Steel Pulse - Chapter 2
Chapter 2: Single Success
In March 1976 and closer to home, Steel Pulse entered and won a prestigious talent competition at the Santa Rosa club in Handsworth promoted by record shop owner and entrepreneur Cecil Morris, who ran Rising Star Records and managed top reggae band Matumbi. Jamaican-born, Morris had a penchant for discovering and nurturing local talent and known as the 'Music Master' he later went onto play a leading role in founding local pirate radio stations, Radio Star and PCRL. For the groups' talent contest, bands playing all sorts of music took part over a six-week period before a semi-final and final competition in which Steel Pulse were adjudged the winners by a panel that included members of Matumbi and the JALN Band. Amongst their winning songs were Handsworth Revolution and Nyah Luv, tunes written by David and which beat off the rest of the competition for the prize that included a sum of money and free time in a recording studio. Morris recalls, "it was no competition, I'd never seen anything like it, something big was taking place." The competition's chief judge was Dennis 'Blackbeard' Bovell, the man behind the band Matumbi and a leading light in black music circles in Britain at that time. He remembers, "there seemed dozens of them, they were quite a big band and then they started playing this song about Handsworth. Of course, local boys singing about a local place and how they're going to revolutionise it, suddenly the crowd just erupted." With his encouragement, boosted by the cash windfall and feeling confident with all the hard work they'd put into perfecting their musical style, they went into the Holick & Taylor studios in Grosvenor Road, Handsworth to record Handsworth Revolution though the track was never released as a single. Instead the band decided to record their first single, the moody Kibudu-Mansatta-Abuku at the Bristol Street studios in the city centre. Written by Ronnie and with Selwyn singing the main vocals, 1,000 copies of the story of three African slaves were pressed and distributed by a small reggae label in London called Concrete Jungle, a subsidiary of Dip Records. It was intended as a statement of the Steel Pulse sound, it received an excellent review in Black Echoes and played in clubs, at sound system sessions and on pirate radio stations, it took the band onto a new level of their development. Not one to miss an opportunity, Bovell went onto produce tracks with both Thelma May and Tabby Cat Kelly, the winners of the solo singing competitions, the latter collaboration producing the popular single, Don't Call Us Immigrants.
The success of their public appearances inspired Steel Pulse to expand their horizons. "The money from our gigs went back into the pot, back into the band, to pay for more equipment and travel," recalls Basil. Their live performances began to spread far wider than the immediate locality of Birmingham. Michael Riley remembers, "we were playing pubs and clubs doing stuff like soul and watered down reggae to over 30's cabaret-type audiences. You had to do that type of stuff just to be able to play." Playing to mostly black audiences up and down the country, they were regularly seen in venues such as working men's clubs in Wolverhampton and Wednesbury and the more upmarket Bamboo club in Bristol, the Venn Street Social club in Huddersfield, various clubs in and around London and the International clubs in Leeds and Manchester. They always took a loyal following to these gigs and Colin fondly remembers, "seeing a long line of car headlights following us to our gigs along the then-empty motorways. Petrol was cheap and we had a lot of followers." After initially using their father's mini van to transport the band's equipment, Lee Allen purchased a large green Bedford transit van which David's cousin, Keith Ebanks, would drive around the country. As with all fledgling bands on the road they broke down a few times and had to miss the odd gig, but a handful of appearances they did make, across the Midlands, was as the backing band for popular Jamaican singer Ken Boothe, who'd had a number one chart hit two years before with Everything I Own.
