Thursday, March 28, 2019

In Memory of Ranking Roger of The Beat

A young Ranking Roger from The Beat smiles widely as he walks down the center of a street in Birmingham. Short row houses are on either side of him and his bandmate Saxa is in the background.
Photo: Adrian Boot (from "The Beat: Twist and Crawl" book by Malu Halasa;
note Saxa in the background!)
(By Steve Shafer)

This past January, during an extraordinary videotaped chat titled "Wha'ppen" with music journalist and author Daniel Rachel where Ranking Roger talked so candidly about his strokes, discovery and removal of two brain tumors, immunotherapy treatment for lung cancer, and the prospect of facing his own mortality, one could see in his eyes how understandably shaken he was by the whole experience--but his words, voice, and facial expression conveyed nothing but hope for his recovery, a desire to perform again for the 2 Tone 40th anniversary celebrations even in limited physical health ("I know I can sing!"), and deep gratitude for his many fans' expressions of support. And as clearly dire as his situation was, one absolutely believed that if anyone could beat cancer, it would be Ranking Roger.

So, the news that Roger passed away on March 26 at the painfully young age of 56 was profoundly unfathomable. How could someone bursting with so much love, joy, and life NOT be alive anymore?

The (English) Beat, along with Echo and the Bunnymen, were the soundtrack to my high school years--always on heavy rotation in my Walkman, on my stereo (WLIR loved its Special Beat Service--though my friends and I had many debates over which of The Beat's three albums was the best), and when I could commandeer it, the family car. As they were for many people, those particular years were tough ones. I didn't fit in at all at my school (I was a middle class suburban kid lost in a sea of incredibly wealthy kids from Park and Fifth Avenues) and absolutely dreaded practically every minute spent there. I also was probably dealing with some depression, too. But the music I so zealously loved validated (important for the teenage psyche!) and expressed whatever I was feeling--whether up ("Best Friend") or down ("Save It For Later"), pining away ("Hands Off, She's Mine"), or political ("Stand Down Margaret")--and lent me the strength to keep getting out of bed everyday just to take it on the chin.

It's always a shock to the system when someone so closely associated with your youth dies. Even though we know better, they're frozen in time in our minds; we've aged, part of them hasn't (so it breaks our hearts when reality intrudes). Back in the day, probably a lot of Gen X Beat fans like me felt what may have been an unconsciously close connection to Ranking Roger. After all, he was still a teenager (16 years old!) when he joined The Beat in 1978 and was only a few years older than me and many of my peers by the time we came to know him (whereas the rest of the band seemed like they were solidly adult men, even if they were only in their early 20s--with the exception of middle-aged Saxa!).

I only had the pleasure of catching Ranking Roger live in performance a few times. The first was when General Public played The Ritz in NYC in December 1984. Roger's hair was dyed in alternating blond and brown stripes (like it was on the cover of ...All the Rage) and he was amazing to watch--he was in constant motion on stage, covered in sweat, and clearly enjoying every second he sang for and interacted with the audience. (I missed seeing him with The Beat--I found out about their Special Beat Service related show at Rosalind in Manhattan the day after it happened and felt like an idiot for weeks afterwards.) And I caught him a few times with the wonderful Special Beat in the early 1990s, too.

My well-worn Beat cassettes from the early 1980s.
Last fall, Ranking Roger's version of The Beat was scheduled to co-headline a tour of the West Coast with Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson's Selecter and I had big hopes that a few East Coast dates might be added, as The Selecter has done extremely well the last few times they've been in NYC, and it had been ages since Roger last played here. Sadly, it was cancelled when Rogers' health issues began to manifest themselves. But I never imagined that he wouldn't recover and eventually find his way over here again.

