Friday, November 11, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 3

Steel Pulse in 1978. LtoR: Phonso Martin, Michael Riley, David Hinds, Selwyn Brown, Basil Gabbidon, Steve Nisbett, Ronnie McQueen
Chapter 3 of my own Steel Pulse story. For a long while I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. It never happened but rather than let my notes gather dust, I am publishing each chapter on my blog, on a weekly basis, to give everyone an insight into this incredible music group. Here's Chapter 3 of thirteen.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 3: A Reggae Revolution

1978 proved to be a phenomenal year of success for the band. Island Records were keen to promote the newcomer to their stable, Keith Altham's PR expertise meant that the music press was awash with articles about the latest reggae sensation and audiences up and down the length and breadth of the country couldn't get enough of them. At their first Scottish gig on 17 January, they played to a packed venue at Glasgow's Satellite City, above the Apollo Theatre, and were supported by a new band playing their first-ever gig, Simple Minds. Pulse also appeared on a Sight & Sound television programme attired in their stage costumes and singing their soon to be released single, Ku Klux Klan, though the reaction to that and songs like National Front (later titled Jah Pickney RAR) from their own black community was at times disapproving. As David Hinds told Roy Carr from NME, "They feel that we're being too heavy, too outspoken. They want to avoid any trouble with the white community. See the truth only stirs up trouble! The only time when our own community start to take us seriously is when they see us backing well known JA artists and those artists turn around on stage and say we compare favourably with other JA artists. But they have to be told that you're ok - the respect isn't there to begin with. Its a very weird situation. When we perform songs like Ku Klux Klan and National Front, we aren't trying to start trouble between the black and white communities, just that we want both black and white to be aware of what's happening and what it can lead to." They also used the television appearance to publicly dismiss suggestions that they were a black punk band, a misconception that had arisen due to their close association with the punk movement.

Against this backdrop, their home district of Handsworth had been harshly labelled as an area populated by Rastafarian thugs wearing their hair in dreadlocks and waging a war on the rest of the community, especially Asians and the police.The publication of a report on police and community relations in the district, John Brown's Shades of Grey, released at the end of 1977, coincided with local and national media reaction bordering on hysteria and panic, stereotyping all 'Rastas with dreads and knitted tea-cosy hats' as the label of troublemakers. The perception of Rastas in Handsworth, and elsewhere, took a severe nose-dive in the eyes of the general public as they were tarred with the brush that in reality befitted only a small minority of the 13,000 West Indians living in the district. Hinds told Lloyd Bradley, "There was a serious identity crisis happening in Handsworth, where we were from, and in various black communities throughout England at the time....We needed to learn about ourselves as black people, and we definitely weren't learning it at school, but we found what we were looking for in the music. We'd played a lot of Bob Marley songs, The Abyssinians, Burning Spear...a lot of Burning Spear because he uttered the words of Marcus Garvey and a lot of educational stuff. As a result, we got ourselves together and thought it was necessary to air our views through the music. We had a lot to say too, because as we found ourselves as people, we felt it was important to document what was happening to us. As we got older in Handsworth there was always this racial thing hovering over our heads and we had to be always on guard when we go on the streets. The police was always giving trouble, then we found a lot of problems having jobs, although we'd had the education. It was an uphill struggle, but we couldn't explain to our parents what we were about living in England, so to do it in music was our best outlet."

Musically, Handsworth and Birmingham were home to a rich vein of promising and talented reggae outfits, all of whom had local recording deals but rarely achieved distribution outside the West Midlands. Most notable were bands like Eclipse, Iganda, Mosiah, Natrus, Odessus, Africa Star, Kushites, Trematones, Ahamara, UB40, Black Knight and Unity. However, they still suffered from the perennial problem of a severe shortage of venues prepared to showcase reggae bands (apart from the Rialto in Handsworth), as well as limited support from the city's local black radio programmes. Three stations, BRMB, Radio Birmingham and Beacon Radio broadcast programmes featuring reggae though former Steel Pulse drummer Colin Gabbidon, then a member of Odessus reflected at the the time; "what they're doing is getting a whole lotta lickle imports from Jamaica - and they're not playing what's going on around here. They don't support the local bands like they should." The one beacon of light emerging from Handsworth on a national level around that time was Steel Pulse and their distinctive sound.

