Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Steel Pulse - Chapter 1

Steel Pulse in all their early 1975 glory. LtoR: Selwyn Brown, David Hinds, Michael Riley, Basil Gabbidon; [front row] Ronnie McQueen, Colin Gabbidon.
For a long time I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. I interviewed many of the band's former members but never managed to tie down the two men who would've enhanced my research considerably, namely David Hinds and Selwyn Brown, who are both still with the band today. Now that I live in Cambodia, my research has come to an end. Nevertheless, rather than let my notes gather dust in a forgotten corner of my laptop, I thought I would release each chapter on my blog just to give everyone an insight into this incredible musical group. So let's begin with Chapter 1 of thirteen.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 1 : Linwood Road Runnings
The Handsworth district of Birmingham is rightly credited as the birthplace of Steel Pulse, Britain's premier reggae group. Though the story of the band's roots also stretch far across the Atlantic Ocean to the beautiful but tiny rural community of Buff Bay, on the northeastern coast of Jamaica. Overlooking the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, Buff Bay lies at the foot of the mist-shrouded Blue Mountains, famed for their coffee beans and bananas. That's where Basil Glendon Gabbidon was born on 29 October 1955, the eldest of four talented Gabbidon brothers. Soon after his birth, the family moved to the island's bustling capital Kingston, where his father Joseph, a carpenter by trade, built the family home between his appearances on the stage as an amateur entertainer, actor and comedian. His brother Colin was born ten days short of Basil's second birthday and they both spent most of their early childhood in the coastal parish of St Mary's at the home of their grandmother with two other brothers and a multitude of cousins. Colin recalls much of their time in the lush countryside revolved around getting into mischief and having lots of fun. Their father and mother, Dorothy, a nurse, were no different to many of their fellow Jamaicans in believing that The Mother Country (England) held the promise of a better life. Many Jamaicans had fought for Britain in the Second World War and in the late fifties Basil's father joined the back-end of the 'Windrush' generation of Jamaican and West Indian immigrants who poured over to England in search of work and a better future, followed a couple of years later by his mother. Soon after Jamaican independence, in 1963, Basil accompanied by Colin, followed their parents to Britain, just before his ninth birthday. "My dad picked us up at the airport with a bowler hat on. I thought, oh, we must be in England, he's wearing a bowler hat," Basil recalls. Before their arrival, their parents had lived in Cardiff but when the boys joined them, they moved to become part of a thriving Afro-Caribbean community in the Birmingham inner city area of Handsworth.

Their first home, in Alfred Road, was in the centre of their community. Colin attended Rookery Road junior school, where he enjoyed football and cycling and where his artistic flair soon became evident at a young age when his drawing of a tea plantation impressed his teachers. As he explains, "I was already developing an identity and was showing others how to draw. But Basil was a brilliant artist, much better than me at the time, on a different level. His sketching was just so good, his drawing would 'get up from the page' which meant it was very good." Once Colin moved to Handsworth Wood Boys school in Church Lane, the input from specialist art teachers honed his skills and he soon learned how to paint correctly. One of his sidelines was drawing, and selling, pictures of the pop idols of the time like David Cassidy and Michael Jackson, to the girls in the school next door. That made the otherwise shy and reserved youngster, very popular. Colin enjoyed life at Handsworth Wood. He loved his art lessons and his sports, playing for the school at football and also representing them at cross-country. He also took part in the sprint relays though never reached the heady heights of Basil, whose own sporting prowess was exceptional.

It had taken Basil a while to adjust to his new surroundings including the freezing weather after the carefree lifestyle he'd known in the Caribbean. School was simply so different to what he'd been used to. The teaching methods and the whole concept was totally alien to him and it took a year or so to settle into the rhythm of life in England. His secondary school education began at Handsworth Wood Boys school and that's where Basil began to prosper and blossom. He was fortunate that in his words, "all the bright kids went to that school at the same time, it was just pure energy" and included amongst his schoolfriends was David Hinds, who would loom large in Basil's formative years. "Handsworth Wood was a good school. One of the first things they did was to find out what you could do, what you were good at. I wanted to play the trumpet but couldn't blow it, so took up the trombone instead. In a way its the nicest brass instrument to play and it gave me a vibe for electric guitar, a sort of natural progression." John Surtees, his school music teacher and a folk club held at the school were additional influences at that time and helped him to read music and gain a better appreciation of what he was hearing and playing.

