Monday, November 21, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 5

Steel Pulse 1983 LtoR: Carlton Bryan, Grizzly Nisbett, Alvin Ewen, David Hinds, Phonso Martin, Selwyn Brown
Today I bring you Chapter 5 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 the fifth of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 5: Across Continents

Whilst on tour in Toronto on May 11th, 1981, the band heard the tragic news of Bob Marley's untimely death, aged just 36, an event that had a profound effect on the band's members. Marley had been an influence on all of the band from their earliest beginnings and his loss was keenly felt throughout the Pulse camp. Grizzly reflects, "I woke up that morning knowing something was badly wrong. I'd had a sleepless night and a bad dream. Dennis [Thompson] found out first. It badly affected the whole band and the crew. No-one spoke in the car that day on the long drive from Toronto." On a wider global scale, Marley's death virtually marked the end of reggae's international appeal to a mainstream audience as the music suffered a body blow with the loss of its charismatic frontman. For Pulse, a second successful four-month headlining tour of the States early in the year, mainly playing smaller venues and clubs, gave the band further insight into their popularity across the water. David Hinds said of the experience, "All people in America knew about us was what they'd heard on record, and they believed in what the band was saying. The tour was very satisfying." It was concluded in July with a triumphant first appearance by a British band at Jamaica's Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay in front of 20,000 people. In fact, the Jamaican audience demanded that the band perform on two separate occasions, not something seen before. The concert spawned a successful Grammy-nominated double live album, Reggae Sunsplash '81, released by Elektra (in May 1982), in tribute to the late Bob Marley and included four tracks from the band, Sound System, KKK, Handsworth Revolution and Smile Jamaica, alongside other acts like Third World, Black Uhuru and Gregory Isaacs. "That was absolutely brilliant," reminisces Basil. "We spent one week in Jamaica, it was my first time back and the band's first time as well. We went down great at Sunsplash, had a little too much to smoke though I was really excited to be back and went all over the place. I went back to St Mary's, climbed the tree, everything, it was fantastic." David Hinds muses, "We were a bag of nerves on stage before and during the show. We all wondered if we were going to be accepted by the people where the music originated from. Luckily we pulled it off." Reggae Sunsplash, which began in 1978, was the brainchild of Tony Johnson, Ronnie Burke and John Wakeling, who were determined to put Jamaica on the musical map. The festival took place at Jarrett Park, a barren soccer field in Montego Bay, with Johnson later promoting the US franchise when he split from the others. Pulse also appeared in a documentary film released that year, entitled 'Urgh! A Music War', alongside a diverse array of new wave musical talent including The Police, UB40 and XTC. The Pulse footage was actually filmed at London's Rainbow in September 1980. Before the end of the year they'd recorded their fifth and final live session for John Peel. Recorded on 5 December 1981 and played on his Radio One show on 6 January 1982, the band performed Ravers, Man No Sober and Blues Dance Raid.

In October 1981 they were offered free recording time at the Feedback studios in Aarhus, Denmark by Genlyd, a black musician's co-operative at a time when David Hinds insists, "we were on the verge of being kicked while we were down. We had no record company, we had no management and we were flat broke. We pursued the venture, executed the album within 25 days, and came out with a record that is still a force to be reckoned with." Seeking to take more control of their own affairs, Steel Pulse set up their own label, Wise Man Doctrine and their own publishing company, Pulse Music Ltd. True Democracy was album number four, again re-united with producer Karl Pitterson and released on their own label in the UK in March 1982 (where it sold 30,000 copies), whilst the Genlyd Grammofon label released it in Scandinavia at the same time. In the US, Pulse signed with Elektra/Asylum and with WEA International for worldwide distribution and May saw a second release for the album, this time across the Atlantic. Dublin critic Ross Fitzsimmons for the Irish magazine Hot Press commented on the album, '...swings like a pendulum with a mind of its own, balancing simplicity, style and complexity of execution - I defy you to hear it and not respond physically. There's an abundance of richness here, something for everyone - messages of love, peace and unity; stories of humour and compassion; lessons of history and society; and straightforward calls to arms...and legs!'

