Sunday, September 18, 2022

40th Anniversary Reissue of The Selecter's "Celebrate the Bullet"/"The Lost Interview: Neol Davies of The Selecter"

The CD and LP of "Celebrate the Bullet" feature a TV displaying static, while a gloved hand adjusts one of the buttons.
It's a little late, but Chrysalis is finally releasing the 40th Anniversary of The Selecter's dark and superb 1981 sophomore album Celebrate the Bullet on November 11, 2022. The album is remastered from the original production tapes and being issued on heavyweight clear vinyl and in an expanded, triple-CD deluxe version, which features a 20-page booklet with notes from the band; the unreleased "Deepwater" single and its dub; the Celebrate the Bullet BBC sessions; and an unreleased live concert recorded at Birmingham's NEC in 1980. (Pre-orders can be made through Townsend Music in the UK and Amazon in the US.)

If you need a refresher on this album, you can read my appreciation of Celebrate the Bullet from this 2010 post.

Also, below is a chapter relating to Celebrate the Bullet excerpted from my 2020 book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone

"The Lost Interview: Neol Davies of The Selecter"

Back in 2015, I was planning to expand a post I had written several years earlier reappraising The Selecter's Celebrate the Bullet [which is included in The Duff Guide to 2 Tone] to book-length. Hoi Polloi skazine's John Vaccaro had been incredibly kind to send me several contemporary articles related to the album from Sounds, NME, and other British music publications from his extensive print archives for my research. I also managed to arrange a series of interviews with Selecter founder, guitarist, and primary songwriter Neol Davies, and intended to talk with other members of the band who had composed songs for the Celebrate the Bullet, including Pauline Black, Gaps Hendrickson, and Compton Amanor.

That summer, I spoke twice with Davies via Skype, but during each session, our video calls were plagued by technical issues: the audio would often go in and out and inevitably degrade to static. Davies was generous and gracious during our interviews—and quite eager to talk about an album that he clearly felt never received its due—but was increasingly frustrated and distracted by the audio problems. I digitally recorded both interviews, but much to my regret didn't have them transcribed at the time. I had planned to set up additional phone calls with Davies, but, unfortunately, didn't, due to demands of work and life.

While putting together The Duff Guide to 2 Tone, it struck me that excerpts from my interviews with Neol Davies would be perfect for this book, but I have been unable to locate the audio files, which I thought I had copied to an external hard drive. Unfortunately, the device I used to record the interviews died several years ago and was recycled. However, I do have the notes that I typed up after my conversation with Davies on 8/13/15, which are as follows.

The cover of Celebrate the Bullet, which was designed by Davies' late wife Jane Hughes and John "Teflon" Sims of Chrysalis' art department (who, along with David Storey, created much of 2 Tone's iconic imagery), featured a gloved hand of a person who couldn't be identified as a man or woman, or black or white—they represented everyone. The fuzzy TV screen on the UK version of the album was meant to convey that the music and message was not being broadcast or given airtime in the mainstream media, and also expressed a dread of nuclear annihilation (when all transmissions will cease). Davies commented that the band was "angry with the world."

Hughes also designed the new Selecter "dial" or "eyeball" logo (used on the paper label for the album and "Celebrate the Bullet" single). It was greatly influenced by Soviet constructivist artists and "fits nicely as a paper sleeve for a single or album—and allows for text, too." Davies noted that it was simple, but "not so easy to arrive at."

Davies stated that, in contrast to The Specials, which was "very much a dictatorship with Jerry in charge," The Selecter was a real democracy. Each member had an equal vote and they based all of their decisions on whichever options had the most support. The band voted down Davies on who should produce their debut album Too Much Pressure. Davies had wanted Roger Lomas, who had produced The Selecter's first few singles, including "The Selecter" and "On My Radio" b/w "Too Much Pressure." In the end, the band opted to go with Charley Anderson's friend Errol Ross, but Davies and others were very unhappy with the results. As a consequence, Lomas was recruited to produce "The Whisper" single and the Celebrate the Bullet album. (A few years prior to this interview, Davies thought he had tracked down the two-inch reel-to-reel tapes for Too Much Pressure with the idea of remixing the whole album for a re-release, but the boxes were empty.)