Island Records gave the job of producing their first single to house producer Steve Lillywhite, who went onto work with bands such as U2, the Rolling Stones and Talking Heads and on 10 March they released Ku Klux Klan, a hard-hitting tune calling for resistance against the evil forces of racism, with lyrics penned and sung by Hinds. A limited edition of 5,000 12" singles were pressed. Written in response to reports of Klan activity in Europe, it was indicative of the band's philosophy that the worsening racial climate in Britain and the rest of Europe would come to a showdown and young black people should be prepared for the worst. In the words of Michael Riley, "Prevention is better than cure. Our music is a forewarning." It was up against Bob Marley's Is This Love (complete with video of Marley at a children's party) and Althea & Donna's Uptown Top Ranking for the top spot in the reggae singles chart and sold well enough by word of mouth to reach the UK Top 50 despite very limited radio airplay because of its so-called controversial topic. David Hinds told Record Mirror's John Shearlaw at the time, 'I wasn't really disappointed about Ku Klux Klan. It was something I was bound to accept, because of the subject matter. But it was an immediate song, with a good rocking beat and I thought people could understand what was being said, it was about things that were happening... It's always the subject matter. We write songs about what's happening in England - because we live in England, not in Jamaica - but it's applying to what's happening on a universal scale, South Africa, anywhere.' The single also saw the first appearance of the band's distinctive graffiti-style logo which has remained a readily identifiable symbol of the group since on record releases and merchandise. Martin Fuller was the logo designer.

The band were pleased with the single, so were the record company and work began on their first album. Pete King recalls the unanimous decision over the producer of the album. "Karl Pitterson was who we wanted. The main reason was that the band and I had heard the version (dub) side of a track he produced for Ras Ibuna called Diverse Doctrine.. the atmosphere, the echo, blew everyone away. Karl was already linked to everyone was happy with the choice." Pitterson was one of Island's heavyweight reggae producers and had previously worked with top Jamaican acts like Bob Marley on the album Exodus, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. It proved a master-stroke. The chemistry between Pitterson and the band was electric, as Basil enthuses, "He was fantastic. Karl was like another member of the band and just a few years older. He brought clarity, precision, more arrangement, a tighter, professional feel and enhanced our sound by drawing it out of us. He improved the lead and backing vocals in particular." Grizzly was also sincere in his appreciation of the band's early mentor. "Karl Pitterson took what we had, moulded it and made it better. We liked his production before we met him as we'd heard his stuff. He came to Linwood Road, sat on a speaker and listened. He liked what he heard. Karl was a musician, a producer, a writer and an engineer. One of the best. He brought out the musicianship in Steel Pulse. He showed us what we could do and what we were capable of. He pushed us in the right direction, how to do it and when to do it. We learnt a lot from him as far as studio work and techniques were concerned. We basically had no idea. We'd never really been in the studio before. We were fresh, nervous, it wasn't perfect but no other album sounded anything like Handsworth Revolution, thanks to Karl Pitterson." King remembers, "Not a great deal of preparation before recording began. We more or less put the live set on the album. The band would spend ages laying down the tracks, then go back to the hotel to rest. I would then spend hours with Karl mixing the tracks, with Godwin Logie also involved. I had an input though it would be hard to measure. I had a brilliant relationship with Karl, who brought with him a great vibe, good techniques and was one of the guys. Godwin was the tape op and was a lovely guy, an extra ingredient."

The result was their seminal debut album, Handsworth Revolution, released on 21 July to positive critical acclaim, even though Island supremo Chris Blackwell was allegedly a little uncomfortable with the inflammatory title. The cost of the album, with studio time at a premium, came out at around £40,000. The original illustration and concept for the album cover of a crumbling city with vegetation devouring the ruins was put together by the band's two former art students, David and Basil, though the final sleeve artwork was completed by graphic design student Andrew Aloof, working for the Bloomfield-Travis agency. I tracked Andrew down and he's now the Director of Art & Design at Hastings College in southern England and runs his own design company. "Bloomfield-Travis were the design company that got me involved. I'd just finished my graphic design degree and was doing well for myself as a freelance illustrator, in fact I'd already had my own exhibition, mostly with portrait and figure work. To be honest, I've done tens of thousands of pieces of artwork ranging from the Sunday Times & Radio Times, to the Royal Ballet to an album sleeve for Status Quo [Whatever You Want, 1979]. I did a few record covers but I'd never heard of Steel Pulse when I was asked to do the artwork. The designers gave me a creative direction and briefing based on something like urban regeneration or suchlike but it was so long ago I can't really remember. I don't even have a copy of the illustration and I certainly didn't realise the band were still going. Strangely, lots of people have commented on that particular cover, moreso than any other album sleeve I've designed. It was the 2nd or 3rd record cover I'd done." He was genuinely pleased to hear that his artwork has sold around the globe and is instantly recognizable and associated with one of the world's greatest and long-lasting reggae groups. Like Martin Fuller, who designed the Steel Pulse logo that has been the band's symbol for the last 25 years, little did they know that so many years later we'd still be admiring their superb handiwork.

