Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Swinging Cats Reunite!: Coventry's Other 2-Tone Band Perform For The First Time in 29 Years

Yesterday, as part of Pete Chambers ongoing 2-Tone @ 30 celebrations, Coventry’s other 2 Tone band, The Swinging Cats, performed in Coventry for the first time in 29 years. Original members John Shipley and Paul Heskett played a selection of songs by the band that helped expand and define the 2-Tone sound. Heskett also read from a forthcoming memoir of his 2-Tone experiences playing with The Specials.

But first a bit of history. On July 21, 1980, The Selecter announced they were leaving 2-Tone to sign directly with Chyrsalis Records. In a statement they released explaining the move they said, "Every 2-Tone single has reached the charts. This is a situation which The Selecter feels is ultimately stiffling new talent, leading bands to feel that they need to stereotype themselves into what they believe to be the 2-Tone sound..." In turn 2-Tone Records released a statement saying that the label would continue "with the main objective of helping new bands". And true to their word a week after The Selecter left, the label signed The Swinging Cats, who ironically would pick up a few support slots with the post-2 Tone Selecter on their 1980 tour (replacing Holly & The Italians).

During this time, Jerry Dammers had decided to largely turn his back on the ska explosion he had created to investigate darker themes. This decision matched his growing interest in what would become known as easy listening and lounge music. Given their penchant for mod, jazz and calypso, The Swinging Cats were tailor made for the direction Dammers was taking The Specials on the 'More Specials' LP which was in the process of being recorded that summer. This new direction was further evidenced in later label signings including Leicester soul collective The Apollinaires, Norwich punk-funks The Higsons and Scarborough soul-jazzers The Friday Club.

The Swinging Cats lead by guitarist Shipley, Saxophonist Heskett and keyboardist Toby Lyons were short lived, so my introduction to them was through the 'This Are Two-Tone' compilation record that was released in 1983. I remember being surprised that the band even existed, as they had not toured in the U.S. and very little news about them had crossed the pond. I was struck by their off kilter instrumental 'Mantovani' and later heard 'Away' featuring singer Jayne Bayley and was impressed with their versatility and chops. Later I learned that the band was from Coventry and members of the band played integral parts in the later days of the label.

The Swinging Cats were formed by John Shipley, who along with Toby Lyons recruited like-minded individuals, and so created one of 2-Tone’s most flamboyant acts, even topping Madness and Bad Manners for on-stage quirkiness. The band won a Battle of the Band's contest in Coventry that gave them two days at Leamington’s Woodbine Studios and a spot on TV show Look Hear. They signed to 2 Tone records and released the irresistibly catchy Mantovani, with Away as its flipside.

According to an interview Shipley did, “I already knew Jerry Dammers”, “He really liked us, and he offered us a two single deal, sadly the second release Greek Tragedy, never saw the light of day. We practiced in our drummer Billy Gough’s garage, full of canoes and mooses’ heads; there wasn’t enough room to swing a cat, and a name was born. We did have a terrific time touring with bands like Bad Manners and the Selecter.”

After the band ended, Shipley joined the Special AKA, Lyons joined The Colourfield, and Bayley became Jane Bom-Bane 'Queen of the Funky Harmonium'. Heskett later toured with The Specials and played saxophone on 'Sock It To 'Em J.B' and 'Braggin' And Tryin' Not To Lie' on the More Specials album and also played the flute on the 'Ghost Town / Why? / Friday Night, Saturday Morning' EP.

Below is a vide featuring the band's 2-Tone single 'Mantovani':

Below is very rare footage of the Swinging Cats performing live at the Pebble Mill BBC Studios in Birmingham performing 'Away' and a cover of 'Never On Sunday' by Connie Francis.

Here is footage of the band's performance yesterday in Coventry:

I hope to have an interview with Paul Heskett up soon. Stay tuned...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with John 'Teflon' Sims - Artist Who Helped Create The 2-Tone Look Launches 'This Art 2-Tone' Exhibition

The look and visuals of 2-Tone have been as much an inspiration for me as the sound of the music. Indeed, among the most satisfying experiences I've had writing this blog has been the chance to meet and interview the talented artists who were as much responsible for its overall success and legacy as the musicians who wrote and performed the songs.

The arc of my life over the last 30 years has been defined by ongoing change. However the one constant has been my ongoing love affair with 2-Tone ska and its iconic imagery. In fact, my own band Bigger Thomas plays 2-Tone influenced ska and our logo since the very start has been a direct descendant of Walt Jabsco, whom we affectionately call 'Mr 2-Tone' (and who looks a lot like Jerry Dammers on the back cover of The Specials first record). A debt of gratitude is owed to three individuals: Jerry Dammers; David Storey and John Sims (above with Lynval Golding).

Any social and musical movement has important people behind the scenes who are responsible for its success. When I learned that John 'Teflon' Sims was mounting an exhibition of all the art work he helped design with Dammers and Storey when they worked at Chyrsalis Records, I reached out to him to learn more about his experiences and the process that went into creating and designing the images that live on to this day. As a frustrated graphic artists I wanted to understand the inspiration as well as the science behind the work.

Sims met David Storey at Chrysalis Records where they worked together as a team for over ten years. Working directly with Jerry Dammers, they were responsible for a huge amount of 2-Tone graphics including the album covers for The Selecter, Dance Craze and The Specials 'Ghost Town 12"'. As well as record sleeves, they produced hundreds of promotional items: posters, ads, T-shirts, badges etc. Where Sims strengths were as a 'Swiss School' typographer, Storey's strength was on the pictorial/collage side, so they made a perfect team.
Spurred on by the The Specials 30th reunion, Sims has mounted an exhibition of all the fantastic design work that is touring around the UK right now and may visit Paris and New York in the future. Sims was kind enough to take time out to answers some questions about the days he spent working with Dammers and Storey to provide the look that went along with the 2-Tone sound.

Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in design and illustration?
I was born in Farnborough, Kent in 1950 and grew up in Chelsfield, near Orpington. I was alway drawing and painting from an early age but a winning picture of a Wellington Bomber painted in a primary school best artist playground competition was the beginning of a realisation that maybe talent existed.

My Grandfather was a shoe repairer but very practical and arty in building model boats and aeroplanes, making concrete gnomes (as you do) so think this all had a bearing on me.

Who influenced your design style?
In taking O and A level Art at school, I got really interested in fine art and the masters of Constable, Rembrandt, Turner. Getting my first job at 16 in a studio in Covent Garden working on film posters and there was a brilliant Belgium artist called Guy Peters who really helped but Geoff Wright my boss taught me the basics of commercial art along with Peter Cook my manager. Peter was to later recruit me to Russell James Studios in London who were suddenly the leading design studio for all theatre work in the UK in the late 60s and 70s. I would say that designers Barry James and John Farley had a massive bearing on where I needed to be in design and I learnt loads from them. At this time there was an Italian artist working for FEREF Studios called Arnaldo Putzu and I would drool at the speed he painted and pull his discarded rough scamps from the bin to keep. When I changed agencies Mike Standage became my manager and was a great illustrator. So all these designers and illustrators through various stages of my early career but the illustrations of Roger Dean who did the Yes album covers really moved me and got me into airbrush artwork and like all of us, we have certain record covers that are classics in our collections. When I became Art Director at Chrysalis this gave me the chance and opportunity to progress with bands and artistes on the roster.... then The Specials and 2-Tone happened and for me it was Ska music all over again but with an edge of punk. A style was already set by Jerry Dammers and I just had to flow with it... brilliant stuff! I also met and knew Neville Brody, Rob O'Connor (Stylo Rouge), Bill Smith and lunch once with the late and great Barney Bubbles at this time. Big admiration for what they were doing.

Was the fact that you had been a mod and were a fan of ska assist you in helping Jerry Dammers realize his creative design for The Specials and 2-Tone?
Very much so. I was a bit of a mod in the late 60s but with very little money, (same now). I had friends at a youth club I went to who had Vespa scooters and were the biz and would catch a lift on the back of one. Trojan releases were happening so this all played its part. The Ska classics of 007 by Desmond Dekker, Return Of Django by The Upsetters, Double Barrel by Dave & Ansil Collins ad Ire Feelings by Rupie Edwards still send shivers down my spine and get me dancing on the spot. When I was introduced to Jerry and The Specials by Managing Director Doug Darcy in the A&R Dept at Chrysalis and they did ska with the edge of punk I was really made up. Jerry already had the logo Walt Jabsco which I think Horace also helped sketch out. I drew a master larger artwork which was a cleaned up version for poster sizes etc (this can be seen in my This ART 2-Tone exhibitions). Our artwork production studio cleaned it up even more in the copy prints. It became apparent that this was too smooth and clean when Jerry said it had to be rougher and somehow by the time I got back to Chrysalis marketing and production to hold it, it had slipped through very quickly and 250,000 paper sleeves had been printed due to the rush to release Gangsters.

Almost all of the work you created is in black & white. Was there a style guide for designing 2-Tone albums and posters? Did you ever experiment with color?
Black and white, checkered borders, Walt Jabsco logo was the 2-Tone concept by Jerry and The Specials and quite refreshing as everything else in music was in full colour. The bands were about anti racism, politics, social issues and being bands of blacks and whites it harmonised everything. Chalkie Davis and Carole Starr designed the first two album covers and I oversaw production at our artwork studios in Holborn. The second album "More Specials" introduced colour of a multi-coloured glass dividing wall which I think was at Coventry Polytechnic canteen area (might be wrong). Jerry had seen it and wanted to use it with the band just casually sitting around as if it was a 60s coffee bar. Coloured jumpers and different clothes were a changing direction from the Fred Perrys etc.

Where did the inspiration for much of the 2-Tone look come from? The images are so striking - The Policewoman, The jumping rat on Rat Race poster?
The inspiration came mainly from Jerry. Sometimes Jerry’s ideas were very definite, sometimes I would make suggestions and he would add something to the design mix. The Specials and Selecter were on the road gigging all over the place and Chrysalis needed adverts in music papers or posters in record shops very quickly and that was my responsibility. So sometimes it was a phone call from Jerry and we would talk it through. The Policewoman for Seaside Tour Poster image came from a picture Brad the drummer on a tour. He had managed to get the policewoman to sportingly dona pair of black and white sunglasses and took a snap. I then converted the image from tone to line, retouched it, added Walt Jabsco to the neck tie, a Rude Girl badge and a message about the tour blaring out in words from her walkie talkie. Rat Race was a classic and won a Design and Art Direction Award. Jerry had discussed an old office environment. I sourced the young 60s style typist at the old typewriter picture. I loved it because she had a black and white patterned blouse which was 2-Tone style. I showed this to Jerry and the rat picture also sourced. He suggested that the rat jumps out of the typewriter so I did a layout, had it enlarged, had it retouched as the tail was quite washed out on the original. The B side Rude Boys Outta jail had Walt Jabso logo with prison bars... so it all came together.

Can you explain how all everything was actually created? Did you hand draw all the designs? What was the actual technical process for creating all the art?
Computers were not around then and traditional artwork produced was produced using a parallel motion board, drawing accurately the plan in print format shape using a 4H pencil and an .02 Rapidograph ink pens (which were forever clogging or drying up). CS10 line board was cut to size using a scalpel with a 10a blade, light blue thin plastic film overlays for layers to separate colours or information to the print colour film planners. Typesetting, PMTs n line or screen dot (Photo Mechanical Transfers). All the typesetting or print elements were stuck down with Cow Gum or or SprayMount or even hot wax. I suppose the term in modern computer software is Copy, Cut & Paste and thats where its from. Fortunately 2-Tone was black and white and so were most adverts which usually meant one base artwork without overlays. As an Art Director at Chrysalis I would layout the adverts on thin presentation sheets in magic markers and Pentel Pens and relay instructions to our mechanical artwork suppliers on most of 2-Tone who were Partridge Rushton Associates in Holborn, London. Key elements I would draw or take photographic pictures and convert to hard line with no tone and etch stuff away with white paint or again the scalpel with a Swann Morton surgical No15 blade which had a nice curve for scraping very gently. In some cases I would use an air brush.

