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


Carter Van Pelt said...

I have it from a reliable source that Lister Hewan-Lowe, the noted reggae deejay, A&R man, and proprietor of the Clappers record label, used to rinse "Nancy Reagan" back in the day.

--Carter Van Pelt

davekappesq said...

This article is priceless. One of my favorite songs of all time. Also, not mentioned is the fact that Lister Hewan-Lowe played the HELL out of this song for YEARS on WBAI and WUSB in NYC and Long Island respectively - that's how most NY'ers heard it.

kungfuman said...

Respects from Kansas City, MO. I listened to "Alive in Jamaica" over and over when I was about 15. One of my favorite bands from KC or anywhere.

ScottiB said...

Thanks for a great article on one of my favourite bands ever!

Currently you can find:

on CDBaby - Ska Inferno

on CDBbaby - Osama Bin Forgotten

on itunes - Ska Reggae Revival

Keep up with the band on Facebook and Myspace, there is more to come! A freshly recorded album will be out soon on the Inate Sounds label.

GregNoiz said...

I saw BRB at a small reggae club in Scottsdale, AZ in the early 80s where they packed the tiny stage and blew the roof of the joint. Really an astonishing performance. Shared some reefer with a couple band members at break and had a nice chat. A great nite, I carry it in my heart, thank you Blue Riddim Band and thank you Marco for the article.

Joe Scholes said...

I had never heard of the band until today. Great stuff. Many thanks for the enlightenment.

Marco On The Bass said...

Hi Joachim,

So glad you have finally had a chance to hear Blue Riddim. You need to hear their live album to really appreciate how great a band they were.


lightningclap said...

That song got heavy play here in Santa Cruz, CA from a demo cassette before the vinyl ep was even out! Different mix on the demo.

The Rankin Roger remix really disappointed me at the time, as a fan of Roger and BRB. But since I dumped the record, I have a second chance to listen again! Thanks!

Saw BRB in '82, and it's all true. One of the best EVER.

Best Rankin Roger moment: him toasting over "Armagideon Time" with the Clash in concert. Also interviewed him in the General Public days.

Anonymous said...

My brother Paul did that painting for the album cover. He still lives in Hollywood, CA and has a website called: if you would like to see more of his paintings.

Forbes Massive said...

BRB was the truth. Great music, soulful people. I was there when they recorded at Channel One and it's a shame that the music was never released. Duck gave me the R&B mix tape of destiny after the sessions. I still have it! Glad to see they are back at it.

Forbes Massive said...

Great music, soulful people. Everyone in JA who heard them respected them. BRB and Steel Pulse were the only non-Jamaican bands that Jamaican musicians universally agreed had it happening. I was there at the Channel One sessions and wondered what had ever become of them. Duck gave me a great R&B mix tape that I still have.

Prince Buster said...

I loved reading this. BRB was a real inspiration to me as a white kid learning to appreciate and eventually play reggae in the 80's. I went on to play in numerous bands for 20+ years and I always fondly recall listening to these guys! I even got to see them once in Washington, DC. It was probably 1984 or 85.

I just posted a homemade video for Oh Babe from Restless Spirit:


dtaylor379 said...

I used to see them in Lawrence when I was going to college at off-the-wall and the opera house - always great. One of the best times of my life.