Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Seasons Greetings! I want to thank everyone who visited my blog during 2014 and has supported what I do here, which is to share my love and passion for ska and reggae music. Though I haven't been as active as I would like, I have traded time behind the computer to start a new band -- Rude Boy George -- record a 9-song album called "Confessions" and launch a digital ska label called Trilby Records.
While I miss blogging about ska (and I intend to continue), it was time to put more energy into creating and playing music. I hope to be more active in 2015. At the very least, I will blog when I can and continue to share updates on my musical travels.
In the meantime, please enjoy Rude Boy George's ska version of the Wham! holiday classic "Last Christmas!" Here's wishing all of you a safe and happy holiday season and happy new year!
Sunday, October 26, 2014
Hello everyone! I hope you have all been well! I've been away from blogging for some time, but with good reason -- I've been BUSY. As some of you may know, I started a new band called Rude Boy George nearly two years ago with a goal of performing and recording ska and reggae versions of 80's new wave.
I'm proud and excited to announce that the first Rude Boy George LP "Confessions" is finally finished. My band mates and I are very proud of what we have created with our producer Wayne "Waylo" Lothian and can't wait for you to hear it! In fact, if you pre-order the 9-track album now from Bandcamp, you will receive an immediate download of our version of the Berlin classic "The Metro" and receive a link for the whole album when it is released on December 5, 2015. Here is a video for the song:
Much like UB40's Labor Of Love series, "Confessions" is our way of paying tribute to the new wave artists and songs that meant the most to us when we were growing up. The nine new wave songs we picked to wrap up in a loving ska and reggae embrace were originally recorded between 1981 and 1983--a period that corresponds with the explosion of 2 Tone ska, reggae, and new wave on the radio, MTV and in 80s movies. Each song is a unique, three-minute confession of some kind--about relationships, love, or the meaning of life.
I've also been busy helping to launch Trilby Records, a new digital ska and reggae label, that will not only put out our music, but the music of our very talented friends and band mates. More on that soon.
In the meantime, check out our revamped website which features more information about the band.
Thanks for your support and now back to more regular blog posts about ska and reggae!
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
John Peel. His name alone conveys musical gravitas. Peel probably made more of a contribution to British music (and its effect on the rest of the world) in the last 50 years than anyone else. As a DJ on UK's Radio 1, he spoke to succeeding waves of kids and was responsible for breaking new bands such as Radiohead, The Undertones, The Clash, The Smiths, Pulp, T-Rex, New Order and many, many more. And after a lifetime of listening to more music than most of us could ever hope to do, Peel rated The Beat as one of his favorite bands of all time.
He first crossed paths with the band at a University gig in Birmingham where he was booked as a DJ. Supporting him was a local, unknown Birmingham band called The Beat. Peel was so blown away by the band that he swapped his £800 check with the band for their £80 check and invited them to come record a live radio session for his show. He then promoted them on his show regularly and helped to make them big in the UK and Europe. Peel's affection for the band was obvious as he invited them to record three sessions for his show.
Each session is a microcosm of the band during the three distinct phases they went through. The first session from November 1979, features songs from the first LP "I Just Can't Stop It" and is notable for the fact that it does not include Saxa, so "Tears Of A Clown", "Ranking Full Stop" and "Mirror In The Bathroom" sound closer to the way they did when the band first started performing. Ranking Roger's toasting is more prominent and punk edge more apparent. David Steele's bass lines still astound for their creativity.
The second session from September 3, 1980 demonstrates an amazing maturity and complexity in the songwriting from the session less than one year earlier. Both the non-album tracks "Too Nice To Talk To" and "Psychedelic Rockers" are real soundscapes that incorporate every influence the band could fit into one song (pop, reggae, calypso, Afro-beat). Saxa's playing on these two tracks is also some of the best I have heard. I was also struck by how much better the album tracks from the "Whappen" LP sounded, particularly "Monkey Murders".
The final session from March 1982, previewed songs from the "Special Beat Service" LP that was released later that year. The distinction between the pop and reggae numbers is clearer though the version of "Save It For Later" is sublime and "dirty" sounding, and is so much better than the recorded version we are all familar with. The reggae numbers are among the best by the band that I have heard.
As a huge fan of The Beat, its a real treat to listen to these sessions. Each one has something slightly different or unique about it that is distinct from the recorded versions you are used to hearing. First, there is a freshness that comes from the live recorded nature of the songs. Next, you can hear subtleties that you have never noticed before. A new guitar lick here or varied melody from Saxa on an extended solo. It puts their talent and songwriting on another level.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
What does it mean to be a Rude Boy in the 21st Century? Is it a fashion statement? Is it a musical statement? Is it an attitude? Is it all of the above?
"Return Of The Rude Boy" attempts to answer these questions. It is an immersive exhibition in London running through the end of August, that explores the style, swagger and significance of the 21st century Rude Boy. It features original photography, film, installations and live events. Curated by photographer and filmmaker Dean Chalkley and creative director Harris Elliott, it celebrates the sharply dressed individuals who exemplify an important and rarely documented subculture. The exhibit has generated significant U.K. media interest, including coverage in The Guardian, Channel 4, and GQ Magazine and many more.
That said, I wanted a first-hand impression of the exhibit, so I asked my good friend and Bigger Thomas/Rude Boy George band mate, Roger Apollon, who is in the U.K. on a family vacation, to visit the exhibit and share his impressions. But first, you need to know that Roger is a Rude Boy. He could have been included in this exhibition. When I was looking to start a ska band back in the late 80's, I briefly saw Roger on a train platform decked out in sunglasses, a pork pie hat, a Specials t-shirt and brothel creepers. I stood in shock. Here was a real Rude Boy in New Brunswick, New Jersey! I lost sight of him when the train arrived and departed. Later that summer he magically appeared on my apartment doorstep clutching a flyer I had posted looking for musicians to start a ska band. The rest is history.
Roger has his own Rude Boy style that is modern but also includes touches of old school Rude Boys. He is never without his pork pie hat (he has summer and winter versions) and often wears suits. More than that, he exudes a style that is effortlessly cool and confident.
After visiting the exhibit, Roger shared his thoughts and some incredible pictures.
Return Of The Rude Boy is a tight and precise exhibit that was an inspiration to Rude boys everywhere! As you walk in to the the austere setting of Somerset House, you are welcomed by a pulsing soundtrack of reggae and ska. The portraits are exquisite as each man and woman captured is not styled; they are in their natural and VERY cool state.
