Sunday, February 5, 2023

Duff Review: The Selecter "Deepwater" (Single Version) from the 40th-Anniversary Deluxe CD Reissue of "Celebrate the Bullet" (Chrysalis Records)

The album cover features a TV displaying static and a gloved hand adjusting one of the dials.(Review by Steve Shafer)

I've written a fair amount about The Selecter's brilliant but unfairly maligned second record, Celebrate the Bullet (read my appreciation of the album and my interview about it with Selecter guitarist/songwriter Neol Davies first published in my book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone). So, I didn't expect to have too much more to add to the (late to the game) 40th-anniversary release of Celebrate the Bullet, which has been remastered and issued on heavyweight, clear vinyl and as an expanded triple-CD deluxe version (which contains a 20-page booklet with new liner notes from the band; the unreleased "Deepwater" single and its version; the Celebrate the Bullet BBC sessions from 1980; and an unreleased live concert recorded at Birmingham's NEC in 1980).

Both editions sound fantastic and are worth picking up--particularly if your old LP or cassette copy of Celebrate the Bullet has seen better days (or some misguided review put you off buying it in the first place). But the Rarities disk in the CD box set features a real gem--a previously unreleased take on Pauline Black's track "Deepwater" recorded with The Jam's producer Pete Wilson in April 1981. The intent was to issue it as the record's second single, but Radio 1's ludicrous ban on the "Celebrate the Bullet" single obliterated sales of the album, which quashed any thoughts of releasing a second single. ("Celebrate the Bullet" is an anti-gun/violence song, for Pete's sake--shouldn't Radio 1 have played that in the wake of John Lennon's murder and the shooting of President Reagan?)

As Neol Davies explains in the liner notes: "Even though disco had become unfashionable, I felt that dance music was about to re-emerge in a different form. We tried a new arrangement, keeping a mix of rapidly changing styles of pop music at the time in mind." And in 1981, that new style of pop music in the UK was driven by the New Romantics and synthpop. While it seems shocking to characterize it this way, the re-recorded take of "Deepwater" sounds like Selecter-meets-Duran Duran (whose sound at that time was deeply indebted to Japan and their Quiet Life album and associated single "Life in Tokyo," produced by Giorgio Moroder). But when you consider the timing of Duran Duran's debut single--"Planet Earth" was released on February 2, 1981, and skyrocketed to the #12 spot on the British charts by the end of that month--it all makes sense.

In an audacious move, the single version of "Deepwater" was refashioned with atmospheric synths, a disco bass line, Nile Rogers' Chic-era guitar work, and a Scary Monsters-influenced distorted/processed guitar solo (Davies was listening to Bowie's latest album at that time). As preposterous as this seems typed out on the screen, the results are super catchy and shimmeringly brilliant (and the altered chord progression and Black's vocal line during the "I never wanted to be in Deepwater again" lyric that leads into the chorus--is phenomenal!).

If you're listening Chrysalis Records, please consider releasing the single version of "Deepwater" and its instrumental remix on a vinyl 45 for an upcoming Record Store Day.

For a band attempting to figure out how to stay relevant in an ever-shifting pop landscape (and spark sales for a superb album that was tanking commercially), this radical departure might have worked had it been released--and permitted The Selecter to live on for a bit longer.  It would have been fascinating to see what they might have done next, had they survived. Many diehard 2 Tone fans surely would have cried "sell-outs," but consider the musical paths most of The Selecter's peers went down within a year or two. Later in '81, Fun Boy Three split from The Specials (right after the triumph of "Ghost Town"!) to make minimalist African rhythm-driven new wave pop. Madness were releasing increasingly pop-filled albums (with hit singles like "It Must Be Love" and "Our House"), and The Beat died so Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger could play Motown new wave pop.

In her notes for this song, Pauline Black explains her motivation for writing "Deepwater": "Once we had been the big fish in a small pond, now we were an international band with four hit singles. I felt as if we were drowning in the big pond of the music industry, unable to set a course and direction in the wake of an onboard mutiny [the departure of Desmond Brown and Charley Anderson just as the band was starting to record Celebrate the Bullet]." How ironic it would have been if the "Deepwater" single had been released back in 1981 and turned the commercial tides for the better for Celebrate the Bullet...

+ + + +

Monday, January 30, 2023

Duff Guide NYC Ska Calendar #2 Winter 2023

The eleven members of The Toasters (in 1986) strike various goofy poses for this publicity shot.
The Toasters, circa 1986

Thursday, February 2, 2023 @ 8:00 pm

Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan, Stop the Presses, Max Glazer, Ayanna Heaven, Uproot Andy, Snips & Khalil, plus DJs Mush1 (Al Paragus Int'l)

158 Ludlow Street
Manhattan, NY

+ + + +

Friday, February 10, 2023 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: The Pomps (from Massachusetts), Barbicide (ex-Mephiskapheles, local heroes), Not From Concentrate (from Staten Island), Jo Mercado, plus DJs Yana Lil Jerk & Ryan Midnight

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan, NY
No cover (but bring cash the band tip bucket!)

