Monday, January 30, 2017

Amazulu + Jerry Dammers? Check Out Moonlight Romance From 1984!

Amazulu were a guilty pleasure of mine. Arriving on the UK music scene in the early 80's just as 2-Tone had run its course, this 6 piece multi-racial band of mostly self-taught musicians initially launched themselves as a serious reggae and ska band and helped fill the void for fans like me who were just catching up to all the post 2-Tone music being released . In fact, the original version of the band drew attention with their political tinged songs, capturing the attention of noted music Svengali Falcon Stuart (who discovered X-Ray Spex and took Adam Ant mainstream) as well as BBC radio DJ John Peel who was an early fan and recorded two radio sessions with the band.

The band's first single was the political tinged 'Cairo' backed by 'Greenham Time' which was an ode to the women protesting the placement of U.S. Cruise missiles at Greenham Common military base in the early 80's. Despite their relative lack of musical experience, 'Cairo' is a catchy if serviceable slice of early 80's era reggae and the edgy video was miles from the the lush pop videos the band would later produce. The B-side 'Greenham Time' is the more interesting of the two tracks. Its a chant down Babylon/feminist reggae rocker that would have sounded right at home on The Slits first few albums.

What I never knew until recently was that Amazulu's reggae growing bona fides brought them to the attention of Jerry Dammers and Dick Cuthell (taking a much deserved break from recording The Special AKA 'In The Studio' LP) who took the band under their wing and produced the sunny 2-Tone sounding ska of 'Moonlight Romance' and directed the corresponding video. Dammers and Cuthell also mixed a dub version of the track -- which I have to confess I like more than the original! It has great little flourishes of African hi-life guitar sounding like a distant cousin to other Dammers compositions like "Winds Of Change,"  "Jungle Music," and "Free Nelson Mandela."

Though the single failed to chart, the band and 'Midnight Romance' were prominently featured performing a more ska sounding version of the song in an episode of the 'Young One's' which guaranteed them national exposure and set them up for the pop success they would have with later material like 'Excitable', 'Don't You Just Know It' and 'Montego Bay.'

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Dead 60s Reform For UK Tour!

Great news for fans of The Dead 60's!  The Liverpool-based band have announced they are reforming for a short UK tour this coming April.  The shows -- including a headlining spot at the 2017 edition of the London International Ska Festival -- will be the band's first since they stopped playing in early 2008. The band's lead singer Matt McManamon shared during a recent interview that the band are excited about the return to performing live and will see how the tour goes before deciding on any next steps.

I originally learned about the band and their first self-titled album when they were profiled way back in 2005 in the free AM NewYork newspaper they used to hand out for free on the New York City Subway. The review compared them to the musical love child of The Clash and The Specials, two of my favorite groups of all time. I HAD to do some further investigation. I was not disappointed. Their most memorable tracks, "You're Not the Law" and "Control This" were a brilliant updating of The Specials "Ghost Town" sound and The Clash's forray's into reggae --  ominous hammond organ and dubby bass paired with a vocals that communicated a sense of dread and claustrophobia. Those two songs alone sold me on the band and served as an excellent substitute for many of us pining away for The Specials and other 2-Tone era bands during the mid-2000's. I can't recommend their first album enough!

And when you’re done digging into their first album, you’ll want to give the hard to find "Space Invader Dub" version a spin.  The LP was distributed for free in a limited-edition release in the UK (and as an expensive import in the U.S.). The dub versions of the songs --  which were re-mixed in proper, late-’70s, flying faders, Mad Professor-style are excellent! I was always impressed that the band followed in the footsteps of their UK ska/reggae forefathers like The Clash and UB40 and released dubbed out version of their songs. I give them a lot of credit that they had the confidence in their songs to strip them down to the bone and remix them.