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In Malu Halasa's 1981 band bio "The Beat: Twist and Crawl," the reader is introduced to Ranking Roger as someone, "who talked like a Rasta but had anarchy symbols all over his leather trousers and jacket. His hair, short braids on top, was dyed bright red and ginger. Aside from being one of Birmingham's few black punks, Ranking had charisma. During a Damned show at Barbarella's (Brum's only punk hangout), the audience, a rough mix of punks and skinheads, started chanting NF slogans. Roger, who had been toasting in various pubs around town, highjacked the DJ mike and began singing in rhythmic Jamaican style "Fuck-off, Fuck-off De Na-tion-al Front! "Fuck-off, Fuck-off De Na-tion-al Front!" Soon the entire audience was chanting along with him. He had earned his nickname from some sweet, white girl at school whom he loved dearly, but who had refused his advances, calling him "Ranking" instead. Ranking Roger was too crazy to be anybody's boyfriend."

According to Halasa, 16 year-old drummer Roger Charlery--a first generation black Briton whose parents had immigrated to the UK from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia--first encountered the fledgling Beat (Dave Wakeling on rhythm guitar and vocals, Andy Cox on lead guitar, David Steele on bass, and Everett Morton on drums) in 1978 when they were slated to open for Roger's punk band The Dum Dum Boys at a Birmingham pub called The Matador. It was The Beat's debut live performance. This connection led Dave Wakeling to invite Roger to see The Beat during their Tuesday nights residency at another pub, the Mercat. Roger (who had toasted with UB40, the reggae band Eclipse, and a reggae punk band called the Visitors) was soon on stage toasting during The Beat's reggae tracks and the band soon invited him to stay with them for their entire sets. By the end of the residency, he was a full-time member of the band and could crash at Dave Wakeling's flat whenever he needed to.

Over the summer of 1979, which began with The Specials releasing their self-produced debut single "Gangsters" with The Selecter's "The Selecter" on the flip side, The Beat got their first of several lucky breaks, a gig at Ashton University with Radio One's John Peel as DJ. Halsa recounts that Peel was so blown away by the band that he ended up swapping his payment of £360 for their £80 (he felt they worked harder than he did for it) and talked up the The Beat on his next radio show. Then, an opening slot for The Selecter led to a supporting space on the bill for their short UK tour. And this led them into The Specials' orbit; Jerry Dammers approached The Beat after their London show to offer them a deal to do a single on 2 Tone. As they prepared to record their debut single "Tears of a Clown" (backed with "Ranking Full Stop"), The Beat decided the song needed a sax to complete its sound; Everett Morton knew of an old Jamaican musician who had played with Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, Desmond Dekker, and supposedly The Beatles, and Saxa (born Lionel Augustus Martin) soon completed the The Beat's line-up. That fall 2 Tone exploded (The Specials, Madness, Selecter, and Beat singles topped the charts and all appeared on Top of the Pops)--and the rest is well-trod history.

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In his brilliant and essential oral history "Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, and Red Wedge," Daniel Rachel, who had completed working with Ranking Roger on his forthcoming autobiography "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat" prior to his death, documented The Selecter's manager Juliet De Valero Wills recalling that "The Beat was more of a natural fit to 2 Tone [than fellow Brummies UB40]...They had that black-white thing and the look--it was a no-brainer--and Roger jumping around all over the place. He looked amazing and absolutely summed up the youthful energy of 2 Tone. He always had a smile on his face."

Roger also is quoted by Rachel summing up The Beat's driving mission: "The Beat was definitely a political band but we have long songs and a commercial side too. It was a balance. It was politics at home: meaning politics with your woman, or whoever is governing your country, and world politics. And it was our experiences. We saw racism; we wrote about it. We saw unemployment; we wrote about it. We saw war; we wrote about it. We were singing about realities, like punk and the reggae acts from the past. We just updated it to what was happening to us. Like 'Doors of Your Heart,' Stick him a room and turn off the light/Bet you couldn't tell if he was black or white? The philosophy behind Beat lyrics was throwing questions. Give them a story and let them decide for themselves. The spirit was promoting peace, love, and unity."

And that was Roger's guiding principle throughout his whole life: "I said a love and unity/The only way!" (from "Whine and Grine/Stand Down Margaret").

