Saturday, February 22, 2020

Duff Book Review: "Before We Was We: Madness by Madness"

The cover of Madness' book features all the members of the band posing with their instruments in their rehearsal room and smiling for the camera.Virgin Books
Hardcover
2019

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I remember when I first split open the cellophane on my original copy of Madness' One Step Beyond... LP and being struck by all the strips of photo booth pictures printed on the inner sleeve of what I assumed were people--kids, really--from the band's circle of friends (who were these guys with nicknames like Prince Nutty, Totts, Whets, Chalky, and Toks?). There was something so wonderfully normal and non-rockstar-ish and authentic about it all. But it also spoke to an insider-ness, of being in on the joke that--in addition to their unapologetic working class Britishness--was somewhat inaccessible and foreign (in the sense of unfamiliar, without reference points) to this suburban American kid. They were these small mysteries about Madness that I would never understand--you had to be part of their gang to get them.

And gang really is the right word here. A good portion of Before We Was We: Madness by Madness consists of inseparable childhood friends Mike "Barso" Barson, Lee "Kix" or "Thommo" Thompson, and Chris "Chrissy Boy" Foreman recounting their wild (and sometimes wildly dangerous) teenage exploits together, many of which involved petty crime (successful techniques are shared): breaking into laundry, phone, or heater coin boxes; sneaking into movies like "A Clockwork Orange" and concerts by Roxy Music and Ian Dury's Kilburn and the High Roads (often by climbing up the sides of buildings via drainpipes to enter an open window or another access point on the roof); shoplifting clothes and records (Barson says he accumulated over 300 LPs without ever having bought one--and his mum never asked how this came to be) and almost anything else not bolted down (in one hair-raising episode, Thompson poses as mannequin in a shop window to avoid being nabbed by the cops); and joyriding on the occasional, ahem, "borrowed" scooter. There also was a lot of jumping on the freight or "goods" trains that cut through their then still Blitz-ravaged north London Camden Town and Kentish Town neighborhoods (dotted with bomb craters and bombed-out buildings), a bit of boot boy street violence, and lot of spray-painting their graffiti tags in highly visible spots that helped them gain some notoriety among their peers. (Mark "Bedders" Bedford, Graham "Suggs" McPherson, Dan "Woody" Woodgate, and Cathal "Chas Smash" Smyth were drawn into their orbit later through these exploits and then their pre-Madness band The Invaders; they, of course, share their stories, too.)

As you might imagine, there are a lot of great tales, very well-told in Before We Was We: Madness by Madness. It's a phenomenal, wonderfully compelling, and completely enjoyable oral history of the band that conveys their individual and collective stories from birth through the recording of Madness' debut album, their first three smash hit singles ("The Prince," "One Step Beyond," and "My Girl"), and Madness' inaugural tour of America in 1980 (where they encounter and go ga-ga for the Go-Gos, as do several of the other 2 Tone bands who venture to the USA)--and is an essential component of 2 Tone history (to go along with Daniel Rachel's Walls Come Tumbling Down, Paul Williams' You're Wondering Now, and Pauline Black's and Ranking Roger's respective autobiographies).

Through all of these anecdotes, the reader comes to know (and love) this group of brilliantly funny, whip-smart, thrill-seeking, talented, and raffishly charming young men from working-class families with mostly absent fathers and almost nil adult supervision, and marvel at their improbable rise from almost Dickensian origins to become one of the most successful British pop acts ever (releasing twenty Top 20 singles and selling over 6 million singles during the 1980s alone). And they share their keen awareness that giving The Invaders/Madness a go came at a point in their lives when their only other options were looking more and more like prison (the punishment for their crimes was becoming more serious as they entered adulthood, as Barson came to realize) or soul-crushing, dead-end jobs (Suggs recalls a point early on when he wasn't taking the band seriously and was let go--and then being in the audience for one of their shows and realizing that he had to do anything he could to get back in it, as it was the only thing worth doing in his life).

