Thursday, August 15, 2019

Upcoming 2 Tone 40th Anniversary Releases

We're already more than halfway through 2 Tone's 40th anniversary year and the 2 Tone faithful have seen precious little in terms of celebratory concerts and anniversary-related releases. No doubt, the fallings out between members of each of the driving bands behind this label have put the kibosh on anything extraordinary happening, which is certainly a shame.

However, just before the calendar year runs out, Chrysalis will be issuing two releases which will be of some interest to obsessive collectors. The first is a remastered and cut at half speed on double vinyl at 45 rpm edition of Specials' debut LP to be released on October 11, 2019. The second and somewhat more interesting release is Two Tone 7" Treasures, a collection of twelve 7” picture sleeve singles selected by Jerry Dammers, which represent his favorite singles released on the label between 1979 and 1984. These singles are "presented with their original sleeve designs in a bespoke 1960s style carry case along with a Two Tone 7” slipmat and an art card signed by Jerry Dammers." Pre-orders are being now being taken at Rough Trade (UK) and it will be available on November 15, 2019; this box set is retailing for 90 pounds sterling. (None of the selections are rarities and long-time fans will have all of them, though the add-ons are very cool; notable omissions from this collection are The Specials' "Rat Race" and "Do Nothing" singles, and Rico and The Special AKA's "Jungle Music.")

One supposes that an expanded, two LP version of the Dance Craze soundtrack or a reissue of Rico's incredible (and hard to find) Jama Rico would be too much to ask for (and is there really nothing good left unreleased in the vaults?).

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Singles Going Skanking: Le Grand Miércoles' "Lone Gunman Theory" b/w "I've Got to Surf Away" and Ska Jazz Messengers' "Mil Veces No" b/w "Mil Veces Dub"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Le Grand Miércoles "Lone Gunman Theory" b/w "I've Got to Surf Away" (7" vinyl picture sleeve single, Liquidator Music, 2019): The latest single from Le Grand Miércoles serves up yet more amazing surf-ska-rocksteady (they've labeled it "surf steady") from this Spanish ska supergroup (with members of The Malarians, Dr. Jau, Pataconas, The Offbeaters, and the Golden Singles band). "Lone Gunman Theory" (which, of course, refers to the Warren Commission's official determination that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin involved in JFK's killing and that there wasn't a conspiracy to assassinate the president) is a sprightly, if moody (and kind of laid back for the band), organ-centric instrumental. The flip side revisits their incredible, supercharged cover of John Holt's "Man Next Door" from their fantastic 2014 Ghost Cowboys album (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of it here), this time adding--intentionally or not--slightly Elvis-sounding vocals to great effect. Oddly, they don't go the nine yards and revise the lyrics from "I've got to get away from here" to "I've got to surf away from here..." Marvelous stuff, nonetheless!

Ska Jazz Messengers "Mil Veces No" b/w "Mil Veces Dub" (7" vinyl picture sleeve single, Liquidator Music, 2019): This is the excellent debut single from this Venezuelan band, in advance of their first album, which is slated to be released later in 2019. "Mil Veces No" ("A Thousand Times No") is a 1969 pop-soul b-side by Venezuelan pop group Las Cuatro Monedas (The Four Coins) about being once bitten, twice shy ("I was in love with you/and suffered loving you like that/I don't want to repeat it") and is transformed into a wonderful Skatalites-like track by the Ska Jazz Messengers. The dub on side b is more of a straight-up instrumental version with some echo effects mixed in, which is fine, but including another new or previously unavailable track might have been a better move (like their awesome cover of Pharell William's "Happy" from a few years ago). Having said that, this single is a compelling teaser for their new album!

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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Prince Fatty featuring Big Youth and George Dekker "Get Ready" b/w "Get Ready Dub"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Prince Fatty featuring Big Youth and George Dekker "Get Ready" b/w "Get Ready Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2019): This extraordinary 1966 Smokey Robinson-penned and produced track for The Temptations--one of the defining songs of the 1960s (and for Motown)--has a brilliant, menacing edge to the bass and horn lines that belies the subtext to the chorus, "Get ready, 'cause here I come," which (apart from the double-entendre) was clearly a message of black empowerment and support for the civil rights movement (and probably a nod to Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" of a year earlier). The white radio and TV powers that be--and many white teenage Motown fans--took the love song lyrics at face value (and for most of the '60s, Motown head Berry Gordy didn't want any overtly controversial lyrics getting in the way of record sales), but there was another nation of receptive ears receiving the signal loud and clear. Prince Fatty's take on this soul classic (which follows recent covers of Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" and William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You've Got") with the amazing George Dekker singing Eddie Kendrick's falsetto lead and Big Youth augmenting it all with his head-over-heels DJ chatting ("Maybe we could settle down/If you have children/I've got some/But we could have some more...10 to 10/This love will never really end/10 to 10/You'll never fall in love again") presents it as a straight-up love song--and he gives it the usual, fantastic Prince Fatty production. But given the times, perhaps it would have been even better if Big Youth had emphasized the hidden anti-racist aspect of the original and chatted about combating white supremacy to make the world a better place for his woman and kids...

