Friday, April 29, 2011

Reflections On The London International Ska Festival: An Eyewitness Report

Oh how I wish I had been able to cross the pond to attend the London International Ska Festival (LISF) at the Clapham Grand Theatre this past weekend (before all this royal wedding nonsense).  Sadly lack of funds and timing conspired against me and I was not able to make the sojourn.   That said, I followed the shows from afar and stayed up to date via reviews from The Music Fix, The Standard London Evening, and The Other Side that brought the festival to life for fans like me. Though I can't share a personal account, I have the next best thing -- the eyewitness account of Joachim Uerschels (the singer/guitarist of German ska band The Braces and ska blogger Joe Scholes) who travelled to London from his home in Germany and was kind enough to share his impressions of the 4-day festival.

The LISF was the brainchild of Sean Flowerdew (Pama International, Special Beat, The Loafers) who also helped organize the original festival 23 years ago at The Fridge in Brixton which featured Laurel Aitken, Bad Manners, Potato 5, The Loafers, Hotknives, The Deltones, Napolean Solo, The Braces, Bim Skala Bim, Capone and The Bullets and Skin Deep (read Uerschels excellent account of his memories of the first LISF). The second version was much more ambitious and broader in scope including a diverse mix of original artists from the 60's and 70's (Ken Boothe, Dave & Ansel Collins) as well as bands from the original festival in 1988 (The Loafers, Napoleon Solo, Bim Skala Bim) and ska mainstays like The English Beat, Dub Pistols, The Trojans and last minute addition The Lee Thompson All-Star Ska Orchestra. Special guests included Lynval Golding of The Specials, Rico Rodrigues, Rhoda Dakkar of The Bodysnatchers/The Special AKA and Buster Bloodvessel of Bad Manners and Jerry Dammers (who were both spied dancing in the audience).

Uerschels who sold his Ampeg SVT-II bass amp to pay for the trip got the blessing from his understanding wife (who spent the Easter weekend alone with their young daughters) to attend the LISF. Without further ado, here are his detailed day-by-day impressions of the shows:

Why was going to the LISF so important to me? It might sound over-the-top: I believed that in those four days in London my life in Ska would come full circle. In 1988 my band The Braces played the first London International Ska Festival. Our musical career didn’t get any better than that. Some bands from that time were going to play in 2011 again. Bim Skala Bim, Napoleon Solo from Denmark, The Loafers, Skaos and The Trojans. I was anxious to see how life had dealt them. And I wanted to see all those people that had embraced Ska as much as (or even more than) I. Here are some notes from my four days at the LISF.

Day 1: Ken Boothe/James Hunter/Giuliano Palma & The Bluebeaters
We arrive at the wonderful venue The Grand in Clapham just in time to watch Giuliano Palma & The Bluebeaters play. The second band of the evening, and the guys from Italy put on a superb show. They are a reminder of how much the musical quality in Ska has evolved in recent years. When Soul man James Hunter takes over, he plays great music for me, but not for some of the Ska people. The final act of the night is Ken Boothe. His voice is so touching. It revokes lots of club nights in me, dancing to 'Everything I Own' and other gems. Many in the room feel the same. Still there is a heaviness in the air. The evening is far from sold-out. What does that mean for promoter Sean? And for the Ska world? Or is it just the Thursday?

Day 2:Dave & Ansel Collins/Dub Pistols/The Loafers/Hotknives
A near perfect night. In 1988 it would have been unthinkable for most 2-Tone heroes to show up at The Ska Festival. They felt they had outgrown this music. Ska was an unpleasing memory, a pimpled, boring ex-classmate whom you rather not greet in the street. Fast forward to 2011 and there is a different picture. Three generations of music lovers from all continents come together to party in the name of Ska. The crowd is bigger than the night before. And the 2-Tone bunch is at its center. Lynval Golding from The Specials jumps on stage for songs with The Loafers and the Dub Pistols. Rhoda Dakar is dancing along and smiling, even Jerry Dammers is standing at the bar. Skaos rock it. During the Hotknives’s set there is only joy in the room. The Caroloregians show that early Reggae is the Boss sound of today. The guys from Belgium are a mighty force on their own and a worthy backing band for Dave Barker & Ansell Collins. What a night.

Dave & Ansel Collins perform 'Monkey Soanner' backed by The Caroloregians

Dub Pistols perform a blazing cover of The Stranglers 'Peaches'

The Loafers with Lynval Golding perform The Specials 'Rude Boys Outta Jail'

Day 3:The English Beat/The Trojans/Intensified/Napoloeon Solo
I can hardly talk. Last night has taken its toll, a gigantic hangover is here in combination with a hoarse throat. Man wasn’t made for 4-day festivals. Everything looks grey. And if that wasn’t enough: I missed Napoleon Solo. On the flyer that I use as orientation Nap Solo was left out. Next on is Intensified. They are being celebrated, and deservedly so. I like to think that with Intensified some spirit of The Braces is on stage. Their organ player Steffi used to be with us. I have to find a bed. After a quick nap I’m back for the last songs of The Trojans. In 1988 The Trojans from London were the first band to produce an authentic Ska sound (together with The Ska-Flames). They used to roll like it was 1962. Today their shows are happenings, a bunch of mad professors meet on stage and celebrate life’s incomputabilities.   I am pleased to see Rico and Ru-Ru-Rudy Valentino on stage. Yet, the drive of the good ol’ days had something, too. The evening is topped off with the return of The English Beat to England. They are introduced in a moving speech by Lynval Golding. Can Dave Wakeling’s version of the band play? Hell yeah. Their collection of hits is warmly appreciated by the crowd, too. So, do they have the magic of the original? That might be too much to ask for.

The English Beat with Lynval Golding perform 'Jackpot' and a new song 'Two Tone Lady':

Rico Rodrigues and The Trojans perform The Skaltalites classic 'Confuscious':

Day 4:Bob & Marcia/Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra/Owen Gray/Bim Skala Bim
The final day. That was supposed to be it? The voice is still not back. Bim Skala Bim are setting up their equipment when we arrive.  In 1988 The Braces and Bim Skala Bim had shared two floors in Buster Bloodvessel’s house prior to the first London International Ska Festival. Back then they were incredibly good musicians who gave it all on their rented instruments night after night. From what I heard they take it easier today. It’s hard for me to tell whether the lineup is still the same, after all those years. But I think it is, minus singer Jackie Starr. The rest have lost nothing of their drive. It’s hard to believe. Brilliance. The Ska Flames from Japan should be on next. But they have cancelled their show due to the situation at home. Lee Thompson’s Ska Orchestra took their spot. Highlight of the slapstick driven performance of Ska were three songs with early reggae entertainer Owen Gray. The great final is another demonstration of Jamaican old school entertainment. Marcia Griffiths is second to no soul diva. A unique voice, a demanding stage presence. Marcia is your big sister, caring, and always in control. The room seems packed. Organiser Sean is standing next to Lynval on the balcony, with a smile on his face. Somehow all must have been worth it.

Bim Skala Bim (the only American band that played the LISF) perform 'Pretty Flowers': 

Lee Thompson All-Star Ska Orchestra perform 'Sit & Wonder':

Owen Gray backed by Lee Thompson's band performs the classic 'Too Experienced' (which was covered by The Bodysnatchers).