Mike Barson, in particular, emerged as the driving force behind the band, pushing everyone to their fullest potential, and has the best insight as to why they had spent so much of their teen years in pursuit of illicit and sometimes life-threatening kicks (all of which was eventually channeled into the band): "For us, there was some sort of quest to find something special, or something exciting. There was obviously something psychological about it. I mean, we all came from broken families, pretty much. So probably that ties in with wanting to be special and wanting to be something different."

Like Patti Smith's portrayal of a long-gone NYC gone to seed in the '60s and '70s in Just KidsBefore We Was We captures a London that no longer exists--and is almost unimaginable now--where you could get by on next to nothing, which gave one the opportunity and space to create, take risks, and hone your art along with a host of other artists, musicians, and writers, each trying to do their own unique thing. So much of what took place in their formative years, the extraordinary freedom they had coupled with their adventurousness (they rode freight trains across England and France), a drive to experience something new, and fear of being merely ordinary--all of which shaped what became the minor miracle of Madness--seems like something unattainable in our helicopter parent, surveillance state, personal brand/social media-obsessed, predatory-capitalist/monopolistic, lowest common denominator mass media age.

After you read Before We Was We: Madness by Madness, definitely make sure to break out your copy of One Step Beyond... With all of this new background on the band and fuller context for many of their original songs on their debut album (like "Bed and Breakfast Man," "Land of Hope and Glory," "In the Middle of the Night," etc.), you're likely to find that it's a richer listening experience, and that some of the tracks are now more profound. And maybe you'll even be able to imagine that you're just a bit closer to being a part of Madness' gang.

+ + + +

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Duff Guide to Ska Winter/Spring/Summer 2020 NYC Ska Calendar #2

Prince Buster
Friday, February 28, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: The Ladrones, Barbicide, Calavera NY Club, J Wahlberg (of The Screw-Ups), plus DJ Ryan Midnight

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (Aves A and B)
New York, NY
No cover, but bring cash for band tip bucket!

+ + + +

Friday, March 6, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

Ska Night, Vol. 2 with Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan, Rudie Crew, Selector Agent Jay

Pianos
158 Ludlow Street
New York, NY
$10/21+

+ + + +

Sunday, March 8, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

International Women's Day Dance w/NY Ska Jazz Ensemble, DJ Spinach

DROM
85 Avenue A
New York, NY
$10

+ + + +

Friday, March 13, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

Dub Is A Weapon, Soon Come

Gutter Bar
200 North 14th Street
Brooklyn, NY
21+

+ + + +

Saturday, March 21, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

The Twilights*, Barbicide, Penniless Loafers, DJ Ryan Midnight

The Cobra Club
6 Wyckoff Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
No cover, but tips for the bands are appreciated!

+ + + +

Friday, March 27, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

The Slackers, Crazy and the Brains, The Scotch Bonnets

White Eagle Hall
337 Newark Avenue
Jersey City, NJ
$20

+ + + +

Saturday, April 18, 2020 @ 6:00 pm

The Annual 420 Reggae Fiesta on the River w/Dub is a Weapon, Crazy Baldhead Dub Apparatus

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
The Liberty Belle
Boards at Pier 36
299 South Street
New York, NY
$35 in advance/$40 day of show
21+

+ + + +

Friday, April 24, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

Crazy and the Brains, Catbite, Answering Machine, Love is a Fist

Gutter Bar
200 North 14th Street
Brooklyn, NY
$8 in advance/$10 day of the show
21+

+ + + +

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

The Aggrolites, The Far East

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$20/All ages

+ + + +

Thursday, May 21, 2020 @ 7:30 pm

NY Ska Jazz Ensemble

The Iridium
1650 Broadway
New York
$25/All ages

+ + + +

Friday, May 22, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

Madness (40th Anniversary Tour), The English Beat (featuring Dave Wakeling)

Manhattan Center
311 West 34th Street
New York, NY
$44.50-$110

+ + + +

Saturday, June 20, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

Calavera NY Club, Sgt. Scag, Stop the Presses, Disposable

Arlene's Grocery
95 Stanton Street
New York, NY
$10 in advance/$12 day of show
21+

+ + + +

Friday, June 26, 2020 @ 6:30 pm

The Pietasters

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
The Lucille
Boards at the Skyport Marina
East 23rd Street and the FDR
New York, NY
$39.99 in advance/$45 day of show
21+

+ + + +

Saturday, June 27, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

Radicsfest w/The Toasters and more TBA

Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
(Tix not on sale yet.)