(Sign up for the Subway to Skaville mailing list to receive info on future shows!)

+ + + +

Saturday, March 4, 2023 @ 7:00 pm

Cover Your Idols, The Mikey Erg! Band, Across the Aisle (Reunion!), My So Called Mixtape

Lucky 13 Saloon
644 Sackett Street
Brooklyn, NY
$13 (advanced tickets)/21+

+ + + +

Friday, March 31, 2023 @ 6:30 pm

The English Beat

Palladium Times Square
1515 Broadway
Manhattan, NY

+ + + +

Thursday, April 20, 2023 @ 8:00 pm

Mephiskapheles, Hub City Stompers, Butterbrain

The Bowery Electric
327 Bowery
Manhattan, NY

+ + + +

Monday, January 16, 2023

Duff NYC Ska Calendar #1 Winter 2023

Friday, January 20, 2023 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents:
Cenzo (from Boston, featuring members of Bim Skala Bim, Pilfers, and Spring Heeled Jack)
Drop Party (ska-funk from Connecticut)
Skappository (from Long Island
plus DJs Ryan Midnight & Duff Guy

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan, NY
No cover (but bring cash for the band tip bucket!)

Friday, February 10, 2023 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents:
The Pomps (from Massachusetts)
Barbicide (ex-Mephiskapheles, local heroes)
Not From Concentrate (from Staten Island)
Jo Mercado
plus DJs Yana Lil Jerk & Ryan Midnight

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan, NY
No cover (but bring cash the band tip bucket!)

+ + + +

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Duff Review: The Specials "Work In Progress Versions"

The artwork features Walt Jabsco, an illustration of a rude boy in suit, tie, sunglasses and pork pie hat, on the cardboard sleeve and paper label.
10" vinyl single
2 Tone/Chrysalis

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Did you know there was a new Specials 10" single released in the UK this past November on Record Store Day? Neither did I.

I'm not sure how it slipped by without my noticing it. Last week, I was perusing the online 2 Tone Records shop and thinking about when to preorder the newly restored Dance Craze Blu-ray/DVD from BFI (British Film Institute), which for some odd reason isn't available in the US (though the triple-vinyl is). As I was scrolling through the goods (including some Dance Craze totes), I came across the recent 10" rarities from 2 Tone's vaults (see my reviews of Dub Mixes Exclusive and At The Home Organ: Demos 1980-82) and unexpectedly spied a new one: Work In Progress Versions!

This 10" contains The Specials' instrumental rehearsal version of (Terry Hall's composition) "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" and Jerry Dammers at the organ and Horace Panter on bass performing an early take of "I Can't Stand It." While it's probably not worth the casual fan's time to track this record down, diehard Specials followers will, of course, desperately need this in their collection.

Recorded in 1981, "Friday Night, Saturday Morning [Instrumental Rehearsal]" is a brighter, more upbeat version of this song with a shimmering guitar breezily wandering through the vocal line. It's fantastic and something you'll keep returning to. "I Can’t Stand It [Jerry Dammers at the Home Organ with Horace Panter on bass]," a demo recorded in 1980, is out there--and makes the final take of the song on More Specials seem pretty sedate in comparison. This is Dammers unleashed in exotica-land. He uses the familiar, preprogrammed Casiotone-like Latin percussion and many of the cheesier, Muzak-like synth tones on his Yamaha organ (check out his great solo during the bridge!). Ska purists will likely bristle at this (much as they did for side two of More Specials), but it's a fascinating glimpse of where Dammers' head was at during the recording of The Specials' second album. And I, for one, like it.

+ + + +

Considering how long it took to record the brilliant In the Studio (two years at a cost of half a million pounds!), there has to be unreleased Special AKA material to release in the future, right?

+ + + +

Monday, January 2, 2023

Remembering Terry Hall of The Specials

Members of The Specials, with Terry Hall in center front, pose for a newspaper photo.
Terry Hall, center, with The Specials and Rico (Image: Coventry Telegraph)
(By Steve Shafer)

The news of Terry Hall's death on December 18 at age 63 from pancreatic cancer landed like a sucker punch to the gut--and I've been wrestling with how to process and write about it ever since. Several wonderfully insightful pieces about Hall's music and life already have been published--including Alexis Petridis' "Terry Hall was the self-assured eye of the Specials storm" in The Guardian and Neil Kulkarni's "Coventry & A Spirit Of Unbelonging: Terry Hall Remembered" in The Quietus. And Billy Bragg summed up Hall's and The Specials' impact so incredibly well in 280 characters. So, I'm not sure what I can add (but I need to add something).

