Friday, December 23, 2011
I strive to celebrate and venerate the best of ska and reggae music on this blog. The many artists who made the music a cultural phenomena are all heroes to me and many others. However, as ska and reggae music made its way into the charts of the U.K. (and the U.S, to a lesser extent) and its influence and popularity spread, many mainstream singers, bands and musical artists began including the rhythms and sound in their own songs. Some of these efforts were magnificent and some less so. Others were just plain terrible.
I've previously highlighted some of the better attempts at this (see Paul Simon, Blondie and Johnny Nash), However, I felt it was high time I trained the spotlight on some of the more dreadful attempts of what the Brits call 'Cod Reggae' (which is a term I have always loved). This list is neither exhaustive or complete and focuses on the late 60's and 70's. (I'll look to do a similar post for the 80's and 90's in the new year). With reggae making real inroads in the U.K. and the U.S. musically in the late 60's to mid 70's I looked for reggae and Caribbean music from the era that actually did the genre no favors artistically. So without further ado I present a selection of some of the worst attempts to play this beautiful music. Consider yourself warned!
But first, let me say I am an open minded fan of calypso, ska, reggae and all other forms of Caribbean music. While there are certainly social, political cultural reasons why 'cod reggae' tracks may be more popular with mainstream audiences then than tracks recorded by the original artists (e.g. racism), what I will say is that I have a real soft spot for certain musicians' attempts to 'go reggae'. They never get it quite right, but it can often result in something really interesting and different. This post is about those attempts that don't get it right!
The grandfather of 'cod reggae' music has to be Bernard Cribbins and his 1962 track ‘Gossip Calypso'. The song was inspired by Lord Kitchener's wonderful ‘London is the Place for Me’ which is a gorgeous ballad that extols the beauty and splendor of London from a recent Jamaican immigrant's perspective. I can't say the same for Mr Cribbins' attempt which sounds like an outtake from a bad Saturday night variety show as sung by a comic.
A few years later saw Millie Small's joyful ‘My Boy Lollipop’ hitting the charts, riding a wave that included Prince Buster, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff. From these great moments, one of the most awful sub-genres, loomed. Calypso required huge bands and great skill, but reggae was much easier to recreate to the ears of the uneducated. Reggae sounded like two chords, a jaunty bass line and required a singer to pipe “dat” instead of “that”. While The Beatles's 'Ob la di, Ob la da' is likely the first massive 'cod reggae' hit, it inspired Marmalade's cover version which was likely totally unnecessary (though it may be better than Sir Paul's version and hit #1 in the U.K. pop charts in 1969!).
But I've saved the worst for last. My all time favorite worst 'cod reggae' song has to be Paul Nicholas and his song 'Reggae Like It Used To Be'. Nicholas was better known on this side of the pond for his hit 'Heaven On The Seventh Floor' which I distinctly remember dancing to at a 6th or 7th grade dance in the late 70's. It wasn't until very recently that I was introduced to his left turn into reggae. Here it is as performed on Top Of The Pops in May 1976. The song actually reached #17 in the charts which doesn't speak kindly to the taste of the British listening public! Luckily, punk and 2-Tone were just months away from washing this type of clap trap off the charts.
And before I go, here is truly awful piece of 'cod reggae as performed by 60's pop icon Sandie Shaw on a popular British TV show called '2 G's and The Pop People' in 1972. In a word this is 'horrendous'! Sadly the song borders on the worst aspects of minstrel. And while Shaw was no racist, this was the era of television when Black and White artists sadly remained mostly separate. You may want to clean your ears out with soap after listening to this one!