And while the band's recorded output is stands the test of time -- including their overlooked follow-up album "Time To Take Sides" (give "Seven Empty Days" a spin) which preceded their break-up -- it's their live show that drew raves. Indeed, the "The Black Sessions" a rare bootleg of a live performance the band performed at the height of their powers in Paris, France in October 2005 and broadcast on French radio. The Black Sessions were the brainchild of French radio DJ Bernard Lenoir (the French John Peel).  The recordings are high fidelity, live recordings recorded in one take in front of an audience of 200 people. If you are going to any of the shows this April, give this a listen!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Equators Release New Music Ahead of London International Ska Festival 2017

Great ska news out of the U.K! The Equators, the 2-Tone era ska band from Birmingham who were signed to Stiff Records and released the criminally overlooked cult album 'Hot' in 1981, have released a new song "Bed Of Roses." The band, who reunited in 2011, will perform during the London International Ska Festival 2017 which will be held from April 13-16 at venues across London.

The Equators were way ahead of their time. I remember borrowing a copy of 'Hot' from the original guitar player of Bigger Thomas when we first met. He told me that he wanted our band to sound like the songs on this record. I remember listening to the album and wondering why I had never heard of the band or why they weren't more popular. The album captured an effervescent and upbeat 2-Tone ska and reggae sound that included rock and new wave as best represented by songs like 'Age Of Five" and their own fantastic cover of The Equals 'Baby Come Back' which should have been a massive hit.

Formed in 1977 by the brothers Bailey (Donald, Leo and Rocky), the offspring of Jamaican immigrants to England, The Equators were discovered by Stiff Records’ President, David Robinson, performing with The Beat (which shared The Equators’ Management team). Robinson, ecstatically impressed with the raw energy of their concert performance and the soulful innovation of their ska-pop-reggae sound, moved to sign the band to the label which was also the home of Madness and Elvis Costello.

Stiff Records released their album during 2-Tone mania and it should have had the same level of success as The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter. In my mind they suffered from I call "Fishbone Syndrome." That is that they were an amazing band that was doing something way ahead of its time and that didn't fit preconceived notions of what black or white music should sound like. Instead it was a melting pot of different musical sounds performed by an all black band and it seemed to throw a lot of people off. That, and Stiff totally mismarketed The Equators as a reggae band when they should have been marketed as a ska band.

Despite that, the band remain hugely influential if sinfully overlooked. Dave Wakeling of The English Beat recalled:
"The Equators were brilliant. In our earliest formulations of The Beat sound we discovered that if one played an all punk set, the audience would get burnt out; And if one played an all reggae set, the audience would fall asleep. Therefore our music would encompass the energy & intensity of punk & the hypnotic, laid-back groove of reggae, a punky-reggae hybrid. But just when we thought we discovered something new, we discovered The Equators, right in our home town of Birmingham, who had already come up with a similar formulation. Whereas we were a bunch of kids searching out, learning, and adopting this music, The Equators were first generation Jamaicans in England.  Prince Buster was part of their own heritage. It was from The Equators that The Beat learned to stylize this blend in a soulful, delicate manner. It was from The Equators that we learned lightness and depth of touch in playing’ this music."
Jerry Miller of The Untouchables was also a fan of the band:
"Man, it was because of bands like The Equators that we formed The Untouchables. We were very big fans of 2 Tone, but with The Equators, that’s where it was at with us because it was so groovin’ and soulful. Their recordings were sacred to us. We used to listen to ‘em in the dark and take in their influence. I remember when The Equators toured the U.S. in 1981. My friends and I went to see ‘em at the Reseda Country Club dressed in our best mod & rude boy get-ups and attitudes. Then The Equators took the stage, a bunch of black guys dressed in sweat pants and such. At first our mod-fashion heads were taken back. ‘Where’s the style in this?’ we thought. Then they started to play and by the end of the show we were questioning our own mod and rube boy identities. Who were we to judge when The Equators’ music, style & performance was so real, so smooth and so authentic."
"Bed Of Roses" was written by lead singer Donald Bailey -- who still performs with his brothers Rocky on keys and Leo on drums who are joined by Ian Harper on bass and Robin Giorno on guitar.
The song draws its inspiration from the Bailey's father who immigrated to England from Jamaica in the 1950's in search of a better life for his family.  According to Donald Bailey, their father used to say, "Life was hard, but you can achieve any goals or dreams with hard work.  But he would remind me that life is not a bed of roses!"

