Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Stateside Madness Reviews "The Duff Guide to 2 Tone"!

This composite image features the cover of "The Duff Guide to 2 Tone" (which features the title on the paper label of a record), the Duff Guide logo (a take on the Batman bat logo), and Walt Jabsco and The Beat girl.
Composite image courtesy of Stateside Madness.
 Since Stateside Madness are our homegrown experts regarding all things Nutty Boys (they're the US affiliate of the Madness Information Service), I sent them a review copy of my book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone, which contains a pretty hefty chapter on Madness, and hoped for the best. Several weeks later, I'm thrilled to announce that they have just published a rave review of The Duff Guide to 2 Tone written by Donald Trull. 

Here's an excerpt: 

"The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is chock full of personal fan nuggets that elevate it above a mere collection of record reviews. I relish Steve’s finding of the exceptionally rare Rico Jama LP. I envy him for seeing Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar play together in New York City in 2019. I admire his heartfelt reflections on the occasion of Ranking Roger’s passing. I relate to his interview with Roddy “Radiation” Byers, whom I myself had the pleasure of chatting with at length before a North Carolina gig a couple of years ago. I love that Steve mentions his favorite album by The Beat is Wha’ppen? No way, I think he and I must be the only two fans who share that oddball opinion! And indeed, his reviews have a thing or two to teach a crotchety old know-it-all like me – for instance, I had vaguely heard of The Specials’ Live at the Moonlight Club but never bought it. After reading Steve’s reverential praise for the 1979 bootleg-turned-legit release, I had to go grab it. I’m sure glad I did. Thanks, buddy."

And this is in response to my write-up of Madness' The Liberty of Norton Folgate

"Though it may seem anathema for someone with my obvious bias, I found myself especially enchanted with Steve’s confession that he was never the hugest fan of Madness. In his ranking of the top 2 Tone acts back in the day, Madness came in at number four, with The Specials/The Special AKA being his big favorite. He explains that he was drawn to the strong political views expressed by the Dammers crew from Coventry (as well as The Beat and The Selecter), moreso than the comparatively sunny pop sensibilities of the Nutty Boys. That’s fair enough, an opinion shared by many of my friends who have showed appreciation for British ska. Americans tend to deem The Specials the “coolest” band in the genre, I know. But when The Liberty of Norton Folgate came along in 2009, Steve had to reconsider his former assessment.

“When it seemed like their 2 Tone peers had run out of things to say,” he writes, “Madness were delivering the songs of great meaning that I had wanted from them in my youth – a concept album that promotes multiculturalism as the only path to real freedom, and the notion that the history of a place and its people has an extraordinary impact on making this possible.” This he follows with a thorough unpacking of “We Are London” and the epic title track, dissecting them with rigorous wonder. It’s some of the finest Madness analysis I’ve ever read."


Monday, October 19, 2020

The Selecter, The Bodysnatchers, and Rhoda Dakar and The Special AKA Featured on "Make More Noise! Women in Independent UK Music, 1977-1987"

The cover illustration is an homage to Russian Constructivist poster art and features an illustration of a young girl in a dress holding up a placard with the compilation title on it.
 Though it's not always fully acknowledged, the UK punk class of '77 not only inspired countless young men to learn three chords and form their own bands, it also spurred numerous female musicians to put together groups and demand their own space on stage and in the record bins (something pretty much unheard of in the rock music scene up until that point). Of course, the DIY punk ethos bled into the late 1970s UK ska movement known as 2 Tone and motivated a number of rude girls to get in on the action--and write, record, and perform songs that were from women's points of view. All of this is well-documented on the terrific new four-CD Cherry Red compilation Make More Noise! Women in Independent UK Music, 1977-1987, which features tracks from The Selecter, The Bodysnatchers, and Rhoda Dakar and The Special AKA.

Like many of their punk, post-punk, new wave, and indie peers highlighted on Make More Noise!, these female 2 Tone artists had meaningful and oftentimes quite profound thoughts to voice regarding sexism, sexual violence, and the experience of being a young woman in the UK during this time frame (which coincided with the emergence of feminism in the mainstream as significant force pushing for gender equality in the courts, workplace, and and at home).

