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

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

(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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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Duff Review: "007 Licensed to Ska: James Bond and Other Film Soundtracks and TV Themes"

The cover features the title of the album within a stylized barrel of a gun (used in all of the Bond films); Don Drummond is featured in an inset photo playing the trombone.Soul Jazz Records
5 x vinyl single box set

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While it was common practice for the original 1960s instrumental ska bands to cover popular songs and movie themes of the day, the James Bond connection to the Jamaican music scene was firmly cemented in 1962 during the filming of the first Bond film Dr. No, which was set on the island (as were Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun). Of course, Bond author Ian Fleming lived in Jamaica on an estate called Goldeneye, and he was the one who recommended future Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell to Dr. No's producers as a location scout and production assistant (the Blackwells were neighbors of Fleming, and unbeknownst to her son, Blanche Blackwell had a long-term affair with Fleming). Chris Blackwell, in turn, introduced composer Monty Norman, who had been hired to write the Dr. No soundtrack, to the "uptown" and more respectable Byron Lee and the Dragonaires (both guitarist Ernest Ranglin and trombonist Carlos Malcolm were in his band), who recorded the calypso-ish music on the movie soundtrack, and appeared in the film performing "Jump Up" (Blackwell apparently can be spied dancing in this scene, too).

In addition to the fact that the first Bond movie was shot in Jamaica, the stylish, womanizing, and legally transgressive Bond character resonated with many Jamaicans, as he was akin to the rebellious rude boy persona associated with toughs in the sound system scene (and street-level gangsters)--and celebrated/decried in the ska music of the early to mid-1960's (see Stranger Cole's "Rough and Tough," The Wailers' "Simmer Down," "Rude Boy," and "Jailhouse," Alton Ellis' "Dance Crasher" and "Cry Tough," Baba Brooks' "Gun Fever," Desmond Dekker "Rudy's Got Soul" and "007 (Shanty Town)," Derrick Morgan's "Tougher Than Tough" and "Cool Off Rudies," The Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad," The Valentines' "Blam Blam Fever," Prince Buster's "Judge Dread," Lee Perry's "Set Them Free," Dandy Livingstone's "Rudy, A Message to You," and dozens more).

In terms of risk management, since the better songs from movie and TV soundtracks already were well-known and liked, it made financial sense for budget-conscious record producers like Studio One's Coxsone Dodd to try to capitalize on their popularity by recording and releasing cover versions given a ska spin by some of the JA's best musicians (and they didn't have to solely rely on their roster of composers coming up with new material to record that may or may not sell). While most popular music is open to individual interpretation--we are free to associate whatever emotions and personal experiences we want to them (despite the songwriters' intentions)--these highly evocative and dramatic film and TV theme songs are specifically crafted to musically brand the traits of their particular fictional leads and frame their back stories. (To put it crassly, the theme songs are more sophisticated, bigger budget jingles to help sell movies instead of breakfast cereals.) Whenever I hear the opening guitar riff of the Bond theme, I'm thinking about how cool and sadistic Sean Connery is in that role, not what I was doing or how I feeling when I first heard it (and I don't even remember when or where I first heard it)--though listening to it always makes me feel cool and deadly like Bond. Within a matter of a few minutes, these theme songs aim to elicit specific moods and memories from listeners, calibrate their expectations for what this show or movie will deliver, and set the stage for all that is to transpire once the action starts. So, in this manner, popular theme songs often create uniform reactions (in terms of emotions and memories) across large groups of people that can be used and borrowed by others via cover versions.

For Record Store Day 2020, Soul Jazz Records collected many these now hard to find and pricey James Bond-related Studio One recordings (plus three others--hence the ridiculously long title of this release) in the superb and instantly collectable 007 Licensed to Ska: James Bond and Other Film Soundtracks and TV Themes 7" singles box set. Almost all of them feature Studio One's ace house band The Soul Brothers--Jackie Mittoo, Roland Alphonso, Johnny Moore and Lloyd Brevitt--who formed right after the dissolution of The Skatalites in the summer of 1965, and were joined by a rotating group of top JA musicians, including Bobby Ellis, Bryan Atkinson, Bunny Williams, Dennis "Ska" Campbell, Harold McKenzie, Harry Haughton, Jah Jerry Haynes, Joe Isaacs, Karl Bryan, Lester Sterling, Lloyd Knibbs, Lynn Taitt, Sam Wells, Vin Gordon, and Wallin Cameron. Dodd, naturally, was at the controls, producing all of these sessions. Notably none of these tracks are straight covers. They've been interpreted through a Jamaican ska-jazz lens by gifted musicians, who have utilized the widespread recognition and appeal of these movie and TV show themes, but transformed them into something new that they own--transmuting commerce back into art.

007 Licensed to Ska kicks off with The Soul Brothers' "James Bond Girl" (1966), a great minor-key Roland Alphonso original that captures the frisson in the sexual allure and possible menace the woman in this role presents to 007 during each mission, and nicely incorporates the John Barry/Monty Norman Bond theme in its intro and outro. It's paired with Roland Alphonso and The Studio One Orchestra's excellent ska-jazz take on "From Russia With Love" (1965) by John Barry and Lionel Bart (Alphonso has a sweet solo here).