As I write this, the terrible news of Pelé's death is just sinking in. I had seen him play at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands in 1977 when I was 11, during his final season with the Cosmos. I've always considered it to be one of the highlights of my life, to have witnessed the greatest soccer player of all time in action, even if past his prime. While I'm reluctant to admit it, it's hitting me harder than Hall's passing--and forcing me to realize that I've always held Terry Hall at a bit of a distance, though I shouldn't be.

Even though he was the phenomenal, irreplaceable voice of my beloved Specials, Hall's dour and perpetually acerbic (though often bitingly funny) public persona left me cold. He was someone who could put anyone in their place with a quick, cutting remark. A man of few words, but they always hit their mark. I've always been wary of and felt at a disadvantage interacting with people this quick and sharp. (I have to mull things over--and often take longer than I'd like to admit to sort out the truth of a situation and articulate my thoughts.)

Having said all that and without ever having met him, I can immediately relate to several aspects of Hall's life and death. For several years after college, I worked as a caseworker at a residence for people with chronic mental illness (much later in his life, Hall was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder). About five years ago, I witnessed a friend of mine--only a few months younger than me--undergo grueling treatment and slowly die from pancreatic cancer. And I've been a devoted fan of The Specials ever since first hearing "Ghost Town" in 1981.

Hall's detached and dispassionate vocals--often delivered standing stock still while the rest of the band exploded in furious motion behind him (as Petridis points out, see the closing credits of Dance Craze)--and fuck-all attitude made him the perfect frontman for The Specials, whose songs were mostly about how adults and their institutions had largely failed their generation. His disaffection with the world was not a pose. Growing up, he was subjected to one of the most horrific betrayals of adult trust imaginable.

At age 12, Hall was kidnapped by a teacher on a school trip in France and sexually abused by a pedophile ring for four days before being punched in the face and discarded on the side of a road. The trauma Hall suffered triggered a deep depression, whose treatment left him addicted to Valium for years and housebound for months (he also dropped out of school when he was 14). Hall also likely experienced emotional numbing--an unconscious psychological defense/survival mechanism common to people who have been severely traumatized where the brain attempts to lessen the pain by dampening all emotions (leaving someone who seems distanced, detached, and unfeeling).

It's not a stretch to argue that this abduction and sexual assault--in addition to his experience of growing up in a decaying, unfashionable Coventry in the 1970s (see Kulkarni's piece above)--lent Hall's voice and stage presence a unique authority and authenticity. In his alienation, cynicism, and emotional remove lay his power as he sang about everything around him--endemic racism and racial violence; working-class youth denied opportunity, purpose, even a satisfying night of fun by a government that didn't give a damn about their future; and the shared constant dread of all life being wiped out in a nuclear war. But his detachment didn't mean that Hall didn't care deeply about how the litany of society's unaddressed and intentionally aggravated ills was impacting Britain's youth. He was just clear-eyed about their plight. And everyone loved him for it.

Two of The Specials' greatest songs that bookend the original band's brief existence--Dammers' "Nite Klub" and Hall's own composition "Friday Night, Saturday Morning"--are both about the inability to take pleasure in a night out on the town. In "Nite Klub," Hall's deadpan delivery of the lyrics "I'm a parasite/I creep about at night" is spectacularly ambiguous. Is this meant to be sarcastic, commenting on the establishment's view of working-class youth on the dole? Or has the narrator internalized mainstream society's low opinion of him and his lot? And the suddenly released white-hot anger in the last line of this verse is devastating: "I don't work/'Cause I don't have to/I don't have to work/There's no, no work to do!" How can you have fun (or be a productive member of society, for that matter) when your life's going nowhere?

The narrator of "Nite Klub" is still hitting the nightspots a few years later in "Friday Night, Saturday Morning," but the piss and vinegar in his belly is gone. It's all now bleakly rote. Hall's unembellished singing conveys the track's boredom, futility, and despair extraordinarily well. But this portrait of Britain's forsaken youth is drawn with great empathy, not self-pity or anger at the powers that be (though Thatcher's the subtle target). And Hall's song contains one of the most universally relatable--and bluntly heartbreaking!--lyrics in pop music history: "Wish I had lipstick on my shirt/Instead of piss stains on my shoes."

In a 2019 interview with Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, Hall stated:

"I find it quite easy to forgive and forget. It’s like, you know, going back to my abduction, it’s like you can let that eat away at you but then well you know it’s paedophilia and it’s like part of life really.

"It’s unfortunate it happened to me but you can’t just let it destroy your life, it’s not good."

While there's much to unpack here (the forgiveness, his resilience), Hall's observation that child sexual abuse is "like part of life" is shocking. But considering what took place in the Catholic Church worldwide for decades--and god knows in how many other institutions that dealt with children--he's not wrong, is he? 

Clear-eyed to the end.

+ + + +

I offer my deepest condolences to Terry Hall's family, bandmates, friends, and fans.

+ + + +

(Updated on 1/3/2023 to include information on emotional numbing.)