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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Duff Review: Ranking Roger with Daniel Rachel "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat"

Paperback
Omnibus Press
2019

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Apart from Malu Halasa's really terrific, if truncated, 1981 biography of the band, "The Beat: Twist and Crawl" (she was Beat guitarist Andy Cox's girlfriend at the time--the two later married--and also ran The Beat Fan Club under the pseudonym Marilyn Hebrides), there's not been nearly enough written about the history of this extraordinary band, so Ranking Roger's autobiography co-written with Daniel Rachel ("Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge," which includes the best history of 2 Tone that you'll ever read) is a very welcome addition to the growing body of literature focused on the 2 Tone era bands. Roger's "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat" is a wonderfully engrossing and satisfying read (it's as if Roger was telling you all this over many cups of tea one afternoon) that provides readers with a very candid look--at times, he's unsparing in his opinions--at The Beat's rise and fall. Of course, it includes Roger's invaluable insights as to how songs came into being; conveys stories related to--and his thoughts on--each album and key singles; and recounts the highlights and lowlights of the band's time on the road. It's everything Ranking Roger and Beat fans could hope for and more.

Clearly, Ranking Roger was the right person (an ideal mix of great talent, charisma, intelligence, and PMA), plugged into the right band, at the right moment in time --all of which was illustrated in this story of his and The Beat's meteoric rise to fame. It was a mere nine months from the time sixteen year-old Roger joined The Beat until they were on Top of the Pops promoting their debut single for 2 Tone, "Tears of a Clown" (which reached #6 on the UK charts). Yet, through all this and his time with The Beat, Roger was remarkably mature and level-headed in learning how to successfully navigate his way to adulthood with humor and grace, despite the pitfalls of instant fame and the intense scrutiny/focus that resulted from being one of the first and few black pop media icons (along with Pauline Black, Neville Staple, Lynval Golding, and Rhoda Dakar) promoting an anti-racist message of "love and unity" in a very racist society.

The following passages are particularly profound and relevant to fans of Roger and the band--and are illustrative of Roger's clear-eyed assessment of his life and experience with The Beat.

When he was nine, Roger Charlery's family moved to Stetchford, which was an area with a heavy National Front presence, so he was forced to create strategies to deal with racists during his formative school years:
"Over time I developed my own ways of dealing with racism. If somebody said, 'You're a wog,' I would say, 'Yes, I am a Western Oriental Gentleman.' If they said, 'You're a nigger,' I'd say, 'That's one of the longest rivers in the world,' with the knowledge that the word derives from the River Niger where slaves were exported from West Africa. I would use my mouth, but non-aggressively. I was trying to each them something. Of course, if all else failed, I punched them." 
Roger added:
"There's been many a time when I've got on with racist people. When I've asked them why they're racist they don't really know. I concluded their bigotry came from their parents. I would say, 'If you like me you can't be racist.' They would say, 'You're all right, Roger. It's the others.' I would say, 'I am the others. I'm a representative of the others.'"
The Beat and other 2 Tone acts--most of which were interracial, played black music, and were actively involved in promoting racial tolerance--often drew large contingents of racist and Nazi skinheads to their shows, some were fans (talk about cognitive dissonance), while others paid the entrance fee to be there to disrupt the goings on or cause violence. Learning how to effectively counter/shut them down was a steep learning curve for the band. During The Beat's first tour supporting The Selecter in the summer of 1979, they encountered a particularly hostile audience in London. Roger recounted:
"It was packed with about five hundred skinheads. From backstage we could see the audience shouting 'Sieg Heil' and doing Nazi salutes. We were all terrified...I was like, 'I've got to go on stage to that? What's going to happen? The first coin that's thrown at me I'm down in the audience. I'll knock them out.' We went on and throughout the gig the chanting continued. I was saying to myself, 'Just keep going. If you jump into the audience someone might have a knife.' Thank God we were good and there wasn't any serious trouble. The flagrant Nazism on show was a shock but we went down really well. The music got through. But as we came off stage, Desmond Brown, The Selecter's organ player, started shouting at Andy [Cox], 'Don't you ever fucking do that again! You're a cunt if you get scared by an audience.' He obviously had taken umbrage at our nonaggression and was laying it on really thick...We were all going, 'London is fucking heavy.' How do you weigh that up? We're educating racists? It gave me reason to want to continue. From that night on I had something to fight for and I came to believe that wherever there is racism, Beat music should be played. In its very essence it is anti-racist music."
But Roger soon figured out the best--and non-violent--response to the racists in the audience at Beat shows:
"The fascists would do it to wind you up. You had to ignore it and show them that you were better than that. From then on I always used the power of the microphone to control a situation. It was a great art to learn. As soon as there was a fight, it was, 'Right, everyone stop. Spotlight on them two now.' Then I'd say, 'What do you thing of this lot,' and the rest of the audience would boo. 'Okay, you want them out. Let me hear you say "Out...out...out."' You'd get a big cheer and then go into the next number."
In a similar vein, one of Roger's observations about the racist undercurrent of a certain strain of twisted patriotism in the United States in the early 1980s has particular resonance today with a white supremacist in the White House:
"Dave wrote 'I Am Your Flag' about young working-class men being used to fight in the name of nationalism dying to become man because I am your flag. While we had been on our in America, we were struck by how proud people were of their flag. You would see the Stars and Stripes everywhere. If you saw that many Union Jacks in England, you'd think 'National Front.'"
Roger was referring to The Beat's debut album I Just Can't Stop It in the following passage, but it aptly captures the band's essence and speaks to their great appeal:
"I loved The Beat because it was about two sides of the coin, in every way: in subject; in music. It crossed borders and appealed to a socialist conscience or simply to people in relationships, who could say, 'I've experienced that.' We were talking about real things--whether they be political, social or romantic--and our experiences. Punk and reggae lyrics were about social reality. We just updated it to sing about our lives. Songs like 'Two Swords,' about racism, or 'Big Shot,' which Dave wrote about capitalism after standing in the freezing cold at a bus stop in Five Ways [in Birmingham] trying to get to work. He said he would watch Rolls-Royces and BMWs go past and the drivers would deliberately steer into puddles and splash everyone in the queue."
The band's most overtly political song was, of course, "Stand Down Margaret," which was released as a single (in a dub version) with "Best Friend" on the flip side--and all proceeds going to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Anti-Nuclear Campaign, aimed at shutting down nuclear power plants ("Psychedelic Rockers," the b-side to "Too Nice to Talk To," expressed the very real dread of dying in a nuclear war: "On a night like tonight, when I'm losing my hope/I pray for the best with my heart and soul/It is the hardest...At the edge of your nerves where the lights are pretty/A change in the weather and it smothers the city/Psychedelic, psychedelic, psychedelic war...Well, it's an atmospheric shock..."). But expressing their fiercely anti-Thatcher sentiments (in response to her racism and xenophobia--Thatcher: "People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture"; slashing of funding for education, housing, and social services; privatization of state-owned industries; wholesale business deregulation; and her belligerent Cold War stance aligned with Ronald Reagan that included allowing the US to base cruise missiles in England--making it all the more likely to be on the USSR's list of first strike targets, should nuclear war ever break out) came at a steep price. "Best Friend" b/w "Stand Down Margaret (Dub)" was the first Beat single (an amazing, double AA sided one at that) not to crack to the Top 20--they later learned that the BBC had secretly banned it--and Roger noted that even though Wha'ppen sold well (and many of its songs, like "Get-A-Job," "All Out to Get You," and "Monkey Murders," were pointed commentary on the state of things under Thatcher's rule; I got a kick out of learning that Wakeling wrote "Drowning" while holed up in the Empire Hotel in Manhattan--later in the 1980s, I lived there while going to college nearby, since the school's campus had no dorms), none of their post-"Margaret" singles did well on the British charts, and the next and last album Special Beat Service was much better received in the US than the UK. Even though Roger opined that it was probably their proudest moment, it marked the turning point that led to the eventual downfall of The Beat.

