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.