+ + + +

Friday, December 9, 2022

Duff Review: The End Times "Headlines" EP

The cover illustration features cartoon versions of Death and a woman reporter at a news desk, while a mob riots in the background outside their window.
Digital EP
East Sound Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I wish I had first listened to The End Times' ferocious and bitter new Headlines EP before the recent midterm elections when it seemed like TFG's goon squad of fascist candidates were destined to ascend to the levers of power in many state and federal offices and drag our country closer to the straight, white, male, evangelical-nationalist, authoritarian hellscape they literally pray for. Lucky for us, the forces of sanity reigned (for now), so I have some hope for this country. My level of existential dread has waned a bit, though it's still lodged in some recess of my gut. The racist, anti-democratic creeps still lurk in large numbers among us.

If you caught The End Times' terrific self-titled debut (read my review), you know that their brand of Armagideon ska--horn-driven, aggro '90s style modern ska paired with body-slamming Fear-like hardcore vocals--was a good antidote/commentary on the horrifically cruel and morally bankrupt MAGA years. Their new EP Headlines continues in that vein, though is more generally focused on expressing white-hot anger/exasperation over humanity's abject failure to live up to its extraordinary promise. It's about dashed, stomped-to-death hopes about us all solving our problems and getting things right.

"Double Down" blasts people who out of denial, self-interest, idiocy, or tribalism swallow and parrot the most ridiculous beliefs/stances to justify their action/inaction. 

Can’t think back to a time when things felt so low
Can’t think back to a time when things seemed so impossible
I look around and corruption is all I see
I walk around and pollution is all I breathe
It all seems so dead to me

We like to think we can just turn and walk away (ha ha)
We like to think all our problems were all fixed yesterday
And we like to believe that there’s no shame - there’s no shame
We push beliefs that we don’t have to do anything
And we’re entitled to everything

And it’s all on a stage for the world to see

"Little King" pleads for the de-throning of the petty, selfish tyrant in all of our heads that keeps us from doing the right thing. And "Punishment" rails against the infuriating inevitability that the rich and powerful will never pay for their crimes. (Though I still hold out hope that a full reckoning is coming for TFG...)

The End Times bring their brilliantly powerful and tight live show to Otto's Shrunken Head tonight in Manhattan's Alphabet City (it's Headlines' record release party!). The Simulators (CT) and The Manipulators (PA) also are on the bill (plus DJ Yana Lil' Jerk!).

+ + + +

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Duff Review: The Ratchet Boys "Live from 1997-2001"

The cover features illustrations of the band singing and playing their instruments, as well as lots of donuts with sprinkles, a VW bug with a checkerboard stripe, and the front of the Phantasmagoria club.Eco LP
DCxPC Live

(Review by Steve Shafer)

If you were still paying attention to ska in the early 2000s (after the '90s scene crashed and burned), you were probably aware of Michelle Chin's terrific website, which was a reliable online source of news and reviews after the majority of ska zines faded away (here's an archived page from 2001). Depending on whether you were in the greater metro DC area (the DMV--DC, Maryland, and Virginia), you also might know that Chin and her boyfriend Dan Hess, singer for The Rachet Boys, promoted ska shows in the late '90s and early '00s through Rude in DC Productions--and more recently via BlueBeat DC. (For a phenomenal history of the DC ska scene in the '90s/'00s, see the article "Skank and File: An Oral History of D.C. Ska," published by the Washington City Paper in 2013.)

Joining a stellar collection of peers--The Pietasters, Checkered Cabs, Eastern Standard Time, and The Skunks--The Rachet Boys became one of the more dominant ska bands on the late '90s/early '00s DMV ska and punk scene. For several years, they also fueled a number of massively popular shows (booked by Chin and Hess) at an indoor soccerplex in Gaithersburg, MD called The Corner Kick. Just as the DMV scene began winding down around 2006, Hess was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, and tragically passed away in 2007 at age 30.

A digital collection of The Rachet Boys' live recordings was released in 2019 by BOB Records. For fans preferring vinyl, DCxPC Live recently reissued this set as The Rachet Boys Live from 1997-2001 LP, with all money from sales (though not shipping) donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Hess' memory. As one might expect, some of these recordings are more rough than ready, but they capture the undeniably winning live power of the band, Hess' charisma and humor (though not the donuts he used to toss to the crowd), and a whole lot of stage banter and crowd noise. The Ratchet Boys' sound falls in The Scofflaws/Skavoovie & The Epitones' modern (and slightly twisted) trad ska category (though they occasionally veer into punky ska). While this set contains two covers (Madness/Prince Buster's evergreen "One Step Beyond" and Symarip's "Skinhead Moonstomp), it spotlights The Rachet Boys' trove of excellent originals like "Montoya," "Farragut North" (a DC Metro station), "Shipwrecked," "Gator Bait," and "Brave New World" (paging Aldous Huxley!), as well as sillier but crowd-pleasing fare like "Blue Balls" (hey, the band originally was named The Skanker Sores).