A month earlier on 23 June, their second single from their debut long-player, Prodigal Son, was released and got to number 35 in the UK singles chart, their best-ever commercial chart placing. It also generated the band's only Top of the Pops appearance on 6 July, alongside The Buzzcocks, Justin Hayward and Showaddywaddy. Timing was crucial and this brief but important exposure on prime-time national television on such a popular show, watched by millions every week, was geared to aid the sales of the album, released a few weeks later. However, Pete King believes they missed a trick. "I felt the band took too long to do the album, and Island took too long to physically release it - we could've been a number one album, without a doubt. The album came out when everyone was on holiday. It was a shit time to release it. The press had been building up and building up for a while, but that was our first taste of how to become a victim of a record company's machinations. You shake hands with the devil and hope for the best, whilst trying to exert as much pressure and influence as you can muster. We sold an initial 75,000 copies to get a silver disc from the BPI. I later lost it to the bailiffs when my studio went under but I bought it back at auction for £25!" He also recalls, "They were always going to be an album band on Island Records. The singles they released didn't work. It was all geared around album sales. The big issue for me was that Island wouldn't do anything in America, nor let me do anything either. It was very short-sighted and intransigent of them I thought. They only concentrated on England and Europe."

Incredibly, for a debut album, it reached ninth spot in the British LP charts in just ten days following its release and the band had struck gold, with eventual sales of over a quarter of a million. Its stayed in the Top 50 album chart for three months. "We recorded the album at St Peter's Square, Island's HQ in London," recalls Basil. "If we'd put the album out three weeks earlier, I'm sure we'd have got to number one or at least the top three. People were waiting for it, we were gigging all the time and had a large fanbase." There was another morale boost for Pulse during the recording of the album, as Grizzly explains. "We met Bob Marley at the Island studios for the first time. We'd just come out of the basement, the 'Fall-Out Shelter' we called it. We were relaxing upstairs, playing pool and listening to the tapes we'd just recorded. He walked out of the offices section and came over and said 'hello guys, I like what you're doing'. We just stood there shaking, with our mouths open. Bob had an aura about him, you had to love him, we all did. Toots Hibbert was also in the studios during the recording sessions." On its release, Adrian Thrills for NME regarded the album as, 'a laudable achievement; a fully-realised first album, well worth its wait even though it'll sting your pockets to the tune of four crisp notes. The Pulse have certainly cultivated one of the most distinctive reggae sounds around; the Pulsebeat is given its character by both the brawny organ work of Selwyn Brown and, more than anything else, by the decidely rock-orientated guitar of Basil Gabbidon and lead singer David Hinds. Side one opens with the title track and two more consecutive blinding aces in Bad Man and Soldiers, all in all the three outstanding tracks here. Elsewhere there's the sloppy Sound Check, the frisky Macka Splaff, some neat flamenco guitar on Prediction, Prodigal Son and of course Ku Klux Klan, still sounding like one of this year's most worthwhile singles....Steel Pulse have their finger firmly on the mood of a generation.'

Additional support came from Radio 1's John Peel, who continued to sing their praises on his radio show and gave them another shove in the right direction when they became the first reggae band to perform a second live session. Recorded on 4 April 1978, Pulse performed Handsworth Revolution, Macka Splaff and Jah Pickney and it went out to the nation on 27 April 1978. The band attracted both white and black audiences in droves. Basil declares, "We were talking about truth and rights, Handsworth, KKK, Prodigal Son. Our early black audience wanted to hear cover versions of Ken Boothe and stuff like that, but we were different. We drew white educated people, students in particular, who tended to like music that was different. Once the music press picked us up with the punk connection, the white interest increased. We had both a black and white following, not necessarily in the same way as Bob Marley did, as Bob attracted everyone, but we drew more students and conscious black people. Particularly in America, we had people coming out of the woodwork. They had to love the lyrics, the honesty within the lyrics, the story, the consciousness." Pete King's recollections are similar. "A lot of black people were sceptical, the purists resented the band early on. It took them by surprise really as they thought they were championing the cause. So they were playing to large white audiences, especially at the colleges. For the white audience it was reggae with rock, a real melodic depth to it, very accessible, very dynamic, very theatrical and you could dance to it. It was rockier that your typical cliched reggae." However, it was the collaboration with Jamaican producer Karl Pitterson that proved to be so significant in shaping Steel Pulse in those early stages, recalls David Hinds. "The chemistry of Steel Pulse and Karl Pitterson was legendary. I don't think that kind of chemistry can ever be recaptured. It was just one of those things. Every time we used Karl it was dynamite, because the chemistry was right. We had somebody that believed in the band."

