Monday, December 26, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 10

It's Steel Pulse time again - Chapter 10 of their incredible journey. 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 tenth of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 10: Inna Rage

The beginning of 1997 saw the release of Reggatta Mondatta, a reggae tribute to The Police with Pulse contributing Can't Stand Losing You, alongwith tracks from Aswad, Pato Banton and Ziggy Marley. February saw the release of a 30-track compilation, Sound System: The Island Anthology, showcasing their three albums for Island Records and a couple of rare unreleased tracks. Steel Pulse released another Grammy-nominated album, Rage & Fury, in August 1997, recording the 13-tracks at the Dub Factory in their hometown of Birmingham with co-producer Graham Dickson. The quintessential protest album, Steel Pulse recruited some of reggae's most creative rap and dancehall artists and it includes vocal contributions from Ruby Turner, Kevin Batchelor, Michael Franti and DJs Mega Banton, Jukie Ranks and Prezident Brown. It reaffirmed the group's commitment to fighting racial and social injustice and featured Conrad Kelly, a recruit to the Liberation Posse from their home city of Birmingham for the first time. Jamaican-born, Conrad was another former Handsworth Wood pupil who knew the band from their earliest days and joined them after serving his musical apprenticeship with Cornerstone, Ben Okafor, Ijahman Levi, Culture and Freddie McGregor. His first gig, on percussion, was in November 1994. Grizzly remembers the album, and Conrad. "I remember long sessions, lots of changes. We were pleased with the outcome but never really satisfied. After its mixed and finished there's always something that you could've done different, better. Graham Dickson was the producer, he has an ear for any type of music. We wanted a different flavour, that's why he came in. He became a friend of the band. As far as computers, a lot of what I know now as far as sampling, is from him. If someone said, who would you use to do a drum program pattern, I'd say Graham." As for Conrad. "He was in a band called Cornerstone, who used to rehearse across the road from us. He used to come over to see us. We're two drummers, I'm older than him but we've learnt from each other. His style is very similar to mine. We've known each other for years, he grew up with Steel Pulse, almost a member of the band long before he joined us. Came in on percussion to begin with and then we did the two drummer thing, half and half, I'd do one set and then swap over." It's a partnership and friendship that has remained strong since the two first met in the rehearsal basement at Linwood Road.

Their main single release from the Rage album was a bouncy cover version of Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl. The album contained another cover, of their own classic protest song Ku Klux Klan, updated for a new generation of listeners. Tunes like House of Love, Spiritualize It and Peace Party were light and danceable. House of Love was about repairing a relationship and finding a deeper love. Spiritualize It, a beautiful, multi-influenced, reggae dance tune, with strong protest lyrics infused with hope and happiness, whilst Peace Party is a call for unity. Songs like Emotional Prisoner, Role Model and The Real Terrorist are more direct about their protest. Emotional Prisoner highlights slavery, describing the emotional chains that still exist even without slavery. Role Model laments the death, murder and falling down of good African American role models that has marred the past decade. Real Terrorist tells us that politicians working within the system, lying to get votes and power are the real terrorists of the world. I-Spy identifies one of the bad apples of society whilst Blame On Me describes the harrowing effects of false accusations. Rage & Fury showcases Steel Pulse's versatility and also includes two tracks that rejoice in black history, culture and identity, namely Black & Proud and Black Enough.

Another single release was their own cover of Dr Hook's When You're In Love With A Beautiful Woman. Extensive touring continued apace and included appearances at fundraising events like MTV's Board-Aid and Los Angeles' environmental Waterman's Ball. They performed in Europe where they hooked up with tour manager Rich Nesin for the first time in Nijmegen in October 1997. Nesin had previously managed artists like Herb Alpert, Kiss, Peter Frampton and Blue Oyster Cult. Kenneth 'Toots' McLean provided backing vocals on the tour. By February 1998, the horn section of Jerry Johnson and Kevin Batchelor had departed to join Big Mountain, to be replaced by vocalists Sylvia Tella and Donna Sterling as the band kicked off the Spirit of Unity tour, alongside Shaggy, Buju Banton and Maxi Priest, playing 34 shows in a 50 day tour of the United States. Handsworth-born Donna Sterling came from a cabaret and RnB background, whilst Sylvia Tella had previous experience with Boney M, Pop Will Eat Itself, The Blow Monkeys and as a successful soloist. Grizzly recalls, "everyone always said why not try female vocals, so we said okay. Sylvia is an artist in her own right. The horns weren't there so the girls gave us a different flavour. It worked well, both are excellent singers, they added another dimension."

