Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Heavy Manners Returns!: Chicago's First Ska Band Releases New Tracks Including Long Lost Peter Tosh-Produced Song

While Los Angeles and New York get the lion's share of the credit for the nascent American ska scene of the early 1980's, the Chicago-based ska band Heavy Manners were American ska trail blazers. The multi-racial and gender mixed band ruled the Chicago music scene of the early and mid-80's creating a decidedly Mid-Western version of American ska that took the Windy City by storm. They perfected a high energy show and sound akin to The Selecter, highlighted by Kate Fagan's vocals and a unique ska/reggae meets rock sound and helped to give birth to a thriving Mid-Western ska scene that flourished throughout the 90's and into 2000's.

While Chicago is known for being the birthplace of Blues and Jazz music, Heavy Manners carried the ska torch on their own for much of the 80's ahead of the ska explosion of the mid-90's that rocked Chicago. According to a great article in the Chicago Reader on the roots of the Chicago ska scene, 'The first wave of ska had little impact on white Chicago. Reggae caught on much earlier, largely because rock acts like The Police, The Clash, and Eric Clapton dabbled in it. Charley "Organaire" Cameron, a Jamaican singer and harmonica player who moved to Chicago in 1976 after recording with Bob Marley, Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, and Toots & the Maytals, remembers only two bands playing ska around 1980: the Jamaican-American band Heavy Manners, which gigged heavily at the roots clubs on the north side, and the Blue Riddim Band, from Kansas City.'

Throughout the early 80's Heavy Manners built a huge cult following in Chicago and the Midwest opening shows for a who's who of 80's bands including The English Beat, The Clash, Third World, Jimmy Cliff, The Ramones, The Go Gos, Grace Jones and Peter Tosh among others. The band's live shows were so legendary, that a gig they played with Tosh during a sold out show at Chicago's famed Aragon Ballroom nearly changed their fortunes. The reggae superstar was so impressed by their live performance and the quality of the band's songwriting that he offered to produce a recording session with them. Studio sessions were soon set up in Chicago and Tosh flew in from Jamaica to produce along with his guitarist Donald Kinsey and his engineer Dennis Thompson.

Those Tosh produced tracks were released as a part of a collection of new and vintage Heavy Manners cuts called 'Heavier Than Now' a few years ago. Included on the disc are remastered versions of the band's vinyl singles previously released on Disturbing Records and a five song set. You can purchase the CD here and you can hear versions of the songs on the band's MySpace site (including my personal favorite 'Taking The Queen To Tea'). However there were more Tosh tracks that went unreleased until now.

Chuck Wren, the tireless Chicago-based ska enthusiast who runs the Jump Up! ska label which has promoted and helped to celebrate Chicago and Mid-Western ska for more than 20 years has joined forces with Heavy Manners to distribute the band's first new material in 25 years including an unreleased track recorded with Tosh in the 80's. According to Wren, "Heavy Manners is the Midwest's missing link between British 2 Tone and American ska's third wave. Without their influence on a future generation of musicians, I truly doubt the American Skathic series would ever had existed. In addition, their acceptance by the reggae elite (like Peter Tosh) gave the entire U.S. scene a much needed boost, which is why I felt the unreleased Tosh dub was so necessary for this release."

I was able to connect with and interview members of the band including singer/keyboardist Kate Fagan, bassist Jimi Robinson, drummer Shel Lustig and saxophonist/keyboardist Kevin Smith about the early days of the band, their memories of the 80's Chicago music scene and what it was like to work with Peter Tosh.

What was it like growing up in Chicago in the 70's and early 80's and how did that influence you musically and artistically?

Kate: I was living in New York and getting into Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and Blondie. When I moved to Chicago I started the punk band, Banned. Then I put out my own single, I don't wanna be too cool and played at Space Place. Then I joined BB Spin as the lead singer, doing kind of a Blondie thing, or at least that is what some people thought of what I was doing at the time. We wrote originals and that is what I have always been into, writing original songs.

Were you a fan of ska and reggae growing up?

Kevin: No, I received my reggaeducation in college. I discovered Marley, Cliff, Tosh and Steel Pulse and it was all over.

Kate: I became a fan of dub reggae when engineers became big in the reggae remix scene.

How did the band get started? Did you know any of the members beforehand?

Jimi: I had recently returned from Europe and was telling Mitch (guitarist Mitch Kohlhagen) about this music I heard in London called ska. On that basis, Mitch and I started writing, playing and recording ska music. Mitch and I had been working on a ska sound for at least 6 months before we found Kate. After Kate joined us Mitch, Kate, and myself put an ad in the Reader to find a drummer. Frankie answered the ad and said he knew a good drummer but we would have to take him too, on sax. He got Shel to join, who was a DJ on WXRT at the time and knew about ska. I came up with the name of the band based on a Jamaican slang expression.