Record two features a beautiful Jamaican jazz read of the instrumental version of John Barry's "Thunderball" by The Soul Brothers (the Keyboard King solos), which is backed with Mittoo's awesome 1969 keyboard-heavy reggae funk cover of Dominic Frontiere's "Hang Em High"--from the spaghetti Western-like revenge film of the same name (the track is clearly an homage to Ennio Morricone)--which appeared on Mittoo's Keep on Dancing LP.

"Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (1967)--Bond summed up in a nutshell--by John Barry and Leslie Bricuss is another instrumental cut from the Thunderball soundtrack (though there is a version with lyrics sung by Shirley Bassey). The Soul Brothers drain the schmaltz to reveal the cracking melodies hidden within that made for a perfect Skatalites-like ska track. The dark and wonderful "007" by The Soul Brothers is credited to Alphonso/Dodd/Mittoo, though some of its horn melodies may share some notes with Barry's "007," also from the Thunderball OST, but the song thoroughly sounds like it's theirs.

Lee Perry and The Wailers' terrific "Pussy Galore," a 1965 Dodd/Perry original, is a fairly conventional ska song with Perry's weirdness lurking beneath the surface, just itching to be released. Scratch warns the listener, "If you are rich and wanna get poor/Just fall in love with Pussy Galore" (the character, apparently based on Blanche Blackwell (!), appears in Goldfinger and is played by Honor Blackman, who was in the TV show The Avengers as Dr. Cathy Gale before Diana Rigg came on as Emma Peel). The Soul Brothers' jaunty "Mr. Flint" (1966) borrows Jerry Goldsmith's theme for the James Bond spoof Our Man Flint.

I never before realized that The Skatalites' incredible 1965 cut "Ball of Fire" (AKA "Echo Four Two") was composed by Laurie Johnson for the short-lived 1961 British police procedural Echo Four Two (Johnson famously wrote the theme to the TV show The Avengers). To this day, it stands as one of The Skatalites' best recorded performances. The set is rounded out with a rare lounge-y interpretation of Barry's "007" instrumental by The Soul Brothers retitled "James Bond Danger Man."

Hopefully, Soul Jazz Records will also release this collection as an LP someday, as something this good should be available to the ska massive, not just those lucky enough to come across this singles box set on Record Store Day. There's the potential for good commerce in making this art available to the masses.

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Monday, September 28, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Top Shotta Band Featuring Screechy Dan, and The Return of Flying Vipers

The cover illustration features a Black couple riding a motorcycle with a cloud of smoke behind them.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  •  A mainstay of the Brooklyn ska and reggae scene, Top Shotta Band (led by ex-Slacker/Murphy's law trumpet man Mush1, and including Slacker Vic Ruggiero and The Far East's Maddie Ruthless) featuring Screechy Dan (Megative, Leon Dinero, Vital Crew, Big Yard, Shaggy Posse) have released their incredible second album Spread Love (LP, Liquidator Music, 2020), which is available in the US directly from the band (direct message them through their FB page) or through one of my fave BK shops, Record City. Striving for--and achieving--a vintage, live ska studio sound like those created by Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster, and Justin Yap (all of whom worked with The Skatalites--they're the act Top Shotta Band channel and honor exceedingly well on this LP), Spread Love is--shocker!--filled with songs about romantic love, and love and respect for your fellow human beings and yourself. "Share My Love" (Screechy Dan's pitch for why he should be her man) and the awesome "Cool and Deadly" ("I'm a champion/I'm nobody you can stomp on/But you can keep your eyes on/A conqueror, that's what I am!") already have been spun off on a Liquidator 45. But there are loads of additional top-shelf tracks, including the encouraging wisdom shared in "No Complaints" ("So, live the life you love/And love the life you live/Don't worry about what could have been/Be thankful for what is"), the head over heels profession of love and devotion in "Coming Over," the rhythmically unusual "Johnny," the cool out son cut "Easy Yourself" ("The more you think you tough/The more you gonna suffer"), the killer dance floor filler "Ska Ska," and the wonderful duet in the anti-bad boy cut "Rude Boy" ("Boys and girls, this is my story/Make sure you have all of Jah glory/And no, don't you be a rude boy, I tell ya"). If traditional ska is your thing, this album is a must.
    The cover illustration features a volcano erupting, while in the foreground snakes slither through a jungle littered with skulls and bones.
  • Since Flying Vipers' incredible debut full-length record Cuttings is soon being released on plum-colored vinyl by Jump Up Records, it's worth revisiting my review of the digital version of this album from back in July:
"After releasing a series of superb cassettes (The Green TapeThe Copper Tape), and physical and digital singles ("Highest Region," "Nervous Breakdub (Pandemic Version)" b/w "PMA Calling") over the past few years, Flying Vipers have finally issued their first long-player Cuttings, which, as one would expect, is crammed with incredibly hooky, dubby roots reggae instrumentals reminiscent of Dennis Bovell's magnificent productions and Perry's recent and awesome collaborations with Adrian Sherwood and Daniel Boyle
Cuttings, of course, refers not only to the leaves that have been harvested from cannabis plants, but these musical fruits of the band's labors in the studio--and they have one bounteous crop here. Highlights include "Leaf Miner," which has a wonderful interplay between a rigid and relentless bass riff and a series of answering free flowing Rhodes piano lines; the prescient, apocalyptic "Two Twenties Clash" (and people thought things were bad back in '77!); the Bunny "Striker" Lee tribute "Flight of the Gorgon" with its majestic, panoramic horns; the bad-ass "Scorpio Son" and its version "Son of Scorpio"; and the supremely confident and untouchable "Puff Adder" (many of the cuts on this album are ripe for being versioned by deejays and singers--and becoming well-known riddims in their own right). 
Flying Vipers are comprised of the devastatingly good rhythm section of Marc and John Beaudette (Destroy BabylonThe Macrotones), the gifted Zack Brines (Pressure Cooker) on keys, and Jay Champany (10 Ft. Ganja Plant) on percussion and the master at the analogue controls (plus ace guests on horns, sax, flute, clarinet, and binghi). 
If you haven't been paying attention to this band, Cuttings is a brilliant introduction to the mighty Flying Vipers; and if you have, you're going to love this album!"
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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Duff Review: Various Artists "2 Tone: The Albums" Box Set