This album is likely a must-buy for anyone who was part of the DMV ska scene and a fan of Dan Hess and The Rachet Boys (you can vicariously re-live those glory days!). But it'll also be of interest to '90s ska fans in general, who will be transported back in time on hearing these peculiar Third Wave ska sounds again.

+ + + +

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Duff Review: Smoke & Mirrors Sound System "Mala Salud: A Field Guide to Quackery"

The cover illustration features a woman with her hair in curlers applying a cream to her face. Various sales pitches appear in the background.
50-page, 8 x 10 paperback book and 7" flex disc

(Review by Steve Shafer)

For much of our nation's history, Americans have been deluged with hearsay, humbuggery, and bunco. It's all a malignant but necessary component of our hyper-capitalist society where accumulating wealth and power means everything (it's the American dream!). Duping regular folks to win their cash, vote, and/or blind acquiescence to achieve all this is a feature of capitalism, not a bug.

One area that always has been ripe for exploitation is non-prescribed medicines (aka over-the-counter medication). These "patent medicines" originally were proprietary medications granted patents by the British royal family in the late 17th century--some of which were exported to the American colonies. By the mid-1800s, there was a thriving domestic patent medicine industry in the US, though most of these products never received government (or royal!) patents and were unregulated. Their "cures" for every ailment under the sun often involved alcohol, morphine, opium, or cocaine.

The peddlers of these fake cures eventually came to be known as "snake oil salesmen." The genesis for this phrase traces back to the mid-1800s when 180,000+ Chinese workers immigrated to the US (as indentured laborers) to build the Transcontinental Railroad. One of the traditional medicines they brought to the US was snake oil (derived from the Chinese water snake), which contains fairly high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation and can treat arthritis. Word of the effectiveness of snake oil spread among the American railroad workers. Eventually, some decided to make and market a domestic version of snake oil made from rattlesnakes (which Choctaws and other Native American tribes used for sore joints, though the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in rattlesnakes is far less than in Chinese water snakes).

To help sell their products, these entrepreneurs put on traveling "medicine shows" (paging Mick Jones and co.!), which provided carnival-like entertainment as well as dramatic demonstrations of how their snake oils were made (using live rattlers) and their effectiveness (using shills in the audience who would be "cured" of a host of ills before the audience in real-time). By the early 1900s, the US federal government began to regulate food and drug manufacturers and discovered that Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment (which dominated this market) contained no snake oil at all (Stanley was fined and did not dispute the charges). Of course, this type of quackery didn't end there.

Inspired (and horrified) by the pernicious disinformation insanity of the last several years that is turbo-fueled by social media's hate/bullshit-pushing algorithms (ivermectin and chloroquine phosphate, anyone?), Smoke & Mirrors Sound System's whip-smart book Mala Salud: A Field Guide to Quackery offers dozens upon dozens of hilarious 1950s/1960s-styled ads for ludicrous medical cures and patently absurd products. (They remind me of the tempting but too-good-to-be-true ads in the back of the Spiderman comics I read in the early '70s, like the one that promised a seven-foot Polaris nuclear sub with missiles, periscope, and electrical panels you could sit/play in for seven bucks.) The illustrations by Michael Buchmiller and ad copy by Buchmiller and John and Andrea Roy are spot-on ("Don't let little Jeffrey fall behind in class. Brighten his day with Liquid Sunshine for kids! Stimulates faculties! Increases manly courage!"). Make sure to read Buchmiller's intro on page 3, as well as the copyright/disclaimer page. Both appropriately orient you for digesting this book.

The accompanying retro flexi disc features Smoke & Mirrors Sound System's wonderfully sprightly Latin ska instrumental (with fantastic surf and spaghetti Western guitar solos) "Mala Salud" (Spanish for "Bad Health"). Buchmiller's liner notes of sorts claim that its lyrics "are filled with every conceivable defense for these deceptive products and their marketing tactics." Of course, their absence speaks volumes.

I'll let Buchmiller and the Roys have the last word: "For more information about Smoke & Mirrors Sound System, use the internet or ask your cool friend."

+ + + +

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Shots in the Dark: The Adjusters "Otis Redding Will Save America"

The album cover features images of a factory, children shooting water pistols at each other, and a large 1970s American car parked on a street.
Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights Third-Wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, or a fickle record-buying public, were lost in the fray.

(Appreciation by Steve Shafer)

The Band: The Adjusters, an overtly left-wing, mod-ish ska-soul band from Chicago who were heavily influenced by The Redskins (anti-fascist, socialist soul-rockabilly-punk skinheads, who released several singles and one classic album, Neither Washington Nor Moscow) and Billy Bragg (anti-fascist, socialist folk-punk rocker who still endeavors to write protest songs that are about both the personal and political, and has released a host of singles and albums, including my favorite Talking to the Taxman About Poetry, which sports the best-ever critique of Reagan's Cold War-era USA: "Help Save the Youth of America" (some of which is terrifyingly relevant again*)). This interracial, mixed-gender band was composed of Daraka Larimore-Hall (who is half-Jamaican) and Jessica Basta on vocals, Jason Packer on guitar, Matt Parker on organ/piano, Rench on drums, vocals, and samples, and Joshua Thurston-Milgrom on bass.