As I walked through, I was not only inspired but struck how "Rude Boy Culture" is not about style of clothes (although the clothes were extremely stylish), but more about the character of the individual. They are unique, confident and against the grain but not for the sake of being different.
To me, it felt like a sort of homecoming as I saw bits of my past, present and future reflected in these portraits. If you're in London before the end of the summer, check out this amazing (and FREE) exhibit!
Monday, July 28, 2014
Over the past two years, the wonderfully amazing Music Vault has been remastering more than 13,000 concert videos, which they are now posting up on YouTube. The footage spans the last five decades and features performances by a wide array of legendary artists.
I recently came across footage of a fantastic live performance of The Beat from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey from September, 1980. The Capitol Theatre was built in 1926 as a vaudeville house, and later served as a movie theater. Promoter John Scher bought the property and converted it into a venue for rock concerts. Throughout the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, the 3,200 seat theatre was a popular stop on nearly every major rock artist's tour. The venue was known for its in house video system which resulted in a number of good quality, black and white video bootlegs.
The Beat were the support act for The Pretenders in what would be their very first tour of the U.S. during the fall of 1980. As such the band receive a muted response from fans of Chrissie Hynde and company who were likely perplexed by the punky reggae sounds of the multiracial septet from Birmingham. As a side note, I procured tickets to see this show without telling my parents who forbid me to attend on a school night when I let them know the day before the show. I was forced to sell the tickets at school to classmates who made sure to let me know what I had missed the next day!
The video is a must watch for anyone who missed the band in their prime. Shot from a variety of camera angles with remastered sound, the footage reveals The Beat at the height of their powers -- Psychedelic Rockers and Mirror In The Bathroom are both breathtaking. Saxa in particular is a revelation as his melodic riffs and solos reach sublime heights. Its also great to hear the keyboard work of Dave Blockhead whose playing was often overlooked in the band's records.
Here is the set list and set timing:
00:00 : Hands Off She's Mine
02:49 : Psychedelic Rockers
06:10 : Noise In This World
08:27 : Big Shot
11:29 : Tears Of A Clown
15:14: : Ranking Full Stop
18:00 : Mirror In The Bathroom
21:24 : Click Click
The Specials first single, Gangsters, was released exactly 35 years ago on July 28, 1979! According to the excellent 2-Tone.Info:
Having been rejected by numerous record companies The Specials decided to release a self-financed single. If the legend is to be believed the single was recorded for a mere £700 financed by a ‘sort of’ local businessman by the name of ‘Jimbo’. It is said that a piano part on the track took up most of the studio time and as a result only one track, Gangsters, was recorded.
Needing a b-side the band turned to an instrumental track Noel Davis had recorded two years previously in 1977 with drummer John Bradbury and trombonist, Barry Jones. Originally titled ‘The Kingston Affair’ the track got a slight reworking and was re-titled The Selecter. The track also came complete with it's own unique catalogue number, which may seem unusual but was actually quite common with old ska and reggae singles.
The single was initially distributed via Rough Trade Records, who persuaded the band to produce 5,000 copies, twice what the band had originally intended. The single was issued in a plain white sleeve stamped by the band themselves with the words THE SPECIAL A.K.A 'Gangsters' Vs THE SELECTER. The band then signed to Chrysalis Records, who were more than happy to sign both The Specials and the 2 Tone label. Chrysalis pressed up more copies of the single in the now familiar 2 Tone sleeve resulting in a top 10 hit and the biggest selling independent single of the year.
Original Specials drummer Silverton Hutchinson had left the band just prior to the recording of Gangsters and was replaced by John Bradbury, and as a result Bradbury was the only person to play on both sides of the labels debut single.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
After taking time off to watch the 2014 World Cup in its entirety, I'm back to blogging, playing the bass and writing more songs for the next Marco On The Bass digital release that will be out on a new ska-only label (more on that later).
In the meantime, I wanted to share a brand new song which was inspired by a catch phrase that Bigger Thomas/Rude Boy George singer Roger Apollon uses. It always makes me laugh and I thought it would make a great title for a song.
And so, without further ado, I present "Stay Mad," which mixes sampled vocals from two of my favorite movies over traditional ska bass, guitar, organ, drums and some new wave keyboard!
Friday, July 25, 2014
Ranking Roger announced the release of a new solo album titled "Pop Off The Headtop." The album is out August 1st and will be available via The Beat's web page.
The album appears to be a compilation of remixes of tracks Roger has recorded for a variety of albums, including his recent collaborations with Mr Anonymous on the tracks "Yam And Banana" and "Spaceman."
Here is the entire track list for the album:
1. Future Sounds (AleXanna Remix) - Ranking Roger
2. 16 Tons - AleXanna Featuring Ranking Roger
3. Rock The Casbah (AleXanna Remix) - Ranking Roger
4. Return Of The Dread-I (Dropgrinders) - Ranking Roger
5. Muscle Ska (AleXanna Remix) - Ranking Roger
6. Spaceman (Ambient Version) Mr Anonymous Featuring Ranking Roger
7. On The Road (Dopegrinders) – Ranking Junior & Ranking Roger
8. Side To Side (Dopegrinders) – Ranking Junior & Ranking Roger
9. Yam And Banana - Mr. Anonymous featuring Ranking Roger
10. Mirror In The Bathroom (Gaudi remix) – Gaudi vs. The Beat
11. Freedom - Ranking Roger
12. Joe 90 Meets Thunderbirds Near the Tardis (Dub) – Ranking Roger
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
So, if you've been following along at home, there are two UB40's these days: the version led by original singer Ali Campbell with keyboardist Mickey Virtue and toaster Astro, and the version of the band led by Ali’s two brothers -- guitarist Robin Campbell and singer Duncan Campbell with the remaining original members -- Jim Brown, Brian Travers, Norman Hassan and Earl Falconer.
Campbell and his band mates have been busy touring across Europe and the U.K. and have just released a preview of the first single, a cover of 50's doo-wop group The Rays "Silhouette" due out on August 18th on Cooking Vinyl Records. The song will feature on Campbell's new album out this fall that will feature a mix of original songs (give a listen to the previously released"Reggae Music") as well as reggaefied cover versions of classics by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Chi-Lites and others.
Campbell is also prominently featured on the Radio Riddler version of "Purple Rain" from the excellent Purple Reggae album.
According to a recent interview Campbell did to promote his tour and new single with a newspaper in the U.K., he intends to continue using the UB40 name.