In addition to playing the trombone in the school's brass band, Basil had become interested in the guitar at the same time. His desire to play music was all consuming. His father had an old guitar with broken strings and Basil took up the challenge. He repaired the strings, bought himself a book of guitar chords and learnt to play the guitar from scratch. "Its not like today, we made things happen ourselves," as he recalls teaching himself to play. Initially, Basil wasn't interested in reggae. It was still a relatively new form of music coming over from Jamaica and instead, the music mad youngster preferred heavier tunes from the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, Mandrill and the Isley Brothers. "We turned on the radio and listened to pop music and the Stones, I liked the way they performed their songs. I didn't like the Beatles 'cause everyone else liked them." One of the first reggae tunes to catch his ear was a reggae version of Blue Moon, the old Rogers & Hart classic. Another tune that had a bigger impact on him was Blood & Fire. Released in 1970 by Niney The Observer (aka Winston Holness, but called Niney when he lost a thumb in a workshop accident), it was amongst the avalanche of sound system pre-releases that found their way to Britain and were eagerly snapped up by the flourishing Caribbean communities. However, it wasn't until Bob Marley's classic 1973 album, Catch A Fire was released that Basil was finally hooked after he heard it played in a local park during a festival, and his desire to play reggae music became a serious aim.

Music wasn't the only interest that Basil enjoyed at Handsworth Wood. He was sports mad. He represented the school at table tennis and football and loved basketball. He was even better at cricket, both as a batsman and a bowler, and went onto represent the East Midlands against their West Midlands rivals in a schools championship game at Edgbaston. However his will to win and a desire to succeed was never more evident than when he was running. "I picked the hurdles 'cause everyone could sprint but the hurdles required a certain technique, discipline, commitment and a bit of bravery. The 110 metres hurdles wasn't as glamorous as the 100 metre dash but I enjoyed it." He ran for the school, he ran for his district, Aston, he then went onto run for Birmingham in the Warwickshire games and then for Warwickshire in the English Schools Championships. He was on a roll and he didn't stop until he achieved his aim, to be the best. In the 1973 Championship finals held at Bebington, Basil ran the 110 metres high hurdles in 15.2 seconds to win the title of Schools Champion of England, a considerable feat in anyone's book. He was 17 years old at the time, he trained two nights a week with his local athletics club Birchfield Harriers and took part in track meetings but it wasn't his first love. "Training was quite hard. If I could've made a living at it I would've continued but I loved music too much. And I knew that we'd make it."
Music had been a constant with Colin and Basil from an early age. Alongwith a neighbour, Donald Perrin, they practised Johnny Nash songs, with Basil on guitar accompanying the other two, singing and day-dreaming of getting their break on the tv show, Opportunity Knocks. Basil was a self-taught guitarist, though at this time, Colin hadn't picked up on an instrument. The influence of an older cousin, Rupert, who they went to watch play in his band, a local reggae outfit called Cock & The Woodpecker's, alongwith the music of the Jackson Five, planted the seed of an idea in Colin's head that he wanted to play drums. Without the funds to take his dream any further at the time, he carved his own drumsticks and practised on his parent's kitchen chairs or a large wooden box. In fact, when Colin and the other members of Steel Pulse began rehearsing seriously, Colin was still using a wooden box to provide the rhythm beat. It wasn't until he left school and started working, that he was able to get his first drumkit.

While Basil and Colin had begun their journey on the sun-blessed island of Jamaica, David Hinds was born in Handsworth in June 1956. His parents, much like the Gabbidon family, had emigrated to the industrial heartland of England in the early 50's in search of work and a better life. They both came from St Ann's in Jamaica. "Our parents brought with them the native culture. Though we were the first generation of British-born blacks, we never really felt like British subjects. We all grew up within Jamaican households in a Jamaican community," states Hinds. David, the youngest son of seven children, was born into a working class Jamaican family. His father Charles was a welder and his mother a bicycle factory labourer, and he absorbed similar influences to the Gabbidon brothers, both musical, "we all thought Mandrill was the baddest band that ever walked the planet," and political, "the image of Malcolm X lying in a pool of blood had a major impact on me, as did the assassination of John F Kennedy and that of Martin Luther King." He developed his musical interest through his roadie brother and friendship with his guitar-playing schoolmate Basil. Hinds continues, "Basil placed the guitar in my hands. I heard Marley play guitar, I could relate. I played records, slowed them down until I caught that chord, that guitar lick. I learned the hard way. I didn't go to any school where someone sat down and started giving me manuscripts to dictate or notarize. It wasn't anything like that. It was me learning the grass roots way, the street way, where you literally played the record, listening to it over and over again."