Marcia Griffiths performs 'The Liquidator':

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Poly Styrene Goes Rocksteady: 1976 Reggae Single Pre-Dates X-Ray Spex

As a fitting tribute to Poly Styrene who passed away yesterday at 53 from breast cancer, I wanted to honor her musical memory with a rare rocksteady single she recorded for GTO Records in 1976 under her given name several years before becoming a Riot Grrl icon. A cautionary tale of the perils of teen pregnancy, 'Silly Billy' was not a commercial success, but has a sweet late 60's rocksteady sound that reveals a wonderfully warm and beautiful voice quite at odds with her later punk styled singing.

According to an obituary in The Telegraph, Poly Styrene was born Marian Joan Elliot-Said in Bromley, Kent, on July 3 1957.  Her mother was of Scottish/Irish descent, her father a dispossessed Somali aristocrat. Bringing up Marian alone, her mother feared that the local environment was “too white and too judgmental”, so they soon moved to Brixton where she could see her estranged father more often.

She ran away from home at 15 to live a hippie existence, drifting from one rock festival to another for two years before a bout of septicaemia brought her back to London. She then set up a boutique at Beaufort Market in Chelsea, and coined her future stage name.

After attending a Sex Pistols gig in a near-empty hall on Hastings Pier on her 18th birthday in 1975, she decided to become a singer. As 'Mari Elliot', in 1976 she released the unsuccessful reggae-flavored single on GTO Records. That same year, after placing an advertisement in the Melody Maker for 'Young Punx who want to stick it together', she formed the five-piece X-Ray Spex.

Have a listen to 'Silly Billy' below and toast her memory and her music! RIP Poly!

Dave Wakeling To Lead Sponsored Walk Of Coventry '2-Tone Trail' On April 30th

Hot on the heels of a 'prodigal sons returns' like show at the London International Ska Festival on Saturday night. English Beat front man Dave Wakeling is taking his band back to the birthplace of 2-Tone ska -- Coventry.  But before the band plays a homecoming show this Saturday night April 30th, Wakeling will lead  a very lucky group of fans on a sponsored walk down the 2-Tone Trail, a nostalgic guided tour through the streets of the city that birthed the 2-Tone sound.

Devised by 2-Tone Museum director Pete Chambers, the 2-Tone Trail will take a group of fans along on this step through the history of the key locations that played such an important part in the growth of 2-Tone. Accompanied by Chambers and Trail organizer Carole Quinney, Wakeling will return to a time when ska and punk beats were being fused to create a brand of music that not only had infectious rhythms but also had a unique social conscience too, effectively becoming a defining soundtrack to many fans who were living through a troubled times.

Proceeds collected by fans who sponsor the walk will go directly to the 2-Tone Museum which collects historical pieces from the 2-Tone heritage spanning seminal bands including Madness, The Selecter, The Specials, and, of course, The English Beat. Already many American fans who can’t make the trail have sponsored Wakeling to the tune of almost $800, and the sponsorship money continues to come in. According to Wakeling:
“The 2-Tone Museum has done a marvelous job starting to collect and display artifacts from the 2-Tone period and I’d love to see it continue. So, I’m asking fans around the world to sponsor me $10 or £5 UK by visiting the link on the 2-Tone Central website to help develop the program even further.”
Sites to be visited along the way are Coventry University (where The English Beat met The Specials founder Jerry Dammers and signed to 2-Tone Records), Central Library (once the site of Tiffany’s Nightclub where The English Beat once played) and 51 Albany Road (The Birthplace of 2-Tone). A stop-over is also arranged in the recently re-opened Albany Pub on Albany Road.

The sponsored 2-Tone Trail-Twist and Crawl, begins at 2-Tone Central at 1:00pm, but you must have sponsorship to take part in the Trail. Some lucky "Trailers" have been promised a chance of attending the band’s sound check at the venue.

For more information, go to

Friday, April 22, 2011

Reggae Fi Peach: Remembering An Activist Murdered by The British Police

Tomorrow, Saturday April 23rd 2011 marks the 32nd anniversary of the murder of Blair Peach at the hands of London's Metropolitan Police. Peach's case became a cause célèbre in 1979 and for many years afterwards. The circumstances surrounding his death have been fiercely debated for years. Pictures of Peach later became an icon of early-Eighties U.K. political activism. Another victim was Clarence Baker, manager of British reggae band Misty In Roots, who was left with a fractured skull and a blood clot of his brain and took a year to recover from his injuries. Peach was memorialized by reggae dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in his song 'Reggae Fi Peach,' and Baker by The reggae/rock band The Ruts in 'Jah War',

Peach was an improbable martyr.  The New Zealand native was a school teacher in London.  He was also a member of the Socialist Workers Party and an activist with the Anti Nazi League opposing the rise of the National Front when he was killed during a demonstration in a predominantly Asian and Sikh area of Southall in West London. Though evidence was finally released last year that suggested police officers were responsible for Peach's death, to this day, no one has been brought to justice for his death. Later, when the lockers and some houses of Special Patrol Group members were searched following the incident, truncheons, knives, bayonets, swords and Nazi regalia were found.

According to an article in The Guardian last year:
The police handling of the Southall protest which led to Mr Peach's death was abominable. No public statement of sympathy was ever made by the police. In spite of detailed criticisms and complaints at the time about police conduct, including the killing, no police officer was ever disciplined in any way, much less prosecuted for any act committed at Southall. Police refused to offer evidence or to co-operate with the independent inquiry.
The events leading to Peach's death were part of demonstration opposing the National Front who had announced it would hold a "general election" meeting in Ealing Town Hall on Monday April 23, 1979. Local people were appalled, but the local Tory council approved the National Front's permit to meet. Local activists did all they could to get the meeting banned. The day before 5,000 people marched to the Town Hall, but the then Labour home secretary, Merlyn Rees, refused to ban the meeting. As a result, three thousand police, with dogs, horses, riot vans, a helicopter and units of the notorious Special Patrol Group poured into Southall to 'defend the peace.'

At lunchtime Southall's shops closed in protest. Some factories shut down and Asian workers at nearby Heathrow airport walked out. Anti-Nazis arrived in Southall in solidarity. Later some demonstrators tried to get on a bus going through the police cordon. The police threw everyone off. According to eyewitnesses
"At about 6.30pm people started to go towards the town hall. Suddenly the cordon parted and police on horseback came through and started to hit people with long batons. They attacked men, women and children." Police vans speeded through the hemmed-in crowd."
Inside the National Front meeting the local candidate for upcoming parliamentary elections was pledging to "bulldoze Southall to the ground and replace it with an English hamlet". Outside people were confronted with a full-blown police riot. The Daily Telegraph reported what happened:
"Within three minutes mounted police had cornered about 50 demonstrators against the churchyard walls. As we watched, several demonstrators were dragged crying and screaming to the nearby police station. Nearly every demonstrator had blood flowing from some injury."
The police surrounded an area designated as a first aid center, kicking in the door and forcing everyone to run a gauntlet of truncheon blows to get out. At least three protesters were hit so hard their skulls fractured. Blair Peach was one of them
"At least two Special Patrol Group vans came up," remembers Blair's friend Jo Lang. "The officers got out and charged us. We ran, but Blair wasn't with us. So we went back to look for him. An Asian family had taken him into their living room. You couldn't see how badly injured he was. It was later said that he was hit with a lead-filled cosh. While he was in the ambulance he started having fits. At 12 o'clock they phoned and told us he was dead."