By November 1976 Colin Gabbidon had reached a defining point in his music career. Along with Basil and David, he'd been there at the creation of something special and had played a significant part in the band's early success. However, amongst the band members there was some discord with Colin's style of drumming that meant rather than allow the disharmony to affect the band, Colin agreed to leave. It was a hard decision for him to take as he'd been proud of what they'd achieved so far and like the others he wanted to see how far it could go. However, as he recalls, "for things to move on, it's best for there to be harmony, so if other people are uncomfortable and you're not comfortable, it's best to split and to go your own separate way." And that's what happened. Colin said his goodbyes but remained their staunchest supporter. Replacing Colin in the band for a few months at the start of 1977 was another former Handsworth Wood pupil, Donovan Shaw. In May that year, Pulse played to one of the biggest all-black crowds ever gathered in Britain during the African Liberation Day protest and music event in Handsworth Park. Celebrated photographer Vanley Burke captured the day for posterity.
Towards the end of 1976 the band were introduced to Pete King through the Shoop Shoop disco he ran with Mike Horseman at the Golden Eagle pub in Hill Street. A fellow Brummie, Pete had run discos since he was thirteen and had been brought up on a diet of bluebeat, rocksteady and hardcore dub. He went to see the band rehearse at Linwood Road and both parties were impressed. "I was accepted pretty quickly by the band after meeting them. They respected my opinion on music and another thing that surprised them was that I understood patois, as I'd grown up with it. One of the nicest things ever said to me was by the band, 'you're the only white guy we know that can play a chop on a guitar like a black guy.' That was part of the acceptance. I had a voice in the band and I had musical input. I didn't write the songs of course but they knew I knew the music. I'd got a sense of rhythm which they didn't normally associate with a white guy." Pete remained close to the band throughout 1977 and beyond, effectively managing them whilst they were on the road. At the same time he was quietly working behind the scenes to secure the band a record deal.
By the middle of 1977 the band numbers had swelled with the addition of vocalist Alphonso Martin, a tool-setter by day, and experienced drummer Stephen 'Grizzly' Nisbett. Both were introduced to the group by Hinds. Michael Riley explains, "Alphonso was an occasional roadie with the band and an old junior school friend of David, when he joined in late 1976. He was already familiar with the material and provided sweet mid-range harmonies that sat between myself and Selwyn, who up until this point were the main supporting voices behind David. I was then responsible for working Alphonso's voice into the set, as well as finding a character for him in the line up." Grizzly took over the drums, initially for the session to record their next single, midway through the year after the departure of Colin Gabbidon and a brief stint by Donovan Shaw. Up to that point his involvement in reggae had been limited. "I explained I'd never played reggae before. I'd listened and enjoyed it but never really played it. They had an idea and knew what they wanted to do. I had to mould myself into the band's style. There were a lot of styles coming together at the same time with me coming from a rock and soul-funk background. I formulated an idea in my head and they said to play what I felt, which I did. I also felt like a learner again. The guys were very patient. I created my own identity, my own style, my own drum patterns, my own ideas. I didn't play a typical reggae beat."
Grizzly had first encountered Pulse at the Santa Rosa competition a year before. "The first time I heard them, I liked them. Not because they were a reggae band, but of all the bands around, they had a different sound. They were not the typical reggae band. They were radical. I liked what they did and how they did it and of course, David's voice was unique." He talked to Colin Gabbidon and the rest of the band, who soon after came to watch his band Force rehearse in Smethwick. Pulse also borrowed some of Force's equipment for a gig at Gloucester's Jamaican club. Grizzly's own involvement in reggae to that point had been pretty limited. Force included one Matumbi track in their set-list and like most of his contemporaries, he'd been enthused by Bob Marley's Catch A Fire album, which he'd heard blasting out from a record shop on Soho Road. "It was melodic, nice, it was really sweet and that's the way I imagined reggae to feel and sound. Bob Marley was what turned me onto reggae." Grizzly was older than the rest of the band and arrived with substantial experience having played a variety of musical styles with Penny Black, Rebel, Ray Gee & The Stax Explosion and Force. Born on Nevis, a tiny Caribbean island, in March 1948, Stephen Vincent Nisbett moved to Birmingham at the age of nine and fell into music almost by accident after his schooling in Saltley and Erdington. His parents had bought him his first set of drums, after constant nagging by the teenager, and following a brief flirtation with factory work, Grizzly took up music and the drums full-time when he joined the band Penny Black.