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When Ranking Roger sang together with Dave Wakeling, it was as if they were twin baritones--two halves of the same fantastic, resonant voice. During some songs, you couldn't tell where Dave ended and Roger began. But only Roger could toast (so incredibly well and effortlessly) and it gave The Beat an edge and appeal that the other 2 Tone era acts couldn't really touch. Go back, pull out all your old Beat albums and singles, and marvel at him on "Psychedelic Rockers," "Pato and Roger A Go Talk," "Doors of Your Heart," "French Toast (Soleil Trop Chaud)," or whatever your favorite tracks are.

Roger's most recent album with his version of The Beat, Public Confidential (read our review of it through the link below), was finished prior to his illness and it serves as an extraordinary parting gift to his fans. If you haven't heard it, get it.

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Towards the end of the "Whap'pen" video with Daniel Rachel, Roger talked about his life's work: "Every time the gig is finished or nearly finished, I just see pure smiling faces. So, I know I'm doing the right thing, the righteous thing...It's the most brilliant job anyone could have had is being an entertainer. You can be in front of all of those people and you can move them and make them all happy. That's the most joyous thing that I could have done."

Roger's life was so well lived. May we all be so lucky. Long may his spirit and music live in our hearts and minds.

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Below, please find Ranking Roger-related Duff Guide to Ska reviews and write-ups:

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Duff Guide to Ska Spring/Summer 2019 NYC Ska Calendar #2

This is a film still from the movie "Babylon." Jah Shaka and the actors portraying Beefy and Lover are in a crown at a sound clash.
Jah Shaka, Beefy, and Lover in the 1980 film "Babylon."
Thursday, March 21, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Bumpin' Uglies, Rude Boy George, Uncle Jerome

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10 in advance/$12 day of show
All ages

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Saturday, March 23, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

David Hillyard and The Rocksteady 7, DJ 100dbs

Hank's Saloon
345 Adams Street
Brooklyn, NY
$8 in advance/$10 day of show
21+

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Saturday, April 13, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

Less Than Jake, MEST, Punchline

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
The Liberty Belle Riverboat
Boards Pier 36, 299 South Street
New York, NY
$39.99 in advance/$45 day of show
21+

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Sunday, April 14, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

Less Than Jake, MEST, Punchline

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
The Liberty Belle Riverboat
Boards Pier 36, 299 South Street
New York, NY
$39.99 in advance/$45 day of show
21+

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Sunday, April 14, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

NYC Ska Orchestra, Jah People

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Saturday, April 20, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

The Annual 420 Reggae Fiesta on the River
Dub is A Weapon, Crazy Baldhead Dub Apparatus, and more!

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
The Liberty Belle Riverboat
Boards Pier 36, 299 South Street
New York, NY
$35 in advance/$40 day of show
21+

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Saturday, April 20, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

420 Celebration w/Cannabis Cub Band, H.R., Dog, Rude Boy George

Sony Hall
235 West 46th Street
New York, NY
$20

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Friday, May 10, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Mephiskapheles, The Press, The Take, Sewer Skrewer, Gilipollas

The Kingsland Bar and Grill
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15 in advance/$20 day of show
16+

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Friday, May 17, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Slackfest: The Slackers play Big Tunes (potential set list includes "Married Girl," "Sarah," "Rude and Reckless," and more; go vote www.theslackers.com/polls) with The Hempsteadys, The Fad, DJ Rata

The Kingsland Bar and Grill
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$20 in advance/$25 day of show (3-day passes available)
16+

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Saturday, May 18, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Slackfest: The Slackers play Love and War (potential set list includes "Red Light," "Feed My Girl," "International War Criminal," and more; Go vote www.theslackers.com/polls) with Westbound Train, The Scotch Bonnets, DJ Miss Haps

The Kingsland Bar and Grill
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$20 in advance/$25 day of show (3-day passes available)
16+

