Friday, December 23, 2011

An Ode To 'Cod Reggae': A Look Back At Some Of The Worst Reggae Inspired Music Ever Recorded

I strive to celebrate and venerate the best of ska and reggae music on this blog.  The many artists who made the music a cultural phenomena are all heroes to me and many others.  However, as ska and reggae music made its way into the charts of the U.K. (and the U.S, to a lesser extent) and its influence and popularity spread, many mainstream singers, bands and musical artists began including the rhythms and sound in their own songs. Some of these efforts were magnificent and some less so. Others were just plain terrible.

I've previously highlighted some of the better attempts at this (see Paul Simon, Blondie and Johnny Nash), However, I felt it was high time I trained the spotlight on some of the more dreadful attempts of what the Brits call 'Cod Reggae' (which is a term I have always loved). This list is neither exhaustive or complete and focuses on the late 60's and 70's. (I'll look to do a similar post for the 80's and 90's in the new year). With reggae making real inroads in the U.K. and the U.S. musically in the late 60's to mid 70's I looked for reggae and Caribbean music from the era that actually did the genre no favors artistically.  So without further ado I present a selection of some of the worst attempts to play this beautiful music.  Consider yourself warned!

But first, let me say I am an open minded fan of calypso, ska, reggae and all other forms of Caribbean music. While there are certainly social, political cultural reasons why 'cod reggae' tracks may be more popular with mainstream audiences then than tracks recorded by the original artists (e.g. racism), what I will say is that I have a real soft spot for certain musicians' attempts to 'go reggae'. They never get it quite right, but it can often result in something really interesting and different. This post is about those attempts that don't get it right!

The grandfather of 'cod reggae' music has to be Bernard Cribbins and his 1962 track ‘Gossip Calypso'. The song was inspired by Lord Kitchener's wonderful ‘London is the Place for Me’ which is a gorgeous ballad that extols the beauty and splendor of London from a recent Jamaican immigrant's perspective. I can't say the same for Mr Cribbins' attempt which sounds like an outtake from a bad Saturday night variety show as sung by a comic.

A few years later saw Millie Small's joyful ‘My Boy Lollipop’ hitting the charts, riding a wave that included Prince Buster, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff. From these great moments, one of the most awful sub-genres, loomed. Calypso required huge bands and great skill, but reggae was much easier to recreate to the ears of the uneducated. Reggae sounded like two chords, a jaunty bass line and required a singer to pipe “dat” instead of “that”. While The Beatles's 'Ob la di, Ob la da' is likely the first massive 'cod reggae' hit, it inspired Marmalade's cover version which was likely totally unnecessary (though it may be better than Sir Paul's version and hit #1 in the U.K. pop charts in 1969!).

But I've saved the worst for last. My all time favorite worst 'cod reggae' song has to be Paul Nicholas and his song 'Reggae Like It Used To Be'. Nicholas was better known on this side of the pond for his hit 'Heaven On The Seventh Floor' which I distinctly remember dancing to at a 6th or 7th grade dance in the late 70's. It wasn't until very recently that I was introduced to his left turn into reggae. Here it is as performed on Top Of The Pops in May 1976. The song actually reached #17 in the charts which doesn't speak kindly to the taste of the British listening public! Luckily, punk and 2-Tone were just months away from washing this type of clap trap off the charts.

And before I go, here is truly awful piece of 'cod reggae as performed by 60's pop icon Sandie Shaw on a popular British TV show called '2 G's and The Pop People' in 1972. In a word this is 'horrendous'! Sadly the song borders on the worst aspects of minstrel. And while Shaw was no racist, this was the era of television when Black and White artists sadly remained mostly separate. You may want to clean your ears out with soap after listening to this one!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blue Riddim Band Release Remastered 30th Anniversary Version of Classic 'Nancy Reagan' Track

Today marks the 30 year anniversary of the release of the Blue Riddim Band classic reggae track 'Nancy Reagan'! To honor the original, Rougher Records have re-released a special 30th anniversary, remastered edition of the track. The song has the distinction of being one of the best and most overlooked American reggae songs ever recorded and released.  The timing of this release couldn't be better as the Republican Party is weeks away from beginning the process of selecting a Presidential nominee who will seek to claim the mantle of conservative Republican values and economic policies espoused by Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan.  These policies have continued to make the 1% very wealthy and the 99% struggle to make a living.   The track is available for download from iTunes.  Below is a short video teaser:

During the 1980's in the U.S., alternative music continued to be a strong voice of protest against President 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. It couldn't be more relevant today in this era of Occupy Wall Street protests around the U.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 interviewed 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.

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.

Friday, December 9, 2011

This Is England '88 To Air In The U.K. On December 13-15th

Next week sees the airing in the U.K. of the next instalment in the This Is England series. This Is England '88, a three-part TV series will be screened on consecutive nights on December 13-15th on Channel 4. Billed by series creator Shane Meadows as a "sort of broken nativity play", fans of the series will have a chance to catch up with Shaun, Woody, Lol, Milky and the gang. This Is England '88 picks up 18 months on from where its predecessor left off, with Woody and Lol struggling to cope with the emotional fallout following her killing of her rapist dad. Shaun, meanwhile, is learning all about the ups and downs or romance with Smell. It will be followed in 2012 by 'This Is England '90', which will focus on the ecstasy-fuelled rave scene of the era.

Meadows has described the three-parter as 'kind of like a very brutal Nativity play… I just remember Christmas being shit… I wanted to make a sort of broken Nativity play, but there’s a real positive outcome, I hope.'

I'm a huge fan of the series, having first been introduced to the story and characters via the movie 'This Is England.' I loved its take on a mostly affable group of ska loving skinheads living in the north of England in 1983. I was impressed with how 'This Is England '86' showed the group moving on and growing up and was struck by the depth of character development. Indeed, Vicky McClure who plays Lol won a BAFTA in May for her performance in 'This Is England '86'. As a Yank, I'm hoping to find a way to view the series.  Hopefully some of my friends in the U.K. will share a link!

The trailer, with a soundtrack of 'What Difference Does It Make' by The Smiths, gives glimpses of most of the main characters familiar to fans, including Gadget, Milky, Kelly, Trev, Harvey and of course the jailed Combo.