Nobody owns the name you see. UB40 was a government registration form to get your benefits and we never patented it. I think we’re all entitled to use the name, all original eight of us. So at the moment there are two UB40s out there: one promoting country and western with a bloke who’s never made a hit record in his life, and there’s another one promoting reggae and we’ve had 40 top 20 singles. It’s up to the fans who they want to go and see; the original singers or somebody else.Campbell also dismisses claims that fans are confused by two versions of UB40 touring and releasing music:
It has been confusing but since I left the dark side I have made very clear that it’s “Ali Campbell’s UB40” or “Ali Campbell – the legendary voice of UB40”. I’ve always made it clear who I am, whereas the UB40 dark side have never once said that it’s not the original line-up, and for five years they’ve been punting off the brand name. It’d be like going to see The Stones and Derek Jagger comes out; you wouldn’t be very happy would you? I wouldn’t!I was impressed with the quality of the sound on "Silhouette." The song is a good start for Campbell, Virtue and Astro and it captures the classic UB40 sound that many fans of the original band fell in love with. The true measure for me will be to see if the new album can maintain this level of quality. We will see.
Sunday, June 8, 2014
In case you didn't know, I love football (better known as soccer here in the U.S.) as much as I love ska and reggae. The World Cup is my personal favorite sporting event of all time (I travelled to Germany for the 2006 tournament) and I'll be supporting the U.S. team passionately over the next several weeks.
So as I gear up for one glorious month of the beautiful game, I want to invite all regular and casual readers of the MOTB blog (who hail from almost every country in the world!) to join me in a friendly competition to see who can pick the most winners of all 64 matches from the group stages all the way through to the final on July 13th.
In order to make the World Cup 'Pick Em' more interesting and competitive (aside from national pride of course!), the winner and runner-up will receive a free package of music from Bigger Thomas and Rude Boy George.
Click the link below to join the competition and demonstrate your World Cup 2014 football prowess.
Marco On The Bass World Cup Pick Em'
And to get you in the mood, crank up The Aggrolites dirty reggae classic "We Came To Score" while you make your picks!
Saturday, May 31, 2014
The Specials convened in London this past week to begin rehearsals for their upcoming fall tour of the U.K. which kicks off in Norwich on October 30th and debuted their new guitarist, who will be replacing original band member Roddy Byers, who announced he was leaving the band in February.
A few pictures of the band in the studio have appeared online showing vocalist Terry Hall, guitarist Lynval Golding, bassist Horace Panter and drummer John Bradbury hard at work with long-time touring band members keyboardist Nik Torp, trumpeter Jon Reed and trombonist Tim Smart. Joining them was Matt McManamon, the former singer and guitarist of The Dead 60's. [UPDATE: I just learned that McManamon will only be joining the band for their Isle of Wight show in June; Steve Craddock will play all the UK tour shows this fall.]
Though their has been no official announcement from the band about McManamon joining their ranks, the photos and band insiders have confirmed that he will be performing with the band for the Isle of Wight show this June. Earlier this spring, the band seemed to have settled on Steve Cradock, lead guitarist and founding member of Ocean Colour Scene and a member of Paul Weller's backing band, and he will join the band for their UK tour this fall..
The Dead 60's were heavily influenced by The Specials, playing an inspired combination of dub reggae infused with rockabilly and ska. Their use of organ, bass and drums always hit a chord with me. In fact, the band served as an excellent substitute for many of us pining away for The Specials during the mid-2000's. He should serve as a great guitar foil for Golding and a worthy back-up vocalist for Hall. Give the Dead 60's homage to The Specials "You're Not The Law" and "Ghostfaced Killer" a spin and imagine the possibilities for the live show and dare I say new music!
The Dead 60's recorded a close to perfect perfect rendition of Ghost Town before they broke-up, which means McManamon already knows all the notes and the words!
Friday, May 30, 2014
I'm extremely excited to report that Venezuela's ska superstars Desorden Publico are kicking off a rare four city, U.S. tour which will include stops in Orlando on June 5th, Miami on June 6th. a show here in New York at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on Sunday June 8th and one last show in Washington D.C. on June 9th.
For the uninitiated, imagine if Madness or The Specials had emerged in Venezuela. And while the band was founded in 1985 just as 2-Tone peaked, they had trouble imitating the 2-Tone sound too closely. It just didn't work for musicians steeped in local Latin rhythms, culture and beats. The music of Desorden Publico has continued to evolve, thanks to near relentless playing and recording during the past two decades. The band has a dozen or so releases to their name and have had platinum sales, #1 and top 10 hits. They have tours that have taken them all over Latin America, North America and Europe. Still having trouble wrapping your head around a Venezuelan ska band? Give "Musica De Fiesta" from the band's most recent album "Los Contrarios" a spin to get a sense of their sound and energy:
José Luis "Caplís" Chacín is the bassist and one of the founding members of Desorden Publico. Like me, he is a 2-Tone devotee. Though we lived thousands of miles part, our love of 2-Tone and the impact it has had on us throughout our lives is striking.
Chacín's love of ska and 2 Tone started in Caracas in the early 80's, when as a heavy metal loving teen he was given The Specials first album. It set him and his band mates along the path to starting one of the very first South American ska bands. Now after nearly 30 years of popularity and success in Latin America, including eight studio albums, several greatest hit releases and live performance in over 30 countries, Desorden Público have reached superstar status throughout South America. Taking their name from Venezuelan military police trucks that had 'Orden Publico' [Public Order] written on the side, the band's name is political, but it is more tongue-in-cheek and humorous about advocating any serious form of public disorder.
I had the chance to interview Chacín a few years ago and I've included excerpts from that interview below:
What was it like growing up in Caracas, Venezuela in the early 80's?
It was great! I was born in 1964 and it means that I really had the eighties as my very influential years. Thank God it wasn't the 70´s!
Finding music in Venezuela in the 80's wasn't an easy task, so we had to beg every friend, every father or mother or relatives, who were travelling outside, to buy the new releases, and when you buy 2 or 3 LP´s and try to transport them in a luggage it´s kind of a nightmare.
Well, the thing is that here in our country many good and bad things came as an avalanche: Heavy metal, Punk Rock, New Wave, Hard Core, New Cool, Post Punk, Ska, Reggae. And before becoming musicians we were DJ´s of our own Sound System called ASEO URBANO. It was the only one in Caracas that specialized in New Wave, Punk and of course Ska, so we were the natural Sound System at the gigs of many new acts of the underground Punk scene of Caracas.
How did that experience effect you socially, politically and musically?
