Saturday, September 26, 2009

Shots In The Dark - 1981 Compilation Highlights Must Hear Obscure UK Ska

Part of the joy of blogging about music is the process of discovering a band, an album or song that may have been buried or forgotten by time. I liken the search and discovery to a form of musical archaeology. Its even more gratifying when you come across something totally unexpected, which suddenly captures a time and place so definitively that you are immediately transported back there just by listening. I'm a nostalgia junkie and I'm forever looking for bands and sounds that bring me back to the time I first discovered ska, punk and new wave -- 1981.

Thanks to Jeffen at Music Ruined My Life I recently had that experience again. He posted about a fantastic compilation called 'Shots In The Dark' which is a treasure trove of deeply obscure UK ska circa 1981. According to Jeffen, "This collection, on which each band got two songs, may as well have been sub-titled 66% British Ska. Of the six bands here, The Graphics, The Magnetics, The Mystery Guests and The Stares all borrow heavily from the scratchy rhythms of Two-Tone era ska, The Specials in particular (but with some Clash and Police nicking as well). "

The compilation was the brainchild of Laurie Mellor, who embarked on an ambitious project to create a compilation album that highlighted some of the best Christian bands around but to aim them at the mainstream. A radical idea for the day! Religious message aside (and some are quite overt) the record captures the incredible impact that 2-Tone ska, The Clash and The Police was having on bands all over the UK. As a result The Graphics' 'Just A Balloon' is notable for its punky reggae feel that recalls the very early sound of The Police while The Stares' 'Pseudo Love' has the feel of much second division UK ska that I love. Its a bit rough around the edges but lovable nonetheless. Infectious also sums up The Magnetics 'Not My Home' which sounds like it could have been taken from either the first Madness or Bad Manners LP.

If you are a fan of 2-Tone era ska or enjoy hearing bands who were active during those years but did not enjoy the recognition they may have deserved then I recommend giving the album a spin. Enjoy!

Track listing:
The Graphics - Don't Stop
The Stares - Pseudo Love
Crowd Control - There Are Houses
Mystery Guests - Take A Look At Yourself
The Predators - He Thinks He Knows Me
The Graphics - Just A Balloon
The Magnetics - Passin' Thru
The Predators - Plastic Surgeon
Crowd Control - Treason
Mystery Guests - So Misunderstood
The Magnetics - Not My Home
The Stares - Joe

Shots In The Dark Compilation

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's Madness! - BBC Plans To Air 5 Hours Of Madness Programming on October 2nd

Madness fans rejoice!  BBC 4 in the UK plans to air five hours of Madness related programming on October 4th.  The highlight of the evening will be Julian Temple's recent film of the band performing their entire new album 'The Liberty of Norton Folgate' live at several shows in London earlier this summer.  The night will conclude with the band's seminal 1981 film 'Take It Or Leave It'.

Here is the description of the night's activities from the BBC: 'Music Madness invite you back to the golden era of Cockernee music-hall knees-ups, as they star in the film of their recent album. Director Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners, The Filth and The Fury) adds impressionistic vignettes of dark, seamy London to footage of the band playing the album at Hackney Empire, surrounded by costume hecklers ("Crippen was innocent") and Pearly Kings. It's the perfect context for an LP that, more than any Madness record, tells bittersweet tales of life as it's lived in the capital, on songs including NW5, We Are London and Clerkenwell Polka. A Madness night is completed by the bands performance at this years Glastonbury festival at 9pm, and the re-run of Young Guns Go For It profile of the group at 10pm.'

The good news is that any overseas based fans of the band can watch this live from the application on this link which streams British television programming over the Internet

You'll need VLC media player installed on the same drive as well.

Here is the schedule of programming:

21:00 - 22:00 (9:00 PM - 10:00 PM)
Madness / Live at Glastonbury

22:00 - 22:40 (10:00 PM - 10:40 PM)
Young Guns Go For it

22:40 - 23:45 (10:40 PM - 11:45 PM)
The Liberty of Norton Folgate
Julien Temple (Film)
Madness performing live from their new album at The Hackney Empire.

12:35 - 2:00 (12:35 AM - 2:00 AM)
Take it or Leave it (1981)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Specials Mk 2 - Recording Rareties from the mid-90's

With word that The Specials have sold out the second leg of their UK tour this Fall, I was reminded of the band's earlier attempt at a reunion in the 1990's. The Specials Mk 2 featuring Neville, Lynval, Horace and Roddy recorded two albums -- 'Today's Specials' and 'Guilty 'Till Proved Innocent'. These albums helped to satisfy the demand for new material from the band during a time when ska was exploding in the U.S. (thanks to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt and Reel Big Fish). This version of the The Specials toured the U.S. and Japan extensively and were a headliner for the 1995 Warped Tour.