According to Davies, the track "Celebrate the Bullet" is "a direct descendent" of "The Selecter" instrumental. The song is about recognizing "the seduction of the power of holding a gun in your hand and being enthralled by the power of a gun—but also being very anti-gun." When I asked him about Chrysalis' reaction to the controversy surrounding the single [the BBC had quietly banned the track over misguided concerns that it encouraged gun violence; John Lennon had been murdered a few months earlier and an assassination attempt had been made on President Ronald Reagan around the time of the single's release], Davies noted that the label gave their "full support" to The Selecter.

Davies felt that the "Celebrate the Bullet" single "should have been our 'Ghost Town'"—The Selecter's #1 record. Like that Specials masterpiece, The Selecter's "art and music was in synch with real world events and the zeitgeist" of those turbulent times. Davies said that he found it "mystifying that an anti-gun and anti-violence record would be banned during a time when people were being assassinated."

(Written exclusively for this book on June 10, 2020.)

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Sunday, September 11, 2022

Duff Review: "Blue Beat Baby: The Untold Story of Brigitte"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Blue Beat Baby: The Untold Story of Brigitte, a new 30-minute video documentary by Joanna Wallace, does an excellent job of piecing together the largely forgotten story of Brigitte Bond, who inadvertently inspired the design of The Beat girl. While the average ska fan knows 2 Tone's Walt Jabsco was created by Jerry Dammers (and refined with help from Horace Panter and John "Teflon" Sims) and based on a photo of Peter Tosh from his early Wailers' days, far fewer are aware of the origins and background of The Beat girl.

In Blue Beat Baby, Wallace explains that Brigitte Bond was a popular Soho burlesque performer who showed up to welcome Prince Buster at Heathrow Airport in 1964 during his first tour of the UK (to promote I Feel The Spirit). In the process, she was photographed and filmed dancing with Buster in the terminal (most likely a calculated move to help generate press for her then forthcoming single and supporting gigs). A little over a decade later, one of these photos was re-published in Melody Maker in the spring of 1979 (see it above), just as 2 Tone started to rule the airwaves and charts. Cartoonist/graphic artist Hunt Emerson, who was tasked by The Beat to quickly come up with their logo (and later designed the covers of the first two Beat albums), spied the photo of the beautiful and fashionably mod Bond dancing with Prince Buster and modeled his striking--and now iconic--Beat girl illustration on her. Notably, neither Hunt Emerson nor anyone in The Beat was cognizant of Bridget Bond's claim to fame. Emerson was drawn to her elegant sense of style and the wonderful motion of her hips, arms, and legs captured in that phenomenal photo.

Employing archival newspaper clips, strip joint advertisements, and TV news footage, Wallace fills in as many blanks in Bond's story as possible in this compelling documentary. Her professional life on stage, in the press, and on the screen is well-covered here, but little is known of Bond's origins or fate (the trail goes cold in Italy in 1976). However, Wallace highlights several fascinating aspects of Bond's life, such as her (so-so) 1964 ska single on Blue Beat; the episode where she hijacked Billy Graham's attempt to minister/preach to the sinful denizens of Soho, which garnered her worldwide press coverage; and the fact that she is/was a gorgeous, transgender woman (which, refreshingly, didn't seem to be that big of a scandal in the UK at the time--many of her strip club patrons and admirers had no complaints!).

Both The Beat's Dave Wakeling and Emerson observed that after The Beat girl began to be featured on gig posters and Beat merchandise, the band's previously male-dominated audiences were flooded with female Beat fans (and there were far fewer fights at shows). Many girls even began to copy The Beat girl's style of dress. So, a crucial part of Bond's legacy is that her image helped welcome/make space for girls and women in the 2 Tone scene. (Then, as now, representation matters.) Perhaps the most significant unanswered question in all of this is whether Bond is/was aware of her consequential and celebrated place in 2 Tone history.

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On a related note, ska author Heather Augustyn provided research assistance for this documentary and she wrote a chapter on Brigitte Bond in her forthcoming book Rude Girls: Women in 2 Tone and One Step Beyond.

