Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
On the radio
Labels: PUC Radio Talk Show
Monday, November 28, 2011
Steel Pulse - Chapter 6
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, "...in 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.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
On the verge
On the subject of the National Museum, I had a feeling in my water that the excellent weekly traditional dance performances by the youngsters from the Children of Bassac group, and sponsored by Cambodian Living Arts, will return to the Museum very soon. I've just had it confirmed that they will resume this coming Thursday, 1 December at 7pm (tickets $18pp). If they get enough support, they will take it through until April next year but shows like this need the support of the public to continue, as it's not cheap to put on. Their shows are a great combo of classical and traditional dance, with music, under floodlights on the steps of the National Museum. Well worth the investment of your time and money.
A performance that looks guaranteed to draw a big crowd is the forthcoming Comedy Club of Asia show at Pontoon on Tuesday 6 December at 7pm, tickets $10. Three international stand-up comedians will perform, for 1 night only, though if it's a success, I hope it will prompt the organizers to do it again. I was an addict for stand-up comedy at Cheltenham Town Hall in the 1990s where some of the funniest people on the planet often came to perform. Frank Skinner was our compere for more than a year and he was a class act. As were the likes of Jeff Green, Ed Byrne, Jo Brand, Alan Davies, Kevin Day, Lee Evans, Paul Merton and the legendary Steve Coogan.
Finally, back to classical dance and the Khmer Arts Ensemble team at Takhmao will present three dances, from the Ramayana epic, by three different choreographers from Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, at their headquarters on Saturday 3 December from 7pm, admission is free. Following the show, the dancers and masters will take part in a ten day exchange of ideas and practices. Sounds like a great idea.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Sombo's big day
Friday, November 25, 2011
Thursday, November 24, 2011
An enriching time
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Collaborations in the air
Prior to the above, Monument Books will host a book signing this Thursday (24 Nov) at 6pm by author Gina Wijers for her book Swimming in Uncharted Waters, which documents her thoughts from her two years in Cambodia from 2006 when she worked as a volunteer. The book has just been published in English.
Man or machine?
Labels: Joel Montague
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
Steel Pulse - Chapter 5
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.