Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shots in the Dark: The Potato 5 - Floyd Lloyd and the Potato 5 Meet Laurel Aitken and True Fact

Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights third-wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, or a fickle record-buying public, were lost in the fray.

The Band: The Potato 5, an extraordinary Skatalites-styled ska group from London that featured a rotating line-up of singers in its all too brief history (1983-1989), including Floyd Lloyd, Laurel "The Godfather of Ska" Aitken, and Spyder Johnson (who went on to drum for the Nutty Boys--an early 90s ska band formed by Madness' Lee Thompson and Chris Foreman).

The Sound: "Floyd Lloyd and the Potato 5 Meet Laurel Aitken" is brilliant, vintage-style ska (in the vein of the Skatalites, Derrick Morgan, Prince Buster, and, not surprisingly, Laurel Aitken). "True Fact" tries to modernize their sound in an attempt to catch the attention of those beyond the ska crowd, with mixed results.

The Releases: "Floyd Lloyd and the Potato Five Meet Laurel Aitken," produced by Gaz Mayall of The Trojans (and originally released on Gaz's Rockin' Records), is a classic album that should be in every ska fan's collection--it's that essential. Released in 1987, long after 2-Tone imploded, but during a rebirth of the UK ska scene that spawned such contemporaries as The Deltones (formed by ex-Bodysnatchers Sarah Jane Owen and Penny Layton), The Loafers, The Trojans, Maroon Town, The Riffs, as well as the latest incarnation of Bad Manners (the only 2-Tone-era group that never really disbanded), this album established the Potato 5 as the undisputed leaders of the UK ska scene (and introduced Laurel Aitken to a whole new generation of ska fans--which re-ignited his career and led to a string of new albums, re-issued collections of his singles from the 60s and 70s, and live appearances that continued unabated until his death in 2005). "Meet Laurel Aitken" is stunning from start to finish.

Side A features a mix of tunes written by Floyd Lloyd (who also sings) and the Potato 5's guitarist Martin Aberdeen, including the anti-aparthied/pro-peace and justice rave-up "Tear Up"; the infectiously danceable instrumentals "Jessie Jackson" and "Spin on Your Head"; the melancholy, but cooly encouraging "Big City" ("The city is a big, big, place/Don't let it get to you/Don't let it change your point of view...You've got to keep yourself together/Keep on truckin'..."); and the awesome spaghetti western-inspired instrumental "Western Special" that would make Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, et al proud.

Laurel Aitken owns Side B, with a string of self-penned songs that instantly became some of his trademark third wave ska hits in the 90s: "Sally Brown" (which Bad Manners subsequently covered on their "Return of the Ugly" album), "Mad About You," and "Sahara." "Sally Brown" in particular is incredibly catchy, with lyrics that will have you singing along everytime you hear it: "Make me tell you 'bout Sally Brown/Sally Brown is a girl in town/She don't mess around/Sally Brown is a slick chick/If you mess around with Sally/She hits you with a cookoomacka stick/Coo-coo-coo-coo-coo-koo-macka stick/She's gonna hit you with a cookoomacka stick!" Laurel is at the top of his game here (as he would be for the rest of his career); the songs are amazing and his performances (as well as the Potato 5's) are brilliantly honest and masterful. "Meet Laurel Aitken" and you'll see that his title as the "Godfather of Ska" is more than well deserved.

