Thursday, October 25, 2012
I have nothing but great memories of Musical Youth and I distinctly remember being very excited to hear them played on American radio at exactly the same time that I was becoming totally obsessed with all things ska and reggae (Madness, The Police and UB40 were also getting some American radio play at the time which heartened me to no end). Though my family didn't have MTV back in the early 80's (I got my fix at friend's houses), the video for 'Pass The Dutchie' (which was directed by Don Letts and became the first video by a Black musical act to appear on MTV) was bright and fun and it was hard not to like the band who despite their young age were actually playing their own instruments. While most everyone knows 'Pass the Dutchie' (even Homer Simpson referenced it in an episode of The Simpsons) few people have any idea what happened to the British-Jamaican kid group after their 1982 hit—or are aware that they were not just a pop novelty act but actual musicians who played all of their own instruments and wrote some of their own material (namely 'Youth Of Today' which is very catchy).
A very rare BBC documentary tracing the musical roots of the band at the height of their short lived fame has just become available. Its quite well done and traces the band on a spiritual and musical journey back to Jamaica (home of their immigrant parents) where they meet a number of early 80's reggae artists including Eek A Mouse and cause hysteria during several open air concerts in Kingston. There are several touching moments in the documentary. One of the members buys a copy of their single in a small Kingston record shop stall looking at it with wide eye wonder. Later they explore the country side, swimming in the Ocean for the very first time in their lives. The band record a song at King Tubby's Studio and meet family members still living in Jamaica closing the circle on the Kingston to Birmingham connection on a high note. Sadly, the band would disintegrate shortly after the trip enduring the death of one member and the imprisonment of another.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
As Madness fans anxiously await the release of the band's tenth studio album “Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da” worldwide on October 29, 2012, the excellent online ska magazine Reggae Steady Ska that is written by Joachim Uerschels (lead singer and guitarist for The Braces (1984-2006), acoustic ska project Joe Scholes) has initiated a very special countdown. Every day over the next ten days, the site is publishing one article a day written by passionate Madness fans about each of the nine previous studio albums: “One Step Beyond”, “Absolutely”, “7″, “Madness Presents The Rise & Fall”, “Keep Moving”, “Mad Not Mad”, “Wonderful”, “The Dangermen Sessions”, and “The Liberty Of Norton Folgate" all get their due.
Contributors include a diverse group of fans, writers and musicians from around the world -- Argentina, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, New Zealand, UK, US and Venezuela -- who share one thing in common: Madness and Madness songs changed their lives.
I was asked to contribute and share my memories of the effect that
“Madness Presents The Rise & Fall” released in late 1982 had on me. The album was a departure for the band as they explored new sounds and pushed the boundaries of what their fans had come to expect from them. The early 80's was a particularly difficult time in my life and the themes the album explores -- about growing up, introspection, reflection, and letting go of youth -- resonated deeply with me. It was also the album that included the band's pop masterpiece "Our House" which made it into the U.S. pop charts in 1983. You can read my essay here.
Please visit the Madness Album Series Countdown at Reggae Steady Ska and enjoy all the stories that have been shared and be sure to pick up a copy of "Oui Oui, Si, Si, Ja Ja, Da Da" when it comes out next week.
Monday, October 22, 2012
It was 26 years ago this month that UB40 became the very first Western band and reggae band to be invited to perform behind the Iron Curtain. This was before glasnost and perestroika, and the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall and it marked the gradual opening of Russia to Western bands and rock tours. Their watershed concert in Moscow was recorded and released the following year as "UB40 CCCP".
It is hard to imagine now how isolated Eastern Europe and the USSR was from music in the U.S. and U.K. in the mid-1980's. Indeed, the Soviet authorities who invited UB40 to play, saw them as a band of socialists whose critique of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's form of economic and global imperialism would fit nicely into a Marxist world view. And while that may have been true, what they had not bargained for was the band's take on the power of personal politics and its importance to Soviet citizens. In fact, at the time, something as simple as standing, dancing and enjoying music was forbidden. An excerpt from Rock Around The Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954-1988 by Timothy Ryback highlights the small but important role that UB40's series of concerts in October 1986 played in confronting the Soviet government over the right of people to dance and enjoy music.
From Monday October 6th through Sunday Oct 19, 1986, UB40 performed six concerts in Lennigrad's 8,500 seat Iubileini Sports Arena and six concerts in Moscow's 12,000 seat Luzhniki Arena. UB40 were eight working class musicians from the industrial city of Birmingham who meted out harsh words for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and seemed like the perfect cross between pop and politics. What Soviet officials did not expect was that UB40 would be as outspoken and uncompromising in Moscow as they were in England and America. In contrast to previous Western performers including Cliff Richard in 1976, Boney M in 1978, and Elton John in 1979, UB40 refused to enter into any compromises with their music or performance.