Being a teenager, here in Caracas in the 80´s was incredible. In a certain way Venezuela was for many years (in the decade of the 70´s) a country drunk on Petrodollars (money from the sales of oil), so we had an incredible “Bonanza” where the most of our government leaders were super corrupted. But suddenly, a serious crisis brought a hard fall of the prices of oil and our economy began to feel the consequences of many years of bad guidance. So suddenly we started to know a different country with a cost of living that was more and more expensive every day.
This was a perfect time for many young people to realize that too many things were going wrong in our country, and some of us started to open our eyes and do our own criteria of the society. Now we also had the lyrics of people like The Clash, Dead Kennedy's, Sex Pistols, The Specials, and also Latin American artists like Ruben Blades, Ali Primera, Soledad Bravo to help start to make sense of our own lives and Venezuelan society. We became critics and non-conformists with our reality. And we started this band!
Most people I've spoken to who are into ska remember the exact moment when they fell in love with it. How did it happen for you?
I remember I was a kid loved Disco Music to Heavy Metal. (I loved the first era of Van Halen, and still like it). But after 3 or 4 years of hard rock, I started to listen New Wave music: Devo, The B-52´s, Oingo Boingo, Wall of Voodoo, XTC, Joe Jackson, The Jam. One day I was working as a DJ at our Sound System and a good friend gave me a very badly recorded cassette of the first LP of The Specials. The first song 'A Message To You Rudy' was immediately the biggest revelation of lure lives. We didn´t understand what kind of music this was. I remember I had listened to the first two Madness albums but I could not engage with their version of ska. But The Specials definitely was the BOMB! An ATOMIC Bomb in our minds.
What was your first ska album you bought?
After I listened to that tape, I immediately order that first album by The Specials and when a good friend gave it to me, I just couldn´t believe how good the whole album was. Even today I still feel that sensation of how GREAT and how good that first album is.
How did you go from being introduced to ska music to starting Desorden Publico in 1985?
We were tired of waiting for the start of a ska band in our city. We finally decided to form our own band and we sold many of the equipments of our Sound System in order to save money to buy our first used instruments.
When did you decide to become a bass player? Did you play the bass before you were into ska?
At the same moment we decided to form DESORDEN PÚBLICO...
Can you explain what your band name means for readers who don't speak Spanish? Does it have a social or political connotation?
DESORDEN PUBLICO = PUBLIC DISORDER. It was a joke against the military trucks with the name of PUBLIC ORDER on the side. There are a very repressive institution here in our city
Fashion was such a huge part of the ska scenes here in in the U.S. in the 80's. Can you describe the importance of fashion in the Venezuelan and South American ska scene?
Here in Venezuela, especially in Caracas in the 80's, you could see Punks, Rockers, Rastas and of course Trendy's. There was not an Ska scene, so when we started to use our suits, we were like strange birds in this jungle! We didn´t look like Punks, Rockers nor Rastas and we had to explain that we were Rude Boys, hahahahahaha!
Your band tours the world regularly. Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows the band played that were particularly memorable?
Wow! There are many, many good and bad experiences, but talking about good ones, the fact of being in a same stage with people like Prince Buster, Jerry Dammers, Ray Barreto, Ruben Blades,The B-52's, The Selecter, Ranking Roger and his version of The Beat. To be backstage with all the guys from Madness, thanks to the courtesy of my very good friend Coolie Ranx and all the guys from The Pilfers, that was magic!
I remember meeting Paul Weller in New York City. He was a very nice guy to me and my wife. Another magical moment in my life was the time I found the one and only Andy Summers of The Police totally lost in the corridors of the radio station where we have our radio show.
Last year, I was walking on the streets of Berlin visiting the best record stores, and to my surprise, I saw a very tall man walking just in front of me. It was none other than one of my all time musical heroes: Joe Jackson! This was great!
What was it like for the band to tour the U.S.? What kind of reception did you get from American ska audiences?
We were helped by our good friend Bucket from The Toasters and that was a good introduction for us to the North American ska audiences. It also helped that we had many good friends in New York and Boston, and many of them were at our first gigs. This helped provide the impression that the audience knew who were were! Hahahaha!
In those early tours, we also had the chance to do things for the Latin American market in the USA and also for the American public into the Ska scene. Surprisingly, I must say the reception we received from Ska audiences was 1000 times better than the reception we had from Spanish speakers! During that time most of the people from Latin America in New York were Mexicans, Puerto Ricans or Dominicans and those audiences were a bit hostile with bands from other Latin countries.
Information for the show in Brooklyn is available via Facebook and tickets are available through Ticketmaster. I hope to see a few of you there!
Friday, May 9, 2014
Radio Riddler Release "Purple Reggae" -- Album Of Prince Covers Features Suggs, Ali Campbell and Sinead O'Connor
I'm proud to say that I am a huge Prince fan (I even stuck with him through that period of time when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol). The 'Purple Rain' film and album still remain defining touchstones of my late adolescence and early adulthood. I saw the film the day it opened thirty years ago, during the summer of 1984 and I never got tired of hearing 'When Doves Cry' played on the radio at the David's Cookies store I worked that summer (and that song was in HEAVY radio rotation).
As such, I've been eagerly awaiting the release of "Purple Reggae" by Radio Riddler ( which includes the duo of Fast and Frank Benbini of Fun Lovin Criminals (FLC), who are reggae remix producers in their spare time). After nearly five years, they have finally released their reggae tribute to Prince and the 'Purple Rain' album in its entirety, The album features a variety of guest vocalists including Suggs of Madness who performs "Let's Go Crazy," former UB4O singer Ali Campbell singing 'Purple Rain," and Sinead O'Connor who takes on "I Would Die 4 U." The sleeper tracks for me include the duet between Hollie Cook and Benbini on "The Beautiful Ones" and "Computer Blue" which features members of The Specials touring horn section.
Though originally from New York and best known here for 'Scooby Snacks', FLC was never fully embraced by American audiences, though the UK and most of Europe really took the band to their hearts. The band members in turn always seemed to understand and tap into a uniquely European, and especially British, sense of humor.
Having worked to produce reggae remixes for a variety of artists, the Radio Riddler 'Purple Rain' project is a extension of their love of all things reggae and of Prince in particular. According to an interview that FLC drummer Frank Benbini did, "Purple Reggae" has been a true labor of love that originally came about as a lark and took on a life of its own.
