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!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Members Of UB40 Declared Bankrupt: What's The Real Story Behind The Story?

Despite an incredible 33-year career in which they have notched up more than 50 chart hits in the U.K. alone, and countless others across the world, four current members of UB40 -- sax player Brian Travers, drummer Jimmy Brown, toaster Terence Oswald – known to fans as Astro – and percussionist Norman Hassan -- have all been declared bankrupt by a judge in the band's hometown of Birmingham.

According to a variety of media reports out of Birmingham, across the U.K. and around the world (including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times), the court order lasts for a year and means that tax officers can seize band property to pay off any outstanding debts. The case revolves around the failure of the band’s record label and management company DEP International – and follows on the heels of an acrimonious and bitter fight with vocalist Ali Campbell and keyboardist Mickey Virtue over band finances which split the group in 2008.  At a previous hearing in July, the Judge gave liquidators the green light to chase debts and royalty payments on UB40’s hits. He also warned the band they would have to pay costs in the case, which already run into tens of thousands of pounds. At the time the band vowed to fight bankruptcy.  Sadly, in recent weeks it became apparent that the bankruptcy battle against the members of the band had been lost.

There is a real Shakespearian quality to the recent trials and tribulations of UB40. Whether its a comedy or tragedy really depends on your point of view about the band.  As a fan I've found it discouraging, but oddly fascinating to see how the age old demon of money has made enemies of brothers and bandmates, who have sent broadsides at one another through the media. The human quality of it is certainly messy but makes the story lines more compelling.

The media stories get most of the facts about the case right but none of the nuance and casual readers and fans are left with the impression that the band is bankrupt.  This is not true.  Individual band members are on the hook and not all of them were included in the ruling.  The filing does not mean that the band has ceased operations.  Nevertheless the band and Ali Campbell tried to put the news into context. Not surprisingly, Ali Campbell's media quotes further buttressed his long held position as the 'lone voice of reason' stating that he saw the bankruptcy coming and got out when he could.
“This is the very reason why I left the band. This was my biggest fear when I was with them, that bankruptcy was going to happen and no-one can say I didn't warn them. In the 1980s we were living in five-star hotels and we got through a lot of money. Why weren't the other guys listening to me when I started to flag these money problems up? They decided to back the management and not me, I'm still very bitter about it. I was very proud of what I achieved with UB40. It was a band I started, I was with them for 28 years and we made 24 albums. But we were divided and ruled, and this is what happened in the end. UB40 have been asset-stripped by the people around them."
His former bandmates unveiled a very different story as the news broke. Drummer Jim Brown shared a long and very revealing post on the UB40 website that sought to put the news into perspective downplaying the sensational quality of the media reports reporting the band were bankrupt (only four members have been declared bankrupt) and laying much of the blame for the band's current economic duress on Campbell, making some damning allegations about Campbell's conduct and claims that Campbell was paid more than his bandmates which violated the 'all for one and one for all' spirit of the band.
“As usual, it's only partly accurate. And the usual ambulance chasing from our ex-singer isn't helping much either. Let me tell you what REALLY happened with UB40 supporting their management. In the year before the split our financial manager was absent from work. This had been going on for a couple of weeks, so we wanted to know why he hadn't turned up for work.  When we found out why the band were shocked and angry. Turns out that our ex-singer was going to our financial manager behind the bands back and demanding to be paid more money than the rest of the band. It had always been band policy to pay everyone exactly the same, but because of our ex-singers expensive lifestyle [he had a new girlfriend to impress] he was constantly demanding more and more of the bands income. these demands would come with various threats, usually along the lines of - if he doesn't get what he is asking for he'll leave the band.

At first our accountant gave our ex-singer what he was demanding, thinking that it would be the best way to keep things going. but the demands became so frequent and unreasonable [like keeping the extra money that he was taking a secret from the rest of the band] that our manager found himself in an impossible situation.  He was being so compromised by the situation that it was making him ill. When the band discovered our ex-singer was taking money behind their backs we were rightly angry. And we gave instructions to our management that our ex-singer should NOT be given any more than his fair share, which was the equal split that we all agreed back at the beginning. This was when our singer decided to leave. he told us that he could 'earn 10-tines more without you lot' and left. Our ex-singer was found dipping his fingers in the till behind the bands back. The band gave our management instructions to stop that happening, so our singer left. That's how it happened. And the financial difficulties were as a result of our singer leaving. It caused us to lose several million pounds worth of work and this had a knock on effect of creating a black hole that the band have been working to drag themselves out of.

We tried everything we could to come to a reasonable deal over the administration of DEP, but in the end we failed. Now that it has come to a conclusion it gives us an opportunity to put this all behind us and move on. We've got a new album on the way and we are already booking shows for January next year. So it's a relief to get this over with, now we can concentrate on the future.

