Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Duff Review: Phoenix City All-Stars "Skatisfaction"

Hotshot and Scorcher
CD/LP
2013

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As a kid--we're talking elementary and middle school years here--I was a Beatles guy, drawn to their perfectly constructed, catchy pop and rock songs (for the record, I was a much bigger fan of John's than Paul's--I liked my Beatles songs to have a bit of an edge, like "She Said, She Said," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," and "Strawberry Fields").  I certainly was aware of The Rolling Stones--they were inescapable in the realm of pop culture--and heard them often on NYC's classic rock radio station WNEW in the 1970s (as well as the oldies station WCBS), but I just wasn't that much into their shambling, bluesy rock.

But the advent of MTV in the early 80s started to change my stance on the Stones. I had to visit my friend Johnny in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan to watch MTV, which we did obsessively (my parents' house in nearby Yonkers didn't have cable yet and even if we did, the local cable company didn't carry MTV yet). In between all of the British New Wave music videos I was devouring, I was exposed to a number of Rolling Stones videos, including "Waiting on a Friend" (watch it and time travel back to NYC's East Village in the early 80s and see Mick and Keith hanging on a St. Mark's Place stoop with Peter Tosh), and begrudgingly found that I liked their New York centric New Wave and disco tracks from Some Girls and Tattoo You (see a tune like "Shattered": Don't you know the crime rate/Is going up, up, up, up, up/To live in this town you must be/Tough, tough, tough, tough, tough/You got rats on the West Side, bed bugs uptown/What a mess, this town's in tatters/I've been shattered, my brain's been battered/Splattered all over Manhattan").

While the Phoenix City All-stars Skatisfaction tribute album doesn't mine the late 70s/early 80s Stones output that wormed its way into my brain, I'm happily surprised to find that I really dig their stellar vintage ska take on a slew of Rolling Stones hits and deep album cuts from the 1960s and early 70s. Skatisfaction follows the Phoenix City All-stars' tremendously great tribute to 2 Tone, Two Tone Gone Ska, where the band interpreted, arranged, and performed material by The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat, Madness, and Specials producer/2 Tone fan Elvis Costello as if they were The Skatalites back at Studio One in 1965 (honoring both the originators and the revivalists). And it seems especially appropriate that the Phoenix City All-stars (comprised of members of Pama International, The Sidewalk Doctors, Kasabian, Intensified, Dub Vendor All-stars, The Loafers, Big Boss Man, The Bongolian, and The Delegators) are channelling The Skatalites on Skastisfaction, since The Skatalites tended to cover--even commandeer--the pop hits of the day (see The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" repurposed as "Independence Anniversary Ska" or Henry Mancini's "Mambo Parisienne" versioned as "Ska La Parisienne") and The Rolling Stones were their musical contemporaries (!). As a music fan, it may be heretical to admit this, but I prefer these songs in a ska setting rather than a blues-based one--and the fact that many of the Stones' songs were written in minor keys works to the Phoenix City All-stars' advantage, since so many of The Skatalites' best tunes are in those scales ("Reburial," "Confucius," "A Shot in the Dark," "Determination," "Exodus," etc.).

Skatisfaction starts with a killer, driving instrumental version of the menacing, I-can't-be-bought-off 1965 B-side "Play with Fire" ("Well, you've got your diamonds/And you've got your pretty clothes/And the chauffeur drives your cars/You let everybody know/But don't play with me/'Cause you're playing with fire") that was originally recorded just by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Phil Spector producing (and playing bass). I wasn't familiar with the original cut until looking it up on YouTube--but this version really holds up quite well against the original (and may even best it). Guest vocalist Freddie Notes (who, according to the album liner notes, sang at Mick and Bianca Jagger's wedding--and is known for his world-wide 1970 Trojan smash "Montego Bay") gives a soulful reading to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," shedding the youthful urgency and angry sexual frustration of the original for the wisdom that comes with age (sure he still wants it, and will keep trying to get it--but experience has taught him that life doesn't own you a damn thing and will often leave your wants and desires unsated, just like it did when you were young) .

The terrific, edgy instrumental version of "Under My Thumb" features a vocal line taken on by a Jackie Mittoo organ and guitar work very reminiscent of Ernest Ranglin or Lynn Taitt. I was never a fan of the Stones' sluggish ballad "Wild Horses," but completely love the Phoenix City All-stars' crisp rocksteady version, which still retains the original's sadness, regret, and longing through The Sidewalk Doctors' Nathan Thomas' superb vocals (this might very well be my favorite track on this album).

I've never heard Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" until now (covered by The Rolling Stones on their 1969 album Let It Bleed--I prefer Johnson's direct and stripped down version), but this blues standard is almost completely transformed into a great Skatalites dancefloor stormer by the Phoenix City All-stars. "Paint It Black" sounds like newly rediscovered spaghetti Western reggae gem, with Oxman toasting on top (listen to it below). Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" (recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1961 and Sam Cooke in 1963--the Stones based their version on Cooke's and it reached #1 on the British charts in 1964) with Freddie Notes on vocals sounds very much like an early 60s ska track, when ska's rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll roots were still very evident. The country track "Sweet Virginia" (from Exile on Main Street) is rendered here as a sprightly ska track (greatly improving the song, in my opinion), with a sweet saxophone covering the vocal line.

The Phoenix City All-stars take on "Time Is On My Side" perfectly conveys the cool confidence, swagger, and cockiness of the original ("...you'll come running back to me"), with the horns delivering the vocal line. Nathan Thomas closes the album with a less boastful/more sober version of (the kinda skanky, as in nasty) "Honky Tonk Woman" that doesn't seem to revel in trolling for prostitutes and "fallen" women as much as the original (but I always found the Stones' in yer face, bad boy, sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll pose/lifestyle kind of tiresome to begin with). It's a nice touch--it an album full of them--that they keep the cowbell intro to this song and that the song fades out at the end, as if the band and Thomas drift off into a blurry night of drinking and debauchery.

People who happen to be fans of both The Rolling Stones and ska will immediately take to the Phoenix City All-stars' Skatisfaction (and they should--it's fantastic!). But the greater triumph may be its ability to win over those ska fans ambivalent (maybe even hostile!) towards the Stones--which just goes to prove that really well-crafted songs can be introduced into a new musical genre and, in the right hands, sound just as good--or even better--than the originals.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Duff Review: The Clash featuring Ranking Roger - "Red Angel Dragnet" b/w "Rock the Casbah"!

Ska Boots Series
2013
Fuschia vinyl 7" record (with Go Feet paper label)
Available in the US through Jump Up Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

God, if these two tracks had seen the light of day back in 1982--say on a 12" single, which were all the rage in the 80s--my head probably would have exploded from the sheer euphoria of experiencing this union of The Clash and The English Beat (two of my favorite bands, both then and now). Truth be told, I didn't even know that these demos existed until I read about them in the Marco on the Bass blog last summer. But it makes complete sense that some sort of collaboration was inevitable between these bands, as they both loved and successfully mined similar musical territory in ska and reggae.

Whether due to some wonderful cosmic coincidence or a brilliant pairing concocted by an unusually savvy promoter, The Clash and The Beat shared the stage for seven shows in Paris at the Theatre Mogador in September 1981 and the bands got on so well that The Clash invited Ranking Roger to toast during their covers of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time" and Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" for the duration of the Paris residency (and a few years later, Mick Jones joined Dave Wakeling's and Ranking Roger's post-Beat group, General Public, though he almost immediately departed to form Big Audio Dynamite with Don Letts). When it came time to record The Clash's follow-up to the extraordinary Sandinista, Strummer and Jones invited Ranking Roger to toast on two of their new cuts, "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Rock the Casbah." Initially, the title for this post-Vietnam War-obsessed double album was Rat Patrol from Ft. Bragg and Mick Jones handled all of the producing and mixing. However, when the rest of the band heard the results, they were less than thrilled--and classic rock pro Glyn Johns, who had produced albums for The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Eagles, amongst others, was brought it to finish the job (with only Strummer at his side). In the process, the double album was culled down a single LP and retitled Combat Rock (and the Rat Patrol mixes were later repeatedly bootlegged and now can be found, of course, on the internet).