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Thursday, September 8, 2022

Skavoovie & The Epitones Release Back Catalogue with Bonus Tracks!

Members of the band are dressed in suits and pork pie hats, and strike cool poses for the camera.
(by Steve Shafer)

If you missed Ken Partridge's recent profile of Skavoovie & The Epitones, stop and go read it now. It's the best piece ever written about the band (I should know--I used to read and compile all of Skavoovie & The Epitones' press clippings during my Moon days).

But the big news is that on September 14 Skavoovie & The Epitones are re-issuing their brilliant 1995 debut album Fat Footin' in the digital realm (Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify) and are including two bonus tracks: a cover of The Skatalites classic “Beardman Ska” and an alternate version of their track “Riverboat" (both of which I think are from their 1996 Moon vinyl single).

Then in January 2023, they're releasing their sublime sophomore album Ripe (with bonus tracks), followed later in the year by a brand new compilation of live and rare cuts. And that's not all--there are plans in the works to press a 7" vinyl single featuring an unreleased live version of "Nut Monkey" b/w "9 Dragons." "Nut Monkey" cemented my love of Skavoovie & The Epitones--back in the day I was thrilled to feature this song on the first Skarmageddon comp I produced in 1994.

If you didn't know Skavoovie & The Epitones then, you need to know them now.

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(Also, subscribe to Partridge's Hell of a Hat substack feed for more long-reads about '90s era ska acts.)

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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

NYC Ska Calendar #5, Summer 2022

Dennis Bovell's giant head peers over an imagined cityscape made up of stereo speakers.
Friday, July 8, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Vive Murak 2022 with Royal Club with special guest Deals Olan, Tone Zone Ska, The End Times, Mutate, plus Boss Selektah Diana and DJ Garrido

Soverign
173 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$30/18+
Info: (929) 414-3586

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Friday, July 15, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: Dunia & Aram's "Bedfellows" album release party, plus The Penniless Loafers, and Bachslider (plus DJ Ryan Midnight and Boss Selektah Diana)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan/Alphabet City
21+/No cover, but bring $ for band bucket

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Tuesday, August 2, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

DJ Gorilla presents One Last Ska Punky Reggae Party featuring Joystick, Skappository, Dub Corps, and Eric Daino

Bar Frieda
801 Seneca Avenue
Ridgewood (Queens), NY
$10/21+

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Friday, August 12, 2022 @ 6:00 pm (boat departs at 7:00 pm sharp!)

The Slackers

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
Skyport Marina
2430 FDR Drive (at 23rd Street)
Manhattan, NY
Tix: $40/21+

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Saturday, August 13, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

VP Records Presents Dancehall Meets Hip Hop 90s Style, Hosted by Ralph McDaniels (Video Music Box!): Slick Rick, Wayne Wonder, Shinehead, Red Fox, Lady G., plus DJs Jazzy Joyce and Peter Panic

SummerStage
Central Park (enter at Fifth Avenue & 72nd Street)
Manhattan, NY
Free!

SummerStage
Central Park (enter at Fifth Avenue & 72nd Street)
Manhattan, NY
$75-$125

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Thursday, August 25th , 2022 @ 6:00 pm

Burning Spear: The Fan Appreciation Tour, Keep the Spear Burning

SummerStage
Central Park (enter at Fifth Avenue & 72nd Street)
Manhattan, NY
$50-$90

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Saturday, September 24, 2022 @ 6:30 pm (boat departs at 7:00 pm sharp!)

The Pietasters

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
Skyport Marina
2430 FDR Drive (at 23rd Street)
Manhattan, NY
$39.99/21+

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Hollie Cook

Elsewhere
599 Johnson Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$29.46/16+

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Friday, June 17, 2022

Duff Review: Smoke & Mirrors Sound System featuring Roy Ellis "More Than Unites" & "Dub That Unites" b/w Smoke and Mirrors Sound System featuring Monty Nesmith "Start All Over" & "Dub All Over"

10" color vinyl record (blue, red, and
The cover painting features Monty Neysmith wearing sunglasses and a cap.
black)
Jump Up Records/Grover Records
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

John Roy and the rotating cast of all-star ska musicians in his Smoke & Mirrors Sound System continue to be on a tear, reliably producing some of the best new ska and reggae music around. The latest proof of this is the stunning double A-sided 10" single that (sort of) reunites two of Symarip's main players, Roy Ellis and Monty Neysmith, both of whom have been releasing their own music as of late.

