Friday, May 2, 2008

The Equators - The best ska band from the early 80's you never heard

The Equators were way ahead of their time. I remember borrowing a copy of Hot their debut for Stiff Records from our original guitar player Steve Parker. He told me that he wished Bigger Thomas could sound like the songs on this record. I remember listening to the songs and wondering why I had never heard of the band or why they weren't more popular. They released their album during 2Tone mania and 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 and it seemed to throw a lot of people off.

Below is a piece written by Tazy Phillips who helped to organize a re-recording of the original songs by the band by a band that included some of the original members a few years ago. It really gives the best description of the band, their sound and the high praise their contemporaries had for them.

Formed in 1977 by the brothers Bailey (Donald, Leo & Rocky), the offspring of Jamaican immigrants to England, The Equators were discovered by Stiff Records’ President, David Robinson, performing with another Birmingham band, The Beat (which shared The Equators’ 20/21 Management team). Robinson, ecstatically impressed with the raw energy of their concert performance & the soulful innovation of their ska-pop-reggae sound, moved to sign the band to the famous Stiff Records label (home of Madness & Elvis Costello).
The Relationship with Stiff Records began with The Equators backing the Jamaican ska-reggae great, Desmond Dekker ("Israelites", "007 Shanty Town"), on his Black and Dekker album.
As Rocky recollects, "It was a wonderful time in our life. Stiff Records was always full of surprises . . . One day we’re recordin’ with Desmond Dekker & The Pioneers ("Long Shot Kick the Bucket"). The next time we’re recordin’ our first single, "Baby Come Back," with pop-reggae producer & musician Eddy Grant ("Electric Avenue"), which scored a top 10 hit in Europe in 1980."
Dave Wakeling remembers with enthusiasm, "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; & 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, & 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 & depth of touch in playing’ this music."
With The Beat in mind, it makes one wonder why The Equators did not sign with the famous 2 Tone label which significantly defined the second wave of ska. Donald responds, "In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, everybody wanted to be on 2 Tone. Everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon when really 2 Tone was just a springboard for bands to get onto the majors (e.g. both Madness & The Beat jumped ship after one 2 Tone single)." We thought, hey, we were playin’ this music before the 2 Tone thing came out. Why give it up to 2 Tone? Our music, our sound, has always been about originality. That’s what Stiff Records saw in us, & the deal was right so we went with Stiff which also happened to be where Madness ended up."
But after two world tours, loads of singles & an al-bum under their belt, The Equators disbanded because in the words of The Equators, "Stiff didn’t know how to market us." As Neville Staples of The Specials explains, "The Specials were one of the first to break down the race barriers in England by having both white & black musicians play side by side (followed by The Selecter, The Beat, etc.). The 2 Tone label, Stiff Records & others appealed to this new-enlightened intrigue over multiracial musicians & music among the white middle class." That’s why it was so easy for Stiff Records to move Madness . . . Stiff didn’t know what to do with The Equators, an all black band, & unfortunately, that is why they did not reach the magnitude that such bands as The Specials & The Beat have been graced. They are a band that rightfully deserves to reach such heights. Like The Specials, it is fantastic that they are comin’ back after all these years."
The Untouchables lead vocalist, Jerry Miller, remembers, "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’ & soulful." Their recordings were sacred to us. We used to listen to ‘em in the dark & take in their influence... I remember when The Equators toured the U.S. in 1981. My friends & I went to see ‘em at the Reseda Country Club dressed in our best mod & rudeboy get-ups & attitudes. Then The Equators took the stage, a bunch of black guys dressed in sweat pants & such. At first our mod-fashion heads were taken back. ‘Where’s the style in this?’ we thought. Then they started to play . . . & by the end of the show we were questionin’ our own mod & rubeboy identities. Who were we to judge when The Equators’ music, style & performance was so real, so smooth & so authentic."