The Sound: The Adjusters' incendiary 1997 debut Politics of Style (Jump Up Records) veers between Stax soul, JB funk, rootsy reggae, and traditional (not 2 Tone) ska. Their 1998 follow-up on Moon Ska Records Before the Revolution (produced by Victor Rice) further refined the formula to greater effect with an even better collection of tracks (full disclosure, when I was at Moon Records I worked with the band promoting this record). 2003's Otis Redding Will Save America (blessed with a mind-blowingly good co-production by Rice and Rench) blended hip-hop, Big Beat, and trip-hop into the mix for a searing and unblinkered look at America in the years just before and after the Twin Towers fell.

The Release: The writing, recording, and mixing of The Adjusters' Otis Redding Will Save America  straddled one of the most dramatic paradigm shifts in American history: the immediate pre- and post-9/11 years. The relatively peaceful and prosperous Clinton '90s wound down with an absurd impeachment over lying about sex (and we didn't fully comprehend the portents of the 1993 World Trade Center attack and 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and how they would shape the next two decades). The first dotcom bubble burst and the Y2K freakout was (thankfully) a bust.

The George W. Bush years started badly with an election swung his way by the right-wingers on the Supreme Court and only went down from there. After apparently ignoring our intelligence service's red alert signals about the coming terrorist attacks, Bush led the nation into a particularly nightmarish and tragic period in the USA following 9/11. It all culminated in the appalling--and completely unnecessary and unprovoked--2003 Iraq War (that eventually killed around 4,500 American servicepeople, tens of thousands of Iraqi insurgents, and around 600,000 Iraqi civilians). Even as it was all unfolding back then, it was obvious that the George W. Bush Administration was lying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attack. They simply wanted to justify a preordained invasion of that country (when it was likely that elements within the Saudi government helped the al-Qaida terrorists carry out their mission).

The 9/11 attacks did more than murder several thousand Americans. They shook us to our core and unleashed our darkest impulses in our so-called War on Terror--leading us to abandon our laws and values to assuage our security fears and nurture our lust for revenge. And our country did more to destroy itself and betray everything that America purports to stand for than 12 hijackers could ever dream of accomplishing.

(Just as a reminder, here are some of the appalling lowlights of our War on Terrorthe torture--and waterboarding is torture--and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists; the use of extraordinary rendition; the illegal monitoring and wiretapping of Americans' e-mails and phone calls under The Patriot Act; the profiling and quasi-legal surveillance of American Muslims; the "unitary executive" theory and use of Presidential signing statementsthe Bush Administration's deliberate misinterpretation and shredding of our nation's laws; and does anyone remember that insane psych-op weekend when Americans across the country freaked out after the White House suggested that Americans buy duct tape and plastic sheeting in case of a dirty bomb/bio-chemical attack?)

The Adjusters believed that America--which has never quite lived up to its promise in the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--had not only lost its shit but had badly lost its way.

While the band was recording the album in Version City's spartan basement studio on East Third Street in Manhattan, one of the band members visited the restroom of the bar upstairs and noticed something written on the toilet stall wall (in what would become their own Smells Like Teen Spirit moment): Otis Redding will save America.

Eventually, The Adjusters realized that this phrase encapsulated everything they were trying to convey with this album. Otis Redding, the "King of Soul," had attempted to goad America into locating its conscience as it staggered through one of its most turbulent, violent, and hate-filled decades. He was one of the first Black soul singers who broke through to the white rock audience (see this video from the '67 Monterey Pop Festival) as an undisguised, undiluted, and unbowed Black man (in the 1960s, Black men accepted within white pop culture usually weren't permitted to be regular human beings who could express, or be the overt object of, sexual desire--see the constraints placed on Sidney Poiter by Hollywood). This was at a time when America was forced to come to terms with its white supremacist/Jim Crow legacy and recognize and support the equal/legal rights of Black American citizens; endure a string of devastating political and racial assassinations (JFK, MLK, Jr., RFK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and many lesser-known Civil Rights martyrs); and muddle through an unwinnable, imperialistic proxy war with China and Russia in Vietnam that killed 58,200 young US soldiers (average age: 23) and millions of Vietnamese

To give some context to Redding's extraordinary and unprecedented impact on American society, check out this appreciation in The New Yorker: "Marching in place to keep pace with the beat, pumping his fists in the air, striding across stages with a long-legged gait that parodied his “down home” origins, Redding’s confident yet unaffected eroticism epitomized the African-American ideal of a “natural man.” White audiences of the time had never seen anything like it. The effect was so powerful that Bob Weir, of the Grateful Dead, said, of Redding’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, "I was pretty sure I’d seen God onstage"...In the way he looked and the way he sang and the way he led his tragically unfinished life, this princely son of Georgia sharecroppers was a one-man repudiation of the depraved doctrine of "white supremacy," whose dark vestiges still contaminate our world." (After over 4,000 documented lynchings of Black Americans from 1877 to 1950, the US finally has the Emmitt Till federal anti-lynching bill on the books, which was signed into law by President Biden and defines lynching as "a hate crime that results in death or serious bodily injury.")

