Thursday, December 31, 2009

Marco On The Bass Podcast Series: Best Songs of 2009

I wanted to take an opportunity to wish all my readers and visitors a very Happy New Year. I also wanted to take one last look back at some of the best music I wrote about in 2009. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview and talk to some amazing ska and reggae musicians this year and write about their stories and their music and I wanted to highlight some of my favorites from the past year.

This podcast is just under one hour of hard to find and out of print ska and reggae classics from the U.S. and U.K. during the golden era of ska from the late 70's through the mid 1990's.

Here is the podcast play list and a bit about each track:

1. Joe Jackson - The Harder They Come
This cover of the Jimmy Cliff classic was originally recorded and released by Jackson as a non-album single in 1980. Jackson and his band do the song justice mixing in just enough punk energy to make it unique.

2. The X-Streams - Rhythm Of Life
Signature track from an unreleased Warner Brothers demo the band recorded with Producer Paul Wexler in Los Angeles in 1980. They could have been contenders as one of the best American ska bands of the 80's.

3. The Selecter - Return Of The Selecter
In lieu of a full band reunion to celebrate their 30th anniversary, Neol Davies' recorded an update of the original 1979 track and made it available for free on his Web site.

4. Blue Riddim Band - Rock It Sistah (Live)
Talk to anyone who ever saw Blue Riddim live and they will search for words to try to tell you what it was like. The truth is it's hard to describe the band because they were so unbelievably good. Seven white guys from Kansas City who laid down reggae grooves so massive that the speakers shook on their bases. They were the hardest working band in America, traveling coast to coast playing small venues and leaving behind dazed audiences who are still trying to piece together their shattered preconceptions. They weren't just the best white reggae band on the planet they were one of the best reggae bands ever. This track is taken from a live set recorded in San Diego, California in 1981 with the original members and available on the recently released 'Ska Reggae Revival' LP.

5. The Beat - Dangerous (Live Radio Session)
Taken from a live radio session from Ranking Roger's version of The Beat recorded for Mark Lamarr's God's Jukebox show on BBC Radio 2 this past June. Great to hear Roger and his band have written new original songs. Hope we get to see him over on this side of the pond sometime soon.

6. Bigger Thomas - Moving (Live)
Taken from the still impossible to find and never to be re-released NYC Ska Live compilation that was recorded and released in 1990. Still a mainstay of our set, though I'm not sure we've ever played the song as fast and furious as we did that night in March 1990 at the Cat Club in New York City. Joe Massott was a no-show to film the American version of 'Dance Craze'. Ah to imagine what could have been...

7. Big Audio Dynamite - Harrow Road (Ska Mix)
Ultra rare ska mix featuring Ranking Roger on this paean to one of Mick Jones favorite places in London. The two have had a mutual musical appreciation society for many years (Jones was a member of General Public for a minute and Roger guested on a never released version of 'Rock The Casbah' ).

8. Bim Skala Bim - Jah Laundramat
Perhaps the best American ska band of all time who recently reunited for a few shows in their hometown of Boston, MA. Here's to hoping they take the reunion of the road or at least to New York City....

9. The Specials (MK2) - Farmyard Connection
A super rare outtake by the 90's incarnation of the band of my favorite Fun Boy Three song of all time. The Specials take the original which lays out the class inequities of herb production and make the music more muscular and the tone more righteous and angry.

10. The Boxboys - Come See About Me
The first L.A. ska band who help to kick-off the Mod revival centered around the famous O.N. Klub. This cover of the Diana Ross & The Supremes song is sung by Betsy Bitch who went on to bigger and better things in the world of Heavy Metal.

11. The Members - Offshore Banking Business
My introduction to this eerily prophetic track came during a screening of 'Urgh - A Music War' while I was at University in the early 80's. My initial introduction to the band had been through their big U.S. hit 'Working Girl' which was a staple on MTV in 1982. Therefore I was unprepared for the brass and bass-driven skank of the song that featured singer Nicky Tesco toasting “a lesson in home economics” and the unmistakable horns of Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell. An overlooked classic.

12. The Boilers - Brighter Days
The Boilers were the brightest and most talented band to come out of the mid 80's ska explosion in New York City. This sublime track (written and recorded in a mere 4 hours) appears on the long out-of-print and never to be re-released NY Beat: Hit & Run compilation that helped nurture ska in the U.S.

13. Headline - Don't Knock The Bald Head
One of the joys of writing this blog has been the opportunity to discover and pay respects to all the bands that contributed to the entire canon of 2-Tone era ska. One such band that caught my eye and ears was Headline. They were a 6-piece ska-pop band signed to Virgin Records who released several singles, including the catchy "Don't Knock The Baldhead/Highway Hassle" and a self-titled album in 1980. Based on their sound and their look, Headline quickly became UK media darlings, who were noteworthy for their sense of fun as well as their wild stage entrances. Bad Manners went on to cover the song and make it a mainstay of their set.

14. The Terrorists - Hail The Day
New York City's premiere reggae band who sold out shows all over the city club scene in the late 70's and early 80's with their faithful reggae rhythms. The band were so good they attracted the attention of Jamaican producer extraordinaire Lee 'Scratch' Perry who joined them for a short time and produced the 12' track 'Love Is Better Now'. They also claimed Roland Alphonso of The Skatalites as a featured member for a few years.