Yeah, across the board. It was one of those things where we love reggae, and we have a reggae remix outfit called Radio Riddler. We’ve remixed a lot of people…Lily Allen, Coldplay…you know, we’ve done a lot of remixes for a lot of people. So we thought, what can we do? He went – “Why don’t we do the soundtrack to ‘Purple Rain’?” I was like – “That won’t work, that won’t happen, it just won’t work”. He was like – “Well, let’s give it a go”, and he did the first one, ‘Purple Rain’, he got the beats ready and sent it to me, and I was like – “Fuck! It sounds great!” Then I got a lot of my hometown players, brass sections, people from The Specials playing on there. I sang all the songs but then it was like – “Let’s get some guest artists on it”. So I started to approach different people and one person I approached was Sinéad O'Connor. She hasn’t sung a Prince song since ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ which was an international number one so I didn’t think she’d go for it. But she did, and did a version of ‘I Would Die 4 U’. Amazing. Then we’ve got Plan B, he’s doing one, Madness are doing one, the singer from UB40’s doing one. So, yeah, that’s a great little project we’ve got going.The album release was delayed in part to complications in getting publishing approval from Prince and his camp, who are notoriously picky about anyone recording covers of his back catalog. That said, the Purple one finally signed off and the tracks have just been released. Have a listen to preview tracks below:
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Neville Staple has released a video for “Road Block” from his forthcoming solo album "Ska Crazy" due out on May 13th on Cleopatra Records.
The video features the former singer of The Specials walking around a series of empty streets in a working class neighborhood in Coventry while two street gangs battle each other. The song laments the violence and despair that still plagues inner cities across the U.K. — touching visually and sonically on the band's 1981 hit “Ghost Town.”
Staple and producer Rory Nolan wanted the video the reflect the reality of life in Coventry. According to Nolan:
“The actors were aware of the potential confrontation with other known gangs while filming. But everyone agreed to take a risk and work with it for Neville. We had a plan if anything kicked off and I was glad the actors I’d taken on board shared the same fearlessness as I was taught growing up. Having Neville and MC Daddy Woody walking around the set gave an air of confidence and respect to the square that left us to film freely, something I never would have imagined happening walking this square as a kid.”
Thursday, April 24, 2014
Touched By The Hand Of Jah! -- Hear A 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.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
How did you celebrate Record Store Day?
The Specials released a limited edition 7” single as part of Record Store Day that features two previously unreleased dub mixes created at the time of the ‘More Specials’ mixing sessions in 1980 by band drummer John ‘Brad’ Bradbury (Sock It To ‘Em, JB) and by the band's founder Jerry Dammers (Rat Race). Did you grab one? If you did, what do you think? My ska blogging pal (Duff Guide To Ska) and Rude Boy George band mate Steve Shafer was up and out early this morning to procure a copy.
I have to say that I was very excited to see the 2-Tone label spinning round and round on the videos below. Give the videos a spin yourself and play them LOUD!
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Neville Staple, former singer with The Specials, has posted a video that previews tracks from his new album "Ska Crazy" that will be released on CD and vinyl on May 13th on Cleopatra Records in the U.K. The album is now available to order as a pre-release on Amazon in the U.S. and the U.K.
The 10 track album, which also includes dub remixes. features a mix of originals and covers including a reggae version of the Fun Boy Three classic "The Farmyard Connection" as well as "Time Longer Than Rope," "Hypocrite," "Johnny Too Bad," and "Wet Dream."
Staple announced he was leaving The Specials in late 2012 and has since toured the UK regularly appearing at ska festivals across the country.
Check out the video preview of "Ska Crazy" below.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
The Coachella organizers have been ska boosters. For three our of the last four years, a 2-Tone era ska band was part of the prestigious line-up. In 2010 it was The Specials, who were touring the U.S. for the first time since the early 1980's. In 2012, Madness brought their nutty sounds to the desert festival, and last year it was The Selecter who wowed the crowd with a blazing mid-afternoon set.
There has been no official announcement from Bad Manners about the Coachella cancellation. UK media reported that the band failed to show up for a gig in West Cumbria in mid-March. A sold out house waited for the band to hit the stage, only to be told that the show was cancelled when the band had failed to show by 10:30pm.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
According to a story in the Birmingham Mail (UK), Everett Morton, the original drummer for The Beat and more recently for Ranking Roger's version of The Beat, has announced he has been fired from Roger's version of the band and started his own band -- Beat Goes Bang -- that will play songs by The Beat, cover version and original material.
Morton has recruited former Dexy's Midnight Runners and General Public keyboardist Mickey Billingham, along with guitarist Neil Deathridge, who played with the band from 2003 until 2010 to join him in his new endeavor along with other local Birmingham-based musicians. This means there are now three bands with original members of The Beat performing its songs, Ranking Roger in The Beat, Dave Wakeling in The English Beat and Everett with Beat Goes Bang.
According to the story:
The creation of a new band follows a turbulent few years for Everett, who broke his knee, severely hindering his playing for some time. “I was helping a friend put his caravan away when he fell on me,” Everett explains. “I was ill for nearly a year and I went back to work but just couldn’t manage playing again. Ranking Roger found another drummer while I had a rest for a bit.” But Everett claims there were changes in direction within the band and not long after he returned he says he was sacked. “I wanted to carry on but I was sacked,” says Everett. “I wanted to keep on playing so I started ringing up some of the guys to form a new band,” he says. Responding to the claims, The Beat vocalist Ranking Roger said he retired Everett from the band. He added: “When he broke his knee we got someone in to do the gigs. He was off sick and when he came back it just wasn’t the same. For me it wasn’t the strongest Beat and I just told Everett we should stop working together. I didn’t sack him, I retired him while he was still good.Beat Goes Bang will play its first show at the legendary Hare and Hounds in Birmingham This Friday April 11 and will feature Saxa, The Beat’s original saxophonist.
Monday, April 7, 2014
The Specials have released a re-arranged version of the song "Why?" on their YouTube feed. The song, originally written by guitarist Lynval Golding about being beaten with lead pipes by three skinheads during a radically motivated attack in 1980. The original version of the song was released in 1981 as the B-side of the Ghost Town EP.
The 2014 version has been updated with new lyrics and a dubbed out arrangement courtesy of band drummer John Bradbury. The song was released on YouTube on Friday, April 4th which also happened to be the anniversary of the day that the Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.
Friday, April 4, 2014
Its been six years since I launched Marco On The Bass in April 2008 and here I am — 900+ posts and 1,000,000+ page views later — still chugging along, posting news, profiles. interviews, gig alerts and offering all sorts of content about ska, reggae and all its various story lines and off shoots.
To celebrate, I'm releasing a collection of songs that I have recorded over the last few years. The inspiration for these songs comes from my love of all things ska and reggae, but I also wanted to pay my respects to DJ culture and artists like Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim, Beats International), Gorillaz (Damon Albarn) as well as Acid Ska and Big Beat studio artists (Longsy D, Basement Jaxx) who have created unique and entertaining mash-ups that mix sampled vocals and found sounds over traditional reggae and ska bass, guitar and drums. So without further ado, I present to you 'Big Power' for your FREE downloading pleasure. All comments (good, bad or indifferent) are welcome!
