Friday, June 2, 2017

Anti-Theresa May Protest Ska Song Heads To The Top of The U.K. Charts

A catchy ska song that lists British prime minister Theresa May's hypocrisies as well as current crises with the country's health and education systems, is racing up the U.K. charts ahead of the country's general election. The horn drenched "Liar Liar" features May's speeches and interviews interspersed with clips of other senior members of her Conservative government with the chorus, “She’s a liar liar, you can’t trust her no, no, no”.  The song was originally released 7b years ago as a critique of the then Conservative and Liberal Democratic coalition government and reached number 89 in the charts.

The band behind the song -- Captain SKA -- are a London-based group made up of session musicians who have performed with Vampire Weekend, Paloma Faith, Girls Aloud, The Streets and more. As of today, the song is currently at No. 1 in the iTunes UK download charts, tops Amazon's listing for songs downloaded in Britain and has more than a million and a half YouTube views, despite receiving no airplay from U.K. radio stations because of impartiality guidelines regarding political content. In spite of the radio ban,  growing awareness and media coverage may push "Liar Liar" to number one in the U.K. The band has also announced it is donating all proceeds from sales to to food banks across the U.K and The People's Assembly Against Austerity.

If you live in the U.K., Captain SKA are playing their official launch gig for the song on Wednesday June 7th at Brixton Jamm. Get your tickets here.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

In Memory Of Lionel Augustus Martin: The Man Known As Saxa

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 12, 2017

The Clash Star in Rare, Long-Lost 1980′s Gangster Parody 'Hell W10'

Behold fans of The Clash! I present for your viewing pleasure a very rare gangster parody film titled 'Hell W10' (named after the post code of Notting Hill in London) that Clash frontman Joe Strummer wrote and directed during the summer of 1983. It features his band mates and was filmed while the band was on a break from touring. Its bittersweet to watch, as this is the very last creative project the band worked on together before Jones was ousted from The Clash in late 1983.

'Hell W10' is a 50 minute-long, Super-8 silent film that plays like Mean Streets on a shoestring budget. It tells a tale of gang warfare between a brigade of punks led by bassist Paul Simonon and a bunch of sharp-suited gangsters fronted by guitarist Mick Jones. The film is an amateurish, funny, gory, and fascinating document of the early 80's.  It was lost to time until a pair of fans found a copy at a garage sale a few years back (the film was later released as part of the Essential Clash DVD collection).

While it's not exactly the kind of thing you watch again and again, it's worth viewing at least once for the images of London in the early '80s and the gusto with which the band members throw themselves into their roles -- Jones camps it up like a pantomime villain as Mr. Socrates, while Simonon plays his Jimmy Cliff-channeling rude boy nemesis Earl.  Strummer puts in a cameo as a mustachioed crooked cop (prefiguring his later movie work in Alex Cox's 'Straight to Hell' and Jim Jarmusch's 'Mystery Train'). Both Tony James and Martin Degville who later went on to form Sigue Sigue Sputnik also feature in the film.

The plot focuses on Earl (Simonon) and a drug-lord/porn director/crime lord named Socrates (Jones). Earl's girlfriend gets involved with Socrates and soon enough Earl becomes the man's number one enemy. Socrates tries to get his goons on Earl's case, especially after he sells a batch of Socrates' X-rated films, but Earl manages to wrangle up a group of his friends to rebel against them.

Watcher be warned: 'Hell W10' is no masterpiece. The camera work is sloppy at times and individual scenes last longer than they need to. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy any movie with an all-Clash soundtrack, and I got a huge kick out of watching Mick Jones scowl in his white tuxedo like a silent-film Scarface.

The soundtrack is a highpoint and features excerpts from a mix of instrumentals of well known Clash songs, as well as a few rarities including in order "Version City", "Rudie Can't Fail", "First Night Back in London (Instrumental)", "Know Your Rights (Instrumental)", "Long Time Jerk (Instrumental)", "Cool Confusion (Instrumental)", "Ghetto Defendant (Instrumental)", "Junco Version (Instrumental)", "Atom Tam (Instrumental)", "Silicone on Sapphire", "Wrong 'Em Boyo", "Overpowered by Funk (Instrumental)", "The Call Up", "Red Angel Dragnet (Instrumental)", "Jimmy Jazz", "Mensforth Hill", "Junkie Slip", "Time Is Tight", "Armagideon Time", "Listen", "The Equaliser", "Police on My Back", "One More Dub" and "Rock the Casbah (Instrumental).

Without further ado I present in its entirety Hell W10:

Friday, April 7, 2017

Rude Boy George: 80's New Wave Goes Ska!

In the shameless self-promotion department, the band I'm in  -- Rude Boy George -- has just released its first single of 2017! Its part of a suite of ska and reggae versions of 80's songs we've been recording and releasing every few months during the last year and a half (stream the latest songs on Bandcamp or listen to our first album "Confessions" released in 2014 on Spotify.) The latest song is our new wave meets reggae version of Blondie's "Atomic. "  It joins our 2-Tone ska and reggae take on other 80's tracks including songs by Soft Cell, The Cure, Wang Chung, Kim Wilde and Howard Jones.

Truth be told, the twin pillars of 2-Tone ska and 80's new wave music sustained me through much of a challenging youth during the 1980's. 2-Tone revealed harsh economic, social and racial injustices with a power and a fury that was undeniable but also danceable. It forever influenced my world view and moved me to learn an instrument and start a ska band -- Bigger Thomas. Though I tend to be a religious secularist, I've worshipped at the Church of 2-Tone for most of my life.

While new wave retained the vigor and irreverence of 70's punk music that had fueled 2-Tone, it incorporated style and art in a way that opened my world to ideas of love, friendship, sex and fashion and helped give form to my own burgeoning identity. I sought refuge in new wave's incredible diversity of nervy pop (XTC), synth pop (Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Human League), new wave songwriters (Elvis Costello), pop bands (Squeeze, INXS), pop-reggae (The Police) and more mainstream rockers (Billy Idol, The Cars). Here in the U.S. 2-Tone was lumped in with new wave, so in many ways, despite their completely different musical world views they are inextricably linked in my musical consciousness. A yin and yang that forever form the soundtrack of my life. And that is how I see Rude Boy George -- a combination of the two music forms that have sustained me most of my life.

So if you like the idea of some of your favorite 80's new wave songs wrapped in a loving ska and reggae embrace, we hope you will consider giving our songs a spin. Many thanks!

