Sunday, September 22, 2013

Elvis Costello & The Roots Cover The Specials "Ghost Town"

Earlier this week Elvis Costello and the Roots celebrated the release of their new album "Wise Up Ghost" with a one-off, sold out concert at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg. Along with performing tracks from the new album and takes on some iconic Costello songs (“Watching The Detectives,” “Shabby Doll,” an extended “I Want You”), the group played an amazing version of "Ghost Town" by the Specials. Check it out!

Friday, September 20, 2013

My Favorite 2-Tone Era Album Of All Time: The Selecter's Celebrate The Bullet

In honor of The Selecter's visit to New York City to perform at the Gramercy Theatre tonight, I wanted to re-post something I wrote about the band's second album "Celebrate The Bullet." Written nearly five years ago, before Pauline Black rebooted the band with her co-front man Gaps Hendricksen, the album remains a personal favorite that defined the hope and promise of 2-Tone. Though recorded as the band and the 2-Tone movement were moving out of fashion in the U.K., it still stands the test of time, exploring dark themes of violence, racism, isolation and decline that resonate three decades later.


If pressed to name my favorite album of the entire 2-Tone era I would have to say "Celebrate The Bullet" by The Selecter. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Now don't get me wrong. I love The Specials first album and I am always moved by the near perfect majesty of 'Ghost Town' and the straight forward and soulful lament of 'Why'. The first album by The Beat was the soundtrack to my youth and I love the way I can track different times and places in my life by each Madness album. Indeed, 'Victoria Gardens' and 'The Sun and The Rain' are among my top 10 favorite songs of all time.

However, in my humble opinion "Celebrate The Bullet" broke the mold and remains the most creative and unique collection of songs to come out of the whole 2-Tone era. I wouldn't even call it a ska album necessarily. This is a dark, haunting, bluesy iteration of ska that to my knowledge has never been attempted before or since. This is very intense and emotional music. For that reason, it is a very unique record and it goes against the grain of what fans of 2-Tone probably expected when it was released.

At times the songs have a new wave feel via synthesized keyboard melodies that buzz over Neol Davies' blistering, bluesy and soulful guitar solos and riffs. Other times its almost undefinable as the songs are driven by a seamless melting pot of rock, reggae and new wave via memorable melodies that stick in your head. In fact, I would argue that 'Celebrate The Bullet' is on par with 'Ghost Town" as one of the best songs of the 2-Tone era. And personally, its the very end of 'Bristol and Miami' when there is an acapella chant taken from The Beatles 'Black Bird' that seals the artistic and emotional quality of the record for me.

When the album was released it took a beating from the critics. That's especially depressing given the rave reviews for "Too Much Pressure", which, while a great record, was almost a by the books ska revival recording. Songs like "Celebrate The Bullet", "Deep Water", "Washed Up And Left For Dead" and "Red Reflections" still give me the chills every time I hear them and demonstrate the huge steps the band had taken since their first LP. Under different circumstance this record could have really opened up a new path for ska, which has essentially remained fixed in time and space, except for this album. Some bands have moved beyond ska, but only The Selecter dared to expand and evolve the genre. It's too bad they were punished for it, when they should have been richly rewarded.

While the music is a step above, what stands out above all though is some absolutely great vocal work from Pauline Black who channels her own musical heroes (Billie Holiday, Nina Simone) and their presence can be felt in the music. Unlike The Specials ironic take on British society and Madness's nutty view of English life, The Selecter's second album come across like a very dark and serious news report with Pauline and Arthur "Gaps" Hendrickson reporting from the front lines of an early 80's Britain straining under the reduced expectations of Thatcherism. Indeed the songs and their subject matter seem spookily relevant for those of us in the U.S. who have barely survived 8 years of George Bush, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, mortgage foreclosures and a financial meltdown that threatens to devour the life savings and job security of all of us.

