Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Exclusive: Interview with Josh Harris of The Untouchables

Wearing my shades at midnight

The Untouchables (The UT's) were the first U.S. ska band and Josh Harris, who joined the band after their founding in LA in the early 80's was an important creative force in the success the band enjoyed prior to and after their signing to Stiff Records. Harris who came to the band after stints in both The Fabulous Titans and The Shakers, who were both likely the first U.S. reggae bands, wrote one of The UT's most memorable songs "What's Gone Wrong". The band have always been an inspiration to many of us who came of age as fans of ska in the late 70's and early 80's. I was lucky enough to see the band open for UB40 in 1984 and they had a style and sound that influenced me to start my own band a few years later. After learning that many of the guys in The UT's started their band without knowing their instruments I was moved to pick up the bass and learn how to play it.

I asked Josh if he would answer a few questions about those heady days of playing in the band and he graciously agreed and provides an inside look into what it was like to be part of such a seminal U.S. ska band.

Can you tell me about your introduction to music and ska music in particular?
At the age of five, I began taking classical piano lessons. I continued to train for 10 years before deciding that pop music was my true love. In 1974, I joined what may have been America's First Reggae Band. We were called The Fabulous Titans and hailed out of Berkeley,Ca. The Harder They Come had recently been released and left a lasting impact. The Titans later transformed into Warner Bros recording artists, The Shakers. But in 1976, I decided to move to Southern California. Once there, I enrolled at Cal State-Los Angeles and began pursuing a career as a recording engineer. After completing studies, I accepted a position at a studio in North Hollywood, called Dreamship Studios. There I worked with artists like: Ray Mansarek (The Doors), Los Lobos and the punk band X... I planned on eventually becoming a record producer/session player.

You joined The UTs a few years after the band had started. How did you meet them and who invited you to join the band?
A friend named Roger Harris (no relation) was hired to produce a single for The Untouchables. After completing the "A" side "The General" , the band began preparing the "B" side, an instrumental called "Tropical Bird". Roger suggested to the band that they allow me to add a bubbling organ part. Since the band had no keyboard player, they accepted Roger's suggestion. They liked my contribution and later asked me to join the group. I then became a member of what may have been America's first Ska Band.

Here is video of the song "Tropical Bird" that Josh played organ on:

What was your first live show like and what was the California ska scene of the early and mid-80's like?
My first show with The Untouchables was on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, at a popular nightclub called The Roxy. I was totally honored to be asked to perform with The U.T.'s.. Although they hadn't been picked up by a major label, they were already quite well established in Los Angeles . The local mod scene was already happening when I met the U.T.'s. It was in pockets around the rest of California, but it's popularity was growing quickly.

Can you share any unusual stories about touring with the band
Well, without a doubt, the strangest gig we ever played was in Rancho Santa Fe, about two hours east of LA. We performed in a bullfight arena, which was legal (and fairly unusual) in California.The stage was erected in the center of the bullring and our dressing room was a mobile home that had been parked next to the bullpen. Needless to say, we worried about a stampede, but fortunately the giant steers liked our music. It was in that mobile dressing room, looking out at the herd of hoofs, that I came up with the idea for The U.T.'s to perform a ska version of the Herb Alpert 60's spaghetti western hit, "The Lonely Bull". Our exuberant version of the song became a mosh pit favorite.

Here is video of the song "Lonely Bull"

Tell me about recording "Live and Let Dance"
"Live & Let Dance" was an EP that the band recorded in 1983. El Dorado Studios in Hollywood had been built in the early '50's by the R&B great, Johnny Otis. All of the songs on Live and Let Dance were eventually re-recorded onto Wild Child, but this EP gave us our first major recognition. Live & Let Dance was released on our own Twist label and distributed through Enigma Records. After releasing the LP, we then shot video for Free Yourself.. This won the 1984 Billboard Magazine's Best Indy Video of the Year.

Here is the video for "Free Yourself" featuring Josh Harris on keys/organ

The U.T.'s were the first US band to sign to Stiff Records in the UK. How did the label treat you? Any interesting stories about having a hit song in the UK?Dave (Robo) Robinson was the President of Stiff Records (Madness, Desmond Dekker, Elvis Costello). He saw the "Free Yourself" video and flew from London to Los Angeles to sign us. We were all greatly surprised and honored at his arrival. Robo asked where we wanted to record our next album and we all wanted to go to the U.K. Robo agreed and flew the band (sans horns) to England. Back in LA, local radio station KROQ was very much behind the band's adventure. For our first UK tour, we broadcast regular live radio feeds from London to Los Angeles. Clyde would report the progress of the band over the air to fans back home.Our first UK show was at Dingwall's in North London..This nightclub was created out of an old barge located on Lock 17, Chelsea. It was very cool... There was a lot of media in attendance and we were very excited about performing for everyone. Things went very well. After receiving a ton of endorsing press, "Free Yourself" shot to number #17 in the U.K. charts.

Tell me about recording the "Wild Child" LP
We began touring the UK and eventually landed in Holland. Soundpush Studios was located near Blaricum, about an hour east of Amsterdam. The studio was state of the art, I had never seen a better equipted facilty. Producer Stewart Levine (Hugh Masakela, Simply Red) was chosen to handle the production. The album was recorded in about 4 weeks. After finishing the LP, Robo presented the band with a song that he liked for us. It was "I Spy for the FBI". He obtained the services of Jerry Dammers (The Specials) to produce this song. I was fortunate enough to work closely with Jerry in the post production at Air Studio in Old London. I provided harmonies, musical arrangements and keyboard overdubs.

Here is the video for "I Spy For The FBI" featuring Josh on organ

Tell me what it was like to be in the movie "Repo Man"
Charley Sheen and Emilio Estevez were friends of The Untouchables. Emilio's first feature film was Repo Man. He asked the band to appear in the film. In our first scene, the UT's are riding our scooters in formation. We are returning from rehearsal to Chuckie's mom's house. We almost got sideswiped by the Chevy Malibu at the beginning of the shot. I'm riding my barely operational Lambretta LI150. In our next scene, we return to the house to find Emilio there with Chuckie's Mom. Jerry sits down next to Emilio on the couch. He starts smiling at him, in a very tense moment in the film. Our last scene has us laying the boot to poor old Emilio next to the car that he's come to take. The film initially premiered at the Director's Guild, in Hollywood. The film was so weird, that I was convinced it was going to be a turkey. After it's theatrical release, it kind of went nowhere. The movie began receiving acclaim when the NY Times critic Vincent Canby wrote this review . The movie then became incredibly popular and finally became a classic.