Can you share any unusual stories behind any of the designs?
Probably loads over a glass of wine and a few hours. The one question I get asked a lot is was the guy in the bottom left of Too Much To Young EP stripped in and the answer is yes. Jerry produced this photograph of this guy (his name escapes me but it is on fan website) and said that he was a big fan of The Specials and went to most of the gigs so he had to go in. He replaced someone who actually looked as if he was at the wrong gig (probably Duran Duran) so it fixed the situation. Doing the This Art 2-Tone exhibitions for many fans have made further comments such as: The guy in the hat was American and over to London for the weekend and bought a ticket for the Selecter gig (where the picture is from) and now a bit of a celebrity born from that one picture. Some guy also said to me that the girl with the white Fred Perry on is Shirley Fleck from Rainham and was his girlfriend at the time. With Dance Craze those are my feet on the cover. Chrysalis did not pay me very well and I was able to claim album expenses for a pair of nice loafer shoes. :-)

You also did work with the Fun Boy Three. What kind of leeway did you have with the design of the first Fun Boy 3 album cover?
I can remember Terry coming into the Chrysalis Art dept after the split of The Specials. The footie conversations had made a connection over a period and so I discussed what design had FB3 in mind. There was nothing specific but their clothing styles had dramatically changed to grey track suits which was a bit of a statement to say we’ve moved on from The Specials. Terry’s hair was brushed up and with colour bands and beads etc We talked of film star press pictures and how in the 50s and 60s they were mono black and whites and colour ink retouched. Fleshtones looked as they were painted on (which they were), some old seaside postcards are like that also. I got Alan Ballard to do a studio photo session and wanted some pictures with a tinsel night club curtain but Alan could not get one in time. Lynval had been jumped on the night before and beaten up. So he had some bruising and swelling. (we retouched the injuries later) We shot them together and also separately in the new style grey track suits. When I saw all the pictures I was thinking that it was a shame in not having the tinsel curtains, but I did a colour visual (which I still have) and wanted the guys to really stand out so the red circle really worked and against a grey to match the tracksuits. I had three shots stripped together and then highly colour retouched by Terry Day (a top London retoucher then). The lettering style of Microgramma was modern and back in vogue. The back of the sleeve I made to look like an old film poster (drawing on my time doing film posters in my first job. Frank Elton did some mono illustrations and I had screen dot PMTs made to look like newspaper adverts. Fun Boy Three was in Ten Commandments epic film hand lettering which I did. To keep the FUN element I added "Gasp, Wonder and Thrill to the Sound of the 80s" and "One of the most Wonderful Recordings of our time" and all in FunBoyScope. It was all tough in cheek and a piss take. Bananarama were aptly part of it and this album propelled them on to bigger success as probably the most UK top hit releases by a girl band. Finally back to the tinsel curtains. I designed a poster to go inside the album sleeve (which is in the exhibitions) I had cut outs done of three guys sitting on stools ad placed onto star shapes on ... (wait for it)....bacofoil, which I scrunched up and coloured. When Terry Hall came in to approve the sleeve I was very pensive of whether he would like it. He studied it for ages and then said he liked it in that Terry none fazed way.

What are your working on now and where can people see more of your artwork?
My studio Picture This ( is situated in my 30s house in a village of Hawkinge, just outside Fokestone. Hawkinge was a front line air strip for Spitfires and Hurricanes to get out over the Channel quickly and integral to air defences in WW2. The house was occupied I think by a Canadian officer during the war. Others nearby were occupied by American officers. I no longer do music graphics (not been asked) but my work is mainly corporate stuff for brochures, catalogues and general advertising and promotion. Presently I am working on projects for Robert May Shopfittings (London) catalogue, Discover Folkestone brochure, Hythe Guide brochure, Folkestone Town Council newsletter, Folkestone Town Management display banners, Metroline Security brochure, AtoZ Couriers (London) brochure and stationery and subsidiary work for my New Creatif ( colleague and mate Martin Jewiss and his clients Kingsdown Water and Air Charter. Other work in the pipeline so always busy.

Setting up with Martin has taken up a lot of time, effort and cost, but is a labour of love and the response from 2-Tone fans at the This Art 2-Tone exhibitions in Margate and Brighton has been fantastic and amazing. The exhibition goes to Coventry Central Library in 2 weeks as part of the 2-Tone@30 celebrations and further ones are planned for 2010 in London and Folkestone (with ska bands and scooter clubs), plus possibly exhibitions Paris and New York.

I am also proud to have been part of the team that set up some years ago the Folkestone Artists Co-operative ( and this year was pleased to be involved with an FAC filming project called Hendrix Woz Here. Noel Redding the bass player for Jimmi Hendrix Experience was a local Folkestone lad. Jimmi and Noel lived and stayed in a village near to Folkestone when not in another part of the world gigging or touring. One of Jimmis roadies and guitar minder also still lives locally with Hendrix guitars, jackets and memoirs So this is a documentary on the connection of Hendrix to Folkestone.

I am also on the committee of the annual Folkestone Multi-Culture Festival and involved with the statue project for the Folkestone Gurkha Army Memorial for those Gurkhas that have given their lives for Great Britain

This Art 2-Tone is currently exhibiting in Brighton at In My Room through November 29th and will be at the Coventry Central Library (which used to be Tiffany's night club where The Specials and The Selecter played) on from December 11-13th. The show will include an exhibition of posters and advertising from 30 years ago including original artworks and designs. Some posters, postcards, T-Shirts will be available to buy.