The unnamed Brits behind the Ska Boots series (which has released ska and reggae covers/tracks by Joe Strummer, Amy Winehouse, The Specials, Madness, Lily Allen, No Doubt, Billy Bragg, Ian Dury, The Pogues, Jools Holland, Eddie Vedder, and a pre-Madonna Madonna) have released Mick Jones' demo mixes of the sweet, dubby extended versions of "Red Angel Dragnet" and "Rock the Casbah" with Ranking Roger toasting over these cuts. While the sound quality is what you would expect for a demo--and Roger's vocals aren't fully integrated into the mix of these songs, they're riding on top--I doubt most Clash/Beat fans will mind, since it's so cool to have these versions in such a nice, tangible package. (Cheeky of them to use the Go Feet paper label for this bootleg, but it works well and in plays out a crossover fantasy that I'm sure exists in many a fan's mind.)

Of the two cuts here, the "Taxi Driver"/Guardian Angels/Jack the Ripper mash up "Red Angel Dragnet" works better; there's more menace in Roger's chatting and vocal effects--and it's far more effective than Kosmo Vinyl's Travis Bickle imitation (though here I miss his recitation of "One of these days, I'm going to get myself organizized" that appears right before the end fade of the Combat Rock version of this song). Also, the loping song structure of "Red Angel Dragnet"--somewhere between reggae and rockabilly, courtesy of Paul Simonon's songwriting--lends itself better to a dub version and gives Roger the space to do his thing. I've always had a soft spot for this deep album cut, as it taps into and reflects the seamier, lawless, and dangerous side of New York City in the early 80s (and celebrates a movie that revels in it) that was very real to me. I was seeing Curtis Sliwa's red windbreaker and beret outfitted Guardian Angels (the police shooting of Guardian Angel Frank Melvin inspired Strummer's lyrics for this song) who were citizen patrolling the grimy and decrepit (but sometimes stunning) subways I had been riding alone since fifth grade beneath the burning South Bronx, back and forth between Manhattan and Yonkers, and I had survived my infrequent, but unpleasant and nerve-wracking trips through Times Square, which was packed with porno theaters and heavily populated with con artists, drug dealers, and pimps and prostitutes--all of whom were depicted pretty accurately in Martin Scorcese's vigilante movie "Taxi Driver."

Lyrically, Ranking Roger's toasting in "Red Angel Dragnet" makes reference to the horrifying January 14, 1983 London Metropolitan Police ambush and shooting of Stephen Waldorf, whom they thought was escaped prisoner David Martin (it should be noted that Combat Rock was released in May of 1982--so this track could not have been part of the pre-Glyn Johns Mick Jones mixes). Roger also refers to the very real threat of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation in the early 80s (a few years earlier, the UK government had disclosed that American cruise missiles with nuclear warheads were being stored on British air force bases and could be launched against the Soviets from British soil; this, of course, made England an obvious target for the Russians in the event of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers): "Di Russian, di American/Dem both have a plan/and if we no careful/They involve a England/So what's the worry?/It's the cruise missile/Cause if we not careful/We end up in a pile." Not surprisingly, Roger makes a plea for "love and unity" at the end of the song, which was a repeated (and very much worthwhile) theme during his tenure with The Beat (see "Stand Down Margaret").

Mega-hit "Rock the Casbah" (The Clash's only top 10 single in the USA)--music by Topper Headon, lyrics by Strummer that were inspired by Iran's new(ish) religious fundamentalism that severely cracked down on popular music, amongst many other things--is almost too tightly wound of a pop/dance song for Ranking Roger's toasting; the backing track is too busy and dense. Having said that, it's still a great version of this song that should have been further developed (like "Red Angel Dragnet") and released back in the day. The audience was there and eager for this kind of experimentation, though the band (Strummer, in particular) was more focused on making a more mainstream hit album that would generate the financial reward and true fame in the USA that had eluded them (see Tony Fletcher's "The Clash: The Music That Matters"). I cringed when I learned that they were opening for classic rock dinosaurs The Who at Shea Stadium in Queens on the Combat Rock tour and didn't even try to go see them because of it. It's too bad that The Clash couldn't split the difference between Strummer's rock star ambitions and Jones' desire to further explore musical avenues in hip hop and reggae (and that Topper Headon couldn't quit the drugs and rejoin the band). They should have realized both the hit pop album and released Jonesie's more experimental dub/alternate versions as related singles--and maybe this might even have kept the band together long enough to release one more great Clash album with (most of) the original band (instead, we had to settle for Big Audio Dynamite's good to great Strummer/Jones collaboration in No. 10, Upping St. in 1986).

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Junior Murvin, RIP

Junior Murvin (photo by Adrian Boot)
According to the Jamaica Observer, Junior Murvin (AKA Murvin Junior Smith) died today at the age of 67 at the Port Antonio Hospital in Portland, Jamaica. While no cause of death has been determined as of yet, according to his son Kevin Smith, Murvin had entered the hospital last week seeking treatment for both diabetes and hypertension.

Punk fans worldwide were introduced to Murvin's music through The Clash's punky reggae cover of his "Police and Thieves," which was featured on their debut album in 1977. But many in the UK had first heard "Police and Thieves"--with Murvin's incredible, other-worldly falsetto, on par with anything The Congo's did on their perfect Heart of the Congos--in 1976, as the single had been a minor hit in England (and was associated with that year's rioting at the Notting Hill Festival , since the lyrics concern police violence, corruption, and oppression--"All the peacemaker, turn war officer"). Murvin's excellent debut album of the same title, released in 1977, was co-written and produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at his legendary Black Ark studio--and is considered by many to be amongst Perry's finest productions and an essential roots reggae album.

While Murvin continued to write and record music throughout the 1980s and 1990s and released gems like "Cool Out Son" (using the Soul Vendors' "Real Rock" riddim, which was appropriated for Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time"--also covered incredibly well by The Clash), he never quite reached the creative peak--and absolute perfection--of "Police and Thieves."

There are two good, comprehensive Junior Murvin bios to check out at Reggae Vibes and All Music; and his discography can be perused at Discogs.

Our deepest condolences go out to Junior Murvin's family and friends.

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

NYC December 2013 Ska Calendar!

Sunday, December 1, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

The Pietasters, Across the Aisle, The Reggay Lords

The Knitting Factory
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Electric Avenue Holiday Party w/King Django, Rude Boy George, The Royal Swindle

Characters NYC
243 West 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
New York, NY
$10/18+

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Friday, December 13, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

Westbound Train w/The Frightnrs and The Screw-Ups
The Studio at Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY
$12

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Saturday, December 14, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Keith and Tex (backed by Crazy Baldhead), Guest DJ Deadly Dragon Sound System, Dig Deeper Residents Mr. Robinson and DJ Honky

Littlefield
622 Degraw Street
Brooklyn, NY
Tickets: $20-$25
21+

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Friday, December 20, 2013

The Slackers' Holiday Show w/Uzimon, Shivering Brigade, DJ Grace of Spades, DJ 100 Decibels

The Bell House
149 7th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11215
$18 adv/$22 day of show
21+

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Duff Review: Chris Murray, The Ladrones, and Rude Boy George at Electric Avenue on 11/16/13!

(by Steve Shafer)

While it would be outrageously self-serving to write a review of a show that I helped organize and that also featured a band that I'm in, I'll go the route of cobbling something together here that is somewhere between a just-the-facts-ma'am report and a first person experience of the night.

Rude Boy George, the band that I'm damn lucky to be a part of (singing back-up vocals and playing a smattering of melodica), performed their fifth live show at Electric Avenue on Saturday, November 16, 2013. We formed back in January, after I shared a crazy idea that had been bouncing around my head for a few years with Marc Wasserman, the bassist of Bigger Thomas and writer for Marco on the Bass blog: for kicks, let's form a band that does ska, rocksteady, and reggae covers of New Wave classics (we both were in high school and college during the 1980s and are still fanatic about the "modern rock" bands of that era). Marc loved the idea and almost immediately recruited many of his bandmates from Bigger Thomas (Roger Apollon on vocals, original BT drummer Jim Cooper, and guitarist Spencer Katzman) and keyboardist Dave Barry (Beat Brigade, The Toasters). I had the idea of approaching Across the Aisle singer and friend Megg Howe, who signed up with us on the spot!