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Released as part of the ongoing 40th anniversary celebration of 2 Tone (which has included a box set of 2 Tone vinyl singles), the eight-CD box set 2 Tone: The Albums captures most of the extraordinary music issued by this label over a short number of years--and soundly reminds one why 2 Tone continues to resonate with old fans and new converts to the present day. This box set is comprised of The Specials' The Specials, The Selecter's Too Much Pressure, The Specials' More Specials, Dance Craze, Rico's That Man Is Forward and Jama Rico, This Are Two Tone, and The Special AKA's In the Studio. I've seen and agree with comments from fans lamenting the exclusion of The Selecter's Celebrate the Bullet--even though they had left the label by the time it was recorded, The Selecter were still on Chrysalis, and Celebrate is unquestionably a 2 Tone record in sound and spirit. I also believe The Specials' phenomenal Live at the Moonlight Club--recorded just a few months before they went into the studio with Elvis Costello--should have been included in this collection, as it actually serves as a better debut album than the studio version, and documents the band at its best in performance.

While the majority of these albums have been previously released on CD over the decades, 2 Tone fans will still be enticed to pick up this set, as this edition of Dance Craze restores the Madness tracks that were excised from previous CD reissues over copyright issues, and for the fact that Rico's magnificent Rico Jama has never before been available on CD outside of Japan (and import, vinyl copies of both of Rico's 2 Tone albums were hard to find in the USA even when they were first released!). Jerry Dammers led the art direction for the packaging, which is sharp and in line with 2 Tone's established retro aesthetics. Each album is housed in a mini-LP sleeve with its original artwork, and the inner sleeves feature the albums' original paper labels and other graphic elements. Dance Craze and This Are Two Tone were remastered for this release (both are also being issued in half-speed master editions for Record Store Day 2020; neither has been repressed on vinyl since the 1980s; Chrysalis--please give Rico's albums the same vinyl reissue treatment!), and the other albums feature new or 2015 remastered versions. And the list price is a very reasonable £35.99 (around $38), though you'll have to find an import copy if you're not in the UK.

Lastly, I'd add that the tremendously good and insightful liner notes by Peter Walsh and Jason Weir of 2-Tone.info really cap an already fantastic package. Even though I'm fairly knowledgeable about all things 2 Tone, I learned many new details, such as what the "Ultra Stereo" listed on the back cover of More Specials referred to ("instrumental tracks were pushed hard left and right in the stereo field so listeners could listen to two completely different mono albums" by adjusting the balance knobs on their stereo receivers; I tried it while listening to "Man at C and A" and it works!); the fact that the E in More Specials was sometimes deliberately scored in ads or obscured by a what appears to be a hype sticker ("includes the single Stereotype/International Jet Set") on some album covers, so that it ironically read MOR, as in "middle of the road," which the album certainly was not; and that Rico's cut "That Man is Forward" was included in the soundtrack for Barbet Schroeder's great 1987 Charles Bukowski bio pic Barfly with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.

Obviously, 2 Tone: The Albums is the best introduction to these bands that a newbie could ask for. But long-time fans, whose old, well-worn and merely adequately mastered CDs could use updating, should definitely consider springing for this terrific box set.

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Shameless plug: You can find my reviews of reissues of many of these 2 Tone albums, as well as write-ups of all of the 2 Tone bands' more recent records, gigs, books, and movies in my new book, The Duff Guide to 2 Tone, which is available worldwide through Amazon, and Copasetic Mail-order in Germany.

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