You wrote and sang "What's Gone Wrong" which was one of the band's most popular songs. Tell me about the process of writing and recording the song.
I created the melody during a soundcheck, before a U.T gig at the famed Cookoo's Nest, in Santa Ana. I was just doodling around and came up with the groove. The next day, I went over to Dreamship Studios and started laying the basic tracks. Soon, Clyde came by to add guitar and we were performing it within a week.. Stiff Records shot a video for the song, but I've only seen it once. One of my fondest memory of alltime, is waking one morning to the radio/alarm playing What's Gone Wrong.

Here is a video for "What's Gone Wrong" without Josh

Why did you leave the band?
There were a lot of issues that went into my decision to leave the band. Getting signed to a foreign label meant a major departure from my then-current life.Though the band was becoming famous, it wasn't really what I wanted. I hated to tour & travel and that's all that we were doing. I was 5 years older than the other guys. I'd met my future wife Carol in 1984. I was getting ready to settle down.

Are you still in touch with any of your band mates?
The Untouchables performed in San Francisco last year and asked me to join them onstage at The Great American Music Hall. A 10 piece dance troupe, "The Devilettes" joined us on stage in silver and gold go-go shimy-shimy outfits for "Free Yourself". That was really fun.

What are you doing these days?
Carol has been my wife now for 22 years. .I have a small recording studio at our home in Marin County. I continue to write and post my songs on my page at myspace. com. Carol and I are part-owners of an organic cafe and bakery in nearby Larkspur called "The Rustic Bakery". I also love to swim, hike, walk and ride my mountain bike. Thank you Marco for spending your time with me. I hope that you and your readers enjoy whatever insight I could provide.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Piranhas - Early 80's neurotic ska punk from Brighton

In my never ending quest to highlight unsung ska bands from the late 1970's and 1980's 2-Tone era I recently discovered The Piranhas. The quintet who hailed from Brighton were signed by Sire Records as their entry into the ska sweepstakes. The songs have a charming, idiosyncratic quality, and feature offbeat lyrics in uniquely neurotic numbers like "Getting Beaten Up," "I Don't Want My Body" and "Green Don't Suit Me." The music is eclectic ska with punk accents in the general vein of early punky ska numbers by The Beat and Bad Manners — though a number of the tracks fall well outside the genre, with one recalling spy-movie soundtracks from the '60s.

The band first came to prominence when DJ John Peel started playing their single "I Don't Want My Body" on his BBC Radio 1 program, but achieved their biggest success with their cover version of the South African kwela song "Tom Hark". With new lyrics written by the band's front man "Boring" Bob Grover, it was a Top 10 hit in 1980. According to an article about the band in The Mirror from 1999, the song was originally recorded in 1953 by a group called Elias And His Zig Zag Jive Flutes and is based on traditional South African folk music.

The Piranhas' saxophonist discovered the song in his mother's record collection and persuaded the band to do a version. Grover wrote the lyrics as the group travelled in the back of a van from their hometown of Brighton to a recording studio in London. "The original was an instrumental so we brought it up to date with some lyrics," says Grover. "I could say the words were deep and meaningful, but they don't really mean much. I scribbled them on an envelope in about an hour." Pop impresario Pete Waterman was executive producer on the single which was regularly played by Radio One DJ John Peel. Eventually, it sold 325,000 copies and reached number six in the charts in August 1980. It also became a popular chant among British football fans.

But The Piranhas' success ended almost as soon as it started, although they toured with The Pretenders, The Jam and Bad Manners. They were involved in an horrific road crash, in which their road manager died, and they spent 16 weeks away from the circuit. "Creative differences" forced them to split in 1981, although Bob Grover kept the band name and had a Top 20 hit a year later with the Pete Waterman-produced single, "Zambezi".

Here is video of the band performing "Tom Hark" on Top Of The Pops

Here is the track list for their self-titled LP on Sire:

The Piranhas - The Piranhas

Getting Beaten Up
Do You?
Love Game
Tom Hark
Fiddling While Babylon Burns
Green Don't Suit Me
I Don't Want My Body

Here is the album download:

The Piranhas - The Piranhas

Password = rideyourpony

Kid British - The New Face of 21st Century Ska

Hipper elements of the UK press are hyping a new band from Manchester called Kid British. While the UK media and the UK music media in particular are known for their hyperbole, it seems like the consensus on Kid British is unanimous. They will be the next big thing out of the UK and they play ska. They're a multiracial outfit designed to reflect a multiracial city, a four-piece, with three extra musicians for gigs. They've just signed to Mercury, inked a long-term publishing deal with EMI and they're already being hailed as the best new band in Manchester.

They call themselves "Hip Hop Rudeboys" and according to an article in the Guardian last week, the band cite everyone from Madness to Meat Puppets, the Beatles to Blur, from De la Soul's thoughtful hip-hop to the Streets' as influences. Their MySpace site has 3 demos up and the one that is the most clever and memorable is "My House Is Dadless" a hip hop/electro jam which includes a sample of the Madness song.

According to reports their first single "Elizabeth" is due in October. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Dualers - From Buskers to Indie UK Ska Sensations

Living in New York City I am accustomed to seeing musicians performing on subway stations and train platforms. Its part and parcel of the whole underground experience here. Some of the musicians are good and in rare cases I've been moved to drop some money in a hat or to buy a CD. However, I doubt any of the New York City street performers or "buskers" as our friends across the pond call them, have ever reached the pop charts. The Dualers, who are brothers Si and Tyber Cranstoun have done so twice: "Kiss on the Lips" reaching 21 in the UK Pop Charts in 2004 and "Truly, Madly, Deeply" which reached number 23 in 2005. That acheievement on its own is amazing, but even more impressive is that they accomplished it as a ska band and without the benefit or support of a record company.