Kate: I lived upstairs from Jimi in Lincoln Park. We were promoting reggae shows together in lofts. Bands we brought from New York in the meat packing district. I was in the band BB Spin. He was playing reggae downstairs and Mitch was coming over to jam. It was impossible not to start jamming. My punk meet their reggae and we started our own brand of ska...simultaneously actually with 2-Tone.

How did you decide to call the band Heavy Manners?

Kate: Jimi came up with the's a phase that's Jamaican roots yet street slang. It captured our music, which was a bit street-punky in attitude yet musically rooted in reggae.

Where did the band fit into the Chicago music scene of the early 80's?

Kate: We were originators of Ska in Chicago. We had to bust into the night club scene because there were a lot of long hair guitar bands. We would be booked on so-called "punk nights" with a band like Tutu and the Pirates or Hugh Hart, who were new wave bands. We started selling out night clubs when we released "Flamin First." Honestly, playing in the clubs at that time, you could bring home a few hundred dollars a night per band member. At Tut's we got a percentage of the bar and 100% of the door. Those were some high times.

Shel: The early 80's scene was quite diverse in Chicago. Everything from techno pop to metal bands were getting airplay and attention. We were unique in that there simply wasn't another band in the city that either sounded like us or looked like us. And that was part of the draw. Here we were, a group of very diverse people; independent thinkers who came together through a love of reggae & ska music. We threw all of our influences and playing styles into a blender and came up up with Heavy Manners. The political message was in the music but you weren't hammered over the head with it because you were usually having too much fun dancing. (See the video below of the band's song 'Famin First' set to clips and pictures of the band during the height of their popularity in Chicago.)

Did you make a conscious decision to only play ska and reggae music?

Shel: Absolutely. We'd all played in rock bands and some of us had dabbled in jazz and blues too. But the allure of ska and reggae was the unifying force that really brought us together. The music was challenging to play if you came from a rock & roll background. It was rhythmic, political, danceable and cutting edge. It forced each of us to think about ourselves as musicians in a new way, to stretch ourselves out and to explore songwriting and song construction from a different perspective. The sound we ultimately achieved was ska with the power of rock and roll behind it and a reggae style that was uniquely Heavy Manners.

Kate: Seriously, I never thought of playing another other than ska. Not really interested in rasta subject matter, so not so big on playing reggae. Punk I would enjoy again.

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?

Shel: When we released 'Politics and Pleasure', we headlined at the Park West. When I arrived, the line to get in snaked around the corner for about 1 1/2 blocks. I'd been to the Park West for many shows and we'd played there before, but I had never seen a line like that. I was blown away by the excitement I felt from the crowd who were looking forward to our new album and our new songs. We played a great show that night. It was as if we were feeding off the pure energy of the crowd. Another memorable night was opening for The Clash at the Aragon Ballroom. There were about 7,000 people in the audience and as I looked out into the crowd, I could see hundreds of our fans right in front of the stage, singing along, word for word, with every song we played. That night I knew we had had a real impact on the Chicago music scene.

Kevin: I came into Heavy Manners after they were already established. My first gig is the most memorable, it was at The Park West. I was ending a relationship with one band and starting my relationship with Manners. That was a transitional period all the way around, with the band, my education and career choices and personal life. The next most memorable was the first gig without Frankie when he went out to Hollywood. I was terrified; we made it through but the pressure was intense. I also have great memories from Tut's and On Broadway where we rocked the house.

Kate: We premiered the song 'Say It' at the Aragon opening for The Clash. I could do that night again.

How did you meet Peter Tosh?

Jimi: Peter was standing just off stage as we were playing as his warm up act at the Aragon. When we finished our set, he came up to me and said "nice dance, I'm going to be in Chicago around Christmas, let's make a record". He took my phone number and said he would be back in Chicago in a few weeks to visit a girlfriend here. He called me on his arrival in Chicago and said "get a studio and some herb and let's make a record". He had been working with Don Kinsey, a guitar player in Chicago that had played with Bob Marley. He also brought along Dennis Thompson as an engineer, who was Marley's live engineer.

What was it like to go into a recording studio with Tosh? What was he like as a producer? Did he have specific ideas about how the songs should sound?

Shel: Peter Tosh was probably the most laid back producer we could have worked with. He listened to what we were doing and made suggestions but he didn't try to change the band. We weren't a Jamaican reggae band and he knew it. Tosh let Heavy Manners be Heavy Manners and simply worked on fine tuning the studio performances to get us to play our best. He let us know if there was something he didn't like and we'd go back and do another take. Guitarist Donald Kinsey, who was recording and touring with Tosh at the time, was also in the studio with us acting as a co-producer. He worked closely with us, helping produce some of the the guitar leads and other solos.

Kate: I was surprised he selected 'Say It' as the first cut he wanted to record. It's a rock song with a ska skank, and the subject is where the woman is kind of scolding the man. It just didn't seem like Peter's style. But he really liked that song, Donald Kinsey opened up a can of woop-ass on the guitar solo.

With Tosh as a producer was there any talk at the time of a major label record deal?

