Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 4

Steel Pulse on a visit to Berlin in 1979. Photo by Adrian Boot
Chapter 4 of my own Steel Pulse story is a little early this week. 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 4 of thirteen.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 4: The Island Years

1979 began with Steel Pulse spending five weeks recording their second studio album. They were the subject of a BBC2 Arena documentary aired in May, at the start of a ten-date British tour climaxing with an appearance at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, providing ample evidence of their continuing popularity. The second Steel Pulse album, Tribute to the Martyrs, again with Pitterson at the helm, contained an increased African spiritual awareness and songs with a strong political message, and was released on 1 June 1979, preceded by the single, Sound System on 11 May. Angus MacKinnon reported for NME, 'The second chapter of the book according to Steel Pulse, Tribute To The Martyrs, provides further proof that the band, already recognised as integral to the self-confidence and development of UK reggae, are not to be found wanting in these dark days.' Paul Green of Pop Star agreed. 'With this latest offering, the Handsworth rebels have proved they can take it all in their stride and have come up with the goodies again... If you're into spot on harmonies then look no further than the title track. The arrangements are quite superb and the music is easily equal, free and flowing just as it should be... If this album doesn't emulate its predecessor and make the top ten, there's something desperately wrong with our music scene because the British charts need music of this quality.' Grizzly also agreed. "With Martyrs we'd improved, everybody was more relaxed, we were better friends, we were closer, it just escalated from there. Martyrs was strong and to the point. We were a black band, dealing with black subjects. I saw Steel Pulse's task as not so much educating the black people but educating everyone else about what black people were going through and what we felt was capable of happening in the future if certain things were not changed. We were talking for black people to everybody else - we were trying to show our history." He's particularly fond of the album. "Martyrs is one of my favourite Steel Pulse albums. I loved the whole execution of Martyrs. I liked everything about it. Yes it was self-indulgent as it was what we wanted to play. I played the drums on Martyrs how I felt it, how I imagined they should be played, the way I felt it should be played with whatever everyone else was playing. Everyone came out and said I love that album, the way the whole thing came together, the way Karl mixed the whole thing - I loved Martyrs." Nevertheless, Basil Gabbidon's heart wasn't totally in it, "it was nowhere near as successful as Handsworth Revolution. It was self-indulgent, we didn't all fully partake in it, we weren't a team. I thought we should've done something more commercial, more straightforward rhythmically, similar to Handsworth but more precise, less fussy." Without Michael Riley, the band now totalled six members and they co-opted the legendary horn section of Rico Rodriguez (trombone), Dick Cuthell (flugelhorn and cornet) and Godfrey Maduro (sax) for three of the album tracks. The cost of this album was £35,000, a considerable sum of money at the time. Artwork for the album cover was again arranged through the Bloomfield-Travis agency and the artist was Jene Hawkins.

The band continued to play frequent Rock Against Racism gigs around the country and were extremely popular in France, Holland, Germany (where they were captured on camera by photographer Adrian Boot with The Police in Berlin in June) and Scandinavia. Pulse strengthened their European fanbase when in June and July 1979 they supported Peter Tosh on a European tour, including dates in Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Bologna in Italy and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. "Peter was totally different to Marley. He was more intellectual and sophisticated, his approach was quite dark. Bob was more raucous and I preferred his musicians," recalls Basil, whilst Grizzly states, "Peter was on the same level as Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, The Wailers. You can't separate them. Being in any of these guy's presence was a bonus for us, doing a show with them was an even greater bonus. A radical Peter Tosh was good, very good. We used it as a learning experience. It was a good time for us." They maintained their strong visual on-stage presence; Hinds in a chequered court-jester's suit topped with a red bowler, Grizzly in an athlete's attire, Selwyn in military fatigues, Phonso in a Far-Eastern outfit, Basil sporting a silk kimono emblazoned with animals and Ronnie in an Abyssinian Holyman's hat. They also embraced Rastafarian ideals more readily than before, 'Rastafari is something we've been looking at for a long time, and we kept turning away from it, thinking we couldn't really meet up to certain commitments. But right now we are influenced by it,' Hinds told NME's Mark Ellen at the time. A third appearance on Joh Peel's radio show took place on 13 August 1979, recorded on 16 July and included Unseen Guest, Uncle George and Reggae Fever. On 1 September they played the Edinburgh Rock Festival alongside Van Morrison, Talking Heads and Squeeze, held at the Royal Highland Showground at Ingliston.