+ + + +

Friday, February 14, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Flashback: Various Artists "Mashin' Up the Nation"

Cover art by "Milk and Cheese's" Evan Dorkin.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Moon Records' Ska Face: An All American Ska Compilation was the very first US ska comp out of the gate in 1988 (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of it here), Razorbeat Records/Harvard Square Records' Mashin' Up the Nation was hot on its heels, coming out in '89, and just as vital and good. As with Ska Face, Mashin' Up the Nation served notice (to anyone paying attention) that the off-the-radar US ska scene was heating up and yielding some incredible acts--many of whom would go on to become major players in the mid-1990s ska boom.

Like The Toasters in NYC with Moon Records, Bim Skala Bim and their Razorbeat Records were helping to organize and promote the Boston ska scene, and during the mid-to-late '80s, both bands often worked collaboratively on projects in a socialist/"a rising tide lifts all boats" mindset (for example, when Celluloid Records created the Skaloid imprint specifically for The Toasters to release Thrill Me Up, Bucket also arranged for Bim's Tuba City to be issued simultaneously and he hooked them up with licensing and touring contacts in the UK). Both The Toasters and Bim were on a proverbial mission from god to spread the word about ska in America, and with limited resources and practically zero access to/interest from the music industry and press, it made supreme sense to join forces in solidarity and attempt to make as big an impact as possible.

As with many compilations, there are a few tracks on Mashin' Up the Nation that perhaps would be best lost to time, but the majority of songs here sound absolutely fantastic thirty odd years on--and a couple are now bona fide ska classics. Bim Skala Bim leads off the album with a brilliant live version of their you-gotta-persevere/it's-darkest-before-dawn "Diggin' a Hole" recorded live at CBGBs: "You're digging a hole so long, now it's so deep/Getting so dark here that nobody can see/This artificial light don't brighten our day/We're all the way down here with nothing to say/Got to keep it moving/It's gone too far." Bim's also featured on the lovely instrumental "Groucho (Dub)" with The Skatalites' Roland Alphonso--an outtake from their Tuba City album that was recorded in the tiny studio at Coxsone Dodd's Music City in the back of his old and long-shuttered record shop in Brooklyn.

The liner notes on the back cover of this LP state that the (pre-Mighty Mighty) Bosstones, "showed great promise with their early recording efforts and live shows...sadly they are no longer together." Obviously, we know this was just a hiatus for that band (who would reunite and release their breakthrough debut Devils Night Out in 1990), but their proto-skacore "Drums and Chickens" (AKA "Drunks and Children") is one of their catchiest songs and features their trademark warts-and-all honesty and emotional vulnerability: "Drinkin' just the other day/I said, 'I love you,' you turned away/Maybe the drinkin' made me cry/But I'm a happy, very happy, very happy guy/Drunks and children they tell you the truth/That's what I am, I'm drunken youth/And I'll be drinkin' 'til I die." While a lot of Bop (Harvey)'s music was too reggae-hippie-jam-bandy for me, the straight-up ska of "Bread and Circuses" may be their musically finest and most politically potent moment. It's about the Reagan administration's Cold War-era involvement in Nicaragua, where they were covertly and illegally funding/training the right-wing Contras who regularly committed horrific atrocities against civilians in their prolonged guerrilla war to overthrow the socialist, Cuban-backed Sandinista government ("Washington Bullets," indeed). All of this was revealed in the wake of a bizarre, clandestine scheme involving the sale of arms to Iran (which was at war with Iraq for most of the 1980s) that also included the release of American hostages in Lebanon, and some $18 million of Iran's $30 million payment was diverted by Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council to the Contras; this became known as the Iran-Contra scandal: "The secret war is only a sham/They swear it ain't another Vietnam/If nobody dies on the American side today/But the women and children who die/Are they too Red to get by?/The news is burgers and fries and it's genocide these days/It's bread and circuses time/Who's gonna pay for Ollie's crimes?/Freedom fighters only in name/The Contra's cause is killing in vain/The pressures increase as a few Sandinistas fall/If cover-up is only a crime/Did Colonel North work overtime?/I'm telling you, I think the President knew it all."