Below is a video of interviews with the band and promos for their single 'Pressure Drop':

I recently came across a great post from Paul Willo, one of the site administrators of The Specials fan Web site, as well as the author of a new book on the band called 'You're Wondering Now'. The post included several song rarities that The Specials Mk 2 recorded during their mid-90's resurgence. After the success of the Specials Mk2, Roddy, Neville and Lynval continued working in the studio. A version of Slade's 'Cuz I Luv You' came out of those sessions (which were likely part of sessions the band recorded as the backing band for Desmond Dekker's 'KIng of Kings LP). The other two are out takes from the 'Today's Specials' recording sessions -- The Valentinos 'All Over Now' and The Slickers 'Johnny Too Bad'.

Below are the YouTube videos of the three songs:

I have always believed the 'Guilty 'Till Proved Innocent' LP to be a very solid album, with some great original songs and vocals from Neville, Lynval and Roddy that come close to the first two albums by the original band. That said, I've always had a soft spot for its predecessor Today's Specials'. Though its plagued by plodding drum machines, synthesized keyboards and a selection of cover songs worthy of a UB40 'Labor Of Love' out take album, at the time I was thrilled to finally hear the band on American radio. Now almost 15 years later, I'm just waiting to hear that the current version of the band will be visiting the U.S. in 2010.

Below is a link to download an extensive archive of unreleased demos and out takes from The Specials Mk 2 courtesy of Liam Ska's Heavy Heavy Monster blog. Highlights include a blistering reggae version of 'Farmyard Connection' as well as a number of notable out takes from 'Today's Specials' and 'Guilty 'Till Proved Innocent' like 'Reckless Romance' which features Roddy's signature singing and guitar playing and 'Melting Pot' and 'Mad Them Up' which sound like they could be in the band's current set.

The Specials Mk 2 - Out Takes

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Pressure Boys - 80's Southern U.S. Ska With A Flair For The Unusual

During the early 80's, producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter were best known for their iconic work with R.E.M, but they did some of their best work wrangling an infectious ska/rock/pop sound from a group of 2-Tone loving high school kids from Chapel Hill, North Carolina called The Pressure Boys back in 1983 and 1984.

Amazingly, The Pressure Boys including Rob Ladd on drums and vocals, John Plymale on lead vocals and trombone, Byron Settle on guitars and vocals, Greg Stafford on saxes, Jack Campbell on bass and Stacy Guess on trumpet had formed just a few years earlier during the fall of 1981 at Chapel Hill High School. Early on, the band relied heavily on their youthful energy and enthusiasm to get by playing covers by Madness and The Specials at local college and high school parties. But by 1982, they were putting together original ska influenced songs with some weirder elements that echoed both early XTC and Oingo Boingo. Within a short time the band were at the top of the local alternative-music totem pole with a lot of support from the fan base they had built up at Chapel Hill High School.

The Pressure Boys didn't sound much like anyone else in the southeast music scene but they fit right into the burgeoning rock underground that was coming together in Chapel Hill, Athens, Gerorgia (Home of R.E.M. and The B-52's) and other Southern college towns. According to Trouser Press, the band "deliver hot'n'sweaty horn-inflected ska-beat rock. The sextet's gangbusting, headlong enthusiasm recalls the early Specials (without the accents or trebly sound) but songs like "Tina Goes to the Supermarket" undercut any seriousness that might have been intended."

Indeed, it was this lack of seriousness that both endeared them to club audiences in their hometown and across the U.S. but also kept them from breaking big. Record companies may have been put off by the goofy image the band cultivated and by their seeming lack of interest in playing the music industry game. The band played it's last show in the Spring of 1989 and its members all moved on. A few of the members joined Squirrel Nut Zippers who had a million selling album in 1996, while band singer John Plymale became a noted producer and band drummer Rob Ladd ended up touring with Don Henley's band.

It took the band twenty years to reunite, but in May 2008, the band found a reason. cystic fibrosis. Plymale's daughter had been diagnosed with the disease and he was looking for a way to help raise money for research. On Friday May 2nd and Saturday May 3rd, 2008 the band returned from its twenty year hiatus to perform at the Cat's Cradle, with proceeds from the show going to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

I was able to interview the band's saxophone player Greg Stafford (now a lawyer) who shared his memories of playing in the band, what it sounds like to open a show for Duran Duran and their 2 show reunion last year. Read on.