Their introduction to Dennis Bovell was also an introduction to his management company, called TJM. Headed by John Francis, they liked the sound of the band and took them to London to record the sprightly Nyah Luv at Strawberry Studios with Bovell in charge of production. He recalls, "the first time we were in the studio together, they were bristling with energy and signs of being great, they were determined and had that determination. Anytime I said, 'listen lads, go for it one more time,' it was always with the same kind of energy to try and really make it, they were serious about it." 5,000 copies were pressed, the single was released in September 1977 on the Anchor label by Tempus Records and quickly went to the top of the UK's reggae chart. "That was the first song I actually wrote, I give that track a lot of credit. Matumbi was very much an influence on the band especially visually so it was great that (their leader) Dennis Bovell produced Nyah Luv," explains Hinds. Basil Gabbidon recalls, "We'd done a lot of gigs, we enjoyed lots of influences and turned them into our own songs with a ska kinda feel to them. I was into heavy bass-lines, David put lyrics to the tunes and Selwyn would add the melodies. We were different from bands like Matumbi and Aswad, we were harder and more cheeky. We had a few songs at that time like Handsworth Revolution, Soldiers, Bad Man and Sound Check." Michael Riley describes their situation at that time. "The places we were playing didn't change but our audiences did. We were getting a following of young people and our gigs were getting jam packed. The problem was, that we couldn't get a record deal, so it becomes a dead end circuit. You could carry on doing it but nobody would know about you."
The man responsible for putting the finishing touches to Nyah Luv, known as mastering, was someone who would maintain close links with the band right up to the present day. John Dent was the engineer at Trident Studios who took the mixed version and produced the final master copy for production. As the in-house disc cutting engineer under Island Record's Sound Clinic banner, he continued to work with Steel Pulse throughout their Island period and subsequent releases under their own Wise Man Doctrine label, and in recent years has mastered their latest studio output, Rage & Fury and African Holocaust, from his own Loud Mastering studio in Taunton. Dent's tenure at Trident, Island, Exchange and Loud has put him at the top of his profession and he's mastered records for a who's who of the music industry's heavyweights ranging from Bob Marley, through the Police, Dire Straits, U2 and Kylie Minogue.
Their single success complemented the next exciting stage of the band's development and exposure. The explosion of punk was taking place across the UK and London was the place to be. The collaboration between punk and reggae bands was in its infancy and Steel Pulse were in the middle of it. They were the first reggae band to play a white punk club when they appeared on the same bill as Billy Idol's Generation X at the newly-opened Vortex club in Wardour Street on 1 August 1977. Admission cost £1 and Vivien Goldman from the music weekly Sounds described their performance, 'The punks went wild with good reason. Steel Pulse are the hardest new roots band I've seen, and they score heavily on their percussive rhythm section, dub effects jingling just behind the sound all the time, and their three-man-vocal, spreading the load and also broadening the frontal attack. Harmony hits hard.' Also on the bill that night were Art Attacks and the Lurkers. They followed that two nights later, playing with The Slits at Clouds in Brixton and then back to the Vortex with The Adverts and Lurkers on 16 August, the night Elvis Presley died. A week later they supported XTC at the Nashville Rooms, where Robin Banks saluted their performance for Zigzag magazine. 'Steel Pulse manage to maintain a standard of musicianship that is enviable... The music is reggae with a subtlety and a power I've rarely experienced before and all the songs are original material written joint effort style by the band. The numbers have titles like Prodigal, Bad Man, Nyah Luv, Bun Dem and Prediction. But the ace up their collective sleeve is an unforgettable number entitled Ku Klux Klan... The lyrics are sung to a tune that you simply can't get out of your brain, and for me this song is the highlight of the set. You have got to hear this song to have any idea how powerful it is. The lyrics on their own can't possibly convey the anger, frustration and exasperation that the words and music combined communicate so effortlessly. Another number that deserves to be singled out is Sound Check.'