After several rehearsals, we forged a respectable set list of tunes by Human League, Soft Cell, The Romantics, Billy Idol, INXS, The Smiths, Cyndi Lauper, Squeeze, Culture Club (we've since added songs by Gary Numan, the Psychedelic Furs, Talking Heads, and Berlin) and debuted at Electric Avenue on April 13, 2013 to a very enthusiastic crowd. Later that spring, we recorded three tracks at Bill Laswell's studio out in West Orange, NJ with ex-General Public/Special Beat/English Beat bassist Wayne Lothian producing. Our five-track digital EP Take One (with "(Keep Feeling) Fascination," "Don't Change," and "Talking in Your Sleep"--plus two remixes) will be released in the near future. And plans are in the works to record additional covers soon that will see the light of day on a more tangible format. Rude Boy George's set list continues to expand with each rehearsal and show (and our line-up has already changed a bit: we now feature Jesse Gosselin of Across the Aisle/The Royal Swindle and Jeff Usamanont of FunkFace/Daft Phunk/Electric Company on guitars). At our recent gig at Hat City Kitchen in Orange, NJ, we unleashed our goth-reggae version of the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way," which we had worked out in a three-hour rehearsal the night before (see the video of it from our Electric Avenue show below).

According to Roger, this gig featured some of Rude Boy George's best performances yet. Watch some/all of the videos of our performance below to confirm his assessment (big thanks to Sally Apollon for taping them!). This was our entire set that night, with the exception of Berlin's "The Metro" (which we'll capture at some future date, as it has an excellent Selecter vibe to it and Megg's performance is phenomenal on this track).























Electric Avenue is very interested in linking up with the Spanish ska scene in the NYC area (we've hosted Los Skarroneros in the past), so we were psyched to feature The Ladrones (The Thieves), who are a fantastic, anthemic ska-punk powerhouse (check out their excellent, new digital album Bestias del Chaos--I really dig "Tradicion,""Basta," and "No Hay Futuro," which is below)! The opened their set with a bad-ass rendition of Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme" and then ripped through a killer set of horn-heavy original tunes. I'm sad to say that my Spanish is very poor, so I can't tell you what they were singing about, but everyone present was captivated by their dynamic and muscular performance. Below are some videos of their performance...





If you didn't already know, Chris Murray was first the singer/songwriter for Canada's super popular King Apparatus (their 1991 debut album is an early 3rd Wave classic--check out my review of it here). Chris went solo in the mid-90s, forgoing Toronto's long, rough winters for the eternal sunshine of Southern California. When Chris approached Moon Records with his decidedly lo-fi, one man ska band debut album (The Four Track Adventures of Chris Murray), Bucket was very wary of releasing it. But Chris' incredible songwriting and lively performances won me over immediately. After some lobbying, I convinced a reluctant Bucket that the album was more than worthy of being released on the label (the saga of the album's release is, of course, memorialized on Chris' "Cooper Station Blues," which he snuck onto the release without our knowledge just before the CD was pressed at DiscMakers!).

Our paths hadn't passed since the late 90s, so when Chris indicated that he was planning an East Coast tour, I was ecstatic that he accepted our invitation to play Electric Avenue. At the last minute, Chris had taken on the opening slot on the Streetlight Manifesto tour. So on this night, Chris played his 30-minute set in Sayerville, NJ, hopped on a train to NYC, and then headlined our show. He performed for about an hour and a half and clearly had a blast (as did everyone in the crowd)--taking requests (see "Ex Darling" below, thanks to Bryan Kremkau of Ska Punk Photos, who also took some amazing photos of each performer), as well as covering The Toasters' "Thrill Me Up" and recounting how his first record came about ("Cooper Station Blues"). It was fantastic catching up with Chris after the show, talking about strategies for releasing his next album, and figuring out how he could get out to where he was staying in Brooklyn later that night/morning without the L train (which was suspended, due to construction). Here's hoping he comes this way again soon...












Sunday, November 24, 2013

NY Loves Brandt Benefit Show This Monday Night (11/25/13)!

For info about Brandt Abner and this show, click here and here.

Go support Abner's family and see some of the best bands in NYC while you're doing it...


Friday, November 15, 2013

Duff Review: "Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist" by Heather Augustyn

McFarland
2013
Paperback book

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Back in the early 80s, before I had ever listened to my first Skatalites record, I was aware of Don Drummond's untimely death. Some pop-culture reference book that was kicking around our house contained a list of musicians who had died terribly young, usually in sordid circumstances (Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, etc.), and it had an entry that detailed how in 1965 The Skatalites' trombonist Don Drummond had murdered his girlfriend, Anita Mahfood--and after he was tried, found to be criminally insane, and committed to Bellevue Hospital, he died a few years later at age 35, under questionable circumstances. Of course, since this was the pre-internet age, and New York City always has had a large immigrant Jamaican community, I had assumed that Drummond died at the Bellevue Hospital on First Avenue in Manhattan (instead of the one in Kingston, JA). I've since become very familiar with Drummond's and The Skatalites' music (and even had the fantastic opportunity to work a bit with Lester Sterling and Lloyd Brevett during my tenure at Moon Records), but never learned much about the man behind such extraordinary and foundational music as "Man in the Street," "Ringo," "Don D Lion," "Don Cosmic" (the nickname producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd conferred on him, due to his erratic behavior), "Marcus Junior," "Confucious," "Occupation," "Lawless Street," "Green Island," "Eastern Standard Time," and hundreds of other ska tunes.

Heather Augustyn's terrific new book, "Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist," the first biography of Drummond ever written (!), helps flesh out his life and career--by no means an easy task, given Drummond's struggle with mental illness (he was either bi-polar or schizophrenic); his tendency to keep to himself and only talk about playing the trombone and music; and the multiple (and oftentimes conflicting) versions of Drummond's life presented by his contemporaries (Drummond has no close living relatives).

Given these considerable obstacles, Augustyn was determined to present as complete a portrait of Drummond as possible, traveling to Jamaica repeatedly to visit the legendary Alpha School (where the current students were learning to play Drummond's "Addis Ababa"); the clubs in Kingston where he performed; the areas in the Wareika Hills where he communed and played music with Count Ossie and the rastas; the bleak, one-room flat where he and Mahfood lived (and where she was killed by Drummond); and the asylum where he was treated multiple times before the murder and where he was committed afterwards and later died--and to interview anyone who worked with or was in any way connected to Drummond. (Indeed, while Drummond remains a somewhat elusive figure, Anita "Margarita" Mahfood--the very popular "Rumba Queen"--comes into crisp focus, courtesy of interviews with her children and friends; she was the half-Lebanese, half-white Jamaican professional nightclub dancer who, to some degree, transcended race and class to expose the upper class nightclub patrons to the drumming and culture of the socially outcast rastas.)

Drummond was born in 1932 to a poor, single mother and had the extraordinarily good fortune to be placed by the local court (due to his truancy) at the Alpha School for Boys at age nine. Essentially a vocational school run by Roman Catholic nuns--and led by the extraordinary Sister Mary Ignatius who was particularly supportive of her musically gifted students (she ran the school's sound system at parties and had an extensive record collection)--Alpha was the ideal place for Drummond's innate musical abilities to be discovered and then sharply honed (indeed, had he not come to the attention of the authorities and been enrolled at Alpha, one wonders if Drummond would have had any other opportunity to develop into a world-class musician that he became). It soon became apparent that Don Drummond's "occupation" (his training) should be music; after learning several other instruments, it was manifest that his greatest affinity was for the trombone. Under the tutelage of band leader Reuben Delgado and the mentoring of older student Carl Masters, Drummond flourished and became quite accomplished at his craft--spending most of his free time by himself practicing under the school's Monkey Tambourine Tree (though he did mentor younger trombone students, such as Rico Rodriguez, who went on to great fame in his own right, and worked with bands such as The Skatalites and The Specials).

In 1950, six months shy of graduating from Alpha, Drummond was recruited by guitarist Ernest Ranglin (and with Sister Ignatius' blessing) to join the Eric Deans Orchestra, which played American big band, Latin, and popular jazz pieces in the local clubs frequented by tourists and upper-class Jamaicans. (It was not uncommon for bands to recruit young musicians straight out of Alpha--it was a primary feeder for local acts and the Jamaican military's band.) Drummond further refined his performing chops playing jazz standards in a variety of bands--including his own--to great local acclaim. During this period, Drummond was hailed in Jamaica by his contemporaries--and by visiting international musicians, such as Sarah Vaughn, who declared him to be one of the top five trombonists in the world, and Dave Brubeck, who while performing with Drummond, stopped playing the piano to watch and listen to him, in awe of Drummond's improvisational skills--as one of the best musicians Jamaica had ever produced.

But towards the mid-1950s, as imported American rhythm and blues records began to dominate the Jamaican airwaves and the burgeoning and extraordinarily influential sound systems, popular tastes changed (and, of course, the American jazz, R and B, and early rock music was given a local twist, which eventually gave birth to ska in the early 1960s), and the fierce and often violent competition between the sound system operators (and the opening of the first recording studio on the island--Federal--in 1954) led to the explosion in the local recording of popular tunes (they often simply renamed and re-arranged the originals without giving any credit or royalties to the composers), as well as original tracks. At first these songs were cut on acetates as one-off recordings, to be exclusively used by the sound system operator who paid for it--in order to attract a loyal, paying following to their parties, who came for the great music while parting with their cash for liquor. But soon it was discovered that there was much greater profit in selling these songs as mass-produced 7" singles.

So, as the focus of the music business shifted to a great degree from stage to studio in the late 1950s, musicians were compelled to follow the money (as poor as the wages were). The best live performers such as Don Drummond (and the future members of The Skatalites) were recruited as session men for all of the top sound system operators cum producers (Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, Duke Reid, etc.) and he found himself working many days a week in the studio (his first released recording was Owen Gray's "On the Beach" in 1959), coming up with new arrangements for covers or bringing in his own compositions to be recorded--usually in one take, on the primitive one or two track recorders (they weren't even paid to rehearse--of all the Jamaican producers, only Justin Yap ever did that and, as a result, later captured some of the best Skatalites recordings in existence). Outrageous as it seems now, in the 1960s, Drummond and the other musicians only were compensated for their time in the studio and received nothing else for their work or for their compositions--no mechanical royalties and, in most instances, no publishing royalties on hundreds of their recordings/compositions, and nothing for works/recordings that were licensed to labels in the UK (to this day, Dodd's heirs receive the royalties on an extraordinary number of Drummond's compositions). The producers told the musicians what to play and how to play it. They had the money and all the power.

One particularly heartbreaking episode in Augustyn's book that illustrates the producer's almost complete control over the musicians in the studio (and how Drummond was completely consumed by his music) relates to Coxsone Dodd (he had bought Drummond's trombone on the condition that the musician pay him back over time--and thus had another way of wielding power over Drummond):

"Graeme Goodall recalls, "I remember vividly a session where Don was acting up and Coxsone went and took the horn away from him and said, 'It's my horn. It's my horn,' and Don was almost in tears. 'Let me play.' And Coxsone said, 'Listen, I'll tell you when I want you to play and what I want you to play, it's my horn.' And Don finally realized there was no point in just hanging around, he needed to blow his horn and he behaved himself for Coxsone.""

In a play for increased creative control and a greater share of the financial pie, the best musicians on the Jamaican scene banded together in 1964 to form what would become the preeminent ska supergroup, The Skatalites (Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Knibb, Lester Sterling, Don Drummond, Jah Jerry Haynes, Jackie Mittoo, Johnny Moore, and Jackie Opel)--which showcased Drummond's wonderful brilliance as a composer (he was The Skatalites' primary songwriter), arranger, and performer (make sure to check out the mind-blowing Don Drummond discography by Michael Turner in the back of the book). The Skatalites recorded hundreds of songs during their brilliant, original, 16-month incarnation, but it all crashed and burned with Drummond's murder of Mahfood on January 1, 1965. The band then split into two groups: Roland Alphonso and Soul Vendors and Tommy McCook and the Supersonics.

Throughout Drummond's career, commerce stubbornly trumped art and even though his music wonderfully transcended the ugly business of the nascent Jamaican music industry, he did not. Drummond lacked the connections and respectability (he was too dark-skinned, poor, hung out with the ostracized rastas, and, to be honest, in later years was odd and unpredictable) to be chosen for international promotional tours (like the "uptown" Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires, who represented Jamaica and were presented as the palatable and refined version of ska music at the 1964 World's Fair in NYC) that would have brought him much greater recognition and renumeration (the money and world-wide fame would only come in the decades after his death and line the pockets of others). Some, like band leader Carlos Malcolm, thought Drummond's fame and musical ambitions were stymied (and that he was driven to despondency not madness) by the considerable constraints put on him by the producers (as well as the tastes of the record buying public to some degree--who wanted nothing but ska music in the first half of the 1960s) who dictated how and what he could play in order to earn a very meager living. No doubt, this stress, disappointment, and despair must have exacerbated his mental condition and certainly contributed to his eventual demise.

While Drummond's behavior became increasingly erratic during his adult years (he first checked himself into Bellevue in 1960), his prodigious talents caused his friends and collaborators to overlook his bizarre, anti-social behavior; it was all a matter of Don being Don. There are disturbing stories in this book of Dodd and others checking Drummond out of Bellevue and ferrying him to recording sessions and gigs; of Drummond rolling a peeled banana in the sand and consuming it--and of him literally eating dirt; and times when he would appear on stage, open up his case, polish his trombone, place the instrument back in its case, and walk off stage (and in one instance, he allegedly urinated off the stage). But more often than not, he had it together enough to perform on stage and in the studio brilliantly--his illness didn't always interfere with his craft. (It does appear that Drummond often self-medicated--as many untreated mentally ill people do by abusing alcohol or illicit drugs--by smoking marijuana, though Augustyn cites studies that this may actually have aggravated the symptoms of his mental illness.)

Drummond and Mahfood encountered each other over the years in the various nightclubs where each had been performing and she eventually moved in with him. Mahfood was enamored with Drummond in no small part due to his incredible musical talents and to escape her physically abusive husband, the boxer Rudolph Bent (her father had also beat her as she was growing up). There is some question as to whether their relationship was platonic or not, though she clearly loved him on an emotional level, as illustrated by her declarations of love for Drummond expressed on her one recording (accompanied essentially by The Skatalites), "Woman A Come," found on the seminal ska collection from Mango, More Intensified: Original Ska 1963-1967, Volume 2 (which was one of the few vintage ska comps easily found in the late 1980s and was hugely influential on many traditional third wave bands). What is clear is that after an argument overheard by witnesses (where Mahfood repeatedly referred to a knife wrapped in cloth at Drummond's feet), Drummond stabbed Mahfood several times in the early hours of January 1, 1965 and later reported to the police that Mahfood had stabbed herself. There has been much speculation as to Drummond's motives, but in light of his mental illness, they are essentially rendered moot, as he was most likely delusional during the murder (and justly convicted as criminally insane and committed to Bellevue).

The treatment of schizophrenia and other mental illness in the 1960s was still relatively primitive (lobotomies and electro-shock therapy were in use even at the best first-world mental health facilities), though the development and use of anti-psychotic medication such as Thorazine and Lithium helped alleviate many symptoms, they were often prescribed at such dangerously high doses that they left many patients semi-catatonic and threatened their overall health. According to Augustyn's book, no records exist of Drummond's treatment at Bellevue (they were either thrown out or lost in one of the may hurricanes to hit Jamaica over the years), but she speculates that poor management of his antipsychotic medications may have caused his death from a heart attack (she debunks the myth that Mahfood's father somehow arranged for Drummond to be knocked-off in revenge for his daughter's murder).

While I've omitted a wealth of details in my brief (and probably flawed) sketch of Drummond's life, Augustyn's biography of Drummond provides a compelling and multi-layered rendering of this truly great musician, in a valiant and largely successful attempt at revealing the real Don Drummond, while dispelling some of the tantalizing lurid myths associated with his illness and death. Having served as a caseworker for homeless and formerly homeless people suffering from mental illness (most of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia), I know first hand that people with mental illness can be very guarded and seem almost opaque. I often found myself learning very small, but still very revelatory, bits of information about their lives (past and present) after years of working with them. So, it comes as no surprise that Drummond's thoughts, feelings, dreams, and fears are largely absent and unexpressed in this narrative--they were trapped or obscured by the symptoms of his mental illness and never shared with others (though the music he made with his trombone was probably the only means he had of expressing that part of his inner life that was free of his illness--Drummond's trombone was his true and hauntingly melancholy "voice"). So, all of us are left to sort through other people's biased recollections and faulty memories, the incomplete official records, and to surmise what other scraps of information have been lost or discarded over the decades--and Augustyn makes every effort to be a trustworthy and reliable guide through this life that will always remain partially uncharted. As you read Augustyn's "Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist," make sure you play some of his records at the same time, so you can marvel at the truly extraordinary and beautiful music Don Drummond was able to create out of a life filled with adversity and madness--and let his music fill in the blank spaces between the lines.

+ + + +

Check out Heather Augustyn's excellent related blog, Foundation SKA, here.

+ + + +

Read a terrific interview conducted by Charles Benoit with Heather Augustyn about this book at Reggae, Steady, Ska.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Next Electric Avenue Show with Chris Murray, The Ladrones, Rude Boy George (11/16/13)!


Here's my shameless plug for the next Electric Avenue show with Chris Murray, The Ladrones, and Rude Boy George on Saturday, November 16, 2013!

Rude Boy George--the band I'm privileged to be part of--does ska and reggae covers of New Wave classics and we're continuing our fall residency at Electric Avenue and should have some totally awesome new covers in our set (the crowd at our last show went crazy for our just unleashed versions of Berlin's "Metro" and Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer"!). To paraphrase Johnny Slash, "Ska-punk? No way. We're new wave ska. Totally different head. Totally!" (the relevant video clip you want is around the three minute mark here). We're fun. Come see us.

The Ladrones ("thieves" in Spanish) are a super-tight, horn-heavy NYC band with a brand new digital album full of anthemic, sing-along ska-punk tunes called Bestias del Chaos (available through their Bandcamp page). We've heard nothing but great things about their electric live show. Bring your ear plugs and be ready to dance.

I had the honor to work with Chris Murray back in the 1990s, both when he was a member of the incredible King Apparatus (their 1991 debut album is an early 3rd Wave ska classic--read my appreciation of it here--it should be in everyone's collection) and then when he struck out on his own as a one man ska band (his 1996 debut, lo-fi solo album, The 4-Track Adventures, highlights Murray's prodigious songwriting skills, which are presented in all their stripped-down-to-the-bone glory; it took a lot of lobbying Bucket to put this one out, but I'm so glad he did). Chris has released a slew of solo records since then (4-Trackaganza!, Raw, Slackness, Yard Sale), plus one with The Chris Murray Combo (Why So Rude). This is a very rare New York City appearance for Chris Murray, so definitely make sure to come out and see his fantastic acoustic set (which, by the way, will be the second ska acoustic Electric Avenue has presented, following Roddy Radiation's and Lynval Golding's performance over the summer).

Hope to see you there!





Friday, November 1, 2013

NYC Fall/Winter 2013 Ska Calendar #81

Saturday, November 2, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

Come Carry a Big Spliff Sound Clash w/Princelionsound, The Frightnrs, Shottie and TeV95, Live Wiers featuring H-Diggy and Jah Fingers aka Top Cat

Danny Screams Studios
220 Leonard Street
Brooklyn, NY
$5

+ + + +

Saturday, November 2, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

The Pandemics, The Swaggering Growlers, Brook Pridedmore, Foreverinmotion

The Paper Box Theater
17 Meadow Street
Brooklyn, NY
21+

+ + + +


Sunday, November 3, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

Lawn Chair Bombers, Mrs. Skanatto, Across the Aisle, Scarboro

Matchless
557 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$8/21+

+ + + +

Friday, November 8, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

Reggae Meets Ska w/PidginDroppings and Rude Boy George

Hat City Kitchen
459 Valley Street
Orange, NJ
$10

+ + + +

Friday, November 8, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Reggay Lords, The Far East, Roots of Natural Sound

Danny Screams Studios
220 Leonard Street
Brooklyn, NY
$5

+ + + +

Thursday, November 14, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

Version City Party w/King Django, Garden State Line, Milan and the Sour Goat, Dubistry, Miserable Man with the Uplifters

Crossroads
78 North Avenue
Garwood, NJ

+ + + +

Friday, November 15, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

Dirty Reggae Party #25 w/Obrint Pas, Beat Brigade, Super Hi-Fi, Sweet Lucy--plus Crazy Baldhead crew on the decks

The Swamp @ Don Pedro
90 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$8/21

+ + + +

Saturday, November 16, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Electric Avenue with Chris Murray, Ladrones, Rude Boy George

Characters NYC
243 West 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
New York, NY
$10/18+

+ + + +

Monday, November 25, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

New York Loves Brandt Abner Benefit Show (all proceeds to benefit his family) w/Beat Brigade, Bigger Thomas, Cannabis Cup Band, Cibo Matto, Dub is a Weapon, Funkface, King Django, Mephiskapheles, Pilfers, Rudie Crew, Skadanks (featuring Rocker T and Jamalski), Abner's Oeuvre (featuring Malcolm Gold, James Yarish, Jon McCain, and Canvass), Netherlands (featuring Timo Ellis), Jeremy Manasia--Plus selectors: Greg Caz (Brazilian Beats Brooklyn), I, Storm (Urban Lounge Kings), and Agent Jay (Crazy Baldhead, Slackers)

B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill
237 West 42nd Street
Manhattan, NY
$15 adults/$10 kids 16 and under

+ + + +

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Electric Avenue Holiday Party! Bands to be announced soon!

Characters NYC
243 West 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
New York, NY
$8/18+

+ + + +

Friday, December 13, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

Westbound Train

The Studio at Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY

+ + + +

Saturday, December 14, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Keith and Tex (backed by Crazy Baldhead), Guest DJ Deadly Dragon Sound System, Dig Deeper Residents Mr. Robinson and DJ Honky

Littlefield
622 Degraw Street
Brooklyn, NY
Tickets: $20-$25
21+

+ + + +

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Slackers' Holiday Show w/Uzimon, Shivering Brigade, DJ Grace of Spades, DJ 100 Decibels

The Bell House
149 7th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11215
$18 adv/$22 day of show
21+

+ + + +

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Striking Gold: Madness "Un Paso Adelante"

(Appreciation by Steve Shafer)

Here's another ska nugget that I unearthed in one of my recent lunchtime trips to a certain, unnamed used record shop near my workplace: the version of Madness' 1979 debut album One Step Beyond that Stiff Records released in Spain (as Un Paso Adelante; I'll let you figure out the translation), featuring Chas Smash's credible, Spanish-language spoken word intro to this classic Prince Buster cover. (I particularly love how in the album track listing on the back cover, it notes that "Un Paso Adelante" is the "Version Original"!)

Apart from the title track, everything else about the album is similar to the UK and US releases, but, obviously, this is a nice addition to any Madness or ska fan's collection (and since my 1980s-era domestic copy of this album is a bit tattered and torn, it's fantastic to have come across this practically mint copy--and for an extremely reasonable five bucks!).

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Here's the YouTube video of the Spanish-language version of "One Step Beyond" (featuring the cover of the Spanish 45):

New York Loves Brandt Abner Benefit Show on 11/25/13 at B.B. King's

As we noted last month, Skinnerbox keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter Brandt Abner tragically passed away from thymic cancer on September 13, 2013 at age 43. In response (and in celebration of Brandt's life and music), the NYC ska scene is holding a massive benefit ska show with 100% of the proceeds going to support Brandt's family (his wife, whom he met while they were in high school, and his nine year-old daughter).

The New York Loves Brandt! benefit show will take place at B.B. King's on 42nd Street in Manhattan on Monday, November 25, 2013, starting at 5:30 pm and going all night long. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for kids 16 and under (advance adult tickets may be purchased here).

Bands who are slated to appear so far (more to be announced soon) include:

Beat Brigade
Bigger Thomas
Cannabis Cup Band
Cibo Matto (Brandt was their keyboardist)
Dub is a Weapon
Funkface
King Django
Mephiskapheles
Pilfers
Rudie Crew
Skadanks (featuring Rocker T and Jamalski)
Abner's Oeuvre (featuring Malcolm Gold, James Yarish, Jon McCain, and Canvass)
Netherlands (featuring Timo Ellis)
Jeremy Manasia

Plus selectors:

Greg Caz (Brazilian Beats Brooklyn)
I, Storm (Urban Lounge Kings)
Agent Jay (Crazy Baldhead, Slackers)

This is going to be an extraordinary night of music--all of it in support of a worthy cause--so don't miss it if you are in the New York City area!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Striking Gold: The Specials' "Mas Specials"

(Appreciation by Steve Shafer)

Over the summer, I came across The Specials' Mas Specials (the version of More Specials that Chrysalis released in Spain in 1980) while picking up a copy of the Spanish release of "Rat Race" b/w "Rude Boys Outa Jail" at a record shop in Greenwich Village that I had ordered through Discogs (it was near enough to walk to from work and I saved some cash on shipping). I had been so incredibly inspired by the recent Specials show in NYC this past July that I was in the process of tracking down the last few vinyl singles that I never had the opportunity to buy back in the 80s ("Gansters" b/w "The Selecter" and "A Message to You, Rudy" b/w "Nite Klub" were the other outstanding 45s).

Not knowing that this version of the album even existed--I half expected it to be a very good bootleg until I got home and confirmed its legitimacy via 2-tone.info--I bought it on the spot. While Mas Specials features the same cover photo as the US version, it sports the UK track list (meaning no appearance of "Rat Race") and the paper label is the standard UK Walt Jabsco, not the US version with him listening to a transistor radio. My copy of the US edition of More Specials (well, it's actually my brother's, but his ska-loving days are long finished), purchased in 1983 or so, has seen better days. So even though Mas Specials doesn't contain any alternate versions of tracks, it's in mint condition (and bought for less than most new LPs go for these days), so I'm more than happy to have it as part of my collection.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Striking Gold: Rico Rodriguez: "Jama"!


(Review/Appreciation by Steve Shafer)

Last week during my lunch break, I made my weekly pilgrimage to a certain unnamed used record store about a 10-minute walk from my job and struck ska gold. Usually on these outings, I'm scouring the bins for New Wave and post-punk singles and albums that I didn't have the money to pick up--or didn't even know existed--back when I was in high school in the first half of the 1980s.

But on this day, the gods of vinyl were good to me. I snagged one of the rarest (at least, on this side of the pond) 2 Tone releases--a near mint copy of Rico Rodriguez's Jama (1982), which is filled with mind-blowingly good vintage/authentic ska and reggae instrumental cuts. 2 Tone's parent label Chrysalis never opted to release this album in the US (and I wonder if any specialty shops here even bothered to import copies of it; in all my many years of digging through the crates, this is the first time I've ever seen it; and there is very little written about it, either on-line or in the reference books on ska and reggae in my bookshelves--even George Marshall's "The Two Tone Story" gives it short shrift). 2 Tone ska's flame-out in the UK, no doubt, had a lot to do with the album's scarcity and the dearth of info about it, but Rico and this brilliant album deserved much better.

Recorded both at Joe Gibbs Studio in Kingston, JA and in London, with various tracks produced by Dick Cuthell, and Jerry Dammers and Dick Cuthell, Jama featured some of the finest Jamaican (and British) musicians around, including Tommy McCook (tenor sax), Felix "Deadly Headley" Bennett (alto sax), Ansell Collins (organ), Winston Wright (piano, guitar), Earl "Chinna" Smith (guitar), Jah Jerry (guitar), Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), and other top performers--plus several members of The Special AKA: Jerry Dammers (organ, piano), John Bradbury (drums), Sir Horace Gentleman (bass), and Dick Cuthell (cornet, flugel horns, funda drums).

Ska fans who love Rico and The Special AKA's "Jungle Music," will immediately take to the stunningly evocative ska and reggae of "We Want Peace," "Jam Rock," "Love and Justice," "Some Day," "Do the Reload" (which is a cover of Rico's dear friend and mentor Don Drummond's awesome "Green Island"), and "Easter Island" (written by Japanese saxophonist Sado Wattanobe)--all of which follow the expected song structures for this genre of music. Those open to more musical paths less traveled will enjoy the more jazzy, looser, experimental takes on Jamaican music on "Destroy Them," "Distant Drums" (with Rico on vibraphone and funda drums!), and "Java."

According to Paul "Willo" Williams in his fantastic biography of The Specials (and 2 Tone Records) "You're Wondering Now: The Specials from Conception to Reunion," notes that Rico's "Jungle Music" single and the Jama album failed to gain any traction and climb the charts due to the rise of the New Romantics in the UK (Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, etc.). It was all a matter of unfortunate pop-culture timing (one can't blame the material or performances, as they're brilliant); the UK record-buying public's massive infatuation with ska music was over by 1982.

While Chrysalis, to their great shame, has never released Jama on CD (though "Easter Island" and "Destroy Them" are on The 2 Tone Story CD), I was shocked to discover that the album currently is available digitally through iTunes in the USA (how long has it been for sale there?)--as is what looks like the entire 2 Tone catalogue (even the late, non-ska releases on the label from The Higsons, Swinging Cats, JB's Allstars, The Friday Club, and The Apollinaires). Still, nothing beats having these warm, organic sounds captured on a vinyl LP in my very own collection. Whoever decided to part with Jama (after taking such good care of it all these years) and sell it to my favorite used record store has my sincere and undying gratitude!


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

NYC Fall/Winter Ska Calendar #85

Saturday, October 19, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Electric Avenue returns with The Scofflaws, Across the Aisle, and Rude Boy George!

Characters NYC
243 West 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
New York, NY
$8/18+

+ + + +

Friday, October 25, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

Mephiskapheles, Inspecter 7, Ladrones

The Knitting Factory
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$18/All ages

+ + + +

Friday, October 25, 2013 at 8:00 pm

The English Beat, The Bluebeats, The Pandemics

The Paramount Theater
370 New York Avenue
Huntington, NY
$33

+ + + +

Saturday, October 26, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

The Pandemics and others!

The Place Bar and Lounge
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$8

+ + + +

Saturday, October 26, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Tea Factory Sound Presents Witch Dance w/The Frightnrs, The Far East, Jim Nastic (Studio 1 DJ)

The Tea Factory
175 Stockholm
Brooklyn, nY
Free before 10 PM/$5 after
No BYOB

+ + + +

Sunday, October 27, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

Big D and the Kids Table, Red City Radio, Survay Says, The Pandemics, Short Handed Goal

The Studio at Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY
$13/19+

+ + + +

Saturday, November 2, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

Come Carry a Big Spliff Sound Clash w/princelionsound, The Frightnrs, Shottie and TeV95, Live Wiers featuring H-Diggy and Jah Fingers aka Top Cat

Danny Screams Studios
220 Leonard Street
Brooklyn, NY
$5

+ + + +

Saturday, November 2, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

The Pandemics, The Swaggering Growlers, Brook Pridedmore, Foreverinmotion

The Paper Box Theater
17 Meadow Street
Brooklyn, NY
21+

+ + + +

Friday, November 8, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

Reggae Meets Ska w/PidginDroppings and Rude Boy George

Hat City Kitchen
459 Valley Street
Orange, NJ
$10

+ + + +

Friday, November 8, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Reggay Lords, The Far East, Roots of Natural Sound

Danny Screams Studios
220 Leonard Street
Brooklyn, NY
$5

+ + + +

Thursday, November 14, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

Version City Party w/King Django, Garden State Line, Milan and the Sour Goat, Dubistry, Miserable Man with the Uplifters

Crossroads
78 North Avenue
Garwood, NJ

+ + + +

Saturday, November 16, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Electric Avenue with Chris Murray, Ladrones, Rude Boy George

Characters NYC
243 West 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
New York, NY
$10/18+

+ + + +

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Electric Avenue Holiday Party! Bands to be announced soon!

Characters NYC
243 West 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
New York, NY
$8/18+

+ + + +

Friday, December 13, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

Westbound Train

The Studio at Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY

+ + + +

Saturday, December 14, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

Keith and Tex (backed by Crazy Baldhead), Guest DJ Deadly Dragon Sound System, Dig Deeper Residents Mr. Robinson and DJ Honky

Littlefield
622 Degraw Street
Brooklyn, NY
Tickets: $20-$25
21+


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Duff Review: 7" Reissues of The Toasters' "Recriminations" and "East Side Beat" EPs!

Black Butcher Classics/Mad Butcher Records
2013
7" vinyl singles
Available in the U.S. through Jump Up Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Generally, I'm not a huge advocate for the re-issuing of records that have seen multiple releases over the years--unless it's being done to put something back in print, or to offer something new in the package that significantly enhances the release. While The Toasters' Recriminations (issued as a 12" EP on Moon Records in 1985 and 1989, and Britain's Unicorn Records in 1988) and East Side Beat (issued as a 12" EP in Ska Records in 1987) are long out-of-print, used copies can be tracked down fairly easily on the internet--and the tracks themselves are all currently available on the expanded Skaboom CD on Megalith Records (and available through Impact Merchandising). Having said that, I find myself delighted to have the new Mad Butcher 7" vinyl reissues of these EPs (I have all three versions of Recriminations, but I never purchased the East Side Beat EP back in the day--I already had those tracks and it was a somewhat pricey for a college student and hard-to-find import). Part of this is due to my insane obsession with the 7" single format (in hindsight, it's seems odd that these four-track EPs weren't originally issued as 7" singles, but 12" EPs were all the rage in the 80s and the default format for any release that contained more than two tracks). But this repackaging also provides ska fans--32 years after the group's founding--with the opportunity to reassess some of The Toasters' earliest and most essential recordings from two of the best iterations of the band.

The Recriminations EP was the band's brilliant opening salvo (yes, nitpickers, The Toasters' first release actually was "Beat Up" b/w "Brixton Beat," which came out in 1983 on Ice Bear Records--but Recriminations put The Toasters on the map: it was the first release from an American ska band to score national distribution, and, thus, reached and influenced ska fans far beyond Gotham's city limits). I bought it in back in 1985 at Sounds on St. Mark's Place, never actually having heard or seen the band. The only thing I did know was that it was a ska record and since I loved The Specials, The Selecter, English Beat, and Madness, I wanted more ska music!

To be honest, at first listen, I wasn't sure what to make of The Toasters version of ska on Recriminations. It certainly wasn't 2 Tone (which I expected it to be, since that was the only kind of modern ska I had ever heard; and if my memory is correct, I picked up Fishbone's EP debut and The Untouchables' Wild Child soon afterwards)--it was this scrappy, New Wave-influenced version of ska (with some Duane Eddy gee-tar thrown in to great effect!). But once I placed my preconceptions aside, I warmed up to Recriminations quickly (to this day, all of these songs are amongst my favorites). The songwriting is fiercely original; the performances are energetic and tight (and probably came close to capturing what they sounded like live at the time); the production is pretty warm and decent for a DIY effort recorded on the cheap (Recriminations was produced by New Wave's other angry young man, Joe Jackson, a fellow Brit and footie fan whom Bucket had met when he was manager of the comic book/sci-fi shop Forbidden Planet in Greenwich Village); and I loved the vocal interplay between guitarist/songwriter Bucket and bassist Vicky Rose (this version of the band also included Steve Hex on keys, Gary Eye on percussion, and Danny Johnson on drums).

Side A of Recriminations (which could have been called their 'R' EP, since all of the songs start with that letter) contains songs about sour, severely dysfunctional relationships--the prickly and perennially frustrated "No Exit" hell of the title track: "We get ourselves in situations I don't understand/That always leads to confrontations getting out of hand/It always ends in recriminations, "What is it I said?"" and the melancholy "Razor Cut" (with the metaphoric or real life threat of suicide--you decide): "You bend me out of shape like modeling clay/You can twist me almost every way/There's been to much violence, too much pain/I can't make it through another day/But when I ask for more/That's when I find you on the bathroom floor..."

Recrimination's flip side expands the lyrical horizon to include commentary on the demise of a scene (and society) and the fear of nuclear armageddon. Arguably The Toasters' first underground hit, the full-on reggae cut "Run Rudy Run" (which, to these ears, borrows some of its arrangement from The Ruts' "Love in Vain"--the B side to their incredible "Staring at the Rude Boys" single; the earliest version of "Run Rudy Run" was originally written and performed while Bucket was in the UK in the late 70s and in a reggae band called The Klingons) features Joe Jackson on melodica and describes the attempt to have a fun night on the town (hit some clubs, catch some bands), but results in a crappy, disappointing evening instead. But it's also about the senselessness/corruption of how things are:

"Hit the inner city before the main man hits the town
Spent our cash on looking flash and heavy jab jab sound
The clubs have turned their bouncers on the drunken, mindless crowd
You hear nothing from your logic clock

Run, Rudy, run...

Juvenile delinquents given sentences of gold
The push for Radio City, reach our drat and nasty goal
Cups are gettin' empty, the boys are getting old
You hear nothing from your logic clock
Run, Rudy, run...

Silence in the city on the night before the crash
The cops have sold their holdings at the diamond Wigmore bash
The clubs have turned their goon squad on the drunken struggling mass
Nothing from your logic clock..."

It's the "Friday Night, Saturday Morning"/"Do Nothing" lyrical mash-up for a dangerous and crumbling early 80s New York City (it also makes me wonder if it refers, in part, to the episode where Bucket showed up at Roseland to see The Beat in 1981 and found the giant ballroom dancefloor mostly empty--which put him on a mission to spread ska in America).

As quaint and outlandish as it seems now, in the 1980s (with Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan loudly rattling his saber and railing against the Evil Empire of the Soviets), we all believed that there was a very good chance we'd perish in an all-out nuclear war (scroll to the bottom of this post for much more on this topic, including a list of the many of the ska and New Wave-era songs that were inspired by the dread of living with the knowledge that somewhere in the Soviet Union was nuclear missile with your name on it). Bucket took this dread and served up a droll, very British take on the nuclear armageddon in "Radiation Skank" (which seems inspired both by H.G Welles' "War of the Worlds"--the novel takes place in England, you know--and Stanley Kramer's movie "On the Beach"):

"When I wake up in the morning
Get my breakfast at the larder
Take my cup of tea
And go out in the garden

What's those lights up in the northern sky?
It looks like London's burning
But then it could be Bristol
I'm really not that certain

Sorry boys, it's a big mistake
Like to stop the rockets
But it's much to late

When it drops its bombs on England
I'll make sure that I'm not there
I'll be in the Caribbean
Or somewhere like Australia

'Cause I don't want to be a mutant, not I
Arms and legs in funny places
My elbows where my hands are
My ass right where my face is..."

On each of The Toasters' albums in the 1990s and 2000s, the band revisited one of their early hits; Dub 56 features "Razor Cut" and One More Bullet contains "Run Rudy Run." These amped-up interpretations are fine, but they lack the edge, grit, and ballsy vitality of the originals; they're almost too polished. The Recriminations versions of these songs are definitive. (The sleeve artwork featured on the Mad Butcher edition of Recriminations comes from the 1988 Unicorn release, featuring Bob Fingerman's illustration that originally was on the back cover of the 1985 Moon release.)