2-Tone Sound Alive And Kicking In 2012!: Madness, The Specials and The Selecter Get Ready For The New Year

As we get ready to bring 2011 to a close, I'm happy to report that it looks like 2012 will be another exciting year for fans of 2-Tone ska and its many musical purveyors who are still keeping the flame of the sound alive.

Madness to play in Mexico City in 2012!:
As the band readies its new batch of songs (which were previewed at the House Of Fun Weekender), Madness is also gearing up to finally cross the big pond to play a show on the North American content! Thanks to a tip from one of The Duff Guide to Ska's readers in Mexico, the news is out that Madness will be playing the Vive Latino Festival in Mexico City from March 25, 2012. With the band in Mexico in March, it begs the question: Will Madness finally play shows in the U.S.? The last time the band performed in the U.S. was during a very short 2005 tour as The Dangermen.

The Specials to tour in 2012!:
True to their word, The Specials will be back on the road in 2012.  The band is scheduled to play 4 dates in Australia from April 3-7, 2012 and a show at the Live At The Marquee in Cork in Cork, Ireland on June 11, 2012.  Fans of the band living in the U.S. are still keeping their fingers crossed that the band will finally return to play and rumors I've heard from sources inside the band suggest this is a distinct possibility!  Stay tuned.

The Selecter release Christmas single:
The Selecter have just released a double 'A' side digital Christmas single.  According to the band, the single represents the 'yin and yang' of the holiday season, including including the light side 'Skank Til Christmas' and the dark side 'A Christmas Fable'. The single is available as a download from iTunes, Amazon and other online music retailers. Check out the video for 'Skank 'til Christmas' which includes video clips submitted by fans showing off their best 2-Tone style skank dances.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

King Hammond To Play Two Shows In New York City!

All hail the King!  King Hammond (the alter ego of Nick Welsh) will be gracing New York City with two shows this weekend -- backed by NYC dirty reggae band The Hard Times--on Thursday, December 1, 2011 at The Shrine in Harlem and Saturday, December 3, 2011 at The Lake in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Welsh remains one of the busiest and most prolific ska musicians on either side of the Atlantic and his resume is a mile long. He has worked with and produced A-list artists like Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, Dave Barker, Rico Rodrigues, and Judge Dread as well as Lee 'Scratch' Perry with whom he worked on the Grammy Award winning album 'Jamaican ET'. Welsh has also been the bassist and song writer in Bad Manners and The Selecter (helping to shepard both band's post 2-Tone careers - he wrote 'Skaville UK). If that wasn't enough, he also writes music for U.K. and U.S. television shows and video games. Welsh revived King Hammond in 2010 and since that time has released three albums (“The King and I,” “Jacuzzi,” and “Showbiz”) and a slew of vinyl EPs on his own N.1 Records imprint. In June 2011, King Hammond was a featured performer at the Ink ʼn ʼIron Festival in Long Beach, California.

I had the pleasure to meet Welsh in 1991 when my band Bigger Thomas was the support act for The Selecter's first tour of the U.S. since the band had broken up in the early 80's. Welsh, Pauline Black and Neol Davies were all very kind to us (it was our first proper tour) and they always made sure we got a sound check and a dressing room (which is more unusual than you might expect in the cut throat music biz). As a fellow bass player I was also always impressed that Welsh played a Steinberger bass (which is a very sleek guitar that has no tuning pegs.)

To get you in a royal mood, here's a little taste of The King. Give a listen to 'Rockin' On Ridley Road' from King Hammond's latest LP 'Showbiz' and 'Tatoo Girls' (there should be plenty of them at The Lake on Saturday night!). I'll be at The Lake on Saturday night, so if you make it out be sure to say hello!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jimmy Cliff Releases 'Sacred Fire' EP: Comeback Produced By Tim Armstrong Of Rancid

The first step in Jimmy Cliff's musical comeback is out today. While the four song, Tim Armstrong-produced EP 'Sacred Fire' includes three covers, its the throwback energy and choice of covers which should resonate with ska and reggae fans of multiple generations. A full length album is due out in 2012.

Notable tracks include Cliff's sublime cover of The Clash's 'Guns Of Brixton' which reveals the melancholy sadness that lies underneath the anger of the original and Rancid's 'Ruby Soho' which now sounds like it was recorded in Kingston circa 1971. The EP is available on iTunes and Amazon and a special 'Deluxe Pack' including vinyl, t-shirt and poster is available from Cliff's own website.

Cliff started recording as a child in the early 1960s with producer Leslie Kong. In the late 1960s, he moved to Britain where he enjoyed considerable success with the song 'Wonderful World, Beautiful People'. He became a massive star after starring in 'The Harder They Come', the 1972 low-budget movie based on the exploits of Ivanhoe 'Ryghin' Martin, a gunman who terrorized sections of west Kingston in 1948. The film's soundtrack contains songs that are Cliff standards, including the title track, 'Sitting In Limbo' and 'You Can Get It If You Really Want'.

Cliff appeared on Jimmy Fallon last night where backed by The Roots he performed his classic cut 'The Harder They Come' and 'World Upside Down'.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Interview with Jose Luis 'Caplis" Chacin of Venezuela's Ska Super Stars Desorden Publico

Everyone I have ever met who is a truly devoted and passionate fan of 2-Tone and ska music tends to have followed a similar path no matter where in the world they are from. Like alien abductees, we all remember in great clarity and detail that singular moment when we heard The Specials first album for the very first time. And almost to a person, I have noted that the lightning bolt 'religious' experience of hearing that record has stayed with us and shaped our lives. For me it was when a friend at school played me The Specials first album in late 1979 (I sat opened mouth and was actually a bit afraid!). I rushed out and bought my own copy and that started a regular routine every Friday after school when I haunted the local record store near my house. I pestered and annoyed the clerks there so much about The Specials that when they saw me coming they would suggest new records for me to buy. This was the start of my ska and 2-Tone education and it lead me to where I am today.