When Colin Gabbidon wasn't at school, or playing table tennis at the Canon Street Church youth club, he and Basil would discuss ways of getting something going in a musical sense. Their thoughts turned to establishing a Gabbidon dynasty with their other two brothers to rival the Jackson's, or Basil would be teaching his friends how to play guitar in the kitchen of their terraced home at 69 Headingley Road and that's where they first began their jamming sessions with David Hinds. It was 1973 and they had dreams of making it big. Colin was still at school and had to make do with his wooden box as a substitute drumkit. To begin with, he was overlooked as the drummer and another schoolfriend was mentioned. However, the normally shy Colin surprised even himself by putting his foot down and demanded his place in the fledgling trio, which Basil and David accepted. They soon co-opted another school pal, Ronnie 'Stepper' McQueen and his bass guitar into the sessions. Ronnie, Jamaican-born, moved to Handsworth with his family as a toddler and had left school to learn his trade as a draftsman.

By this time Basil had reached the sixth form at Handsworth Wood. David Hinds was one of his closest friends and they both had Saturday jobs at the Co-op supermarket in Winson Green. They loved music and they loved art. So much so that they left Handsworth Wood and went to the Bournville College of Art to continue their studies. Basil took a one year vocational course in graphics with a plan to go into television advertising, although "it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be" he remembers. He left after his course finished and worked for a year at the Co-op as a full-time shop assistant. David, who joined Basil in the supermarket on Saturday's only, took a foundation course and moved onto the Art College at Margaret Street after a while to continue his studies. When they weren't working or studying, the two friends were consumed by their real passion, music. With the cash from his job, Basil bought his first electric guitar, a bright red Top Twenty, for the princely sum of £20. "My second guitar was black and looked like a Gibson but sounded nothing like it," he smiled, "and later I bought a WEM amp for £60 and a head box for £45. That was a lot of money in those days. Everybody used to plug into my amp and rehearse. I've always believed that if you invest you always get a return on it," and so it proved as they began to believe in themselves.

Their rehearsals moved to Ronnie's loft at his parent's home in Sandwell Road and Selwyn Brown, who'd returned to the area from Nottingham and worked for an insurance company, and Michael Riley soon joined the rapidly growing band. They were all former Handsworth Wood schoolfriends. Selwyn played the organ, Michael was a vocalist and another school chum, Trevor Christie, played percussion for a short while before moving away to live in Coventry. The lead singer was initially going to be Horace Ward, a soloist with the Handsworth Wood schoolchoir, who'd also joined in with the Basil and David guitar lessons, and though he rehearsed, he decided that singing reggae wasn't for him and left. Horace returned in 1976 as their roadie and sound engineer for their live gigs, remaining with the group for the next dozen years as engineer and production manager. Their fledgling sessions were mainly covers of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh tracks, some Ken Boothe and John Holt numbers and Marvin Gaye's Lets Get It On was a favourite. Colin and Basil liked all styles of music, from the pop charts to reggae to jazz. In fact jazz was Colin's first love. He recalls, "that's what helped us to later create our own individual style, that's why Steel Pulse were so totally different. When Basil bought Marley's Catch A Fire album, it was a big influence, a real eye-opener." He continues, "I studied Carlton Barrett's (Marley's drummer) style, as well as Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd, from the jazz point of view. We watched bands like Cock & the Woodpecker's and a local lover's rock band called Velvet Shadow, but our style was totally different to these bands. The Steel Pulse sound had a real hard edge to it."

Colin was now sixteen, it was the middle of 1974 and he was due to leave Handsworth Wood to join the workforce. His aim was to get a job and to buy his first drumkit. He managed both almost immediately. The job, as a trainee tool maker for a steel company, provided him with the funds to buy a four-shell Premier Olympic kit for around £100. He was ecstatic. "I kept it simple in the early days but played it loud and heavy. I remember that I played the bass drum so hard that I broke the foot pedal not long after I got the kit. It was cheap so I bought the proper Premier pedal, I was really excited. As I improved, I played around with the groove and the beat to keep it different and not repetitive." The drumkit took his music to a new level and he continued to paint in any spare moments when he wasn't working, rehearsing with the band or practising Aikido, a Japanese martial art he'd taken up around that time.