"True Fact," produced by Specials, Madness, and Rico Rodriguez collaborator Dick Cuthell (and released on Rackit Records in 1988), is more problematic and something of a letdown. The songs--all still trad-leaning ska--are good (mostly the ones written by the Potato 5's Paul Hickson and Martin Aberdeen) to great (those composed by Laurel), but the disconcertingly robotic-sounding rhythm section (really the drums--and synthesized drums are sometimes used here to poor effect) really clashes with the organic sound of the horn section--marring many of the songs on this record. Having said that, sometimes the formula works well (mostly with Laurel's tracks, as his songwriting is vastly superior in several cases), as on tracks like the awesome Hitchcockian "Dial M for Murder" (I always thought the line "You picked me pocket/You know it was a rackit" was "You picked me pocket/You know it was erotic," but I guess that's just me being me), "Burning Fire" ("Buring flames of fire/To your musical desire/Ska Flames!"), "Got to Go," and "Heman vs Skeletor" (hey, it was still the 80s!). The "Rocksteady Party" repackaging of "True Fact," which is widely available now (the "True Fact" LP I have is long out-of-print and my CD of this album was pressed in Japan) includes their great cover of "Do the Jerk" (with Spyder on vocals) and the "I swear the Skatalites wrote this" instrumental "Re-Burial" from their last 1989 single (both cuts bump up the overall quality of this record a couple of notches).

The Ugly Reality:While the Potato 5 were enormously popular on the UK and European ska scenes, they made only minor inroads in the US, particularly because the late 80s ska scene was small, regionalized, disorganized, and very much underground (and to top it off, no internet to connect us all yet, man!). After a brutal tour of the US in late 1989 (I think I saw a CBGBs ad in the Village Voice that had them on the bill, but by then I had already missed the gig!), the band called it quits. Our big loss...

The Grades: Meet Laurel Aitken:A+; True Fact:B; Rocksteady Party:B+

The "Floyd Lloyd and the Potato 5 Meet Laurel Aitken" CD is available from Grover Records in Germany (you can also sample tracks and buy it from iTunes), while "True Fact" has been repackaged as "Rocksteady Party" on Magnum Music and can be listened to and purchased from iTunes (and is available on CD as well).

7 comments:

Jeremy Toaster said...

I have the "Rocksteady Party" CD and I always thought a lot of the drum / bass parts sounded a bit "80's" electronic. But I do enjoy the songs very much. Another cd you might mention is the "Ska Stars Of The 80s" album that has a few of those Potato 5 tracks as well as some Laurel fronted Trojans tunes.

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Jeremy. Laurel Aitken's terrific "Ringo the Gringo" album, released on Unicorn Records roughly around the same time as "True Fact," also has some cheesy production choices, but his songs are so good that you don't mind them at all. "Rude Boy Dream" is one of his best songs ever!

Elle said...

What the heck is a cookoomacka stick?

Steve from Moon said...

Elle:

According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, a coco-macca stick is a "heavy stick or bludgeon (originally one made from the cocomacaco tree)."

Essentially, you would use it to fight or punish (whip) someone...

Thanks.

Steve

peteonthebeat said...

I once asked Laurel about the meaning of the cookoomacka stick and he basically said what you say, Steve, but he also hinted at a sexual connotation. In fact, his smile was so bright, I was half-blinded by the refelection from his gold tooth. Sweet memories...

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks so much for sharing this, Pete!

Anonymous said...

I was the guitar player in this band from just before the 'True Fact ' album was released ( I didn't play on it). What the album actually suffered from was the unwillingness of large parts of the ska audience to accept any attempts to make music that was of a piece with the world , musically at least, of 1989. Admittedly Martin and Paul weren't perhaps open enough to all the developments that were happening then ( e.g.bands on the UK scene such as Massive Attack's records were melding dub etc with hip hop and experimentalism). But the point is they went for it on record. The other problem was that the band ( including me) just didn't have the 'chops' to deliver what that record promised , especially in the U.S. where I heard numerous shit hot support bands developing THEIR own thing . My abiding memory of the CBGBs gig was a) being really pleased to be in such a place and b) feeling like I didnt deserve to be there, particularly when I noticed members of Bad Brains stood right in front me , looking kind of disappointed! Years later I went back to the U.S. as a member of Selecter, which was kind of better, but the same thing happened i.e. being ( as far I was concerned ) totally outclassed on occasion by U.S. bands who had developed their own take on Ska, which , while not necessarily slavishly true to the original, had a life all of its own - that's what keeps music interesting and vibrant. Although I still think True Fact has been unfairly overlooked because of the attempt to depart from tradition.