The NY Citizens' hard-charging, razor-sharp, Bodysnatchers-referencing "Rude Girls" was the first song the band issued after their terrific debut album On the Move (1988) and was a knock-out whenever they performed it live: "Rude girls/I get so planked when I see them in the subway station/Will she be free for some tea and a little conversation with me?...And when I see them in the street/With their Doc Martens on their feet/They're looking ruder than rude/My god, they're ruder than you!" At this point in time, Detroit's Gangster Fun had just seen their debut album Come See, Come Ska released in the UK by Roddy Moreno's Ska Records (which also released Mashin' Up the Nation as Ska-ville USA, Volume 4--and "Mario's Hideout" from that LP--about being snatched off the street by goons and taken to a mobster's headquarters--is a great example of their manic, slightly twisted, New Wave-y ska (think Fishbone's debut EP).

Let's Go Bowling, hailing from Fresno, CA, were represented by their own cheery, mostly instrumental theme song, "Let's Go Bowling" (from their 1988 cassette-only debut) that urges the listener over and over to head to the lanes for some wholesome fun (one can almost imagine this cut being the jingle from a 1960s TV ad for a local alley)! For this compilation, The Toasters reached into their vaults to fish out one of their first recordings "No Respect" (which was more than good enough to have been included on their debut Recriminations EP). It's from the early days when the band was a lean five-piece playing New Wave-influenced ska with some surf and rockabilly guitar mixed in, and because it was nowhere near representative of The Toasters' late '80s sound circa Thrill Me Up, Bucket must have jokingly credited the song to Not Bob Marley. Nonetheless, "No Respect" is great song, offering haunting social commentary on income inequality and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's cruel policies toward working class and down-on-their-luck Britons: "Well a rich man counts his time/While the poor man counts his money/Down on Leman Street the search for work goes on/For the poor man and his family/Life is a joke, no longer funny (ha ha ha ha)/When there is no respect, there is nothing to draw upon/There is only fear of unemployment/Bad times up ahead/It is cold in winter, it is cold in winter/When your queuing in the morning/Three hours just to sign your name/On the banks of the Thames, there is no self respect."

I've always really liked The Now's English Beat-sounding "Get Out," which shares a fair amount of DNA with "Best Friend" (whatever happened to this Washington, DC band?). This track, however, is about a romantic co-habitation situation gone real bad (and, no doubt, delivered tongue-in-cheek): "Now I don't know where things went wrong/But it doesn't make sense to try/To revive something that was obviously meant to die...You mean as much as lint lying in the pocket of my coat/You were once very pretty/Now you're just a big fat dope/Now, I don't mean to hurt your feelings or cause you pain/But this is the way it must be and I guess I have to say again and again/Leave town or I'll throw you out/There's nothing that I can't do/One of us has to go/And I've decided it's you..."

Mashin' Up the Nation is an essential document for anyone interested in the history and development of the US ska scene--and it's a damn fine record to boot.

