Thursday, June 19, 2014

Duff Review: Beat Brigade "Kings"

Buddahbug Records
CD/digital/planned LP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

If you were part of the mid-80s NYC ska scene, or happen to own or have heard the spectacular and groundbreaking 1986 NY Beat! Hit and Run Moon Records compilation (also released as Ska-Ville USA in the UK) or The Toasters' 1987 "Talk is Cheap" split single, you know just how good Beat Brigade were (and still are!)--and that they were giving their contemporaries The Toasters a run for their money in terms of who was the top ska band in Gotham at the time. Like many of the first generation American ska bands, the multi-racial Beat Brigade were called to action by the sound and message of 2 Tone and were heavily influenced by The Specials and The Beat. But since they formed in the New Wave-era when the lines defining musical genres were especially fluid (check out all of the diverse ska sounds on NY Beat!), Beat Brigade also incorporated elements of calypso; 1950s rock, 1960s soul, and 1970s reggae; the socio-political awareness, outspokenness, and fury of The Clash; and the angry young man's verbosity and bite of a This Year's Model Elvis Costello or Look Sharp Joe Jackson (who happened to have produced The Toasters' Recriminations EP and Thrill Me Up LP, and sometimes played with the band at CBGBs). Sad to say, before the band was able to release an album or even additional compilation tracks, the ska band that was Beat Brigade fell apart, for many of the (stereo)typical reasons that cut down many a great band in their prime (though a radically different version of the band continued for a few more years, focusing more on funk and Latin sounds).

That would have been Beat Brigade's legacy--two killer tracks on vinyl and a ton of great memories stored in the gray matter of a bunch of now 40-somethings (had the planets properly aligned allowing Beat Brigade to reunite during the mid-90s ska-boom, they would have been huge!). But after some renewed interest in the band in the late 2000s (including interviews with guitarist/singer Carmelo DiBartolo and bassist Frank Usamanont by Marc Wasserman of the Marco on the Bass blog, and the NY Beat! 25th Anniversary Party at Dusk Lounge in Chelsea), original Beat Brigade members Carmelo DiBartolo, Jack Hoppenstand, Frank Usamanont, Erick Storkman, and Dave Barry, along with Ramsey Jones and Michael Kammers, decided to pick up where they'd left off just a few decades earlier (if you have a chance to catch one of their gigs, do it--they're an incredibly fun and dynamic live band!).

Beat Brigade likes to joke that Kings was 30 years in the making--but thank god it finally happened. This album fills in a significant gap in the recorded history of the early development of the US ska scene. Like The Toasters' modern ska classic Skaboom (1987), the equally essential Kings captures the fantastically gritty, aggressive, and ballsy sound of NYC ska in the second half of the 1980s, which influenced bands worldwide and launched the whole 1990s ska craze. And just like many of The Toasters' seemingly timeless songs from that decade, all of the super-charged tracks on Kings--most of which were written in the 80s (though some of the arrangements on the album are new)--sound as fresh, relevant, and powerful today as they did back in the latter half of the 80s.

Kings (a nod to Kings County--AKA Brooklyn--where many of the band hail from, as well as a playfully boastful reference to their status as ska elder statesmen) is a really terrific album, start to finish--and quite possibly is one of the best modern ska albums of the past 30 years (and certainly one of my favorites!). Since I like my music to have a message, I've always admired the 2 Tone tradition of addressing social, political, and economic injustice, which was honored and practiced by many of 80s-era NYC ska bands, including Beat Brigade. And they've got some great things to sing about here.

Beat Brigade's best-known song, "Armageddon Beat" is an incredible hymn of hope and resistance in the face of oppression and adversity that is lyrically inspired by The Clash's cover of Willie Williams' brilliant "Armagideon Time" and the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot that led The Clash to write "White Riot" (which Strummer hoped would incite white youth to riot for worthy causes, just like the black youth in the UK already had), as well as the 1981 UK riots that happened to coincide with release of The Specials' apocalyptic bulletin from the front lines of Thatcherite England, "Ghost Town." ("Armageddon Beat" is revamped a bit here, so it's now more of a ska song with calypso overtones, though they still play it as a calypso tune live!):

Do you remember the riots of Brixton?
Well, have you heard about the ghettos of Kingston?
Well, how much will it take to make you see?
One man's gold is another's misery

One by one, they'll come on down
From Notting Hill to Eglinton
Oh the time is come for a revolution
To free young minds from this persecution

You think it's over
But it's just begun
Listen to the rhythm of the conga drum
Dancing to the music, sweating to the heat
Armageddon beat
Armageddon beat

Dancing to the music of the Mighty Sparrow
Forget about your worries and leave them till tomorrow
Smoking up collie with a rastaman
Tell everyone and mash down Babylon

Junkie's dropped, just let him be
He's too filled up to know he's free
The time's ripe for revolution
So free young minds from this persecution

You think it's over
But it's just begun
Listen to the rhythm of the conga drum
Dancing to the music, sweating to the heat
Armageddon beat
Armageddon beat

Oh, these are not the Coptic times
You can't do the time, don't do the crime
A bullet flies, a word is spoken
Can't stand up when your back is broken

Sledgehammer sound blaring out the beat
Reggae music fills the street
Haile Selassie was the great defender
Many may fall, but he won't surrender

You think it's over
But it's just begun
Listen to the rhythm of the conga drum
Dancing to the music, sweating to the heat
Armageddon beat
Armageddon beat

Written at a time when there were American-funded/trained death squads operating in El Salvador and Honduras and illegal arms-for-American hostages deals, like Iran-Contra; the PLO, IRA, ETA, and many other groups (some state-sponsored, like Hezbollah) were still actively involved in bombings, shootings, hijackings, and hostage-taking; and shocking political assassinations (Egyptian President Anwar Sadat) and attempts (Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan), the hard-charging "Another Cause" decries the use terrorism and violence to forward one's political or ideological agenda. And posits that it's a senseless waste of lives that accomplishes little to nothing:

People's lives are in a mess
Used like pawns in a game of chess
Why must you cause so much grief and pain?
When there's so little for you to gain? 

Another cause
Another nation
Another sticky situation
Another bullet
Another head
Another person winds up dead!

"401 Kill" is one of the best and most pointedly furious songs I've heard about the 2008 Wall Street financial meltdown/scandal (and all of Wall Street's deceit, massive fraud, and rapacious greed that created the crisis in the first place--which ended up swallowing up about $2 trillion in average Americans' retirement accounts):

Now, when they blew up Wall Street
You thought it was really obscene
They say, "We're treating them like pinatas!"
I say beat 'em 'till they bleed

Where is all the candy?
Where is all the wealth?
I thought it was kind of understood
We all need some fiscal health...

...Here come the pitchforks and the class whores
Let's get started
Here come the civil wars
Don't tell me that the party's over
When it's only just begun!

You're trying to make 'em angry
Tying to get 'em riled
Just wait and see what happens
When the taxes are all filed

Well, they ain't got no health care
They ain't got no government checks
Just tell 'em who they're working for
And they can pay the rest

Foreclosing all our homesteads
De-funding all our schools
Don't be crying for skilled mechanics
When you've raised a bunch of goons

Well, don't say we didn't warn you
Don't say it isn't true
Just take a look in the mirror
And tell me that it wasn't you

Sadly, none of the pitchforks and torches stuff came true (though I loved the idea of Occupy Wall Street and how it kickstarted a national conversation about income inequality, I was disappointed that it didn't organize to do anything to bring about any real, lasting change). Apart from some fines that some of the banks paid for their malfeasance and (good-intentioned, but) watered-down financial reforms, no one ever went to jail for their crimes. The stock market is doing better than ever, income inequality is at record levels, and much of Washington is in big business' pockets. (I'm all for capitalism, but let's have well-regulated markets, banks following laws instead of trying to circumvent them, and a general adherence to ethical behavior instead of greedily rigging things to screw over the their fellow citizens, making massive amounts of money off other people's misery--subprime mortgages, anyone?)

The reggae lament "Has the Fire Died" wonders what happened to all of the progressive ideals and activism of the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements in the 1960s that allowed the Reagan, right-wing, yuppie go-go 1980s to gestate, emerge, and flourish. (I used to collect stamps as a kid and have all of these US Postal Service issued stamps from the first half of the 1970s that celebrate family planning (!), collective bargaining and organized labor (!), solar power, energy conservation, the UN, clean water, air, and land, registering to vote--things that have been almost demonized by conservatives in the US since the Reagan years and that could never be printed on stamps today without all sorts of ridiculous outrage.)

What are we fighting for?
I know not why
We try and try
For no reason

Keep on using that same old line
"We're different now"
Well, I said, "What have we done?"

At the parties and discos
It's all the same
No real difference, all very lame
The same look in everyone's eyes
and has the fire died?
(Can we still keep it alive?)

We all had purpose once
A better place
Was it all a lie?

But we seep right into oil their works
Was it a grave we built ourselves?
Because here I lie
And has the fire died?

The fire, will the flames grow?
Will they grow higher in the children's eyes?

Teach the children well...

The stellar "Keep Still Dark" is a sleek, dramatic Ian Fleming-inspired spy piece that transcends the standard 007 ska fare with its songwriting (there's no hint of Monty Norman's surf guitar riff--but there is an effective "Cool Jerk"-like horn and drum attack throughout) and sharp lyrics ("Some say diamonds are forever/I don't know about it/Should I live and let live?/Or should I make my move?/Clandestine arrangements in the dark/Show me the secrets/Tell me, will I play the ace of spades?/Or can I play the queen of hearts, my dear?/So what say, hush, hush, my dear?/Turn out the lights...").

The rest of Kings is filled with love songs that are about some aspect of being driven crazy--good or bad--by someone else. "Bitter Sweet" is a sax-propelled, sing-along ska track about being rejected by the one you love (and most reminds me of American ska circa 1985--like something off The Untouchables' Wild Child or Fishbones' debut EP--before punk and hardcore hyphenated the scene and trad ska bands countered with their authentic 60s sounds). The distressing "All the Lights Have Gone Out" is about discovering a loved one who has committed suicide (yikes!), while the manic "Try and Try Again" (reprised from their 1987 split single with The Toasters) is about two people who are nuts about each other and just can't get it right, but keep right on at it (and includes one of my favorite 80s signifiers of being enthusiastic about someone, "I'm hanging off the ceiling," as well as this inspired bit: "Post-modernism, impressionism/They're just pictures on a paper/Let me pose you one more time/And smile when you've had enough!"). The joyful calypso/high life-influenced "Lori" (which sounds like something off my fave Beat album Wha'ppen?) and the surprisingly tender (and smooth and jazzy) "One More Time" relieve all of the coiled-up tension of the rest of the album with songs about the pleasure of anticipating being with that special someone again soon.

It's a shame that Beat Brigade were gone for so long, but it's amazing--a gift, really--to have them back in action. For those unfamiliar with the current incarnation of Beat Brigade, it would be a mistake to assume Kings is an exercise in nostalgia. Yes, Beat Brigade have (finally!) made the album that they should have recorded in 1988, but it's not one that's trapped in amber. The band is alive, and vital, and organically moving forward. They're in it for the love of music, certainly not the money or glory (not much of that around in the ska scene, is there?). Kings is an album that's fiercely making up for lost time (the band already has additional tracks in the can and plans already are in the works for a second album!), but one that Beat Brigade took absolute care to get done right.

I can't recommend this album enough. Buy it now!

(Listen to all of the tracks on Kings at their Bandcamp page.)

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