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Today marks the 30 year anniversary of the release of the Blue Riddim Band classic reggae track 'Nancy Reagan'! To honor the original, Rougher Records have re-released a special 30th anniversary, remastered edition of the track. The song has the distinction of being one of the best and most overlooked American reggae songs ever recorded and released. The timing of this release couldn't be better as the Republican Party is weeks away from beginning the process of selecting a Presidential nominee who will seek to claim the mantle of conservative Republican values and economic policies espoused by Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan. These policies have continued to make the 1% very wealthy and the 99% struggle to make a living. The track is available for download from iTunes. Below is a short video teaser:
During the 1980's in the U.S., alternative music continued to be a strong voice of protest against President Reagan and his policies. Perhaps the catchiest song to poke fun of the Reagan's came from the Blue Riddim Band, an American reggae band, who wrote and recorded the satirical track 'Nancy Reagan' about the President's wife. With brilliant lyrics including, "All my clothes are from the best designers/All my china is a perfect match', the song is a fantastic piece of Studio One inspired bass, drums and brass that may be one of the most overlooked reggae rhythms ever recorded. It used humor to make a cutting political statement about where the First Lady's (and our country's) misguided priorities lay during the 1980's. It couldn't be more relevant today in this era of Occupy Wall Street protests around the U.S.
More significantly, this all-white band hailing from Kansas City, Missouri have the distinction of being the very first American reggae band to be invited to play at Reggae Sunsplash. Their blazing set of ska and reggae covers and originals as dawn was rising over Jarrett Park on August 15, 1982 is legendary. They earned two encores from the crowd of 20,000 Jamaicans who were mesmerized by their 'blue eyed reggae.' Their Sunsplash performance was recorded for the LP 'Alive In Jamaica' released in 1984 which was nominated for a Grammy for best reggae album in 1985. The record's highlight is a blistering live version of 'Nancy Reagan'(see video below).
According to noted Reggae music author, historian, DJ and commentator Carter Van Pelt, few groups have played reggae outside Jamaica as convincingly as the Blue Riddim Band. The group coalesced as Rhythm Function in the mid-70s under the guidance of multi-instrumentalist and composer Bob Zohn and percussionist Steve "Duck" McLane. The group earned a reputation skillfully playing soul and R&B at clubs in the South and Northeast of the U.S. The original line-up included McLane (drums, bass, percussion & vocals), Zohn (guitar, drums & lead vocals), Andy Myers (bass & trombone), Scott Korchak (trumpet & lead vocals), Pat Pearce (keyboards, percussion & vocals), Jack Blackett (saxophone), and Howard Yukon (guitar, percussion & vocals.
So what was the band like live? According to Gavin B. who was at the 1982 Sunsplash performance, "I was operating the video camera that was doing the pan shots of the crowd in this video and I was stunned at the enthusiastic reaction of the mostly all Jamaican crowd. Look closely at the crowd shots and you'll see an ecstatic Winston Rodney (aka Burning Spear) skanking away to the music. He was good friends with the band and was largely responsible for getting BRB as performers at Sunsplash." The band were voted co-'Best Band' of the entire Sunsplash festival. According to McLane, they were surprised by the reaction they received, "It blew me away that we blew them away. I was expecting pineapples and cantaloupes thrown at us. We're playing these old songs, and we're also from America, and we're also white. It's five o'clock in the morning, and they're going, 'What in the ... ?'"
The 'Nancy Reagan' track soon became the band's calling card and it inspired a young fan of the band living in California to showcase the track and Blue Riddim Band further. Roberto was known to Southern California reggae fans as host of a weekly reggae radio program. He envisioned creating a protest song that would be critical of the ongoing Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and his view that it was being perpetuated by Reagan. Calling in a few favors, he was able to land the help of reggae enthusiast David Lindley, who mixed the "Nancy Reagan Re-Election Remix" side, and of Ranking Roger, who featured on "America & Russia/Selective Service System" and a free-style toast over the basic 'Nancy Reagan' track.
According to an interview he conducted with the Los Angeles Times when the record was released in early 1985, Roberto explained that the record's packaging was designed to reflect his anti-Reagan message: the record sleeve features a newspaper-style layout with the headline 'Special $18 Million Inaugural Edition' over a striking Paul Bedard painting of Nancy Reagan holding a bowl of jelly beans while five starving black children stand at her feet. The $18-million figure, Roberto said, represented the amount spent on the 1985 inaugural celebration. "I can't see how they can spend $18 million on a four-day gala when there are people dying of starvation in this world," he said. "There is a time and a place to party, but that is just too much."