The band are considering releasing an EP of new music -- they have 4-5 songs already recorded -- and decided to share "Bed Of Roses" to see the response to it ahead of their performance at the LISF. Give it a spin and if you are in London for LISF be sure to see the band!

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Conversation with Josh Harris of The Untouchables

It's hard to believe that The Untouchables 'Wild Child' album was released 32 years ago during the spring of 1985. It remains one of the earliest and most popular examples of purely American-styled ska mixing in soul, pop and funk. The success of the band and their giant step from local Los Angeles ska/mod heroes to a major label deal with Stiff Records in the U.K. is a classic story about how old fashioned DIY marketing, self-promotion and good luck used to work in the music business (now all you need is a YouTube video!).

Josh "Acetone" Harris joined the band in 1983 right before they signed to Stiff Records (he was also a member of the first American reggae band -- Huey & The Titans who later became The Shakers and were signed by David Geffen to Elektra/Asylum records in 1975 and went on to record an album called "Yankee Reggae.").  He was originally hired to engineer sessions for the band's two indie singles "The General" and"Tropical Bird." The session producer suggested to the band that Harris add an organ part. Since the band lacked a keyboard player, they approved. The only organ available was an old Acetone, which is much smaller than a Farfisa (hence Harris' nickname). Later, Harris was brought in as a replacement for one of the original members as the band evolved from the original line-up that got its start at the O.N Club into the group that recorded 'Wild Child'.

I interviewed Harris about what it was like to join the band right before the fast moving chain of events in the mid 80's  that lead to the band getting signed to Stiff Records and the 'UT Mania' in the U.K. and Europe that followed (which ironically happened just as 2-Tone had finally been declared dead and buried ). His memories and stories are priceless in their detail and provide anyone who has ever wondered what its like to be signed to a label, record an album and hit the road to tour.

Harris has found a different kind of success since his days with the band. He and his wife founded Rustic Bakery in 2005 to tap into the growing interest in artisanal cheese with a line of handmade toasted flatbreads. Since then the business has grown to include four cafe/bakeries in the Marin County area of California and a wholesale division that has products in supermarkets across the U.S. and customers around the world. The reputation of the bakery has reached the point that baked goods from Rustic Bakery were served to Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S. last year. Despite a busy work schedule, Harris has also found time to record a release an album of songs and will be playing a CD release party at the Art House Gallery & Cultural Center in Berkeley CA on February 18, 2017.

I've included links to videos below that Harris references during our conversation

Harris was a member of Huey & The Titans in 1973.  Give a listen to his early attempts at playing reggae organ and keys.

Here is the scene of the band performing "The General" in Party Animal which also included songs by The Fleshtones and The Buzzcocks.

Here is the band's self-funded video for "Free Yourself" which eventually won honors as Billboard Magazine's 1985 "Best Indy Video Of The Year."

Once the band was signed to Stiff Records in the U.K., they went to Europe where they recorded the "Wild Child" album and toured.  Below is rare video of the band performing live on British television in 1985.

Below is the promo video for "I Spy For The F.B.I" which was produced by Jerry Dammers of The Specials.

Stiff Records released short videos of the stories for songs released on the label.  They interviewed lead singer Jerry Miller about his memories of being signed by Stiff and working with Dammers.

Monday, January 9, 2017

What's The Story Behind The Jumping Rude Boy Emoji?

If you are a regular user of emoji -- a Japanese words meaning picture (e) and character (moji) -- then you might be familiar with the little fellow above, who officially goes by “Man in business suit levitating” (MIBSL) in digital circles.  Amazingly, the little guy has sown confusion about his meaning and origins since it was released in late 2014 with a large batch of other new emoji.  One news story mistakenly and condescendingly described him as "a rich kid who’s just aced his LSATs—a simpering, dubiously pompadoured fella in polarized glasses and a natty suit. His tapered silhouette hangs above a blip of a shadow. He’s a superhuman exclamation point. He’s the floating face of capitalism. And if literature has taught us anything, it’s that he brings nothing but bad news wherever he roams."  But, if you are a ska fan and an emoji user, then the chances are that you might have assumed he was a rude boy. If so, you would be correct!