News of his death sent shock waves throughout Britain. The day before he was buried 4,000 local Asian people filed past Peach's body as he lay in Southall's Dominion Cinema. Throughout the night Asian youth from the area maintained a guard of honor over him. The next day the funeral travelled to east London as part of a 10,000-strong funeral procession.

Watch Linton Kwesi Johnson perform a live version of 'Reggae Fi Peach' and The Ruts perform 'Jah War' below.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Story Behind The Members Reggae Version Of Kraftwerk's "The Model'

I have to admit that the first time I heard 'The Model' it was not the classic Kraftwerk electro version but an awe inspiring reggae cover version recorded by The Members from their 1983 'Uprhythm, Downbeat' album (the one with 'Working Girl' on it!).  It was only a few years later when I became a fan of Kraftwerk that I finally made the connection between the two songs.

Inspired by the models who worked at The Bagel nightclub in Cologne, the original version of song is the story of a high fashion model as she gets through her busy day. The song first appeared on Kraftwerk's 1978 album 'The Man Machine'. It was released as the B-side of "Neon Lights," but German DJs preferred to play 'The Model.' At the time the song made no impact outside of Germany. Released as an English language version in the UK as a double A-side along with 'Computer Love' in 1981, the track went to straight to #1 confirming its universal appeal.

Best remembered for their punky anthems, The Members never really achieved the widespread recognition that their musical vision deserved. Led by vocalist Nicky Tesco and guitarist JC Carroll, the band later incorporated reggae into their sound and like The Clash played fully formed reggae songs (check out their fantastic version of 'Offshore Banking Business').  This was no bandwagon jumping.  Tesco (like Paul Simonon of The Clash) was a long-time reggae fan as far back as the early 70's.
"In 1972 I went to university in Liverpool and discovered reggae big time spending a lot of my time in various dub clubs." 
“To many people we are just a footnote. But I know Jerry Dammers was quoted somewhere as saying we were a major influence. We incorporated reggae to a greater degree than any other band, even the Clash, but we weren’t in any way as important as the Clash.”
Its my humble opinion that The Members version of the 'The Model' may be one of the most overlooked songs ever recorded by the band who wholeheartedly embrace a full on reggae sound for the song, transforming it into lost classic of the 80's. Appearing on 'Uprythym Downbeat' (sort of The Members' own version of Sandinista! in its appealing looseness and lack of consistent musical focus) the band joined up with producer Martin Rushent (Human League, Altered Images, the Go-Go's), who was a master of helping unpromising non-commercial bands have big shiny hit records without losing their souls in the process. According to an interview I did with JC Carroll, the reggaefied version of 'The Model' was an unplanned last minute addition to the album.
It was recorded as an afterthought in the middle of the night on (producer) Martin Rushent's Human League synths. My mate Dave Allen mixed it
The unusual treatment of Kraftwerk’s 'The Model' which receives a lopping dub-styled workout with horns keeps the momentum going and is a completely inventive take on the original.  As Carroll said: 'We play English rock with a touch of reggae - and we do it so that people can enjoy themselves'.

Have a listen to the Kraftwerk version of 'The Model' and The Members version below.  Don't forget to play them loud!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mick Jones & The Beat/General Public: A Musical Appreciation Society

I'm off to see Big Audio Dynamite this week at the fabled Roseland Ballroom here in New York City.  I feel lucky to catch one of only two shows that the original line-up (Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Dan Donovan, and Greg Roberts) are playing here in the U.S. as part of their reunion tour.   I was also lucky enough to see B.A.D.'s very first show in New York back in late 1985, so in some ways I've come full circle.   While Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon get the lion share of credit for the influence that reggae played on the sound of The Clash, Jones was also a fan of the sound and actually established a friendship with both Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling of The Beat and later General Public that had musical implications for all concerned.

There has always been a mutual appreciation society between Jones and Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling. The Beat toured with The Clash (see the ticket stub above from a series of show the bands played together during a residency The Clash played in Paris in 1981) and it was on tour that Ranking Roger, who as a punk briefly played drums in a Birmingham-based punk band called The Dum Dum Boys, met Jones who along with Strummer and Simonon were incorporating reggae into their sound.

First a little bit of history. In case you didn't know, The Clash album 'Combat Rock' was originally planned as a double album with the working title 'Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg', but the idea was scrapped after internal wrangling within the group. Mick Jones had mixed the first version, but the other members were dissatisfied and mixing/producing duties were handed to Glyn Johns, at which point the album became a single LP. This intra-band arguing soon lead to Jones departure from the band. However, the original mixes have since surfaced and bootlegged versions are floating around the Internet. Jones was such a fan of Ranking Roger and his vocal style, that he invited him to toast on his mix of 'Rock The Casbah'. The version did not make the 'Combat Rock' album, but it cemented a friendship that has gone on to this day. In fact Ranking Roger's version of The Beat still play a cover of 'Rock The Casbah' as part of their live set.

Here is the alternate version of 'Rock The Casbah' featuring Ranking Roger as mixed by Mick Jones for 'Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg':

Both The Clash and The Beat broke up around the same time in mid-1983, with Strummer and Simonon 'firing' Jones from the The Clash and Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger leaving to start General Public. Wakeling and Ranking Roger joined up with keyboardist Mickey Billingham (Dexys Midnight Runners), bassist Horace Panter (The Specials) and drummer Stoker (Dexys Midnight Runners/The Bureau) to form the new band. Jones was originally announced as a band member, and based on his friendship with Ranking Roger agreed to come on-board. However, by the time the 'All The Rage' album was released in 1984, Jones had left to form Big Audio Dynamite, although he did play guitar on the majority of the album’s tracks.

Wakeling did an interview in 2009 speaking about the musical role and contributions that Jones played on the first General Public album:
Well, we did a bit of a barter deal. He had left the Clash and was starting Big Audio Dynamite, and he said to me that he had a load of lyrics, but he liked the way I played with the vocal melodies, and if he gave me a cassette of instrumentals, would I do some la-la-la and humming and ideas for melodies? And he would fit his lyrics around those, if they fit. So I did that for him, and in the process of doing that, I said where we were with General Public, and he was my favorite guitarist of all time, and would he be willing to play on some of the tunes? So we gave him the songs as they were demos and let him get a feel for them. And we asked about rehearsals and that, but he was a very intuitive player, and he said, “No, I’ve got an idea of the songs now. Wait ‘til you’ve got a finished song that’s begging for a lead guitar part, and I’ll just come down. I’m not precious about it. I’ll just play loads of things and you tell me what fits and throw away the rest.”
Although he had a very casual air about him, Mick was an incredibly hard-working musician. He would stay playing the guitar for hours and hours, searching as he played along with the track for what he thought resonated. And over the course of a few sessions, we got some of the most fantastic guitar parts for “Tenderness,” “Where’s the Line,” “Never You Done That, “Hot You’re Cool.” We got him mainly, I think, just to play on the songs that we thought might be potential singles or that had that smell of a hit about them. And then we let him pick some other songs that we played him, and he said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got a part for that.” And we let him play on “As a Matter of Fact,” I think that was one of the ones he picked out.
I had to control Ranking Roger a bit, though, because…I wouldn’t say he was a control freak, but he had a very particular opinion about everything. So Mick Jones would be starting to play something, and Roger would be on the intercom straight away, “Uh, Mick, could you try something like…” And I could see Mick Jones start to get frustrated, y’know? I let it go on about two or three times, and then I thought, “Oh, no, this could spoil stuff.” So, eventually, Roger went to push the intercom button, and I grabbed his hand, and I said, “Here’s an idea, Roger: why don’t you let the best guitarist in the world play what he wants? And if, at the end of the night, you still don’t think you’ve got what you need, then come up with a suggestion. But as you can’t actually play the guitar, why not shut up?” (Laughs) And there was a tense little moment, but he let Mick Jones do his thing, thank God!
Jones returned the favor to Ranking Roger in the mid-90's, inviting him to sing on the track B.A.D. track 'Harrow Road'. Ranking Roger joined Big Audio Dynamite full-time from 1996-98 and performed at several live shows with the band. Ranking Roger also joined the band in the studio to record the album 'Entering A New Ride.' However, the band broke up shortly after he joined when its last album was shelved by the record company and they refused to release it. In 1997, the band launched a new web site, primarily as a means to distribute songs from the Entering a New Ride album to the group's fans. The album is one of the earliest virtual albums ever and is available all over the Web.