Coinciding with the arrival of Colin's new drums, the band moved their rehearsals to David's cellar at 16 Linwood Road, which was to be their base for the next few years. As Selwyn Brown recalls, "we used to rehearse in Ronnie's attic bedroom for a while. Then David's dad let us use his basement at Linwood Road, as we got more serious about it and just started practising and practising. We basically taught each other how to play, so there was no ego thing. We just wanted to play and enjoy music and inspire people and write something conscious." At the time, Basil and Selwyn were responsible for most of the lead vocals though Colin felt David could take on more of the mantle and did his best to persuade him to do so. Alongside covers of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, The Abyssinians and The Gladiators, there were early versions of their own compositions like Nyah Luv, Handsworth Revolution and a rock-soul track that Basil wrote called Conscious. Colin recalls, "Basil was writing a lot of music as was David. A lot of things were written in 1974. I think we were finding our identity, that was when we were clicking. We'd been together for less than a year and were working so fast. The excitement was high, we were anxious, we were keen, we wanted to express ourselves. We were serious and our music reflected what we were." The name of the band posed a problem, which was solved by Ronnie, who had a passion for horse-racing. He liked the name of one horse in particular, the Scobie Breasley-trained 1972 Irish Derby winner called Steel Pulse and suggested to the rest of the band that they take the name as their own. Everyone agreed. It seemed to fit perfectly.

It was now the right moment to expose the band to public scrutiny. Lee Allen, their advisor-cum-manager at the time and former keyboardist with local band The Phantoms, booked them their first live gig locally at a small working-class public house called the Crompton Arms. A hub for local bands at the time, the pub was located on Crompton Road in Lozells and the audience for their debut performance, in January 1975, numbered the pub's regulars and friends of the band. Selwyn did the majority of the lead vocals as they played a mix of cover versions by Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Ken Boothe and some dub numbers. The six-strong band line-up for that debut gig was Selwyn Brown, David Hinds, Michael Riley, Ronnie McQueen, Basil and Colin Gabbidon. It went well, Lee Allen recalls, "all hell let loose, everyone was so excited," the band received the princely sum of £20 for their efforts and they used it as a springboard for a handful of gigs at other local venue's like Barbarellas on Cumberland Street and the Grand Hotel in the city centre, the Ridgeway on Soho Road, the Tower Ballroom in Edgbaston, at former British heavyweight boxing champion Bunny Johnson's club in Digbeth before it burned down and they returned to their old school on one occasion to play a reunion gig.

It wasn't all plain sailing for the band. Even the black clubs put up barriers, especially against youths with dreadlocks. As Michael Riley points out, "they started saying, to get in the club [the Santa Rosa club in Handsworth] you had to wear a shirt with no hat and your hair combed out, which eliminated all Dreads and got all these artificial, snobbish black people to take over for a while. But there weren't enough, so they had to start allowing hats in again as long as they were allowed to look under them for locks first." At another club, the Jodori, just outside Handsworth, the band used to have to smuggle in the two of their members who had locks so that by the time the enraged owner saw them they were on stage and it was too late. Grizzly Nisbett backs up the story. "From the word go, we were not the average reggae band, playing lovers rock, so it made it difficult to play some black venues. On top of that some of us had dreads. I was the first to have dreads, so we used to sneak me into some of the clubs with a hat over my head and at the last minute, set my kit up and start playing before they realised. They thought we were too radical and didn't conform. We were about consciousness and for black people to learn who they are and what they are. We could play love songs anytime but we wanted to educate the masses like Marley and Spear did. We were hardcore, there were no half-measures, this was what we were about." Recalling their early struggles, David Hinds explains, "in our community at the time, our peers were questioning what we were trying to achieve becoming a reggae band. They were saying that we should stick to playing in basements until we got our act together because there was no reggae in Birmingham and no acts to identify with. The only reggae was coming out of Jamaica and London. We got involved with the punk scene and the Anti-Nazi League rallies because the punks were adopting anything the system was rejecting, which included reggae. There was never any airplay and always a limit to where we could perform."