+ + + +

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Duff Review: Prince Buster "Africa - Islam - Revolution"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Prince Buster Africa - Islam - Revolution (CD, Earth Sound Records, 2019; available through Topplers.com): While the exact sequence and dates of events leading up to Prince Buster's conversion to Islam from African revivalist Christianity vary according to narrator, what is clear after listening to the truly extraordinary new compilation Africa - Islam - Revolution (and reading its excellent liner notes) is the significant impact his faith had on his music and career--and how this aspect of his life is often glossed over in or omitted from many Prince Buster bios (see his entry in "The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae"). Unlike the songs ("Al Capone," "Madness," "Wash, Wash," "Time Longer Than Rope," "Take It Easy," etc.) that had made him popular among white UK mods through his fruitful partnership with Emil Shalit's Blue Beat label (which had an exclusive deal with Buster in England), the late '60s/early '70s rocksteady and reggae tracks collected here were created specifically for a black audience in Jamaica (greatly affected by the horrific and enduring legacy of slavery and colonialism), if not the entire African diaspora, and conveyed radical and daring messages of black nationalism and Garveyism embedded within the original Nation of Islam's interpretation of Islam. As an already established and successful artist and label owner/entrepreneur, Buster had the popularity, clout, means of production, and swagger that gave him the freedom and ability to record and distribute these explicitly political and religious tracks--but they were viewed as an increasing threat (along with his political and religious activities) to the status quo by the Jamaican political establishment, which regularly harassed Buster over his Black Muslim and Black Power activities, and eventually contributed to his permanent, forced exile from Jamaica in 1974.

According to an exhaustive career retrospective by Laurence Cane-Honeysett in Record Collector ("The King of Ska and More," from issue 459), Prince Buster first encountered Cassius Clay in 1963 in London while on tour in support of the release of his I Feel The Spirit album on Blue Beat (the first ska LP ever to be issued outside of Jamaica), and the two boxers and consummate showmen hit it off well. A year later, while on a trip to New York City where he was performing at the World's Fair as part of the official Jamaican delegation (which included Byron Lee and The Dragonaires, Millie Small, Jimmy Cliff, Eric Morris and The Maytals; the 1964 BBC documentary This Is Ska captures many of these same artists performing in JA), Buster again encountered Clay, who had recently become a Black Muslim and was known forever more as Muhammad Ali. Ali spoke with Buster about the original Nation of Islam (ONOI) and how aspects of it strove to address the societal and institutional racism that denies black people equal opportunities in education, career, housing--essentially everything in life--and invited him to his training camp in Miami to attend his first ONOI meeting (black separatism was one of two responses to white supremacy; the other, pursued by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the coalition of groups that comprised the American Civil Rights Movement, sought the equality and integration of blacks and whites in all aspects of society). According to many accounts, Buster shortly thereafter became a Black Muslim and adopted the name Muhammed Yusef Ali (though the liner notes for Africa - Islam - Revolution assert that Buster had converted to Islam as early as 1961, as does Lloyd Bradley in his book This is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music; perhaps he converted to mainstream Islam in '61, but became a member of the ONOI in '64?). Soon after his return to Jamaica, Buster established a mosque above his record shop at 47 Charles Street, where he and Jimmy Cliff would lead prayer meetings; Buster eventually rose to the rank of ONOI Official Minister and would go on to form two other mosques in JA. Buster also launched a new label imprint--Islam--in tribute to his adopted religion.

Throughout his musical career, from his first hit producing and releasing the Folkes Brothers' "Oh Carolina" on his imprint Buster Wild Bells in 1959 or 1960, which controversially featured Rastafarian Nyabingi drumming by Count Ossie's Afro Combo (Rastas were considered social outcasts--the lowest of low--by proper, uptown/middle class and wealthy Jamaicans and the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) initially ignored it, but eventually caved to public pressure and it became a radio hit in '61), Prince Buster was driven to decolonize the Jamaican music industry that was by in large mimicking the American rhythm and blues records being broadcast from New Orleans radio stations and brought in on 45s via travelers to the US--and reconnect it with its African roots in order to create authentic Jamaican music (Lloyd Bradley in This is Reggae Music notes that "Oh Carolina" marked the first time, "one of the few surviving African-based art forms--a true articulation of black Jamaicaness--had become involved with a commercially viable mainstream expression. It was a bond between Rastafari and the Jamaican music business that is still in place to this day..."). In his February 2000 introduction to Bradley's book, Prince Buster wrote, "The minds of the Jamaican people were colonized by America's rhythm and blues. Its influence penetrated deep into the fabric of our society and had a devastating effect on our folk music, our dialect, even our dress code." He added, "I love rhythm and blues...but I also have an intrinsic love for things Jamaican; its musical expressions and art forms that are of Africa's heritage."