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Sunday, May 19, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Slackfest: The Slackers play Deep Cuts (potential set list includes "Stars," "Sing Your Song," "Contemplation," and more; go vote www.theslackers.com/polls) with The Far East, Ensemble Calaveras, DJ One Hundred Decibels

The Kingsland Bar and Grill
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$18 in advance/$22 day of show (3-day passes available)
16+

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Friday, May 31, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville Presents: The Pandemics, Sgt. Scagnetti, The Twilights, Fink's Constant w/DJ Ryan Midnight

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A and B)
New York, NY
No cover (but bring cash for tip bucket!)/21+

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Friday, June 14, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

The Specials

Brooklyn Steel
319 Frost Street
Brooklyn, NY
$45 in advance/$50 day of show
16+

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Tuesday, June 18 and Wednesday, June 19, 2019 @ 6:30 pm

Toots and the Maytals w/Selectress Iriela

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$36-$129
21+

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Friday, July 19, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

Radicsfest #2 (In memory of Roy Radics of The Rudie Crew; a portion of the proceeds of the show will go to Roy's family.) w/Pilfers, Mephskapheles, Spring Heeled Jack, Hub City Stompers, Rude Boy George, Sgt. Scag.

Gramercy Theater
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
$25/16+

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Saturday, July 27, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Long Beach Dub Allstars, The Aggrolites, Mike Pinto

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$20/21+

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Friday, August 2, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

The Prizefighters

The Kingsland Bar and Grill
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
16+

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Friday, August 16, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

The Slackers

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
The Liberty Belle Riverboat
Boards Pier 36, 299 South Street
New York, NY
$35 in advance/$40 day of show
21+

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Wednesday, August 28, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

NY Ska Jazz Ensemble

Iridium Jazz Club
1650 Broadway
New York, NY
$25/all ages

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Friday, August 30, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

The Skapones (UK)

The Kingsland Bar and Grill
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
16+

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Friday, March 15, 2019

Duff Review: Zara McFarlane with Dennis Bovell "East of the River Nile" 12" EP!

Brownswood Recordings
12" vinyl EP/digital
2019

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While reggae/dub musician and producer extraordinaire Dennis Bovell's profile may not be as high as it was in the '70s and '80s when he was working with artists like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Matumbi, Rico, The Slits, Madness, The Pop Group, Janet Kay, Orange Juice, his own productions (as Blackbeard or under his given name), and countless others, he's been steadily performing and producing in the many years since (Boy George, Viv Albertine, Joss Stone, Alpha Blondy, and more), consistently releasing amazing productions for the enjoyment of those in the know who haven't lost his thread (read a few of our recent reviews here, here, here, here, and here). This new collaboration with British-Jamaican singer Zara McFarlane, who's known for blending and being incredibly proficient in both the reggae and jazz genres (check out her soul-jazz and reggae versions of Nora Dean's "Peace Begins Within"), is a brilliant take on Augustus Pablo's classic instrumental "East of the River Nile."

On this EP, which consists of two versions of the vocal cut with two dubs (the alternate dub is wonderfully percussion-driven), McFarlane sings vocalise (nonsensical vowel sounds) and improvises on Pablo's melodica line, while her ace band (Nathaniel Cross on trombone and arrangements, Moses Boyd on drums, Jay Darwish on bass, Ashley Henry on keys, Junior Alli-Balogun on percussion, and Binker Golding on tenor sax) captures the "Far East" roots reggae sound and tension of the original exceedingly well. Bovell mixed all the tracks and created the shimmering and mesmerizing dubs--expansive aural landscapes full of heat and mirages. All in all, it's an impressive release that fans of Pablo's music will very much want to hear and own.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Specials' Feature (Plus More Ska!) in the March 2019 Issue of Mojo!