Six years in, this blog is still a labor of love — when I started I figured I’d write about the 2-Tone ska, reggae and rocksteady music I loved and see if people were interested. And not only have ska and reggae fans responded (readers have visited from 203 countries and territories), but it’s gotten much bigger and better than I ever expected. I've thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to interview 2-Tone era heroes like Pauline Black, Lynval Golding, Neol Davies, Rhoda Dakkar, Roddy Byers and many others who share my passion and to highlight the past, present and future of American ska. My goal still remains to help tell interesting stories and share my love for ska and reggae.
I’d like to personally thank everybody who stops by, subscribes to the RSS feeds, follows me on Facebook and Twitter. Sustained by your comments and my love of all things ska and reggae-oriented, this site is a one-man operation and, for the time being, is likely to remain that way — so all of your support and comments are greatly appreciated. Your kind words and encouragement keep me going. In many ways this is the best non-paying job I have ever had.
If you are a fan of what I'm doing here, there are ways you can help spread the word: Go 'Like' Marco On The Bass on Facebook and suggest the page to your friends; If you’re on Twitter, follow me there. Retweet the good stuff. Please consider downloading music from my bands Rude Boy George and Bigger Thomas on the sidebar of the blog or at Bandcamp or come to one of shows if you are near where we play.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
“Lived through the days, but late at night….”
In contrast to the spiky experimental sounds recorded by The Slits (who were produced by Dennis Bovell) and the heavy dub of The Clash (produced by Mikey Dread), The Police took inspiration from Bob Marley, whose accessible pop had established itself widely by the late 70s. It was this reggae influence that The Police synthesized into their sound that set them apart from many of their contemporaries. The band melded Andy Summer's rock guitar to Sting and Stewart Copeland's reggae-styled riddims to create some of the most accessible and catchy reggae influenced music of the late 70's and early 80's.
According to Sting, reggae became a part of the bands DNA during the recording of "Reggatta De Blanc" album in 1979. "That was where it all clicked. There was so much happening in my writing and singing, Stewart's and Andy's playing, and suddenly it all meshed together. We had reggae influences in our vocabulary and they became synthesised into our infrastructure until it was utterly part of our sound and you couldn't really call it reggae anymore. It was just the way we played. That's the great thing about rock'n'roll. It bastardises everything, and I much prefer mongrels over pure races. As a musician, you learn your craft and emulate and copy people, and suddenly there's a moment in your development when you grow up and finally become yourself. I think 'Reggatta' was that moment for us. Then we got caught up in the whole business of becoming a "successful rock group" and almost lost it. We calmed down after that, but we had to work hard to get back into that serendipitous state again."
Though bands like The Police and The Clash took much of their inspiration from Jamaican music and culture, it was a two way street of respect and influence as Jamaican artists of the late 70's were inspired by the energy of punk and ska and its counterculture anti-establishment stance. You don't need to look any further than Bob Marley and his reggae anthem "Punky Reggae Party" to see the link between UK ska and punk bands and JA reggae artists. The lyrics to the song name check leading UK punk bands and pick up Johnny Rotten's rant against corporate rock and roll. And so, with The Police successfully performing reggae pop music that catapulted them up the charts, Jamaican artists, took notice.
Sheila Hylton was juggling careers as a flight attendant and reggae singer in 1980 when she stepped into a London record store and bought a copy Reggatta de Blanc, which included the song "The Bed's Too Big Without You." Hylton was so taken with the song's reggae grooves she decided to record her own version on her return to Jamaica. According to Hylton, "One of the first things I said to myself was, 'It would be great to get Sly and Robbie on this song'."
Hylton was British-born but moved back to Jamaica as a young girl. According to her Trojan Records profile:
Five years after her birth in London, Sheila Hylton was living in Kingston with her grandparents, whose influence on the musical development of the child proved profound. Her grandfather, a keen Jazz enthusiast, exposed the youngster the sounds of such luminaries as Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, while the developing sound of Ska was never too far away.
Sheila went on to attend the Jamaica Commercial Institute, which ultimately led to a secretarial position with Tony Laing at Total Sounds Records. Although the job served to further inspire her musical aspirations, she decided instead to train as a flight attendant with Air Jamaica, due to her grandfather's involvement in aviation with Pan American Airlines. She did not altogether abandon her hopes of making a career in music, however, and through her association with Total Sounds, she concurrently embarked on her musical career with respected producer, Harry Johnson. Her initial recording was a version of the Ebony's 'Life In The Country', although it was her popular version of the Emotions' 'Don't Ask My Neighbour' that led to a series of successful sessions at Harry J's Kingston studio.
In the early '70s, Harry Johnson had issued a hugely successful version of the Dusty Springfield / Baby Washington hit, 'Breakfast In Bed' by Lorna Bennett and with Sheila's voice the perfect vehicle for a reworking of the song, the producer had her re-cut the song in the latest style. This new version even managed to surpass Lorna's interpretation when it entered the British Pop chart in 1979, so inspiring UK-based Popsters UB40 and Chrissie Hind to record it nine years on - their version scoring a Top Ten hit in 1988.In 1980, Hylton recorded an adaptation of `The Bed's Too Big Without You' with Jamaica's Riddim Twins, Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare working alongside Johnson. The recording proved an instant favourite and marked her second foray into the UK Pop charts.
Check out side by side versions of the track. Which one do you prefer?
Sunday, March 23, 2014
If you were alive in the early 90's then you are acutely familiar with the dawn of the techno music era. And by techno, I mean the proliferation of sub-genres (house, rave, trance, HI-NRG, etc) that featured break beats married to synth sounds and samples to create songs that served as the soundtrack to Ecstasy-fueled dance club culture that swept across the UK and the U.S. Quite a few of these songs crossed over becoming hits on pop radio or regular rotation on MTV here in the U.S. Among the notables were The Shamen (Move Any Mountain), Snap! (The Power), Black Box (Strike It Up) and Stereo MC's (Connected).
The din and cacophony of all these dance beats finally caught my attention, when I heard an odd and very unusual, but inspired electronic version of UB40's "One In Ten" (though I was a fan of the 80's Acid Ska movement). The song featured elements of the band's classic as re-imagined by techno/rave collective 808 State. The track was a hit reaching #17 on the UK charts in late 1992, providing UB40 with an unexpected trip back into the charts. The pairing was eerily timely as unemployment figures in the UK in 1992 were around the same 10% mark as they had been when the original was released in 1981.