With an increasingly hostile UK press, suspected surveillance ("We were taking risks and there were times we thought we were being watched by the government. They probably sought we were communists or subversives. We would see suspicious-looking people at our gigs. It was very scary."), and imposed limits on their charting (and financial) success, led the band to shift their lyrics from political to interpersonal conflict (to focus on one side of the coin, so to speak) with Special Beat Service, and concentrate more on the receptive college rock/new wave scene in the US than what was going on in Blighty.
"The disenchantment in the UK surrounding The Beat signposted a new beginning for the band. For us, it was like, 'Well, we've said everything we have to say politically,' so as the band got more popular in the States, we started writing more pop and love songs. The next batch of songs replaced political issues with personal politics: we live with politics and we live with people. There's politics in relationships. It was good to combine the two, and as they used to say in the Seventies, 'the personal is political.' It got us to the next level."
The Beat's break-up came after a Top of the Pops appearance in support of the final Beat single, a remix of "Can't Get Used to Losing You" (from the What is Beat? comp), and three dates opening for David Bowie (and, afterwards, apparently an offer to open for Bowie on a nine-week tour of North America). Instead of continuing work on demoing songs for The Beat's fourth album, Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger left the band. Wakeling had spoken to Roger privately and repeatedly about it during their 1983 tour of America with REM (in 1982, they had toured the US with The Police and The Clash; they also played both US Festivals), convincing him of their elevated self-worth and how much more they'd earn splitting everything two ways instead of evenly with the rest of the band, as was their practice. In this book, Roger readily admits to succumbing to greed and hubris and, in time, came to massively regret this decision. He surmised that the never realized fourth Beat album--a combination of All the Rage... and Fine Young Cannibals--would have been pretty fantastic.

