Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Duff Review: Blue Riddim Band & Big Youth "Nancy Reagan" b/w "Nancy Reagan Remix 2011 - Voice of the People"

Rougher Records
1981/2011
7" vinyl single

(Reviewed by Steve Shafer)

Despite my burgeoning interest in reggae and ska (UB40, Peter Tosh, and all things 2 Tone) during my high school years in first half of the 1980s, I somehow missed Blue Riddim Band in their heyday (of note, they were first American reggae band to play Reggae Sunsplash in 1982--and the live recording from this event, Alive in Jamaica, was nominated for a Grammy in 1986; to this day, they remain the only American reggae band ever nominated for a "best reggae album of the year" Grammy).

Hard as it is to imagine now, back in the primitive pre-internet times, unless they played their record on WLIR (the Long Island-based alternative radio station that served as my lifeline to New Wave music), or I heard about the band through word-of-mouth, or I happened to read about them in Trouser Press (hell, even MTV was airing some pretty left-of-the-dial music videos back then), you could completely miss some incredible acts like this all-white reggae band from Kansas City, Missouri. I have to fess up to not encountering Blue Riddim Band until reading several recent posts on the band by Marco on the Bass, including one regarding their work with Ranking Roger and a more recent entry about their excellent new collaboration with Big Youth, the subject of this review.

The B side of this single is the original (and now remastered) 1981 version of "Nancy Reagan." Over an amazingly catchy roots reggae rhythm (laid down at Channel One in JA), the lyrics lampoon Mrs. Reagan, who was seen as frivolous, materialistic, detached, and aloof (her detractors mocked her as "Queen Nancy") during her first year as First Lady for renovating the White House, purchasing new White House china, and outfitting herself in very expensive designer clothing--all of this during a deep economic recession that was hurting many Americans.

Indeed, contrasted with the austere, humble, and introspective Carters, the formal and glamorous Reagans (both ex-Hollywood B movie stars) coupled with his administration's right-wing policies (which promoted "trickle-down economics," the disproved theory posited that if you focused solely on creating an environment where the rich and corporations could flourish through business deregulation and low taxes, the wealth created would somehow "trickle down" to the lower classes and take care of them as well--hmmm...taxes have been super low on the rich and corporations for the past decade and things are worse than ever for the non-rich) that decimated the social safety net at a time when unemployment was at a record high, gave their critics the strong impression that they didn't give a damn about poor and working class Americans.

In this context, the vapid, "Stepford Wives"-like depiction of Mrs. Reagan was a powerful political statement--and still has some sting left in it after all these years:

"My name is Nancy Reagan/My husband's name is Ron/He rules this nation/All my clothes come from the best designers/All my china is a perfect match."



Blue Riddim fan and boss DJ Big Youth does a wonderful job of versioning this track for the 21st century, with explicitly anti-war lyrics. On "Nancy Reagan Remix 2011 - Voice of the People," he chats:

"The voice of the people/is the voice of God/
War in the Middle East/war in the middle West/
War for the hopeless/war for the homeless/
War with the helpless/war with the needy/
War with the greedy/them a start the war/
War is not the answer/only love can conquer it/
War is not the answer/only love can conquer it..."

In particular, Big Youth connect the dots between the Reagan years and current day conflicts, particularly in the Middle East:

"It starts with Ron/and him give it to Bush/
war in the Middle East with them ancient Persians..."

If the voice of the people is the voice of God, as Big Youth toasts, then talking through the issues that divide us is the path to peace:

"Rise up people/let's have a conversation/
Rise up people/we don't want no bloody revolution."

Here's hoping that this single brings more attention to the legacy of this extraordinary American reggae band--and that Big Youth's message of love is taken to heart by all who hear it.