The Soviets did their best to temper the music and words issuing from the UB40 stage. When guitarist Robin Campbell expressed dismay that "such a big,strong country as this one is so afraid of a few people having a good time" following a performance of the song "Watchdogs" Campbell told the audience, "That was a song called Watchdogs, It's about the perils of censorship and the people who think they are watching over us for our own good." Translating Campbell's commentary for the Soviet audience, the MC explained "That was a song about censorship in Capitalist Countries." When Campbell tried to bring the crowd to their feet telling them "We'd love to see you dancing," The MC told the audience "The Band likes movement." Dancing, not lyrics became the major point of contention during the UB40 Tour. The local promoter Gosconcert, which forbade dancing at concerts, packed the arenas with security forces to keep fans under control. "We have a four hour argument before every show" Campbell complained, " Just to keep security at reasonable level of ruthlessness".
On Thursday October 16th, Campbell tired of the harassment of fans trying to dance, stopped the band. "You with the red armband" he yelled, gesturing towards a security man in the crowd -- "People are allowed to dance. Stop forcing them to sit down." As a spotlight from the stage singled out the security man who timidly withdrew the audience began to cheer. Despite the frustrations of the band and the harassment of the audiences, Soviet rock fans viewed the UB40 tour as a victory. A western band singing about censorship, decrying Police brutality and demanding the right for rock fans to dance, had delivered their message before tens of thousands of fans in Leningrad and Moscow. The change of mood in the Soviet establishment seemed confirmed when shortly after the UB40 concerts, Boris Grebenshehikov, who performed an increasing number engagements, was allowed to hold six sell out concerts in Leningrads Iubileni sports arena.But what about the fans who were lucky enough to get tickets to see the band? I was struck by the memories of a young Russian fan of the band posted on the UB40 web forum in 2006 during the 20th anniversary of the Russian tour:
"One gray October afternoon 20 years ago I got home from school to find my mother sitting by our old radio in the kitchen crying her eyes out… My first thought was that I missed the news that morning, and maybe Gorbachev had died? “What’s the matter, mum?” I asked. It turned out that she had been listening to a radio program about a group of eight unemployed musicians from England that came to Leningrad to perform. “They had such hard childhood” she kept saying, still sobbing… And THAT’S how I found out that UB40 were in town.
Perestroika was in it’s third year, the country was becoming more open, the eventual collapse of the whole system was only 3 years away, but old habits die slow. In their effort to promote the band in the Soviet Union, the authorities made the emphasis on the band’s political and social “struggle” against capitalism in general and Margaret Thatcher in particular. The first gig in Leningrad. There’s a black-and-while UB40 sign over a red background. This anarchist tri-color probably represented much better what UB40 were about than what Goskontsert people had in mind: a group of unemployed musicians who would be embracing Gorbachev-enhanced socialism with open arms.
Reggae as a music genre had not been widely known in Russia. Some might know the name Bob Marley, but nobody really knew any history of the music, anything about its roots, or religious or social significance.
UB40 were the first ever reggae band to ever perform in Russia. They were also the first Western band to ever perform there. I’m sure it was quite a culture shock for the band who had just flown from sunny Los Angeles and into a dreary “Russian winter”. But… we loved them, we loved them, we loved them, and couldn’t get enough of them!
I recently asked my friend Yuri who is the bass-guitarist of the first ever Russian reggae band, what he remembers the most about those Moscow gigs. “The sound”, he said right away. “I’d never heard anything like that before in my life”. The sound was overwhelming; I remember that I was completely blown away by the brass section. That was also the first time I realized how important percussion is.”
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
I got a call this past Sunday from the singer of my band. My wife answered the phone and said, "It's Roger." While Roger and I have been brother's in arms in Bigger Thomas for nearly 25 years, we communicate digitally -- email, text, Facebook. With family, work and other responsibilities we just don't have the time to talk like we used to. So when Roger calls me on the phone, somethings up. What he said when I took the phone is what we all dread when we get a phone call-- bad news. "Tommi Infamous is dead." he said. He was just 29 years old. I've been in a state of shock ever since.