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Story Behind General Public's Other, Much Darker Video For "Tenderness"

For anyone who came of age in the 80's, General Public's video for "Tenderness" was nearly ubiquitous. It featured smiling, happy children, interspersed with moody shots of Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger singing and dancing in front of swirling lights.  When paired with the songs upbeat sound, the video highlighted the brighter side of the lyrics more melancholy undertones. Otherwise, the video didn't stand out significantly from the many other pop and new wave videos of the era.

That said, if you really paid attention, the lyrics were deeper than they appeared.  According to Wakeling:

"I used to like traveling with the trucks that carried the gear. I'd always been a big fan of that TV show Cannonball when I was a kid, and thought that the idea of American trucks was very romantic. So when we came on tour, I used to love to drive overnight with the truck drivers and talk rubbish on the CB in there. And so it was as if the trucks were driving in what's called "the endless gray river." And the notion was that you were driving around in there in America searching for the tenderness, whereas, of course, it's in your heart all the time. So it's like you're looking in the outside world for something that can only be discovered in yourself, because love is a verb, not a noun. That was the notion of it. But also there was a darker side to the song, because it came out in that period of AIDS, fear of AIDS. Nobody really knew much about it, and everybody was all of a sudden terrified to touch a door handle. Being a terrific hypochondriac, and everybody was always having colds on the road on tour, it's like any time anybody sneezed, I was like, could that be AIDS? So it was to do with that, but in sort of non-obvious way."

And to that end, there was another, much darker and more adult version of the video for "Tenderness" which was filmed in the U.K. (by the director of Bronski Beat's cutting edge video for "Small Town Boy") that never aired here in the U.S. The story behind the two very different videos is a classic case of American puritanical views on sex and a U.S. record company that was aiming to place the song at the top of the pop charts (it reached #27 in the Billboard Charts) and record a video that would garner regular rotation on MTV. According to Wakeling:

We did two versions. We did one in England with Nicholas Roeg’s son, who’d just become a video director, and he’d just done a Bronski Beat video. I really enjoyed that video, and so our first one had this female lifeguard, and we’re all playing around in the swimming pool. I’d been a competition swimmer, so when they proposed a swimming pool, I said yes yes, thinking I could show off a bit. So the girl and I are supposed to be eyeing each other and then we end up in the shower, and she takes off her jacket and she’s actually a female bodybuilder with a crew cut. She tosses off her wig and embraces me, and that’s the end of the video. Everyone in England thought it was amazing. We brought it over to Miles Copeland and his crew and they said [in a barking tone] “No no no no no.” We said we didn’t have any money to re-shoot, but IRS Records came up with the money. They introduced us to [director] C.D. Taylor whom I like very much, and I think the theme of that video was that Roger and I were very attractive people at sunset. (laugh) We shot much of the performance on the A&M lot. C.D. Taylor found these eye drops that made blue eyes look even bluer with the right lens on. It ended up being my mom’s favorite video. I showed the two cuts to my mom, and she said, “ah, your eyes do look lovely in that one.” 

Check out the radically different UK version of the video for the song below. The risque visuals and storyline of a family man dealing with temptation and infidelity while on the road is far more compelling than most pop videos of the day and completely changes your view of the song forever. Too bad Miles Copeland was so shortsighted!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Remembering Fun Boy Three's "Our Lips Are Sealed"

It's hard to believe that it was 35 years ago this  month (March of 1982), that the Fun Boy Three, comprised of three ex-members of The Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple), released their first self-titled album. It's fair to say that the album had a huge impact on me as a music fan and a musician.  The Fun Boy Three succeeded in taking me out of my comfort zone and also opened my mind to the ways that music could be fun, subversive and serious all at the same time.

While "The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum" had a strong Specials influence --  it was the uniquely strange and hypnotic "Way On Down" along with "Alibi" and the insanely catchy "The Telephone Always Ring" (which explores Hall's agoraphobia) that helped me to appreciate the darkly weird world view and talents of Terry Hall.  As a teen in the early 80's, I was drawn to the colorful haircuts and pop stylings of these songs (their partnership with Bananarama certainly didn't hurt!), but it was hard to grasp the level of sarcasm and black humor that he brought to these songs.  As an adult, I love and relate to them even more.

The first album quickly established Fun Boy Three as pop stars and household names across the U.K.  They quickly followed-up their first with 'Waiting' released in January 1983, which in my humble opinion may be one of the best albums released in the 80's.  Produced by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, it was a beautifully produced and sleek-sounding collection, filled with tales of life's trials and tribulations, covering subjects from child-abuse and drug smuggling to racism, divorce and infidelity. That said, I'm taking a closer look at the story behind of the most popular songs from the album -- 'Our Lips Are Sealed' -- which was named one of the 100 Greatest Pop Songs of all time by Rolling Stone in 2000.

While many casual fans of the song are probably familiar with the 1981 version recorded by The Go-Go's for their 'Beauty and The Beat' LP, the song was actually co-written by the band's guitarist Jane Wiedlin with Terry Hall (which helps explain why two separate versions of the song were released within 2 years).  The Go-Go's version made the Top 20 in the U.S. while the Fun Boy Three version hit #7 in the U.K. According to an interview that Wiedlin did with the Songfacts website, "Our Lips Are Sealed' is actually the story of a secret romance based on a short 'tour affair' that Hall and Wiedlin had when their respective band's toured together:
'In 1980 we were playing at The Whiskey on Sunset Strip, and The Specials were in town from England, and they came to see us, and they really liked us and asked us if we would be their opening act on their tour. I met Terry Hall, the singer of The Specials, and ended up having kind of a romance. He sent me the lyrics to 'Our Lips Are Sealed' later in the mail, and it was kind of about our relationship, because he had a girlfriend at home and all this other stuff. So it was all very dramatic. I really liked the lyrics, so I finished the lyrics and wrote the music to it, and the rest is history. And then his band, The Fun Boy Three, ended up recording it, too - they did a really great version of it, also. It was like a lot gloomier than the Go-Go's' version.'
Wiedlin and Hall's versions offer insight into their personal take on the  affair (one upbeat, poppy and sunny and the other very dark and claustrophobic). Speaking about her relationship with Terry Hall, Wiedlin added:
"Like I said, he had a girlfriend in England, and they were talking about getting married and all this stuff. So I don't know how I got in the picture. And, you know, that's something that I did as a teenager, maybe I was 20. That's something I would never do now, knowingly enter into a relationship with someone who was with someone else. I mean, it was completely screwed on my part. Although I think when people do that, you really have to look at the person who's in the relationship, and they have to take the burden of the responsibility as well. Anyways, it was one of those things with the tragic letters, "I just can't do this." You know, "I'm betrothed to another." All that kind of stuff. And I think he ended up marrying that woman, and having kids, and of course now they're divorced, so… ."
The Go-Go's version:

A rare promo version by Fun Boy Three:

The Fun Boy Three also recorded an Urdu version of the song (yes Urdu, one of the main languages of Pakistan). There are two possible stories behind the recording of this rare b-side version. The first is that Ingrid Schroeder, a member of the Fun Boy Three backing band, read and recorded phonetic Urdu lyrics (which seems plausible given the rather flat sound of the vocal delivery). The other story (which I prefer!) is that the band brought an older Pakistani woman into the studio and had her translate and then record the lyrics. The band may have been prompted to record the Urdu version by the album's producer David Byrne, who  had recently recorded  'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts' with Brian Eno which featured a lot of 'found' voices mixed with danceable beats. Have a listen below.

'Our Lips Are Sealed' continues to have legs nearly 30 years later. The song was re-worked by Nouvelle Vague and Terry Hall in 2009. The video features an old Louise Brooks movie.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Story Behind 'Love Of The Common People': From Country Ballad To 70's Reggae To 80's New Wave Hit

The first time I heard 'Love Of The Common People' as sung by 80's blue-eyed soul singer Paul Young, I was struck by the lyrics to the song. In contrast to much of the other cheery new wave that dominated the airwaves at the time,  the lyrics tell a bleak story of poverty and joblessness. There is a mention of 'free food tickets,' a reference to government food stamp and welfare programs, and the mention of clothes and shoes with holes that is offset by family love and the power of dreams. Only later did I learn about the songs reggae and 2-Tone connections -- Young's version was based on a cover of a reggae version of the song popular in the U.K. in the 70's and the searing trombone solo in the middle eight of Young's version is played by the one and only Rico Rodrigues of The Specials!

"Love Of The Common People" has an amazing history and is the rare song that has been performed and covered in a verity of musical genres including punk, reggae and 80's pop. The song was written as a Woody Guthrie-like folk ballad by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins in the late 60's.  Though Hurley and Wilkins did not expressly convey it the lyrics, the song is a protest of what they saw as the failure of the American government to do more for the poor and unemployed than it already had. As we endure the first few months of the Trump Administration, I could not think of a more appropriate song to write about, as a Republican dominated Congress seeks to cut and limit more and more of the safety net of the Affordable Healthcare Act, unemployment insurance, and other benefits that the millions of Americans have used to support themselves.

The song was first released in January 1967 in the U.S. by The Four Preps but gained prominence when it was recorded by Country singer Waylon Jennings.   However, the most powerful versions of the song are the soul and reggae takes.  The first was recorded by Washington, D.C soul/funk band The Winstons in 1969. However the definitive version --in my humble opinion -- was recorded by reggae vocalist Nicky Thomas in 1970, reaching number 9 in the UK Singles Chart. It was Thomas's only major hit single, and became his signature song, coming to define the term 'pop reggae'.

The story of how Paul Young came to record the song is very interesting.  Young met Jake Burns of Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers at one of their concerts.  The band had added the song to their live set and Young asked Burns whether Stiff Little Fingers were planning to release the song as a single. When Burns told them they weren't, Young asked if they minded him releasing it as a single. They said he could, not thinking the single would do well. Burns later self-mockingly stated in an interview, 'Pfft! Go ahead. You'll never get anywhere with that, mate. Yeah, number 2, that'll teach me!'. The Stiff Little Finger's version has a great punky reggae feel.

Young initially released his interpretation of 'Love of the Common People as a single in 1982, but it failed to chart. It was only when Young had his first hit in 1983 with 'Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)' that his record company decided to release the song again. The single peaked at #2 in the UK, and reached the number one spot in Ireland and the Netherlands. The song features a wonderful trombone solo in the middle which was provided courtesy of the one and only Rico Rodriguez. The trombonist had just endured the break-up of The Specials and decided to branch out and was tapped by Young to join his band.  Rodriguez mentioned the song in an interview.
Q: And it was time to escape the English raining to some sunshine for a change.
A: Yes, and before me go to Jamaica me do one recording with Paul Young, a song from Nicky Thomas, 'Love Of The Common People', and I think Paul Young made a hit out of it.
Q: OK, pop stuff.
A: Yes, and I did the solo in that. And when I was in Jamaica I used to hear it on the radio in Jamaica, but since I'm in Jamaica here nobody don't even know is me who do the solo on that record. But it got regular play, it was regularly played on the radio.
Look for Rodrigues in the video of the song below.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Madness Play Madmen - The Story Behind Their Early 80's Honda TV Ads

Madness fans are generally quite familiar with the songs 'In The City' and 'Driving In My Car'. They are both classics of the band's trademark 'Nutty Sound.' However, chances are that if you lived outside of Japan in the early 80's you might not have known that Madness appeared in a series of incredibly entertaining television ads for the Honda City, a small sub-compact car that came with a small folding motorcycle called the Motocompo that fit snugly in hatchback.

The story behind how Madness came to be pitchmen for Honda is one full of corporate intrigue and perseverance and ultimately success for the car maker and the band.  The Honda City was supposed to be a game changer for the Japanese car maker which at the time was stuck in a sales drought. Much thought and energy was put into its design and once it was ready to be shipped to dealers it needed an ad campaign. Looking to connect with a younger consumer, Honda's marketing team unexpectedly turned to Madness, then riding high in the charts, hoping they might just be perfect for a series of super-frantic TV spots. According to the Honda web site: '...the sales promotion staff attempted something completely different. They tried to create original music for young people, paying extra attention to rhythm in order to build a sense of pace and anticipation for the product. To that end, the production staff flew to New York in the hope of gathering musicians to create a City band. It was then that someone passed along the information that there was an English band that played a unique form of ska music, and that their dance style also was quite unique. The band was virtually unknown to Japanese music fans, but the staff decided to employ them anyway, attracted by their oddity and novelty. Upper management, however, simply would not hear of it.'