Grizzly paints the scene. "At the time, punk wasn't fashonable when it started. It was punk that took reggae from A to B. They got into the whole consciousness of reggae music like Bob Marley and Burning Spear and they took reggae music as part of their whole curriculum. Everyone else seemed to diss reggae music but it was the punks who took it up. What society didn't want, the punks did. I see the marriage between punk and reggae as a good thing. If it wasn't for punk, a lot of reggae musicians, bands, singles and albums would never have happened nationally and internationally, or as quickly as it did." He also heaped praise on one individual in particular. "The punks and John Peel did a lot for Steel Pulse and reggae music. The first time anyone heard Steel Pulse on the radio was on John Peel's show. He'd heard a demo tape played at the Virgin record store in Marble Arch in London and played it on his programme." Pete King recalls, "Radio One DJ John Peel was very passionate about the band. A friend of mine, Fanny Feeney worked at Virgin Records and gave Peel a tape of the band I'd given her. Out of that we got a live session, recorded at Maida Vale and a lot of street cred." Recording of the live session took place on 31 August 1977, it went out on 29 September 1977 and contained Prodigal Son, Ku Klux Klan, Prediction and Bad Man. An integral but unsung part of the band's live performances was the road crew. Their live sound engineer was another Handsworth school pal Horace Ward, who started out as a vocalist before taking over the band's sound duties. He maintained close links with the group, as their soundman and production manager until 1989, subsequently working with a wide array of artists both live and in the studio after moving to New York. Max Prozelski was in charge of lighting, repairman Steve Keyes on PA, Andy Bowen was the driver and Nick Edmunds and Steve Smith, also known as Billy Whizz, completed the usual crew.
With the floodgates now open, the band went onto share the stage with a series of punk acts like The Clash, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Toyah, The Sex Pistols and Generation X again, at key London venues like the 100 Club, Dingwalls and the Marquee, whilst continuing to perform independently in student union halls and clubs up and down the country. They also played support to The Stranglers on some of their 40-date UK tour beginning in October, "Our first gig with them was in Leicester [De Montfort Hall on 3 October], a big hall, 4,000 people, we were booed off stage with lit matchsticks, cigarette butts and spitting. We pursued the first number and started the second and were just about to stop when Jet Black, the drummer, came on and berated the audience, who turned and suddenly they were well into us. We played, did an encore and everything - it was great, but it's the first time we realised how much power an artist has when the fans are really into him. They completely changed their tune." Pete King gives credit to the team that supported the band, off-stage. "We had great support in the form of our agents Alec Leslie who got the gigs, whilst TJM had introduced them to a great PR company with Keith Altham in charge and a French woman called Claudine Martinet, who looked after the band. Altham had worked for the NME and did PR for the Rolling Stones amongst others. It was very successful as we were always in the newspapers. We milked it for all it was worth, the whole Rock Against Racism thing, the link with punk, the Clash and Sex Pistols came to our gigs." He also paid tribute to other unsung friends of the band. "When in London we used to crash out on the floor of Dave Derby's flat near the Nashville Rooms or Peter and Linda's place in Primrose Hill. Our unofficial photographer and my girlfriend was an art student called Molly Dineen, who later became one of Britian's most celebrated documentary film-makers. I used to rope in as many people as I knew to help out. They included Martin Fuller, a graphic designer friend of mine who designed the logo that we used on the merchandise. We printed loads of t-shirts and very distinctive metal badges, hundreds of them." Fuller, a graduate of the Birmingham College of Art & Design, was a graphic designer for a jewellery manufacturer called Cherish, and designed the logo initially for a silver pendant for one of the band members. It was so well received that the design was then used to produce metal badges and adopted by the band for their single, Ku Klux Klan and their first album, Handsworth Revolution. Fuller recalls, "I was very pleased with it at the time, and so were the band. I don't recall any cash changing hands but I did get a credit on the album! I wasn't aware it was still being used today." He still lives in B'ham and deserves a lot of credit for designing a timeless logo that still captures the energy and character of the band today.