The magnificently fierce rockers-like cut "More Than Unites" (music: John Roy/lyrics: Tony Devenish of Rebelation UK) features Roy Ellis toasting and Dan Vitale of Bim Skala Bim singing of brother/sisterhood and solidarity in the face of fascism and hate. 

"Don't separate us by our language
For it's the same air that we breathe
No division by color or heritage
Where the skin cuts still it bleeds

For we are all one people
Under one sun and sky
And there is more that unites us
Than divides you and I"

I don't know about you, but in these days of unprecedented selfishness, lust for power, and never-sated greed that threatens to destroy everything (people, nations, the planet), I need as many songs like this as I can get my hands on (I've been listening to a lot of '80s-era Billy Bragg lately, like the Between the Wars and Accident Waiting to Happen EPs).

With "Start All Over" (music: John Roy/lyrics: Monty Neysmith), Neysmith sings--in a terrifically impassioned performance--of surrendering, regrouping, and giving things another go. In this wonderful rocksteady hymn to hope, resilience, and grit, failure is okay if you learn from the experience--and it doesn't defeat you.

"I'm leaving this life behind
I now realize it wasn't all that kind
Today, I see the lights are shining so bright
And it tells me everything is gonna be alright

I'm gonna pick myself up
Dust myself off
And start all over again"

In addition to all of the stellar musicians on these tracks (including Matt Parker, Eric Abbey, Victor Rice, Buford O'Sullivan, and many more), the great Roger Rivas not only worked his keyboard magic here but did the boss mixes and compelling dubs.

Whoever's keeping tally, add this 10" to the list of best new ska and reggae releases of 2022...

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For more about Smoke & Mirrors Sound System, read my reviews of their recent releases:

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Duff Review: The Untouchables "Hooked on a Feeling" b/w "Hooked Dub"

The picture disc artwork features an illustration of a rude boy playing a guitar and kicking one leg up in the air.
Artwork by CHema Skandal!
7" vinyl picture disc single
Jump Up Records/Specialized Records
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Originally recorded for Specialized Records' 2020 charity comp Blockbuster: A Tribute to Glam Rock (but it was delivered too late for inclusion), The Untouchables' new picture disc single is a cover of ("Suspicious Minds" composer) Mark James' "Hooked on a Feeling," which was recorded by BJ Thomas (1968), Jonathan King (1971), and Blue Swede (1974)--and received new life in the 21st century courtesy of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie soundtrack. While it seems like a stretch to put "Hooked on a Feeling" on a glam comp--this is a mega-catchy AM-radio pop track, after all--Blue Swede was tagged as a glam rock band and their version of this song (based on Jonathan King's 1971 arrangement) was a smash hit in the US, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands.

The Untouchables' excellent, straight-up sincere take on this song is in the same vein as their 1985 hit "What's Gone Wrong?" (which UB40 wanted to buy from them before The UTs recorded it). But the UTs' crack rhythm section and horns really give "Hooked on a Feeling" some real umph--something that's even more evident on "Hooked Dub." Rude boys want to convey messages of love, too, but don't have to be soft about it.

Long-time UTs fans, no doubt, will remember and have collected several picture disc singles ("Free Yourself," "I Spy for the FBI," and "What's Gone Wrong?") spun off The Untouchables' Wild Child LP (which was also released as a picture disc). Their UK label Stiff Records was mad about this format and always paid such brilliant attention to the design of their releases and merchandise. Jump Up notes that "Hooked on a Feeling" is the first Untouchables picture disc released in 37 years. Let's hope we don't have to wait nearly as long for more UTs recordings, 'cause right now they sound so damn good!

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To read more about The Untouchables, check out The Duff Guide to the Untouchables. Also see my introductory chapter "1985: The Year American Ska Broke" to Marc Wasserman's book Ska Boom: An American Ska & Reggae Oral History.