There are many people who certainly knew Tommi better than me and were much closer to him than I was. I knew Tommi the way musicians know each other. His band Bomb Town and my band played a good number of shows together during 2004-2007. We were also label mates on Megalith Records who released "Logical Reality." So we hung out before our sets. Talked music at the bar after we performed. We shared stories. He always asked about my young son. Over those few years, I watched him grow and improve as a singer and entertainer. Despite energetic and crowd pleasing shows, he would sometimes confess that he wasn't happy with his own performance. I always told him I thought he was great and that I liked what he was doing, as crazy as it may have been.
Bomb Town was a great band. The first time I saw them I was completely caught off guard. Here were six, young kids, in the their late teens playing an explosive mix of punk, ska, reggae and dancehall and their singer was a charismatic skinhead who was chatting like a rasta as fast as he could to keep up with the breakneck speed of the songs. Bomb Town was a New Jersey band through and through and were proud of it. Calling their music "Graffiti Ska" they celebrated the underbelly of Asbury Park and other blighted towns along the Jersey shore, revisiting ideas first touched on by The Clash and The Sex Pistols in terms of the limits on youth, boredom, pop culture and the politics of confrontation. They mixed humor and the absurd with a sense of danger. It was a punk attitude, with a hardcore mentality and a ska and reggae dancehall sensibility. Whatever the show venue, be it club, firehouse or basement, Tommi seemed to like playing shows and sharing inside jokes with his friends in the band and if other people liked what they were doing, even better.
Tommi was edgy and onstage he had an ability to project confidence. For a time he practiced his interest in fire breathing during shows. He brought the Jamaican tradition of blowing air horns to show appreciation for a good song to Bomb Town shows -- it was something to see a sweaty throng of teens dancing and blowing air horns manically while Tommi smiled at them over the din from the stage. While I didn't always understand where he was going, I liked that he was blazing his own trail -- wherever it led. Tommi had an unusual creative spark in him that was always looking for ways to push boundaries and people's buttons at the same time. He was most definitely a case of "dont judge a book by it's cover" becuse he was much smarter than he let on. He used the the idea of "Babylon" corporate marketing -- posters, images, logos, TV shows -- to question the status quo, communicate his own unusual ideas about culture and to ambush people and push them out of their comfort zone. This included appearing on a reality dating show on the Fuse network called "You Rock, Let's Roll" and writing a jingle for the malt liquor energy drink Joose.
Despite our age difference -- Tommi was only 21 when Bomb Town started to play out and 23 when their first record "Logical Reality" was released in 2006 -- he and I shared a love of ska and reggae that we talked about often. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he knew his ska and reggae music history. It was clear he listened to the music and lived for it. As such, he appreciated what we were doing in Bigger Thomas and loved 2-Tone music (he went on the road with The English Beat as their tour DJ and I had never seen him so truly and authentically excited about something). We liked what he was doing and we invited him to guest on the song "Panic!" from our 2006 album "We Wear The Mask" along with Roy Radics of The Rudie Crew and Reverend Sinister of Hub City Stompers recorded with King Django at Version City Studio. It remains one of my favorite songs from that album.
In between his stints as the singer in Bomb Town, Tommi did a tour of duty in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. It was a part of who he was at that time and I respected him for it, despite my opposition to the war. But it was also something he rarely talked about. I remember the last show he played before leaving for the war. I told him to stay safe. When he came back, I told him I was so glad he was back to playing music. That was the extent of our discussion about what he did there or what he saw.
The last time I saw him was in March, 2011 at a show we played in Brooklyn with him on the night there was a Supermoon in the sky. He was DJing and chatting over records. I watched his set after we played. He was funny and weird and doing his thing. We caught up during a long subway ride back to Manhattan and had a far ranging conversation about the unusually large and bright moon in the sky that night and how it might be freaking people out. It stuck with me and I wrote lyrics to a song inspired by that night and our conversation.
Though I can't be certain, I sense that Tommi's experience in Iraq changed him in ways we will never really fully understand. And for that I mourn his loss and our loss of him as a friend, fellow musician, provacateur, fire breather, horn blower, DJ, and lover of Jamaican culture. Rest in peace friend.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
The next Electric Avenue show coming up this Saturday, October 13, 2012 is "A Night of Reggae" featuring Destroy Babylon (roots reggae from Boston) and The Frightnrs (rub-a-dub from Brooklyn) at Characters NYC in the heart of New York City! Both bands are nothing less than stellar--and you'll be able to catch them at the incredibly low price of $5.00 (someone just asked me, "what can you do in New York City for five bucks?"--well, you can see two amazing reggae acts perform live and up close!). This is going to be one of those gigs that you'll wanna kick yourself if you miss it...