To heal the nation, Redding pleaded with everyone to "try a little tenderness," which isn't just about relations between the sexes. The country needed (and still needs) heaping doses of empathy for white America to see Black Americans as their fellow human beings. But Redding also insisted that respect be shown to Black citizens in his hit song transformed into an early feminist and Civil Rights anthem by Aretha Franklin. Notably, Redding's posthumous hit "Dock of the Bay" underscored the loneliness and aimlessness of being rejected by the society that birthed and (reluctantly) fostered you.

While Redding never finished his journey (he died in a plane crash at age 26 along with most of the members of his backing band the Bar-Kays), his music and insistence on being his unreserved self in public on stage offered the hope that America could be a pluralistic society that embraced diversity and recognized everyone's rights equally.

For Otis Redding Will Save America, The Adjusters expanded their sound to further explore/honor Black American music beyond their mod-ska-soul mix and incorporated hip-hop and its musical descendants filtered through British subculture: trip-hop and Big Beat (Lionrock's "Rude Boy Rock" and Sly and Robbie's Drum & Bass Strip to the Bone by Howie B influenced this record enormously). Of course, practically all American popular music was created by Black American musicians: jazz, blues, R&B, soul, rock 'n' roll, and hip hop (Black music is one of the United States' most powerful cultural exports and a primary driver of our entertainment economy). And The Adjusters were about celebrating Black American music.

This expanded musical palette may have been a bridge too far for hard-line ska fans, but The Adjusters never comfortably fit within the confines of the '90s US ska scene, which skewed more towards punk rock (it's worth noting that in its original '76-'77 incarnation, punk stripped rock 'n' roll of its Black origins in R&B and gospel). And The Adjusters' overt democratic socialist stance and political activism through Modern Action and the Democratic Socialists of America was sometimes a sore point among the reactionary, almost libertarian (barf) elements of the ska fan base (even though some of our country's most popular social and educational programs--Social Security, Medicare, Veterans Administration, public schools, public universities, public libraries--are all socialist in nature). But The Adjusters never cared about discomforting the comfortable and privileged (see Daraka's comments about the 1998 Ska Against Racism Tour in the Chicago Reader**).

Like The Specials, The Adjusters wanted their music to move your body and their message to stimulate your mind. So, Otis Redding Will Save America is equal parts party soundtrack and political rallying cry--both essential for surviving desperate times. And it's one of the best albums that the '90s ska scene ever yielded.

Otis Redding Will Save America opens with "WTF Ska" an old school-sounding tune that's laid over a decidedly new school drum loop (this ain't downtown JA!). It's the instrumental version of "When Things Fall," which appears later on the record and is an appeal for solidarity across race and class lines in the face of injustice and adversity--and pretty much sums up the theme of the entire album. The Adjusters' superb and powerful cover of Gil Scott-Heron's "Gun" is about the fraying of the social contract (to the point where every one of your fellow citizens is a potential threat) and a society where violence and killing are both way of life and entertainment.

Everybody's got a pistol
Everybody's got a .45
And the philosophy seems to be
At least as near as I can see
When other folks give up theirs, I'll give up mine

This is a violent civilization
If civilization's where I am
'Cause every channel that I stop on
Got a different kind of cop on
Killing them by the million for Uncle Sam

But Saturday night just ain't that special
Yeah, I got the constitution on the run
Yeah, 'cause even though we've got the right
To defend our home, to defend our life
You got to understand to get it in hand about the guns

"Can't See the Light," an original, traditional-sounding rocksteady cut (that features Dr. Ring Ding), is about being comfortably numb and disconnected as the world burns around you--and refusing to take sides or even recognize right from wrong (and alludes to The Clash coming to terms with reality with this lyric: So safe and warm in your nice suburban home). "Master Blaster" is, of course, a Stevie Wonder cover. It's his 1980 reggae tribute to Bob Marley that incorporates part of "Jammin'" and celebrates Zimbabwe's hard-fought independence from their colonial British overlords and Black self-determination, in general (Jessica Basta takes lead vocals here and really shines).