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Friday, June 10, 2022

Duff Review: Victor Romero Evans "At the Club" b/w The Detonators "Lift Off" reissue

The paper label indicates the song title, band, and label (Special Request)
12" vinyl single
Special Request
1980 (2022 reissue)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Remastered and reissued for the first time since 1980, the John Collins-produced/co-written 12" single featuring Victor Romero Evans' "At the Club" and The Detonators' "Lift Off" should be of interest to Specials' fans, as it's forever linked to their most brilliant release--the Ghost Town EP.

Back in the day, after the Evans/Detonators record was played on Radio One's "Roundtable" program and favorably reviewed (it also was #1 on Black Echoes' reggae chart at the time), Collins received a late-night call from Jerry Dammers asking him if he might be interested in producing The Specials' next recording. The band was very impressed with Collins' production (recorded on a four-track in the front room of his house and released on his own label) and, in the wake of More Specials' not completely welcome excursion into muzak/lounge and the hi-tech 24-track studio it had been recorded in (that offered Dammers too many choices!), The Specials wanted to capture a more authentic reggae sound for these new songs in a much simpler fashion. And they believed Collins was their man.

When The Specials' met John Collins, they didn't expect him to be white. Lynval Golding and Neville Staple told him, "We were expecting someone like Lee Perry; a wild rasta smoking ganja." Indeed, the seductive Lovers Rock of "At the Club" and mysterious outer space dub of "Lift Off" seem as if they could have come from the mixing desks of Dennis Bovell or Mad Professor, two of the top UK reggae producers back then--and now. (Trainspotters will be interested to know that Victor Romero Evans also played the part of Lover in Franco Rosso’s stellar 1980 film Babylon--an updated Thatcher-era The Harder They Come shot in South London, with a boss reggae soundtrack by Bovell, Yabby U, I-Roy, Cassandra, Aswad, Vin Gordon, and Michael Rose.)

Of these two tracks, the wonderful dub instrumental "Lift Off" is clearly the sonic blueprint for what Dammers wanted for "Ghost Town." It sports a clean, warm, roots reggae sound with electro percussion and trippy synth effects (shades of every B 1950s sci-fi film you've ever seen)--and features the same ghost synth that is later used to open and close "Ghost Town." (To these ears, John Bradbury's drumming on "Ghost Town" and "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" sounds like its programmed, even though it's not; but I think it's a combination of how Brad is drumming--reportedly influenced by Gregory Isaacs' "Night Nurse"--and how Collins recorded him.)

Specials' completists will want to snap up a copy of this (I ordered a copy through Juno.co.uk), but the Victor Romero Evans "At the Club"/Detonators "Lift Off" 12" is worth having in its own right. It's a fantastic slice of early '80s UK reggae that stands the test of time. 

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Thursday, June 9, 2022

NYC Ska Calendar #4, Spring/Summer 2022

Friday, June 17, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Members of The Beat dressed in Harrington jackets, sport coats, and jean jackets are lined up along a fence facing the camera.
Strictly love and unity with The Beat

Subway to Skaville presents: The Freecoasters, Beat Brigade, Donut City (plus DJ Ryan Midnight & DJ Duff Guy)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan/Alphabet City
21+/No cover, but bring $ for band bucket

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Friday, July 8, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Vive Murak 2022 with Royal Club with special guest Deals Olan, Tone Zone Ska, The End Times, Mutate plus Boss Selektah Diana and DJ Garrido

Soverign
173 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$30/18+
Info: (929) 414-3586

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Friday, July 15, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: Dunia & Aram's "Bedfellows" album release party, plus Bachslider, and TBA (pluse DJ Ryan Midnight and Boss Selektah Diana)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
Manhattan/Alphabet City
21+/No cover, but bring $ for band bucket

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Saturday, July 23, 2022 @ 7:30 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: Buford O'Sullivan & The Roosters, Ensamble Calavera, Not From Concentrate (plus DJ Ryan Midnight)

Bar Frieda
801 Seneca Avenue
Ridgewood (Queens), NY
$10/21+

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Tuesday, August 2, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

DJ Gorilla presents One Last Ska Punky Reggae Party featuring Joystick, Skappository, Dub Corps, and Eric Daino

Bar Frieda
801 Seneca Avenue
Ridgewood (Queens), NY
$10/21+

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Saturday, September 24, 2022 @ 6:30 pm (boat departs at 7:00 pm sharp!)