There was much back and forth between the promotion staff and Honda senior management, but finally, after multiple proposals, the executive in charge of bringing the car to market gave the marketers the green light and Madness were invited to Japan.  According to Honda: 'The recording, photo sessions, and commercial filming were completed in rapid succession. In fact, production took only two-and-a-half days during the band’s four-day stay in Japan. With the completion of the scene featuring the Centipede Dance [Nutty Train] to the music of the now-famous “Honda, Honda, Honda” tune'.  The ads had the intended effect and Japanese consumers fell in love with the band. As soon as the commercials began airing, the “Honda, Honda, Honda” melody and the 'nutty train' dance became a huge hit throughout Japan, popping up at school festivals and parties. As for the Honda, they had a hit on their hands as well.

As it turned out, the band liked the jingle so much that they expanded it into a three minute song and released it as a b-side (B/W "Cardiac Arrest") that reached #14 in the UK charts. It was also included on Complete Madness, the band's best-selling greatest hits compilation from 1982. The longer version of "In The City" replaced the repeated brand name "Honda Honda Honda..." with the more generic "doomba doomba doomba". Later ads for the Honda City featured snippets of  the song 'Driving In My Car' which was also a hit for the band.

Below are videos of the band's ad's for Honda as well as the video's for 'In The City' and 'Driving In My Car'.

The band have continued to serve as pitchmen, most notable in the early 90's for Sekonda wrist watches. More recently the band's lead singer Suggs has served as spokesperson for Birds Eye fish fingers and in 2011 the band partnered with premium lager brand Kronenbourg 1664, to record an amazing, slowed down re-arrangement of 'Baggy Trousers' (re-titled 'Le Grand Pantalon) for a music-centered ad for the brand's ‘Slow the Pace’ campaign.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

An Ode to John 'Brad' Bradbury of The Specials: Prince Rimshot Defined The 2-Tone Sound

On what would have been his 64th birthday, I want to pay homage to John 'Brad' Bradbury.  While the The Specials have always been defined by its front men and songwriters, as a bass player I've always focused on the fantastic chemistry that existed between Bradbury and his rhythm partner bassist Horace Panter.

I think its fair to say that the timeless quality of The Specials sound was defined by the sound of Bradbury's drums. He played crisp, clean patterns that combined the energy and power of punk with the technical prowess of ska, rocksteady, reggae and soul. Bradbury's trademark bass drum and cymbal hits, Latin-inspired rolls and hi-hat figures set the standard for the 2-Tone sound and he elevated the 'rimshot' to a musical art form earning himself the nickname 'Prince Rimshot' along the way.  Below is an interview that Bradbury did with Rhythm Magazine in 20111 about his cool 2-Tone Pearl drum kit.

Bradbury always played Pearl Drums.  In fact, Pearl Drums were so popular with 2-Tone drummers that the company took out a print ad in 1980 at the height of 2-Tone's popularity (see below) that featured Bradbury, along with Jane Summers of The Bodysnatchers and Charley 'H' Bembridge of The Selecter.

Now watch Bradbury in action on the kit performing 'Monkey Man' during The Specials 2010 tour stop in Toronto, Canada. Its a very unique overhead camera shot which gives you a birds eye view of the man doing what he did best. The secret for me is the timbale like tuning of his snare and the cymbal crashes which are the heart and soul of each and every song by The Specials.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

VH1 Bands Reunited Officially Kills Any Chance Of A Reunion by The Beat

Though 2-Tone officially died in the early 80's when The Specials and The Selecter split, the musicians who performed in these bands as well as other bands associated with the label like The Beat, Madness and Bad Manners have kept its legacy alive over the last 30 years. While other bands have risen from the ashes of 2-Tone and retained some of the essence and magic -- Fun Boy Three, General Public, Fine Young Cannibals, The Madness, Crunch, Buster's All-Stars and Special Beat -- there is nothing like hearing, seeing and experiencing the original versions. I think that explains the initial excitement and joy surrounding the The Specials reunion shows and the ongoing longevity and fan support for Madness (who released Can't Touch Us Now in late 2016), The Selecter (who released Subculture in 2015 and are touring the UK this spring ) and the dueling versions of UB40 (UB40 and UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey) that continue to tour and release new music. Sadly, none of these bands -- aside from Madness -- include the original founding members. It may be unrealistic to expect band members to stick together over the years, but they often reunite. And that got me thinking about an aborted attempt to reunite the original version of The Beat thirteen years ago.

Back in 2004 there was a very entertaining program on VH1 called Bands Reunited. I am not ashamed to admit that I was a regular viewer and thoroughly enjoyed each and every episode. Part of the show's allure had to do with nostalgia but also the possibility of reconnection. There was a great quote from the shows executive producer Julio Kollerbohm, who was quoted in an Entertainment Weekly interview at the time saying that he believed viewers were responding to the universal theme of mending broken relationships. 'These bands are like dysfunctional families that haven't spoken in sometimes 10 to 20 years. They're making peace with that period in their lives,' he says,'Even if [the reunion doesn't happen], it's going to make for good TV.'"

And so, for one short moment in time, the program attempted to do what no one has been able to do before or since -- convince the original members of The Beat to reunite. Like The Specials, The Beat occupy a very special place and time in musical history and in the hearts of their many fans, Like The Specials, the bad feelings and acrimony between the original members lingers to this day with both Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger leading their own versions of the band separated by the Atlantic Ocean and bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox estranged from one another and on to other endeavors. Nevertheless, way back in 2004 there seemed to be an opportunity for a reunion, or so the producers of Band's Reunited and its chirpy host Aamer Haleem, would have lead us to believe.

For the uninitiated, Bands Reunited consisted of the shows host, producers and crew hunting down the ex-members of the band one-by-one, and convincing them to agree for the one-time concert; the members were "contracted" by signing a record album by their former band. The band members were then interviewed, usually focusing on the reasons for the breakup. The final segment would consist of the formal reunion of the band in the rehearsal studio, and a joint interview about why the group originally parted ways. If the reunion was successful, the episode ended with a final performance before a sold out club full of gleeful fans.

Like all reality shows, the outcome was often known in advance. By that I mean the 'will they or won't they' of whether or not a band would reunite was pretty clear to the show producers as they documented the process of tracking down band members. In fact, the behind the scenes string pulling and contractual negotiations with band members have been detailed. Kurt Harland, the lead singer of Information Society detailed his negative experience with the program on his website, and how they differed from the portrayal of events as broadcast. Its a fascinating read.

Alas, VH1 did not deliver a happy ending on The Beat's edition of Bands Reunited. Cox and Steele, despite an impassioned plea from the aging Saxa, refused to reunite with their former band mates. When one of your band mates is pushing 80, opportunities to reunite grow dimmer by the year. And that was that. Or so it would seem. In a newspaper interview back in 2008, Wakeling provided an inside look at the maneuvering that took place behind the scenes as the producers for the shows tried to make something out of nothing.