Sounding like a lost Public Enemy cut from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, "If You" is an extraordinary and wickedly fierce hip-hop track featuring the mighty T.O.N.E. on vocals and built on a sample from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" (most famously used during a brutal attack on a Vietnamese village just after the "Charlie don't surf scene" in Apocalypse Now). It offers sharp commentary on how bringing about real change demands so much more than performative gestures.***

If you're sick of seeing Black people gettin' shit
Raise your fist (raise 'em up, raise 'em up)
And if you're sick of seeing women gettin' hit
Raise your fist (raise 'em up, raise 'em up)
And if you're sick of seeing poor people gettin' dissed
Raise your fist (put 'em up, put 'em up)
And if you wanna do something 'bout it
You gotta do more than raise your fist to get pissed

The downbeat "Monkey Hate Reggae" is about a disaffected youth in a no-future rust belt town coming under the sway of a "right-wing libertine" and acting out violently as a result (shades of "Clampdown"). The ebullient "The Fightback, Part II" revisits and amps up this funk-powered Before the Revolution track, but recasts its lyrics to laud the massive antiglobalization protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle ("Corporations split the world in two/Which side, which side for you?...You can't fight the man alone/Fuck with the people and the people fight back").

The instrumental booty-shaking dancefloor-filling portion of Otis Redding Will Save America is a collection of genre-bending trip-hop tracks packed with elements of reggae, funk, and hip-hop, plus samples galore (this entire album features some seriously deep grooves and crazy, next-level rhythms thanks to secret weapon Rench). The awesome "Mumia in Tibet" (which refers to Mumia Abu-Jamal) is like a drum 'n' bass mash-up with something off Jump With Joey's Ska Ba"Boomstick" borrows Musical Youth's intro to "Pass the Dutchie" ("This generation...rules the nation...with version!") for this fantastic percussive workout. And "Supergoodlookin" brings the funk for when you want to get down and funky ("...take it home if you like it/Finger-licking good/Take it home if you like it").

Otis Redding Will Save America concludes with the sobering reality of "It's Like That." The struggle for equality and social/economic justice is far from over and must continue at all costs, despite people's apathy and the considerable power of the forces perfectly happy with/exploiting the status quo: "Can't tell the rich man to stop scheming/But we can change this shitstem/If only we look past the horizon...You may not feel the situation/But give it a generation/It's not gonna look good to my grandchildren."

The Ugly Reality: The Adjusters' Otis Redding Will Save America was released just a few years after the ska meltdown at the end of the 1990s when the scene was abandoned by the wannabes and driven/shamed back underground. So, the audience to enjoy it and the scene infrastructure to promote it was largely gone. And it didn't help that Otis Redding Will Save America was only available as an import from Grover Records in Germany. Right after The Adjusters finished recording the album, Moon Ska went under (on December 17, 2000), but Bucket was kind enough to release the unmixed masters to the band so they could finish and issue the record elsewhere. After the album was released by Grover, plans were in place to tour Europe in support (Daraka was living in Norway at the time and other members of the band took leave of their jobs or quit), but everything was canceled at the last minute. The band broke up as a result--and none of the tracks on Otis Redding Will Save America were ever played live.

It's also incredibly ironic that an album about the battle for America's soul has never been released domestically. But perhaps worst of all is that these songs about racism, hatred, inequity, gun violence, and the longing to change the power structure of our economy and political system are still painfully relevant almost 20 years later, maybe even more so now than they were in 2003.

+ + + +


* I happened to catch Billy Bragg at The Beacon Theater on his brilliant first tour of North America in 1984 opening for Echo and the Bunnymen during their magnificent Ocean Rain tour.

** [From the Chicago Reader's "Ska's Lost Cause" article:] "The Adjusters’ Larimore was more skeptical. “Not talking about racism as a system, or racism as something that you should be actively fighting against, but talking about it like, ‘You shouldn’t be mean to black people,’ is just ridiculous,” he said. “It’s like the 2-Tone take on racism, which in the 2-Tone context meant something completely different. There you had a racially diverse scene where people were beating each other up, so going out and saying ‘Hey, don’t beat each other up’ was a progressive thing and part of the more socialist agenda of the people behind 2-Tone. But going to a ska crowd that’s 99 percent white and pretty solidly liberal–especially on race issues–and saying ‘Don’t beat up black people’ is like going out and saying ‘Don’t molest children.’ They might as well do Ska Against Incest.”"

*** Here are some of my favorite verses from "If You" worth quoting here:

If I'm a villain
Let's love the penicillin
I'm not sick with crimes
I'm sick with rhymes
New gang bang
I bang slang for fame
Guiliani, ha!, punany
The same thang...


Smiling faces lyin' to the races
You got a facelift, but you're still a racist
You might like your blunder
My hatred alone will rend you asunder
I've got a mind to triumph my will
Look in my eyes, got expression to kill
Syllogisms for your fascisms
You won't find me in your high-tech prisons

+ + + +

Much thanks to Daraka Larimore-Hall for filling in a few of the blanks and providing several corrections.

+ + + +