José Luis "Caplís" Chacín is a fellow traveler and 2-Tone devotee. He is best known as the bassist and one of the founding member of Venezuela ska band Desorden Público (Public Disorder). Though we lived thousands of miles part, our love of 2-Tone and the impact it has had on us throughout our lives is striking. Chacín's first exposure to The Specials sent him and his band mates on a path that has made them purveyors of a an amazing hybrid of ska and Latin music and as both entertainers and political commentators in Venezuela.

Chacín's love of ska and 2 Tone started in Caracas in the early 80's, when as a heavy metal loving teen he was given The Specials first album. It set him and his band mates along the path to starting the one of the very first South American ska bands. Now after 25 years of popularity and success in Latin America, including eight studio albums, several greatest hit releases and live performance in over 30 countries, Desorden Público have reached superstar status throughout South America. Taking their name from Venezuelan military police trucks that had 'Orden Publico' [Public Order] written on the side, the band's name is political, but it is more tongue-in-cheek and humorous about advocating any serious form of public disorder.

With Desorden Publico a musical institution and celebrating their 25th anniversary, I thought it was high time I connected with Chacin to learn more about the beginnings of the band, their influences and what it was like growing up in Caracas, Venezuela as a Rude Boy in the 80's! For the uninitiated, imagine if Madness or The Specials had emerged in Venezuela. And while the band emerged just as 2-Tone peaked, they had trouble imitating the 2-Tone sound too closely.  It just didn't work for musicians steeped in local Latin rhythms, culture and beats. The music of Desorden Publico has continued to evolve, thanks to near relentless playing and recording during the past two decades. The band has a dozen or so releases to their name and have had platinum sales, #1 and top 10 hits. They have tours that have taken them all over Latin America, North America and Europe.

Without further ado, I present José Luis "Caplís" Chacín:

What was it like growing up in Caracas, Venezuela in the early 80's?
It was great!  I was born in 1964 and it means that I really had the eighties as my very influential years. Thank God it wasn't the 70´s!

Finding music in Venezuela in the 80's wasn't an easy task, so we had to beg every friend, every father or mother or relatives, who were travelling outside, to buy the new releases, and when you buy 2 or 3 LP´s and try to transport them in a luggage it´s kind of a nightmare.

Well, the thing is that here in our country many good and bad things came as an avalanche: Heavy metal, Punk Rock, New Wave, Hard Core, New Cool, Post Punk, Ska, Reggae. And before becoming musicians we were DJ´s of our own Sound System called ASEO URBANO.  It was the only one in Caracas that specialized in New Wave, Punk and of course Ska, so we were the natural Sound System at the gigs of many new acts of the underground Punk scene of Caracas.

How did that experience effect you socially, politically and musically?
Being a teenager, here in Caracas in the 80´s was incredible. In a certain way Venezuela was for many years (in the decade of the 70´s) a country drunk on Petrodollars (money from the sales of oil), so we had an incredible “Bonanza” where the most of our government leaders were super corrupted.  But suddenly, a serious crisis brought a hard fall of the prices of oil and our economy began to feel the consequences of many years of bad guidance. So suddenly we started to know a different country with a cost of living that was more and more expensive every day.

This was a perfect time for many young people to realize that too many things were going wrong in our country, and some of us started to open our eyes and do our own criteria of the society. Now we also had the lyrics of people like The Clash, Dead Kennedy's, Sex Pistols, The Specials, and also Latin American artists like Ruben Blades, Ali Primera, Soledad Bravo to help start to make sense of our own lives and Venezuelan society. We became critics and non-conformists with our reality.  And we started this band!

Most people I've spoken to who are into ska remember the exact moment when they fell in love with it. How did it happen for you?
I remember I was a kid loved Disco Music to Heavy Metal. (I loved the first era of Van Halen, and still like it).  But after 3 or 4 years of hard rock, I started to listen New Wave music: Devo, The B-52´s, Oingo Boingo, Wall of Voodoo, XTC, Joe Jackson, The Jam. One day I was working as a DJ at our Sound System and a good friend gave me a very badly recorded cassette of the first LP of The Specials.  The first song 'A Message To You Rudy' was immediately the biggest revelation of lure lives. We didn´t understand what kind of music this was. I remember I had listened to the first two Madness albums but I could not engage with their version of ska. But The Specials definitely was the BOMB! An ATOMIC Bomb in our minds.

What was your first ska album you bought?
After I listened to that tape, I immediately order that first album by The Specials and when a good friend gave it to me, I just couldn´t believe how good the whole album was. Even today I still feel that sensation of how GREAT and how good that first album is.

How did you go from being introduced to ska music to starting Desorden Publico in 1985?
We were tired of waiting for the start of a ska band in our city. We finally decided to form our own band and we sold many of the equipments of our Sound System in order to save money to buy our first used instruments.

When did you decide to become a bass player? Did you play the bass before you were into ska?
At the same moment we decided to form DESORDEN PÚBLICO...

Can you explain what your band name means for readers who don't speak Spanish? Does it have a social or political connotation?
DESORDEN PUBLICO = PUBLIC DISORDER. It was a joke against the military trucks with the name of PUBLIC ORDER on the side.  There are a very repressive institution here in our city

Fashion was such a huge part of the ska scenes here in in the U.S. in the 80's. Can you describe the importance of fashion in the Venezuelan and South American ska scene?
Here in Venezuela, especially in Caracas in the 80's, you could see Punks, Rockers, Rastas and of course Trendy's. There was not an Ska scene, so when we started to use our suits, we were like strange birds in this jungle! We didn´t look like Punks, Rockers nor Rastas and we had to explain that we were Rude Boys, hahahahahaha!

Your band tours the world regularly. Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows the band played that were particularly memorable?
Wow! There are many, many good and bad experiences, but talking about good ones, the fact of being in a same stage with people like Prince Buster, Jerry Dammers, Ray Barreto, Ruben Blades, The B-52´s, The Selecter, Ranking Roger and his version of The Beat. To be backstage with all the guys from Madness, thanks to the courtesy of my very good friend Coolie Ranx and all the guys from The Pilfers, that was magic!

I remember meeting Paul Weller in New York City.  He was a very nice guy to me and my wife. Another magical moment in my life was the time I found the one and only Andy Summers of The Police totally lost in the corridors of the radio station where we have our radio show.