According to Wakeling, the whole experience was unpleasant. "It was a beast. It was funny as well, knowing what was going on behind the scenes. I don’t want to say much about it. I knew that it wouldn’t work to get the group back together. I was being interviewed and agreed to be a part of it, knowing that it wouldn’t happen. There were two people in the group that refused to even be in the same room together. I phoned VH1 and said I can’t do this, it’s going to take me away from my family and it’ll take too much time. They came back and said we’ll take you and your family and pay all your expenses to fly back to England. At that point, I felt I didn’t have a choice because it was such a great offer. Then the whole thing became comedic because they were staking out Andy Cox. What they didn’t realize, is that he takes that sort of thing very seriously and he started monitoring them! He could look out his window and see their reflection in the windows across the street. He showed me a log he started keeping, tracking when they were in front of his house. Roger got a gig while we were there and they got all the instruments together and set up chairs for everyone. Not everyone showed up, but they asked those of us that were there, to play a song. We agreed and started to set up when suddenly Roger went mad and made them turn the cameras off and take away all the instruments. But I had a great two weeks in London for free and my family enjoyed it. I think the premise of the show was good, but they started to get desperate and I think that The Beat got a whiff of it and that caused it to fail.

The problems, Wakeling shared, emerged once it began to look as if a full reunion of the Beat wasn't possible. "At that point, I suppose the producers have a dilemma of how to create some drama to make an interesting TV show, so they started to play games behind us, trying to get that band members to phone this band member, or to get that band member to go around another band member's house," Wakeling said. "After it was all over and done, the people who were reluctant to do it felt they'd been publicly ridiculed by VH1. They said, 'there's always been an off chance of the full band reuniting, but that VH1 show was the nail in the coffin.'" "So VH1 finally killed the Beat," Wakeling laughed. "Thanks a lot."

In case you missed the series or the episode featuring The Beat when it originally aired in 2004 or live outside the U.S., I've posted the entire episode below. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Conversation With Matthew "Pegleg" Roberts of Peg & The Rejected/The Dingees

When we fall in love with a song, an album or a band, we're not making a cognitive decision. Its primal.  It's inexplicable. We feel it in our bones and our nerves.   The music that we fall in love with becomes part of our emotional DNA. It takes up home in our heart and soul.  It sparks neurons that light up our brains.  We hit play. Then hit rewind as soon as the song ends. And then hit play and rewind again and again.

And so, late last year, after the Presidential election, when I was grappling with some dark thoughts and fears about the sea change taking place in our country, someone sent me a link to Peg & The Rejected's album "4th Wave." The album cover art piqued my interest.  It was a hodgepodge of 2-Tone iconography including the album title:  4th Wave?!  After reading hundreds of debates about the various waves of ska, I laughed at the idea of a 4th Wave of ska.  And so, with no preconceived notions or any idea who Peg & The Rejected were, I played their album and my neurons started sparking! And then I played the album again and again. Soon the songs on "4th Wave" took up home in my heart and soul.  These are songs that deserve to be heard by a much larger audience.

Who the hell are Peg & The Rejected you ask? This Long Beach, California based band are better known as the 90's era ska punk/reggae band The Dingees who came together in the mid-90's when Matthew "Pegleg" Roberts was working on the road crew selling merchandise for Orange County Christian ska band The OC Supertones. He befriended the band's sax player Dave Chevalier and they talked about the burgeoning Orange County ska scene.  Soon after they returned from the tour, Pegleg and Chevalier recruited other musicians and began performing as The Dingees (a reference to one of the band members smelly "dingy" feet!)

Things moved quickly for The Dingees -- who honed a ska punk sound and started playing out around Orange County.  They were soon signed to Tooth & Nail Records recording three albums in four years -- Armageddon Massive (1998), Sundown to Midnight (1999) and The Crucial Conspiracy (2001) -- and touring non-stop.  Shortly after the September 11, 2001, the band learned that they had been dropped by Tooth & Nail.  At that point, the band went into DIY mode and over the next few years worked to home record, self-produce and independently release Rebel Soul Sound System for free in 2010. And now, nearly seven years later, the band has released "4th Wave,"

I often joke that I worship at the Church of 2-Tone and in my opinion, the songs on "4th Wave" add chapter and verse to the canon of 2nd wave ska music created by The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat.  And while Peg & The Rejected are essentially The Dingees, they have refined their punk meets reggae sound to record a truly 21st century version of 2-Tone ska that is worthy of the 4th Wave moniker by embracing the ideas and concepts of protest, resistance and social criticism inherent in original 60's ska, 70's reggae and 2-Tone music.

I interviewed Pegleg about how he became a musician and how he started The Dingees and now Peg & The Rejected.  I also spent a good deal of time talking to him about the songs on "4th Wave" and how his views on years of U.S. imperialism abroad have impacted his world view.

Heard in our current cultural context, "4th Wave" can legitimately be called the first Trump-era ska album that mixes the best of The Selecter, Operation Ivy/Rancid, Fishbone and The Skatalites into an original mix of thoughtful, heartfelt and thought provoking songs about the current state of the world. Its an album about life in the U.S. today -- secrecy, lies, fake news, propoganda, income inequality, police brutality, US aggression abroad -- and its effects.  There are so many memorable songs on the album, including the bittersweet"Stray Bullets" which is an instant classic. It features a chorus that could have been written by Pauline Black, the best 2-Tone lyricist ever -- "Stray bullets could only catch the innocent/guilty finger pointing trigger and pulling it."

Below are videos for many of the songs from "4th Wave" that I interviewed Pegleg about.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

An Interview with Chris "Kid Coconuts" Acosta of The New York Citizens

Much in the way that 2-Tone Records was really the label for The Specials and The Selecter, in its early days, Moon Records was the label for The Toasters and The New York Citizens (NYC's). While The Toasters hewed to a 2-Tone inspired sound, The NYC's created a compelling musical stew with ska as its base, but that also drew inspiration from '60s Stax, British punk, new wave and 2-Tone, as well as funk and hard rock. In fact, you could make a case that along with Fishbone, The NYC's helped give birth to a uniquely American version of ska (AKA: ska-core) that proliferated after they had broken up. Though The NYC's were contemporaries of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who took the ska-core sound and ran with it in the 90's), it was The NYC's who were among the very first American ska bands to try the kitchen sink musical approach  that helped give birth ska-core.  If you don't believe me just give Helltown a spin!