The punk-reggae collaboration had initially kicked off when Aswad toured with Eddie & The Hot Rods a year earlier and it subsequently became part of the Rock Against Racism campaign - aimed at promoting racial harmony through music - that swept the country for the next few years. Grizzly maintains, "It was natural that they'd ask us to join the movement. It was what we stood for. Everything we did was against racism. Particularly when we played Ku Klux Klan and wore the hoods on stage, it became so popular." In a September 1977 article titled 'Jah Punk - the black new wave,' Vivien Goldman from Sounds wrote, 'Steel Pulse are exciting to watch. They've got a nifty line in strongly rhythmic and tuneful original songs, and they're adept at getting people to sing along and dance to stuff they've never heard before - especially punks. I've never seen a band so remarkably in tune with a new wave audience. Pulse send out a message of youth and hardcore jollies, they're forthright and have a stylish flair for tough showmanship that adds the element of tough excitement to polished playing.' On 1 October, Manchester's top venue, the Electric Circus, opened its doors for the last time. Steel Pulse headlined alongside an array of punk bands like The Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division and John Cooper Clarke. As a result, the track Macka Splaff appeared on a compilation album released on Virgin the following June called Live at the Electric Circus. The band were certainly making a name for themselves.
It was a frenetic time for Steel Pulse and in an important change from their punk liaisons, they were invited to back Winston Rodney, better known as Burning Spear, the legendary roots singer, for two nights at The Rainbow Theatre in London on 25 and 26 October 1977 with far-reaching results. Pete King recalls, "The Burning Spear coalition was arranged through Island Records. Because of my contacts I felt I could get them a deal with Island, which was the best place for them to go at the time. They'd tried at least three times before to get into Island but hadn't got past the reception desk. However, I could go straight to Chris Blackwell's assistant Denise Mills, one of the loveliest people I've ever met in the music business, who's sadly no longer with us. As far as I know Chris Blackwell didn't want to sign the band, he couldn't see it, but because Denise Mills believed in them, it happened. The Spear gig was the clincher. It was like showcasing the band. It was a very important development in them getting the record deal." And the night of the second Rainbow performance was the night that they signed to Island Records. They were happy to join Island, home to bands like Bob Marley & The Wailers, Black Uhuru, Third World and their fellow British reggae pioneers Aswad, as they believed they would retain some artistic control, which they felt they wouldn't with other labels. Initially they'd been turned down by Island, as well as by Virgin and others when Ronnie and David had taken the band's demo tapes around a handful of record companies but without success. The demo tapes had been produced from rehearsals in Hinds' cellar at Linwood Road and it was King, who later became the band's manager, who broke the deadlock when his powers of persuasion finally convinced Island to give the group the chance to perform alongside Burning Spear.
The band declined to back Spear, but did agree to appear as a support act, with Aswad taking over the backing band duties (the live performance by Burning Spear was later released on an album). The Rainbow gigs themselves turned out to be a significant milestone for the band and they followed it up by accompanying Spear, one of the band's earliest influences, on his memorable but short British tour with further dates in Bristol (Colston Hall), Manchester (New Century Hall), Birmingham (Hippodrome) and Nottingham (Palais). "The Burning Spear gig was a turning point. Pulse were not a backing band at that time. The only person we backed was Ken Boothe in the very early days during his tour of the Midlands. We bought his popular album, learnt the tracks and he'd turn up ten minutes before we went on stage. He never came to rehearsals. So we wouldn't back even Burning Spear," explains Grizzly. He continues, "playing with Burning Spear, oh man, that was an experience. Seeing someone you admire and respect, we never imagined we'd be that close, you'd listen to his albums, you love what he's doing. You're young and upcoming musicians, still learning your trade and you're doing a show with Burning Spear...it was really an experience. We couldn't wait to get off stage to watch his show. It was a real turning point and opened us up to a different audience." David Hinds emphasized the importance of his influence, "With acts like Burning Spear and activists like Marcus Garvey, we decided to cling onto those words. At that time, blacks in Britain were in a serious identification crisis and the words of Burning Spear, even more than Marley at that particular time, was what we had to hang onto to pave our way throughout the British system." He continues, "I would say Burning Spear was responsible for the birth of Rastafari in England," This was the break the band had been longing for.