The Cranstoun brothers are well known around Bromley and Croydon in South London where they are fixtures as regular street performers and perform cover versions of well-known and more obscure ska and reggae songs. Below are videos of their street shows:

Performing their own original "Kiss On The Lips"

Performing ska classic "Taller Than You"

Based on their popularity as street performers they recorded and released their debut album "Melting Pot" in 2006. The songs on the album draw on the jiggling, infectious skank of 2-Tone as well as the fierce simplicity of labels like Trojan, artists like Sam Cooke, The Skatalites, The Blues Busters, and even 50s vocal groups. They have a new album called "Cooking Pot" which is about to be released.

Here is an interview with Si and Tyber with LondonNet from 2006:

First of all I want to say thank you for giving me a wonderful night witnessing your sweet Ska sounds at Pop. Do you agree Ska, like most music really, has to be heard live to get the full effect?
Si: Thank you! Ska is about an energy that absolutely has to be witnessed at source was the full on dance music of it's day. So for sure we dance it up!
Tyber: Yes, I totally agree. The skank is the heartbeat of the music, the music is incredibly energetic and if you perform it in this way it has a huge effect on the audience.

Your father was the founder of the Savoy Sound System which helped introduce Ska into the UK back in the early sixties. He's clearly endowed you with a strong appreciation for the ska-beat. How critical is his influence to your act today?
Si: Our father has extremely high musical standards it was a major challenge that we rose to, to finally meet his approval. He has been a bench mark in The Dualers sound.
Tyber: Extremely critical we seek our fathers approval on pretty much every track and our Mums as well, she has a good ear too.

Even to an old rude-boy like me it seems that talk of a Ska revival is almost an annual event. However, I think it's fair to say that the only time a revival really took hold was with the Two-Tone assault on the charts in 1979-1980 led by The Specials. Is this the year that Ska goes big time once more?
Si: I think that annual chat aside, The Ordinary Boys, The Dead 60's and so many adverts that tap into it may see it finally emerge on the mainstage for good. SKA is merely a style of music, a template for existing and new bands blossom from. Just as indie rock, punk, rap, r&b and dance are musical templates. The difference with SKA at present is that it desperately needs to be supported by the industry the same way as the other styles hopefully this year may see a more level playing field.
Tyber: I do agree it does seem to rears its head every year but never quite seems to break the surface. It seems to be around more on the radio, on adverts but it just needs someone to come along and grab the mantle hopefully it will be us.

Two-Tone added a touch of punk to the Ska formula. You're going down a different route; sticking to the genuine old-school sound. Is that thanks to your father's influence?
Si: I think there is a flavour to our new album that pulls from both trad ska and Two-Tone as a kid growing up Trojan and Two-tone to me were the same thing - great great music !!
Tyber: Our fathers influence has helped us to keep it traditional but we have also been influenced by Two-Tone, which helps give our music attitude, especially if you are singing romantic lyrics as they did back in the day.

The first time I saw you, you were busking on the street in Kingston. For a brief, glorious moment hearing Truly Madly Deeply (the band's second single) I thought I was in Kingston, Jamaica, not Kingston-Upon-Thames. But it's a long way from the streets to the charts and you've made the trip. How important has the busking been to your performing and musical development?
Si: For me it is where I learnt my craft, where I honed my skills as a performer. It will always be something I'm proud of and indebted to.
Tyber: Its been incredibly important, its allowed us to hone our skills, try out ideas, develop our voices without professional criticism. The public don't lie, if they don't like something they will soon tell you.

I know that you're passionate about keeping control of your talent. You publish and distribute your music through your own label Galley Music just like Two-Tone did way back when - to help make this happen. Is this the future or is it more trouble than it's worth?
Si: Well with the long awaited release of our first professional album the next few months will be telling times! I do however feel that there is a real trend for DIY music, I think the public genuinely want a real alternative purchase in their music collection and they definitely will get it with us!
Tyber: I'm not sure that it is the future and I'm not sure its more trouble than its worth yet.

I see that you have a few tracks available for free download on your website;, including your stunning debut single Kiss On The Lips. As an independent label do you see downloads as an enemy or a friend?
Si: I think so as the figures collected are genuine then it's a very good thing, after all music needs to be heard by any means possible!!
Tyber: I see downloads as a friend I get on well with all of them and they're great listeners! But I think there is something to be said for going into a store and buying a record then going home to listen to it.

You cite the Skatalites as your prime musical influence. What's so special about their sound?
Si:The players man !!! nobody plays better SKA than the Skatalites they were the original machine behind almost all the early Ska tracks. They are the Gods !

You've got a new single out at the end of the month "Don't Go". Like the majority of the songs on your new album The Melting Pot, this one is penned in-house. Going forward where do you see the balance settling between your own songs and classic Ska covers?
Si: We are songwriters, that's the juice, there are only first wave ska covers on the 15 tracks new album. We play a few covers at live shows as a toast, a mark of respect for our early influences, which for me also included the late great Sam Cooke!
Tyber: I see the balance somewhere in between. We have been influenced by such a variety of musicians that we could never be completely authentic yet at the same time we want to stay true to the original music

You've helped set up the Ska night, Skavoovie at Pop in Soho (now moved to Opium from the 7 June 2006, then second and last Thursdays of the month). What's the reason and format behind this and how's it working out?
Si: My brother set this up with Steve Edwards. he knows the score !
Tyber: The reason we set the club up was simply because everyone seems to love the music yet there were very few venues that played it. The fact that the band plays down there on a regular basis is a bonus, we can now use it as a showcase for professionals as well as a central location for people to get to. There are been 3 nights so far, each one has been a success and I'm happy to say they are going from strength to strength.

I've got to say the atmosphere there is quite electric, with a good vibe and, pleasingly for an old-timer like myself - the age range is unusually diverse too. Is that the essence of Ska?

Si: Well I think that it has a lot to do with the simplicity of the music, the melody lines are always strong when you pull on original Ska, this helps the music to transcend through the age range and broaden the appeal.
Tyber: The music has been around for so long, some people remember the first wave, some people remember the second wave and we being the third wave are pulling on a younger generation, uniting everyone that hears it.

And finally, there's a children's charity called Alpha Boys School, in Kingston, Jamaica that you guys support. Can you tell us a little bit about it and why you've got involved?
Tyber: the alpha boys school is a school for troublesome and orphaned boys. They are taken in and taught by nuns the ways of God but above all how to play and make music. So high was the calibre of musicians at the school that top producers such as Sir Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid plucked them straight from school and into the studio. Players such as Rico Rodrigez and Don Drummond, two of the founding members of the mighty Skatalites. By giving to this charity it is our way of giving something back to the music.

