its new advertising campaign, which features the lyrics from the song recited by a male voice over and set to the Dan Black track 'Symphonies'. The multi-million pound ad campaign celebrates families, couples, professionals and friends making the most of the digital world provided by Virgin Media.

'Victorian Madness Lyrics' can currently be found at and most online British book store web sites including Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smiths, Blackwell and the World of Better Books. For fans of Madness living in the U.S., the book is available at the Barnes and Noble web site.

The Virgin Media ad can be seen on television sets across the U.K.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

BBC 4 Celebrates Reggae Month With 2 Full Weekends Of 'Must See' TV Programs

Attention ska and reggae fans living in the UK! Get those remote controls and DVRs ready to go! In honor of February as 'Reggae Month', BBC Four is airing two weekend marathons of 'must see' ska, rocksteady and reggae TV programming.  It all kicks-off this Friday February 11th with the airing of the much anticipated Reggae Britannia documentary (read a great blog post from the doc's director Jeremy Maare). The documentary is immediately followed by the Reggae Britannia concert recorded this past weekend at the Barbican.  And if that's not enough ska and reggae for a Friday night, buckle up because it gets better -- two classics of the genre -- the Reggae Concert from the Edinburgh Festival filmed in 1973 and then The Specials legendary 'Rock Goes To College' show from 1979.

The full program schedule is listed below and is also available on the BBC Four web site.

Friday February 11th

9 PM: Reggae Britannia: The acclaimed BBC4 Britannia series moves into the world of British reggae. Showing how it came from Jamaica in the 1960s to influence, over the next twenty years, both British music and society.

Watch video clips from the Reggae Britannia documentary below:

Boy George of Culture Club discusses the influence of reggae on Culture Club

Don Letts talks about the connection between reggae and punk:

Jerry Dammers of The Specials talks about The Walt Jabsco logo which helped shape 2 Tone's iconic image

10:30 PM: BBC Four Sessions: Reggae Britannia:  Live concert featuring Big Youth, Ken Boothe, Neville Staple, Pauline Black, Ali Campbell and others.

Midnight: Old Grey Whistle Test: Reggae Concert From The Edinburgh Festival- Live performance specially recorded from the Reggae Concert at the Edinburgh Festival in 1973, featuring the Cimarons, Winston Groovy, Dennis Alcapone, the Marvels, Nicky Thomas and the Pioneers.

 12:45 AM: Rock Goes to College:The Specials- The student-taunting Specials perform at the Colchester Institute in 1979, playing hits such as Rat Race, Too Much Too Young and Gangsters, throwing tambourines at the bouncers and indulging in a little moon-stomping during a stage invasion.

Sunday February 13th

 9 PM: Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae- This documentary chronicles the coming together of rocksteady's surviving vocal stars - artists like the Tamlins, U-Roy, Ken Boothe, Leroy Sibbles from the Heptones, Judy Mowatt, Dawn Penn, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths - and some of the island's greatest players, to celebrate their greatest 60s hits, perform a reunion concert and celebrate that golden era.

10:35 PM:  Storyville: Rise Up Reggae Star- Five years in the making, Rise Up is able to capture the pure artistry and creativity of three up-and-coming musicians in raw form while at the same time, able to bring the viewer into their personal lives, inside their most private moments, as they struggle to find their voice and discover their ability to overcome life's obstacles.

 11:35 PM: Babylon: Drama telling the story of Blue, a young man of Jamaican descent living in Brixton in 1980, as he hangs out with his friends, fronts a dub sound system, loses his job, struggles with family problems and has his friendships tested by racism.

Friday February 18th

 9 PM: Toots and the Maytals - Reggae Got Soul - This never-before-told story from one of Jamaica’s most influential artists features intimate performances from Toots and some hand-picked musicians, rare archive footage from throughout his career and interviews with Toots himself, contemporaries and well-known fans.

10 PM: Reggae at the BBC - Features an archive of great reggae performances filmed at the BBC Studios. Ranging from Top Of The Pops, Old Grey Whistle Test and Later… With Jools Holland, featuring classic performances from artists including Bob Marley and the Wailers, Gregory Isaacs, Prince Buster, Dennis Brown and many more.

11:30 PM: Toots and the Maytals at Glastonbury 2010 - BBC cameras captured Toots and his band perform during the 2010 Glastonbury music festival last summer.

12:30 PM:  Arena: Bob Marley Exodus '77 - Anthony Wall's late 70's Arena documentary about Bob Marley's legendary 1977 album Exodus and Marley's cultural impact.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reggae Britannia: Live Concert Clips From The Barbican

I was able to collect a smattering of clips from the Reggae Britannia show at the Barbican in London last night. For those of you living in the U.K., the BBC filmed the concert and it will be shown following the airing of the 'Reggae Britannia' documentary this Friday February 11th on BBC 4. Without further ado enjoy the music!

Janet Kay performs the Lovers Rock classic 'Silly Games'

Ken Boothe performs 'Everything I Own"

Brinsley Forde of Aswad performs 'African Children'

Carol Thompson performs the Lovers Rock classic 'Hopelessly In Love'

The entire cast of performers finished the show with Bob Marley's 'One Love'

If you were at the show please share any thoughts, photos or videos from the show.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Touched By The Hand Of Jah! - Rare 1982 New Order Cover Of Keith Hudson's 'Turn The Heater On'

It may come as a bit of surprise, but Joy Division's lead singer Ian Curtis was an unabashed fan of reggae music.  Like many of his punk and post-punk musical contemporaries (Joe Strummer and John Lydon come to mind), he heard reggae music growing up in the early and mid-1970's before starting Joy Division.