December 11-13th, 2009
Coventry Central Library
17 Smithford Way

If you are unable to attend the shows in the UK, Sims also has a Web site that is selling copies of the prints. Have a visit and take a look around. There are some amazing pieces for sale.

2-Tone Posters Web site

Sunday, November 22, 2009

NYC SKA LIVE - American 'Dance Craze' Captures The NYC Ska Scene At The Dawn Of The 90's

Its hard to believe that the excellent, but sadly overlooked NYC SKA LIVE compilation is fast approaching its 20th anniversary in 2010. The album was the brainchild of The Toasters leader and Moon Records honcho Rob 'Bucket' Hingley and conceived as the American sequel to 'Dance Craze' which chronicled 2-Tone at its peak. In fact, the show recorded at the Cat Club in New York City on March 26th, 1990 was supposed to be filmed by 'Dance Craze' director Joe Massot.

The dawn of 1990 saw the release of the Toasters third full length album 'This Gun For Hire' (and the first without co-front men Sean Dinsmore and Lionel Bernard who had left and signed a record deal as The Unity 2), and the seminal New York Citizen's 'Stranger Things Have Happened' EP. NYC SKA LIVE was to be the icing on the cake capturing all the bands -- The Toasters, The Scofflaws, The NY Citizens, Bigger Thomas, Skinnerbox, Skadanks, and The Steadys -- on the New York ska scene at that moment in time.

What I remember about the whole experience was the tremendous amount of planning that went into the filming of the show and recording of the accompanying soundtrack. My Bigger Thomas band mates and I travelled from New Jersey to attended a meeting at Moon Records HQ in the East Village in New York, where the details about the filming of the show were discussed. We were also presented with waivers and release forms as well as contracts which we signed with a certain amount of excitement, Hingley explained that he and Massot had plans to distribute the film widely around the World and that with ska breaking out in the U.S., the finished movie was expected to be exhibited at film festivals and possibly have a theatrical release. We left the meeting expecting big things.

Sadly it didn't work out as planned. Unfortunately, due to reasons that were never fully explained to us, Massot pulled out of filming the show at the last moment, despite the fact that expensive lights, special room mics and a remote sound truck to record the show had all been procured. Nevertheless, Moon Records did mix and release the 14-track album later in 1990. Though the artwork for the record and cassette tape are pretty awful, the sounds captured on the vinyl and magnetic tape still sound pretty fresh (though my one complaint is the annoying crowd sounds that were dropped in during post-production).

I have mostly fond memories about the whole experience. Though we no longer had to deal with cameras in our faces on stage, there was still a very large crowd on hand (attracted by the chance to be in a movie). As the openers for the whole show, there was added pressure to come out blazing and we did our best performing 'Moving' and 'Ska In My Pocket', except our original guitar player Steve Parker had all sorts of technical problems with his amp and effects pedal during the recording. This required us to play the song 'Moving' twice. The technical problems continued during the second take, requiring Bucket to cut off the whole intro to the song from the actual finished recording. While we were disappointed that Joe Massot bailed, we were still excited as the new kids on the block (we had been together a mere 18 months at this point) to be included on the record (see picture above courtesy of Paul Gil of The New York Citizens: From left to right on stage Steve Parker (guitar), Roger Apollon (vocals), Jim Cooper (drums), Kevin Shields (trumpet), yours truly (bass).

Five years on from the release of the N.Y. Beat:Hit & Run compilation which captured the sound of mid-80's New York City ska, NYC SKA LIVE documents the evolution of the New York 80's ska scene 2-Tone sound to a post-2-Tone take with more of an emphasis on roots reggae, rocksteady and dancehall reggae. The Toasters and The New York Citizens remain holdovers from the mid-80's, but newer bands including my own, King Django's post-Boilers band Skinnerbox, The Steadys (who may be the best sounding band on the comp), Skadanks and Long Island's Scofflaws all offer their unique takes on American ska at the start of the 1990's.

Sadly NYC SKA LIVE remains out-of-print (though I just saw a copy of the record for sale on Ebay for $35)and it is very unlikely it will ever be re-issued. Apparently Megalith Records (the successor to Moon Records) has audio of the whole show, though all the band's who participated would have to give permission for it to be re-released, and that is highly unlikely.

Below is the track listing:

NYC Ska Craze Intro
Bigger Thomas - Moving
Bigger Thomas - Ska In My Pocket
Skadanks - Dancehall
Skadanks - Just Ska
The Steadys - Just Reflections
The Steadys - All You Can Stand
Skinnerbox - Promise
Skinnerbox - Move Like You Gone
The Scofflaws - Going Back To Kingston
The Scofflaws, - Aliskaba
NY Citizens - National Front
The Toasters - Don't Say Forever
NYC Ska Allstars - Matt Davis

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bim Skala Bim To Reunite! - Iconic Boston Ska Band To Play Mighty Mighty Bosstones 'Home Town Throw Down 12'

In a year of ska band reunions, the news that Bim Skala Bim will be reuniting to open a show for The Mighty Mighty Bosstones during their annual Home Town Throw Down 12 on December 28th at The House Of Blues in Boston, may in fact be the best ska related news I've heard all year. The band last played together on New Year's Day 2000. Since then they have been silent, though members are still active in other musical projects. The news has created quite a stir on ska message boards around the Northeast of the U.S., particualrly on The Bosstones fan board where the news has been greeted with disbelief.

In my opinion Bim Skala Bim is among the best American ska band's ever (along with The Untouchables). They toured relentlessly throughout the 80's and 90's and I always loved their unique mix of 2-Tone ska, Calypso, Rock and Pop with thoughtful and catchy lyrics and top-notch musicianship. Their sound is unmistakable and early songs like 'The Key', 'Jah Laundromat' and 'Solitary Confinement' from their first self titled album (which I wore out from playing over and over again on my turntable) still get me bouncing. My band played a number of shows with them in our early days at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ. They were always kind to their openers and they shared touring tips and advice with us. For my money, Vinnie Nobile is one of best trombone player's I've ever heard and his distinctive sound defines the band (in the way Saxa's solos define the sound of The Beat).