What was it like growing up in Chapel Hill in the early 80's and how did that influence you musically and artistically?
Chapel Hill had a good music scene. Don Dixon and Mitch Easter were playing around town and Sara Romweber was in HS with us. She introduced the band to Mitch and he made it possible for us to record/get some exposure.

My dad was a clarinet player in the Marine Corp band. I did not decide to become a musician, I decided not to get my arse kicked. Was a huge fan of reggae but only got turned onto ska because of the band.

How did The Pressure Boys get started? You met all your band mates in high school right? What made you decide to play ska?
I was not around for the initial founding part. Me and the rest of the guys did not really get along. Their problem was their sax playing pal, Will Campbell wouldn't do it so they were stuck with me.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? When and how did you hit on the sound of the band?
We sounded as much like whatever band we were covering as we could. It took a while to mature enough to develop a sound. A lot of critics complained that we did not have a set sound and we were to varied to be placed in a specific genre.

What was the music scene in Chapel Hill and other cities in the South like in the early and mid-80's?
It was a lot of fun. We had a string of clubs on what was a pretty regular circuit for bands during that time. Richmond (Rockets); Chapel Hill (The Cradle); Raleigh (The Pier/The Brewery); Greensboro, (The Milestone); Athens (40 Watt) and the 688 in Atlanta. That string of clubs made it fun and financially doable to travel.

Tell me about working with Mitch Easter on Jump Jump Jump in 1983 and Don Dixon on Rangledoon in 1984. How did you get connected with them? Any interesting stories about recording with them?
In retrospect both Mitch and Don were extremely patient guys. We were so young and arrogant. We thought we knew so much and only time was able to teach us how little we knew. Don and Mitch knew but chose to help us anyway. I am very thankful for that. Don likes pouring coffee in mixing boards.

I know you played close to 500 shows and put in 100,000 miles touring during the lifetime of the band, but can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable?
I fell through the stage at the Milestone. That was cool. We played a club in Minneapolis owned by Prince. During the show I got hit in the head and was bleeding all over the place. We finished the show but I had lost a lot of blood and was in pretty bad shape. The guys were sitting around and said they thought they should bring me to the hospital. Some girl volunteered to take me and they sent me off with her. I did not know her nor, before cell phones, did I know how to contact the guys. Anyhow she took me to the hospital and as I looked through the fog I look up and it is my high school girlfriend sewing up my head. She was doing her residency there...and wondering what I was doing with this horrible woman.

That was a funny story but the real, more boring story was how much fun it was to travel and how much I learned from the rest of the guys. They are truly gifted and I feel it was an honor to play with them.

What was it like to open up for Duran Duran? When and where was this? What other bands did you play with?
Duran Duran was cool because it was our first huge show. I can remember the sound of 20,000 pre-pubescent girls screaming as we came out...and the groan of 20,000 girls when they realized we were not Duran Duran. It was a ton of fun though. Their sax player stole my neck strap. We played with Missing Persons, Billy Idol, Fishbone, REM, Bow Wow Wow.

You had a video that aired on MTV's 120 Minutes back in 1986. What was the story behind it?
Our singer John Plymale could tell you more accurately than I can. I just showed up and played on a cold day.

Why don't you think the band got signed to a major label? You certainly had the live chops and the following to warrant it?
I think our arrogance and unwilling to be tamed attitude had a lot to do with it. It is really hard to say.

Why did the band break-up in 1988?
We had done all we could in a way. It was getting stale and I do not think we believed we would get signed so some guys wanted to try other things. I don't blame them and they did and are doing very well. The rest stayed with music. I chickened out and went to school.

You reformed for two shows last year to raise money for cystic fibrosis research. What was it like to play again after 20 years and what kind of reaction did you get from your hometown fans?
It was a blast. Again, it was an honor to play with those guys. I had not played since the Pressure Boys years so I had to practice a ton to get ready. I was so happy that my kids could see me play and it was a blessing. God let me have that moment and I am thankful. John is a truly special person and I guarantee he is the only person who could have talked us into doing that. As for the people there it was great. It was crazy how many folks I recognized. I did not look at them as fans though. They were friends who's faces I still know. The club was packed both nights and I owe every person there for helping me have the night of a lifetime. My biggest fear was that we would play to an empty house. They paid the money to make sure that did not happen.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The Pressure Boys?
Learning to truly respect the musicianship of the guys I got to play with. Each one of them is amazing. Though we keep in loose contact I always know what they are doing and it makes me happy knowing they are alive. I miss Stacy. I have taken my kids to see his grave and his life has informed my decisions when I counsel other families who have kids in his situation. This story would not be complete without thanking Frank Heath. He is the owner of Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill and a generous great guy. We owe him a lot.