In the March 2019 issue of Mojo, there's a really excellent feature titled "Friendly Fiyah" by Keith Cameron on the history of The Specials, the making of their new album Encore and the reaction to it (Terry Hall: "People come to see us. And people have said they'd like to hear new material. Well, hello. Here's some new material. You'll probably hear it and say, 'I'd rather hear the old stuff,' but you asked for it!"), and trying to pin down why Jerry Dammers never joined the 2008 reunion of the band.

As a Specials' fan, it's depressing (but, of course, not surprising)
to read the author's summation of the situation:

"Whichever side of the fence you're on, this sorry mess ultimately comes down to the severed alliance between Jerry Dammers, the guy who mostly wrote The Specials' songs, and Terry Hall, the guy who mostly sang them."

Lois Wilson's sidebar interviews ("2 Tone Tales") with other 2 Tone-era musicians on their lasting impressions of that movement are a great read, too:

Pauline Black: "As a band, or a band like The Selecter, you put out a consistent social/political message, certainly a message of progressiveness, of standing for anti-racism and anti-sexism, and the songs reflected that, what it was like to grow up on the streets for black people at that time, how we dealt with the things we faced and if you wanted to make common currency with white people, that was only going to happen through music and I think that is the legacy, really, of 2 Tone."

Rhoda Dakar: "Initially, 2 Tone was just a label to us [The Bodysnatchers], we signed because we wanted to be part of the 2 Tone tour. But it became much more. Punk had started to break down the barrier between fan and audience, with 2 Tone, the barrier completely came down and a movement was formed around us, by the fans taking was 2 Tone said, its anti-racist stance, and interpreting it and backfilling the story. Perhaps that's the legacy, the fans, how fundamentally there were/are affected by the message and then spreading it."

Dave Wakeling: "[The Beat]...wanted to have fun with a social/political discourse and when you have people of a different color wearing the same fashions at the weekend and dancing together to the same music, it is a little bit harder to start a race war on the Monday...I had hoped that the 2 Tone bands themselves could have set a better example--playing an anniversary tour together, but perhaps it's the nature of the rock industry/UK that it's very hard for most of them to work with each other. Me and [Ranking] Roger have been notorious for our spats but I wanted to do a few shows together. It's hard to preach peace, love and unity if you can't play together and in that kernel is the challenge and disappointment of 2 Tone, but you battle on in your life as best you can."

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This issue also contains reviews of The Specials' Encore, the Rudies All Around, Volume 1 compilation, UB40's new For the Many album, and The Trojans' Top Hits collection.

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Friday, March 8, 2019

US Theatrical Premiere of "Babylon" at Brooklyn Academy of Music, March 7-14, 2019!

Released in 1980 and celebrated as a British entry into the specialized genre of reggae music/culture films (joining, of course, Jamaican movies "The Harder They Come" from 1972 and "Rockers" from 1978) but never shown before in the US (see below for why), "Babylon" finally has its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, from March 7 through 14, 2019.

BAM's promotional copy about "Babylon" provides all the reasons why you need to see this film:

"Banned from the New York Film Festival for “being too controversial, and likely to incite racial tension” (Vivien Goldman, Time Out) and never released in the US, Franco Rosso’s incendiary 1980 film follows a young dancehall DJ (Brinsley Forde, frontman of landmark British reggae group Aswad) in Thatcher-era South London as he pursues his musical ambitions while battling fiercely against the racism and xenophobia of employers, neighbors, police, and the National Front. Written by Martin Stellman (Quadrophenia) with beautiful, smoky cinematography by two-time Oscar winner Chris Menges (The Killing Fields), Babylon is fearless and unsentimental, tempered by the hazy bliss of the dancehall and set to a blistering reggae, dub, and lovers rock soundtrack anchored by Dennis Bovell."

A few of the screenings have Q and As with Brinsley Forde and Dennis Bovell (tonight's session after the 7:30 screening with punk journalist and NYU professor Vivien Goldman is sold out, but tomorrow's with Carter Van Pelt of WKCR and Coney Island Reggae on the Boardwalk still has tix).