Last year, I was walking on the streets of Berlin visiting the best record stores, and to my surprise, I saw a very tall man walking just in front of me.  It was none other than one of my all time musical heroes: Joe Jackson!  This was great!

There are many anecdotes and good situations.

What was it like for the band to tour the U.S. in 2004? What kind of reception did you get from American ska audiences?
We were helped by our good friend Bucket from The Toasters and that was a good introduction for us to the North American ska audiences. It also helped that we had many good friends in New York and Boston, and many of them were at our first gigs.  This helped provide the impression that the audience knew who were were! Hahahaha!

In those early tours, we also had the chance to do things for the Latin American market in the USA and also for the American public into the Ska scene.  Surprisingly, I must say the reception we received from Ska audiences was 1000 times better than the reception we had from Spanish speakers! During that time most of the people from Latin America in New York were Mexicans, Puerto Ricans or Dominicans and those audiences were a bit hostile with bands from other Latin countries.

The band is celebrating 25 years this year! What has kept you all together and what plans do you have for 2011?
Well, here we are in 2011 and we have a new album called 'Los Contrarios', and we gave been promoting it all year long through national and international tours. The release party in Venezuela was on April 7th and we did a press conference in front of more than 3,000 people in one of the most popular shopping centers of our city (the owners were expecting 500!) In less than a month our first edition of 2,500 copies was totally sold out.

We also had a couple of good shows celebrating 25 years of playing music along with our good old friends from Argentina: Los Pericos, and that same night we traveled 2 hours for a second gig in Valencia here in Venezuela with King Chango.  This summer we also played a great concert here in Caracas with our good friends The Busters from Germany. In June we travelled to Europe to do our 9th European tour and we did a Venezuelan tour in August.  Hopefully we´ll return to USA with this new album! We are in conversation with an agency from Los Angeles.

Below is video of the band paying homage to their 2-Tone heros on a London double decker bus and performing Derrick Harriott's 'Monkey Ska' while on tour in London in 2005. The song appears appears on their 2007 album "Estrellas del Caos".

Below the band performs their distinctive mix of Latin and ska with the song 'Valle De Balas' live in Venezuela in 2010.

Finally, here is 'El Poder Emborracha (Power Drunk) from the band's new album 'Los Contrarios'.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Madness Showcases New Songs From New Album At House Of Fun Weekender

Madness showcased songs from their brand new, as yet untitled, tenth studio album, in all its glory during their 'rehearsal set' this past Friday night at the House of Fun Weekender in the U.K. As with ‘The Liberty of Norton Folgate’ which the band performed live a full year before its release, Madness gave the new album tracks an early airing in their embryonic state for their most hardcore fans who attended the show. Quite a few of the songs have been played live during the band's summer tour, but it was the live debut for more than half the songs on the set list.

A fan in attendance at the Friday night performance reviewed the show on the Madness Central website:
"If Folgate was about grandeur and well crafted songs in a Kinks and English bands steeped tradition, this new as yet untitled Madness album is big time about pop music, All kinds, from the most upbeat and catchy new Madness bouncers I've ever heard, through themes harking back to Motown, big ballads and ages past of eras of the music they love. And it's flowing with love songs too.
Early it's a worry that the crowd wont take the new songs set with so many here to party, but we get a new spoken Chas intro, loud hailing from off stage and the heralded look behind the Madness curtain, into the machine and the workings. It's clearly explained what this is, and the band are not dressed in suits, to mark this with more casual look. Like it's a live rehearsal room? Well maybe. But man they didn't seem to need to crib off sheets much, apart from Carl seated at a stool. It's only the first song that false starts. And despite in band comments, and a lot of Woody's honest admissions that he's play some things from a box or he might need 2 goes, they all perform like hard worked rehearsals have paid off."
The set list of the 11/25/11 performance included:

Death Of A Rude Boy
Black & Blue
Big Time Sister
My Girl II
La Luna
You Cant Keep A Good Thing Down
Kitchen Floor
I Never Knew Your Name
Misery (Loves Company)
So Alive
How Can I Tell You
Powder Blue

Below are a few of the new songs as performed by the band over the summer:

You Cant Keep A Good Thing Down

Death Of A Rude Boy


Madness have made a free download of 10 songs performed by support bands at the House Of Fun Weekender. Just visit the Madness website to register.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Unsung Bands Of The 2-Tone Era: Lou & The Hollywood Bananas Put Belgium On The Ska Map

Any discussion about Belgian 2-Tone era ska band Lou & The Hollywood Banana's must first start with the story of the Belgian singer Plastic Bertrand who gave the world the 1977 Euro-punk anthem 'Ça Plane Pour Moi'. Not familiar with the song? It reached #8 in the U.K. charts and also garnered airplay in the U.S. Despite being hatched in the studio by music producer Lou Deprijck (who it was later determined actually sang the lead vocal as well), the song may have been one of the very best songs of the punk era. Ca Plane Pour Moi would be covered and translated into in English as 'Jet Boy, Jet Girl' by Elton Motello. The song has an undeniable punk pop hook and was one of Joe Strummer's favorites:
"By purist rules, its not allowed to even mention Plastic Bertrand. Yet this record was probably a lot better than a lot of so called punk records." -- Joe Strummer Mojo October 2001
Plastic Bertrand was actually Belgian musician Roger Jouret.  Originally a drummer, he was recruited for his good looks to take on the Milli Vanilla-like persona of Plastic Bertrand.  However it is alleged that Jouret pulled a Milli Vanilli by fronting and lip-syncing during TV performances, but that the actual singing was really done by his producer Deprijck. Controversial stuff eh? A court case finally settled the case of the real singer of the song was in 2006, finding in Deprijck's favor.

Apparently Deprijck also had a penchant for ska.  As Plastic Bertrand ran its course and 2-Tone took off in the U.K. in the late 70's, he turned his attention to his next project: Lou & The Hollywood Bananas.  The name alone should give a sense about the seriousness of the project. While they were a one man studio project, Deprijck released some overlooked ska classics during 1978-80, including 'Kingston, Kingston' which was a hit in Belgium and France and later gained some attention in the U.K.  While the name alone suggests a Weird Al Yankovic joke ska band, instead think a French-language version of Bad Manners, with Deprijck as Captain backed by two attractive Tenille-like back up singers.  The look was goofy but the songs had solid ska chops and musicianship.