A third album, Caught You, which was known as Reggae Fever in the US, though Island weren't convinced that it was right for the American market, was released in May 1980. It was to be their last for the record label. Pitterson wasn't available so Del Newman was brought in to produce it, although he was replaced at the eleventh hour by Geoffrey Chung with Godwin Logie mixing and the recording taking place in Rockfield Studios in Monmouth. "They were very different types of producers, much more stand back than Karl. They weren't as good as him or as enthusiastic. He was a musicians' producer, he'd go into everything, the notes, the sound, what chord, what note you play, all those little things," states Basil. David Hinds recalls, "we wanted to call the new record Harassment, then Nyahbinghi Voyage but the record label advised against it. Del Newman was the first person to show me how to formally arrange songs. With him, we got better at song-writing and paid attention to verse and choruses." Grizzly recollects, "we wanted a different sound, somebody recommended Rockfield Studios in Wales. We lived on the premises. The original album names of Harassment and Nyahbinghi Voyage were too harsh for Island. They felt that people walking into a record shop wanted a title that didn't put anyone off buying the record. Apart from naming the album, they gave us our head. It was a totally different sound. We'd become more and more popular and the sound was changing. To us going into a different studio, with a different producer gave us a different sound. It was still Steel Pulse but we were experimenting. I'd say we were happy with the result - Pulse were a band that if we weren't happy with the results, it was going nowhere." Don't Give In had been released as a single on 7 March 1980. A fourth appearance on John Peel's Radio 1 live sessions took place on 7 May 1980, recorded on 9 April 1980, with the tracks Drug Squad, Shining and Nyahbinghi Voyage. By this time, Peel had done more than most to sing the praises of the main players on the British reggae scene with sessions from Aswad, Matumbi, Reggae Regular, Cimarrons, Capital Letters, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Misty In Roots and of course, Steel Pulse.

A couple of months after the album's release, the worsening relationship with their manager Pete King came to a head and they parted company. In October of that year, they finally crossed the Atlantic for the first time to dip their toe in the American market. Their debut gig was in New York's Mud club. As David Hinds told Jon Futrell from Black Echoes, 'We decided to take a trip over there for about three weeks, and we toured places like Chicago, Boston, New York and Detriot, just the main places where there's a strong black community and we went down very well.' Grizzly Nisbett agrees. "We were supposed to go the the States before that to do some shows with The Police. The week we were supposed to go it was cancelled. I think there was problems with visa's. We went to America off our own backs in the end. We'd never had an experience like that before. The reception we got was...wow. We had no idea how we'd be received. They were not used to our kind of sound. The average drum beat was the one-drop or a 2-4, but I didn't play those things, I was all over the place. We were different. The way Ronnie played his bass, the two of us meshed, the bass and the drums, in those days we were so different to anybody else. We weren't better but we played things differently, we accented it differently. We just got up and went to America in the end. The reception we got in places like New York and Detroit was not what we expected. We had a popularity there we didn't know we had - that really boosted us in America." However, with the punk era over, roots reggae music in Britain was rapidly losing ground and support, with multiracial 2-Tone bands and popular acts like The Police and Madness a better investment for record companies. Poor record sales for their second and third albums, especially at home in Britain, convinced Island Records that enough was enough and Steel Pulse were dropped from the pay-roll. Grizzly feels both parties were disappointed. "It was a bit of both really. We thought Island weren't doing enough for the band by way of promotion. As I said we went over to America off our own backs. It caused friction in the end. In our limited experience we believed more could be done over there." Pulse wrapped up the year with an 18-date university and college tour of the UK, accompanied by experienced sound engineer Dennis Thompson, a Jamaican with bags of experience working with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and Culture.

Chapter 5: Across Continents - will follow next week.

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