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

+ + + +

While we're on the subject of the Reagans and pop music, I can't help but mention the significant number of songs about the fear of nuclear war that were written during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Reagan's hard-line rhetoric and stance against the Soviets (several neo-cons in his administration--including Dick Cheney--who were disdainful of detente, increased defense spending to such a degree and implemented provocative polices that ended up re-igniting the arms race with the Soviets, since they were convinced that America was preparing for a nuclear first strike against them), his use of end-of-days evangelical language (Reagan told now-disgraced TV preacher Jim Bakker in 1980, "We may be the generation that sees Armageddon"), and itchy-trigger gunslinger image exacerbated Cold War relations between the nuclear superpowers to such a degree that millions of people throughout Western Europe and the U.S. (and one had to imagine the Soviet Union) were very worried that they might die in a nuclear war (I certainly was one of them).

Within this context, according to Dorian Lynskey's terrific book about popular protest music, "33 Revolutions Per Minute," an additional reason that bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Specials (as well as a slew of British New Wave acts) wrote about nuclear war was the May 1980 publication and distribution of the Home Office booklet (and release of accompanying short films) titled "Protect and Survive" (read a copy of the booklet here; see one of the films here), which grimly detailed the steps the public should take to attempt to survive a nuclear attack and (if they lived through the initial blast) the radioactive fallout afterward. Lynskey notes that even though "Protect and Survive" was "designed to reassure, it proceeded to scare the daylights out of anyone who read it." This and the very real placement of U.S. cruise missiles in the UK (as part of a NATO counter-move against a new medium-range Soviet nuclear missile) convinced many Britons that they would high on the list of targets should all-out war break out between the superpowers.

Some of the songs expressing the terrible nuclear war anxiety and dread of the early 1980s included: Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes," Time Zone's "World Destruction," The Fixx's "Red Skies" and "Stand or Fall," The English Beat's "Dream Home in NZ," "Two Swords," The Ruts' "It Was Cold," and "Psychedelic Rockers," U2's "Seconds," Fishbone's "Party at Ground Zero," XTC's "Living Through Another Cuba," The Selecter’s “Their Dream Goes On,” Nena's “99 Red Balloons,” The Toasters' "Radiation Skank," Prince's "1999," The Clash's “London Calling” and "Stop the World," Alphaville’s "Forever Young," Men at Work's “It’s a Mistake,” The Specials’ "Man at C and A," Elvis Costello's "Peace in Our Time," Billy Bragg's "Help Save the Youth of America," Depeche Mode's "Two Minute Warning," Ian Dury's "Ban the Bomb," Aku Aku's "Ground Zero," The Police's "Walking in Your Footsteps," The Untouchables' "Sudden Attack," and Bonzo Goes to Washington's “5 Minutes."

These anti-nuke songs helped a lot of people cope with the stress of living with the very real possibility of doomsday--and made you feel like you weren't the only freak up late at night wondering if a Soviet ICBM was going to erase all of your tomorrows in an instant. It also made it seem like something could be done to take some small measure of control of a completely out-of-our-control situation ("Forever Young" lyric: "Heaven can wait/we're only watching the skies/Hoping for the best/but expecting the worst/Are you going to drop the bomb or not?"), as musicians banded together for concerts supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and CND anti-nuke benefit albums like Life in the European Theatre (featuring tracks by The Clash, The Jam, The Beat, The Specials, Echo and the Bunnymen, XTC, and more). By giving voice to our collective fears and setting it to music you could dance to, these New Wave groups helped make it possible to live and even enjoy life at a time when world's leaders were unbelievably close (see Able Archer 83) to wiping us out forever.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I heard it on WXPN. Randall Grass. I was so happy to find it today when I heard she passed. Irie.

RabidinL.A. said...

Not too Irie that I can't find the original version of the song, "My Name is Nancy Reagan", ANYWHERE. Neither performed nor in lyric. Not surprising, but the censorship is most disturbing. What happened to the other stanzas? Like, "And late at night, she like to partyy, she get on de table and shake her boot-y..." "Ay, ay, ayyyy....My name is Nancy Reagan..."? It's just gone.

Steve from Moon said...

Rabid in LA: You're right...I can't find this version anywhere on the internet. Very odd.