Deprijck is still active in the music industry and currently resides in Thailand. The story of his life in Thailand was shown in a Flemish-language documentary as part of the Belgian news program. Have a listen to some of Lou & The Hollywood Banana's best known ska tracks below:

Kingston Kingston (French Version)

Kingston Kingston (English Version)

I Won't Never Let You Go

Et Puis... Et Puis... Rien

Hong Kong Ska

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Detonators Classic UK Dub/Lover's Rock Album 'Gangsters' Re-Issued: Highlights Music of Ghost Town Producer John Collins

The latest re-issue from Sean Flowerdew's fledgling U.K. reggae revival label Phoenix City Records is the long lost 'Gangster' album by The Detonators. The album was the brainchild of dub lover (and lover's rock producer) John Collins, who recorded the tracks in 1979 on a DIY studio he built in his front room in the North London neighborhood of Tottenham. Though released in the late 70's, the album has long been out-of-print until now.

Collin's work is a straight up serving of lovers rock with a dash of dub for good measure, and despite Collins’ DIY ethic, the magic he produced with his own handmade synths, drum machine and stdio effects on his 4 track studio studio put him on par with the UK’s finest reggae producers. Luckily, the reissue also includes a copy of the very rare 'Lift Off', a dub track which aside from being something of an ambient reggae experiment, also acted as the blueprint for The Specials’ 'Ghost Town' track.

According to Flowerdew, Collins is the British version of noted Jamaican producer King Tubby. By building his own recording gear and equipment, he developed his own brand of reggae and deserves credit for recording and releasing the very first U.K. dub track 'Lift Off'.
He’s credited by many as producing the first ever UK dub track, called Lift Off, which was on the flip side to a hit by Victor Romeo Evans called At The Club, bit of a lovers track. The Specials heard that and asked him to produce Ghost Town. But John’s instrumental side was the Detonators and he made this album that came out in ‘79, and he did things like building his own drum machine because none were available at the time. I mean Dennis Bovell was probably doing dub first but this had an electro vibe that was like nothing else.
As the story goes, on hearing 'Lift Off' on the flip of Victor Romero Evans’ 'At The Club', Jerry Dammers talked Collins into producing what would turn out to be The Specials final single. You can read more about the recording of 'Gangsters' over at Collins’ own Local Records website and while you’re at it, hit play below on 'Lift Off' which inspired Ghost Town’s iconic eerie intro, created by Collins in post production with a hand built Transcendent 2000 synth.

I had the pleasure to interview Collins about the recording of the album as well as the studio techniques he used to create his cutting edge dub sounds.

Where and how was 'Gangster' recorded?
"Lift Off" was recorded in 1980 at my house in Tottenham on the 4 track Teac like the other tracks on Gangster. I started by playing and recording the bass (DIed) along with the (home made) drum machine and then overdubbed guitar, organ and tambourine.

How did you get the great dub effects on the album?
I got the effect at the start by using a home made ring modulator and a signal generator along with the transcendent 2000 synth for the wind effect running live during mixdown onto the Teac 2 track. I used a Sony TC377 for stereo tape echo with my home made phaser in the feedback loop and a Hammond spring for reverb. The 2 track was put into record and the effects faded in, turning the dial on the signal generator gradually to get the "lift off" effect. When it felt right, I started the 4 track, faded in the rhythm, faded out the effects, muting tracks and playing with the echo and reverb - dub style. I then put the 2 track (semi) master 1/4 inch tape on the 4 track machine and recorded my voice doing the countdown on one of the inner tracks. This was pretty much the same technique I used on "Ghost Town" the following year.

Can the song 'Lift Off' be considered one of the first British dub songs?
My first dub was "Working Dub" recorded in 1978 and released in 1979. UK band like Matumbi (Dennis Bovell) and Steel Pulse were around and must have released some sort of dubs before me, but I'm sure my recordings were the first "electro dubs" made using a drum machine.

What was the genesis of Victor Romero's involvement in the project?
Victor was in a dance group when we first met and the tracks were made for their performances.

Do you think the songs on 'Gangsters' have stood up to the test of time?
I certainly enjoyed listening to the old master tapes again, which were fortunately recorded on Scotch tape and in perfect condition - I've still got the Teac 2 track to play them on. The recordings have a period quality - it was a bit like looking at old photos for me!

You can preview and download a copy of 'Gangsters' over at the iTunes UK store and .

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Could Hollie Cook Be The New Face of Reggae?

I finally had a chance to catch live video of Hollie Cook (daughter of Sex Pistol drummer Paul Cook) performing on U.K. music TV show 'Later With Jools Holland' which was broadcast last week. After playing her eponymous album over and over this summer, I can say without hesitation she could be the new face of reggae! Her album, produced by none other than Price Fatty, has been the soundtrack to my summer and is without a doubt the finest UK reggae set of this year - if you haven't already, get it here.

Her self-coined 'Tropical pop' sound is a bit of a misnomer since her songs and style are really an homage to British Lover's Rock reggae singers Janet Kay and Phyllis Dillon crossed with the sound of classic 60s girl soul and pop groups.

For those of you living outside the U.K. or who were not lucky enough to catch the program, here is Cook and her co-vocalist Horseman (and their excellent backing band) performing 'Body Beat' and 'Milk and Honey'.  Enjoy some of the sweetest sounding reggae recorded and performed this year.

Horace Panter's Excellent Blog - An Inside View of Life Inside The Specials Just Completed U.K. Tour

If you've read Horace Panter's memoir 'Ska'd For Life', then you know he is a great writer with a wonderful flair for conveying the truth about life as a musician. The book charts the rise and fall of The Specials from their founding in 1978 to their disintegration in 1981. I loved the book, particularly for the way in which Panter explains what can happen when seven very different individuals with unique personalities and distinct backgrounds can harness their creative energy and passion. If you haven't read the book, then I highly recommend you pick up a copy. Both Amazon.US and Amazon.UK have copies available.