For Make More Noise!, The Selecter's entry is the Pauline Black-penned "Black and Blue" (one of my faves) off Too Much Pressure, which is about being a lonely and outcast teenage girl. Given Black's childhood--adopted by a white family and one of the few non-white kids in her school and community--it's more than likely that "Black and Blue" is about being on the receiving end of racism, too. Even though The Bodysnatchers' single "Ruder Than You" served notice that the ska scene was not a male-only endeavor, the more universal "Easy Life" might have been a better choice for this comp, as it reflected how women were challenging British society's prevailing and entrenched attitudes regarding their role (something we're still grappling with today), and acknowledged how difficult it was to defy these expectations and fight for real equality. Rhoda and The Special AKA's recording of "The Boiler" (originally written and performed live by The Bodysnatchers), is an absolutely brutal and harrowing tale of date rape that deserves inclusion here, even if one can only stomach listening to it once in your life (that's all it takes to deliver its message). 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: The Bakesys, Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards, The Man on the Bridge (AKA Dave Clifton)

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
Two older women huddle under a clear plastic umbrella as they walk down a city street.
  • The Bakesys' awesome "Rainy Day Dub" is being offered as a free download in advance of their forthcoming More Bakesys full-length vinyl album (which was previously issued as a CD EP--my review of it is here). This track is the dub version of their haunting "Anything and Everything" ("...is falling down"), which sounds like More Specials-era Specials produced by Prince Fatty or Mungo's Hi-Fi, and is about the devastating impact of mass unemployment paired government cutbacks to public services. It was originally written in response to Teresa May's austerity measures, but it's equally relevant in this Covid-19 lockdown era. 
  • The cover illustration features an astronaut sitting on a tree limb.
     The Man on the Bridge is guitarist, singer, and songwriter Dave Clifton of the '80s UK ska act The Hotknives, who's been a member of the stellar Erin Bardwell Collective as of late. This six-track EP Million Miles Away (CD/digital, Pop-A-Top Records, 2020) is a collection of new studio recordings engineered by Erin Bardwell, who gives Clifton's terrific mood and memory evoking (rather than storytelling) songs a touch of his "dream-ska" sound (Bardwell plays keys and sings, too). Hotknives fans will hone in on "Don't Blame Me," a great Marley-ish reggae track known as "Dave's Song" that was in that band's live set in the '80s but never recorded in the studio, and the heartbreaking she's-leaving-me "Believe It" (from their 1990 debut album on Unicorn Records, The Way Things Are) with Pat Powell of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra on guest vocals. "Looking Over the Land" is a rather upbeat Madness-like cut (music hall piano, sax courtesy of Paul Mumford from Too Many Crooks and The Hotknives) with lyrics by Bardwell about repeatedly encountering a seemingly lost older man all around Swindon who was apparently suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's ("I tried to talk, he walked away/Where did he used to live/That man on the bridge"). "Just Dreaming" is a fantastic rootsy dub cut featuring an ethereal flute line that soars over the rhythm track (bass by Pete Fitzsimmons, drums by Pete O'Driscoll). "Never Say Never" is a lovely, hopeful pop-reggae song about letting go of what might or might not be someday, and trying to be happy in the now ("Stumble across the front room floor/To the window on the other side/I'm looking down the garden path/That's my heart hanging on the line/Please don't give me up/(No no no)/Let's just live it up/(Yeah yeah yeah)...Let's treasure this time we got together"). The title track--my favorite on the EP--is not a Plimsouls cover, but rather a brilliant Celtic-tinged ska song about being a certain (middle) age in life and longing for what you can never have again ("I remember those nights at the fairground/'Double Barrel' playin' on the sound system/This big wheel keeps turning 'round/Switch back screams the smell of candyfloss/Somebody calls out your name/You look around, but its from above/Now the O'Jays are singing 'Love Train'/You know your life will never be the same"). This is highly recommended--don't miss it!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

2-Tone.info Spotlights and Reviews "The Duff Guide to 2 Tone"!