Before the release of the album, Gabbidon, who'd been a key component in the formation and direction of the group over the previous eight years, finally decided he'd had enough and left the band. "I had lost my strength, I was tired and worn out, angry and depressed. I woke up one morning and that was it. I couldn't take it anymore. I dreamt that I shouldn't be in the band and had to get out. I was ready to do something different, the vibe was right to create something new but not under that regime. For me, Steel Pulse stood for reggae with a serious edge and this was beginning to get watered down." As a final act before leaving, Basil illustrated the sleeve cover of their latest album with drawings of the band members listening to the teachings of Marcus Garvey. It was a prophetic end to his tenure in the spotlight with Steel Pulse. Grizzly recalled the time, "I thought Basil wasn't happy. He wanted to take his whole thing somewhere else. There was no animosity. At that time, everyone was strong, we missed him as a player and as a brother, as part of the sound was gone and he was no longer there on the stage. At the same time we were strong enough to carry on. In a way it made us stronger internally. Basil's not here, so we gotta play that extra bit more to fill in for him." Gabbidon later joined up with his brother Colin to form the band Bass Dance and today remains active with his band Gabbidon and in community music programmes in Birmingham.

Chris May commented in an edition of Black Music magazine, 'True Democracy is an excellent piece of work - musically, lyrically and conceptually...the wait has been worth every second.' Hinds described to Black Music's Greg Marshall the vibe running through True Democracy. 'The album is comprised of varied subject matters that all lead towards one concept. That concept is to try and find a place where we can really get things together through faith." Two of the tracks that do that are Rally Round and Chant A Psalm. "Rally Round is a rallying call. I put together a lot of Marcus Garvey's concepts and doctrines to become a story line, so people who have never read them could attune to them musically.' Hinds continues, 'Chant A Psalm is much the same, it says read your psalms, your scriptures, and there you will find the answers. Mostly the album is about finding the truth within yourself, through studying Africa, the Bible or anything that will help.' Rally Round, Ravers and Your House (the only track on the album written by Phonso Martin) were all released as singles in 1982. Taking over the management reins was Barbados-born Andy Bowen, who'd been the band's driver and road manager up til then.

Following a brief UK tour, their first for almost two years, including the Glastonbury CND Festival also featuring U2, Van Morrison and Aswad, next stop was a first-ever visit to Africa in May 1982 with Victor Yesufu replacing Basil on lead guitar. Grizzly recollects the tour. "We got an offer to go to Nigeria when on tour in the States at the time. We wanted to go to Africa for the first time, so we accepted. We didn't do all the gigs we were supposed to do as the organisation wasn't up to scratch but apart from the ups and downs, we really enjoyed the Africa experience. We played a university, we played in Benin, played Lagos, I can't remember exactly how many gigs we played." But there was a downside to their first venture to their spiritual motherland. The initial booking also included Mutabaruka, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths but the latter two opted out at the last minute. The tour went ahead but was dogged with problems, non-payment of funds and the band and Muta were stranded in Nigeria before the three-week trip came to an end when Nigerian Airways were forced to fly the artistes back to New York. Indeed, the sound engineer that sent the equipment over for the tour never got it back and a Doctor who invested in the tour lost his house as a result. But that wasn't all, as Grizzly recounts the after-effects of the trip. "Some of us got malaria. Me, Selwyn, Andy Bowen and Blue, our lighting engineer, who started feeling the effects of malaria in the last week of the tour. When we got home he was hospitalised. I came back for a couple of weeks and was okay to start with. Then for the rest of us, it came down heavy on our next US tour (a gruelling five month long tour that included 60 dates in the US, where they enjoyed great success on college campuses and radio) and Canada, the Virgin Islands, Surinam and at their second Reggae Sunsplash, in August in Montego Bay with Burning Spear, Chalice and Aswad). It was the first time any of us had malaria and it nearly killed me, Selwyn and Andy. We had the worst type of malaria you could get. I got to the hospital in New York - the first time in a hospital in my life - and the doctor told me I was lucky I'd come in as I had approximately 3 or 4 days to live. It was that bad. Selwyn was admitted to hospital in Connecticut and Andy was upstate in New York. I was in for roughly two weeks and was less than half the size when I came out. I lost a helluva lot of weight. We'd had injections, the whole works, but somehow it still got us." David Hinds adds, "everyone recovered, and it was the ultimate experience for a reggae band nonetheless; it was our first trip there, and our first exposure to the real African roots, of course. And we found the people there very receptive to reggae, if not always ready for the Rasta philosophy. They've even got their own version of the music, called 'fuji reggae,' and it's very percussive; the people dance to it almost exactly like West Indians dance to reggae."