The NYC's had their origins is a band called Legal Gender which included singer Robert Tierney (read my interview with Tierney here), Mike Hicks (drums), Dan Marotta (guitar) and Paul Gil (read my interview with Gil here) on the bass. While attending Manhattan College, Marotta met keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik. Initially, Legal Gender had a new wave/punk sound with some ska influences, but it was the addition of Chris 'Kid Coconuts' Acosta (the Chas Smash of the band) and the recording of the song 'Overcast' (as a split 7" for Moon Records) which set them on the way to a new sound and a new name.

My first encounter with The NYC's came when my band Bigger Thomas (then known as Panic!) opened a show for them at Rutgers University in September of 1988. My first impression of them was that they seemed like a gang.  They had an intimidating swagger on and off the stage. Though it was our very first show (we had been together about a month), we must have made an impression, because The NYC's were initially responsible for passing word about us on to others around the New York ska scene including Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters.

Over the early months of 1989, The NYC's invited us to play other shows with them in New York and New Jersey. Though we always sensed a bit of a rivalry with the band and they tended to treat us as outsiders because we weren't part of the New York City ska scene, they were also responsible for giving us a lot of early breaks. By the time we started playing shows with The NYC's they were an established act and I learned a lot by watching them -- particularly Tierney and Acosta.

As a singer and a front man, Tierney embodied the best elements of a sneering Johnny Rotten and an eloquent Morrissey. Though the band were unpredictable and edgy and always seemingly ready for a fight, underneath their bravado lay Tierney's lyrics that revealed a sensitive, literate and socially conscious soul. And right beside him was Acosta who played the role of Dave Collins (of Double Barrel fame) and Flavor Flav egging on the crowd and showing off the dancing skills he honed in clubs around New York City before he joined the band. Acosta was the perfect foil to Tierney, playing the hype man to a tee.

I recently re-connected with Acosta after nearly 25 years when I bumped into him at The Selecter show in New York City this past October and then again when The Skints played in Brooklyn this past December.  We spent some time catching up and sharing stories and he agreed to conduct an interview with me.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I grew up in North Brooklyn (Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick) on the Bushwick/Ridgewood, Queens border. My landlord (and surrogate grandmother) was this little old Italian lady from Bari, Italy (Rosa Amendolare -- we shared the same birthday). We used a photo of her clothes line with our "Boxer Shorts" for the "Stranger Things Have Happened " album cover, and then a photo of her on "The Truth About The New York Citizens" album.

What was the first record or single that you bought? What was it like to grow in New York City in the 80's? 
As far as music, I can say I am very fortunate to have grown up in New York City in the late 70's and 80's. Around 1978-1980 I would go with my buddies to all those illegal "school yard" or public park DJ parties. The DJ's would spin stuff like Jimmy Castor's Just Begun, Archie Bell & the Drells Tighten Up, Booker T & MG's Melting Pot, James Brown's Give it up or Turn it Loose, and The Jackson 5's Hum Along and Dance. We would "up rock" (before break dancing). I used to belong to a dance crew called Touch of Rock!

As I got a little older I went out with my older sisters who initially were into rock and disco but some how made it to underground places like the Loft (David Mancuso) and the Paradise Garage (Larry Levan). It was there that not only did I hear stuff I was familiar with, but stuff that sounded familiar but that I had never heard.

Hearing Time Warp, Walking On Sunshine and Living On The Frontline by Eddy Grant, Kraftwerk, Another One Bites the Dust by Queen, Talking Heads, The Clash and even The Police at the Loft really influenced me. I suppose then during my sophomore year in high school (I went to James Madison, which was a mix between Guidos, Rockers and West Indians) I got into "Electro" and "New Wave". We'd go to places like Danceteria, the Mudd Club and the Pyramid. This was also when I heard for the first time groups like The Specials, Madness and The Selecter as well as The Smiths, New Order and The Cure.

By the summer of 1983 I was going to Hardcore matinees at CBGB's seeing bands like Kraut, Agnostic Front and Warzone. However, all along it was the 2-Tone sound that influenced me the most. This is what made growing up in NYC great, being able to make friends with people of different musical tastes and having the choice of either getting into or not. Everything was always just a subway ride away...

How did you first meet Robert Tierney and the other members of the band? 
I meet Rob in 1985 at New York City Technical College in downtown Brooklyn. We were both studio graphic arts students. We shared the same musical taste as far as new wave and ska. Rob told me about a band he had called Legal Gender along with Dan Marotta (guitar), Mike Hicks (drummer) and Paul Gil (bass) and later Gerry O'Sullivan (keyboards) and John Pavlik (sax).  I particularly got along with Dan Marotta!

How did you become Kid Coconuts?
At first I was just helping Legal Gender get gigs (I had a buddy who worked at CBGB's). But then I sort of became their "dance man" and added the coconut sound as part of an inside joke between us from watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the Knights couldn't afford horses so they used two coconut halves to make the "clicking" sound of the hooves...). So ever since then I became sort of an "act," the only musician to buy his "instrument" at the produce section of a super market.

Could you describe the mid-to-late 80s NYC Ska scene for the benefit of those who didn't experience it? Which were some of your favorite bands from that time?
As far as I can remember at first there weren't a lot of ska type bands. I remember seeing The Toasters and Second Step like in 1986. I remember being particularly impressed with Cavo and Lionel of the Toasters. I felt they brought that urban NYC vibe to the sound. The scene was not big but cool. It was nice going to dive bars like Blanche's and Sofie's in a shark skin suit.

You worked for Moon Records right? At first I helped do the art work for a couple of the album covers for the Toasters and a few of the compilations.
I first helped Moon Records to broker some of the catalog to Spain for distribution and vice versa. Then after wards I helped put together two Latin Ska compilations with bands from Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean. It was a of fun putting those comps together I made a lot of friends in far places.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows in New York City that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
I remember taking all the beer from The Ramones dressing room (in front of their fucking faces) at City Gardens in Trenton; smoking a huge joint with Rita Marley while waiting to go on before Ziggy Marley. Also the huge fight we had with a bunch of Nazi skinheads at a show in Los Angeles. We were playing on stage and we were exchanging spit with each other until we said fuck it "let's fight! you fuckin' soft pussies...!"

Tell me about recording “On the Move” in 1988 which is the quintessential NYCs’ record. What was it like working with Bucket in the studio?
Working with Rob Hingley helped us grow in my opinion. We had our own sound, it was clear we weren't trying to revive 2-Tone but rather mix in our own New York City influences. We tried to capture that with this initial album.