Loads more of interest is covered here, including tales about General Public and some dish about Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and The Bangles' Susannah Hoff (and there are the cliched rock star exploits about hooking up with countless women on tour in America that don't play well in this #MeToo age, but I suppose go along with the warts and all tenor of the book). And I never knew that "Save It For Later"--their most popular and enduring song in the US--was written during Wakeling's Isle of Wright days, before The Beat formed, when he and Cox were building frames for solar panels. They used to perform it during The Beat's early days in Birmingham, but didn't record it for I Just Can't Stop It, because David Steele thought it was "too rock...too old wave." (It's one of their greatest tracks and it helped buoy my spirits countless times when someone in my life or life itself was disappointing; but I've always found it depressingly juvenile that Wakeling wrote the lyric as a play on "save it, fellator," which gives "just hold my hand while I come...to a decision on it" a different spin, and insisted on printing the "fellator" lyrics on the inner sleeve of the Special Beat Service album that I picked up when it was originally released.)

While "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat" was never intended as Roger's final memorial--there was certainly much more music for him to make and performing left to do (he became sick following the completion of this manuscript)--after reading this book (and listening to his excellent, final album Public Confidential, which he felt really captured spirit and sound of original band), one comes away from it with the sense that his life was so well-lived and to the absolute fullest--and that his fans (myself included) were so fortunate to share part of his life and gifts through his and The Beat's incredible recordings and live shows.

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Friday, August 2, 2019

Singles Going Skanking: Susan Cadogan's "Breakfast in Bed," Danny Rebel and the KGB's "Spacebound"


(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Danny Rebel and the KGB's most recent album, 2017's Lovehaus, was a phenomenal ska-reggae-soul-pop gem packed with incredibly catchy and evocative songs, so it's great to finally see a new release (even if it's only one track) from this spectacular band. The beautiful but melancholy "Spacebound"  is a "Space Oddity" of sorts for our times (with a little "Man Who Fell to Earth" mixed in) and sequel to their apocalyptic track "When the Lights Go Out" from Lovehaus. Instead of tentatively reaching out to explore the final frontier, it's concerned with escaping the goddamn mess humanity's made of everything here below: "With this clock here going in reverse...When I'm fed up and wanna quit/I'll shimmy on down to my rocket ship/All the madness on this Earth just makes me sick." (Danny, how much room do you have on that ship? 'Cause there are a whole lot of people who want to join you on this ride...)

Over the past few years, legendary reggae singer Susan Cadogan has issued a string of consistency  amazing new releases in conjunction with producer-songwriter-musician-King Kong 4 man Mitch Girio (see The Duff Guide to Ska reviews of Mitch and the King Kong 4 here)--and her latest digital single ("Breakfast in Bed" b/w "Don't Burn Your Bridges Behind You," digital, 2019) does not fail to impress. This time out, she covers Dusty Springfield's classic "Breakfast in Bed" (written by Eddie Hinton and Donnie Fritts), which also has been recorded by Hortense Ellis, Lorna Bennett, Scotty, Bongo Herman and the Harry J Allstars, Sheila Hylton, and UB40 with Chrissy Hynde, amongst others over the years. This terrific rocksteady version of this song--about being the "other woman" comforting someone else's boyfriend/husband--is joyful, playful, and lusty, where Dusty's is tinged with heartache that their time together can only be sporadic and fleeting. I was completely unfamiliar with "Don't Burn Your Bridges Behind You" by 1970s, NYC-based soul/disco band Ecstasy, Passion and Pain, which apparently was a huge hit in Jamaica in 1974. While the original is offered as an admonishment (to someone who's going to light the matches, anyway), Cadogan's sprightly take is more like good advice from a trusted friend.

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Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Duff Guide to Ska Summer/Fall 2019 NYC Ska Calendar #7

The magnificent Beat
Friday, August 2, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

The Prizefighters, The Pandemics

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

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Sunday, August 4, 2019 @ 12:00 pm

The Shipwrecks, plus DJ Alexander Orange Drink

Riis Park Beach Bazaar
Jacob Riis Park
within Gateway National Recreation Area
16702 Rockaway Beach Blvd
Queens, NY
Free/All ages

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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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Saturday, August 17, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents The Hempsteadys, Stop the Presses, Joker's Republic, Love is a Fist, plus 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 the tip jar for the bands!
21+

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bedouin Soundclash

Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY
$29.50

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Saturday, August 24, 2019 @ 12:00 pm

Beat Brigade, plus Future Punx DJs

Riis Park Beach Bazaar
Jacob Riis Park
within Gateway National Recreation Area
16702 Rockaway Beach Blvd
Queens, NY
Free/All ages

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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 Pandemics, Ensemble Calavera, plus DJ Ryan Midnight

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

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

The Selecter w/special guest DJ Rhoda Dakar (Bodysnatchers/Special AKA)

Gramercy Theater
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
$29.50/16+

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Friday, September 20, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

The Toasters, Beat Brigade, Catbite

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

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Saturday, September 21, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

Lee Scratch Perry and Subatomic Sound System, The Far East, DJ 2Melo

Industry City Courtyard 1/2
(Food Hall Entrance)
238 36th Street,
Brooklyn, NY
$25 in advance/$32 day of show
21+

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Thursday, September 26, 2019, doors @ 6:00 pm/show @ 8:00 pm

UB40 (Robin Campbell, Brian Travers, Jimmy Brown, Earl Falconer and Norman Hassan, Duncan Campbell, Martin Meredith, Lawrence Parry and Tony Mullings)

Sony Hall
235 W 46th Street
New York, NY
Tickets: $39.50 in advance/$45 day of show
All ages

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Saturday, October 2, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Five Iron Frenzy, Mustard Plug, Mephiskapheles

Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
$26.50 in advance/$30 day of show
16+
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Monday, July 22, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Various Artists "Step Forward Youth"


Greensleeves/VP Records
2xCD/digital/LP
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While the extensive liner notes for this sensational Greensleeves-centric roots reggae compilation do a pretty good job at explaining how the British punk and reggae scenes became so intertwined in the mid '70s, they don't really delve as to why these songs were relevant to both white punk and black reggae bands and fans.