Here is a download of their 2006 CD "Melting Pot":

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dub Pistols featuring Terry Hall

Just trying to keep up with all the appearances that various members of The Specials are making this summer is becoming a full-time job. One longer term collaboration that I have been meaning to post about is Terry Hall and The Dub Pistols. The band who clearly have a 2-Tone jones, mix-up hip-hop, dub, techno, ska and punk and create a futuristic skank that suggests where The Clash and The Specials might have ended up if they stayed together.

The Dub Pistols formed about a decade ago when Barry Ashworth got together with Jason O'Bryan in west London. Finding they shared a love of The Clash, The Specials, and Public Enemy the band launched with a string of "Big Beat" singles and soon landed a million dollar record deal. The Dub Pistols began playing full live band shows and were soon touring the U.S. They had just gotten their second album "Six Million Ways To Live" ready for release in the summer of 2001, but it was canceled because of 9/11. "Six Million Ways To Live" was particularly notable for the single "Problem Is" featuring Terry Hall. Dubbed "the best Specials ska single the Specials never wrote", the track led to Hall becoming an integral part of the band. The album also included the track "Sound Clash" with reggae legend Horace Andy.

The new album "Speakers And Tweeters" picks up on the Adrian Sherwood post-punk deconstructive fusion of dub and dance, and the Dub Pistols follow a trail blazed by Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System over a decade earlier, but with more vivid colours and images. The former Specials front man is prominently featured, most notably on “Gangsters” (an update of his 1979 chart topper); “Running From The Thoughts”; a remake of Blondie's "Rapture" and paired with US rapper T.K. on a tongue-in-cheek version of the Stranglers’ “Peaches”.

Amidst all the will they or won't they hype about The Specials reunion, Hall and Lynval Golding appeared with The Dub Pistols at the Rise Festival in London 2 weeks ago. Live video from that performance is below:

Dub Pistols w/Terry Hall & Lynval Golding - The Problem Is @ Rise Festival, Finsbury Park, July 13th 2008

Dub Pistols w/Terry Hall & Lynval Golding - Gangsters @ Rise Festival, Finsbury Park, July 13th 2008

Below is a download of "Speakers And Tweeters" The track listing is:

Speed Of Light - (featuring Blade)
Peaches - (featuring Terry Hall/Rodney Hall)
Speakers And Tweeters
Running From The Thoughts - (featuring Terry Hall)
Rapture - (featuring Terry Hall)
Cruise Control
You'll Never Find - (featuring Rodney P)
Gangsters - (featuring Terry Hall)
Something To Trust - (featuring Rodney P)
Mach 10
Gave You Time

Amy Winehouse sings "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Special AKA

Based solely on the number of people visiting this blog to download the Amy Winehouse "Ska EP" I would like to believe there is great interest in her continuing embrace of ska, 2-Tone and The Specials in particular. Everywhere she performs these days she seems to play a song or two by The Specials.

Winehouse was invited to perform at the 46664 Concert in London in late June in London to honor Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday which was a few days ago on July 18th and she sang the lead on "Free Nelson Mandela" with Jerry Dammers and The Soweto Gospel Choir. The 46664 refers to Mandela's prison number. He was imprisoned on Robben Island in 1964, and was the 466th prisoner to arrive that year. "Free Nelson Mandela" was written by Jerry Dammers and performed by The Special A.K.A. It was released as a single in 1984 as a protest against the ongoing imprisonment of Mandela but the Apartheid government in South Africa. Unlike most protest songs, the track is upbeat and celebratory, drawing on musical influences from South Africa. The song reached No.9 in the UK charts and was immensely popular in Africa.

Here is the video of the performance:

Friday, July 25, 2008

Ska Weekend 2008 Tour Diary

So a post about my band's road trip down to Knoxville, TN for Ska Weekend 2008. We headed out with our Megalith Records label mates and partners in crime Hub City Stompers (who include ex-members of Inspecter 7) for a few shows on the way down . We dubbed the tour "The Hey Brother Can You Spare Some Gas Money Tour" and with gas prices at $4.00 - $4.25 wherever we went it ended up costing us a lot. Luckily we sold a lot of CDs and a lot of t-shirts and we ended up breaking even.

The first stop was Fletcher's in Baltimore, MD but not before a band meal at Timbuktu which may have the best crab cakes I've ever eaten. Fletcher's was like many punk rock clubs we've played in our day: dark and dingy. We played a good set that warmed us up for the rest of the tour and then found out the club was stiffing the promoter. We waited around while the promoter and club manager yelled at each other for awhile and then the promoter did the right thing and paid us out of his own pocket. A few fans from way back (late 1980's/early 1990's) were in the house and let us know this was the first time they had seen us since then.

We made the long drive from Baltimore to Boone, NC the next day and had a run-in with the North Carolina State Police about 100 feet from the Boone town line. According to the officer our drummer John was doing 70 MPH in a 55 MPH zone. I'm not certain this was true. It likely had more to do with the out of state license plates on our van. We later heard that Boone is infamous for giving speeding tickets to out-of-staters, particularly northerners. After that bit of drama we met up with Hub City Stompers and Royal City Riot and loaded in to play at the Black Cat.

Marco On The Bass with members of Hub City Stompers and Royal City Riot at Black Cat

I was really impressed with the Royal City Riot guys. They played a great set that mixed traditional ska, reggae and soul and I have high hopes for them. You can check them out at their MySpace web site. Hub City Stompers kicked it hard and played a lot of new songs from their new CD to be called "Ska Ska Black Sheep." My new favorite is "Ska Train To Dorkville" which takes kids into ska punk to task for not knowing and respecting the true roots of ska music. We played an even better set than the night before and I felt we were warmed up for Ska Weekend. We got up early on Saturday and I took a turn behind the wheel as we drove to Knoxville. We passed through some very beautiful parts of the Appalachian Mountains and around some very winding and twisting roads and finally arrived in Knoxville.