If you have read the book, and were sorry when you finished, then I have very good news for you. Panter has just posted an update on The Specials website titled 'Specials U.K. Tour By Sir Horace Gentleman' which picks up where the last one 'Specials European Tour Blog' left off. The posts are detailed updates -- part travelogue and part tour diary -- of The Specials experiences on their very last U.K. tour (at least until 2013). As always, its great reading and a perfect epilogue to his book and a capstone on the band's final tour to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Panter provides a vivid look at how much chaos -- travel, boredom, traffic delays, bad food, bad sound and bad moods can impact a traveling band of 10 plus support (roadies, sound, family, etc) attempting to get from Point A to Point B on time. Oh and then there is the small detail of having to perform with energy and enthusiasm. Its not always pretty, particularly when most of the band are pushing 60 years of age and don't recover from the wear and tear of touring the way they used to. That said, the show must go on and the band is playing at the height of their powers. Here's to hoping Panter will consider putting it all down in another book about The Specials reunion.

The latest installment may be the best one yet.  Its precise, concise and pulls no punches when it comes to providing a real look behind the scenes of this most recent tour.  Heard about rumors of tension in the band?  Panter writes about it openly and honestly.
The reason Roddy has been spitting and snarling through the past few shows is because Terry has started singing Concrete Jungle. It was always agreed that Rod would sing it and he has since the band reformed. Terry had brought up the subject a few months ago that we should re-visit it. Rod would never stand centre-stage to sing it and it looked visually awkward. I would take Terry’s mich for the choruses. The upshot of all this is that in Hull, Terry stayed on stage and, much to everyone’s surprise, sang Concrete Jungle with Rod. It sounded great, the extra voice gave the song a lot more power but it put Roddy’s nose out of joint. This hasn’t helped and has ratcheted up the tension. There now exists the band…and Roddy which is sad.
Even better, Panter and his bandmates are clearly self-aware enough of the conundrum that faces them moving forward.  One of the selling points of the tour that just ended was that the band incorporated songs from their second album 'More Specials' which is night to the first album's day.  The crowd reaction to these songs varied.  Here Panter ponders if he and his bandmates are the world's greatest Specials tribute band or just The Specials? 
International Jet Set is obviously not a rude boy crowd pleaser but there again, it wasn’t supposed to be. This is something I’ve noticed and we’ve talked about…The Two Specials. There’s the ‘first album’ band, all Doc Martens, tonic suits and Ben Shermans. Long Shot Kick De Bucket and 200 skinheads on stage. Then there’s the ‘2nd album/Ghost Town’ band which was a lot more studious, musically. The band that people associate with is not the second incarnation. There aren’t too many fans turning up to see The Specials wearing Zoot suits, berets and sporting goatee beards. The Manchester Skinhead Moonstompers don’t get the party they expected. It’s a difficult problem. Are we a tribute act to ourselves.. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,The World’s greatest Specials tribute band…..The Specials!!’ Or do we become this ‘Heritage Act’ which gives us a certain room to maneuver, creatively.
It would seem that the answer to that question will be answered in the next year or so. In the meantime, here is some video of the the band performing 'It Doesn't Make Alright' from the show in Glasgow which Panter deemed 'blistering'. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Long Awaited Radio Riddler Productions 'Purple Reggae' Album Taking Shape: Members of Fun Lovin Criminals Helm Production

I'm proud to say that I am a huge Prince fan (I even stuck with him through that period of time when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol). The 'Purple Rain' film and album still remain defining touchstones of my late adolescence and early adulthood. I saw the film the day it opened during the summer of 1984 and I never got tired of hearing 'When Doves Cry' played on the radio at the David's Cookies store I worked that summer (and that song was in HEAVY radio rotation).

As such, I got very excited when I recently learned that Radio Riddler Productions (Fast and Frank Benbini of Fun Lovin Criminals (FLC), who are reggae remix producers in their spare time), are working to pull together a completely reggae tribute to Prince and the 'Purple Rain' album in its entirety (as well as a collection of Marvin Gaye's vocals over reggae music). Rumor has it that the album will feature a variety of artists and singers including members of The Specials brass section, members of Madness, former UB4O singer Ali Campbell (who will be singing 'Purple Rain'), Sinead O'Connor (performing 'I Would Die 4 U') and many more. It certainly doesn't hurt that Benbini is originally from Leicester in the U.K. and is well connected in the British music scenic.

Though originally from New York and best known here for their tune 'Scooby Snacks',  FLC was never fully embraced by American audiences, though the UK and most of Europe really took the band to their hearts. The band members in turn always seemed to understand and tap into a uniquely European, and especially British, sense of humor.

 Having worked to produce reggae remixes for a variety of artists, the Radio Riddler 'Purple Rain' project is a extension of their love of all things reggae and of Prince in particular. According to an interview that FLC drummer Frank Benbini did late last year, the album is a true labor of love that originally came about as a lark and took on a life of its own.
Yeah, across the board. It was one of those things where we love reggae, and we have a reggae remix outfit called Radio Riddler. We’ve remixed a lot of people…Lily Allen, Coldplay…you know, we’ve done a lot of remixes for a lot of people. So we thought, what can we do? He went – “Why don’t we do the soundtrack to ‘Purple Rain’?” I was like – “That won’t work, that won’t happen, it just won’t work”. He was like – “Well, let’s give it a go”, and he did the first one, ‘Purple Rain’, he got the beats ready and sent it to me, and I was like – “Fuck! It sounds great!” Then I got a lot of my hometown players, brass sections, people from The Specials playing on there. I sang all the songs but then it was like – “Let’s get some guest artists on it”. So I started to approach different people and one person I approached was Sinéad O'Connor. She hasn’t sung a Prince song since ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ which was an international number one so I didn’t think she’d go for it. But she did, and did a version of ‘I Would Die 4 U’. Amazing. Then we’ve got Plan B, he’s doing one, Madness are doing one, the singer from UB40’s doing one. So, yeah, that’s a great little project we’ve got going.
The album release has been delayed in part to complications in getting publishing approval from Prince and his camp, who are notoriously picky about anyone recording covers of his back catalog.  That said, all indications suggest its just a matter of time before the tracks see the light of day.