The New York Times reviewed "Babylon" in today's print edition and Brinsley Forde and Dennis Bovell were interviewed on WNYC (which can be listened to here).

While copies of the film's 1980 soundtrack can still be found on the web, Dennis Bovell recently released his original score for "Babylon" as a digital album (which contains music not included on the original soundtrack LP).

After its NYC screenings, "Babylon" will play various art house theaters in major metropolitan areas across the US from March through June (check out the full list of showings here).

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Duff Review: David Storey "80s Iconic Music Posters" Booklet!

This book cover features Blondie's Debbie Harry leaning back with her hands behind her head and her eyes closed. She looks like she's dreaming.(Review by Steve Shafer)

As any 2 Tone fan who's an obsessive reader of album credits knows, artist and graphic designer David Storey had a key role (along with Jerry Dammers and John "Teflon" Sims) in creating much of that label's classic cover artwork, including The Selecter's debut album, The Specials' Ghost Town EP, The Special AKA's In the Studio LP and "Nelson Mandela" single, and Rico's Jama Rico. After graduating from Hornsey School of Art in the late '70s, Storey joined Chrysalis Records as an art director just in time to have a significant hand in designing the stunning, enduring, and highly influential visuals that accompanied--and helped define--the extraordinary music released on the 2 Tone label.

Recently, Storey recreated many of the promotional posters he originally designed for the 2 Tone releases and other Chrysalis artists (Fun Boy Three's "Our Lips Are Sealed" single, Blondie's "Atomic" and "Rapture" 45s, and records from The Housemartins, Iggy Pop, The Lightning Seeds, Icehouse, and others) as a series of incredibly gorgeous limited edition fine art prints (I have my eye on the "Nelson Mandela" and Rico Jama prints--and the the "Starvation" charity single poster is positively haunting in what it represents). He's also collected all of these prints in a smart and affordable booklet titled "80s Iconic Music Posters," which features an appendix with Storey's recollections about each poster (what inspired it, who was involved in its creation; his stories regarding the "Nelson Mandela" and Rico Jama designs are fantastic!), as well as a reprinted, in-depth, must-read article from the March 20, 1980 issue of Sounds regarding how the cover art for The Selecter's debut album came to be.

Many of the original posters are long gone (I do happen to have a copy of the This Are 2 Tone poster that was included in the first pressings of the UK version of the album!), lost to time; from being taped on and torn off bedroom and dorm walls too many times; or from the general abuse of one's things that comes along with just being young (I still wish I had my Keith Haring "Free South Africa" and Echo and the Bunnymen Heaven Up Here posters from the '80s). But this book and these prints give one a second chance at having a piece of these iconic images and they're a perfect gift for any 2 Tone fan you know.

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Monday, March 4, 2019

Record Store Day 2019 (US) Update: The Skatalites' "Greetings From Skamania" on LP for the First Time!

When the list of 2019 Record Store Day releases came out late last week, I was surprised not to see anything from Jump Up Records on the list, particularly in light of their incredible reissue (with Shanachie) of The Skatalites' Hi Bop Ska for RSD 2018.

So, I reached out to Jump Up's Chuck Wren to see what was going on and he let me know that due to some sort of clerical error between his distributor and the RSD folks, Jump Up/Shanachie's reissue of The Skatalites' 1996 album Greetings From Skamania was not included on this year's RSD list--but it should be in record stores on Record Store Day this April 13, 2019.

Here's the promo copy of the record from Jump Up:

"First time on vinyl for Jamaican ska originators' 1996 masterpiece, green vinyl with poster insert exclusive for Record Store Day. On this set original '60s players are still going strong -- lead by the saxophone trio of Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, and Lester Sterling, drummer Lloyd Knibbs, bassist Lloyd Brevett, and vocalist Doreen Shaffer. Produced by Joe Ferry and band leader Tommy McCook."

As you can see from the promotional image, there is some concern that stores may not be aware that this LP is available, so get in touch with your local shop to make sure they'll be stocking it!

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