Here are several tracks from the album including 'Sunday Best' and 'Must Be The Music' and 'Nice & Easy':

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Brixton Riots Provoke A Musical Response From 2-Tone & Reggae Artists

The Brixton Riots kicked off 30 years ago this week in London on April 11, 1981. Following sharply on the heels of riots almost exactly a year earlier in Bristol, they preceded similar riots that fanned out across the U.K. later that summer. Between July 3rd and July 11 of 1981, there were more riots fueled by racial and social discord in Birmingham, London, Liverpool, and Manchester. There were also smaller pockets of unrest in Leeds, Leicester, Southampton, Halifax, Bedford, Gloucester, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Bristol, and Edinburgh. Though racial tension played a major part in most of these disturbances, they all broke out in areas hit hard by unemployment and recession.

According to a Time Magazine story published in 1981 on the Brixton riots:
It was the kind of warm spring Saturday afternoon that draws all of London into the streets. As two bobbies pounded their beat in Brixton, a grimy, racially mixed neighborhood south of the Thames, they stopped to question a black youth. A hostile crowd gathered, and suddenly all hell seemed to break loose. Rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails began to fly. As police reinforcements rushed in, an orgy of burning and looting swept down Railton Road, a principal neighborhood shopping avenue, leaving automobiles gutted and shops in flames. Streets were littered with looted appliances, clothing and costume jewelry. At the peak of the violence, more than 1,000 police in riot gear, huddled like Roman legionnaires behind shields, battled some 600 black West Indian youths, interspersed with a few masked white rioters.
A British government report commissioned following the riots found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of 'stop and search' powers by the police against black people as a cause for the riots. Left unspoken was the outright racism displayed by many members of the London police force who were notorious for wearing National Front buttons on their uniforms to provoke and outrage. As a consequence, a new code for police behavior was established in 1985, to attempt to restore public confidence in the police. For more details about the causes and impact of the riots, watch Director Rachel Currie's 2001 documentary 'The Battle for Brixton,' which is one of the most comprehensive video chronicles of the unrest. Watch the program in its entirety below:

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

The Bristol and Brixton riots had a significant impact and influence on the ska and reggae musical community in the U.K. Eerily, The Clash had a musical premonition of things to come releasing 'Guns Of Brixton' two years before the riots. The reaction from other artists immediately following the riots was swift including literal swan songs from 2-Tone bands The Specials ('Ghost Town' topped the pop charts as the country seemingly went up in flames) and The Selecter ('Bristol and Miami' from 'Celebrate The Bullet') and from reggae artists Linton Kwesi Johnson ('The Great Insurrection') and MCs Roy Rankin and Raymond Napthali, who produced 'Brixton Incident' right after the riots.

Jerry Dammers of The Specials' composed Ghost Town, a mournful state-of-the-nation rant, based on their depressing experiences of touring the UK in late 1980 and early 1981. The song captured the political mood of the U.K. and its rise in the charts each week during the summer of 1981 peaked at number one just as riots broke out in nearly every major city in the U.K. Watch the band in their very last appearance together 'performing' the song on Top Of The Pops.

The Selecter recorded their front line dispatch with the much overlooked 'Bristol & Miami' on the 'Celebrate The Bullet' LP released in 1981. It refers to the riots in both cities brought about by police abuses (stop and search Sus laws in Bristol) and brutality (the beating death of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of five white police officers in Miami). Watch Pauline Black and Arthur 'Gaps' Hendrickson's version of The Selecter perform the song during the show to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 'Too Much Pressure' album last fall.

But perhaps the most powerful indictment of the police actions in Brixton may be Linton Kwesi Johnson's 'The Great Insurrection' whose lyrics see the riot as the first shot in a cold war with 'Babylon': 
It was April 1981,
Down in the ghetto of Brixton,
That the Babylon cause such a friction,
That it bring about a great insurrection,
And it spread all over the nation
It was truly an historical occasion
It was the event of the year
And I wish I had been there
When we ran riot all over Brixton
When we mash up plenty police van...
When we mash up the Swamp '81

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Story Of The Untouchables 'Wild Child' LP: From DIY L.A. Label To Stiff Records

The Untouchables (The UTs) 'Wild Child' album was released 26 years ago during the spring of 1985.  It remains one of the earliest and most popular examples of purely American-styled ska mixing in soul, pop and funk. The success of The Untouchables and their giant step from local Los Angeles ska/mod heroes to a major label deal with Stiff Records in the U.K. is a classic story about how old fashioned DIY marketing, self-promotion and good luck used to work in the music business (now all you need is a YouTube video!).

The band were a huge inspiration to me as a young ska and 2-Tone obsessed teen and a show I saw them play opening for UB40 at Fordham University here in New York City in 1985 helped convince me to start my own ska band.  I've had the honor and pleasure of interviewing both original band vocalist Kevin Long and keyboardist/organist Josh 'Acetone' Harris who both played key roles in the initial success of the band in Los Angeles (Long) and its later international success for Stiff Records (Harris).

As background, The UTs exploded out of the O.N. Klub in Los Angeles in 1981 and soon provided the soundtrack for the ska/mod revival that spread like wild fire across Southern California in the late 70's and early 80's.  The band quickly outgrew the small confines of the O.N. Klub as word of their live show grew and they sold out several self-released 7" singles. According to a 1985 Billboard story, the band raised $15,000 from private investors (who were paid back with interest!) and recorded the well-received 'Live & Let Dance' EP on the indie Twist Records label. Next they invested an additional $7,000 to produce a video for the song 'Free Yourself' which started to generate television airplay. As a result the EP sold 40,000 copies and the video won the 1985 award for best independent video from Billboard Magazine.  The band also made memorable movie cameos in 'Repo Man' and 'Party Animal'.

Though the EP was selling and The UTs were getting great reviews, none of major record labels located on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles were interested in signing the band.  Undeterred, the band's management kept them busy on the road serving as support act for UB40, The Psychedelic Furs and Frankie Goes To Hollywood which ensured they were seen by a diverse audience of new wave obsessed teens and young adults.  It was then that the band got their big break.

It was during this time in 1983 that Harris joined the band. He was originally hired to engineer sessions for the band's two indie singles "The General" and"Tropical Bird." The session producer suggested to the band that Harris add an organ part. Since the band lacked a keyboard player, they approved. The only organ available was an old Acetone, which is much smaller than a Farfisa (hence Harris' nickname). Later,  Harris was brought in as a replacement for one of the original members, guitarist, Terry Ellsworth. Eventually other members were replaced and the band evolved into the group that recorded 'Wild Child'.