Here is promo video of the band performing "Celebrate The Bullet":

I had the honor and pleasure to meet Pauline Black and Neol Davies when my band supported The Selecter when they reformed and toured the US in 1991. I most recently saw her when she and Lynval Golding of The Specials sat in with The English Beat in 2006. The highlight of those shows was when Pauline came out mid-set to perform 4 songs by The Selecter. She has always been very kind and accessible and remains a true artist to this day having acted in a number of UK TV shows and stage productions in addition to her singing with The Selecter and as a solo artist exploring soul.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Search For Evidence of George Michael's Elusive 2-Tone Ska Past

I've previously documented the ska and reggae pasts of many major pop and rock stars, including Madonna, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.  While these icons dabbled in ska or reggae before going to make their mark in dance pop, industrial and alternative rock, George Michael actively pursued a career as a ska musician before going on to find success in Wham and later as a solo artist.

Michael and his best friend Andrew Ridgely formed their 2-Tone influenced band The Executive (rare band photo above) along with Paul Ridgely and David Austin in 1979.  The band banged out happy, sunny syncopated 2-Tone styled ska and later entered a a sixteen-track studio to cut a demo tape, recording an original titled "Rude Boy" plus a ska cover of the old Andy Williams' classic "Can't Get Used To Losing You"and a ska version of Beethoven's "Für Elise."

According to a George Michael fan web site, the band played local gigs close to where they lived and spent a lot of time hawking their demo tape around the A&R departments of London-based record companies.  Rumor has it that a copy even made its way to Dave Wakeling of The Beat who were running their own Go Feet label in Birmingham.
"George and Andrew would take time off from school and college, travel to the capital and then sit around in the waiting rooms of the music business until some lethargic talent-spotter finally agreed to see them. But even when they were granted an audience, the A&R man who lolled in his chair on the other side of the desk invariably pressed the STOP button before their tape had gone very far. 'Come back in the next millennium,' seemed to be the general consensus among the major labels, thought Andrew, and even those sympathetic to the ska cause failed to offer them anything resembling a deal. Andrew was cocky enough to attribute the negative response of the record companies to the advanced ages and modest IQs of the men who staffed the industry's A&R departments. George was confident enough to think that perhaps "Rude Boy" was sufficiently derivative to deserve all the rejection it had heaped upon it. He would do better next time..."
Though they lasted only 18 months, Michael and Ridgely ended up using the constant A&R rejection of The Executive to start over with Wham.  The truth is that The Executive was part of the many copycat ska bands that popped up all over the U.K. during 1979-1980 in the wake of The Specials, Madness, The Selecter and The Beat's ascent into the charts and on Top Of The Pops.  And while many of those bands are forgotten to the sands of time, the fact that Michael made it big as a pop star has fueled interest among ska enthusiasts to locate and hear the songs on the elusive and impossible to find demo tape.

I connected with my fellow ska blogger Tone & Wave who specializes in rare, odd and hard to find ska music.  According to Tone & Wave:
Despite my best efforts, I think it's safe to say that we're never going to hear The Executive demo. My understanding is that it was not actually released and there were less than 10 copies made. Each time George Michael would go to a major record label he would specifically make a copy for that label. The first tape had only three songs -- "Rude Boy," "Can't Get Used to Losing You," and "Fur Elise" -- but subsequent tapes would include a newly added song until there were eventually 6 to 8 songs (depending on who you ask). The song "Rude Boy" was written by George Michael but "Fur Elise" was just a ska version of the classical song, and I'm guessing that they saw The Beat perform "Can't Get Used to Losing You" live and saw the potential for a hit. The Executive recorded it before The Beat did and if they had pressed it to vinyl they might have had a successful career as a ska band. 
I have heard (and I'm not saying it's true) that the first recorded version of "Careless Whisper" was added to one of these tapes. It was recorded with Jerry Wexler at Muscle Shoals studios in 1981. It did have a bit of an upstroke on the guitar. Certainly not a ska song, but it sounds like they were playing in a style comfortable to them.

How much of any of this is true I don't know. I do know that it has never been on eBay. If it ever does end up on eBay it will go for several hundred - if not thousands of dollars. George Michael fans can be unreasonably devoted to all things George.  Ska fans, not so much.

I imagine there is a store bought tape with the words 'The Executive' in faded marker in George Michael's own handwriting sitting in a dusty box in the basement of a failing record company. It will be destroyed in a few years when the business is shut down. Nobody will ever hear it again. And that's just as well. From what I hear it was not very good.
Despite the fact that The Executive may not be very good, hearing their long lost demo tape remains a goal of mine.  If you've heard it or might be one of the very few people who have a copy, please let me know.