The Pietasters

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
Skyport Marina
2430 FDR Drive (at 23rd Street)
Manhattan, NY
$39.99/21+

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

Hollie Cook

Elsewhere
599 Johnson Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$29.46/16+

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Monday, June 6, 2022

Duff Review: Norwood, Angelo, and Chris Meet Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards "Too Many Dues" b/w Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards "Mercy"

The 45 sleeve features photos of Norwood, Angelo, Chris, and Eric.
7" vinyl single/digital
Bopaganda! Records & Tapes
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Fishbone's 1988 masterpiece Truth & Soul was largely an exposition on what it was like to be a Black American living in an unrelentingly racist America (see most of Truth & Soul's side two: "One Day," "Subliminal Fascism," "Slow Bus Movin' (Howard Beach Party)," "Ghetto Soundwave," and "Change"). When the album was recorded, a lot of the good that had resulted from the brutally hard work of the Civil Rights Movement and America's attempts at building an equitable and just Great Society was being rolled back during the regressive Reagan '80s. "Slow Bus Movin' (Howard Beach Party)," in particular, was written and recorded in response to the horrific 1986 death of New Yorker Michael Griffith, who was hit and killed by a car as he attempted to cross the Belt Parkway in Queens while fleeing a mob of white teenagers trying to attack him (acts of racial terror didn't only happen in the Jim Crow South). According to The New York Times:

"The events in Howard Beach began when Mr. Griffith, a construction worker, and three black companions traveled from Brooklyn to Queens to pick up his paycheck. Their car broke down late on Dec. 19 on a desolate stretch of Cross Bay Boulevard, and three of the four began walking into Howard Beach. As they were crossing the street, they were nearly bumped by a car in which several white teenagers were riding. Racial slurs were exchanged. The teenagers, joined by other young whites, confronted the black men outside a pizza parlor, New Park Pizza, and chased them.

Timothy Grimes, who was 18, escaped unharmed. Mr. Griffith was killed by a car on the Belt Parkway. Cedric Sandiford, who was 36, was beaten with a bat and other weapons...

...Jon Lester, Scott Kern and Jason Ladone were convicted of manslaughter and assault."

Flash forward 30+ years later and--while some things have changed for the better--much has not. Members of Fishbone (Norwood Fisher, Angelo Moore, and Chris Dowd)--plus Eric Blowtorch and the Bodyguards--still feel compelled to write and record songs about America's unrelenting racism and its abuse and murder of Black people. The terrific "Too Many Dues"--co-written by Eric Beaumont and Norwood Fisher--is an ironically chipper ska/jump blues cut that conveys some real anguish over the high profile murder of Breonna Taylor and permanent disabling of Jacob Blake (10% of the single's profits are being donated to Black Lives Matter). But it's also about the tragic inability of America to live up to its ideals and treat all people equally in every aspect of life--and under the law (we fought a bloody civil war over it and amended the Constitution several times in attempts to do so). 

"Breonna Taylor was a healer, but the jailer
Just had to invade her, viciously assail her
Every, every day here to the cross we nail her
The great experiment is a failure

What does a brother have to do
To reap respect already due
To stop the spiteful spew
To not be turning blue?"

On the flip side is the excellent 2 Tone-ish ska track "Mercy," which is a plea for the salvation of humanity, a mantra for our thoroughly horrific times, particularly in these fragmented United States of ours: "Mercy in destabilizer stormtroop’s face/Mercy, mercy when your blood boils over/Mercy to the driver in the bulldozer." It's a mournful track, like something off the Ghost Town EP, but interspersed with joyous and hopeful funk-soul breaks in the choruses. And it's protest music that's not about casting blame, but searching for something that can heal what's broken inside of us, so we won't be at each other's throats, and might even be able to begin to start caring for one other again.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Duff Review: Horace Andy "Midnight Rocker"

The cover features Horace Andy in profile with grey dreadlocks.
Vinyl LP/CD/digital
On-U Sound
2022

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Like his superb collaborations with Lee "Scratch" Perry before his death (Rainford and Heavy Rain, which I reviewed here and here), Adrian Sherwood's latest effort with Horace Andy yields another masterpiece. Midnight Rocker is easily one of the finest albums in Andy's catalogue and certainly one of the best new roots reggae records you'll hear this year.