15. Capital Letters - Do We Really Need a Government?
Capital Letters were one of the main players in the distinctive homegrown British roots reggae scene that emerged in the late 70's and were the first group to be signed to the Greensleeves label. Along with groups like Matumbi, Aswad, Black Roots and Steel Pulse, Capital Letters managed to break down many of the prejudices that reggae music could only be made in Jamaica. This song is taken from the highly sought-after `Bread and Water' 7" EP, a ska-flavored quartet of tracks, which was released in 1980 - a nod to the 2-Tone scene that was taking place in the UK at the time.

16. The Untouchables - Lebanon
While I have always loved each and every 2-Tone band and their take on U.K. life and politics, The Untouchables were the first mainstream American ska band (though signed to Stiff and produced by Jerry Dammers). I was proud to have an American band featuring American themes and accents that I could connect with and look up to. Kevin Long, the lead singer of the band placed the band squarely into an American context. "We're American. We don't sing in English accents. I have no particular affection for Union Jacks. We used to put up an American flag behind us onstage to let people know we're here, this is where we're from and this is where we want to make it." The song 'Lebanon' captures the conflict an American Marine is feeling during an early 80's deployment to Beirut and is still eerily relevant given the numbers of young American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Happy listening and Happy New Year! Hope you will visit again in 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Marco On The Bass Takes A Look Back At The Year In Ska 2009

While 2009 was a hard year on most people (job losses, mounting unemployment rates, continued home foreclosures) it's going to be very hard to top when it comes to ska. There was an unbelievable cornucopia of 2-Tone era band reunions, tours, shows, books, media coverage and new albums and music to enjoy. In fact, the amount of ska related developments came so fast and furious at times, it was hard to keep up because there was so much to write about. So in that time honored tradition of looking back at the year that was, here is my top 10 Marco On The Bass ska highlights countdown of 2009:

10. The Beat Brigade Reunion
I'm happy to have played a small part in motivating the members of one the original NYC Ska bands of the mid-80's to reunite for the first time in 22 years for two shows at the end of 2009 including one at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, NYC. If you missed them, the good news is that more shows are planned for 2010. Until then have a look and listen to one their best known songs 'Armageddon Beat'.

9. Bim Skala Bim reunite for first shows in 8 years
One of my favorite American ska bands of all time reform for a series of shows in Boston including one on New Year's Eve. These road warriors carried the American ska flag for much of the 80's and early 90's. Though I can't be there in person I have a request: Please play 'Jah Laundromat'!

8. The Ammonites kick-off 2009 ska band reunion fever
This overlooked band of the 2-Tone era reunited for one night and one night only with their first show in 30 years in their hometown of Brighton. They play 'Blue Lagoon', one of the most overlooked songs of the entire 2-Tone era. Never heard the song? Have a listen on the video below.

7. The Drastics record and release 'MJ A Rocker'
Chicago-based ska/reggae band celebrate the life and music of Michael Jackson with the release of 'MJ A Rocker'. The free download features a brilliant mix of Jackson's original vocals over the band's spot-on skinhead reggae covers of his best known songs. Below is their take on 'Rock With You'.

6. Neville Staple releases his autobiography
The Specials MC kicks off a heady year with the release of 'Original Rude Boy'. In a stroke of marketing genius, the book is released at the height of Specials-mania in the UK. A good read that provides a look inside the Black British experience as well as an insiders view of the break-up the The Specials.

5. Paul Williams releases 'You're Wondering Now - The Specials from Conception to Reunion'
Paul 'Willo' Williams releases the definitive history of The Specials from the early days through their reunion show at the Isle Of Wight in September 2008. Willo's exclusive access to the band members provides you the reader with an inside history of the band. Essential reading for all fans of The Specials. Below is a great interview with Willo about his book.

4. Fishbone celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2009
The band who helped develop a uniquely American take on ska announce the release of their very first official live DVD. Their is also a documentary about the band in the works titled 'Everyday Sunshine' and the band continue touring and can be seen in the U.S. in early 2010 on tour with Dave Wakeling's version of The Beat. Below is a excerpt of 'Sunless Saturday' from the the live DVD recorded in Bordeaux, France.

3. The Liberty Of Norton Folgate
Madness release an album of inspired originals which reaches #5 on the UK pop charts. A film of the same name is screened at the London International Film Festival. The band roll-on as creative and vibrant as ever and if recent UK media reports are true, may play a hand in getting The Specials and Jerry Dammers to reunite for a joint tour with The Specials in 2010. Below is an album sampler.

2. Missing Words - The Selecter Don't Reunite
Sadly, members of the most original band of the 2-Tone era were unable to put differences aside to celebrate their 30th anniversary. All is not lost though, as Neol Davies' releases an update of the iconic and classic 'The Selecter' track with 'The Return Of The Selecter'; Earlier in the year he is joined briefly by singer Pauline Black and drummer Aitch Bembridge for a short acoustic set during Holocaust Remembrance Day in Coventry. Pauline Black continues to record and perform and is preparing to release a solo record 'The Pigment Of My Imagination'. Black embarked on a 2009 World Tour (Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, Argentina, Brazil) sharing the stage with Ranking Roger and Neville Staple while performing songs by the band (see video below of her performance of 'Missing Words' with The Neville Staple band in Nottingham this past May).

1. The Specials 30th anniversary reunion tour
Six of the seven original members put their differences aside to fulfill their promise as one the best live bands ever and answer the prayers of 40-something Rudeboys and Rudegirls across the UK. Roddy 'Radiation' Byers offers readers of the blog an inside view of the reunion proceedings. One question remains unanswered: Is a U.S. tour in the works? Below is a great interview with Horace and Roddy on their first impressions of the tour.