According to an incredibly detailed article in Newsweek, MIBSL is indeed an homage to Walt Jabsco, better known as the iconic logo for The Specials, which itself was based on a photo of a young Peter Tosh when he was in The Wailers (read more about the art design of 2-Tone here and an interview with the graphic designer who helped create Walt Jabsco and 2-Tone art here).

The origins of MIBSL can be traced back to the late 1990's when Microsoft was developing Internet Explorer 4.0 which for the first time included a new font called Webdings that enabled users to swap letters on the computer keyboard for tiny proto-emoji. One of them, which was paired with the letter M (perhaps it was a take on the Madness logo?) looked like the images below:

According to the Newsweek story, MIBSL was created by Vincent Connare who was working in the Microsoft typography department:
"After deciding to incorporate Webdings in the browser, the Internet Explorer team and Connare’s manager, Simon Daniels, drew up a list of symbols to design, mostly stuff that might look good on a website in 1997. Connare went down the list, selecting the ones he was interested in. One option immediately stood out.“I had a Specials Japanese import LP, and I saw one of the keywords was ‘jump’ so thought it would be good to make a jumping, pogoing man,” he said. “The style of the 2 Tone guy was black on white, and it was graphic, so it was easy to make something like it into a font.”
And so 17 years later, in late 2014, the Unicode Consortium (which determines which emoji are approved for use), announced that Version 7.0 would include adaptations of the original Webdings characters.  And that my friends is how the pogoing rude boy emoji somehow got stuck with the silly levitating businessman moniker!

Friday, January 6, 2017


Freelance journalist and ska aficionado Middagh Goodwin has created every ska music fan's fantasy Coachella bill!   While the Indio, California-based festival has booked a number of high profile ska acts over the years-- The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, Jimmy Cliff and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra have all performed and Toots & The Maytals are booked for this year's edition --Coachella tends to focus on booking popular indie rock and electronic bands.

I have to confess that when I first saw Goodwin's design on the interwebs earlier today, I was completely caught off guard.  Coachella always announces their line-up in early January.  So, for about 5 seconds I thought this was a real show, until I noticed that bands like the New York Citizens, The Crazy 8's and The Dead 60's were all on the bill!  Or that The Specials and their rogue guitarist Roddy Radiation and The Skabilly Rebels were performing on the same day! If only the space time continuum would allow us to defy time or help us to patch up bands that broke up years ago!

But Goodwin's design and ska imagination (he's booked bands in Northern California for 30 years) are intriguing and it does make me think.  How do we convince Goldenvoice (the company that manages and books Coachella) or another deep pocketed promoter to consider booking an all ska and reggae festival line-up?  I bet if they held a Skachella festival in San Diego or in Tijuana, Mexico (to take advantage of the burgeoning Mexican ska scene) they might be surprised at how fast it would sell out.  To be fair to Goldenvoice, they have booked "The Devil's 3 Way" 2017 tour featuring Voodoo Glow Skulls, Buck-O-Nine and The Porkers.

Well, until this fantasy ska festival happens, enjoy some recent ska bands performing at the real Coachella including The Selecter's entire set from Coachella 2013!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Young Gwen Stefani Gets Stings Autograph Circa 1983!

While I was interviewing Derv Gordon of The Equals, I mentioned that I was a fan of the band and he laughed and shared that the first record he ever bought growing up was Johnny & The Hurricanes "Red River Rock" saying "You're not the only one who's a fan!" He went on to say he finally got to meet Johnny Paris some years later in Hamburg where both bands were performing.