At 71, Sleepy's seemingly ageless voice remains in top form--always wonderfully expressive, whether conveying empathy for those suffering or passing along Jah's unyielding judgment on the wicked. He's backed by an all-star band, including Gaudi, George Oban (Aswad), Skip McDonald (Sugar Hill Records house band, Tackhead, African Head Charge), Douglas Wimbish (Sugar Hill Records house band, Tackhead, Living Colour), Horseman (Prince Fatty, Mungo's Hi-Fi, Mad Professor), and more. And Sherwood's virtuoso production--his first for Andy(!)--bathes everything in crisp warmth and life, and leaves plenty of space for Andy to do his thing.

Midnight Rocker contains a mix of new tracks and re-worked versions of Andy classics, some surely chosen for their heightened relevance today. The album opens with a fantastic rendition of Andy's plaintive "This Must Be Hell" (first released as a Tapper Zukie-produced single in 1978), Things may have been bad in the late '70s, but they have nothing on our everyone's-always-at-each-other's-throats times. This more sparse take on "Materialist" (which was originally produced and released by Niney the Observer in 1977) still packs a punch: "Material comes first in this society/You can't afford a car or a house, no one knows you" (and the track also warns of giving into vanity and acquiring too much). Andy's 1976 reggae lullaby "Rock to Sleep" is beautifully and hauntingly updated with cellos. And even Sleepy's much-revisited, Studio One/Coxsone Dodd-produced single "Mr. Bassie" is given a great new spin with this tightened-up take. (If you compare all of these versions to their originals, you'll be pleased to find that Andy has much more control of his singing, and his voice is arguably stronger and more nimble than ever.)

Like the reworked classics, Andy's new cuts are like late-night, pirate broadcasts of hope and warning--a rebel counternarrative for these entropic times. "Easy Money" (penned by Jeb Loy Nichols and Sherwood) is a melodica-driven sequel of sorts to his 1975 Phil Pratt-produced single "Root of All Evil" (key lyric: "It make friends/It break friends/Judas betrayed Christ for it!") that is an oblique critique of our capitalist way of life: "Tell me why/Did I ever start/To make money money/You did me wrong/You been cheating me/My whole life long." The stately "Today is Right Here" (by Sherwood/Nichols/Oban) reminds one that life is tenuous and fleeting, so you need to enjoy/be in the right now ("See that old black bird flying/See that fox on the run/They don't think about tomorrow/'Cause it might never come"). Despite its topic, "Careful" (by Leigh Stephen Kenny/LSK and Sherwood) is a bright and jaunty track about the pernicious disinformation we're swimming in daily ("All that glitters is not gold/All that's written is not so/Pictures, scriptures always told through the eyes of victors, all I know"). With all the turmoil, dangers, and moral quandaries to navigate these days, Andy pleads to Jah--over a Lover's Rock cut (written by LSK/Gaudi/Roydel Johnson aka Congo Ashanti Roy)--to "Watch Over Them." We need all the protection we can get.

One of my favorite tracks on Midnight Rocker is the cover of Massive Attack's "Safe from Harm" from Blue Lines. For all of Andy's past work with Massive Attack, this song from their 1991 debut--inspired by Martin Scorsese's neo-noir nightmare Taxi Driver (it's about Travis Bickle expressing his compulsion to protect the teenage prostitute Iris)--was originally sung by Shara Nelson. Yet hearing Andy singing it in this urgent, slightly futuristic dubstep-reggae setting (that rumbling bassline is ominous!), you don't think of Jodie Foster, but rather whoever means the world to you and you'd be devastated to lose: "But if you hurt what's mine/I'll sure as hell retaliate/You can free the world, you can free my mind/Just as long as my baby's safe from harm tonight."

While Midnight Rocker immediately appealed to me from first play on the turntable, I've been listening to it on and off for weeks now--and still don't think the album has fully revealed itself to me yet.

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