Rescue Me (2:40)
Age Of 5 (4:02)
If You Need Me (3:40)
More Than A Person (3:56)
Rankin' Discipline (3:11)
Mr. Copper (3:43)
Nightmare (2:36)
Where Did Johnny Go (3:46)
There Is Someone (3:10)
Learn My Lesson (2:46)
Feelin' High (3:41)


Adam said...

Hey Marco, I have this on vinyl. Do you have it on mp3?

Mookie @ The Post Punk Progressive Pop Party

Anonymous said...

yeah i remember playing in a two tone group in the late 70's in san diego and dave robinson from stiff was auditioning us for his label at the Zebra club when downtown was dangerous anyways dave asked the band if we ever heard of the Equators and i don't think any of us had but i went to the record store the next day and bought Hot and was obviously blown away, i agree they were one of the best young ska bands of that time amazing.

Marco On The Bass said...

What was the name of the band you played in? I'm interested in writing about all the US ska bands of the late 70's and early 80's. Get in touch with me.

Anonymous said...

So good to find some intelligent and appreciative writing about a SERIOUSLY underrated ska band like The Equators. Thankfully, my vinyl LP copy of "Hot" is in near-mint condition (one serious scratch in "Nightmare) so it blasts out of my home sound-system very nicely. Keep up the good work, Marco.

+ Pastor Tim
YonderArchive AT yahoo DOT com

Soundspot said...

Hi, I have a near mint copy of this album. If anyone interested I can put it on my discogs profile or ebay...
soundspot at laposte dot net (or leave a comment on my cbox...

Imani said...

'HOT' by The Equators will alaways be a special album for me. I joined my first band not long after The Specials had split up (after Ghost Town). The group of friends that I used to hang out with used to love this album. Age of 5 is an absolute classic. Our first band used to play Nightmare also, in our first gigs.

Coming from a Jamaican family with my two brothers in the band, we identified with The Equators even more. They were able to combine soulfulness with the energy of 2 tone in a way that only The Selecter had really managed to achieve.

Thanks for the music guys, if you're reading this. Still inspirational.

Imani (Bradford, United Kingdom)

SonUHvahZeke said...

I had the pleasure to meet The Equators when playing with a short lived ragtag reggae riddum trio who opened for them in Tucson,AZ back in 1981...very nice fellas as I recall. They made the walls sweat!

Imposs1904 said...

Just discovered The Equators track, 'If You Need Me'.

Absolutely stunning.

Mike said...

I saw them many times in Birmingham when they were "Eclipse" - they were were roots band and did not play ska> this was back in 1978 - they were the best roots band i have seen and they were uptempo but not ska. The did release a ska version of "Hard Days Night" before this LP, which was a bit poor.

I always wondered what happened to them. Eclipse have a live trach on "Brum Beat - Live at the Barrel Organ" - get it from iTunes: great stuff.
Mike - 021

Miucha said...

Got here looking for the "Baby come back" version of this band, could't remember their name,but was sure theirs was the one I remembered from the 80's. Thank you. I did heard them in the 80's... and now again thanks to you.

The Retro Fan said...

I Wondering If You Have The Video "Baby Come Back" 'Cause I Kept On Searching It On Google But No Clue. Thank You For Your Co-Operation.

Unknown said...

Hey Marco,
The Skatterbrains were phenomenally popular in Boulder, Colorado from 1981-1984. We also moved the band to Boston, Mass., and played most of the clubs around town, as well as the islands during the summer. We did half original, half covers, and Where Did Johnny Go was one of our hot covers.
Today our present band, The Mighty Twisters, still rotate Two Tone ska into our sets, along with reggae, rock, and Motown.
I've also been a deejay for KGNU public radio in Boulder, Colorado for the last 18 years. My show was a Latino show. I always played Latino ska groups, like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Radio Ska, etc.
Now the station manager, our bass player, and I are producing a 13 episode special on Ska music. It includes all waves, with lots of personal comments.
Need more info? Contact me on our Facebook page:
The Mighty Twisters
Still lovin' it
T Five Valladares
p.s. you can also see Skatterbrains videos on as well as hear our originals at cdbaby or iTunes