Both our bands were part of the "NYC Ska Live" album recorded at the Cat Club in 1990. Do you have any memories of that show and what are your thoughts about the album?
I remember that there were a lot of bands on the bill! It was great to do a live recording with all these bands! I think I also did the art work for that album...

Our bands shared the stage at City Gardens in Trenton, N.J., quite a few times. What are your memories of that iconic club? You recorded a fantastic live version of “Lemon Jelly” there that appeared on “The Truth about the New York Citizens.”
We used to love playing at City Gardens, the crowd there was extremely receptive to our sound! The 'Lemon Jelly" recording was so much fun! I love the sort of droll voice from the sound man at the end.."Well..., there you have it...that's the New York Citizens..."

The band also recorded 'Stranger Things Have Happened' in 1990 which had some classic songs including “Shut Up and Listen" and “Boxer Shorts” What are your memories of that recording session?
I think personally this was my favorite album as far as concept because we tried to "string along " all the songs so it came off a "mixed tape". We sampled everything from the radio to a small snippet from The Skatalites.

I've read that the band was never completely happy with its recorded output - that the studio recordings didn't fully capture the NYCs’ live sound and energy. Are there any live recordings in the NYC vaults that might be released at some point down the line? And which studio recordings come close to meeting your expectations?
I think we all felt that our sounds worked best live on stage. I'm sure a lot of bands probably felt like that. So it's hard to capture raw energy when the recording studio engineer asks you to do several more takes.

The band did a few national tours and opened for a number of national acts like Big Audio Dynamite, Fishbone, The Ramones and more. Did the NYCs have an agent or did you book your own gigs?
We did have a good buddy of ours help with the booking, Tom Perna. Then later either myself, Dan Marotta or Rob Davidman (also friend) handled booking.

Why did the NYC's break up?
I suppose because of different views, kind of hard to say now that all this time has passed.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The NYC’s?
My favorite moments come with the latter line-up: Rob Cittandino on bass, Dave "Ma'Horney" Mullen on sax and keyboards, and Rich Zukor on the drums. We'd hang out a lot and sort of rolled like a gang that happened to be in a band. We'd get into arguments or some times into fights with other folks and then realized "oh shit..., we gotta go on..!"

What are you up to these days? 
I'm married to my lovely wife Wanda. We live in Williamsburg (same place since 1998) and I work as Park Manager for NYC Parks. I started as Park Ranger in 2005. From 2000 to 2005 I owned a small Espresso & Wine bar with Rob Cittandino.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Amazulu + Jerry Dammers? Check Out Moonlight Romance From 1984!

Amazulu were a guilty pleasure of mine. Arriving on the UK music scene in the early 80's just as 2-Tone had run its course, this 6 piece multi-racial band of mostly self-taught musicians initially launched themselves as a serious reggae and ska band and helped fill the void for fans like me who were just catching up to all the post 2-Tone music being released . In fact, the original version of the band drew attention with their political tinged songs, capturing the attention of noted music Svengali Falcon Stuart (who discovered X-Ray Spex and took Adam Ant mainstream) as well as BBC radio DJ John Peel who was an early fan and recorded two radio sessions with the band.

The band's first single was the political tinged 'Cairo' backed by 'Greenham Time' which was an ode to the women protesting the placement of U.S. Cruise missiles at Greenham Common military base in the early 80's. Despite their relative lack of musical experience, 'Cairo' is a catchy if serviceable slice of early 80's era reggae and the edgy video was miles from the the lush pop videos the band would later produce. The B-side 'Greenham Time' is the more interesting of the two tracks. Its a chant down Babylon/feminist reggae rocker that would have sounded right at home on The Slits first few albums.

What I never knew until recently was that Amazulu's reggae growing bona fides brought them to the attention of Jerry Dammers and Dick Cuthell (taking a much deserved break from recording The Special AKA 'In The Studio' LP) who took the band under their wing and produced the sunny 2-Tone sounding ska of 'Moonlight Romance' and directed the corresponding video. Dammers and Cuthell also mixed a dub version of the track -- which I have to confess I like more than the original! It has great little flourishes of African hi-life guitar sounding like a distant cousin to other Dammers compositions like "Winds Of Change,"  "Jungle Music," and "Free Nelson Mandela."

Though the single failed to chart, the band and 'Midnight Romance' were prominently featured performing a more ska sounding version of the song in an episode of the 'Young One's' which guaranteed them national exposure and set them up for the pop success they would have with later material like 'Excitable', 'Don't You Just Know It' and 'Montego Bay.'

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Dead 60s Reform For UK Tour!

Great news for fans of The Dead 60's!  The Liverpool-based band have announced they are reforming for a short UK tour this coming April.  The shows -- including a headlining spot at the 2017 edition of the London International Ska Festival -- will be the band's first since they stopped playing in early 2008. The band's lead singer Matt McManamon shared during a recent interview that the band are excited about the return to performing live and will see how the tour goes before deciding on any next steps.

I originally learned about the band and their first self-titled album when they were profiled way back in 2005 in the free AM NewYork newspaper they used to hand out for free on the New York City Subway. The review compared them to the musical love child of The Clash and The Specials, two of my favorite groups of all time. I HAD to do some further investigation. I was not disappointed. Their most memorable tracks, "You're Not the Law" and "Control This" were a brilliant updating of The Specials "Ghost Town" sound and The Clash's forray's into reggae --  ominous hammond organ and dubby bass paired with a vocals that communicated a sense of dread and claustrophobia. Those two songs alone sold me on the band and served as an excellent substitute for many of us pining away for The Specials and other 2-Tone era bands during the mid-2000's. I can't recommend their first album enough!

And when you’re done digging into their first album, you’ll want to give the hard to find "Space Invader Dub" version a spin.  The LP was distributed for free in a limited-edition release in the UK (and as an expensive import in the U.S.). The dub versions of the songs --  which were re-mixed in proper, late-’70s, flying faders, Mad Professor-style are excellent! I was always impressed that the band followed in the footsteps of their UK ska/reggae forefathers like The Clash and UB40 and released dubbed out version of their songs. I give them a lot of credit that they had the confidence in their songs to strip them down to the bone and remix them.