On tap for 2010:
I'm working to pull together a 25th reunion of the bands and musicians who were featured on N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run compilation released on Moon Records in 1985. More details, a date and a location in New York City to follow in the new year.

On the personal front:
The release of the long overdue CD/Vinyl 'Pure' by my band Bigger Thomas. We are wrapping up the final mix with King Django and hope to have cover art designed by a well-known artist from the 2-Tone era. The record should be available in March 2010 as a Radiohead-styled pay what you want download link on this blog as well as on other e-commerce music sites.

Please share your own Top 10 list and offer your own personal highlights for 2009.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays! - The Specials To Release 30th Anniversary DVD

As posted here several months ago, Lynval Golding's daughter Michelle has been busy pulling together footage from the 30th Anniversary Tour for an official DVD documentary release. The DVD will feature the band's show in Wolverhampton as well as behind the scenes footage and a 'fans eye view' of the show. In addition she solicited and received hundreds of photos from fans from 1978-1982 to provide a visual history of the band and its supporters.

Though the band had hoped to have the DVD ready in time for Christmas, there are still last minute edits being made to it. Michelle Golding posted the following on The Specials community forum last week:

Hello lovely people.

Massive thank you to everyone who emailed me photos. As always you guys are brilliant. If I get to do it all over again, I'll be round your houses to look through your boxes of goodies

Anyway, the edits are finished, and being approved so I don't think we will make the Xmas post after all. Not for lack of trying, there were points where people were working 16hr days and then going to the gigs to support the guys.

It will be well worth the wait, it really looks just like being there, beer flying and all

We don't have a release date yet as there are still ongoing tech stuff to do. But as soon as we know you will be the first to know.

Smiles all round


Pre-orders for the DVD are available through the band's official Web site. Until you get your official DVD in early 2010, you can watch live video from the Wolverhampton show filmed by fans at the show below:

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ranking Roger & Blue Riddim Band Collaborate On 'Nancy Reagan' - The Story Behind An Overlooked Protest Song Of The 80's

During the 1980's in the U.S., alternative music continued to be a strong voice of protest against President Ronald Reagan and his policies. Perhaps the catchiest song to poke fun of the Reagan's came from the Blue Riddim Band, an American reggae band, who wrote and recorded the satirical track 'Nancy Reagan' about the President's wife. With brilliant lyrics including, "All my clothes are from the best designers/All my china is a perfect match', the song is a fantastic piece of Studio One inspired bass, drums and brass that may be one of the most overlooked reggae rhythms ever recorded. It used humor to make a cutting political statement about where the First Lady's (and our country's) misguided priorities lay during the 1980's.

More significantly, this all-white band hailing from Kansas City, Missouri have the distinction of being the very first American reggae band to be invited to play at Reggae Sunsplash. Their blazing set of ska and reggae covers and originals as dawn was rising over Jarrett Park on August 15, 1982 is legendary. They earned two encores from the crowd of 20,000 Jamaicans who were mesmerized by their 'blue eyed reggae.' Their Sunsplash performance was recorded for the LP 'Alive In Jamaica' released in 1984 which was nominated for a Grammy for best reggae album in 1985. The record's highlight is a blistering live version of 'Nancy Reagan'(see video below).

According to noted Reggae music author, historian, DJ and commentator Carter Van Pelt, few groups have played reggae outside Jamaica as convincingly as the Blue Riddim Band. The group coalesced as Rhythm Function in the mid-70s under the guidance of multi-instrumentalist and composer Bob Zohn and percussionist Steve "Duck" McLane. The group earned a reputation skillfully playing soul and R&B at clubs in the South and Northeast of the U.S. The original line-up included McLane (drums, bass, percussion & vocals), Zohn (guitar, drums & lead vocals), Andy Myers (bass & trombone), Scott Korchak (trumpet & lead vocals), Pat Pearce (keyboards, percussion & vocals), Jack Blackett (saxophone), and Howard Yukon (guitar, percussion & vocals.

So what was the band like live? According to Gavin B. who was at the 1982 Sunsplash performance, "I was operating the video camera that was doing the pan shots of the crowd in this video and I was stunned at the enthusiastic reaction of the mostly all Jamaican crowd. Look closely at the crowd shots and you'll see an ecstatic Winston Rodney (aka Burning Spear) skanking away to the music. He was good friends with the band and was largely responsible for getting BRB as performers at Sunsplash." The band were voted co-'Best Band' of the entire Sunsplash festival. According to McLane, they were surprised by the reaction they received, "It blew me away that we blew them away. I was expecting pineapples and cantaloupes thrown at us. We're playing these old songs, and we're also from America, and we're also white. It's five o'clock in the morning, and they're going, 'What in the ... ?'"

The 'Nancy Reagan' track soon became the band's calling card and it inspired a young fan of the band living in California to showcase the track and Blue Riddim Band further. Roberto was known to Southern California reggae fans as host of a weekly reggae radio program. He envisioned creating a protest song that would be critical of the ongoing Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and his view that it was being perpetuated by Reagan. Calling in a few favors, he was able to land the help of reggae enthusiast David Lindley, who mixed the "Nancy Reagan Re-Election Remix" side, and of Ranking Roger, who featured on "America & Russia/Selective Service System" and a free-style toast over the basic 'Nancy Reagan' track.