The Bosstones will be playing three shows in succession at the end of December. The line-up of support bands includes:

December 26: Pilfers and Razors In The Night
December 27: Darkbuster and The Void Union
December 28: Bim Skala Bim and The Pietasters

Below is video of the band performing 'Diggin A Hole' and 'I Took A Fall' featuring Nobile's trademark trombone solos:

I have a call into Nobile (whose current band The Pilfers will also open on the first night) to get more information about who else from the band will be joining him on stage for the reunion. Once I connect with him I plan to post the information along with an interview with him about the band and the reunion.

I have funny feeling tickets for all three shows may be close to sold out, but if you are feeling lucky you can visit The Bosstones Web site to try your luck.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Return of The Beat Brigade! - NYC Ska Band Reunites For First Shows in 22 Years

Not to toot my own horn, but what the hell! I'm very proud to report that due to interviews I conducted with members of The Beat Brigade earlier this year, the New York ska band decided to reunite and not only that they plan to play out regularly!

Along with The Toasters, Second Step, The Boilers and The A-Kings, The Beat Brigade were part of the remarkable 2-Tone influenced ska scene that exploded in New York City in the early and mid-80's. In many ways, the band, along with Second Step and The Boilers were directly responsible for influencing me and my original band mates to start Bigger Thomas. The energy and community that was created around all these bands, many of whom were barely out of high school, still lives on. Indeed, the Beat Brigade reunion brought out a lot of old ska heads from back in the day.

The reunited line-up includes the original members Carmelo DiBartolo and Jack Hoppenstand on vocals and guitar, Frank Usamanont on bass, Erick Storkman on trombone and Dave Barry on keyboards who later went on to play with The Toasters. The band performed with my band Bigger Thomas earlier this month at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn and played their official reunion show at Kenny's Castaways in New York on November 14th.

It was very exciting for me to see the band play again after nearly 22 years and the fan in me kicked in. I brought my Flip Video camera along with me to the show and was able to record the band performing a number of their songs which are posted below including 'Armageddon Beat' which appeared on the N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run album in 1986. Enjoy!

Another Cause

All The Lights Have Gone Out

Armageddon Beat

The band's MySpace page has orginal recordings of the songs the band played live at the show as well as their updated gig calendar..

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Peter Tessensohn of The X-Streams -- The Best American 2-Tone Era Ska Band You've Never Heard

One of the most satisfying blog posts I've written to date has been a profile of The X-Streams, an Arizona-based ska band that played a part in the Los Angeles ska scene of the early 80's that flourished around the O.N. Klub. Their story is one that continues to draw me in. Perhaps because they came so close to success before self-destructing. Perhaps because they brought an energy and intensity that was both mesmerizing and a little bit frightening to those who saw and heard them. Perhaps because for one brief moment they may have been the best hope for what an American 2-Tone era ska band could have been.

The band coalesced around Bob Steinhilber (drums), Peter Tessensohn (bass), Steve Kriol (guitar) and Lorraine Springer, a young woman from Trinidad on lead vocals. Springer had met Kriol in California and travelled with him to Arizona to start the band. The addition of local guitarist Kurt Mayberry was the final ingredient that took them to the next level, but also complicated their future. Much like Pauline Black and Neol Davies in The Selecter, it was the vocal interplay and energy between Springer and Mayberry that set The X-Streams apart and captured the attention of LA-based producers and music industry veterans, who for a short time, were captivated by the band's live energy and their edginess.

Shortly after posting my original story about The X-Streams, I connected with Peter Tessensohn. We've stayed in touch since and Tessensohn has been very generous in sharing old pictures and unreleased music with me that the band recorded during the early days. As an original member of the band and the one who was closest to the late Kurt Mayberry, he has a unique perspective on the early days of the band as well as later versions of the band that played together into the early 90's. He recently took time to share his memories about the band and to tell me more about the band's memorable shows at the O.N. Klub in Los Angeles in 1980. He also shared a treasure trove of never before seen pictures of the band at that O.N. Klub show and a song from a Warner Brothers record demo and gave me permission to post them. The pictures alone are worth an exhibition about the O.N. Klub's history. Until that happens, they provide a glimpse into the band at its peak and capture their intensity.

Can you tell me about your introduction to music and ska music in particular?
I started playing music in high school with my friend Kurt Mayberry in the front yard of my house with acoustic guitars in mid 1973-1974. My introduction to ska and reggae music came about by accident. Back in 1979, Mayberry told me he was playing in a band that was beyond Punk Rock but he could not describe it. He told me it was right up his alley and he enjoyed the offbeat rhythms which complimented his own unique style of guitar playing.

How did the X-Streams get started? Did you know the other members of the band beforehand? Why did you decide to call the band The X-Streams?
As I remember, founding members:Loraine Springer –lead vocals & front person, Steve Kriol – rhythm guitar, Bob Steinhilber – drums, Kurt Mayberry initially played bass at the first gig and immediately thereafter on vocals, rhythm and lead guitar. Kurt invited me to come about and analyze this new unfamiliar music during a rehearsal session, located at a place known as “The Hate House”. Upon arriving, I noticed a bass guitar leaning against a fender bass amp with two fifteen inch speakers, but no bass player. It practically had my name written on it. “This is a set-up” I thought and reluctantly agreed to play for that practice session only, Kurt and members of the band were praising me “on very fine job I was doing” with Bob Steinhilber saying out loudly “You’re in the band”. Loraine creatively entitled us The X-Streams, specifying the “X” having five focal points with her in the “center”.

Where did the band fit into the Arizona music scene of the early 80's?
We fit right up there with the New Wave, Reggae/Ska and Punk scene. The genre of music we performed in roster was versatile, not classified in just one.

Would you describe The X-Streams as a ska band, a reggae band, or a mix of both? Did any bands or musicians influence you?
A mixture of both and embedded with our own unique style. We also covered different genres of music in our song writing as I do now to this day. Kurt Mayberry was a great influence on me due to his unique guitar playing in rhythmic articulation. Man do I miss him. He was a best friend forever, and he gave me the opportunity to indulge in music. Kurt had a natural talent for playing all musical instruments. We were influenced by bands like The Police, Bob Marley, UB40, Toots and the Maytals, The Beatles to name a few.

What was it like to be in a racially mixed band in Arizona in the early 80's? This is a state would not make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday for some time.
Being in a racially mixed band had no consequence at all. Music breaks the prejudice of racial indifference from my experience. I only had good feed back here in Arizona and L.A.

What was your first show at the ON Klub in LA like? How important were your early shows at the ON Klub to the success of the band?
The first show at the O.N Klub in the Silver Lake section of LA. was great and sold-out with SRO. We had a great booking agent/promoter named John Sutton-Smith get a picture of us in the LA Weekly (see picture above). Roger Steffens of radio station KCRW played our demo tape on the air and plugged the show. He even showed up for our show that night and introduced us on stage as he did for numerous shows. That very same night Paul Wexler (son of late Jerry Wexler) was there to catch both shows. Paul had recently produced The Go Go’s 'We Got the Beat' album and was considering us for a recording deal of some sort with Warner Brothers Records. Though we never signed, we did record a demo of 4-5 songs that Paul Wexler produced. One of those songs was our version of Sugar Minot’s “Hard Time Pressure” with Loraine on lead vocal. Years later, we re-recorded the song again with Kurt Mayberry on Vocals.

Tell me a bit about the early song writing process. Who wrote the songs on your first two singles? Rhythm of Life is a great song and the interplay between Lorraine and Kurt is fantastic.
Though Kurt and I had a number of original compositions, Loraine liked the songs of reggae greats and we covered the song “Rhythm of Life”. Yes, the interplay was fantastic.

The band had a reputation for putting on a great live show. Do you any have memories of any shows is particular that stand out?
The O.N. Klub shows were my favorite at time the original lineup of band members of The X-Streams. Kurt and I went on with the band after Loraine, Bob, and Steve moved on, with a new line up.

Why did Lorraine leave the band and how did that change the band dynamic?
Lorraine left due to relationship matters within the band and business aspects. The dynamic’s of the band was that we no longer had a front person as impressionable as Lorraine. Yet, the composition of music we wrote and covered excelled over the years.

Despite the many trials and tribulations the band endured what do you think its legacy is?
I never pondered on a legacy; we presented a performance on stage. Combing genres of music entwined with our groove and style made a unique sound of music.

Are you still involved with music these days?
Yes, I hope to release a compilation of songs Kurt and I recorded over the years and that of my own in recent. That is still in form, style, and groove of my upbringing, originals, and covers.

Below is a link to download the song 'Hard Time Pressure' that was part of a demo recorded by the band with Paul Wexler that Tessonsohn shared with me. It features the unmistakable co-lead vocals of Mayberry and Springer and showcases the amazing musical promise the original line-up exhibited. The song itself is an autobiographical account of the band's experiences trying to make it in Los Angeles ('Say Hollywood put on the pressure/hard time pressure').

After the original version of the band fragmented, Mayberry and Tessensohn persevered and The X-Streams became mainstays of the Arizona music scene. Along with a rotating series of musicians they continued to record great ska and reggae-influenced songs. Below is a recording of 'Appeared To Be' featuring Kurt Mayberry on vocals and guitar,Peter Tessensohn on bass and Pat Sweeney on drums (who replaced Bob Steihilber on Drums in 1985) and 'Push & Shove' that was recorded with the horn section of The Untouchables. The songs shows the progression of the band from its origins but showcases Mayberry's voice and guitar playing (check out his solo on 'Appeared To Be') as well as the way he channeled his life experiences into his song writing.

You can get more information about The X-Streams and Tessensohn from his Web site.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Mario Minardi - Plucked From Obscurity To Play Drums for General Public

Long before reality TV shows like 'Making The Band' and 'Rock Star: INXS', well established bands have been plucking musicians from obscurity to live the rock star experience. The most famous instance from the early 1980's occurred when The Clash kicked Mick Jones out and replaced him with two unknown guitarists named Vince White and Nick Sheppard. White would later write an account of his experiences during the final years of The Clash, titled 'Out Of Control: The Last Days of The Clash'. Judas Priest also picked unknown singer Tim 'Ripper' Owens from a cover band to serve as their lead singer for a short time (and his story was turned into a movie called 'Rock Star' featuring Mark Wahlberg).

One such instance with a 2-Tone flavor is the story of the Minardi brothers from suburban Orange County just outside Los Angeles. Mario and Gian Minardi who played in their own ska-rock band The Basics, were asked by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger to join a revamped version of General Public in late 1985 (the picture above is from The Basics one single). That invitation spirited them from their days as a support band in the sunny climes of Southern California to Birmingham in the UK where they joined the rest of General Public to re-record the band's second major label release 'Hand To Mouth'. The album was pegged as the follow-up to the chart topping 'All The Rage' which included the band's Top 40 U.S. hit 'Tenderness'.

But let's start at the beginning. The Beat had become popular in the U.S. near the end of their run as a band, but their popularity was strongest in California where performances at both US Festivals in 1982 and 1983 endeared them to music lovers there including the Minardi brothers who later opened shows for General Public. After dissolving The Beat in 1983, Wakeling and Ranking Roger emerged in late 1984 with the album 'All The Rage' and a stellar backing band that included keyboardist Mickey Billingham (ex-Dexys Midnight Runners), guitarist Mick Jones of The Clash (who only played on the album and was replaced by Kevin White), bassist Horace Panter (The Specials) and drummer Stoker (ex-Dexys Midnight Runners/The Bureau).