The idea of fandom has always fascinated me.  As a fan of ska and a ska musician, I've been privy to a unique musical subculture with its own dress code, rules and structures. I recently scanned "Popular Music Fandom: Identities, roles, and practices" which is a collection of essays on what it means to be a fan of popular music (yes, this is actually an area of legitimate scholarly research!).  It made me reflect on my own experiences as a music fan and to consider that an early love of music via the radio, records, concerts and shows is the starting point for what becomes a strange but enjoyable process of building both a personal fan identity (I'm a rude boy) and a shared community fandom experience of seeing a concert (I'm a ska fan).

One of the best examples of this comes from Suggs of Madness, who was quoted in an oral history about 2-Tone in Spin Magazine:
"Going around school with a record under your arm sort of said who you were. You’d go to school with a Bob Marley record under your arm all day. We listened to vintage music and wore vintage clothes. It was our own thing, our own identity. Amongst the wrath of Fleetwood Mac and all this global corporate rock music, punk was starting to happen. At the Roxy, they were playing reggae as they were playing punk."
To that end, I recently came across the wonderful photo of a young Gwen Stefani getting her Synchronicity poster signed by Sting before a concert by The Police at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles on September 6,1983, which included openers The Fixx, Thompson Twins and Berlin.  It's a great visual depiction of fandom. A young girl is getting an autograph for a musical hero.  But then an amazing thing happens.  That young girl goes on to start her own successful band.  And then twenty years later, she has the honor of inducting one of her favorite bands into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Watch Stefani's speech and hear her tell the story of the photo and then watch her sing "Message In A Bottle" during a sound check with Sting!

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Conversation With Derv Gordon of The Equals

I'm excited to be back to blogging again after a long hiatus!  As such, I want to make the blogging experience more interactive and immediate, so I'm going to do a lot more podcast interviews.  To that end, my first live interview is with Derv Gordon, who was the lead singer of The Equals!  While Eddy Grant tends to get the lion share of attention about The Equals,  Derv deserves more credit for the band's sound and for his contribution to their success.  I recently connected with Derv and interviewed him about what it was like to move to England from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation and his experiences and stories about being in The Equals, who as the very first multi-racial band, went on to change British music, society and culture.  The best news is that after a long break, Derv is back to performing the music of The Equals and will be playing his American debut at The Elbo Room in San Francisco on Friday January 27, 2017.  Its hard to believe that for all their success in the U.K. and Europe, The Equals never performed in the U.S.

As a young ska music fan, I was first introduced to The Equals when I picked up a copy of "Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys" at a record convention where I was scouring for hard to find ska and reggae records.  I had never heard of the band, but the sticker on the sleeve said "The Very First 2-Tone Band!"  Of course, I was intrigued and bought it.  When I got home and put it on my turntable, what I heard blew my mind.  The song wasn't ska and it certainly wasn't reggae.  But it was mesmerizing! Derv belted liked James Brown and the band (Eddy Grant, Derv's brother Lincoln, John Hall and Pat Lloyd) mixed fuzzy garage rock and funky R'n B that combined a bi-racial is beautiful message to an anti-Vietnam war call to action ("Black skin blue eyed boys/Ain't gonna fight no wars").  I was smitten. As I did my homework, I learned that Eddy Grant (who at the time was stepping off his sofa into a pool of water in the 'Electric Avenue' video on MTV) was the band's guitarist.

The Equals didn't play ska, but as the very first band featuring both black and white members and native and immigrant musicians, they brought a Caribbean flavor, courtesy of Derv, Lincoln and Eddy to British music of the 60's, adding hints of rocksteady bass lines, upbeat ska guitar and occasional shouts of "Rude Boy!" to their bubble gum pop meets garage punk meets skinhead soul.  Best known for the original versions of "Baby Come Back" and "Police On My Back" they were huge across the U.K. Europe and later Africa. The riff for "Baby Come Back" is Hall of Fame worthy in my book (check out the video below of the band performing the song live -  its a musical explosion!). And if that's not impressive enough, the band also penned "Rough Rider" (as The Four Gee's) which was famously covered by both Prince Buster and The Beat!