We set up our shared merch tent with Hub City Stompers and settled in for a few hours of ska punk which seemed to dominate the festival. Now I'm no ska traditionalist by any means but I have to be honest and say that I'm not a huge ska punk fan. And unfortunately a lot of the bands on the bill did very little to change my mind. Hardcore and punk with horns is not ska.

The bands who did make an impression: Royal City Riot (a better set than the night before), Green Room Rockers (These guys will be big and could take the mantle away from The Slackers as the best ska band in the U.S.), Hub City Stompers (enough said) and AKA:Rudie (who have been keeping the ska flame alive down south for as long as we have). We went on at 4 pm and played a 30 minute set that seemed to get the crowd moving. Our singer Roger made his usual impression by diving into the crowd and urging them to dance (which they did despite the heat). We also wore black arm bands to show our respect for our MC/Toaster Roy Radics who was unable to join us for the tour because his father had passed away. We missed him and it was a sad occasion but we played a great set in his father's honor.

The best part of Ska Weekend was the after party which was held at a club in downtown Knoxville on Saturday night. Green Room Rockers performed a great set of 60's and 70's ska and reggae covers and then turned the staage over to us. We played a long first set of originals followed by a shorter second set of 2-Tone era covers (Jungle Music, Tears Of A Clown, Monkey Man, Ranking Full Stop, Nite Klub) that featured Rob from AKA:Rudie, Ska Weekend promoter Ben Altom on trumpet, members of Royal City Riot and Hub City Stompers. It was a great way to end the weekend. We got a few hours of sleep on Saturday night and were on the road Sunday morning for the 15 hour drive home.

Roger gets the crowd going

Spencer, Roger and Rob

Bigger Thomas minus our Trombone player Chris

Marco On The Bass

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Neville Staple Band w/Jerry Dammers - This May Be As Close As We Get To A Specials Reunion In 2008

OK. I'm starting to believe there will not be a Specials reunion in 2008. Based solely on Jerry Dammers introduction of Neville Staple and his crack band during their live performance on July 7th at the Mean Fiddler in London as part of a Marxism Festival. The show also featured a DJ set by Jerry and a performance by Linton Kwesi Johnson. It sounds like there is still some real animosity between members. As part of introducing Neville, Jerry calls Terry Hall's manager a "Filthy, rotten capitalist" (which seems appropriate at a Marxism Festival) and says that Terry's manager doesn't want Jerry to be part of the reunion. Jerry also says that Neville is the only one in the band who wants him to be part of the reunion and won't do it without him. Following on Terry's solo show with Lynval a week earlier it would appear that factions have formed. This is not good.

Back to the music. Neville and his band perform a blistering hour long set of Specials songs and ska covers and Jerry joins them at the very end of the set. It's great to hear and watch, but I can't help but think that 7 original members of the band should be playing these songs together instead. Something so simple has been made so dificult.

Here is the set list:

Man at C&A
Little Bitch
Monkey Man
Simmer Down
Pressure Drop
Message To You Rudie
Rat Race
It's You (from the Today's Specials album)
Johnny Too Bad
It Doesn't Make It Alright
Do The Dog
Enjoy Yourself
Ghost Town
Nite Klub
Monkey Man with Jerry Dammers
You're Wondering Now

Here is the video.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The English Beat - US Festival, May 28, 1983

While I was walking around Ska Weekend at the World's Fair Park in Knoxville, Tennessee this past weekend, I was reminded of the US Festival which took place in San Bernadino, California in 1982 and 1983. The US Festival (US pronounced like the pronoun, not as initials) were two early 1980s music and culture festivals sponsored by Steve Wozniak of Apple, Inc. and broadcast live on cable television. The first was held Labor Day weekend in September 1982 and the second was Memorial Day weekend in May 1983. Wozniak paid for the bulldozing and construction of a new open-air field venue as well as the construction of an enormous state-of-the-art temporary stage in San Bernardino, California. (This site is still the largest amphitheatre in the United States.)

The two US Festivals were the first major festivals since Woodstock that were not charity concerts—they were intended to be celebration of evolving technologies; a marriage of music, computers, television and people. They were the first large concerts to include video screens to bring the action on stage closer to the audience at the rear of the amphitheater, as well as to cable-television viewers at home. Each of the two festivals had hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, but were resounding commercial failures. It is estimated that Wozniak lost nearly $20 million over two years. This past May was the 25th anniversary of the 1983 US Festival. There is a great multi-media story on the anniversary that was printed in the Press Enterprise which is located in Riverside, California where the festival was based. There is also a great Video featuring the memories of concertgoers who attended and some amazing pictures.

The only band to be invited to play both the 1982 and 1983 US Festival's was The English Beat. The two invitations are a testament to the hard work they put into breaking the U.S. The release of 'Special Beat Service" in the US in 1982 had solidified them as a "new wave" band rather than a ska band and that helped to expand their audience here. The band are at the height of their game at the 1983 festival, performing an eclectic mix of songs from all three albums. Its bittersweet to listen to their performance because the band came to an end a few short weeks later. Dave Wakeling has related to me that he and Roger had decided shortly after the US Festival to quit the band and he described how he wrote a resignation letter and slipped it under the door of their management. That night David Bowie called and said "You were amazing at the US Festival. I want you to be the opening band for my entire "Serious Moonlight Tour." Dave said that when he received that news he ran back over to the management office late that night and tried in vain to use a metal coat hanger to get the letter back from under the door but it was to far under and he failed to snare it. He says he took it as a sign that the band was meant to end.

Here is the set list:

Mirror In The Bathroom
Doors Of Your Heart
Two Swords
I Confess
Too Nice To Talk To
Spar Wid Me
Get A Job
Stand Down Margaret
Tears Of A Clown
Ackee 123
Twist & Crawl
Ranking Full Stop
Save It For Later

Here is an audio download of their performance:
The English Beat - 1983 US Festival

You buy DVD's of the entire 1982 and 1983 US Festivals here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: Terry Hall & Friends Live @ 100 Club in London on June 25, 2008

As members of The Specials debate if they are re-forming or not, an invite-only gig billed as Terry Hall and Friends took place on June 25th at London's 100 Club. The show was part of the ongoing promotions that Fred Perry does as part of the company's Subculture events (tickets for these events are generally only available via a competition on the Fred Perry Subculture site.)