According to the Los Angeles Times story, Roberto first met Ranking Roger in 1981, when Roger and fellow General Public founder Dave Wakeling were still members of The Beat. "Roger did not have to do this (record)," Roberto said, "but he was sympathetic with my concerns and my concept that came from being fed up with the current administration." While recording one of the songs in New York, Roberto tracked down veteran Jamaican producer-engineer "Maxi" McKenzie, who mixed the two tracks with Ranking Roger.
Operating as a one-man record label and basing himself in Orange County, California, one of the most pro-Reagan parts of the U.S.. Roberto set out to get his message and record out. According to the interview with the Los Angeles Times, Roberto said, "It might be an impossible task," he admitted, "but you've got to start somewhere. Those who are offended will be offended anyway. But if I can open some eyes, raise some people's consciousness, then I'll be satisfied."
So what did the band think of the final product? I had always assumed that the band had collaborated directly with Ranking Roger. Apparently that was not the case. I interviewed Todd "Bebop" Burd who joined Blue Riddim on bass in 1983, about the collaboration with Ranking Roger on the remix of 'Nancy Reagan'. According to Burd, "'Nancy Reagan' was originally recorded at Channel One in Jamaica in 1982 while the band was on the island to perform at Reggae Sunsplash and was released on our label as an EP along with five other songs."
"The remix of Nancy Reagan was produced in 1985 by this guy named Roberto in California. He knew Ranking Roger; he knew us; he borrows the master tape; flies to LA; records Roger; flies back to Kansas City; flew in Maxie from Channel One in Jamaica to mix the whole thing in New York. We never saw each other during the recording process. Ranking Roger joined us briefly on stage on Catalina Island a few years later."
What was Blue Riddim Band's reaction to the finished tracks? According to Burd they weren't completely happy. "So one day , we show up at the band house to discover several boxes of the new remix . The response to the cover varied from shock to hysteria. The song 'Nancy Reagan' was never really a political statement , it was more of a well natured poke. Roberto never checked with us on the art work , and next thing we know is we've got this LP with Nancy Reagan handing out jelly beans to starving Ethiopians . To say he took liberties is an understatement. According to Burd, the remix played well in California on College radio , but it didn`t help that the " Alive at Sunsplash" record came out at the same time and was receiving more press because of the Grammy Nomination."
I interviewed Carter Van Pelt to get his take on Blue Riddim Band and their legacy in Reggae history and why they never seemed to get the credit they deserved as one of the greatest Reggae bands of all time.
Put Blue Riddim Band into context for me. In particular around the song 'Nancy Reagan'. Was 'Nancy Reagan' a protest song or a good natured poke?
It was a strange diversion for the band to record a novelty song considering how serious they were about their music overall. I can't imagine anyone in the group was really good natured about the Reagan's, but humor is the greatest way lampoon the powerful.
The song seemed to be very popular with people in the know about reggae in the 80's but did it get airplay beyond college radio reggae shows?
Probably not, but I'm not sure. They had a big ally in Ken Williams here in New York, who played their music. They were respected by all who heard them, especially the Jamaican musicians. Tommy McCook was one of their biggest advocates.
Why did the band record so little during their years together? I'm only aware of 'Alive In Jamaica' and 'Restless Spirit'
Duck has said their biggest mistake was being the 'ultimate road warriors,' because they didn't leave enough of a recorded legacy. They have an unreleased album recorded at Channel One in Kingston in 1982. Chris Blackwell had Jack Nuber (engineer for Bob Marley, et al) record
a session in Kansas City circa 1980. Blackwell opted not to do anything with them because he said he'd have to spend too much money to market them while eager Jamaican acts were a dime a dozen.
What is the band's legacy?
Their legacy is hampered by the fact that the recorded work has never been officially released on cd and there isn't much of it to begin with. It really hurt them when Bob Zohn died, because he was the main songwriter.
Anyone who ever saw them live will attest that they were one of the greatest live reggae groups, and they couldn't have impressed the Jamaicans at Sunsplash if that weren't the case. Ask Sly Dunbar about them, and he'll remember Duck as a wicked drummer. Also check out on the youtube videos from San Francisco, and how they would switch instruments -- Bob Zohn playing drums and singing, Drew switching between bass and trombone, etc. They did have a strange way of going through keyboardists, faster than Spinal Tap went through drummers, but I digress.