While they put the finishing touches on the Purple Rain album, Radio Riddlers have been very busy remixing a variety of artists and track including a wicked remix of the track 'Hard Life, Harsh Times' by Leicester-based reggae/ska band By The Rivers (who are just off tour as the support band for The Specials U.K. tour).  Have a listen below:

By The Rivers - HARD LIFE, HARSH TIMES (Radio Riddler Remix) by Radio Riddler Productions

Have a listen to a sampler of Radio Riddler's reggae remix of Marvin Gaye below:

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Specials To Soldier On! Roddy Byers Is Still A Member Of The Specials!

The good news is that The Specials have decided not to call it quits after all following what was to be the very last show of their three year reunion in London on Thursday night. And despite what you may have read in a variety of media outlets (including this blog), guitarist Roddy 'Radiation' Byers, has NOT left the band. The decision to continue on was confirmed by Lynval Golding and the band are now hinting that new material may be on the way.

The news represents a complete about face for the band, who announced the tour would be their very last. In fact, only recently, front man Terry Hall had announced that after this tour they’d call it a day.
“I just don’t want to be in a band any more," he said. "I think that this is the time to say, 'Thanks very much. See you later really.' I have been doing this for over 30 years and just think it is time to go now. I am 52, and I am the youngest in the band. I don’t get much time with my family, and touring tires me out.”
However, after the show on Thursday night, it seems like splitting up is a thing of the past. Vocalist Neville Staple stated:
"Seeing the people dancing right into the back of the venue made us reconsider our decision and we realised that an iconic band like The Specials shouldn’t go and leave their fans in this sad way. We thought we’d rather celebrate the last show of our tour in style.
Despite any confusion about Byers role in the band moving forward and contrary to what his band mates may have been quoted as saying, the iconic guitarist, whose sound and stage attitude add so much to The Specials, is still a member of the band.  His publicist shared a statement with me that makes it clear where Byers stands:
"In response to the November 4th NME article citing Roddy “Radiation” Byers’ alleged decision to leave the Specials, Mr. Byers would like to make it clear that he has not, in fact, left the Specials. Any previous statements quoted in the articles that were made by Mr. Byers regarding leaving the Specials were in reaction to Terry Hall’s public statements in August 2011 about disbanding after this last tour, and have nothing to do with the recent decision by Mr. Hall and other members to continue on. Byers is still planning to be involved in all future Specials’ music and tours, and is looking forward to seeing the Specials’ fans in front of the stage once more."
Byers plans to continue playing live with his band The Skabilly Rebels who have recently released an album. The band's next show is on November 18th in Derby.

So what does this news mean for fans of the band?  First and foremost it would suggest more touring, particularly in the U.S. and Japan which are markets where the band remains incredibly popular.  It also means the band may have finally committed to writing new material as they have now taken the live show of the their two albums as far as they can.  It also begs the question: What role will or won't Jerry Dammers play in the future?  With Byers still in the fold, the band has three legitimate song writers in Hall, Golding and Byers. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who is Barnsley Bill?!: His True Identity May Surprise You

Who is Barnsley Bill?  Its an incredibly obscure musical question but one that bears asking only because the answer is so ultimately satisfying.

First the details.  Barnsley Bill could be the man responsible for the first British Rap record! This obscure 1981 12" single 'Freewheeling Rap', pre-dates any other U.K. 'Rap' record ever released. Signed to the independent label, 'Mother-In-Law-Records', Bill took a uniquely British approach to early 80's rap, choosing to deliver his rhymes in his native Northern accent. In fact, Bill is so 'hard', he can "fold a newspaper", "drive 75,000 miles a year" and even "eat THREE Weetabix!" The track was produced by Ronnie Bossanova, and backed by The Daves International who supply the heavy funk riff, (borrowed from the classic 'Shack Up').  Have a listen and see if the answer becomes clearer!

Any clearer yet?! For those living outside the U.K., Barnsley is a coal mining town in South Yorkshire, England located between Sheffield and Leeds. While I'm no native, my guess is that Barnsley Bill is tweaking the locals and the local culture if you will.

How about the sound of that cornet/flugel horn? Its quite distinct and may lend a clue to the real identity of the artist?

Give up? Believe it or not, but Barnsley Bill was the alter ego of Horace Panter of The Specials. During the time after 'Ghost Town' when band members were taking a break (read: breaking up), Panter recorded the song on a lark at a cost of just £300! And rumor has it that the one and only Dick Cuthell laid down that unmistakable horn line.

The song and another that Panter recorded as Barnsley Bill titled 'Wedding Rap' are both long out-of-print so if you like what the Specials bassie cooked up 30 years ago, feel free to download the song below.

Barnsley Bill - Freewheeling Rap

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Halloween Story: The Song That Inspired The Recording of Ghost Town by The Specials

Here is a trivia question for all fans of The Specials and 2-Tone. Have you ever heard of John Collins? How about Victor Romero Evans? If you haven't you are in good company.  You can thank them both for their direct and indirect roles in the recording of one of The Specials greatest songs 'Ghost Town'.

John Collins, a North London-based music producer and owner of Local Records was drafted in to produce 2-Tone's finest moment, 'Ghost Town' after Jerry Dammers lauded his production on Victor Romero Evan's Lover's Rock hit 'At The Club'.  Collins got his start working with local talent, using home made equipment and recording in a front room on a 4-track TASCAM recorder in North London.  He founded Local Records in the late 1970's and it quickly came to the forefront of the post-punk DIY record label boom - making reggae and dance records, selling them through shops and later topping the UK reggae charts and the national charts.

But, it all started with one record - 'At The Club' which Collins recorded with Victor Romero Evans.  Evans was a up and coming UK movie and TV actor and singer, who appeared in the 1980 UK reggae movie 'Babylon'.  The song became a hit quickly, spending five weeks at #1 on the UK reggae charts in 1980.  Part of the reason the track became a hit was production techniques employed by Collins.  It was the first track to use a homemade drum machine sound and the rhythm copied 'Another One Bites The Dust' by Jamaican-based Clint Eastwood making it instantly recognizable.  The song reached a broader audience after Jerry Dammers heard it and later voted it his record of the year in New Music Express, which landed Collins a deal with Epic Records.