Soon after, whilst in Lyon, France on their European tour the band suffered an unexpected set-back. "We lost a lot of our stuff when thieves broke into our bus when we were on stage. They stole all the tapes, master tapes, all the lyrics, everything. We had to go back and re-write everything, a complete new set of songs and lyrics for the next album. They took literally eveything we didn't have on stage with us, clothes, guitars, we lost a lot of stuff," explains Grizzly. The soundtrack from the film 'Countryman' included their Sound System track alongwith cuts from Bob Marley, Aswad and Dennis Brown. Much of the following year was spent recording their next album and undertaking the band's first Caribbean tour, culminating in their third Sunsplash appearance in Jamaica, alongside Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru, though the group were banned from the island of Dominica because of their strict marijuana laws. Their festival appearances in Europe included a surprisingly hostile reception at the Reading Festival on 26 August 1983 when the band lasted just ten minutes before escaping the stage under a hail of urine-filled bottles thrown by a gang of bikers. Grizzly recalls, "the Reading festival was obviously a rock gig. A lot of people hadn't heard of us but when they heard the words Steel Pulse they expected a rock band. When we walked out on stage and started playing reggae music they were not happy. All sorts of things started coming on stage, bottles and everything, so we said we couldn't continue and walked off the stage. The promoters apologised and tried to get us to carry on. We were singing and dodging bottles at the same time, it was very dangerous. Even I, sat at the back, had to dodge the bottles." The other bands at the festival that night, The Stranglers, Big Country and Hanoi Rocks fortunately didn't suffer the same fate. Earlier in the same month, Pulse had played in front of a more welcoming audience of 20,000 at Phoenix Park racecourse in Dublin alongwith U2, Simple Minds, the Eurythmics and Big Country.

Bassist Ronnie McQueen, having spent a decade with the band, left by mutual agreement in the winter of 1983 and settled in California. Grizzly recalls, "it was kinda weird when Ronnie left. It was a blow to me to be honest, I just loved the way Ronnie played and we had this connection between us. Accent-wise and what he played and how he played was different to anybody else. There's nobody I've heard or played with that plays a bass like Ronnie - he's not the best bass player in the world, but his technique, I love it, its amazing. He just has a knack. When he went, it was a blow to me, I wasn't too happy about it. He had his own reasons I suppose, we've never really sat and talked about it as I respected his decision. I think he wanted to branch out and do other things in America, working in a studio and teaching I think." He was replaced by Alvin Ewen, another recruit from the band's home city of Birmingham. "Alvin used to come and watch us rehearse. He played bass in the church and after Ronnie departed he came up and did his thing and we said yes. He's a brilliant bass player - you can put Alvin in any kind of music and he can play it." Highly respected for his bassline prowess, Alvin has played with Edwin Starr, Ziggy Marley and Pato Banton, whilst remaining a constant with Steel Pulse since his arrival. At the same time, Carlton Bryan of The Congos took over lead guitar duties as the band continued touring and went into the studio to record their next album. "Carlton was born in Jamaica but lived in New York. He was introduced to us. We wanted someone who was different, someone who could play a bit and when their solo came, to make it their solo. He came to rehearsals at Rocket Studio and did his thing. He was with us for a few years. He stopped playing with us because of a terrible car accident one Christmas. He was in hospital in a coma for a very long time and when he got out he had to learn how to play again from scratch."

Chapter 6: Commercial Crisis - will follow next week.

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