 As any knowledgable fan of 2 Tone will tell you, Jason Weir and Peter Walsh's 2-Tone.info is the best and most comprehensive website about the 2 Tone label and all of its affiliated bands. So, I'm incredibly excited to note that my new book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is prominently featured on the home page of their website (see the screen grab at right), and highlighted at the top of their 2 Tone-related Books page (just above Daniel Rachel's Walls Come Tumbling Down, which contains a phenomenal oral history of 2 Tone from all of its major players). 

Here's an excerpt of Peter Walsh's review of The Duff Guide to 2 Tone

"I really enjoyed Stephen's book. He writes very well, with a personal touch and with great passion about the bands and releases while not shying away from being critical when he feels something is not quite up to scratch. One thing he does which I enjoyed a lot is give a lot of emphasis to the lyrics, something maybe we here at 2-tone.info are guilty of not doing.

The book is a guided trip through many of the 2 Tone and post-2 Tone releases which you can mostly check out as you read about them on Deezer or Spotify or wherever you stream your music from these days. As someone who hadn't checked out a lot of this music, Stephen's book was a great guiding hand and I found some very interesting music along the way.

In addition to the new music he cites, he drops lots of great titbits of info and anecdotes that even those of us who have been around the 2 Tone block will find new and interesting.

I've read a few 2 Tone related books this year and The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is right up there with them. Definitely one worth picking up."

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The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is available from the following Amazon sites:

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon AU
Amazon CA
Amazon DE
Amazon ES
Amazon FR
Amazon IT
Amazon JP

Also, copies of my book can be ordered through Copasetic Mail-order in Germany.

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Monday, October 12, 2020

Do the Dog Skazine Reviews "The Duff Guide to 2 Tone!"

I'm both humbled and thrilled that Kevin Flowerdew of Do the Dog Skazine has reviewed my book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone in issue #107 (with Catbite on the cover) of his esteemed and long-running publication.

In case you have trouble making out the text in the photo, here's what Kevin wrote about my book: 

"An essential read is the superb new The Duff Guide to 2 Tone book by Stephen Shafer. Stephen runs one of the world's finest ska blogs, The Duff Guide to Ska, and was also Moon Records' director of promotions, marketing, and production back in the '90s. His new book boasts 254 pages packed with reviews of 2 Tone albums from all the main bands involved with the label, plus interviews with major players from the era and write ups of their more recent activities. Stephen's eye for detail is incredible and his love for 2 Tone oozes from each page. The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is available to buy online from Amazon. Make sure you snap up your copy sooner rather than later!"

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The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is available from the following Amazon sites:

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon AU
Amazon CA
Amazon DE
Amazon ES
Amazon FR
Amazon IT
Amazon JP

Also, copies of my book can be ordered through Copasetic Mail-order in Germany.

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Thursday, October 8, 2020

Duff Guide: Laurel Aitken "En Español"

Liquidator Music
LP
2019

"Quizás" b/w "Negro"
Del Corazón Music
Colored vinyl single w/jukebox strip
2019

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While cycling around Manhattan last week--one of my ways to stay sane during these completely insane times--I stopped off at Rock and Soul, the great DJ equipment and record shop that's been around since the 1970s and was a favorite of DJs in the early NYC hip hop scene, as their record section always yields a few surprising gems that I want. This time round, I unearthed a nice Mighty Diamonds compilation on vinyl, as well as the recent 20th anniversary, remastered, gatefold reissue of Laurel Aitken's 1999 album En Español.