As usual, our ex-singer is trying to stick the boot in, and did you notice there was no mention of our ex-singers own bankruptcy?, which was for his own out of control spending, nothing to do with the DEP litigation. If you remember, his case didn't get any press attention, so he's careful not to mention it when he's waving his shroud in the press. The claim that our case proves he was right all along is a classic case of putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with 5!
Amazingly, the week the band members were declared bankrupt, UB40 put up a brave face and performed a special semi-acoustic show at the Hare & Hound pub in Birmingham where the band were  honored with a special Performing Rights Society plaque.  The pub is famous as they venue where the band played their very first show in 1978. Watch video of 'Food For Thought' and 'Bring It On Home To Me' from the performance below:

Despite these set backs, UB40 are busy at work on a new album and have just announced a set of tour dates in 2012. Campbell also continues to tour.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

UK Reggae Documentary 'The Story Of Lovers Rock' To Make U.S. Debut in New York City

The Story of Lovers Rock, a feature length documentary from director Menelik Shabazz, tells the unique story of a music that defined a generation of Black British culture in the late 70s and 80s. Lovers Rock is romantic reggae that was uniquely British and developed against a backdrop of riots, racial tensions and the stirrings of multiculturalism.  Initially it developed among a small scene of musicians and performers based in South London but quickly grew to become a global brand picked up by bands like UB40, Culture Club and Maxi Priest and was name checked by The Clash in their song of the same name.

Currently enjoying a successful theatrical run in the UK, the film will open the African Diaspora International Film Festival 2011 on Friday, November 25 at the Thalia Theater at Symphony Space here in New York City, in a program that also includes Shabazz’ 1981 narrative film Burning an Illusion.

The roots of Lovers Rock lie in the early days of reggae, with Jamaican and American singers such as Ken Boothe, Johnny Nash, and John Holt enjoying international hits with reggae versions of well-known love songs. It was a style that resonated with the London reggae scene and became an apolitical response to the conscious Rastafarian sound dominant in Jamaica at the time. The style combined the popular 70's sounds of Chicago and Philadelphia soul with reggae basslines and rhythms.

Taking root in the Sound systems of South London, the genre coalesced around the DIY Lovers Rock record label founded by Dennis Bovell which gave the genre its name.  The songs and sounds quickly appealed to women and produced many female stars including Carroll Thompson, Janet Kay and the vocal trio 15-16-17 spawning the distinctive young girl female sound associated with early lovers rock.

The documentary is currently showing in select theaters across London, Birmingham and other cities. Check the screening section of the film website for locations. Tickets for the one time screening at the Symphony Space in New York City are available thorough the African Diaspora International Film Festival website.

Watch the trailer for the documentary below:

Watch a two part Q&A with the documentary director Menelik Shabazz below:

Friday, October 14, 2011

This Is It!: The Specials Embark On Final Leg Of Their Reunion Tour

The end is nigh!  After 3 years of critically acclaimed, sold out live shows around the world, The Specials are now treating their loyal fan base in the U.K. to one last round of shows. While its hard to imagine that the reunion is finally coming to an end,  the fact that the band stuck together as a unit since playing Bestival in September 2008  is testament to the will of  the six members to reclaim their legacy and even more to the enduring power of the messages in their songs that still resonate in a world of diminished economic expectations and political and personal relationships that still fail to deliver on their promise. Further it speaks to genuine hunger that music fans have to see and hear great live music that speaks to their heart and soul and moves their feet!

The U.K. tour kicked off in Wolverhampton earlier this week with a few surprises. The band unveiled a large visage of Margaret Thatcher (who still never fails to elicit boos and jeers) along with other images of social unrest and riots that roiled the UK this year as a way to perhaps remind their fans that as much life changes it still remains the same (riots and a Conservative-led government were in power 30 years ago much as they are today).  Still playing much of the same set they have for the last three years, the band has included a few chestnuts from the 'More Specials' album (Peal's Cafe with its unforgettable coda of 'Its all a load of bollocks and bollocks to it all!', 'Stereotype' and 'International Jet Set') and apparently have added a string section!

As a fan I will cherish the fact that I did get a chance to see The Specials here in New York last year. I was struck by the pure energy of the band which still rotates around the fixed pole of Terry Hall. Despite his recent profession of good cheer, the night I saw the band, Hall seemed to revert to his moody nature shouting down an unruly fan with a tirade of expletives and then hurling a mic stand in anger across the stage. Later, after water spilled in front of his mic stand, he stopped the band in the middle of a wonderful version of 'You're Wondering Now' to take his shoes and socks off. After padding around the stage in his bare feet he watched in dismay as Neville Staple deposited the socks into the audience! Whether is was genuine behavior or theatre, it didn't matter as it added to overall experience of the show. I was also amazed by guitarist Roddy 'Radiation' Byers rock god moves and searing leads and Lynval Golding's energetic runs across the stage. Later, I had the pleasure of meeting keyboardist Nik Torp (who ably fills the big shoes of Jerry Dammers) and saxophonist Drew Stansell who also joined my band Bigger Thomas a few nights later for covers of 'Nite Klub' and 'Monkey Man'.