According to an interview he conducted with the Los Angeles Times when the record was released in early 1985, Roberto explained that the record's packaging was designed to reflect his anti-Reagan message: the record sleeve features a newspaper-style layout with the headline 'Special $18 Million Inaugural Edition' over a striking Paul Bedard painting of Nancy Reagan holding a bowl of jelly beans while five starving black children stand at her feet. The $18-million figure, Roberto said, represented the amount spent on the 1985 inaugural celebration. "I can't see how they can spend $18 million on a four-day gala when there are people dying of starvation in this world," he said. "There is a time and a place to party, but that is just too much."

According to the Los Angeles Times story, Roberto first met Ranking Roger in 1981, when Roger and fellow General Public founder Dave Wakeling were still members of The Beat. "Roger did not have to do this (record)," Roberto said, "but he was sympathetic with my concerns and my concept that came from being fed up with the current administration." While recording one of the songs in New York, Roberto tracked down veteran Jamaican producer-engineer "Maxi" McKenzie, who mixed the two tracks with Ranking Roger.

Operating as a one-man record label and basing himself in Orange County, California, one of the most pro-Reagan parts of the U.S.. Roberto set out to get his message and record out. According to the interview with the Los Angeles Times, Roberto said, "It might be an impossible task," he admitted, "but you've got to start somewhere. Those who are offended will be offended anyway. But if I can open some eyes, raise some people's consciousness, then I'll be satisfied."

So what did the band think of the final product? I had always assumed that the band had collaborated directly with Ranking Roger. Apparently that was not the case. I recently connected with Todd " Bebop " Burd who joined Blue Riddim on bass in 1983, about the collaboration with Ranking Roger on the remix of 'Nancy Reagan'. According to Burd, "'Nancy Reagan' was originally recorded at Channel One in Jamaica in 1982 while the band was on the island to perform at Reggae Sunsplash and was released on our label as an EP along with five other songs."

"The remix of Nancy Reagan was produced in 1985 by this guy named Roberto in California. He knew Ranking Roger; he knew us; he borrows the master tape; flies to LA; records Roger; flies back to Kansas City; flew in Maxie from Channel One in Jamaica to mix the whole thing in New York. We never saw each other during the recording process. Ranking Roger joined us briefly on stage on Catalina Island a few years later."

What was Blue Riddim Band's reaction to the finished tracks? According to Burd they weren't completely happy. "So one day , we show up at the band house to discover several boxes of the new remix . The response to the cover varied from shock to hysteria. The song 'Nancy Reagan' was never really a political statement , it was more of a well natured poke. Roberto never checked with us on the art work , and next thing we know is we've got this LP with Nancy Reagan handing out jelly beans to starving Ethiopians . To say he took liberties is an understatement. According to Burd, the remix played well in California on College radio , but it didn`t help that the " Alive at Sunsplash" record came out at the same time and was receiving more press because of the Grammy Nomination."

I interviewed Carter Van Pelt to get his take on Blue Riddim Band and their legacy in Reggae history and why they never seemed to get the credit they deserved as one of the greatest Reggae bands of all time.

Put Blue Riddim Band into context for me. In particular around the song 'Nancy Reagan'. Was 'Nancy Reagan' a protest song or a good natured poke?
It was a strange diversion for the band to record a novelty song considering how serious they were about their music overall. I can't imagine anyone in the group was really good natured about the Reagan's, but humor is the greatest way lampoon the powerful.

The song seemed to be very popular with people in the know about reggae in the 80's but did it get airplay beyond college radio reggae shows?
Probably not, but I'm not sure. They had a big ally in Ken Williams here in New York, who played their music. They were respected by all who heard them, especially the Jamaican musicians. Tommy McCook was one of their biggest advocates.

Why did the band record so little during their years together? I'm only aware of 'Alive In Jamaica' and 'Restless Spirit'
Duck has said their biggest mistake was being the 'ultimate road warriors,' because they didn't leave enough of a recorded legacy. They have an unreleased album recorded at Channel One in Kingston in 1982. Chris Blackwell had Jack Nuber (engineer for Bob Marley, et al) record
a session in Kansas City circa 1980. Blackwell opted not to do anything with them because he said he'd have to spend too much money to market them while eager Jamaican acts were a dime a dozen.

What is the band's legacy?
Their legacy is hampered by the fact that the recorded work has never been officially released on cd and there isn't much of it to begin with. It really hurt them when Bob Zohn died, because he was the main songwriter.

Anyone who ever saw them live will attest that they were one of the greatest live reggae groups, and they couldn't have impressed the Jamaicans at Sunsplash if that weren't the case. Ask Sly Dunbar about them, and he'll remember Duck as a wicked drummer. Also check out on the youtube videos from San Francisco, and how they would switch instruments -- Bob Zohn playing drums and singing, Drew switching between bass and trombone, etc. They did have a strange way of going through keyboardists, faster than Spinal Tap went through drummers, but I digress.

I think another strength of the group was the way they arranged the Jamaican originals. Check out the way they play the "Full Up" rhythm on the the cover of Michigan and Smiley's "Thank You Jah" (see below). The rhythm section, esp. Bob Zohn's guitar, is just absolutely perfect. Jack Blackett murders the opening tenor solo, and they were off to the races. The combination singing between Zohn and Scott Korchak is great too.