In the UK, General Public had a minor hit with the eponymous track 'General Public', which reached # 60 in the UK Singles Chart in 1984. The B-side "Dishwasher" became a surprise top 40 hit in the Netherlands, after its use as a theme tune to a popular pop radio show. Later in the year, the band fared even better in North America, where their second single 'Tenderness' was a Top 40 hit in Canada (#11), and the U.S. (#27). They capped off a busy year by appearing on the MTV 'Rockin Eve' on December 31, 1984 (see video below).

By mid-1985, General Public had reached a crossroads after the unexpected success of 'All The Rage' and IRS Records had big expectations for the follow-up. After spending a lot of time and money recording the follow-up 'Hand To Mouth' the band was beset with some delays and bad luck. First the band discovered that all the rhythm tracks for the album were off, meaning it would need to be completely re-recorded. This led to the dismissal of White and Stoker. Enter the Minardi's. After endearing themselves to Wakeling, who was preparing to record and produce The Basics first album in the UK, they suddenly found themselves as the new drummer and guitarist for General Public.

Wakeling was quoted in a Billboard Magzine article from November 1986 describing the appeal of the Minardi's skills as a musicians saying "We wanted a new drummer who was as comfortable playing reggae as rock. We write in a lot of different musical styles and meters, mixing up reggae with rockabilly, and pop with soul. We wanted to be able to mix of rhythms at the drop of a hat and Mario was very good for that. Gianni is just a great guitarist." As it turns out, I had an unexpected brush with the Minardi's while waiting in line to see General Public perform at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1986. There was a large group behind me who were excitedly talking about Mario and Gian who suddenly appeared out of nowhere to quickly greet their family members before returning back inside the theatre to prepare for the show.

You can hear an example of the Minardi's musical chops in a live version of 'Forward As One' from 'Hand To Mouth' recorded during a show in Washington, DC in 1986:

I recently connected with Minardi, who works as a musical pastor at a Church in San Jose, California. He still plays the drums and has very fond memories of his days playing music in Southern California in the early 80's and his unexpected good fortune at joining General Public in the mid-80's. He has wonderful perspective about the opportunity he had to play in a band at the height of its popularity. Read on...

What was it like growing up in Southern California in the late 70's and early 80's and how did that influence you musically and artistically?
I came from a very musical family so there was always mom was always singing songs she grew up with in Sicily, and dad was always jamming on his guitar and accordion. My brother Gian and I loved music our whole lives and always listened to the stuff of the 70’s and 80’s almost like it was “schooling” – in other words, we not only enjoyed listening, but we really studied and internalized the music.

When did you make the conscious decision to become a musician? Were you a fan of ska and reggae growing up?
I decided to become a musician when I was 10 years old in my cousin’s room listening to him play his first drum set….I was HOOKED. I made the professional choice after I graduated college in 1984. I really wanted to honor my parents in that way, but after that, I NEEDED to honor what was in my heart. I was a fan of 70’s rock and pop music. My first real favorite band was THE POLICE. After that I became acquainted with the whole ska movement that was happening in England in the early 80’s and really gravitated toward THE BEAT.

Tell me about The Basics, the band you and your brother Gianni performed with in the early 80's? How did the band get started?
We wanted to copy our favorite bands (Police, The Beat, The Specials, etc.). We started the band with my best friend Marc Taub who was living in Laguna Beach, CA.

How would you describe the early sound of The Basics? The one song I've heard that you recorded 'Run By You' sounded very influenced by The Police?
You nailed it on the head….we LOVED The Police. You gotta start somewhere, and it’s usually mimicking your favorite bands. Living in Laguna Beach, we were surrounded by Reggae bands, world-beat music, ska, drum circles, etc. All those became influences on our music

Did The Basics play shows around Southern California? Did you open shows for bands that were touring through LA and San Diego?
Because of our relationship with the popular Reggae band THE REBEL ROCKERS, we had a chance to play almost every great club (and plenty of dives!) from LA to San Diego. Those days were hard, fun, and a great (and necessary) training ground.

What was the music scene in Southern California like in the early and mid-80's? Were you a part of the ska/mod scene that developed around The Untouchables in LA?
The music scene was as diverse as Southern California was…glam-rock, Toto wannabees, the whole 80’s techno-thing….but there were actually a few good bands around. We never officially called ourselves a ska band because we had other influences. But we were able to fit in to a lot of ska events during that era.

How did you meet Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger from The Beat and General Public and how did you and your brother end up officially joining the band?
Very fun story . . . . . every time they were on tour in the LA area, we would ALWAYS find a way to sneak into their concerts, get back-stage, or follow them after the shows to their hotel. We were Beat freaks! Dave really was amused with us (he called us “The Minardi Brothers”). He’s such a gentleman really….he always asked us for demos of The Basics and was truly concerned about our music career. When they toured as GP (General Public) we still found ways to sneak back stage. On their first tour, Gian and I told Dave that we REALLY needed a lucky break. They had one night in Hollywood that they needed an opening act. A few weeks later The Basics opened up for GP. There was a great chemistry between the two bands, and we were only a three-piece band so we were the ideal opening act. A short time later they asked us to open for their entire Canadian and mid-west tour. Finally things started coming together. After that Dave wanted to produce our first CD. We shipped all our gear to England, and arrived as they were completing HAND TO MOUTH. The engineer they hired to mix the project said the rhythm tracks were all “off” and said they would have to re-record the ENTIRE ALBUM!!! In order to raise more money for recording, GP had to return to America for a west-coast tour. Gian and I got a band together to open up for them, and also sang background vocals with GP….we had so much fun! We didn’t care that we got all the way to England and Dave couldn’t work with us! It was at the end of that tour (December 1985) that Dave fired their drummer and guitar player and hired Gian and I to take their place. A few weeks later we were back in England learning the songs for HAND TO MOUTH. We recorded part of the tracks at UB40’s studio in Birmingham, and the other tracks at a studio near Oxford. The project was completed by late spring 1986.