Below is a video for 'Round The World' that was played regularly on the MTV show 120 Minutes in the mid-80's.

Below is a video for 'Where The Cowboys Went'. This video give you a sense of the band's sense of humor and why some fans called them the American version of Madness

You can listen to a story about The Pressure Boys reunion that was produced by North Carolina Public Radio

The band re-mastered and re-released their entire catalog of songs titled 'Incomplete Recordings' just a few years ago. All the money earned from its sale is donated to research for cystic fibrosis. It can be purchased from CD Baby or downloaded from iTunes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

'No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: How City Gardens Defined an Era': Forthcoming Book To Chronicle Iconic New Jersey Club

For anyone who grew up in the 80s in the suburban wastelands between New York City and Philadelphia and was a fan of punk, ska, reggae, hardcore and alternative music of all stripes, the storied bills that City Gardens regularly featured are the stuff of legend. Located in a warehouse-like space in a borderline dangerous neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey (see beautiful picture of the club above), City Gardens was a massive space where touring bands as varied as Nirvana, Dead Kennedys, The Ramones, Black Flag, The Pogues, Fishbone, Toots & the Maytals, Bad Brains, and Ice T could make stops and draw hundreds of kids from across suburban New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Anyone who had an interest in non-mainstream music during the 80's and early 90's (but who lacked the ability to get to New York to the north or Philadelphia to the south) could find what they were looking for at 1701 Calhoun Street.

I was recently interviewed for the book that is being written about the club. 'No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: How City Gardens Defined an Era' by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico which will chronicle the club's key role in alternative music history. You can read a chapter from the book about the infamous Buthole Surfers show in 1987. An excerpt from my interview appeared this week in the Charlotte Indie Music Examiner. The book will be available for sale in early 2010.

City Gardens had its share of problems. People complained about the door prices, and for a while, the threat from the local skinhead population threatened to shut the club down after a number of violent episodes. On the upside, the clubhouse-like environs fostered by its proximity to the suburbs exposed a lot of very young people to a pretty radical range of sounds and ideas (myself included). Its fair to say that my experiences seeing a variety of diverse shows at City Gardens molded me into the musician and the music fan I am today.

As a young ska aficionados in the early to mid 1980's, the best part of City Gardens was the number of ska shows that the club booking agent Randy Now booked. He was clearly a fan of the genre and he went out of his way to bring in local and regional bands from NYC and Philly. It was always easier to wait and see these bands when they came to Trenton then to trek into CBGB's or The Ritz in New York City and it made me love the club even more that they came to us in New Jersey.

My love and passion for ska led me to start my band in New Brunswick, New Jersey while I was a student at Rutgers University. In fact, it was a chance meeting that the band's singer Roger Apollon and I had with Steve Meicke (our original sax player) at a Ranking Roger show at City Gardens in August 1988 that took our band (then known as Panic!) from the planning stages to reality.

Somehow Randy Now heard about our little ska band making some noise in New Brunswick and New York in the fall of 1988 and spring of 1989 and he offered us a show opening for Boston's Bim Skala Bim in March 1989. We must have made an impression because he kept on booking us for the next 2 1/2 years until the original band split after a bittersweet gig opening for our musical heroes The Special Beat in September 1991.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Michael Jackson In A Skinhead Reggae Style - The Drastics Pay Respects With 'MJ A Rocker'

Sadly the mania around Michael Jackson's untimely death has taken away from the magic of the man's musical legacy. I have paid my respects by listening to both 'Off The Wall' and 'Thriller' which were both mainstays of my high school and college musical experiences.

I was thrilled when I recently learned that Chicago-based roots dub-reggae group The Drastics have released their own tribute to the late great King of Pop. The band had this to say about their tribute album called MJ A ROCKER:

In honor of his birthday next weekend! Some of you thought it was a joke … but it’s very very real … and finally here … ! Our tribute to Michael Joseph Jackson .. imagine Sir Coxsone in the production seat instead of Quincy and you’re about half-way there … Included are I Want You Back, Rock With You, Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and The Way You Make Me Feel … These aren’t instrumentals or covers-per-se … you just gotta hear it to believe it …

The songs are fantastic and need to be heard to be believed. The band has recorded faithful rocksteady and skinhead reggae backing tracks of some of Jackson's most well known tracks on top of which they have dropped Jackson's own original vocals. Download this before the man comes around to put a stop to it.

Here is the track listing:

I Want You Back
Rock With You
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough
Billie Jean
Smooth Criminal
The Way You Make Me Feel