One of my favorite quotes about them is from Roger Steffens, who said, and I paraphrase, "All the attention that UB40 ever got, it should have been lavished on Blue Riddim." The problem that ultimately hampered them is that they were victims of white audiences' perceptions of 'authenticity,' which is sometimes a bullshit concept but it something that white musicians who perform in black idioms have to deal with. While they should have to deal with it to an extent, frankly, it says more to me that Tommy McCook, Lloyd Parks, Mikey Dread, and Sly Dunbar loved them than the fact that no major record deal ever materialized and they are relatively unknown. If there is any such standard to be met, they exceeded it in my opinion.

Steffens was definitely a big fan and advocate ... I also have a copy of one of Roger's shows from the night after Blue Riddim was in LA, and Johnny Osbourne jumped onstage and took the mic for several songs, and he (JO) couldn't stop talking about how good they were. Again, you can't beat that kind of validation.

For more information about the band, you can visit their MySpace Web site. They are still performing shows around their hometown of Kansas City. KCUR-FM public radio in Kansas City recently did a story on the history and impact of the band including an extensive interview with Duck McLane. Its definitely worth a listen. The band has also recently released a new CD titled 'Ska Inferno' which is available on CD Baby.

Finally, below is a download link for the long out-of-print version of 'American & Russia/ Selective Service System (Nancy Goes To Moscow) featuring Ranking Roger. Have a listen to this piece of American reggae history. Thanks to Sonchey from Life In Monochrome for the link.

Ranking Roger & Blue Riddim Band - Nancy Reagan Goes To Moscow

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Specials To Reunite With Jerry Dammers in 2010?

Word out of the UK media today is that The Specials and Jerry Dammers may look to reconcile and play shows together in 2010. 

Both The Daily Star and NME have stories indicating that a reunion of the estranged former leader of the band and the other six original members may be in the works due to the intervention of Madness frontman Suggs, who was quoted in the U.K.'s The Daily Star as saying: “We have been talking about playing with The Specials this year but the problem for us is that they haven’t had Jerry Dammers in the band. “We are pals with both camps so kind of caught in the middle.“But there’s now talk of us doing a massive festival next year together, and maybe a big tour.”

The planned reunion may still need some smoothing out. According to the NME, Terry Hall teased his estranged bandmate during the last scheduled London show of the band's 30th anniversary tour on November 27th. Before playing 'Stereotype' from 1980's 'More Specials', Hall told the capacity crowd at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo: "It's a shame Jerry can't be here. But you can see him as Scrooge at Bridlington Spa."

Still no word on dates for a U.S. tour in 2010. 

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rare 1990 Demo Captures The Special Beat At Its Peak

The Special Beat can be credited with helping to nudge the U.S. into its own full-blown ska delirium in the mid-1990's. Rising from the ashes of The Specials and The Beat, The Special Beat was headed by Beat toaster, Ranking Roger and the core of The Specials including Neville Staple, Lynval Golding, John Bradbury and Horace Panter as well as Finny from The Loafers. The band was built as a touring machine (rather than a band that recorded original material) and the original version of the band toured the U.S. extensively throughout 1990 and 1991 releasing two live albums. That said, the band did enter UB40's studio in Birmingham in 1990 to record a 7-song demo that included a mix of inventive covers and a few originals.

Below are two video segments of the band. The first features a studio performance of 'Ranking Full Stop' interspersed with interviews of Ranking Roger, Neville and Finny about the genesis of the band and the second includes interview footage with Ranking Roger, Neville, Finny, John Bradbury and Horace Panter. Of note is footage of the band recording 'Rainy Days' which ultimately ended up on the third and final General Public album "Rub It Better" released in 1995

While all the 2-Tone bands toured the U.S. during the height of their popularity in the late 70's and early 80's, most had split up or called it quits just as they were beginning to make inroads . But those early tours had an effect and impact by spawning legions of young musicians around the U.S. to start their own bands and scenes. Though it took the U.S. a bit longer to have its own love affair with 2-Tone and ska, by the mid to late 80's, there were ska bands and thriving ska scenes in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Chicago and Los Angeles. Ironically, members of Special Beat, who had helped to set the stage for a revival of ska in the U.S., returned as conquering heroes playing sold out shows across the country. For most U.S. fans, the Special Beat tour of 1990-91 was the first time many of them had heard songs by The Beat and The Specials performed live.

Below is a segment on Special Beat from the UK music television program 'Rapido' which reported from their first show in New York in December 1990 about the impact the band's tour was having on fanning the flames of ska frenzy in the U.S.

Of special note in the clip above is the inclusion of my band Bigger Thomas. We were the support acts for the New York show and we were included in the 'Rapido' segment about the band's triumphant U.S. return. Indeed, yours truly is interviewed along with my band mate Roger Apollon about why ska has finally exploded in the U.S. There is also a bit of footage of us performing.

The Special Beat recorded an album's worth of demo songs that never saw the light day. The tracks have been circulating around for some time and are now available for your listening pleasure. Interestingly the band opted to record covers (including great versions of David Bowie's 'Golden Years' and Mitch Ryder's 'Breakout' that plays to John Bradbury's strength as a soul drummer) though the originals 'What You Thinking?' and 'Rainy Days' are also quite good.

The full Special Beat line-up that recorded these demo tracks included Neville Staple, Ranking Roger & Finny (Vocals), Sean Flowerdew (Keys), Sir Horace Panter (Bass), John Bradbury (Drums), Anthony Harty (Guitar), Graeme Hamilton (Trumpet) & Mark 'Chico' Hamilton (Sax). Both Rico Rodriguez (who solos on 'Time Longer Than Rope') and Saxa also feature as guests on these sessions. Thanks to The Return Of The Liquidator blog for the link.

Track listing:

What You Thinking? (Special Beat)
Better Must Come (Delroy Wilson)
Rainy Days (Special Beat)
Hypocrite (Bob Marley)
Time Longer Than Rope (Prince Buster)
Golden Years (David Bowie)
Breakout (Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

No Doubt - The Ska EP

Following the success of the Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen bootleg editions of the 'Ska EP' series comes the No Doubt version. The 45 single features covers of 3 live tracks including 'Guns Of Navarone' by The Skatalites, 'Ghost Town' by The Specials and 'Racist Friend' by The Special AKA on one side and out of print Moon Ska studio versions of 'Everything's Wrong' and 'Up Yours' of the flip side. The single is available on line from a variety of sources. There are also versions on Ebay.

While No Doubt have not been a ska band since their early days, during their most recent tour they have been paying respects to their 2-Tone inspirations by performing a blazing cover of The Skatalites classic 'Guns Of Navarone'. The band has a penchant for throwing 2-Tone and ska covers into their live set. In the meantime, below are video versions of songs on the bootleg single as well as a faithful cover of 'Gangsters' by The Specials.


Racist Friend

Guns Of Navarone

Up Yours

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Birth Of The NYC Ska Scene: Interview with Paul Gil of The New York Citizens

As part of my ongoing quest to document the origins of the NYC ska scene of the early and mid-80's, I am profiling key musicians and bands who played an important part in giving birth to one of the most vibrant ska scenes in the U.S. One of those musicians was Paul Gil, who was an original member of seminal mid 80's NYC Ska band The New York Citizens (NYC's). By late 1986 and 1987 what is now considered the core of the old school New York ska scene had quickly coalesced: Second Step, Urban Blight, The Boilers, The Toasters, A-Kings and NYC's all helped to create one of the most vibrant, creative and important ska scenes in the U.S. which in turn helped to galvanize ska scenes across the U.S..

Much in the way that 2-Tone Records was really the label for The Specials and The Selecter, in its early days, Moon Records was the label for The Toasters and The NYC's. While The Toasters hewed to a 2-Tone inspired sound, The NYC's created a compelling musical stew with ska as its base, but that also drew inspiration from '60s Stax, British punk, new wave and 2-Tone, as well as funk and hard rock. In fact, you could make a case that along with Fishbone, The NYC's helped give birth to a uniquely American version of ska (AKA: ska-core) that proliferated after they had broken up. Though The NYC's were contemporaries of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who took the ska-core sound and ran with it in the 90's), it was The NYC's who were among the very first American ska bands to try the kitchen sink musical approach.

My first encounter with The NYC's came when my band (then known as Panic!) opened a show for them at Rutgers University in September of 1988. My first impression of them was that they seemed like a musical gang who had an intimidating swagger, both on and off the stage. Though it was our very first show (we had been together about a month), we must have made an impression, because The NYC's were initially responsible for passing word about us on to others around the New York ska scene including Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters.

Over the early months of 1989, The NYC's invited us to play other shows with them in New York and New Jersey. Though we always sensed a bit of a rivalry with the band and they tended to treat us as outsiders because we weren't part of the New York City ska scene, they were also responsible for giving us a lot of early breaks.

The NYC's had their origins is a band called Legal Gender which included singer Robert Tierney, Mike Hicks (drums), Dan Marotta (guitar) and Gill on the bass. While attending Manhattan College, Marotta met keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik. Initially, Legal Gender had a new wave/punk sound with some ska influences, but it was the addition of Chris 'Kid Coconuts' Acosta (the Chas Smash of the band) and the recording of the song 'Overcast' (as a split 7" for Moon Records) which set them on the way to a new sound and a new name.

I recently connected with Paul. Below is the interview he did with me where he shared memories of his days as the bass player for The NYC's.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I grew up in Staten Island New York. My first musical influences came from my older brothers. Mostly Beatles, classic rock and motown until one of my brothers moved back in with us after living in an apartment around the corner from CBGB’s around 1979/80 and brought Clash, Police, The Jam and Sex Pistols records with him. He hated them…..I loved them.

When did you make the conscious decision to be a musician? What made you decide to pick up the bass?
The same older brother was a guitarist/bassist and I used to mess around with his gear when he wasn’t home. He eventually gave me a SEARS brand electric bass he had lying around and I started figuring it out. Up until then I’d spend hours sitting in front of an old stereo listening to Sgt. Pepper and Wings at the speed of sound trying to sing McCartney’s parts. I credit McCartney for teaching how to play bass. I started around 1981. My favorite bassist/influences are McCartney, Bruce Foxton and Karl Alvarez.

You were an original member of Legal Gender right? How did you meet the other members of the band? How did you come up with that name? Legal Gender recorded a single for Moon Records. What was that experience like?
Legal Gender formed when Rob Tierney and I met on the Staten Island ferry on the way to Manhattan one day in the fall of 1985. Rob’s good friend Dan Marotta was playing guitar in band that Rob was playing bass and singing in. He wanted to be a singer and give up bass. I had a drummer that I was playing with named Mike Hicks so the four of us got together to form Legal Gender. Rob had the name and nobody argued so that was it. The 'Overcast' single was a split single with a NY Mod band called the Press. Bucket, from Moon was awesome and always very good to us. Getting 'Overcast' released definitely made the band seem viable and potentially successful. It was essentially our blast off. (See pictures above of Legal Gender)

Legal Gender had a more punk/new wave sound. What made you decide to move more towards ska and why did you change the name of the band to The New York Citizens?
Sometime during our first year as Legal Gender, Rob made friends with Chris “Kid Coconut” Acosta at school. Chris became interested in being a part of the band and introduced us to Ska. We had of course already heard Madness and the Specials and some of the old 60’s ska but we didn’t realize there was scene in it. We all took to Ska instantly, developing our own favorites and such. Chris, although not a musician, had great instinct for style and really felt that it was important to be part of the scene and not just another band on it. We used to hang out together as a band at the local hotspots that catered to the ska scene where we made friends and built our fan base. We decided that Legal Gender wasn’t right for the band anymore so we all wrote down 5 or 10 prospective names and then compared lists. I know I had the word “Citizens” in a few of my ideas and several of us had “New York” or “NYC” on our lists so we put them together. We were all such huge New York City fans and all possessed that obnoxious “NYC is the center of the universe” attitude so the name fit us perfectly.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? When and how did you hit on the original NYC's sound combining ska, funk, rock, old school rap and hints of punk and metal? I always thought The NYC's were more ska-influenced than a ska band. Do you agree?
Wow….that’s a mystery. Since we all came from different musical backgrounds, it just seem to blend and happen that way for us. So many bands would have broken up over contrasting styles but, the true secret to the NYC’s sound, is that we were all individually so headstrong and arrogant that we basically jammed all our influences together and created something truly unique. Yeah, I agree we more ska influenced than straight Ska. We’d occasionally have conflicts within the music that couldn’t be resolved (That basically meant that none of us would give in!!) and we’d end up scrapping the song. There are probably 3 records worth of unreleased NYC’s material that never made it past rehearsal.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows in New York City that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
That has to begin with CBGB’s. Our first few shows there were Sunday, Monday nights at like 1:30 am as Legal Gender. We had a completely different version of “Pounding the Pavement” in the set but all the other material was basically Punk and Hardcore. One of those nights, the light guy made a comment after our set…..I think he said “Oh, another Hardcore band”. C-nut flipped out and was itching for a brawl. We calmed him down, told him it was no big deal and moved on but that’s where the NYC’s were really born.

Another show that I can’t forget was City Gardens in Trenton. We were asked to open for The Ramones there on a Saturday night. We were City Gardens regulars so we were really comfortable there. The Ramones tour manager insisted on that annoying, “You guys have to set up in front of the Ramones gear and don’t touch anything” speech. We obliged and set up our 7 man band in front of their gear. The joint was packed by showtime……including a dozen gabba gabba hey signs and such. When we first went on it was rough going. Lotsa Gabba chants and we want the Ramones chants and a few “You Suck” thrown in as well. If you ever saw us live you’d note that we were all over the fuckin place. Skankin’, moshing, jumping on each others backs, Chris on Danny’s shoulders during songs………It was a fuckin’ circus on stage. Part of the charm I thought…..but the Ramones didn’t. Half way through the set, our fans started getting more vocal and The Ramones faithful started to turn as well. It ended up being one our best feeling shows. The Ramones manager was incensed by this and ordered us off stage immediately. They even shut down the vocals for a minute but we kept on playing (I think we did an Impromptu Ska version of the Booker T. & the MGs song “Green Onions” while the mics were out) and eventually finished the set. We left the stage a mess (as usual) and found that The Ramones crew were pulling our cases and stuff out the side door saying that we’d been thrown out and that the Ramones wanted us out of the building before they left the dressing room. There was nothing funnier that seeing “5ft 5in” C-nut yelling at Joey “6ft 6in” Ramone in the parking lot. A classic. By the way….we played City Gardens again 3 weeks later and the club staff said The Ramones were a bunch of dicks. Funny note…..The photo of us live that’s on the “Stranger things have happened” cassette was taking at a gig at Mary Washington College a few months later…….when we opened for The Ramones again. I guess they forgot.

We had so many awesome shows in NYC. So many shared bills with The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim from Boston. Each band on the scene had a different twist that always made things interesting. Bim had that reggae feel, The Toasters (with the Unity Two in the band) had a great Rap/Toasting element and super hooks in the tunes, The Skaflaws kept the traditional sound alive, The Second Step had a great soul base, Bop Harvey had a weird jam band feel and played great Reggae grooves and Skadank was cool dancehall.

We got to play with some cool West Coast bands on the tours as well. Operation Ivy had just broken up but several members had formed another band which eventually turned into Rancid, No Doubt was so young and awesome on stage. Gwen was such a little hottie. After our show we invited everyone over to our hotel room to hang out. I was sitting on a bed talking to Aidrian, Eric and Tony from No Doubt about swapping T shirts and I said to Aidrian, “Dude, your singer is fuckin smokin man, hook me up with that”, to which he just bust out laughing. I was like, what….what’s up. He then told me that Eric, sitting 6 inches from me, was her big brother and Tony, sitting 6 inches on the other side, was her boyfriend. An awkward moment for sure but the guys were real cool.

Tell me about recording 'On The Move' in 1988 which is the quintessential NYC's record.
We recorded it at a Studio in Dobbs Ferry called Sleepy Hollow. That was a tough time actually. We had spent so much time together that we were starting to hate each other. We’d been playing dozens of shows up and down the east coast and getting on each others nerves. The song structures were all set long before recording but we all had different ideas on sounds. We’d stand in the booth for hours yelling at each other about bass sound, guitar sound, vocal volume….everything. I think that’s why the record, although full of great stuff, wasn’t recorded very well. I remember half of us stopped going to the mixes after a while because it was taking too long. We were definitely a “LIVE” band.

Both our bands were part of the 'NYC Ska Live' album recorded at the Cat Club in 1990. Do you have any memories of that show and what are your thoughts about the album?
That was one of the truly memorable show I was a part of. EVERYONE was there. The mood in the room was awesome and we all had great feelings about capturing the NYC sound and spirit live. I thought the record was cool but it could never capture the true “NYC SKA LIVE” feeling.

Our bands shared the stage at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ quite a few times. What are your memories of that iconic club? You recorded a fantastic live version of 'Lemon Jelly' there that appeared on 'The Truth About The New York Citizens'. You can actually hear Randy Now come on as soon as the song ends which is great.
I loved City Gardens. It was like a small club in a big space and we had so many great shows and made so many awesome friends there. It was a good spot to play with Ska and Mod bands from Baltimore and DC. Lemon Jelly is actually the only NYC’s song that Rob and I wrote exclusively together so I have a soft spot for it. We died laughing when we heard Randy at the end and decided that we had to keep it. We had some really fun shows with Panic/Bigger Thomas over the years. I always thought you guys sounded a lot like The English Beat. My favorite was “Ska in my Pocket”.

The band also recorded 'Stranger Things Have Happened' in 1990 which had some classic songs including 'Shut Up And Listen" and 'Boxer Shorts'. What are your memories of that recording session?
We went back to Sleepy Hollow studio for that one and we worked together a lot better…….mostly because we left the majority of the mixing work to Rob, Chris and Dan. I love that tape, I wish we had pressed it into vinyl too. We may have rushed to produce that one because we were doing so many shows and selling so much product that we needed a new product to sell. If we had more time I think we would have made another great full length with songs like “Ransom”, Rude Girls” and “17th Floor”. These were really the heydays. The band was working business so well that we started even making money.

The band did a few national tours and opened for a number of national acts right?
We did two official national tours, I think in 1988 and 1989. People all over the country welcomed us and made us feel like the effort was worth it. We played everywhere from The Whiskey in LA to a Elks Club Lodge in Las Vegas. We did open for a ton of acts over the years. Some I’d mention are the Ramones, B.A.D., Sister Carol, They Might be giants, Fishbone. We did a Halloween show at U Amhearst one year that had an opening band that was an early incarnation of Nirvana.

Why did the band break up?
I basically left the band in 1991 due to creative/personal differences. I used to almost regret it but in retrospect, it was the right time. Some of the guys in the band wanted to jump on another west coast tour. The problem was that we only had 4 shows booked over a 4 week period, “Stranger things have happened” was already a year old and we had no new recordings to sell and the promoters were not willing to foot the plane and rental bills. I had spent almost 6 years in the band and hadn’t had a real job the whole time. I had just moved into Manhattan with my girlfriend and gotten a decent job. I thought we needed to concentrate on recording another record and then touring it. The last phone call with Dan ended with a “do the tour or you’re out” ultimatum to which I hung up. They went and did the dates (I think they borrowed Matt Malles from The Toasters to play bass) and it was a financial disaster with weak shows and bad promotion. Mike filled me on the details when they got back and left the band shortly after that……..a few thousand dollars poorer. The band continued on for a while and recorded more material (which is on cd on “The truth about The New York Citizens”) but I think that the newer stuff, while good, didn’t do justice the heart of the band.
Side note: They were so pissed that I ditched the tour that sold my Mesa Boogie 215 bass cabinet before I could pick it up……Fuckheads!!

What are your lasting memories of performing with The NYC's?
I don’t think I’ll ever forget playing 'DANCE' or 'The National Front' or 'Helltown' and watching a couple hundred people jump in unison. That was what was special about the scene and what the moron major label execs could never see. We were a true DIY band and we did it very well. I’ll also miss the passion that we had on stage. As time wears on I think most fondly of those days and the people who made them great. I already mentioned Rob, Danny, Mike, and C-nut but would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to John Pavlik (A true Jazz cat who brought in the one influence we weren’t already tapping) Jerry O’Sullivan (Who had never been in a band when we met him and ended up writing a bunch of our best known tunes) and Darrell Foster. Most importantly, the man, the myth, the legend….Tom Perna. Our manager, friend and merchandiser. He booked us, sold the merch to finance our shenanigans and had our back… matter what stupid shit we’d get caught up in. Without Tom, you would have never heard of the NYC’s.

What are you up to these days? Do you still play the bass?
I’m still playing bass with several different projects. My two main bands are Bunnie England and the New Originals which is a Live Band Karaoke band. We do about 180 tunes that consist of classic rock, punk, new wave, hard rock etc…. It’s a lot of fun. You can find us by searching Myspace or Facebook. I’m also in pre-production on a musical called “Without You” starring Anthony Rapp of RENT, A Beautiful Mind, Dazed and Confused fame. It’s projected to open in Boston in the fall 2010.

Any chances for a reuion?
I recently stumbled onto a facebook fan site for The New York Citizens and got to reconnect with a few old friends. I still speak to Mike, Danny and Tom and I can get a hold of Chris too. I’d love to find Rob but have not had much luck as of yet. If I could…..I’d love a reunion!