Reggae inspired Curtis to introduce the melodica to his Joy Division band mates. Though originally considered a child's instrument, melodica became popular in Jamaica and featured prominently in 70's dub reggae, used frequently by Augustus Pablo who made it his musical trademark. While melodica only made it on to one Joy Divisiion track (the song 'Decades'), New Order inherited the melodica from Curtis after he died employing it on well known tracks 'Your Silent Face' and 'Love Vigilantes.' Melodica also features on New Order's rare reggae inspired cover of  Keith Hudson's song Turn The Heater On' from his 1975 album 'Torch Of Freedom' album which they recorded in 1982 for a John Peel radio session as a tribute to Curtis - who had been a huge fan of Hudson.

Known as the 'Dark Prince of Reggae'. Hudson was a true reggae innovator who initially used money earned as a dentist's apprentice in the late 60's to rent studio time to record and produce other artists including Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis and Big Youth.  Later he focused his efforts on writing and recording his own songs and albums releasing 'Flesh of My Skin, Blood of My Blood' described as 'reggae's first true concept album', with lyrics relating to black history and "conscious" themes and followed it with 'Torch of Freedom' which featured vocal cuts with their instrumental versions following immediately after, an extended play format that was to come into fashion in Jamaica a few years later.

New Order's take on reggae on 'Turn The Heater On' is instinctive, and although it's much faster and lacks the groove of Hudson's version, it's modern sound via synth drums and keyboards is very fitting and sounds like an original rather than a cover.  The band would later record a cover of Jimmy Cliff's reggae classic 'Viet Nam' for the 'War Child' compilation.

Have a listen to both tracks below for a side-by-side comparison.

Thanks to the Versions Galore blog for use of the picture of Hudson with New Order!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Former UB40 Singer Ali Campbell Announces U.K. Tour Dates & Releases First Solo DVD

Former UB40 lead singer Ali Campbell has just announced 6 dates for a short U.K. tour that kicks off this coming May.  Campbell is touring to promote 'Great British Songs', his 'Labour Of Love' like album of reggae covers of songs by a diverse group of British music artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Roxy Music. Tickets for the shows go on sale Friday February 4th.

Campbell's former band mates in UB40 wrapped up a sold-out U.K. tour this past fall to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of  'Signing Off' which they performed in its entirety.  The band also re-issued the iconic album as a deluxe CD with additional songs and a DVD of a live show from 1980.  UB40 are reportedly back in the studio recording an album of new material.

With Campbell finally playing a series of shows in the U.K., hardcore fans of both UB40 and Campbell (who have split into factions --  for a flavor of some of the animosity between fans loyal to the band and its former singer just check out the community pages for either groups web site) will finally get a chance to see him and his Dep Band (featuring former UB40 keyboardist Mickey Virtue) live in action. It should be interesting, given that Campbell took some verbal potshots at his former band mates during promotion for 'Great British Songs' back in October which also happened to coincide with the kick-off of UB40's 'Signing Off' U.K. tour. 

Though he often bills himself as UB40's Ali Campbell (which he has a right to do, but has to frustrate his former band mates), the singer is clearly making strides to separate himself from his legacy with UB40 while using it to his advantage to market himself.  He is part of the sold-out 'Reggae Britannia' concert this weekend and will feature (with his brother Robin) in the BBC documentary of the same name.  Campbell is also gearing up to release a DVD of his 2008 concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London featuring performances and interview footage of him performing together with guest artists including Sly and Robbie, Kim Wilde, Pato Banton, Lemar, and Beverley Knight. The show was among his very first as a solo artist after splitting from his UB40 band mates in early 2008. The DVD will be released on March 21st 2011 and can be pre-ordered from The track listing for the DVD is heavy on material from Campbell's solo albums but also includes his trademark calling cards with UB40 -- 'I Got You Babe', 'Red Red Wine' and 'Kingston Town' -- among others.

Campbell's UK Tour Dates are below:

Thursday 5th May  – o2 Academy, Oxford 
Friday 6th May  – Indigo2 , London
Sunday 8th May – o2 Academy, Liverpool 
Monday 9th May – o2 Academy, Newcastle 
Thursday 26th May – o2 Academy, Sheffield 
Friday 27th May – o2 Academy, Birmingham
Saturday 28th May - Volks Fest, Plymouth

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Introducing Rastamouse: A Reggae-loving, Crime-fighting Children's Show Character

As the father of a 3 1/2 year toddler, I watch A LOT of children's television (my personal favorites include Yo Gabba Gabba and Little Bill).  That said, in honor of the fact that February is Reggae month, I was excited to learn that 'Rastamouse', the popular U.K. children's book series, based on the mystery-solving, reggae-playing, skateboarding Rastamouse, has been turned into a stop-motion animated series airing on the BBC's CBeebies children's channel. A reggae based soundtrack from the series is also in the works and a single titled 'Ice Popp' will be released on February 6th and is available as a streaming preview here (its really good!)

For the uninitiated, Rastamouse and his posse, The Easy Crew which includes Scratchy and Zoomer, are a reggae band who are often called upon to solve problems whenever something goes awry on the island they live on. Read an interview with the book's co-authors Michael De Souza and Genevieve Webster who explain the genesis of Rastamouse and describe the journey of the crime-busting rodent from page to small screen.

Watch a short clip of the first Rastamouse episode 'Da Crucial Plan' which aired in the U.K. this week

There are three Rastamouse books available upon which the series is based including: Rastamouse and the Crucial Plan, Rastamouse Da Bag-a Bling and Rastamouse and the Double-Crossin’ Diva. You can get them on below:

You can follow Rastamouse on Facebook and Twitter. I know I am!