Of course, both groups had the common experience of living on the fringes of British society and culture--and the rebel/outsider stance of much of the roots reggae coming out of JA and being produced locally in the UK was clearly appealing and relevant, as it reflected their viewpoints and realities to varying degrees. In his autobiography (written with Daniel Rachel) "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat," the late and very much missed Ranking Roger--who before joining the aforementioned band was one of Birmingham's only black punks and also a fan of reggae--recalled, "I remember hearing John Lydon on the radio talking about how punks should listen, not necessarily to the music, but to what the reggae artists were saying. He said, 'They're saying exactly the same thing as what we're saying. We're fighting the same struggle.' I thought, 'Whoa! That's put it right there.' Reggae was saying 'Chant Down Babylon' and punk 'Anarchy in the UK.' They shared the same attitudes about working-class people being in control, instead of the establishment."

For punks circa 1976, these roots reggae tracks about pushing back against/seeking deliverance from Babylon (i.e., white Western governments, societies, and their systems--or, as Peter Tosh so aptly put it, the shitstem) worked partly on a metaphorical level, as punks were self-imposed outcasts rejecting the mainstream British society and culture of that time, which offered far too few opportunities for working class youth to do much of anything apart from being on the dole. The signifiers of the punks' "otherness"--their choice of garb, attitude, music, living arrangements (squatting!), etc.--publicly conveyed their outsider status (and often drew harassment from institutional and cultural groups who enforced conformity and compliance, like the police and Teds). Though since much of this was a matter of dress, music, and lifestyle choices, it all could be fairly easily shed (and they'd be reabsorbed by the dominant white society). No matter if they were "punk for life" or simply going through a phase, they always maintained their privileges as white Britons; even if they occupied a low rung of the British class system, their status was still higher than that of black Britons and immigrants from the former British colonies as a whole. As well, these roots reggae songs of rebellion were stand ins of sorts--they were punk records in attitude and message at a time when there was an explosion of punk bands, but a dearth of actual punk records (which was why Don Letts was spinning so much roots reggae at The Roxy during punk shows throughout his two-year residency there).

A number of punk fans and musicians (like Paul Simonon and John Lydon) had grown up in inner cities with the children of the Windrush generation and all the truly fantastic Jamaican music that had immigrated with them to the UK as a result. Some punks were old enough to have been fans of the skinhead reggae that had dominated the UK charts in the late '60s and early '70s--or perhaps they had listened to their older siblings' Bluebeat 45s from when they were first gen mods or skins--which certainly made them predisposed to liking the genre's evolution to roots reggae by the mid-'70s. Though for many others, the early punk scene itself became a gateway to a wealth of incredible reggae music--Don Letts was recently quoted in an article about this on the ABC News site in Australia: "The kids that I actually turned on to reggae in the late '70s were those that did not live next door to black people or have any interaction with black people. And back in the mid-to-late '70s, that was a lot of fucking people! Every person who came out of the suburbs to The Roxy, and there was a lot of them, they'd never heard reggae before and they're the ones I hipped to the sound."

Reggae (and punk, once the first crop of punk singles were released) was very much underground music, largely absent on the radio (with the exception of John Peel), and only encountered in clubs, blues dances, at sound system clashes, specialty record stores, sometimes in print, and definitely via word of mouth. As Letts notes, at the time much of one's knowledge about reggae depended on one's proximity to black people and communities of Jamaican immigrants. And roots reggae, of course, heavily influenced many punk musicians, including bands like The Clash, who collaborated with Mikey Dread and Lee Perry (who also wrote and produced Bob Marley's "Punky Reggae Party"; Marley didn't really know much about the punk scene, but identified with their status--Marley, from an interview with music journalist Vivien Goldman: "Punks are outcasts from society. So are the Rastas. So they are bound to defend what we defend"); The Slits worked with Dennis Bovell; and The Ruts were on Misty in Root's label, People Unite, supported their multicultural arts/community center in Southall, and frequently played Rock Against Racism shows together; fun factoid: in 1977 Generation X was the first punk band to release a dub version of one of their tracks: "Wild Youth Dub"). However, one would be hard pressed to find any British reggae acts who were musically influenced by punk.

