Monday, November 28, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 6

The Grammy awarded to Steel Pulse in 1986 for Babylon The Bandit
This week it's the turn of Chapter 6 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 sixth of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 6: Commercial Crisis

Recorded in Coventry and Farnham, Earth Crisis was co-produced by Jimmy 'Senyah' Haynes, lead guitarist on six albums with Aswad, and released in early 1984. Grizzly recalls the album. "For Earth Crisis, it was recorded in Farnham and we lived on the studio premises for a few months. It was a good experience. There was no disturbance, we could get on with what we needed to do. Jimmy Haynes came in with a different flavour. Steel Pulse is a band that likes to experiment. Every time we get a different producer we're looking for a different sound and feel. Jimmy was someone we knew from way back and we knew he was a very good musician. We thought he could enhance what we were doing at the time, especially with certain guitar flavours, and his production skills were good. He also did a few live shows with us, a Caribbean and US tour I think." The band had visited Japan and the Far East for the first time in January. "Japan was amazing. The first time we did Japan you'd think the Beatles came to town. People on the streets. Very, very good reception. We didn't realise we were so popular. It wasn't just the music, it was also the culture and history it deals with and the lyrics. They take the music very seriously. They couldn't understand why reggae wasn't so popular in England," recalls Grizzly.

The author was present at their sell-out gig at London's Venue which climaxed the band's UK tour to promote the album, in February 1984. Bob Marley's former art director Neville Garrick was responsible for the album cover concept. Steppin' Out was the only single release from the album and earned the band their first Grammy nomination. In an interview with James Weeks, David Hinds gave an insight into one of the tracks from the album, Wild Goose Chase. 'That was a tune that I was very happy that the words came to me to write it. I've always been happy about it. It took me a long time to really get the lyrics together, at the same time it was not a tune where I sat down and said, let me write the lyrics and I've got to finish it by 4 o'clock. I'm not like that. If my heart is not ready and my mind together to put some words together for that particular song in the time I've got to do it, I don't bother with it. It was a tune where the vibes reached me at various times over a period of months and as I got new words and ideas together I put it down in note form until I had a collection of words that could put a sensible song together. I thought there was a need for the Wild Goose Chase experience 'cause we're in times now where science and technology is really taking over the natural habits of man.' In August they toured with jazz legend Herbie Hancock, opening themselves up to a new type of audience.

Commenting on that period in their history, Hinds recalls, 'By the mid-'80s, our style of politically conscious, spiritually-aware reggae music was being phased out. We had to try to get ourselves strengthened within the American market to stay alive, and we thought it was necessary to have a combination of politically-oriented songs and songs we called 'bait music,' songs that had a pop aspect to it so we could stay in the mainstream.' Grizzly explains. "There was no conscious decision to go to the US. We just got more offers to play over there, or in Europe. Not much was happening in England, apart from the festivals, it just kinda petered out from the mid-80's. You'd had to go to America or Europe to see the top reggae bands. We went where the demand is. We had music in us, we had to play and if we'd stayed we would've died as a band. England helped us in a big way in the early days, but the press didn't help. They build you up to knock you down. Its a shame that the powers that be are only catering for one section of the public as well as catering for themselves." Supplanting the Rasta-inspired roots and culture style of reggae were the deejay and dancehall trends that became so popular in the clubs and sound systems both in England and elsewhere. The concept of a reggae band first learning and then plying their trade was replaced by backing tracks and fast-spoken lyrics as British interest in Steel Pulse's message was on the wane. Hinds recently offered up this view on dancehall; "The advantage of dancehall is that I think there came a time where the music needed more pep to it and also a different type of energy. I think that's beneficial as far as reggae music. I think we need to go into the direction where we are able to stay alive as a music and go mainstream. But, lyrically, dancehall leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to informing the people about reality and spiritual consciousness. As you know, what's going on right now is that a lot of the acts out there are being abolished in certain venues because of their derogatory statements against one's sexual preferences. That's the stage its at right now. We've [Steel Pulse] taken a different twist on things and we're all about elevating the masses to more of a level of consciousness and awareness of what's going on in society today."