The recording contract with Island was crucial to Steel Pulse's development but it came with strings as Pete King, instrumental in the deal, reveals. "There was one proviso with the deal. My real interest was in producing the band. All I wanted to do was produce and make records. I thought I could make it happen and bring the best out of them. I had strong opinions on the music. Island said the deal would only happen if I managed them. The only way for it to work was for me to manage and co-ordinate them. They wouldn't let me produce, 'we've got to have a name producer, it's a purely commercial consideration,' they said, so I was made executive producer as part of the deal. The deal itself was a 5-album deal worth around £250,000 (although Island only exercised three options) and it was written in that I'd be the executive producer. The publishing rights went to Blue Mountain Music which was great as that was a very special part of the Island organisation, usually reserved for Blackwell's favourites. The deal meant that Island would provide the wherewithal for the album and would promote, publicise and produce the album. The band then had to repay the direct costs of the album's production. However, I missed out on the division of the publishing rights and it took nearly a year until I had my own contract as well. I was very disappointed by that as I'd worked very hard to get them a deal, I'd managed to sell a British reggae band to Island Records afterall, a hell of an achievement I thought." In addition, Island were forced to take TJM, the band's former management company, to the High Court to obtain their release from their contract. The New Musical Express paper publicised the band's signing to Island with the record company's managing director Tim Clarke saying: "We are delighted to sign Steel Pulse, who are established as one of Britain's finest reggae bands." Pete King said: "The reason we signed with Island was that we were so impressed with the way they handled Burning Spear when they came to Britain."
As the year drew to a close, they were featured on ITV's The London Weekend Show and in Jeremy Marre's film, British Reggae, and completed a ten-date tour in December as their momentum and influence continued to gather pace. They'd also developed their own highly original visual stage persona, as Basil recalls, "Michael (Riley) got the idea for our costumes, he was big on presentation, a show-man. When we appeared on stage at the Rainbow, the whole place went crazy. I wore African robes, Ronnie dressed up as a sultan, David wore a convict costume with arrows and everything and Michael looked like a preacher with a wide-rimmed quaker hat. We looked very different and that helped." It was a unique visual diversion from the norm that captured the mood of the time as band members adopted an array of symbolic stage costumes and Riley and Martin donned the famous white Klan hoods. Basil continues, "You go and see some bands and they just stand there and play, the music may be good, but because they just stand there it is boring. We work hard on our act to bring energy and excitement to the audience. They may not understand what we are singing about, but they enjoy the music because of the approach." As Neil Spencer remarked in an NME feature, 'Once seen, Pulse are hard to forget. Sartorially they range through African robes to militant chic to Great Gatsby to tail coats to priest vestments and most points between. They're a seven-piece; two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, two harmonicas, percussion beyond counting, six hats, several beards, five excellent voices and seven pairs of shades... Musically and lyrically, they're skilled and inventive. For one thing, there's a lot of them; they're young (average age early twenties); they write their own material; they're musically skilled and rhythmically compelling, and are totally captivating live. Their line-up also allows numerous permutations in sound and texture during the show. They can sing glorious five-part acapella harmony, play hard-hitting rockers, improvise in-number dubs, throw in some fine instrumental solos, and generally put on a show that knows how to grab an audience and tighten its grip.' Steel Pulse were making their mark.Chapter 3: A Reggae Revolution - will follow next week.