According to a review of the show posted on Electric Roulette , a band including Ben Gordon of the Dead 60s and Lynval Golding of The Specials backed Terry who performed songs from his entire catalogue including The Colourfield's Thinking Of You, The Lightning Seeds' Sense, The Fun Boy Three's Tunnel Of Love and Our Lips Are Sealed and a good bit of The Specials' back catalogue, headed up by A Message To You Rudy, Gangsters, Do Nothing and Friday Night, Saturday Morning.

Here is very rough video with great sound recorded from a mobile phone that captured Terry performing Gangsters live.

In conjunction with the event, a limited edition (only 500 will be made) Terry Hall signature Fred Perry V-Neck sweater will be made available beginning in September. More info here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I'm heading down to Ska Weekend in Knoxville, TN

I'll be away for a few days so there won't be any posts until next week. My band Bigger Thomas has been invited to play Ska Weekend in Knoxville, TN this weekend. We are hitting the road with our friends and label mates Hub City Stompers tomorrow and have shows booked in Baltimore at Fletcher's tomorrow night, The Black Cat Burrito in Boone, NC and then Ska Weekend at the World's Fair Park in Knoxville, TN on Saturday. We were also asked to play the festival after party which should be a very good time.

We have dubbed this the "Brother Can You Spare Some Gas Money Tour" and we hope that our trusty van doesn't put us in the poor house after sucking down $4.50 a gallon gas all along Route 81. Either way we are happy to be getting out on the road to play shows and make some new fans.

If you happen to be coming to Ska Weekend then by all means please stop by our merch booth and say hello. If you can't make it I'll post some pictures, stories and anecdotes next week when I get back.

Until then enjoy the blog.

Wheels Out of Gear: 2 Tone, The Specials and a World in Flame

If you are looking for a more detailed history of 2-Tone and The Specials then get your hands on a copy of Wheels Out of Gear: 2 Tone, The Specials and a World in Flame written by Dave Thompson.

The book is a vivid portrait of Margaret Thatcher's Britain at the turn of the decade, when the National Front and the Anti Nazi League regularly fought in the streets, suspects where regularly injured in police custody, Blair Peach (remembered in a song by Linton Kwesi Johnson) died at the hands of Special Patrol Group police officers and rioters set light to the urban ghettos of Brixton, Toxteth and Handsworth. An era when the 2-Tone Sound - good time music with often darkly political lyrics - created the double-edged musical backdrop to cities that were truly becoming Ghost Towns and a world that appeared to be in flame.

The BBCand Uncut magazine gave the book great reviews. You can pick up a paperback copy on Amazon.

2-Tone Britain: Channel 4 Documentary

2-Tone Britain was a documentary that aired on Channel 4 in the UK in 2004 that is not commercially available. It tells the story of the movement which centred around Coventry and the 2-Tone record label. As the label's founders, The Specials are naturally given most of the limelight, but attention is also paid to Madness (the documentary features a nice big chunk with Suggs, and even a short bit of footage showing Suggs and Woody in the recording studio working on The Dangermen covers album), The Selecter and The Beat, among others.

The label's wider cultural and political significance is very much at the heart of the program. At a time of desperate divisions between whites, blacks and Asians, 2-Tone fostered a disregard for skin color and actively promoted interracial mixing and a collective and inclusive ethos.

Here are links to download the documentary. It runs about 50 minutes.

(Password: uts)

Eddy Grant Is Back!

Eddy Grant is one of the most overlooked artists ever. While most Americans fondly remember his Top 10 hit "Electric Avenue" on heavy rotation on MTV in the early 80's or the soundtrack song "Romancing The Stone" he wrote for the same B movie, his career has run the gamut and he remains a draw outside the U.S., particularly in the UK where he lived for a period of time when he played in the The Equals.

I had the good fortune to see Grant play live when I lived in the UK in the mid-80's. He headlined a huge outdoor show on May 31st 1986 put on by the Greater London Council to mark the final hours of local rule in London after the Thatcher government abolished it. The atmosphere was electric and Grant put on a memorable show for the 250,000 who were there that was in line politically with the anti-Thatcher elements of the GLC. In fact, evidence of the power and enduring legacy of Grant’s music is that his songs – once recorded – continue to influence. The anti-apartheid song "Gimme Hope Johanna", for instance, has been heavily rotated on radio in protest in Zimbabwe of late, while The Clash previously featured a cover of Police On My Back for their Sandinista triple-set.

Grant has embarked on a UK tour and reviewers across the UK have been full of praise for his passionate and energetic performances, which are his first in the UK in over 20 years. The NME said he "delighted" a large crowd who showed up early in the afternoon to hear his set at T In The Park, while Seatwave said he "confirmed his current revival." The Manchester Evening News review of his show there on July 10th gave his performance 4 out of 5 stars and said "He is ably assisted in his mission for joviality by a nine-piece band who crams their booming sound into every available cranny of the low-ceilinged space."

Here is Grant's amazing live performance of "Electric Avenue" from the Glastonbury Festival last month:

Here is an interview Grant did in early July following his appearance at Glastonbury that was originally posted on Backstage Pass.

You played at Glastonbury this weekend. How was that?
It was absolutely sublime. It was a beautiful experience. We played on the Jazz stage.

Did you manage to go and see anyone play?
No, no-one. I only managed to meet up with some old friends from years ago. But I didn’t get to see a set because I was signing autographs for people. I didn’t even know who was playing until I got there. What was more important for me though was taking in the environment. It was kept in pristine condition. There was no rubbish – it was nothing that I had expected with regards to the festival. It is like the place that time forgot.

Your career has made a composer, a musician, and a producer out of you.Is there anything left that you want to do?
I just want to keep on making music.

Your CD, ‘The Very Best Of Eddy Grant’ is out now. How do you go about choosing the tracks for a CD like this? There must be so many songs that you want to use.
Yeah, that is the unfortunate thing about it. You must include the major hits and also you have to use music for all the generations or educate them in some way. I have got to the point now where I can take other people’s advice and they let me know what they think.

Let’s go back to the start, what is your first musical memory?
My first musical memory is being about five-years-old and pulling my father’s trumpet case from under the bed and blasting away at 6 O'Clock in the morning.

Which musician has been a sole influence in your life?
First of all, my father, then there is The Mighty Sparrow, Chuck Berry, James Brown and just about every Blues player there has ever been.