Even though I'm a huge fan of Aitken's, this record didn't really register on my radar back in '99. That year, it was more than evident that Moon's demise was right on the horizon, and all that we had worked to build up over the past decade was starting to crash down around us. My promotions budget had been eliminated and my staff let go, and I left the label that spring, as there wasn't much to do beyond updating the Moon website, and I felt guilty for still drawing a salary. While working a new day job in advertising production, I also was setting up my new digital-only ska/reggae label called 7 Wonders of the World Music in the evenings and on weekends. Since I had closely managed the team that handled the press and radio publicity for Laurel's 1998 US tour (and FedExed him several new pork pie hats along the route, as fans kept swiping them), I spoke with Laurel several times on the phone about doing a non-exclusive license of some of his music with 7 Wonders, but he wasn't really interested in doing mp3s, and wanted an advance that wasn't unreasonable, but one that I couldn't swing. That summer, I caught Laurel backed by The Allstonians performing at SummerStage in Central Park. Afterwards, we talked a bit--it was a fantastic show--and he held and chatted with my toddler son, which was like having the Pope personally bless your child.

Laurel was born in Cuba and lived there until his family moved to Jamaica when he was eleven, so Spanish, of course, was his native language. Yet, Aitken's En Español is his only Spanish language album, recorded when he was 71 years old. Backed by the ace Skarlatines, En Español is a mix of brilliant new songs, covers of popular Cuban, Mexican, and Spanish standards, and reworked Aitken hits from earlier decades. While the new "Negro" ("Black") is an upbeat and irresistible ska track, it reminds me of his more muted "Rude Boy Dream," as both are about being hopeful despite being very down on their luck ("I don't have a mom/I don't have a dad/I'm black, from the inland/And I come to the city/Because I live alone/Full of loneliness/And I'm looking for a woman..."). It's spectacular and deserving of inclusion on any overview of Aitken's later recordings ("Negro" was also issued as a colored vinyl single in the US by Del Corazón Music, which is also distributing En Español in the USA). The other fantastic new cut "Niña Niña" is equally as bright and catchy, even though it's about begging your partner for forgiveness for an unspecified offense ("Girl, girl/You know that I will never leave you/I didn't want to make you cry/I was a fool drinking beer downtown/With my friends/And now I'm crying/You know how much I love you"). All of Aitken's songs are relatively straightforward with uncomplicated arrangements, but they're always packed with memorable hooks, and his singing is so relaxed--seemingly effortless--and self-assured. The man was a prolific tunesmith and consummate performer.

"La Paloma" ("The Dove") may sound familiar, as this 1850 Spanish song about a dove serving as a messenger that conveys a love that transcends the barrier between the living and the dead is one of the most covered songs in history (and it has been featured in the soundtrack of many movies). Laurel's ska take is impassioned and quite lovely. Another instantly recogizable track is "Quizás, Quizás" ("Perhaps, Perhaps") by Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés, which has been covered by everyone from Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Desi Arnaz (who recorded the first English version) to Cake and The Pussycat Dolls ("Whenever I ask you/What, when, how, and where?/You always answer me/Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps"). Mexican songwriter Alberto Domínguez's "Perfidia" (which was popularized by Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat and entered the ska/reggae canon with Phyllis Dillon's 1967 version) is great, but the selection of something less well-known would have been more welcome. The 1929 bolero "Aquellos Ojos Verdes" ("Those Green Eyes") is by Cubans Adolfo Utrera and Nilo Menéndez and appropriately melancholy for a song about unrequited love ("Those green eyes that I will never kiss").

Of the Spanish language versions of Laurel's earlier recordings, "Medico Brujo" ("Witch Doctor from Amsterdam") was originally recorded in 1977, but remained unreleased until it was featured on the 1989 Unicorn Record comp Rise and Fall: The Legendary Godfather of Ska, Volume 1. "Auge Y Caida" ("Rise and Fall") comes from a slightly lewd 1969 popcorn reggae track that appeared on a Doctor Bird single (and is also on the aforementioned comp). "Ojos Sexys" ("Sexy Eyes") borrows heavily from his 1981 Sunbeam 45 "I Love You, Yes I Do" (which also appeared on his 1990 Ringo the Gringo LP), and his "Sahara" was first recorded with the Potato 5 in 1986 for Gaz's Rockin' Records. All of these are terrific selections and sound great in these renditions.

In a career that spanned over five decades, Laurel never released a bum album, and his En Español is no exception.

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For Clash fans: While doing a bit of research on this album, I came across this Aitken cover.