For black British reggae bands and fans, these same roots reggae songs of resistance had a much more direct and powerful significance--it wasn't an adopted stance and style, but immediately relevant to their lives. The oppression of Babylon was being expressed in real time through the pervasive institutional, economic, and societal racism directed at black Britons on a daily basis (the 1980 movie "Babylon" so realistically depicts the ubiquitous racism in Britain that it might as well have been a documentary; in fact, some of the storyline was based on real life--the police raid on the sound system clash came straight from Dennis Bovell's life). It was particularly expressed through police policy toward black youth, as the cops utilized the despicable and outrageous Sus law to regularly harass them (Sus allowed the police to stop and search anyone an officer merely suspected was behaving in a criminal manner and that they suspected had the intent to commit an arrestible offense--this also is horrifyingly played out in a tense and ugly sequence in "Babylon"; also see The Ruts blistering "S.U.S."--"Down in the street, just waiting for a bus/This cop pulls up, they're giving me the SUS/They said, 'Hey sonny, I think you're in our file/Well, you better come with us for a while/We got you on SUS/You look too obvious/You better come with us...'"). One could easily understand how a song featured on Step Forward Youth like Gregory Isaacs' sublime, Lee Perry-produced "Mr. Cop" (which bears more than a passing resemblance to The Congos' "Children Crying") would be so popular in this pervasively hostile environment: "Meat be in market, marrow in a bone/What don't concern you, please leave it alone/'Cause the grass was made for the cow and ass/And the herb on this land for the use of man/Tell 'em, Mista, tell 'em/Cool down your temper, Mr. Cop, cool down/We're just licking a cup, I said/Cool down your temper, Mr. Cop, cool down/Say we are just sipping a cup."

Even if punk rock didn't musically influence reggae, in the wake of pointed, establishment-challenging, norm-smashing punk rock tracks like "God Save the Queen" and "White Riot," the UK acts featured on Step Forward Youth were absolutely inspired by the punk bands to be more direct and blunt in their socio-political commentary when addressing the rampant racism they were experiencing from their fellow white Britons and British institutions. Steel Pulse's "Ku Klux Klan" was aimed at the British neo-Nazi political group the National Front, comparing them to the despicable American white supremacist Klan (at the time, Steel Pulse wore white KKK hoods when they performed this track--an act of shocking political theater, as well as a brilliant subversion of this symbol of racial terrorism). The Barry Ford Band's fantastic "Rebel" (which nicks a bit from Keith Hudson's incredible "Turn the Heater On," also included on Step Forward Youth) is a hymn to the Rock Against Racism and other anti-racist activists/NF counter-demonstrators who protested countless times during the late 70's/early '80s: "You see him every day on the streets/Using up the leather on his feet/Marching into battle, because he knows no retreat/Words are his only weapon/Love is his self-defense/He's fighting mankind's aggression/He's existing on common sense."

No doubt inspired by Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" as well as the 1976 Notting Hill carnival riot in the Ladbroke Grove neighborhood of London (which Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon experienced and inspired Strummer and Mick Jones to write "White Riot"; in addition, the riot was forever memorialized with the photo of Don Letts walking in front of a line of Bobbies on the cover of Black Market Clash), Have Sound Will Travel's gem "Police and Youth in the Grove" questioned who the police were serving during their rampage beating black people: "...Violence a cook on the stove/The wicked men were having fun/And I and I bredren were on the run/Why were they there in force?/Pretending to protect I, of course, but from who?...Oppressor is his name/Discrimination is his game/But I and I will survive/Just the same."

(And UK reggae artists were paying attention to what was going on in the punk scene--see Militant Barry's "Pistol Boy" on Step Forward Youth, which expressed doubts that Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel--and must have been recorded before Sid's overdose while on bail--produced by Keith Hudson and using his "Rhodesia"/"I'm Not Satisfied" riddim.)

Of course, one of the catalysts cementing the naturally simpatico alliance between punk and reggae was Rock Against Racism (RAR). Created in reaction to Eric Clapton's racist and nativist on-stage tirade where he also expressed support for racist Tory Enoch Powell in August of 1976 in Birmingham ("Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back")--made in the midst of increasing incidents of racial violence/killings and the alarming possibility of the National Front becoming a powerful and governing UK political force--photographer and ex-mod Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, and many of his fellow Social Workers Party (SWP) colleagues wrote a letter to the NME decrying Clapton's outrageous, bigoted statements (made by an artist who had made gobs of money off playing black music and who was currently enjoying a massive hit with a cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff") and announced the founding of a new anti-racist organization, Rock Against Racism.

Using their political organizing/campaign skills and fortuitous connections to the music scene, RAR (often in collaboration with the Anti-Nazi League) sponsored dozens of small and large concerts, carnivals/marches, and tours through 200 RAR chapters across the UK; published their own zine/newsletter "Temporary Hoarding," which, according to one of its writers/editors Lucy Whitman was, "a dynamic combination of photos, posters, interviews with bands, provocative collages and photo-montages, hard-hitting polemic, letters from supporters, and news and views from local RAR groups, all lovingly presented in a fierce anarcho-punk aesthetic which perfectly captured the spirit of the times." The first issue of "Temporary Hoarding" featured RAR's mission statement on its cover, written by David Widgery: "We want Rebel music, street music, music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock Against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism."