Electric Avenue is brought to you by my fellow New York City-based ska blogger Duff Guide To Ska (Steve Shafer) and I to support the ska and reggae scene and most importantly, bring ska and reggae music back to Manhattan, where it was born with The Toasters, Beat Brigade and N.Y. Citizens in the early 80's. Electric Avenue is a non-profit venture--all of the cover charge at the door will be split equally between the bands. We don't plan to take a cut, nor does the venue, so you can be assured that if you come out to see a show, the money you pay will directly support the band's playing that night.
If you don't know about Destroy Babylon, you should check out my fellow ska blogger, The Duff Guide to Ska's review of their latest album, Long Live the Vortex, here. Check out the band performing my personal favorite "DB Inc" and a smoking version of The Clash's "Wrong Em Boyo."
The Duff Guide to Ska review of The Frightnrs' EP can be read here. Check out a fantastic dub version of "And I Wouldn't Tell You This" by Agent Jay of The Slackers.
Hope to see you at this show!
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
I was a huge fan of the mid 80's 12" remix and I've always appreciated the role that producers can play in radically altering the original version of a song. I haunted many a record store back in the day on the hunt for remixes of songs by Arthur Baker (who famously combined elements from two original Kraftwerk recordings, "Trans Europe Express" and "Numbers," which were interpreted by studio musicians for the groundbreaking Afrika Bambaattaa hip hop track "Planet Rock"), John "Jelly Bean" Benitez (who remixed many acts including The English Beat and General Public) among many others. Further, the idea of covering or "versioning" songs is at the very foundations of Jamaican music.
To that end, I'm struck by the Arthur Bakeresque production and multi-media work that Andy Rehfeldt is accomplishing in mixing the video and live vocals of well known artists and syncing and matching them to completely new backing tracks that he records himself. Witness his spot on reggae version of Nirvana performing their classic "Smells Like Teen Spirit." While there have been better reggae takes on Nirvana (Little Roy's recent release is on regular rotation), Rehfeldt has some other tricks up his sleeve. For me its his ability to fuse the aural and the visual to create something unexpected and new -- in this case its the inclusion of Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers playing the melody on his trumpet from a show in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1993. Watch and listen:
How does he do it? Firts, Rehfeldt composes an original piece of music around the acapella vocal tracks he searches out via Google. Then he arranges each song and records the guitars and bass parts live, later adding other parts (drums, horns) via a midi keyboard. Then he matches the new track to the video and uploads it to YouTube. He's done this quite a bit with other artists and has developed quite a following. Check out Rehfeldt's hard rock/heavy metal take on Bob Marley's "Is This Love". Again, the beauty lies in his ability to sync everything perfectly so your eyes and ears believe what you are hearing and seeing!
Monday, October 1, 2012
A demo of several ska and reggae songs that the then teen aged members of Fishbone recorded in the early to mid-80's before the band had signed to Sony Records are now available on vinyl. [UPDATE: Two eagle eyed readers of the blog and obsessed fans of the band pointed out that these early demo songs and many more are available on "Fishbone 101: Nuttasaurusmeg Fossil Fuelin' the Fonkay" a two-CD 1996 compilation album. The first disc contains album tracks (some in edited versions) from the Fishbone albums up to 1993. The second disc contains B-sides, alternate versions, EP tracks, demos, and other non-album items. Though the CD is out-of-print, copies can still be purchased and digital versions of the songs are available for download at Amazon. That said. if you want some cool, color vinyl, then by all means grab a copy of L.A. Ghetto Ska Demos".]
The 10" vinyl bootleg, "L.A. Ghetto Ska Demos" which can be had from a variety of online sources in the U.S. (Jump Up Records) and U.K. (Juno Records), includes nascent versions of "Party At Ground Zero" (originally titled "Pink Vapor Stew") and "Lyin' Ass Bitch" which both appeared on the band's "Fishbone EP" released in 1985, as well as cult classic "Skankin' To The Beat". Of particular interest to fans will be two rare tracks-- "Glow In The Dark" and "What Have I Done" -- that I had never heard before, and to my knowledge have never been officially released. The other track on the demo, "Alcoholic" is quite different from the version that later appeared on "Chim Chim's Badass Revenge" released in 1996.
1.Pink Vapor Stew (aka Party At Ground Zero)
2.Skankin' To The Beat
3.Lyin' Ass Bitch
1.Glow In The Dark
3.What Have I Done
Stream snippets of all the tracks below.