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Friday, October 2, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Vin Gordon, Park Rangers

The cover features a photo of Vin Gordon smiling.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • Despite having been Studio One's trombonist-in-residence following the tragic death of Don Drummond, and performing on hundreds of key recordings for top ska and reggae acts (including Lee "Scratch" Perry, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, The Heptones, The Ethiopians, Culture, Big Youth, Horace Andy, Mad Professor, Mighty Diamonds, Bob Andy, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo, Max Romeo, King Tubby, The Skatalites, Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, Alton Ellis, The Revolutionaries, Aswad, and many more), Vin Gordon's public profile has never quite matched that of his peers Drummond and Rico Rodriquez (he's only mentioned a few times in Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton's Reggae The Rough Guide and Colin Larkin's The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae for playing on other people's records--and doesn't even have his own entry in either book; while Gordon's nickname "Don D., Jr." is meant to be complimentary, perhaps it has kept him trapped in Drummond's shadow). Many ska and reggae fans know his trombone sound, but not his name. Recent collaborations with producers/musicians Al Breadwinner and Nat Birchall--including last year's superb African Shores (read my review of it)--have helped to rectify this situation, and Studio 16's reissue of Vin Gordon's masterful 1980 debut album Way Over Yonder (vinyl LP, Studio 16) should seal the deal. Produced by Errol "ET" Thompson (who also was the recording engineer on much of Rico's Rico Jama a few years later), backed by a fantastic band including Lloyd Parks, Sly Dunbar, Winston Wright, Bobby Ellis, and Tommy McCook, and released on Joe Gibbs Music, Way Over Yonder is a brilliant instrumental reggae album that makes judicious use of solos to show off Gordon's incredible chops without overpowering his bandmates' excellent performances. In addition to Jamaican jazz versions of standards like "Easy Living" and Lovable You," this album features two amazing medleys, "Fiddler Rock" (AKA the "Swing Easy" riddim, which is the song "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof) with "Real Rock" (Gordon plays on the original Sound Dimension riddim; ET adds some ocean wave effects that work quite well); and the standards "Summer Time" and "Blue Moon." Gordon also covers one of Don Drummond's greatest compositions "Green Callie" (AKA "Green Island"), as well as his "Confucious"--and there's a lovely original by Errol Thompson, the title track "Way Over Yonder." This album has been out of print for years--original pressings are almost impossible to find, so make sure to grab a copy now. Gordon's Way Over Yonder deserves an honored spot in your collection right next to Rico's Rico Jama and Drummond's The Best of Don Drummond. 
    The cover is the single paper label featuring the band and song names.
  • Anyone who picked up Little Roy's Battle for Seattle--an album of phenomenal roots reggae Nirvana covers produced by Prince Fatty and Mutant Hi-Fi (read my review of it)--knows that since Kurt Cobain and co's songs contain great, enduring melodies at their core, they're ripe for being recast within wildly different musical genres. Japan's Park Rangers' new single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (vinyl single, Parktone Records, 2020; available through Juno Records), which Little Roy didn't cover, is a terrific companion piece to Roy's LP for fans who want more of this. Park Rangers' skinhead reggae version of this grunge-pop staple channels Jackie Mittoo and Winston Wright--so much so that you'd think that the copyright on the label is dated 1969. The flip side is a stripped down reggae take on Kool and the Gang's 1974 hit instrumental "Summer Madness" (one of the most sampled R and B hits of all time) that keeps the original's signature synth washes and multi-octave upward glissandi. There are cool Japanese spoken word bits in the mix, too. On a related note, in 2016 Park Rangers (AKA Inokasira Rangers) released an awesome digital album full of instrumental skinhead reggae covers of classic punk and post-punk cuts called Rangers Patrol 1977​~​1982 UK! Highlights include their versions of The Clash's "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais," Dexys Midnight Runners' "Geno," The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks," The Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get," Ian Dury and the Blockheads' "Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll," The Jams' "The Bitterest Pill," and their extraordinary deconstructed cover of The Damned's "Neat Neat Neat," which is Prince Buster meets James Brown and The Upsetters.
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