In a series of detailed messages he posted over two years on a Mod message board  Harris has shared the fascinating details of the fast moving chain of events from 1983-1985 that lead to the band getting signed to Stiff Records and the 'UT Mania' in the U.K. and Europe that followed (which ironically happened just as 2-Tone had finally been declared dead and buried ). Part travelogue, part diary, part 'That Thing You Do' music movie whirlwind, Harris' memories are priceless in their detail and provide anyone who has ever wondered what its like to be signed to a label, record an album and hit the road to tour. This is a long post but the payoff at the end is worth it for any fans of The UTs and American ska.

Harris picks up the story as the band's growing popularity in California was expanding and tells the tale of their surprise signing to Stiff Records in late 1984.
It was March 1985 that The Untouchables first arrived on British shores. We were signed to Stiff Records in late October, 1984.  The night we were signed wasn't anything too glamorous. We were very popular on college campuses. This Saturday night in October, we were performing in the theatre at the University of Southern California. I seem to remember that our performance that night was below par and there may have even been some tension in the dressing room, right after the show. It just made Dave Robinson's first appearance all the more startling.
The Untouchables had been performing and recording for quite awhile and were very popular. Yet, none of the record companies in Los Angeles would give us a chance. It was very frustrating. We released records on our own (Twist Records) and eventually signed a distribution deal with Enigma Records. "Live and Let Dance" was released through the Twist/Enigma arrangement. We released two singles from this EP: "Free Yourself" and "What's Gone Wrong". Both songs became very successful for us. "What's Gone Wrong" was a song that I primarily wrote and sang. It was in the "lover's rock" style, which the band was more than able to play. I was sometimes told that the song sounded like UB40, which, to me, was the ultimate compliment. The band always received tremendous support from local radio station KROQ. They played "What's Gone Wrong" to death. It was an amazing feeling, really beyond description. To be a struggling musician, then suddenly, you're listening to yourself being played over the car radio, one of my all-time favorite memories.
Anyway, in 1984, What's Gone Wrong was #4 for KROQ's Top Ten Songs of the year. I was very honored."Free Yourself" was a different story. We shot our first video to "Free Yourself."  The song and video were really special. The video was very groundbreaking in it's usage of black and white imagery shifting into bright color and then back to B&W. It was produced by Tina Henry and John Lee and eventually won honors as Billboard Magazine's 1985 "Best Indy Video Of The Year"... "Indy", as in: "we weren't signed."...nobody wanted to take a chance with us. Except Dave Robinson.

Dave Robinson (hereafter referred to as" Rob-o" or "Robo") was the Owner/President of Stiff Records. Dave had seen a copy of the Free Yourself video and apparently was fairly impressed. Without any notice, Robo flew from London to L.A. and suddenly shows up at our USC gig. After our performance, he comes backstage, is introduced and tells us he wants to sign us to Stiff.  How do you spell flabbergasted? Because that's what we were. All those great shows at the Hollywood Palace or opening concerts for major headliners and nothing...zilch... then, some bad show at USC, and voila!...instant success. We were on cloud nine. Our confidence zoomed beyond bounds.  Robo asked us where we'd like to record our first album, and we all wanted to go straight to England. We were convinced that we couldn't get the right producer in the States. So it was arranged that we'd fly over in March, 1985 to begin recording "Wild Child" and start our first tour of the U.K.
Harris shared the excitement of arriving in London and the band's very first U.K. show at London's Dingwall's:
So, the Untouchables arrive in London in late March, 1985. This was the first of 3 tours we made of the U.K. and Europe during the Spring and Summer of 1985. My first impressions upon arrival in London, was astonishment in seeing the massive numbers of posters promoting the U.T.'s. first Stiff single, "Free Yourself". Here we hadn't even recorded a note for Stiff and there was already wide exposure. Needless to say, my fellow band mates were very impressed with that.
I believe the first order of business upon our arrival, was introductions to everyone at the Stiff headquarters. I remember being inundated with promotional materials, provided by the Stiff staff. My first thought was, "How am I gonna get all the Stiff's staff's stuff home? (I somehow did, and still have alot of it packed into the garage.) 
After the reception, we were escorted to an industrial area of the city, for our first (of many) promotional photos. We then were taken to the Grosvenor Hotel, which I'll always love, but never be able to pronouce. The Grosvy had every thing a travelling musician could want. The tube across the street. Kings Road just up the road. Europa Foods on one corner. A fine pub on the other. I had a cozy single at the Grosvy. Breakfast buffet downstairs. Great stuff. 
Our first show in England was scheduled later that week for Dingwall's. This show was to be our introduction to English press Now mind you, The Untouchables had never played outside of California, except for a few college and university dates. We were truly on foreign soil. One of my first observations about the British, was how much more quicker everything operated. People walked, talked, and generally lived faster than I did. Maybe it has to do with coming from a warmer climate in California.
Anyway, one of the first lessons the band learned, was that it was unacceptable to linger between songs, while performing onstage. This was a bad habit the band enjoyed, and was thoroughly acceptable back home. Not here. A 50 minute set was expected to be comprised of no less than 45 minutes of music. Individual songs turned into medleys. We learned that lesson onstage at Dingwall's. 
As I recall, Dingwall's stage (at the time) was rather small. I believe we performed like sardines recently wrestled from a tin can. I remember being extraordinarily warm on the cramped stage, and a bit frazzled with my meager attempts to master a new keyboard (my Acetone organ remained safely at home in California). There were several record producers that Robo had asked to attend our show at Dingwall's. One objective of this first, brief tour, was to select a producer, studio and proper material for our upcoming Stiff album, "Wild Child." I personally was hoping to work with Steve Lillywhite, whom I'd always respected. I believe he may have been in attendance that night, but I'm not sure. I also hoped to work with either Steven Hague or even Brian Eno, but I don't think that either of them were ever in the running.
As it turns out, the selection of producer and studio were made independently of the band. You know, made by the higher ups. Stewart Levine (Hugh Masakela, Simply Red) was selected as producer and Sound Push Studios in Blaricum, Holland is where we were to record the LP. So, next we were off to Holland to record "Wild Child"
So with their initial introduction to the UK a success and a studio booked and producer chosen, The UT's made their way to Holland record 'Wild Child':
The UT's left for Holland maybe a week after our performance at Dingwall's on March 29, 1985. Another Dingwall's footnote: It's there that we were introduced to Buster (from Bad Manners). One of the guys mentioned to Buster, that during our show, a chant was coming from the audience of: "East Lon-don, East Lon-don." Buster explained the difference between East and West Londoners to us. Dingwall's was located in West London but our show was attended by mostly East Enders, and thus the chant.
Rehearsals for the 'Wild Child' album were conducted in a studio, near us in London. First, we performed most of our material for Robo and members of his staff. After considerations, songs were selected and the UT's began to rehearse (and re-arrange) them in preparation of the recording sessions in Holland. I don't remember if Stewart Levine (our producer) was at these rehearsals. I do recall that many of our songs were reconstructed and new arrangements were made with parts being added or changed.  I remember the new sense of musical confidence the UT's acquired. Our material was being 'groomed.' Our songs were being made stronger and we were getting more polished. One morning, upon arriving at the rehearsal studio, we heard "Free Yourself" on the radio of the reception desk. We were so proud. "Free Yourself" was quickly climbing the UK charts, and was up to #27 in NME. This was very encouraging to Robo, in particular. (In hindsight, I see the tremendous expense his company undertook, in bringing us to England. I am forever grateful.)
For our last night in London, Robo escorted the band to the Hammersmith Odeon to see: Frankie Goes To Hollywood. We had front row seats and they were very big at the moment and I remember being very impressed with the band's theatrics and general stage presence. But they barely had enough material for their show. They had to repeat their hit song: "Relax". Remember how hot they were?
So, at last it was time for The Untouchables to record 'Wild Child'. I think we caught the ferry from Ipswich and sailed overnight to the Hague. We then drove through Amsterdam, eventually arriving in the quaint village of Hilversum. It was charming in Holland. People rode bicycles, more than cars. I'd see young & old couples, all doubled up on single bike frames, heading toward the new McDonald's restaurant that had recently opened in town. The Untouchables were thrilled ("Mickey D's") a small, unhealthy slice of Americana, with cheese, please.
Sound Push Studios was located in Blaricum, which was about a fifteen minute drive from our hotel. Each day for about 3 weeks or so, we'd punch in and out of the studio usually between 11 to 7.  Sound Push was a old country estate that had been converted into two separate recording studios. I think some metal band was in the other studio, maybe Megadeath, I'm not sure. Both Studios featured state of the art equipment. 'Wild Child' was recorded on a Sound Logic console, one of the first computerized recording systems available, which was fairly unusual, at the time. I remember video monitors in the control room that dropped from the ceiling, allowing everyone inside to see what was musically occurring.
The studio was gorgeous, beautiful hardwood floors throughout, fine drum booth, selection of keyboards (including Bosendorfer grand). Great mikes. Full kitchen and lounge. It was really one of the nicest studios I'd ever been in. Producer Stewart Levine and engineer Femi Jiya, handled the production. They had just finished recording Simply Red's debut album, right here at Sound Push. Both men had long impressive track records in the music industry and were more than qualified to handle the UTs.
Things went fairly smoothly during the recording of our basic tracks. It was interesting to watch our songs transition from their original form, into these sculpted tracks. Each song seemed to lay better than the last, as our familiarity with our surroundings increased. After laying our vocal tracks, I believe we were then joined by our horn section. This action made The Untouchables feel whole again. After the horns laid their tracks, we did our overdubs and finally mixing. We played one show in Amsterdam before heading back to England. Then, finally we were heading home, but only for a quick rest.