The history of UK reggae dates back to the arrival of the first large wave of immigrants from the Caribbean in the late 50's and early 60's. The demand for music from their home shores was met by the newly formed labels like Island Records, R&B records, Blue Beat and later Pama and Trojan Records. By the late 60's Pama and Trojan both had chains of shops spread around London and both labels specialised in issuing productions from Jamaican artists/producers. Soon however, UK companies began financing their own productions. Pama had a great band in The Mohawks, but tended to make cover versions of current soul and pop hits hoping to emulate their success. Artists like Junior English, Winston Groovy and others were working as both recording and live acts. Laurel Aitken, Owen Gray and Roy Shirley were amongst those who had settled in the UK and a kind of reggae cabaret circuit was created. These concerts were attended by an age group spanning from teenagers to pensioners. During this period the flavour of recordings coming from Jamaica reflected the climate of political and social change on the island. It seemed people were crying out for an identity and change and the answer came largely through Rastafarianism. Reggae, for a long time called the 'sufferers music,' began to deliver songs with a message and spirituality. Black awareness and pride which had been gaining momentum in the USA spread to the Caribbean and the UK. For most hardcore reggae fans all real reggae had to come from Jamaica. The UK didn't have 'the sound'. It was regarded as soft. Early pioneers like The Cimarons, who'd begun as a backing band for visiting Jamaican acts were beginning to forge a distinctive UK sound. A momentum was building and slowly things were changing.
The early 70's saw a boom in the popularity of the sound system. Sir Coxsone, Duke Reid, Neville the Enchanter, Count Shelley, Fatman and many more around the country gave a focal point for local youths. A very distinct brand of homegrown roots music was emerging. One of the key movers and shakers was Dennis Bovell, a Barbadian who started the Sufferer Hi-Fi Sound System in North London and went onto form the band Matumbi in 1970. They quickly became a popular live act supplying the backing to visiting reggae artists such as Pat Kelly, Ken Boothe and I-Roy, as well as touring in their own right. Bovell, supposedly the ringleader of the 'Carib 12', was jailed in 1976 for his part in a raid on a Sound clash in London. He later recorded with session drummer Jah Bunny as The African Brothers and as African Stone. By the mid 70's the musical climate in the UK was certainly taking off. Jamaican reggae was arguably going through its most creative period. Brilliant new sounds were arriving from Jamaica on a weekly basis. There was also the emerging Punk Rock movement. The Clash and The Sex Pistols were formed and stated the enormous influence that reggae had on their music and outlook. Checking out reggae shows and going to sound system dances became a popular pastime for white youths.

In North London, Black Slate had formed in 1974 and toured with the likes of Delroy Wilson and Ken Boothe. Their most influential release was Sticksman, which had been originally cut as a dubplate, its popularity gained it a full release and it became an underground classic. Sticksman was the phrase used at the time for a petty thief or mugger. Constantly touring, Black Slate became one of the most popular live reggae acts around Britain. More and more reggae bands were forming, not just session musicians as in Jamaica, but bands made up of friends and local musicians. In South London, Reggae Regular formed around the talented keyboard player George Fleah Clarke and they later signed a major deal with CBS Records. Aswad were formed in the Ladbroke Grove area of West London by Brinsley Forde, George Oban, Courtney Hemmings, Donald Benjamin and Angus Gaye. They forged a large and loyal live following and were snapped up by Island Records, before going onto have a long and successful career. In Southall, Misty in Roots, acknowledged for their legendary live shows, started their own People Unite label, touring relentlessly and refused to sign to a major label. Black Stones were a three-man vocal outfit, Brimstone included ex-Aswad duo Bunny McKenzie and Tony Robinson in their line-up, whilst The Cimarons, formed in the Harlesden area of London in the 60's, carried on their reggae ambassadorial role well into the latter part of the decade. And of course, Steel Pulse were making their mark as well.

With sound systems as the main avenue for the youths of Handsworth and the other Caribbean communities to hear their favourite music, the top systems like Quaker City, Mafia Hi-Fi and Studio City travelled around the country playing to packed audiences in clubs and 'blues' dances. Vying with each other for the latest pre-releases, they also bought unique dubplates from bands to play exclusively at these sessions and an emerging Steel Pulse were no exception although they were prudent in the number of dubplates they produced. Colin, buoyed by Steel Pulse's early success, suggested that they take their music to a major record label like Island even at this early stage though Basil curbed his younger brother's enthusiasm by saying the time wasn't right. The band were ambitious and passionate about their music but at the same time realistic and shrewd enough to realise that they had to perfect their unique sound before unleashing it on the public at large. Basil often said that to achieve lasting success they had to stand out from the rest and to have an 'international' sound that would appeal to as many people as possible. One of their attempts to present their unique sound was to call their particular style of music, 'Taffri'. It didn't catch on as other styles like punk rock or 2-Tone would in the future, but it demonstrated their acute desire to create something new and different.

Colin would often accompany Basil to watch other bands play. His own favourites were The Cimarons from London, though a couple of gigs they attended in 1975 were to have a significant impact on them both. A couple of years earlier they'd watched the Jackson Five at The Odeon in the city centre, but that was topped when in July 1975 they watched the great Bob Marley and the Wailers, who'd blown them away with his Catch A Fire album two years earlier and then followed that up with his subsequent releases, Burnin' and Natty Dread. His influence on their music was considerable. Marley's support act that night at The Odeon were Third World and the Gabbidon brothers were mightily impressed, with Basil exclaiming, "yes, that's the sound, that's the style I'm after." A couple of months later, the two brothers travelled down to the Notting Hill Carnival in London and were able to see another Third World performance and to speak to members of the band afterwards. Their friendship would last for many years to come.
Chapter 2: Single Success to follow. Originally published 2011.

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