One of my favorite quotes about them is from Roger Steffens, who said, and I paraphrase, "All the attention that UB40 ever got, it should have been lavished on Blue Riddim." The problem that ultimately hampered them is that they were victims of white audiences' perceptions of 'authenticity,' which is sometimes a bullshit concept but it something that white musicians who perform in black idioms have to deal with. While they should have to deal with it to an extent, frankly, it says more to me that Tommy McCook, Lloyd Parks, Mikey Dread, and Sly Dunbar loved them than the fact that no major record deal ever materialized and they are relatively unknown. If there is any such standard to be met, they exceeded it in my opinion.
Friday, December 9, 2011
Next week sees the airing in the U.K. of the next instalment in the This Is England series. This Is England '88, a three-part TV series will be screened on consecutive nights on December 13-15th on Channel 4. Billed by series creator Shane Meadows as a "sort of broken nativity play", fans of the series will have a chance to catch up with Shaun, Woody, Lol, Milky and the gang. This Is England '88 picks up 18 months on from where its predecessor left off, with Woody and Lol struggling to cope with the emotional fallout following her killing of her rapist dad. Shaun, meanwhile, is learning all about the ups and downs or romance with Smell. It will be followed in 2012 by 'This Is England '90', which will focus on the ecstasy-fuelled rave scene of the era.
Meadows has described the three-parter as 'kind of like a very brutal Nativity play… I just remember Christmas being shit… I wanted to make a sort of broken Nativity play, but there’s a real positive outcome, I hope.'
I'm a huge fan of the series, having first been introduced to the story and characters via the movie 'This Is England.' I loved its take on a mostly affable group of ska loving skinheads living in the north of England in 1983. I was impressed with how 'This Is England '86' showed the group moving on and growing up and was struck by the depth of character development. Indeed, Vicky McClure who plays Lol won a BAFTA in May for her performance in 'This Is England '86'. As a Yank, I'm hoping to find a way to view the series. Hopefully some of my friends in the U.K. will share a link!
The trailer, with a soundtrack of 'What Difference Does It Make' by The Smiths, gives glimpses of most of the main characters familiar to fans, including Gadget, Milky, Kelly, Trev, Harvey and of course the jailed Combo.
2-Tone Sound Alive And Kicking In 2012!: Madness, The Specials and The Selecter Get Ready For The New Year
As we get ready to bring 2011 to a close, I'm happy to report that it looks like 2012 will be another exciting year for fans of 2-Tone ska and its many musical purveyors who are still keeping the flame of the sound alive.
Madness to play in Mexico City in 2012!:
As the band readies its new batch of songs (which were previewed at the House Of Fun Weekender), Madness is also gearing up to finally cross the big pond to play a show on the North American content! Thanks to a tip from one of The Duff Guide to Ska's readers in Mexico, the news is out that Madness will be playing the Vive Latino Festival in Mexico City from March 25, 2012. With the band in Mexico in March, it begs the question: Will Madness finally play shows in the U.S.? The last time the band performed in the U.S. was during a very short 2005 tour as The Dangermen.
The Specials to tour in 2012!:
True to their word, The Specials will be back on the road in 2012. The band is scheduled to play 4 dates in Australia from April 3-7, 2012 and a show at the Live At The Marquee in Cork in Cork, Ireland on June 11, 2012. Fans of the band living in the U.S. are still keeping their fingers crossed that the band will finally return to play and rumors I've heard from sources inside the band suggest this is a distinct possibility! Stay tuned.
The Selecter release Christmas single:
The Selecter have just released a double 'A' side digital Christmas single. According to the band, the single represents the 'yin and yang' of the holiday season, including including the light side 'Skank Til Christmas' and the dark side 'A Christmas Fable'. The single is available as a download from iTunes, Amazon and other online music retailers. Check out the video for 'Skank 'til Christmas' which includes video clips submitted by fans showing off their best 2-Tone style skank dances.