In December 1984 a Caribbean tour included stopovers in Antigua and Bermuda as well as Jamaica to perform at Reggae SuperJam in Kingston and to finalise the recording of their next album, Babylon The Bandit at the Music Mountain studios. Pulse explained their reasons for recording in the Caribbean thus; 'Jamaica is our spiritual home, part of our families live here, there are some very special vibes here... The new album is being recorded digitally, which is one of the cleanest sounds obtainable, technology-wise. This is one way, but the whole personal vibration and feel of the music is terribly important and we thought we could get that here, which is more important on this occasion. We also wanted to see our families, take a little irie holiday! We feel this is an important time for us...we'll probably have to leave England but retain a base there. Some of the band may even move to the US. Our personal label, Wise Man Doctrine, is in abeyance since it doesn't have the financial backative to promote the new album, but we do hope to develop this in the future.' Whilst in Jamaica, David Hinds and Grizzly took part in recording Land of Africa, alongwith a host of Caribbean reggae artists, in support of Ethiopian famine relief.

Whilst on a seven month tour of the United States in 1985 the band were augmented by Tyrone Downie of The Wailers on keyboards. At their Hollywood Palace gig in Los Angeles they were joined on stage by Stevie Wonder for a fifteen-minute jam session. That year saw a strained relationship with Elektra after the record company refused to print lyrics on the sleeve of their sixth album release, Babylon The Bandit. The band insisted and paid for the extra themselves but the fall-out was terminal and their contract was torn up with bad feelings on both sides. In a perverse twist to the story, the album earned the band their first Grammy music award for Best Reggae Album, despite a mixed reception from the public at large and the music press. Hinds remembers, " all honesty, when Babylon The Bandit won the Grammy, deep down inside I knew that the album before, Earth Crisis, should have been the album that won the Grammy...Babylon The Bandit is not one of our strongest albums...The album had flaws in its overall delivery. A track like School Boys Crush, if that's not bubble-gum, I don't know what is." The album wasn't a favourite of the critics either. Donald McRae from NME commented, 'The Save Black Music, Not Kings James Version and Babylon The Bandit song titles suggest that Steel Pulse have retained their edge...But it contains the first hint of dullness....The real disappointment is that the admirable sentiments and the more militant assertions are blunted by musical mediocity...The robotic vocal used near the end of Save Black Music is an especially absurd embrace of the hi-tech trickery used to smooth out reggae and funk's purer sounds....The Love Walks Out single is mild enough to enjoy extensive Radio One airplay while the abysmal School Boy's Crush and Sugar Daddy hardly deserve a mention. But, in the deepest irony of all, the Babylon The Bandit conclusion is made meaningless by their reliance on DMX/Emulator/Fairlight gadgetry and by their apparent admiration for a very Babylonian rock guitar sound. Steel Pulse have lost their way...'

Bassist Alvin Ewen and Carlton Bryan (lead) again took up the guitar duties for the Babylon The Bandit album and on tour. Grizzly recalls, "Jimmy Haynes was in charge again. Every time we go into the studio we want a different flavour or an extension of the last flavour you'd heard and we worked well with Jimmy. Different producers give you different flavours, different moods, different minds. We experimented more with electronics, computers and things like that. For me, I prefer the feel of the earlier albums, that's where my head is. At the time our shows were geared towards the American market, so when we went into the studio we continued those live shows into the recording sessions. With the Grammy, it was nice to gain recognition for reggae music and reggae musicians. We were surpised and pleased." Godwin Logie mixed the album and Neville Garrick was again responsible for the album cover concept. To coincide with the album's release in February 1986, Pulse toured Britain and I saw them at Oxford Polytechnic. Jimmy Haynes and Ronald Butler (lead) and Errol Reid (keyboards) joined the band that same year as they toured Europe (including Amsterdam in May when Aswad were their special guests) and the US including a first visit to Hawaii. The band were awarded their Grammy at the 29th Awards ceremony in February 1987, having fended off the attentions of Black Uhuru, Jimmy Cliff, LKJ and the Itals.

Chapter 7: State of Flux - will follow next week.

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