Dammers was smitten with the track and in March of 1981 phoned Collins up to invite him to produce The Specials next batch of songs.  Suspicious that it was some sort of joke, he agreed to travel up to Coventry a couple of days later to meet the band and was surprised to find that they were serious. They were surprised to discover that he was white.  

After recording two major label records, Dammers had become disillusioned with high tech, expensive studios and liked Collins homemade approach and reggae credentials. Dammers had found a small 8-track studio in Leamington and it was decided to go there to record three songs for the band’s next single. According to Collins, The Specials usually recorded by all playing together live, but he was used to building a backing track bit by bit. It was in this fashion that he got drummer John Bradbury to set up just his bass drum, snare and hi hat; and bass player Horace Panter to plug directly into the mixer, going for a Sly and Robbie sound.

According to an interview Collins did with, 'Ghost Town' may have been influenced by another song.  "I took a 12" of "What A Feeling" by Gregory Isaacs to Woodbine to test the sound of the monitors. It's a Sly and Robbie rhythm similar to Gregory Isaacs' "Night Nurse". I think this influenced Brad's playing, it certainly influenced me in getting the drum sound.. Also I had used the idea of fading up a track through a sound effect on "Lift Off", the B-side of "At The Club", and the idea of fading out under a sound effect on "Working Dub", which I had put out on Local Records previously."

Collins has posted a great article on his own Web site about the genesis of recording 'Ghost Town' as well his experience working with The Specials.  I've always been struck by the eerie ghost sound effect at the start and end of the song which makes the track so haunting. According to Collins, the sound was hand created by a home made synthesizer dropped in at the start of the final mix, fading up The Specials from Brad’s drum count-in and fading down the synthesiser under Jerry’s chromatic diminished chord sequence.  At the end, he muted everything apart from bass, drums and backing vocals, dub style, and faded the ghost synth back up just before The Specials come to a halt, leaving the synth on its own again for a few seconds before the final fade. And there you have it - the production of a masterpiece.

You can read more about Collins and Local Records at his Web site where you can purchase copies of all of his music.  You can also hear more tracks recorded by Victor Romero Evans at his Web site.

Monday, October 24, 2011

London International Ska Festival Band Competition Update: Voting Well Underway

Voting for the 2012 London International Ska Festival band competition is well underway with more than 3,000 votes cast since the competition kicked off in mid-September. Ska fans from around the world have been voting to select one winner from 20 finalists who hail from the US, Mexico, Canada, UK, Scotland, Spain, Denmark and Indonesia. The winning band will receive an all expenses paid trip to travel to London to perform at the festival. Here is how the standings stack up so far:

1. Los Furious (Canada)
2. Monkey Boots (Indonesia)
3. Jamaica 69 (Mexico)
4. Kinky Coo Coo's (Catalonia)
5. Bigger Thomas (U.S.)

In order to vote you need to email the band's name in the subject line of the email to There is only vote per person  and only valid email addresses will be counted.  You can listen to tracks from all 20 finalists on the London International Ska Festival band page. The contest ends on December 1, 2011.

The 2012 edition of the Festival will be held May 3-6, 2012 at the Brixton Academy, Shepards Bush Empire and Islington Academy. Bands already confirmed for 2012 edition of the festival include: Dandy Livingstone (Jamaica), The Dualers (UK), Neol Davies aka The Selecter (UK), The Hotknives (original line-up; UK), The Moon Invaders (Belgium), Los Granadians (Spain), Capone & The Bullets (Scotland). More bands and DJs will be confirmed and announced over the coming months.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I play bass in Bigger Thomas (above), so while I would hope the many readers of the Marco On The Bass blog will consider voting to send me and my band mates to London next spring (I guarantee regular live updates and features from London on this blog if you help send me there), please vote for your favorite band out of the 20 on the list (we are in excellent company).

If you need a bit more convincing about my band then please download one of our albums for free from the sidebar along the right side of the blog and give us a listen. If you like 2-Tone influenced ska then we just might be your cup of tea. If you like what you hear please vote for us. After 23 years of blood, sweat and tears and many ups and downs the trip to London would be a dream come true for us. Here are a few videos of us if you need some visuals to help you make up your mind:

Ska In My Pocket

Permanent Error

More & More

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Horace Panter's Excellent Blog - An Inside View of Life Inside The Specials Final Tour

If you've read Horace Panter's memoir 'Ska'd For Life', then you know he is a great writer with a wonderful knack for conveying the truth about life as a musician. The book charts the rise and fall of The Specials from their founding to their disintegration. I loved the book, particularly for the way in which Panter explains what can happen when seven very different individuals with unique personalities and distinct backgrounds can harness their creative energy and passion. If you haven't read the book, then I highly recommend you pick up a copy. Both Amazon.US and Amazon.UK have copies available.

If you have read the book, and were sorry when you finished, then I have very good news for you. Panter has just posted an update on The Specials website titled 'Specials European Tour Blog September 2011' which picks up where the last one 'Summer Fun with The Specials' from the summer of 2010 left off.  The posts are detailed updates -- part travelogue and part tour diary -- of The Specials experiences on their very last European tour from last month. Its great reading and a perfect epilogue to his book and a capstone on the final tour. Panter provides a vivid look at how much chaos -- travel (planes, trains and automobiles), boredom, traffic delays, bad food, bad sound and bad moods can impact a traveling band of 10 plus support (roadies, sound, family, etc) attempting to get from Point A to Point B on time. Oh and then there is the small detail of having to perform with energy and enthusiasm. Its not always pretty, particularly when most of the band are in the their mid-50's and don't recover from the wear and tear of touring the way they used to. That said, the show must go on and the band is playing at the height of their powers.  Here's to hoping Panter will  consider putting it all down in another book about The Specials reunion.

Here is some video of the the band performing 'Nite Klub' from the show in Amsterdam which Panter deemed 'blistering'. Enjoy!