Your MySpace tells us of a ‘meticulous method’ of recording. Can you expand on this method for those of us who aren’t technical?
I play all the instruments on my recordings so you have to go about recording it all in a special way. You just end up sitting on more and more music and not knowing when to stop.

Has your method of recording changed over the years?
Well, there are more sophisticated forms of technology, but I have never allowed it to overpower my input.

You have been making music for a long time now. Is there anything contemporary that impresses you?
It’s very difficult because you hear something, and think, well, that’s nice…but then there is no real continuity. There are so many of the older artists out there that are still doing a phenomenal business. It is kind of like cooking and everything else.

You have been all over the world with your music. Which place has been the country to have influenced you most or meant the most to you?
It is very hard – I am a person of the world. I really do believe that I belong all over the world as opposed to any one spot.

There has been a fair amount of illness in your life and you have had to temporarily stop making music. Has there ever been a moment where you thought you might have to stop altogether?
Stop making music? That would be a crime against God.

The details of your career have been highly impressive. What has been the defining moment in your career?
I think the defining moment for me was writing Living on the Frontline. I love playing it live.

You have your UK tour lined up – the first in twenty years. How are you feeling about it?
It is an opportunity to get out there and play for some people that brought the records on the past and to go and see some places that I haven’t seen for years.

Have you planned your set list yet?
Well, after we have done the first set, we consistently alternate it because we have so many songs.

What is the most memorable gig that you have ever played?
Well, I would have to say now that it is the Mandela Concert. That will stand out in my memory. This one had such a great significance to it. It was a significant moment in history.

What is the most memorable gig that you have been to as a audience member?
That is quite easy. James Brown, live at the Walthamstow Granada in 1966. Nothing has beaten that since then.

In conjunction with his UK tour, Grant has just re-released a greatest hits package featuring the following songs:

I Don't Wanna Dance
Gimme Hope Joanna
Electric Avenue
Walking On Sunshine
Do You Feel My Love
Symphony For Michael Opus 2
Living On The Frontline
Front Line Symphony
I Cant Get Enough Of You
Neighbour Neighbour
I Love You Yes I Love You
Its Our Time
Romancing The Stone
Till I Cant Take No More
War Party
Say I Love You

Below is a link to a download of the album:

(Download password: rayofusion)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ranking Jr. (AKA: Mini Murphy) - Ranking Roger's Son Follows In His Dad's Footsteps

Unfortunately for fans of The Beat (The English Beat in the U.S.), Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger are not on speaking terms at the moment. In fact, based on a prior agreement they have split the world between them. Wakeling's version of the band perform and tour across the U.S., while Roger's version (featuring original band member Everett Morton on drums) have the U.K. and Europe and never the twain shall meet. In fact, the last time Wakeling and Roger appeared on stage together was during a reunion at the Royal Albert Hall in London in February 2003 (you can buy the DVD of the performance here). What struck me when I watched the performance, was the introduction of one Matthew Murphy also know as Ranking Junior and/or Mini Murphy who stole the show in my humble opinion. He also happens to be Ranking Roger's son.

Though I have yet to see Roger's version of the band, I like what I've seen on video and in particular I enjoy the chemistry and stage presence between Roger and Ranking Junior. I'm also heartened that another generation has arrived to carry on the mantle of the band. Here's to hoping that the album Roger has mentioned he is working on will prominently feature his son who has had a ride in the Top 10 when he appeared on the Ordinary Boy's hit "Boys Will Be Boys".

Here is some video of The Beat featuring Ranking Junior performing "Jackpot" this past fall:

Here is a video of The Ordinary Boys song "Boys Will Be Boys" that features Ranking Junior:

Below is an interview conducted by the BBC with Ranking Junior during a Ska Festival in the U.K. in 2006 shortly after his appearance with The Ordinary Boys:

Did you always want to follow your dad [Ranking Roger] into the band?
Ranking Jr: Since I was about eight or nine I have always wanted to be in music and since I was about 12 or 13 I've been writing my own stuff. When I was about 18 they reformed The Beat again and I joined and became a full member. But before that I was doing stuff with my dad anyway. The two of us would go out and do some of my songs and some of his songs.

So you've always listened to his music?
Ranking Jr: Oh yes - definitely. It's always been in my life.

You're doing other projects as well though aren't you?
Ranking Jr: Yes - I'm doing other stuff as well, I'm doing a little bit of drum and bass and a little bit of hip hop as well. I try and mix all different styles together and try and form an original kind of style with a bit of everything in there.

You've performed with The Ordinary Boys haven't you? What was that like?
Ranking Jr: Absolutely fantastic. Preston came to one of our concerts in Brighton and spotted me there and asked me if I wanted to come on a new track with him that they were doing called "Boys Will Be Boys". Within two or three days I went down to the studio and did it, and it was released as a single about four months later. Then when Preston went into the Big Brother house it got more popular and it got a lot of fans that way.

Are you planning on doing any more stuff with them?
Ranking Jr: Yeah definitely. We're due to do something else very soon. They are writing their new album at the moment and I'm supposed to be linking up with them and getting something together - more in the writing this time because I just featured on the track last time.

You're very energetic on stage aren't you?
Ranking Jr: That's right yes - but I'm actually really, really chilled out when I'm off stage but as soon as I get on there the adrenalin rush takes over and I go absolutely hyper for an hour and a half!

And by the time you go on the crowd will have been dancing all day?!
Ranking Jr: Yes - they're either really pumped up or really knackered but somehow the energy of the music takes over.

Like most fans of The Beat I hope that Dave and Roger will let bygones be bygones and join forces again. Until then, those of you living in the UK are lucky to have Roger and Ranking Junior carrying the flame.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Specials - A's, B's & Rarities

Whether you're new to Ska or a seasoned fan of the Specials, this 3 CD set of 46 songs will be a welcome addition. Unlike so many "out of the vaults" boxed sets we're seeing nowadays, these CDs are not full of stuff that would have been better left forgotten.

The Specials were a band of two halves. The 'classic' Specials were one of the most exciting bands to emerge in the post-punk period. Then they split and Jerry Dammers continued with what was left, his now departed creative rivals replaced by various guests. The first CD covers the 'classic' period and is pretty much flawless. From Gangsters to the import only Concrete Jungle/Raquel they can do no wrong. All the singles (a's b's and a few odds and ends) are here.