The band's new-found fame was firmly secured when they supported the inspirational Bob Marley & The Wailers, on the European leg of their 'Kaya' world tour in June and July 1978. Pete King recalled that a £5,000 payment into the hands of Marley's Manager Don Taylor clinched the tour. The eight date tour kicked off at the huge hangar-like, standing-room only New Bingley Hall in Stafford, normally reserved for agricultural events, on Thursday 22nd June (tickets costing £4) and included three sold-out concerts at the Pavillion in Paris (25, 26 & 27 June) and others in Ibiza (28th June) and then three consecutive nights in Rotterdam (7 July), Geleen and Brussels. Basil recalled the period. "It was a dream. We'd just finished the album and we had to pay a few thousand to get on the tour. It was absolutely brilliant. I've always been a focused person so I didn't take in the glamour aspect. When we played at Bingley Hall it was amazing. My other memories were the crowd roar in Paris, the lighters in the audience and that the weed was incredibly strong.' Grizzly also reminisces, "Playing with Bob Marley & the Wailers was just amazing. There was nothing on earth that sounded or played like The Wailers - not now, not ever. Both bands really became tight on that tour, we got to know each other very well. We learnt how to play from watching them, we learnt how they played each of their tracks. We watched every show from the side. They were the kings of reggae. I was in love with Carlton Barrett as I was still learning reggae at that time. I didn't want to copy him, just wanted to learn how he played. Each of us was learning from a Wailer."

David Hinds joins in, "what we learned from Marley is that he had a lot of energy. I think one of the things we learned about him was that no matter what stage of the tour you're at, try and give that 100 percent energy, as if it's the first show. Obviously, when you're touring, as each day goes by, your energy's drained. This man managed to stay in such an energy - that was one of the things we learned from him. And also when things weren't working in your favor on stage - cause it's not all the time you're getting a good sound on stage - there's times in halls it's so echoic, you can't hear anything, not even the next man close to you because of the actual acoustics. It's the whole idea of just conducting the whole thing on a professional level and giving it all you've got. Perseverance, that's what we've learned from Bob Marley. And making each night better than the night before." He continues, "we learned a lot of discipline on that tour that rubbed off - rehearsal, execution on stage, how to tour, stability. That's when the doors really started to open for us. It has always been one of the most memorable moments of my career. To play as part of that package exposed Steel Pulse to audiences that literally were in awe of our message. Of course, being formally introduced through Bob Marley helped us tremendously. Playing for audiences, especially those in Paris who saw the force of Steel Pulse and the force of Bob Marley play on the same bill, enabled us to sell out shows every time since then." The set list from their thirty-minute Ahoy Hallen gig in Rotterdam on 7 July, played at a cycling arena with an 8,000 capacity, was Prodigal Son, Soldiers, Bad Man, Sound Check, Ku Klux Klan, Macka Splaff and Blackout. Immediately following the Marley tour, Pulse went to Sweden to record a television special and soon after gained similar exposure to German and American television audiences.