One of the highlights of the 'Wild Child' recording experience for Harris was working with Jerry Dammers of The Specials who produced one track on the album -- 'I Spy For The F.B.I' -- which was a inspired cover of a rare 60's northern soul track by Jamo Thomas.
Jerry (Dammers) happened to produce one of our songs for our Stiff release "Wild Child".      Jerry produced the song "I Spy for the FBI". This song was a remake we recorded and made an accompanying video for. We shot the video in Hamburg, Germany. Much of it in a tunnel beneath the River Urbe. I remember bleaching my hair to blonde prior to the video shoot. I had spent some time on Kings Road in London, and this definitely left a physical impression in it's wake.

Harris and the band then undertook a full tour which helped raise their profile all over the U.K.

After laying down the basic tracks & overdubs for Wild Child, the Untouchables returned to England. The Wild Child sessions all went well and Stewart Levine and Femi Jiya were planning on doing the final mixes at Marcadet Studios in Paris. 
After a short break (my wife, Carol joined me and we visited Paris), The Untouchables returned to London where we filmed more T.V. Within a weeks time, we were headed on our first U.K. tour.
We started our journey with shows in Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent and eventually Liverpool. From Liverpool, we ferried over to Dublin. I recall playing in a very dark club, called Television. From Dublin, we drove north to Belfast, (where I don't think we performed). I remember the strange feeling that I had, while passing through Belfast. I remember an armoured vehicle passing us on the roadway. It just seemed so out of character with the natural beauty of the Irish countryside. 
Anyway, from Belfast, we caught a ferry to Scotland. There, we played in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Funny, the things you tend to remember about places. I remember strolling through Aberdeen's city centre and seeing posters promoting a Scottish band, performing American country-western music. I thought how funny it was (a Scottish band playing Country Western music, but probably no funnier than an American band of mods). We played and stayed at the Victoria Hotel, which I thought was absolutely perfect. Tumble out of my room into an elevator, which deposits me in the ballroom directly beneath the lobby. I believe that the train station was adjacent to the hotel. I would have loved to have made a train tour of the U.K. I think Stiff records did such a tour, at one time.
From Aberdeen, we went to Glasgow, where we played the university. I was told that Glasgow resembled the U.S.A, because of it's modern freeway system. Why anyone would want to emulate our freeways is beyond me. Though freeways are efficient, they're a blight on the landscape. While in beautiful Edinburgh, we not only performed, but appeared on the local BBC station. I remember staying at an extraordinary hotel there.
Then, it was Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the road crew tricked me into trying black pudding. Then it was remote Scarborough, where we played The Opera House. We stayed at a fine country manor in Scarborough, very memorable and finally Sheffield. The Untouchables were really getting exhausted. We'd seen more of the Kingdom, than many British had.  We'd now been away from California for about 2 1/2 months. We soon would finish our first UK tour and return home to temporarily gather our wits before the European tour.
Now for a special treat! Below are clips (courtesy of Harris) of The UTs entire show (including most of the tracks from the 'Wild Child' LP -- with Harris on lead vocals for 'What's Gone Wrong') from a performance during their 1985 European tour at the Rockpalast Festival in Lorelai, Germany. Enjoy!

Friday, April 8, 2011

In Memory of Saxa: The Man, The Myth, The Legend!

I heard the sad news yesterday that Saxa, the inimitable saxophonist for The English Beat passed away at 87 years old.  And so, I wanted to share a post I wrote several years ago about what he meant to me and to other music fans who fell in love with him as a musician and a kind and loving soul. While the band were a unique union of many talents and personalities, Saxa was the glue that held the band together and his haunting and beautiful horn melodies was what set them apart. Sadly, I never saw Saxa perform live, but like many, I felt like I had always known him in a way.  He was the kindly, father figure we all seek out.


I love the sound of horns but I really love the sound of the saxophone.  Indeed, if I had had more musical talent and technical skill this blog might have been called 'Marco On The Sax!'  I did take a few sax lessons in elementary school and dabbled again as a teen but sadly it was not meant to be.  However, I owe my love of all things saxophone to one man in particular -- Lionel Augustus Martin -- better known as Saxa!

The Jamaican-born Saxa was a late addition to The Beat, joining as a session musician to add some saxophone to their first single, a remake of Smokey Robinson's 'Tears of a Clown'. Saxa's experience, gained while playing with ska and rocksteady royalty like Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, and Desmond Dekker, absolutely contributed to the instant success of The Beat as the band's first single rose to Number Six on the pop charts (influencing Saxa's decision to join the group permanently). In fact, Rolling Stone in reviewing the band's first album 'I Just Can't Stop It' gave credit to the saxophonist describing it as "a rambunctious cluster of singles held together by tenor saxophonist Saxa's winning, authoritative blowing and a rhythm section ... that cared more about adventure than duplicating antique reggae."