When all is said and done, I believe that The Specials reunion was a unique blue print for how a reunion can be managed. While many fans remain disappointed that Jerry Dammers did not join his band mates or that the band decided to focus on playing songs from their catalog rather than record new ones was ultimately an afterthought to a band that sought to play shows at both small intimate venues as well as large outdoor festivals.  The philosophy seemed to be 'give the people what they want' and on that the band has delivered again and again.  To that end, if you want to re-live the memories of a show you've seen on the current tour or want to hear the band live, you can purchase live CD's that the band are selling on their website.  A very limited edition box set of the entire tour is also in the works.

Below is a video shot by Paul 'Willo' Williams who is the admin of The Specials fan forum The  In the video he asks each member of the band to share their favorite memories of the reunion.  

Friday, October 7, 2011

Madness Frontman Suggs' Reveals His 13 Favorite Albums Of All Time

Back when there were still record stores I used to love to visit Tower Records on lower Broadway here in New York City.  I could easily kill an hour or two browsing the many aisles of vinyl and cassette tapes (remember them?).  At the time, no trip to Tower Records was complete without picking up a free copy of their monthly magazine 'Pulse!' which contained record reviews, interviews and advertising. I would read the magazine cover to cover on my train ride back home to New Jersey plotting out a wish list of purchases on my next visit to the store.

One of my favorite features in Pulse! was 'Desert Island Discs' which published the lists of top ten records readers would take with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. Despite the contrived conceit, I loved the column, because it forced music lovers to really cut to the chase and often resulted in some fascinating and eclectic results. What really were your favorite, must have records? What was the cream of the crop of all that vinyl in your bedroom? What bands and songs had made such an impression on your psyche and soul that would you want them to keep you company in your isolated solitude.

In the spirit of 'Desert Island Discs' the online music magazine The Quietus has begun a similar endeavor wherein they ask musicians to share a 'Baker's Dozen' list of their favorite records of all time.  The kicker here is that the musicians provide an in-depth soliloquy on the impact each record had on them, proving that at the end of the day we are all music fans!

The current online version of The Quietus includes a list of Madness lead sing Sugg's favorite records of all time. While no one will be surprised that Suggs is a fan of early reggae and punk (King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, The Harder They Come soundtrack, The Clash) he also includes a few interesting choices that might surprise hardcore and casual fans alike.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fishbone Documentary 'Every Day Sunshine" Opens In New York This Weekend: Band To Perform Opening Night!

I don't even know what to say that hasn't already been said about Fishbone. They remain, hands down, one of the best live bands I have ever seen and one of the best American bands of all time. As one of the only African-American bands (as opposed to acts) to emerge from the 80's (along with Living Colour), Fishbone were a uniquely American cultural and musical phenomenon. They exploded out of the Los Angeles music scene of the early 80's with ska as the foundation for their early sound. They quickly expanded their musical palette to include everything from punk to funk to metal to rock into a unique and uncompromising musical stew. Poised to break-out of the alternative music scene of the early 90's they were confronted by a variety of forces that conspired against them. First, a music industry that seemed confused by and unwilling to market them to a wider mainstream audience. But the band also suffered from a self-inflicted destructive streak that often ended up taking them one step forward but then two steps back. Despite some uneven albums and a shifting range of personnel and personal problems, their live show always remained free of the ongoing ups and downs they endured. Whatever problems they might be having, they left it off-stage or used it to fuel an even more energetic and intense performance. The show always went on!

The band's trial and tribulations have been documented in the sublimely beautiful film 'Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone' which is finally having its New York theatrical opening this weekend at the reRun Gastro Pub Theatre in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn.  The filmmakers Chris Metzler and Lev Anderson will be joined by band members Angelo Moore and Norwood Fisher to answer audience questions after every show this entire weekend. Tickets for the limited one week engagement are only $7!  If that wasn't fantastic news, the band will be playing live at the theater on opening night this Friday October 7th!  Get tickets for all showings here!  Read a review of the documentary from the New York Times here.

I was lucky enough to be able to see a preview of the documentary when it was screened during the CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival in New York City last October and to interview the filmmakers who produced it. The warts and all film traces the history of the band from their early days as high school friends who start a band, blow up big, attempt to conquer the musical world and then run into musical racism, fight with one another, lose members, replace members, continue to carry on and influence a generation of musicians and bands in the process. It's a must see. Watch a clip below: