Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Music Is Our Weapon"

In an interview I just posted with Smiley and the Underclass, I asked band members Smiley and James about the power of music and how it can be used (for better or worse) to change societal individual attitudes and behaviors. All of this immediately made me think of a book that I've just started reading: Dave Randall's "Sound System: The Political Power of Music." Two ska-related passages cropped up within the first twenty pages of "Sound System" that are worth noting here:

"Politics may well have remained largely off my radar, were it not for one August night spent in a field in Northamptonshire. Some mates had invited me to a music festival called Greenbelt, run by left-wing Christians. In a packed marquee between bands, the DJ dropped a tune by The Special AKA: 'Free Nelson Mandela.' I had no idea who Nelson Mandela was, but I knew by the end of the first chorus I wanted him to be free. In that moment, surrounded by thousands of festival goers hollering the hook, I learned--instinctively felt--that the future is unwritten and ordinary people like me could have a say. Music, I realized, is our weapon."

Contrast this with...

"Seemingly innocuous pop songs can also accrue an aura of terror in times of turbulent upheaval. When Uganda's former President Idi Amin was tightening his grip on power, the state radio station played 'My Boy Lollipop' all day long, interspersing its sugary refrains with military men's threats and warnings of curfews. Writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who experienced the coup and its brutal aftermath, told me that to this day she is unable to listen to that song."

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Here's what I wrote about "Nelson Mandela" and the rest of The Special AKA's magnificent In the Studio, back in October 2014.

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Interview with Smiley and the Underclass!

Smiley and The Underclass
From right to left: Smiley, James Shepard, Jay Hirano, Ryan Windross (who
just recently left the band; Derek Daley has taken over on bass).
(Interview by Steve Shafer)

We recently reviewed Smiley and the Underclass' incendiary debut album "Rebels Out There" and wanted to learn more about the band that created it. Fortunately, singer Smiley and lead guitarist James Shephard were kind enough to take the time to answer our questions (James via email; Smiley by recording his answers in an mp3 file). Read on to find out what drives them to write political songs (and not love songs); how Vin Gordon came to play on a few of their tracks; and which ska/reggae records they'd risk life and limb to save if their house were on fire...

The Duff Guide to Ska: Which bands/albums influenced Smiley and the Underclass’ sound (and how would you describe your music)?"

Smiley: "I can only speak for me, but I listened to a lot of Clash records when I was writing the early songs. I know James loves blues. We all quite like Nirvana, I suppose. Just because he did a lot with not that many lyrics and just the sound is raw and intense. Love Iggy Pop and old reggae. Tons and tons of dub--Scientist, King Tubby, Keith Hudson, anything tough. We want to make something that sounds new. We want to make something that sounds chaotic and of the time.

I don't know how we describe our music. Some people called it a skabilly. I think that might have even been you guys. Punky reggae is the most obvious thing, but we're definitely not a reggae band because we haven't got any keys or horns, for one thing. And we're not really a punk band because I don't know if you can be a punk band in 2017. Maybe it's more punk to be a cruise ship singer, at this point."

James Shephard: "I know Smiley loves classic reggae like me and also The Clash were a big influence for him. I listen to loads of stuff from all genres but blues, jazz, and reggae are probably most obvious. It's the little things though--maybe people won't spot a Sonny Sharrock or English folk influence, but it's all in there!"

DGTS: "When I first heard “It’s All England,” I thought it was primarily about embracing multiculturalism (which it is, in a way, right?), but after a read of lyrics, it seems to be more about being disenfranchised in one’s own country and insisting that you belong, no matter what your race, class, religion, etc. Is that a fair interpretation? What inspired you to write this song from this perspective?

Smiley: "'It's All England' is to my mind saying, yeah, it doesn't really matter where you come from, as long as you're peaceful and kind--then you're welcome in my society anyway. See, at the time of writing it that was sort of, at least it seemed to be maybe just in a metropolitan bubble or whatever they call it, that seemed to be the way society was going. Now, looking back at it, and it's only been well, not long at all since the first EP came out and only about five years, six years since I wrote the song. Yeah, the country's changed man, changed a lot. It is easy to feel disenfranchised in this country, like when you go outside of the cities and you go to any seaside town, be it Hastings, Eastbourne, you know, you see the same old shit. You see one street where there's a couple of shops left and the rest is, I dunno, modern decay shopping centres and potholes of dirty water in it.

It's weird how we are all disenfranchised in one way or another, that they're able to--and by 'they' I mean the sort of neo-right wing agitators like Farage--how they're able to use that disenfranchisement against one group, when it is all of us who are struggling in this tide.

I don't really know what inspired me to write 'England' because it came out mostly as a freestyle when I was busking on Camden High Street, before the band actually formed. I remember doing "Night Nurse" by Gregory Isaacs, which is a pretty standard late night busking interpretation and it's A minor in G, so it's easy and it just morphed into the chorus. I can't remember if I wrote the verses afterwards, I probably did. So, yeah, 'I don't know' is the answer to the question."

James: "Those are Smiley's lyrics, but I see it as a celebration of where we're from without the superstitious belief in this "England" we've been sold."

DGTS: What were you listening to/reading/watching while writing and recording “Rebels Out There”?

Smiley: "During the album recording, I think I was probably listening to what I normally listen to, which is old reggae. I'm a big freak for reggae vinyl especially the Wackie's label. So, if any keen readers want to send me some Wackie's vinyl, you know you know where to go. I don't really remember what I was reading, probably something lame like a Joe Strummer biography to get me in the mood."

James: "I was reading George Clinton's autobiography and listening to Dezarie, Midnite, and a lot of artists from the Virgin Islands, as well as Robert Glasper, Julian Lage and some other recent jazz stuff. And loads more, we're always listening!"

DGTS: Many of Smiley and the Underclass’ songs urge the listener to take action to better the environment, society, how we treat each other and ourselves. Clearly you believe that music can change people's attitudes and behaviors. Can you name/recommend several records (from any genre and any period) that you believe have had this kind of impact?

Smiley: "Yes, I do think music can change the world for good and for bad. I think you can see that going back probably to the dawn of man and music being used as sort of energizing opposing sides in battle. You can think of music like Fela Kuti's, which actually spawned and support social movements. You can think of smaller things, like influencing other people to write music. So, it's changing people's lives on a real grassroots level. Just changing one person's life at a time, maybe hearing a record and so you want to become a musician. And also if you check big movements these days, going back to the Occupy Movement I suppose to now, social media and any rising social movement sort of is accompanied by at least, you know, two or three--I hesitate to use the word hit song--but some kind of some kind of music video or something, which in turn spreads and goes viral. So, I guess in that way it can change the world. I don't know, but it has yet to form the utopia that we're all dreaming of, that we're singing about. I don't think music itself can change a person--only a person can do that. It can maybe unlock certain perspectives of certain ways of understanding that you hadn't thought of before. But so can a car accident. Yeah, it's a tough one. I don't know. I don't know is the honest answer.

Records that have maybe had that kind of impact on my life--Bob Dylan bringing it all back home because it made me think I could pick up a guitar. And a lot of the punk stuff as well. And, you know, going back again, as we always bloody do, to reggae music. The idea that people have so little in such trying circumstances can create something so beautiful and everlasting is testament to the power of music and its ability to impact people's lives in a very real sense, in a survival sense. And that's something that we have yet, I think, to grasp in this country. At least on a rock and roll, white boy level. Anything outside of fucking grime. "

James: "I feel music and any other art can influence us all in big and small ways. It can happen in obvious ways, but I think the high level creativity of people like Coltrane or The Beatles in the sixties might have affected people and their behaviour without them literally interpreting lyrics or trying to dress like the artists."

DGTS: Some bands shy away from taking political stances in their music for fear of alienating an audience. What drives you in the opposite direction? What compels Smiley and the Underclass to speak out about all of the injustice around us?

Smiley: "What compels us to speak out? Well, we're all weird looking, that's my theory. So, we don't write that many girls songs. Although, we've got some coming. Don't worry, I'm winking right now. I don't know. You know, we live in this fucked up time with this fucking mad, madman as president of the United States. We've got chaos at home and abroad, as they say. So, what else are you going to sing about? You know what else is going on. It's not the 90s, like Jay [Hirano, the band's drummer] says, you know. If we wanted to fuck, then we listen to Sam Cooke."

James: "If a child tells another child to stop pulling a cat's tail, is that political? Speaking only for myself, I have very little interest in politics."

DGTS: Some of this album was recorded at Mick Jones’ studio? How did this come about?

Smiley: "We met Mick Jones because Ladbroke Grove is a small place and it was Gary from the Rotten Hill Gang who introduced us. Yeah and he's a cool guy. Nice bloke. I fear we may have busted his guitar. Sorry, Mick!"

James: "Mick Jones showed an interest in helping us and naturally we felt very honoured. I hope we don't let him down!"

Likewise, Vin Gordon appears on at least one song on this album. How did you arrange this?
Vin Gordon

Smiley: "We met Vin just through good luck really. We met [Nick] Manasseh, first through Jay's car accident and he just happened to be in town for Notting Hill Carnival and Manasseh recommended we get a hold of him--and I think even fronted us an extra 50 quid, so we could book him. And, it was cool, man and they came in and his ring tone was the "Real Rock" riddim, which was hilarious. And, yeah, it was a great thrill to sit on the sofa in the recording studio and watch someone from Studio One times do his thing. So, he did "England" and he also did "Party Gone Wrong," which is something on our first EP, which has got a really nice tasty Manasseh dub, as well, for all you bass heads."

James: "Well, I know Vin Gordon from the London reggae scene, but Smiley made that link. I like how the song starts with a minor key anti-Elizabeth national anthem and later has a solo from probably the most prolific trombone player in reggae. Pretty hip don't you think?"

DGTS: If you could only save five of your ska/reggae albums from a fire in your home, which ones would they be (and why)?

Smiley: "That's a really difficult question and I've subsequently from reading this question gone and looked in my record cupboard and I have to ask does this include 45s? Does this include singles? For now, I'm going to say Harry Mudie Meets King Tubby's In Dub Conference, Volume OnePrince Buster's Fabulous Greatest Hits; The Light of Saba two-disc compilation they put out on Honest Jon's; and any of the Soul Jazz Studio One compilations. If you want to know my taste in 45s, we can do another interview, 'cause that can take up the whole thing."

James: "Don't know if it could only be five, but for the sake of discussion Praise Ye Jah by Sizzla by for the sublime flow, conviction, and energy that seemed to burst out of the young Miguel Collins. Very influential for me. Below the Bassline by Ernest Ranglin, because it's a great way to hear him and Monty Alexander on a laid back thing. Africa Unite by Bob Marley for the songs, arrangements, production, and vibe! Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear, same reasons as above, but more rootical! The Garnet Silk best of double CD on VP I think. One of my favourite singers ever--Dennis Brown's Words of Wisdom probably as well, but that's more than five."

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To hear more of Smiley and the Underclass' music, check out their videos for "Jump the Barrier" and "Machiavelli Blues."

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Friday, September 8, 2017

New Video of Rude Boy George's Cover of "Town Called Malice" for the "Gifted: Tribute to The Jam" Charity Comp

My former bandmates in Rude Boy George have just released the video for their fantastic ska cover of "Town Called Malice" for the four CD "Gifted: Tribute to The Jam" compilation, the proceeds of which will benefit The Teenage Cancer Trust, National Foundation for Youth Music, and Tonic Music for Mental Health.

Check out the excellent video below--and go to Specialized for more info about the comp/to pre-order it.

"The ghost of a steam train echoes down my track
It's at the moment bound for nowhere
Just going round and round
Playground kids and creaking swings
Lost laughter in the breeze
I could go on for hours and I probably will
But I'd sooner put some joy back in this town called malice."

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Pilfers' 20th Anniversary Show This Friday Night at The Well in Bushwick!

Just a reminder for the NYC ska massive that the Pilfers are playing their 20th anniversary show this Friday night at The Well in Bushwick!

Pilfers 20th Anniversary show w/Shy Ronnie and the Stylee, plus DJ Agent Jay

The Well
272 Meserole Street
Brooklyn, NY

Advance tix are here:http://www.ticketweb.com/t3/sale/SaleEventDetail…

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Duff Guide to Ska NYC Summer/Fall 2017 Ska Calendar #52

The Busters and Laurel Aitken anti-racist patch
(from the collection of The Duff Guide to Ska)
Friday, September 8, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

Pilfers 20th Anniversary w/Shy Ronnie and the Stylee, plus DJ Agent Jay

The Well
272 Meserole Street
Brooklyn, NY

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Friday, September 22, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

David Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7 Play the Music of Rico w/DJ 1000dBs

Hank's Saloon
46 Third Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

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Friday, September 29, 2017


2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard
New York, NY
21+/No cover

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Tuesday, October 3, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

Black Uhuru

B.B. King's
237 West 42nd Street
New York, NY
$25 in advance/$30 day of show
All ages!

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Saturday, October 14, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

DJ Gorilla Fest 2 with Beat Brigade, Skarroñeros, Raise the Kicks, Rebushchaos

96-11 Roosevelt Avenue
Queens, NY
$10/all ages

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017 @ 10:00 pm

Lee "Scratch" Perry and Subatomic Sound System, Francois K

74 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

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Saturday, October 28, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Rude Boy George, Tatanka, Lovely Budz

Sounds of Brazil
204 Varick Street
New York, NY
$12 in advance/$15 day of show

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Saturday, October 28, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

6th Annual Devil's Night Danse w/Mephiskapheles, Hub City Stompers, 45 Adapters

Bowery Electric
327 Bowery
New York, NY

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Duff Review: Reissues of Buster's All Stars "Skinhead Luv-a-fair"/Bad Manners "Return of the Ugly"

Skinhead Luv-a-fair LP
Blue Beat Records, 1989; Black Butcher Classics, 2014 (reissue)

Return of the Ugly LP
Blue Beat Records, 1989; Black Butcher Classics, 2017 (reissue)

Both records are available in the USA through Jump Up Records.

(Review by Steve Shafer)

According to George Marshall's unauthorized 1993 biography of the band (legally contested and, I believe, forcibly withdrawn), while on tour in the USA in 1985 after parting ways with Magnet Records (leaving in their wake a good run of terrific hit singles--"Lip Up Fatty," "Special Brew," "Lorraine," "Can Can," "Walking in the Sunshine"--and several fairly successful albums, including Ska'n'B and Loonee Tunes, all of which contained both truly great and disappointingly meh material), Bad Manners snagged a deal with CBS/Portrait, which led to the recording of the mostly dreadful Mental Notes. Despite the enormous amount of cash lavished on the album, the lackluster songs and mismatched pop production geared specifically for American radio (look no further than their cover of Todd Rundgren's "Bang the Drum All Day") doomed Mental Notes to the discount bins to be purchased by the clueless fan.

Marshall (of Zoot! Skazine renown) recounted that it eventually became apparent to Bad Manners that they were being used as a tax write-off for CBS (against the earnings of the label's profitable releases) when they were playing a show with Fishbone in Los Angeles in 1986 and Buster Bloodvessel (AKA Doug Trendle) called Portrait's LA office to inquire/complain about the non-existent tour support. To his horror, he discovered that no one there had even heard of Bad Manners, let alone knew they were signed to CBS/Portrait! Reportedly, on the way back to the UK, Buster stopped at Portrait's headquarters in New York and "tore up" their contract. But since this dramatic (and no doubt satisfying) act didn't actually dissolve their legal obligations, Bad Manners had several years to wait out the remainder of their contract before they could release another album.

While running down the clock with their label, Bad Manners continued to gig in the UK and even formed a side project with some of the Bad Manners crew (Buster, Martin Stewart, Louis "Alphonso" Cook, and Winston Bazoomies) and other London-based ska musicians (notably a former schoolmate of Buster's from Woodberry Down, Nick Welsh, and members of The Forest Hillbillies and Welsh's King Hammond band) called Buster's All Stars, in order to play smaller venues (without decreasing the guarantees that Bad Manners could demand) and keep the opportunities to perform coming. Eventually, the Buster's All Stars personnel became the new iteration of Bad Manners, recording the limited edition Eat the Beat LP--issued on Buster's own newly created/licensed Blue Beat imprint in 1988--which contained a slew of covers, as well as some fantastic new songs (mostly provided by Welsh) that would form the core of Bad Manners' triumphant Return of the Ugly album (while several other cuts reemerged on Buster's All Stars' Skinhead Luv-a-fair).

For all intents and purposes, Buster's All Stars' Skinhead Luv-a-fair is a Bad Manners album and quite a good one at that. Released the same year as Return of the Ugly (1989), it allowed Buster and company to simultaneously promote/sell two releases to the ska public, as well as beef up Blue Beat's catalogue (other key Blue Beat releases in 1989 were King Hammond's Revolution '70, reviewed by us hereNapoleon Solo's Shot; and the Live in London--The London International Ska Festival comp, also reviewed by us here--all of which are completely worth tracking down if you don't already own them). Skinhead Luv-a-fair is a mix of amped-up, crowd-pleasing covers (including Prince Buster's "Big Five," Symarip's "Skinhead Girl," and a rollicking version of Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk") and striking Trendle/Welsh originals ("Viva La Ska Revolution" and the King Hammond-sounding "Rocksteady Breakfast" in particular are top-notch; bizarrely, the awesome "Skinhead Love Affair" wasn't included on the album, but only appeared on the Skank Licensed to Ska comp and the b side of a Bad Manners/Buster's All Stars Christmas single!). If this had been the only album that Buster's All Stars/Bad Manners had put out that year, it would have been hailed as their comeback. But that accolade would be associated with their other effort that year--and deservedly so.

Return of the Ugly just might be the best album Bad Manners ever made. Every song is a winner and there's a cohesiveness in their spaghetti Western reggae theme ("Buffalo Ska" and "Bonanza Ska"!) and sound (dig all the judicious use of violin and harmonica!) that eluded practically all of their other records. Nick Welsh is the gunslinging hero here, writing "Skaville UK" (also released as a 12" single), "Since You've Gone Away," "Memory Train" (a personal favorite of mine), as well as collaborating with Buster on "Rosemary" and "Return of the Ugly" (borrowing the title of the lead track off of Lee Perry and The Upsetters' Clint Eastwood). Recognizing Laurel Aitken's considerable songwriting prowess, Bad Manners covered two (!) of the "Godfather of Ska's" then recent songs--"Sally Brown" and "Hey Little Girl." According to Mark Brennan's liner notes for the 2013 Pressure Drop reissue of Return of the Ugly on CD, Aitken himself played keys on "Hey Little Girl" for this recording! (I have to note how wild it was that so many versions of Aitken's "Sally Brown" were circulating in the late '80s--first there was the original Laurel Aitken/Potato 5 song released in 1987 on the Floyd Lloyd and The Potato 5 Meet Laurel Aitken LP and "Sahara" single (both on Gaz's Rockin' Records); Laurel recorded another version with the Pressure Tenants for the 1989 "Sally Brown" 12" (Unicorn Records); and it was released again on Aitken's mind-blowingly good Ringo the Gringo LP in 1990 (Unicorn Records)). The last cut on Return of the Ugly is something of an oddity, since it's actually a skacid cut (yes, in the UK in the late '80s this was a thing) from a 12" produced by Longsy D that Buster appeared on--yet somehow this trad ska/house beats mash-up works quite well here.

In 1988, I had no idea Bad Manners were still around until I picked up the first Skankin' 'Round the World comp licensed from Unicorn in the USA by Skaloid--The Toasters' ska imprint through Celluloid that released their Thrill Me Up album and Bim Skala Bim's Tuba City (and was slated to issue something from The Potato 5, but Celluloid soon went belly up and the Spuds called it quits after their difficult 1989 US tour, so that never transpired). Strangely, Bad Manners' contribution to Skankin' 'Round the World was Buster's All Stars' "Baby Elephant Walk" instrumental (with no vocals from Buster!). At the now long gone Bleecker Bob's in Greenwich Village, I later came across Return of the Ugly, which was one of many late '80s UK/Euro ska imports that I bought or mail-ordered through Unicorn Records to feed my increasing appetite for all things ska. During the summer (or early fall) of 1989, Bad Manners played Wetlands in NYC with The Donkey Show and my memories of that show--I'm embarrassed to say--are clouded by excessive drink that night, but what I do remember was pretty fantastic (like the incredibly rousing, sing-along rendition of "Sally Brown").

By 1990, Buster's robust touring schedule had kept him from tending business at Blue Beat's home office and their aggressive issuing of so many admittedly great (but not best-selling) records in 1989 left the label's finances in dire straights, so it was shuttered. But an even bigger blow was delivered as the result of the 1991 reformation of The Selecter. Neol Davies and Pauline Black borrowed Martin Stewart and Nick Welsh for The Selecter's first batch of live dates--and this soon became a permanent arrangement, leaving Buster without two of his key performers and his main songwriter/collaborator. According to an interview I did with Welsh in 2010, Buster hasn't spoken to him since.

Despite the acrimonious end of the late '80s incarnation of Bad Manners/Busters' All Stars, the two albums they produced are some of the finest of that era--and amongst the best that Bad Manners ever released.

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