While Saxa's inimitable sound (there is something existential and haunting about the tone and timbre of those solos -- particularly on 'Mirror In The Bathroom') took the band to a new level musically, more importantly he served as equal parts mentor, talisman and shaman.  Old enough to be the father of many of the band members when he joined The Beat, he was revered by band members and fans alike for his spiritual and mystical take on music and life.   Upon joining the band for his first live show, Saxa was asked by guitarist Andy Cox if wanted to know the keys the songs were played in.  In classic response he said 'No man!  You boys just play and me'll blow.  Me'll blow.' Guitarist Dave Wakeling in particular credits Saxa with helping him as he adjusted to life as a musician:

“He’s like the Dali with a saxophone in his hand. When he’s talking to you, you feel like the only person in the world because he can focus all his energy on you, and he just touches you by the way he moves a hand or speaks; it’s almost as though you’re receiving transmitted knowledge. Being in his presence allows you to understand what he’s talking about more than just reading it in a book, you just get it.”
Wakeling went on:
“I would throw up before shows; [one time] I’d just thrown up and he grabbed me. He said, ‘You see all them people out there? They’ve all come on the bus in the rain…soaking wet, waiting to have a good time with you. You don’t understand—you’re the lucky one.’ I never threw up after that. He put it into perspective…the only thing you can really do that’s gonna work consistently is sing the song from your heart to theirs.”
Ranking Roger also spoke of Saxa's unique personality and effect on his younger band mates in Heather Augustyn's book 'Ska: An Oral History':

"I've never met anyone like him.  Out of this world, totally. A brilliant fellow. As soon as he plays a note, he's got everybody in a trance.  He's said some profound things. At first you start thinking, 'This guy is bloody mad,' but them when you're in bed alone at night and you're thinking about it, 'What did he mean by that?' and the all of a sudden you see there's a lot of truth in the things he said. So he's kind of a mystic man, I would say."
Augustyn states (and I agree) that Saxa's ubiquitous sound and contribution to The Beat may have paved the way for saxophone use in many band's the followed in The Beat's wake like Romeo Void and Oingo Boingo and may have lead to the proliferation of the cliche sax solo in songs by bands like Duran Duran, INXS, Spandau Ballet, Wham and Wang Chung.

In 1982 poor health forced Saxa to retire from touring (too much
'Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dubweiser' while on the road in the U.S. according to the long out-of-print 'Twist And Crawl' band biography released in 1981 ). His replacement, saxophonist Wesley Magoogan, previously a member of Hazel O'Connor's band, was seen as a worthy successor to Saxa because of his discipline as a musician. However, Wakeling's comment to Musician Magazine in the early 80's proved prophetic: "[Saxa] was one of the cornerstones [of the band], and the idea of losing someone that important had us worried that the whole thing might fall apart." Nevertheless, Saxa makes a cameo on the 'Special Beat Service' album cover -- he's dressed as a sheik surrounded by the band who are dressed as security guards.

Saxa did re-emerge following his stint in The Beat playing some memorable solos for both General Public and Fine Young Cannibals (his solo on 'Funny How Love Is' may be one of his finest).  He later joined drummer Everett Morton in The International Beat, a short-lived Beat-inspired band that eventually led to the creation of the Special Beat and the second incarnation of General Public in the mid-90's.  And it was emphatic exhortation to David "Shuffle" Steele, the band's bassist, to join a band reunion during an episode of Band's Reunited, that will always stay with me.

Below is a cornucopia of songs featuring some of Saxa's greatest solos including 'Big Shot', 'Can't Get Used To Losing You', 'Hands Off She's Mine' 'I Am Your Flag' 'Psychedelic Rockers' (one of my personal favorites) and 'Funny How Love Is'. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

'Bob Marley and The Golden Age of Reggae' Photo Exhibition Opens In London: Gallery Presents Many Never Before Seen Photos Of Reggae Royalty

An amazing exhibition of never before seen photographs titled 'Bob Marley & the Golden Age of Reggae' opens today at the Proud Galleries in London and will run from April 7th through May 15th. The exhibition is a stunning visual record of reggae musicians in Jamaica during the mid and late 70's and marks the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley's death this May. That's Marley with his manager Don Taylor behind the wheel and band members Carly Barrett, Seeco, and Aston Barret in the backseat on their way to CBS Studios in Los Angeles in 1975.

The exhibition pulls together a series of candid and intimate photos taken by renowned underground photo-journalist Kim Gottlieb-Walker during 1975 and 1976 (she is married to Jeff Walker who was Head of Publicity at Island Records at the time). During two years of regular trips to Jamaica and exclusive meetings in Los Angeles, Gottlieb-Walker was commissioned to take publicity photos for the record label but ended up capturing hundreds of iconic photographs of many of the the artists who would go on to define the era including Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Toots Hibbert, Burning Spear, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Bob Marley.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry (center) with Max Romeo (white) - 1975

Third World in Hollywood - 1976

The exhibition is launched in conjunction with the release of Gottlieb-Walker's book, Bob Marley & The Golden Age of Reggae, published by Titan Books and in collaboration with Island Records who just released Marley's last ever recorded concert, 'Live Forever' in late March. The book features a foreword from Hollywood filmmaker and former Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe, and includes commentary from Jeff Walker, and founding editor of The Beat magazine, Roger Steffens.

A visit to the exhibition is a great day trip for anyone planning to be in London later this month for the London International Ska Festival. The gallery is open:

Mon-Fri : 11 am – 5:30 pm
Sat: 11 am – 5:30 pm
Sun: 11 am - 5:30 pm

Monday, April 4, 2011

Lee Thompson & His All Star Ska Orchestra To Play Series Of UK Shows Including London International Ska Festival

For those of you awaiting updates about the new Madness album with bated breath, you can come up for air this month to enjoy a special side project pulled together by a few members of the band -- Lee Thompson & His All Star Ska Orchestra. The band will be playing mostly instrumental ska/reggae songs (but its possible a few 'nutty' songs may be added to the set list). The brainchild of Madness saxophonist Mr. Lee 'Kix' Thompson, the All Star Ska Orchestra boasts a hand-picked line up featuring fellow Madness original Mark Bedford on bass and the following members:

Drums: Steve ‘Roo-b-Doo’ Rooney (LP6)
Guitar: Kev ‘Born Ready’ Burdett (aka Boris) (Madness/LFLS)
Piano: Louis ‘Diamond Legs’ Vause (Crunch!)
Hammond Organ: Seamus ‘Nice Man’ Beaghan (Madness/Crunch!)
Trombone: Jacks ‘Back’ Mitchell (Violin Monkeys/Crunch!/Dance Brigade)
Trumpet: Steve ‘Chalky’ White (LP6/Crunch!/Dance Brigade)
Tenor: Steve Turner (Violin Monkeys/LP6/Dance Brigade)
Alto: Terrence ‘Individual’ Edwards
Baritone: Benjamin ‘Sunny Boy’ Sommers.