The second and third CDs cover the post-split band Special AKA (except for longer versions of Ghost Town and Why?). This version of the band only recorded one album (In The Studio), but left behind many more 'remixes' and 'alternative' versions than the original band. It has to be said, however, that the consistent brilliance that marked the first CD sags a bit here. The distinct identity of the band is also lacking, and at times it's like listening to a various artists collection. There are some classics here ('Nelson Mandela', 'Racist Friend', 'What I Like Most...') as well as the hard to find "Ghost Dance '91" and three attempts to blend Ghost Town with new song 'Let Us Unite' (with a bit of 'Nelson Mandela' thrown in).

Tracklist:Disc: 1

1. Gangsters
2. Message To You Rudy - Specials & Rico
3. Nite Klub - Specials & Rico
4. Too Much Too Young
5. Guns Of Navarone
6. Skinhead Symphony Medley
7. Rat Race
8. Rude Boys Outa Jail
9. Stereotype
10. International Jet Set
11. Do Nothing - Specials & Rico
12. Maggie's Farm - Specials & Rico
13. Braggin' And Tryin' Not To Lie - Specials & Roddy Radiation
14. Rude Boys Outa Jail (Version)
15. Ghost Town
16. Why listen
17. Friday Night Saturday Morning
18. Concrete Jungle
19. Racquel

Disc: 2

1. Boiler - Specials & Rhoda
2. Theme from the boiler - Specials & Rhoda
3. Jungle music - Specials & Rico
4. Rasta call you - Specials & Rico
5. Easter Island - Specials & Rico
6. War crimes (the crime remains the same) - Specials
7. Version - Specials
8. Racist friend - Specials
9. Bright lights - Specials
10. Nelson Mandela - Specials
11. Break down the door - Specials
12. What I like most about you is your girlfriend - Specials
13. Can't get a break - Specials
14. Nelson Mandela (1) - Specials & Friends
15. Ghost dub '91 - Specials
16. Let us unite - Specials

Disc: 3

1. Ghost town - Specials
2. Why - Specials
3. War crimes (the crime remains the same) - Specials
4. Rascist friend - Specials
5. Bright lights - Specials
6. Nelson Mandela - Specials & Friends
7. Break down the door - Specials
8. What I like most about you is your girlfriend - Specials
9. Can't get a break - Specials
10.Nelson Mandela - Specials & Friends
11.Ghost Dub '91/Let us unite - The Specials

The Specials - Stereo-Typical A's, B's and Rarities Disc 1
The Specials - Stereo-Typical A's, B's and Rarities Disc 2
The Specials - Stereo-Typical A's, B's and Rarities Disc 3

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Dead 60's - "The 21st Century Specials"

The first time I heard "You're Not The Law" by The Dead 60's, I thought I was listening to an outtake from The Specials first album. Though the group's name could be seen as a statement about wanting to blaze new ground from the music of the 60s, the band certainly wrote songs and adopted a sound on their first album that sought to keep the sound of 70's Coventry, Birmingham and London very much alive. In addition to making an impression with their sound, the band's look drove attention and they were asked to design a limited edition Harrington jacket for Fred Perry. For a good introduction to the band take a listen to a radio interview they did with UK station XFM in late 2004.

Much to my dismay, the band broke up towards the end of last year a few months after releasing their second album titled "Time To Take Sides" which some likened in sound to Madness having eaten The Stone Roses. Along with the Original Boys and all the bands on the Do The Dog label, The Dead 60's helped to re-start a resurgence of ska and ska-influenced music in the UK.

For a quick taste of the band here are the official videos for singles "You're Not The Law" and "Ghostfaced Killer"

Their self-titled d├ębut album was a bouncy, shouty mix of reggae beats, ska and dub, well timed for the mini ska revival that came with the summer of 2005. Proudly wearing the label bestowed by the NME as ‘the 21st century Specials’, the band spent two years touring the US and supported Kasabian, The Stereophonics, Morrissey and Garbage.

Here is a download of their first self-titled LP: The Dead 60's - The Dead 60's The dowload password is cerumen

When you’re done with the straight studio album you’ll want to try the hard to find "Space Invader Dub" version that was distributed free in a limited-edition release in the UK (and as an expensive import in the U.S.). Yes, the dub version, which is done in proper, late-’70s, flying faders, Mad Professor-style. I was always impressed that the band followed in the footsteps of their UK ska/reggae forefathers like The Clash and UB40 and released a 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.

Here is a download for the dub version of the LP that was produced and remixed by Central Nervous System: The Dead 60's - Space Invader Dub The download password is cerumen

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Specials Appear Live On Stage!!

Yes. Its' true. The Specials actually all appeared live on stage together for the first time since 1981. No it wasn't a show. It was their induction into the Mojo Magazine Hall of Fame. The awards ceremony was held in mid-June in London and as you can see from the picture above and the video below all of the members (minus Neville who was apparently stuck on a train) were on hand to accept the award. Jerry rambles for most of the speech, Lynval is straight and to the point and Terry (ever the Man United fan) taunts Chelsea fans still smarting from their Champion's League Final loss in Moscow with a cutting quip.

Here is the video:

Finally, as we are still on the reunion watch, here is the most recent video update from Lynval who recorded it right before heading to London for the Mojo award ceremony.

Finally, to honor The Specials, Mojo distributed a CD with the cover issue honoring them. Here is the CD cover and the track listing and the download:

Skinhead Moonstomp - Symarip
It Mek - Desmond Dekker & The Aces
Monkey Man - Toots & The Maytals
A Message To You Rudy - Dandy Livingstone & Rico
Concrete Jungle - Bob Marley & The Wailers
Gangsters - Neville Staple
Babylon’s Burning - The Ruts
I Spy (For The FBI) - The Untouchables
Hiawatha - The Belle Stars
Sea Cruise - Rico
Baby Come Back - The Equators
Skinhead - Laurel Aitken & The Loafers
Skin Lake - Judge Dread
Play My Record - Arthur Kay & The Originals
Dambusters March - JJ All Stars

(You need to use the password matt-o-rach when downloading)

In the meantime, let's all continue to keep our collective fingers crossed...