Taking their name from the Roland TR-808 drum machine, 808 State were formed in Manchester in 1988 by Graham Massey, Martin Price and Gerald Simpson. Over the course of their career, they revolutionized the sound of dance, trance, rave and electronic music and collaborated with many music pioneers including members of New Order, Echo & The Bunnymen, David Bowie, Bjork and more.
The remix kicks off with a flanged drum intro that switches from half to double time with a deep analogue sub-bass that sounds like a cross between Kraftwerk's "The Model" and Asward's "Love Fire" and seamlessly blends into the vocal chorus, organ, percussion and saxophone from the original. This is how a remix of an old classic should be done; using contemporary tools to modernise the sound without losing any of the original spirit of the song.
So how did this unlikely pairing come about? According to an interview that members of 808 State gave in late 1992, "UB40 loaned us the original multitrack and we've used mainly the vocal and sax parts. There was no timecode or sync, not even a click, and the tempo wanders quite radically — getting a good loop out of it took ages. The original was around 132bpm and now it's 140. We made sure we dumped separate tracks and sub mixes of the vocals to DAT so that we would have various options for later re-mixes."
Whatever your feelings about the track (I'm a fan), it may be one of the more popular and early examples of a mash up (a song or composition created by blending two or more pre-recorded songs, usually by overlaying the vocal track of one song seamlessly over the instrumental track of another) and served as an early prototype of drum and bass which went mainstream a few years later.
Friday, March 21, 2014
The Specials have dug deep into the 2-Tone vault and pulled out a treat! The band will be releasing a limited edition 7" single featuring two previously unreleased dub mixes created at the time of the ‘More Specials’ mixing sessions in 1980 by John ‘Brad’ Bradbury (Sock It To ‘Em, JB) and Jerry Dammers (Rat Race). The single will be pressed on the 2-Tone label imprint and will be available around the world in time for Record Store Day on April 19th.
Below is the official announcement from the band:
We’re pleased to announce The Specials 7” single ‘Sock It To ‘Em, JB/Rat Race’. This limited edition 7″ single will be released on the Two Tone Records label exclusively for Record Store Day on April 19th. It features two previously unreleased dub mixes created at the time of the ‘More Specials’ mixing sessions by John ‘Brad’ Bradbury (Sock It To ‘Em, JB) and Jerry Dammers (Rat Race). The single will be sold via participating independent retailers in the following countries; Australia, Canada, France, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Nordics, Benelux, UK & US
A year or so ago, Bradbury posted a picture on his Twitter page of the original mastering label from the "Sock It To 'Em, JB" recording session at Wessex Studios on May 20, 1980.
In case you didn't know, "Sock It To 'Em, JB" is a cover of the Rex Garvin & The Mighty Cravers northern soul classic.
And here is The Specials version from a live show here in New York in 1980.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Steve Cradock, lead guitarist and founding member of Ocean Colour Scene and a member of Paul Weller's backing band, may be joining The Specials for their November UK tour. Cradock would replace Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers as lead guitarist, who announced last month he was leaving the band to concentrate on his own band The Skabilly Rebels.
While there has been no official announcement from the band, Byers may have pre-empted the band announcement with a post on his Facebook page yesterday wishing Cradock luck "...in his new job working for Mr. Hall." Cradock has posted fliers for the band's November tour on his Twitter feed, which would seem to confirm the news and the Torquay Herald Express posted a story about Cradock joining the band. Until the band announces it, let's consider this one an open secret!
Below are videos of Ocean Colour Scene's mid-90's UK hits "The Day We Caught The Train" and "The Riverboat Song" as well as live video of Cradock performing with Weller.
Below is video of Cradock performing "Liza Radley" with Weller.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
Jerry Dammers made a rare live appearance during a sold out set by Neville Staple and his band in London last night. Dammers was recognized by a member of Staple's band and was called up on stage to perform on a raucous version of "Monkey Man" with Staple and his band much to the delight of the crowd.
Staple announced he was leaving the re-united version of The Specials in late 2012. He has been touring the UK with his own band ever since. Guitarist Roddy "Radiation" Byers announced he was leaving the band in February.
Watch video of the performance below:
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
As a bass player I always listen to the drummer. I can't help it! As a 2-Tone devotee, I was influenced by some of the best drum and bass combos including Horace Panter and John Bradbury of The Specials and Mark Bedford and Daniel Woodgate of Madness. That said, I want to pay my respects to the unique talent of the The Beat's drummer Everett Morton. He and band bassist David Steele have influenced my bass playing and approach to music more than any other musicians.
While The Beat has often been defined by its front men Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, as a bass player I have always focused on the way Morton and Steele were the engine of the band, creating uniquely new rhythm patterns -- witness "Mirror In The Bathroom" and "Twist & Crawl" -- that have stood the test time. When you hear those songs, you immediately know you are listening to The Beat.
I think its fair to say that the timeless quality of The Beat's sound is defined by Morton's distinctive drumming style that includes syncopation and polyrhythm within a rock beat. He plays the entire kit percussively versus the familiar kick drum/snare/hi-hat style favored by others, employing rim shots where you would normally expect to hear the snare drum. Influential to many (just listen to Stewart Copeland of The Police, among others), Morton should be a household name.
The uniqueness of The Beat's sound may have been a happy accident, having much to do with how differently Morton and Steele approached their instruments. According to Wakeling: "David Steele was a punk with a clear idea of what he wanted and where he was going. Everett Morton was a left-handed drummer; he had his kit set up like a right-handed drummer but played it left-handed. His was an original style and if you worked with it, it sounded real unique."
Morton immigrated to England from St. Kitts in the mid-sixties, working in a kettle spinning factory and playing music in the evenings and weekends. He first learned the drums when his cousin asked him to join his band. After a stint at drum school in Birmingham, followed by practicing almost constantly on the furniture in his house, Morton developed his own style and began playing out around the Midlands.
Morton joined Wakeling, Steel and Andy Cox at the urging of a friend who worked with Steele at a psychiatric hospital in Birmingham. At first it was rough going for the four band members. Morton was a reggae drummer, but the other three did not have experience playing the genre. While they listened to reggae frequently, they had up until that point been playing in a punk style. This was the beginning of the band's marriage of punk and reggae. These early days yielded the band signature hit "Tears Of A Clown." Check out Morton performing the song live during the 1983 US Festival.