RAR's goals were twofold: To convince white, working-class youth not to be racist (to make a break with the racism they had been taught in their home, at school, and in the greater British culture and society), as well as recruit already anti-racist youth to be active allies in RAR's anti-racist socio-political cause; and to thwart the National Front at the ballot box. It was part social marketing campaign--it's cool/desirable to be anti-racist--with a political campaign at its heart (and it was ultimately successful in completely deflating the NF as a political party--though by the end of the '70s, the racists found a new, more "respectable," mainstream candidate to support who shared/co-opted many of their bigoted aims in Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative party).

RAR was pointedly not about organizing black or South Asian youth for anti-racist action (they were already doing it themselves--see the Southall Youth Movement and others). Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson stated in Daniel Rachel's phenomenal book "Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge," "Rock Against Racism was the white man saying, 'Racism is our problem. We have to deal with this and address white people.'" RAR organizer John Dennis added, "We weren't targeting black kids. We needed to get to the white kids. They were the potential National Front members."

For black reggae artists, RAR and the white punks and bands were allies in fight against racism (as well as a new, expanded audience for their music). But the involvement of the black British reggae acts--and the implicit message it sent with them on stage with white punk acts--was vital to the success of RAR. Aswad's lead singer (and star of the movie "Babylon") Brinsley Forde recalled in Daniel Rachel's book, "Ordinary working-class people heard for the first time the there was another melody playing. We were writing and singing about our experiences and hoping that people related to or identified with it: not satisfied with the life we're living. People were going, 'Yeah man, I understand what you're saying. I don't have to be black to identify with that'...Suddenly, a black person wasn't this alien, and it was music that started to break the barriers down. That's what reggae did for punk and what punk did for reggae. You'd done punk gigs. You'd been accepted by the punks and viewed them as people so there wasn't this divide. Music had brought everybody together. That was the most dramatic thing about it. People going, 'But I love this music so these people can't be that bad.' That is what Rock Against Racism really did. It's no good preaching to people who know. You have to get into the lion's den to make that change happen."

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Just take one look at the Step Forward Youth track list and you'll see that it's a terrifically strong compilation of mid-to-late '70s roots reggae by some of that era's top acts. Well-versed ska and reggae fans will mostly likely have a good number of these songs, but there are enough rarities for this collection to still be quite enticing. One only wishes that the abridged vinyl version of this release had been expanded to at least a double LP, as the single LP pretty much sticks to the hits and there are loads of tracks that one would want on vinyl, too.

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For more on Rock Against Racism, check out the great "Who Shot the Sheriff?" documentary by Alan Miles (and note how the National Front's rhetoric is disturbingly similar to what is coming out of the White House these days...).

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Prince Fatty Presenting Monkey Jhayam "The Rolê of Monkey Man"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Prince Fatty Presenting Monkey Jhayam The Rolê of Monkey Man (digital/LP, Delicious Vinyl Island, 2018): I knew next to nothing about this LP when I mail ordered it after finding out that limited copies were available through Prince Fatty's Bandcamp page. But it didn't matter--his recent, left field collaborations with Nostalgia 77 and Dele Sosimi and The Last Poets, in addition to just about every other release in his catalogue, have been consistently excellent, so why would this collaboration with Monkey Jhayam--one of Brazil's top reggae artists, who sings/toasts in Portuguese and has a terrific, laid-back delivery--be any different? As The Rolê of Monkey Man is slated to be the first of several Fatty/Jhayam albums for Delicious Vinyl, this record is consciously pitched to introduce him to an audience beyond Brazil's borders (and succeeds). So, it follows that Fatty employs almost a dozen classic/evergreen riddims and choice covers for Jhayam to toast over/augment, and utilizes a host of ace guest artists (Horseman, Earl 16, and Tippa Irie), many of whom are well known to the PF crowd/have appeared on his productions (and are a good contrast to Monkey Jhayam's chill style). The album kicks off with "Rolê" ("Scroll"), which versions Jackie Mittoo and the Soul Vendors' "Hot Milk" riddim (also used decades ago for two of my all-time favorite tracks: Yellowman and Fathead's "I Can't Stand It" and Carlton Livingston's "100 Weight of Collie Weed"). Other riddims/covers heard here include "Mãe da Lua" ("Mother of the Moon")/"Everybody Love the Sunshine" (with Omar Lye-Fook and Fatlip--of The Pharcyde), which is another great take on this 1976 Roy Ayers jazz-funk-soul gem that Fatty, Omar, and Fatlip released as a single for last year's Record Store Day; John Holt's "Police in Helicopter"; Dub Specialist's "Dub Creation"/Dennis Brown's "Created by the Father" on "Eles Não Sabem" ("They Don't Know"); Smoke City's 1997 trip-hop hit  "Underwater Love" (featuring a fantastic Nina Miranda--she co-wrote and sang on the original track--who reminds one very much of Hollie Cook); Gwen McCrae's 1974 funk-soul b-side "90% of Me is You" (with a completely phenomenal Shniece McMenamin); an incredible funky reggae take on James Brown's "Soul Power" for "Soul Powah" (also with McMenamin); as well as a few other riddims I know are in there, but can't quite identify without investing major time figuring them out. In sum, another winning Prince Fatty production!