The Marley gigs in Europe weren't their first, as Pete King points out. "We'd already been to Europe in our own right, it was a fertile territory for us. I remember one place, Le Palace in Paris, an incredible disco in an old theatre with scenery changes, waiters dressed as space cadets and only champagne on the menu. We arrived and the first thing the band saw was a black guy kissing a white guy, then two gorgeous girls wearing practically nothing began kissing each other - they thought they'd arrived in Babylon and refused to play the gig. Horace [Ward, Pulse's live engineer] and I took them outside onto the coach and had to threaten them to get them to play. We were getting £2,000 a night and our hotels bills paid afterall." Their success, aided by Altham and Martinet's PR push, attracted the music media like a magnet with cover articles and photos in the music weeklies, New Musical Express, Sounds and Melody Maker, whilst appearances on mainstream British television shows like Top of the Pops, the BBC's Rock Goes to College series and Revolver (Pulse appeared on the ATV rock show pilot programme on 22 May alongside Kate Bush and the Tom Robinson Band and sang KKK) added to their popularity. Earlier in the year, they joined The Clash in a well-publicised picket outside the National Front's London HQ - and at an Anti-Nazi League Carnival staged by the Rock Against Racism movement, in Hackney's Victoria Park, London on 30 April 1978. More than 80,000 people marched the six miles from Trafalgar Square to watch the open-air concert that included Pulse alongside The Clash, Tom Robinson Band and X-Ray Spex - in what was perhaps the defining moment for the RAR movement at that time. In 1978 alone, RAR organised 300 gigs and five carnivals in support of their cause, including Pulse's appearance at the Manchester Carnival in July alongside The Buzzcocks. Two of their tracks, Ku Klux Klan and Prodigal Son, were also included in the film Reggae in Babylon that documented the reggae phenomenon in the UK that year, alongside Matumbi, Aswad, Jimmy Lindsay and Alton Ellis. And David Koff's highly-controversial documentary, Blacks Britannica, which took a critical look at the alienation of the black community in Britain, showcased the band recording their Handsworth Revolution track at Island's studios. Steel Pulse could do no wrong.

It proved to be a hectic year all round, as the band headlined three tours of their own, a series of dates in January and then an 18-date tour in May and June to showcase their forthcoming album material, soon after headlining at a major rock venue, the Roundhouse in London on 23 April, supported by The Police and John Cooper Clarke. NME's Adrian Thrills reported, 'And with this Roundhouse triumph and a single on the verge of the chart, Steel Pulse are the living proof that British reggae finally seeks to have arrived in a big way...despite sound problems on stage and a set which seemed to be cut prematurely short, there were signs that the forthcoming Handsworth Revolution album's going to get a lot more people moving towards the Pulsebeat. Visually they are imposing - vocalists Fonzo Martin and Michael Riley decked out in preacherman togs and David Hinds in a stencilled HM Prisoner gear. And if the band are laid back, even for reggae, their great strength is the percussive power they wield. Meaty drummer Steve Nisbett is at the core of some of the most subtle rhythmic twists and turns I've heard in a long while. Noticeable by its absence was their excellent one-off single for Anchor, Nyah Luv, but the encore was the inevitable Ku Klux Klan; the white hoods donned by the singers as they returned to the stage remaining as frighteningly powerful a visual ace as the first time I saw the band last year.' Pulse completed a mammoth 29-date tour from late September through to early November, including their first major headlining London concert at the Rainbow Theatre on October 24. They also released a third single from their album, Prediction, on 10 November. The track Sound Check stood alongside offerings from XTC, 999 and The Stranglers on the Live Hope & Anchor Front Row album, released that year, though recorded at the end of 1977.

As 1978 came to a close, the band's tidal wave of success received a severe jolt when Michael Riley left the band in acrimonious circumstances. Whilst the band suggested missed rehearsals, a missed gig and conflict with their political ideals, the negative press whipped up by The Sunday People's Christmas Eve account of the band's alleged racial prejudice towards Michael and his French wife, and the band's PR, Claudine Martinet, at the time took its toll and many of their British fanbase turned against their former heroes. Grizzly recalls the period. "Michael missed a soundcheck, normally no-one misses a soundcheck. We always knew where everyone was as we did everything together. As a band we were close. We went to the gig and it just went off in the dressing room. Everyone was shocked. I thought what the hell's going on. The idea of racial prejudice never crossed my mind. We'd all grown up together except me. There was no animosity to anyone. I was married to a white woman. We had a white road crew. We never did anything to make him or his girlfriend feel out of place. It just didn't make any sense. I simply couldn't figure it out. We've seen each other since but never spoken about it. It hit the Sunday papers - it was big news. It put a mark on the band and caused a dent in our career at the time. Those who knew us, knew it was crap. Those who didn't know us, may've believed it. The papers never asked us for our version. To this day I can't tell you why he left." David later told the NME, 'he was trying to cramp us by saying we were a prejudiced band and that we were inciting racial hatred,' whilst Basil remembers, "at the time, it ruined the band in Britain. It affected us terribly. People believed what they read, they believed the hype. I don't think its been forgotten to this day." Riley subsequently went onto enjoy success with the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra and as producer for a number of top artists and tv themes, and he's now a senior lecturer in music production in London.

Chapter 4: The Island Years - will follow next week.

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