The 1987 East Side Beat EP features the Skaboom-era band and is one of the piecemeal ways that album was released in the UK. Essentially, Skaboom was split in two, with Unicorn receiving the majority of the Skaboom tracks for its Pool Shark LP (which includes a few tracks that didn't appear in the US until the Moon Ska re-release of the Skaboom CD in 1994: "Matt Davis," "Renee," "Ideal Man," and "Naked City") and Ska Records getting "East Side Beat," "Mr. Trouble," "Manipulator," and "ABCs." The band had expanded considerably since Recriminations--the only holdovers from the 1985 version of The Toasters were Buck, Steve Hex, and Gary Eye. The Unity Two, Sean "Cavo" Dinsmore and Lionel "Nene" Bernard, were also on vocals with Bucket, along with Brian Emerich on bass, Jonathan McCain on drums--and the band now sported a full horn section: Marcel Reginato on alto sax, John Dugan on tenor sax, Greg Grinnell on cornet, and Anne Hellandsjo on trombone. The Toasters' songwriting (now split between Bucket and Sean Dinsmore) and performances had evolved and matured into what is now considered the classic, instantly recognizable Toasters' sound that won over fans worldwide (and would be further explored on the terrific Thrill Me Up). I was fortunate to see both the Skaboom and Thrill Me Up-era Toasters, both of which put on brilliantly energetic and tight live shows and are probably my favorite permutations of the band. (Check out East Side Beat's fantastic film noir-ish cover art by Don Alan, who also designed The Toasters' Black Flag-like logo with the three black bars and musical notes.)

"East Side Beat" is Buck's re-write of his "Brixton Beat" (which originally was inspired by the Brixton riots of 1981 that were the result of police oppression of minorities--particularly their use of the "sus" law, and the high unemployment/no future of Thatcher's England) off The Toasters' debut 1983 single, though it relocates the action from the poor, inner city London neighborhood of Brixton to Manhattan's seedy, low-rent, and somewhat dangerous (in the 80s and early 90s, anyway) East Village/Lower East Side/Alphabet City. It's now one of The Toasters' signature tunes, and has been played as an encore during their sets for decades. But even back in the late 80s, this was one of their most popular tracks and was guaranteed to get the crowd jumping in the air, pumping their fists, and shouting along with the "oi!" chorus.

Essentially, "East Side Beat" is the NYC rude boy (in all senses of that word: ska fan, rebel, criminal) night-on-the-town experience. Some are looking to check out the bands in the clubs or pick up women in bars; others are out to commit some crimes; and then there are the unfortunate rudies in the "wrong" skin brought up on bogus charges by racist cops and convicted by a justice system that is hostile to people of color. All are dealing with the risks of transversing the sketchy, violent, and decaying (but also funky and cool) urban landscape (Tomkins Square Park, in the heart of the East Village, was part open-air drug market and part homeless encampment, and you you rarely ventured past Avenue B into the drug den/projects of Alphabet City, even during daylight hours). But it's also where the ska scene was at in 1980s if you were going to catch a band or hang out with your crew in a dive (like Blanche's, The Toasters hangout, on 7th Street and Avenue A, right across the street from Tomkins Square Park).

"In a beat up Ford Cortina on Saturday night
Second Step and Urban Blight
Here come The Boilers, check out The Scene
But that's never Too True, if you know what I mean
The reception is cool, so turn up the heat
Come on boys, do some East Side Beat

Pick up your piece and make your play
I wonder what the old man will say
Caught in the act with a gun in your hand
And a fat old judge doesn't understand
Burning and looting down on the street
Come on boys, do some East Side Beat

Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!

Out in the jungle on a Saturday night
Trip over a junkie and there's two in a fight
Go over to the fellas, just chewin' the fat
Shark skin apes in pork pie hats
Big ugly skinhead across the street
Come on boys, do the East Side Beat

Into this stinker for a rack of pool
There's a girl at the bar who's beginning to drool
One more chaser, I'll move right in
She gets much fresher as I fill up my skin
Keep my whiskey cool, just like me
Come on boys, do the East Side Beat

Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!

So it's up in the morning, to try to get straight
Out on the turf, it's a theatre of hate
In a land you can't even call your own
And the big fat coppers won't leave you alone
Push you around, do the law with their feet
Come on boys, do the East Side Beat

So it's off to jail and up in the dock
Send you off for a short, sharp, shock
Tell racist jokes as they put you away
Never even listen, "What the hell you say?"
Burning police cars down on the street
Come on boys, do some East Side Beat"

Bucket's fantastically comical and paranoid "Mr. Trouble" updates and pays tribute to the rude boy decrying/mythologizing sides of Prince Buster ("Judge Dread," "The Barrister'") and Derrick Morgan ("Tougher Than Tough," "Retrial of Rudies") et al:

"Trouble is his middle name
Kicking Bucket, that's his game
You can't stop him, he's quite insane
Al Capone, Mr. Trouble!

So up he comes, and down you go
Thirty coffins in a row
Get outta town, and don't be slow
Baby Doc, Mr. Trouble!

He's figures big in scary tales
Walks on water, sleeps on nails
Shoots to kill and never fails
Scarface, Mr. Trouble!

He's nine feet tall, and six feet wide
Fists like mallets by his side
You can run, but you can't hide
Hell his name? Mr. Trouble!

Death and murder is his plan
He'll wipe you out
To the last man
You better get out while you can
Baby Face, Mr. Trouble!

He's got a .45, a .38
Brass knuckles, knives, and a razor blade
He likes his job, he doesn't get paid
Jack Ruby, Mr. Trouble!

If you don't like knuckles in your face
Get out of town, no time to waste
You'll disappear without a trace
Take care, Mr. Trouble!

So when you hear the sirens wail
Mr. Trouble he's on your trail
Some cretin let him out on bail!
Judge Dread, Mr. Trouble!"

The slightly misogynistic "Manipulator" (written by Bucket and Dinsmore) may not be the most enlightened song about women who use their wiles and feminine charms on men to get what they want ("All the fellows dig her cause she's funky fresh/Some people call her Doris but her name is Bess/She's always in the bar, you know she drinks for free/Why should she have to pay when there are suckers like me?"); but its catchy melody and bemused self-awareness help to redeem its sins.

"ABCs" is the Unity 2's signature tune (and great live), a great jazzy-reggae anti-drug toast/rap--essentially, a drug alphabet primer for the denizens of Alphabet City (which they later re-worked for their reggae/hip hop solo album What Is it, Yo? for Warner Brothers Records a few years later):

"Inna de A - Is for alcohol
Boom up the B - Is for booze, ya know
I man can C -Is for cocaine
Dope up de D - And dope a running in your veins
Big up de E - That is for E-balls
Flip-flop the F - Your future's written on the walls
Gang bang the G - That is for greed
Doing the H - A very stupid, dangerous deed
And I...

An intravenous injection
Jazz up the J - C'mon homie, just try one
No more KKK - On the corner, you'll find crack
Lionel the L - Stop fessin,' 'cause it's drugs you lack
Mash up the M - M is for you mind
Nuh nuh nuh N! - You need narcotics, just to unwind
Oh, oh, ponna O - You could get an overdose
Give I a P - The price you pay for cuttin' it close
Homeboy...

What's up with S - It's a constant search for drugs
Tease de T - And then you got beat up by thugs
You and U - Is united we stand
Why up de V - I got some valium in my hand
Dup up W - Is for woe is me
What's up with X - I also tried some ecstasy
Mister Lionel fe you ask why - The choice you make is yes or no
Zozo de Z - So, don't be a zero

ABCs..."

If you didn't have a chance to pick up these EPs back in the late 80s--or weren't even born yet!--grab a copy of each while you can. And if you're a Toasters' completist or love collecting ska vinyl, do I really need to encourage you to buy these?