Tell me about recording the 'Hand To Mouth' album with the band at UB40's studio? Are there any interesting stories to share about that experience?
Well, my favorite memory at The Abbatoir was being able to jam with the guys in UB40 when I wasn’t needed to record my drum tracks. The studio thing was very new to me, and it was nerve wracking to say the least! It was also very interesting to get acclimated to the English culture. Gian and I got our own flat, learned the public transportation system, and expected to live there indefinitely. My all-time high was opening for STEEL PULSE after our recording was done. Their drummer (I forgot his name) came up to me after our performance and said, “You’re a hard drummer MON!” That’s the highest compliment in the Jamaican culture for sure!

What was it like to go on a national tour with General Public? Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable?
Touring was (and will always be) my favorite part of music. I love traveling, meeting new people, playing my heart out, eating good food and trying local beer! Playing in front of a lively crowd will always be a rush. We played a lot of college campus’. That was the age group that GP really appealed to. It was an honor to play the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in front of about thirty of my New York Minardi relatives. And I got to experience all of this with my younger brother. I guess I’m kinda old-school!

Why did the band break-up following the release of the record and the tour to support it?
I think Dave and Ranking Roger developed different tastes and directions in music. Dave wanted to go a more “pop” direction to appeal to more people, and Ranking Roger was more alternative and probably wanting to return more to the roots of The Beat. They both tried solo stuff after GP, but there was a chemistry between those guys that was magical!

Tell me about your life outside of music? Do you still play the drums?
I’m currently a music pastor at a church in San Jose, California. I love connecting people with God through music. I have a beautiful wife (Cheryl) of 16 years, three kids, lots of friends, students I teach drums to, and a love for biking! I’m actually looking to return to music full-time. I’m not sure how or when, but I’m a better drummer than I’ve ever been, and I really want to hook up with some gifted artists and create some new music that will really inspire people. I’ve really grown up and am ready to give of myself through the gifts God has given to me. Know of any bands looking for a drummer???!!!

What are your lasting memories of performing with General Public?
To sum it up in one word: PRIVILEGE. I didn’t necessarily deserve to be in GP, but it happened, it was fun, I got to travel and experience the beauty of England, Canada, and America. The coolest thing that happened was I got to experience this at 23-years-old. And even then, I had a sense that there’s gotta be more to life than people worshipping you just because you’re a drummer in a famous band. I really think this “knowing” there’s gotta be more was what God used to lead me to Himself through a relationship with Jesus. I’m a totally different person now….I love people…I want to give to people….I want to make their lives better….help lighten their load and bring a smile to their face! I was so selfish back then….God has completely changed me….miracles still happen today!

Below is a video that Minardi recently recorded that recounts his experience playing in General Public and the spiritual awakening that lead to his current job as a musical pastor:

You can hear Minardi's first band The Basics single 'Run By You' which was released in 1983. The band has a rock meets reggae sound very much like The Police.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Boxboys Legacy Grows - Live Recording From The O.N. Klub in Los Angeles: October 1980

I'm happy to report that interest in The Boxboys has increased a bit since I posted an interview with the band's original singer Betsy Weiss earlier this year. I discovered that the younger brother of the band's saxophone player David Burg has started a MySpace page dedicated to the band and is looking to connect with anyone who may have pictures, audio or video of the band playing anywhere around Los Angeles in the late 70's - early 80's.

As it turns out, another relative of the band's guitarist, Larry Monroe Monroe, has posted live audio of the band on a YouTube channel. Apparently he's the boyfriend of Monroe Monroe's daughter. Monroe Monroe passed away a few years ago and left his daughter with a lot of Boxboys paraphernalia, including American Masquerade records, boxes of tape recordings, and much of their advertising materials and O.N. Klub flyers. I'm hoping to make contact with him to find out about hearing some of these recordings and seeing the flyers.

In the meantime, here is the recording that was posted (with a promise of more to come). It's a live recording of The Boxboys at the O.N Klub in Los Angeles on October 12th, 1980 performing the song 'American Masquerade'. The song was recorded and released as one of their two singles. The band line-up for this live recording includes:

Betsy Weiss - Vocals
David Loren Burg - guitar, keyboards, saxophone
Larry Monroe Monroe - guitar
Scott Ska Sigman - keys
Ivan Wong, Jr. - bass
Greg Sowders - drums

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jerry Dammers Diary Documents The Early Days of The Specials

As The Specials undertake the second leg of their UK tour (still without Mr. Jerry Dammers), I thought it was appropriate to share some pages from his diary documenting the early days of the band when they were known as The Coventry Automatics. I discovered this priceless document posted on The Specials fan forum recently and wanted to make sure it got shared with a wider audience of 2-Tone fans. 

The actual layout of the diary is impressive, given that Dammers created it long before the first generation of Apple Computers made the old school way of doing art design obsolete.  The 3-page diary includes spaces for months between 1976 and early 1979 and hand written entries that chronicle what now has become the well-known lore of the band's early days.  Its all topped by a roughly designed heading featuring The Special A.K.A. moniker that Dammers has always used.

Dammers entries highlight some great stories, including an early attempt to lure Johnny Rotten from The Sex Pistols to replace Terry as the lead singer of the band. Most of the monthly entries for 1978 provide a real window in to the trials and tribulations the band endured as they looked for a manager and a record deal.  It;s fascinating to read Dammers take on their experience traveling to Paris which resulted in the song 'Gangsters' as well as his pointed jibes at Clash manager Bernie Rhoades who managed the band for a short time.  All in all its a great historical artifact that documents the band and Dammers drive and ambition.