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Monday, July 8, 2019

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Various Artists "The Shape of Ska Punk to Come"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Various Artists The Shape of Ska Punk to Come (CD/digital, translucent red vinyl LP, Bad Time Records, 2019): Here's my upfront disclaimer: Generally, I'm not a big fan of ska punk (though a great song is a great song, no matter what the genre!), but I was intrigued by some of the acts on this comp and, since I'm a card carrying member, love the fact that all the profits for this release are being donated to the ACLU, which, as the liner notes point out, "works to defend everything from LGBTQ and immigrants' rights, to racial justice and criminal law reform." Most of the tracks on Shape are heavy on the punk and a bit light on the ska, but there are some terrific songs on here by some truly amazing bands. Highlights include J. Navarro and The Traitors' "No Control," which points out that politicians' grip on power is not as tight as they'd like us to believe and is ripe for wresting back ("It's an illusion that most cannot see through/Their political concept for people like me and you/It takes one action/It takes one moment/It takes one brick/It takes one slip..."); Catbite's "Amphetamine Delight," a wonderfully catchy jolt of ska, pop-punk, power-pop, and rockabilly about the joys of speed (and perhaps a piss-take of sort on "Afternoon Delight"?); Kill Lincoln's '80s hardcore-meets-3rd Wave ska work-out "Giving a Shit," ("We could break it down/If we all just give a shit!"); S.M.N's "Break Down," a fantastic, sing-along jumble of hard rock, modern ska, rap, and '60s AM pop; and Matamoska's "Ropa Sucia" (Spanish for dirty laundry), a nuclear blast of ska-core, as well as powerful plea for everyone to put aside their stereotypes/preconceived notions about others: "La discriminacion affecta toda la nacion/Obedecen las leves de la television (translation: "Discrimination affects all the nation/Obey the lights of the television") Wake up and learn to choose/Where to find the truth!" Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Surprising Musical Roots of The Specials' "Ghost Town"

The cover of this 12" single features a large star with overlaid text: Misty In Roots, Double A Side 45, "See Them Ah Come," "How Long Jah."(By Steve Shafer)

I recently tracked down a copy of Roland Link's excellent band bio of The Ruts (who, of course, backed the great Laurel Aitken as the Unitone on the two singles he released during the 2 Tone era; The Ruts also performed with Aitken on tour and for a John Peel session!) and came across a bit of info about The Specials' "Ghost Town" that was entirely new to me (and I've read and re-read two pretty authoritative books on the band-- George Marshall's "The Two Tone Story" and Paul Williams' "You're Wondering Now: The Specials from Conception to Reunion"--as well as numerous articles and features on the band and that song).

The Ruts' bass player Segs (AKA John Jennings) confesses in Link's "Love in Vain: The Story of The Ruts and Ruts D.C." that his band had swiped the bass line from Misty in Roots' fantastically dread and defiant "See Them Ah Come" for their first excursion into dub, "Black Man's Pinch (AKA Give Youth a Chance)"--the only recording of which can be found on The Ruts' phenomenal and positively blistering Peel Sessions Album. Misty (an all black UK roots reggae act) were good friends of The Ruts (all white punks), taught them how to play reggae, and the two bands played dozens of Rock Against Racism shows together in the late '70s. Misty in Roots also ran the People Unite label, which released The Ruts' debut single "In a Rut" and operated out of their own vibrant community center (the People Unite Creative Arts and Educational Centre) in Southall, London. The center and all of Misty's instruments and record stock were later destroyed by the notorious and racist Special Patrol Group during a police riot in the midst of a National Front march through this black/West Indian immigrant neighborhood; the band's co-manager Clarence Baker was beaten (along with many others) and grievously injured by the cops, and Baker was hospitalized for an extended period of time afterward; all of these outrageous and completely illegal events were conveyed in The Ruts' song "Jah War."

As it turns out, Jerry Dammers also nicked a considerable amount of Misty's "See Them Ah Come" for "Ghost Town" (listen to the former's keyboard line)! Check out this passage from Link's book: "[Misty co-manager and sound technician] Chris Bolton also later recalled another lift [in addition to The Ruts'] of the same track ["See Them Ah Come"]. 'I give talks for anti-racism movements and The Specials' Jerry Dammers does so as well. He came up to me at one of the events and said, "Ghost Town. You know we ripped that off from Misty?" I said, "Yes, we knew that Jerry--respect to you for admitting it!"'"

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It's also interesting to note that The Specials' and Misty's tracks are linked lyrically, as they're both protest songs of sorts. While, "Ghost Town" decried Thatcher's war on/abandonment of the working class (unemployment--particularly amongst the youth--was at an all-time high, resulting in widespread urban decay, and a societal breakdown expressed through frequent outbursts of violence), "See Them Ah Come" is about standing up to injustice (and, one imagines, Inglan's racist institutions/society): "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the wicked/I shall fear no evil/Sure and steadfast as anchor to a rock I shall stand/Me nah run/See them ah come, see them ah come/But me nah run."

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