Initially it was Donna and a friend, Slim Banton, who'd auditioned at the band's Dean Street, Digbeth studio and had impressed David and Selwyn so much that they were taken on as backing singers for the group's impending three month tour of the United States in March. Up to that point Donna had no real experience of reggae, she was much more into soul and RnB and had not really heard of the band either, let alone being aware of their impressive history in the music business. Problems with his visa meant Slim was not able to take up the offer so a second female singer, Sylvia Tella was called into accompany Donna on vocals and the two met at rehearsals. It was a tough introduction for Donna, who takes over the story, "I was shitting bricks. This was way out of my league, as I'd not done reggae before... Slim, who's a fantastic singer, and I complimented each other so well, we'd been singing together for so long. It was both of us they wanted." As it turned out Slim Banton didn't make the trip but Sylvia Tella did, as Donna's vocal partner. "...I cried a lot of the time, I was homesick, it was hard... I met her at the rehearsal studios for the first time on the third day, we did a lot of rehearsing for a straight week or two, twelve hours a day, in a nice studio in Hockley. At first I thought she was great, I've got no problems, this woman is experienced, she knows what she's doing, she can teach me a lot, as I'm green. I didn't know what the hell I was getting myself into... Selwyn gave me a CD a week after the audition, music and words and everything. I learnt my bit, the words and remembering where I had to come in and not come in. Then I had to learn the nuances of the words and my pitching..."

"It was a hard three months on tour. I'd never experienced anything like it. Never. We're talking day in, day out. You get a break and you sleep. On my day off I'm in bed sleeping as I'm knackered. Rehearsals were in the afternoon, then catch some more sleep, then the buzz on stage and afterwards, from 9pm til probably 6 or 7am the next morning." Donna found the switch from cabaret performer in the Midlands into the harsh spotlight of a nationwide Spirit of Unity Tour with high-profile bands playing to audiences of thousands, very hard at first. "Vocally I was out of my depth, out of my league. Many times at the beginning I wanted to pull out. I said it was too much for me, but I stuck at it. I'd made a huge jump but I'd had so much practice at the stage work, cabaret work had taught me to be professional on stage and to be the person I am today." The tour kicked off in Hawaii with Steel Pulse part of a Spirit of Unity Tour of the States that also included Maxi Priest, Buju Banton, Shaggy and Beres Hammond. Donna already knew the legendary Maxi Priest as a friend of her family, had met him many times before and she felt a little less homesick when they embraced on the pitch at the stadium venue before the opening show in Hawaii. "I remember that Buju played football to relax and had his own cook, and we used to go to his room for food. All the different band members mingled and mixed together, that's a fun part of touring but behind closed doors its very political on a tour like that. Originally the tour was for three months, but everything abruptly stopped after two and a half months as there were money problems with the organisers. David vowed never to do it again." This first taste of the reggae world made a lasting impression on Donna. "It wised me up. It made me grow up. At the time I didn't realise how big Steel Pulse were. I thought Maxi was the main name but then I saw that Steel Pulse headlined the majority of the shows."

It had been a tough introduction for Donna, who recalls, "after the tour ended, I went home and cried my eyes out." Whilst a daunting prospect for the twenty-five year old, she had proved her worth to the band and teamed up again for their own tour of the States before they closed the year with a visit to Africa. It was the band's second visit to the continent after their ill-fated trip to Nigeria in 1982. For Donna it was a momentous occasion. "My first time in Africa, a real culture shock. I'd never seen so many black people in all my life in one place. My first Christmas in Africa, we were in Ghana on Christmas Day, we'd gone to the slave center where they'd shipped the slaves to America. We did a bit of sight-seeing, it was safe to go out by ourselves with no problems at all. We stayed for about two weeks playing in Abidjan in Ivory Coast, Dakar in Senegal, where we met the actor Danny Glover, and Accra in Ghana on Christmas Eve. We had a good crowd reaction. They knew every single word, in French, of our songs." Originally the band were due to play eight dates but reduced it to four as their trip coincided with the religious festival of Ramadan. David Hinds commented on their return to Africa, "it was a tremendous sight to behold and the ecstatic moral boost to our existence was so energising." Their visit to Senegal also included an emotional visit to the slave center at Goree Island.

Chapter 11: Leaving A Legacy - will follow next week.

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