And while the band's recorded output is stands the test of time -- including their overlooked follow-up album "Time To Take Sides" (give "Seven Empty Days" a spin) which preceded their break-up -- it's their live show that drew raves. Indeed, the "The Black Sessions" a rare bootleg of a live performance the band performed at the height of their powers in Paris, France in October 2005 and broadcast on French radio. The Black Sessions were the brainchild of French radio DJ Bernard Lenoir (the French John Peel).  The recordings are high fidelity, live recordings recorded in one take in front of an audience of 200 people. If you are going to any of the shows this April, give this a listen!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Equators Release New Music Ahead of London International Ska Festival 2017

Great ska news out of the U.K! The Equators, the 2-Tone era ska band from Birmingham who were signed to Stiff Records and released the criminally overlooked cult album 'Hot' in 1981, have released a new song "Bed Of Roses." The band, who reunited in 2011, will perform during the London International Ska Festival 2017 which will be held from April 13-16 at venues across London.

The Equators were way ahead of their time. I remember borrowing a copy of 'Hot' from the original guitar player of Bigger Thomas when we first met. He told me that he wanted our band to sound like the songs on this record. I remember listening to the album and wondering why I had never heard of the band or why they weren't more popular. The album captured an effervescent and upbeat 2-Tone ska and reggae sound that included rock and new wave as best represented by songs like 'Age Of Five" and their own fantastic cover of The Equals 'Baby Come Back' which should have been a massive hit.

Formed in 1977 by the brothers Bailey (Donald, Leo and Rocky), the offspring of Jamaican immigrants to England, The Equators were discovered by Stiff Records’ President, David Robinson, performing with The Beat (which shared The Equators’ Management team). Robinson, ecstatically impressed with the raw energy of their concert performance and the soulful innovation of their ska-pop-reggae sound, moved to sign the band to the label which was also the home of Madness and Elvis Costello.

Stiff Records released their album during 2-Tone mania and it should have had the same level of success as The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter. In my mind they suffered from I call "Fishbone Syndrome." That is that they were an amazing band that was doing something way ahead of its time and that didn't fit preconceived notions of what black or white music should sound like. Instead it was a melting pot of different musical sounds performed by an all black band and it seemed to throw a lot of people off. That, and Stiff totally mismarketed The Equators as a reggae band when they should have been marketed as a ska band.

Despite that, the band remain hugely influential if sinfully overlooked. Dave Wakeling of The English Beat recalled:
"The Equators were brilliant. In our earliest formulations of The Beat sound we discovered that if one played an all punk set, the audience would get burnt out; And if one played an all reggae set, the audience would fall asleep. Therefore our music would encompass the energy & intensity of punk & the hypnotic, laid-back groove of reggae, a punky-reggae hybrid. But just when we thought we discovered something new, we discovered The Equators, right in our home town of Birmingham, who had already come up with a similar formulation. Whereas we were a bunch of kids searching out, learning, and adopting this music, The Equators were first generation Jamaicans in England.  Prince Buster was part of their own heritage. It was from The Equators that The Beat learned to stylize this blend in a soulful, delicate manner. It was from The Equators that we learned lightness and depth of touch in playing’ this music."
Jerry Miller of The Untouchables was also a fan of the band:
"Man, it was because of bands like The Equators that we formed The Untouchables. We were very big fans of 2 Tone, but with The Equators, that’s where it was at with us because it was so groovin’ and soulful. Their recordings were sacred to us. We used to listen to ‘em in the dark and take in their influence. I remember when The Equators toured the U.S. in 1981. My friends and I went to see ‘em at the Reseda Country Club dressed in our best mod & rude boy get-ups and attitudes. Then The Equators took the stage, a bunch of black guys dressed in sweat pants and such. At first our mod-fashion heads were taken back. ‘Where’s the style in this?’ we thought. Then they started to play and by the end of the show we were questioning our own mod and rube boy identities. Who were we to judge when The Equators’ music, style & performance was so real, so smooth and so authentic."
"Bed Of Roses" was written by lead singer Donald Bailey -- who still performs with his brothers Rocky on keys and Leo on drums who are joined by Ian Harper on bass and Robin Giorno on guitar.
The song draws its inspiration from the Bailey's father who immigrated to England from Jamaica in the 1950's in search of a better life for his family.  According to Donald Bailey, their father used to say, "Life was hard, but you can achieve any goals or dreams with hard work.  But he would remind me that life is not a bed of roses!"

The band are considering releasing an EP of new music -- they have 4-5 songs already recorded -- and decided to share "Bed Of Roses" to see the response to it ahead of their performance at the LISF. Give it a spin and if you are in London for LISF be sure to see the band!

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Conversation with Josh Harris of The Untouchables

It's hard to believe that The Untouchables 'Wild Child' album was released 32 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 band 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!).

Josh "Acetone" Harris joined the band in 1983 right before they signed to Stiff Records (he was also a member of the first American reggae band -- Huey & The Titans who later became The Shakers and were signed by David Geffen to Elektra/Asylum records in 1975 and went on to record an album called "Yankee Reggae.").  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 as the band evolved from the original line-up that got its start at the O.N Club into the group that recorded 'Wild Child'.

I interviewed Harris about what it was like to join the band right before the fast moving chain of events in the mid 80's  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 ). His memories and stories 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.

Harris has found a different kind of success since his days with the band. He and his wife founded Rustic Bakery in 2005 to tap into the growing interest in artisanal cheese with a line of handmade toasted flatbreads. Since then the business has grown to include four cafe/bakeries in the Marin County area of California and a wholesale division that has products in supermarkets across the U.S. and customers around the world. The reputation of the bakery has reached the point that baked goods from Rustic Bakery were served to Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S. last year. Despite a busy work schedule, Harris has also found time to record a release an album of songs and will be playing a CD release party at the Art House Gallery & Cultural Center in Berkeley CA on February 18, 2017.

I've included links to videos below that Harris references during our conversation

Harris was a member of Huey & The Titans in 1973.  Give a listen to his early attempts at playing reggae organ and keys.

Here is the scene of the band performing "The General" in Party Animal which also included songs by The Fleshtones and The Buzzcocks.

Here is the band's self-funded video for "Free Yourself" which eventually won honors as Billboard Magazine's 1985 "Best Indy Video Of The Year."

Once the band was signed to Stiff Records in the U.K., they went to Europe where they recorded the "Wild Child" album and toured.  Below is rare video of the band performing live on British television in 1985.

Below is the promo video for "I Spy For The F.B.I" which was produced by Jerry Dammers of The Specials.

Stiff Records released short videos of the stories for songs released on the label.  They interviewed lead singer Jerry Miller about his memories of being signed by Stiff and working with Dammers.