As it turns out, the song was one of the first the band ever played together where they clicked. By fusing a sped up early '60s Jamaican drum beat with the sweet Motown sounds of the original, the band hit on something unique. According to Wakeling: "When we first started rehearsing the songs, the drummer thought our songs were a bit weird. We had rehearsed the songs, and it would go okay for a minute, and then we would all veer off on our own little tangents and we'd lose the groove on it again. And so Everett said, 'Why don't we find a song that we all know and learn that one by ourselves, come back next Tuesday, and we'll play that song and get a groove with that one. And then we'll go back and play one of your weird songs, like that mirror thing.' And so that's what we did, we'd play 'Tears Of A Clown,' then we'd play 'Mirror in the Bathroom,' then we'd play 'Tears Of A Clown.' We'd play 'Twist And Crawl,' and we'd play 'Tears Of A Clown,' 'Big Shot,' 'Tears Of A Clown,' 'Click Click,' 'Tears Of A Clown.'
Although The Beat relied on Jamaican rhythms and other island rhythm and blues techniques, thanks to Steele, they differed from other ska revivalists by raising the intensity of their music with punk. Rolling Stone magazine described the band's first album "I Just Can't Stop It" as "a rambunctious cluster of singles held together by tenor saxophonist Saxa's winning, authoritative blowing and a rhythm section ... that cared more about adventure than duplicating antique reggae."
As such, The Beat's best songs often had pumping, four-on-the-floor foundations with intricate, offbeat stick work, and Steele's intricate and patterned frenetic bass lines would lock in very tightly while the drums would shift, sway and move. Have a listen to "Twist & Crawl" as an example.
Aside from the introduction, the song is based on two short verses, a longer verse, and a solo. These four sections repeat once, and then again with the song ending on a variation of the longer verse. Although considered a ska song, its really based on the rocksteady reggae that Morton heard as a youth in the West Indies. The hi-hat plays straight eighth notes with a quarter note accent while the kick pedal plays quarter notes and the rim shots plays on the three, with a second rim shot on the four.
Listen to any song from The Beat's catalog and chances are that Morton's drums are key to what makes them memorable. Fans of the band who live in the U.K. are still lucky enough to still see Morton perform with Ranking Roger's version of the band.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
The convergence of punk and reggae and punk and ska in the late 70's and early 80's resulted in some significant musical experiments in which punks and post-punk bands experimented with the sound of reggae and dub in particular: Most of the key 2-Tone bands played covers of 60's ska songs. The Clash played reggae covers and collaborated with Mikey Dread. The Slits worked with reggae producer Dennis Bovell (who invented Lovers Rock) and The Ruts recorded the reggae song "Jah War" releasing it on UK reggae band Misty In Roots record label.
While the punk adoption of reggae covers soon became a regular musical occurrence, one of the most interesting takes on reggae had to be the Scritti Politti song "The Sweetest Girl," which Rough Trade label head Geoff Travis described at the time as a “game-changer.'”
Starting out as a post-punk band with a left-wing political agenda (the band name means political writing in Italian and is an homage to the Italian Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci), they abandoned rock and a number of their band members for reggae, a genre Gartside heard on the London pirate radio station Dread Broadcasting Corporation. In 1981, Gartside wrote a lilting reggae ballad called “The ‘Sweetest Girl’ ” (note the quotes), which he intended to be recorded as a duet by Gregory Isaacs and Kraftwerk. (“I got a positive response from Gregory,” Gartside later said, “But I went to see Tito Puente with Kraftwerk in New York, and they told me they didn’t like reggae. So I ended up doing it myself.”)
If you've never heard the song, it begins with the hiss and whisper of a drum machine, and then the bubble of lilting reggae keyboards - played by Robert Wyatt - and bass bring it to life as Gartside's croon kicks in. The result is white boy lover's rock that descends into dub as Wyatt's organ notes begin to ripple and dub echoes ricochet through the mix.
What's the song about? That remains a mystery. At first it appears to be tribute to a sweet couple before Green goes off on a subversive tangent and sings one of pop music's most unusual couplets: "Politics is pride too, vagaries of science/ She left because she understood the value of defiance."
Released on the Rough Trade label, "Sweetest Girl" became Scritti Politti's first song to chart, peaking at #64 on the UK music chart, and was cited by The New York Times as one of the ten best singles of 1981. Madness recorded their own version of the song for their 1985 "Mad Not Mad" album.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
Wayne Smith, the reggae vocalist whose 1985 single "Under Mi Sleng Teng" reshaped Jamaican music by popularizing digital production of reggae, died in Kingston earlier this week at the age of 48.
Smith lived next door to producer Lloyd "Prince Jammy" James in Kingston, and began to record with him when he was 14 years old. The partnership yielded two albums' worth of material over the next few years, but none of it delivered a breakthrough. Then, in late 1984, Smith crossed paths with Noel Davey, a local youth who had managed to get hold of a simple Casiotone MT40 keyboard. Playing with its "rock'n'roll" preset – a mutation of Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else" – the pair created a rudimentary rhythm track. Smith, building on the lyrics in Barrington Levy's recent hit Under Mi Sensi, recorded lyrics professing his love for skinny marijuana cigarettes (Sleng Teng's) and his disapproval of the harder drug cocaine. Smith and Davey presented the idea to Jammy, who was initially unimpressed.
Here is the sound Smith and Davey presented to Prince Jammy on actual 1980's era Casiotone MT40 keyboard:
According to an interview with Prince Jammy from The Guardian:
"The initial stage of this rhythm was like a buck-up," Jammy says. "They brought a small Casio keyboard to me and started to play around, but it sounded crazy. It was too fast, no rhythm section, just drum and bass going at 100 miles per hour. So I said: 'I like the sound, but it's not the right tempo for reggae music.' I slowed it down to dancing mode, then we overdubbed some piano and percussion, and that was the beginning of Sleng Teng. I knew it was going to be successful because of the sound of the rhythm, but I didn't know that it would be so much of a big hit. A few days later Jammy unleashed the song at a clash against the rival Black Scorpio soundsystem. "We couldn't stop playing it," Jammy says. "People were loving it more and more, so I say: 'We've got to get some more artists on this riddim.' Then we started recording Johnny Osbourne, Tenor Saw, Sugar Minott and the rest of the artists, and that changed the whole music scene in the 80s. That was the riddim that computerised the reggae business, and up until today, people are using computers to build reggae music."
"Under Mi Sleng Teng" revolutionized reggae, but also changed the way the music was recorded forever. The demand for digital production took popularity away from traditional instrumentation in the music, and many of Jamaica's session musicians were put out of work.