Sadly, despite initial reports that Madness guitarist Chris 'Chrissy Boy' Foreman would also join, he has opted out. Here is sneak preview of the band hard at work rehearsing for their upcoming shows:

Courtesy of the good people at Madness Central, I have an update directly from Thompson's mouth about the orchestra that bears his name:
“The Ska Orchestra were formed recently in the back streets, just off the Hackney Rd. They live in different parts of N.E.W & Sth. London.Their common denominator being music & particularly them good old Ska & Reggae Riddums that burst out of Jamacia in the mid to late 60s."
It was just announced yesterday that the band has been added to the line-up of the upcoming London International Ska Festival at the Clapham Grand Theatre in London on Sunday April 24th as a substitute for The Ska Flames from Japan (who unfortunately had to cancel due to ongoing concerns in Japan).  The band will be playing a few shows in a lead up to the London show. The initial 'warm up gig' will take place at the The Prince Albert Pub in Brighton on Thursday April 14th. The band's first big headline gig will be at The Regal in Oxford on  Saturday April 16th.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Musical Tribute To Eddy Grant: The Songwriter Behind 'Rough Rider' And 'Police On My Back'

Eddy Grant is a musical hero of mine.  As a young music fan, I was first introduced to him when I picked up a copy of his excellent solo album 'Walking On Sunshine' in the early 80's featuring the upbeat funky electro dub title track 'Walking On Sunshine' that was later covered by Rocker's Revenge (a studio creation of noted New York dance producer Arthur Baker of Streetwise Records) and became much bigger and more popular than the original.  I also had the opportunity to see Grant perform live in London in the mid-80's and he put on a fantastic show. Later as I dug into his back catalog I soon learned there was so much more to the man who may be best remembered for famously stepping off his sofa into a pool of water in the 'Electric Avenue' video.

Grant is a pioneer and trailblazer who has left his mark on ska, reggae, calypso, rock and pop music and perhaps more than anyone else deserves credit for merging and combining the best of Black and White music beginning in the mid-60's all the way through the mid 80's.  Many of Grant's songs, whether bubble gum pop, skin head soul, reggae or garage punk always display a lyrical or musical edge of some kind. What's so impressive to me about Grant is the variety of hats he has worn throughout his long and successful musical career. He's been Eddy the songwriter, Eddy the producer, Eddy the singer, Eddy the studio musician, Eddy the studio owner, and even Eddy the indie-label president.

While you may be very familiar with Grant's hits from the 80's like 'Electric Avenue' and 'Romancing The Stone' did you know Grant was the song writer behind a number of iconic ska and reggae tracks? Grant penned Prince Busters rocksteady classic 'Rough Rider' and The Clash's popular rock anthem 'Police On My Back'. That's not to mention the many other genre breaking songs he wrote with The Equals including 'Baby Come Back' 'Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys' and as a solo artist including 'Hello Africa', and 'Living On The Frontline'.

Blazing out of London in the mid 60's Grant help to found The Equals who mixed up fuzzy garage pop rock with healthy helpings of soul and proto-ska and reggae.  The band also made pop culture history by being one of the very first multi-racial bands creating the rough template for 2-Tone bands some ten years later. Signed to the independent label President Records, Grant was asked to work with label mates  The Pyramids -- later to become Symarip -- who had backed Prince Buster on his recent U.K. tour. Besides composing songs for the band (and one for Prince Buster himself, the rude classic 'Rough Rider' later covered by The English Beat), Grant also wrote and produced The Pyramids debut single and sole U.K. skinhead reggae hit, 'Train to Rainbow City.' According to an interview Grant did with the Miami New Times in 1994,
"By the time I started playing pop music with the Equals, I had been experimenting with different ethnic forms for a while," Grant recalls. "One of them was ska -- most people don't know that I made the first successful British ska record, 'Train Tour to Rainbow City,' which went to number 31 [on the British pop charts] in 1966. I was the first to add strings to reggae music, also in 1966. The great Prince Buster copied two of my songs -- he tried to steal them, but the law stopped him and he eventually gave me credit -- 'Train Tour to Rainbow City,' which he called 'Train Toward the Girls Town,' and 'Rough Rider,' which was covered by the English Beat. And they credited Buster for it!"
Have a listen to The Pyramids version of 'Train Tour To Rainbow City' followed by the Prince Buster version below.

Below is Prince Buster's version of Grant's 'Rough Rider' as well a live version recorded by The English Beat from the 1981 film 'Dance Craze':

'Police On My Back' may be one of the Equals (and Grant's) best songs. Starting with a scene-setting guitar siren, it tells a classic tale of teen waywardness.  The subject matter also shows the influence of Jamaican Rude Boy culture on Grant which he mashed up in psychedelic garage rock package -- its almost punk ska! The outlaw theme of the song clearly appealed to The Clash, who covered it on their 1980 release 'Sandinista!'. As recorded by The Clash, the song sounds very much like a Mick Jones original (and Jones sings lead) demonstrating a stylistic continuation of 'London Calling’s' 'Train In Vain.'  Grant later quit The Equals in the early ‘70s, and eventually achieved massive solo success in the 80's. There’s a nice symmetry in that: you could argue that those pop hits were made possible—at least a little—by The Clash’s efforts at combining reggae and punk, which in turn were inspired—at least a little—by The Equals.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Marco On The Bass Celebrates Third Anniversary!

Its been three years since I launched Marco On The Bass in April 2008 and here I am — 500 posts, 170,000 unique visits and 260,000 page views later — still chugging along, posting interviews, gig alerts, news items, podcasts and offering all sorts of content about ska, reggae and all its various story lines and off shoots. Three years in, this blog is still a labor of love — when I started I figured I’d write about the 2-Tone ska, reggae and rocksteady music I loved and see if people were interested. And not only have ska and reggae fans responded (readers have visited from 183 countries and territories), but it’s gotten much bigger and better than I ever expected, with a few live events, concerts and shows.  I've thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to interview 2-Tone era heroes like Pauline Black, Lynval Golding, Neol Davies, Rhoda Dakkar, Roddy Byers and to highlight the past, present and future of American ska. My goal still remains to help tell interesting stories and share my passion for ska and reggae.

I’d like to personally thank everybody who stops by, subscribes to the RSS feeds, follows me on Twitter or is a fan on Facebook. Sustained by your comments and my love of all things ska and reggae-oriented, this site is a one-man operation and, for the time being, is likely to remain that way — so all of your support and comments are greatly appreciated. Your kind words and encouragement keep me going.  In many ways this is the best non-paying job I have ever had.

If you are a fan of what I'm doing here, there are ways you can help spread the word: Go 'Like' Marco On The Bass on Facebook and suggest the page to your friends; If you’re on Twitter, follow me there at Marco On The Bass, too. Retweet the good stuff. If you tumble, I'm also on Tumblr. Reblogging is fun. Or just tell every single person you know about the site.You can also consider downloading music from my band Bigger Thomas on the sidebar of the blog.

With that out of the way, let’s take a quick look back at three years of Marco On The Bass. Below you’ll find a few of my favorite posts and some of you the readers most popular posts.

I started blogging just as The Specials 30th reunion started to gain steam in the spring of 2008.  It's been incredibly exciting and gratifying to follow and write about the whole story from early rumors through multiple tours, including a 2-night stop here in New York last April.  I've also enjoyed chronicling the history and stories of American ska and reggae like Blue Riddim Band, The X-Streams, The Untouchables. Heavy Manners, The Terrorists, Bim Skala Bim, The Toasters, The Shakers and more. I also loved doing a series of interviews and profiles of all the New York City-based ska bands from the 80's who were featured on the NY Beat: Hit & Run compilation. 

Interviews with Pauline Black of The Selecter and Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers/The Special A.K.A. have been among the most popular and well read blog posts as has a feature about the long-standing musical friendship between Ranking Roger and Mick Jones.  Posts I wrote about the rise and fall of Acid Ska in the late 80's and the sad demise of The Special A.K.A. vocalist Stan Campbell and the story behind VH1's aborted attempt to reunite The English Beat for their  'Bands Reunited' series remain very popular.  A post about The Equators who were signed to Stiff Records and released the overlooked 'Hot' album during the 2-Tone era is still widely read.

Here's to another great year of ska and reggae!