Shel: We had representation at the time and the demo we completed with Tosh was shopped to a number of major labels. The record companies just didn't seem to know what to do with us. They heard reggae and ska, with a dash of rock and roll and weren't sure where to go with it. In 1982-1983, the only thing the major labels wanted was a hit record. They weren't convinced that we'd be able to chart with the sound we had. In the meantime, we were drawing the largest crowds of any local band in Chicago, which we thought was proof enough that the music could be brought to a larger audience. It all comes down to marketing. If we had been in New York or LA and the record executives had seen our live shows and the crowds that came to them, we probably would have had the major label deal that never came our way.

Kate: We had been trying to get a major deal since Flamin First. We were rockin college radio and indy stations, but suddenly the 80's had British hair bands with synths and they became the rage. I think we were in the wrong country -- ska was big in Britian.

After a long hiatus off, the band is releasing a new 12" vinyl record titled 'Get Me Out Of Debt' on Jump Up Records. What songs are on the record? How did that come about?

Kate: You know, we are spirited individuals who want to make a difference. Our band was always special to each individual and we all wanted to reunite. Once we hit a rehearsal, we clicked again and started having fun. We always had a blast together. There are very funny and fun and creative individuals in the band and for the most part we are all laid back. We like each other and we like our sound together.

The Bush administration really brought us back together as a band -- We were all like, what the fuck is going on? What happened to progress? Why are the poor still getting poorer and the rich still getting richer? Why are we going broke on two wars that's feel like like quick sand? What happened to kids and education and the environment as priorities of society.? So needed to roar back out with our sound and our songs back out. The two new cuts, 'Get Me Outta Debt' and 'Fight The Good Fight' are the next chapter -- We are asking questions, we are trying to wake people up, we are trying to rally people and shake things up.

Who produced the new songs for this release? And how did those sessions come together?

Kevin: I did. Kate and I had threatened to get together and work on tunes. She came to my home studio with her guitar and a song called "Get Me Out Of Debt". We worked out the form and she let me do my thing producing the tracks. Eventually, the entire band was over working on the tracks. I wanted to keep the true Heavy Manners sound and use current recording technology to give it some edge. The other new track I produced is a song Kate brought in called "Fight The Good Fight" and we had already performed it live. So recording it was matter of using current technology to add some flavor. Working in a laboratory environment gave us all the chance to focus on giving the best performances. Then Johnny "Jackson" Bomher at Horse Drawn Productions did a great job mixing.

The band is playing a show this July in Chicago to celebrate the release of the record. Are other shows planned?

Kate: Hey, it comes down to demand and supply. If people want to hear us, we are up for playing all night long. We have a blast playing together.

If you happen to be in or around Chicago in July, be sure to swing by Wren's 'The Return of 80's Ska Nite with DJ Chuck Wren' at the Late Bar where he will debut the new Heavy Manner 12" vinyl single, their first new recordings since the early 80s, including the long lost Peter Tosh produced disco/dub of 'Could Not Get Enough'.

The band play a reunion show to celebrate the release of the record on Sunday July 25th as part of the Taste Of Lincoln Avenue event in Chicago. More details here.

You can listen to and purchase a copy of 'Get Me Outta Debt' from


Ska Bob said...

Their first album (ep? 6 songs) Politics & Pleasure was a great. I didnt care much for Heavier Than Now, lost alot of the original energy I thought. Hopefully these new found songs will have the earlier feeling. Ill will order a copy and check it out.

Matt C said...

I picked up Politics & Pleasure on vinyl years ago and have always been curious about who they were. Thanks for the interview, until now I always assumed their name was a reference towards Bad Manners.

Marco On The Bass said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm a big fan of the band and hope to help get them the recognition they deserve for helping to create an American ska scene. Hope you both pick-up the new record. I've heard the somgs and they are great!

Anonymous said...

Hey Marco, I'd never heard of this band before, thanks. Just a couple of points though, for those not familiar with Jamaican slang, being "under heavy manners" means having to, or being forced to behave yourself. Secondly, no disrespect intented my friend, but I'd like to correct you on one point; Chigaco certainly held an important position in the history and development of both jazz and blues, it was not however the birthplace of either. New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, and the blues had no specfic birthplace but grew in the wild across the Mississippi Delta and the wider Deep South.

Kames Jelly said...

Heavy Manners are one of my favorite early American ska bands that I have discovered so far. The first time i put Politics and Pleasure on my turntable I was hooked.

I picked up a copy of the Flamin First single from Chuck Wren and when he told me in an email that they were back together and a new record was coming out this summer I flipped out. I've been waiting patiently ever since, and I'll be ordering this 12" as soon as it comes out.

I hope Heavy Manners make it out here to NJ/NY/PA at some point. I would love to be able to see that. So if you're reading this, PLEASE come out east.

B said...

But until those early country blues artists, like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker migrated to Chicago and went electric, then the modern blues sound emerged;one that was Chicago blues, with the energy of the city infused...