Even though jazz and rhythm and blues were black-created musical idioms, they were still American art forms. Buster stated that he made, "Jamaican records...[to] push out that American thing" (as quoted in Richard Iton's book, In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Transgressing Boundaries: Studies in Black Politics and Black Communities)). Viewed through this lens, the very music that Buster was creating--his groundbreaking use of Rasta drumming, his hand in the creation of ska, his pioneering forays into dub--was an intentional expression of the black nationalism that he also was conveying lyrically in many of the songs on Africa - Islam - Revolution. And Buster was quite aware of how influential popular Jamaican music was in voicing and shaping Jamaican experiences and opinions. Again, in his intro to This is Reggae Music, Buster wrote, "Every twist and turn of Jamaican music for the last forty years has reflected what has been happening to the people, either politically or socially, and often it's the other way around, with the music and sound systems influencing the country's politics."

The rocksteady era was a particularly prolific and rewarding era for Prince Buster and he made significant inroads into roots reggae and dub, as all of the tracks on Africa - Islam - Revolution so wonderfully demonstrate. It's a fantastic, top-notch collection containing many rarities--and just as essential as the Gaz Mayall selected King of Ska; the Islam Records release Hush Up!; the expanded Sequel Records edition of FABulous Greatest Hits; and, if you can find them, the Rock A Shaka comps Voice of the People and Dance Cleopatra--even if the connection to Buster's faith isn't as evident on some songs as it is on others. Appropriately enough, the compilation opens with "African Affair (Salam)" and offers the traditional Muslim greeting of "Salam alaykum [peace be upon you]," followed by an adaptation of a portion of Psalm 19 ("Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, oh Allah, God, my life and my death are all for thee"). Since he leads a devout life ("my heart is clean"), Buster prospers ("Do you not like to see a young black boy drive a Chevrolet Impala custom-built golden chariot?...These things are for God's people..."; according to the liner notes, this is make and model of car that Buster drove when he was out proselytizing) and is shielded from pernicious, "bad-minded people" with typical Buster bravado, humor, and wit--what Suggs in Before We Was We: Madness by Madness calls Buster's brilliant "comic malevolence," a mix of "humor...reality...edge" ("God is my gun/God is my knife/God is the protector of my life"..."Dig a hole for me?/Dig one for yourself!"). Only one other song on this compilation specifically mentions Allah--more often there are Judeo-Christian and Rasta references that were more accessible to a Jamaican audience--but they do convey key tenets of Black Muslim/Black Power ideology regarding black empowerment, black self-reliance, and black solidarity to anyone paying attention. And many poor and working class Jamaicans were hearing them loud and clear.

During a time when many former black-majority Caribbean and African colonies were gaining independence, peacefully or through violence--and sometimes becoming socialist or communist states (and proxies in the Cold War between the USA and USSR)--the American Civil Rights Movement was non-violently advocating to end racial discrimination and establish equal rights for people of color under the law, and Black Power and Black Panther activity was threatening to disrupt racist deeply embedded systems of inequality in the United States, Buster was quite direct in what he was advocating for in "Black Power" (1967):

"Some say this
Some say that
Believe me friend, this is a fact
When black people learn to get together
Then we know we'll achieve some black power

White man afraid
Too many black man
Making the grade, yes
They're living in fear
They must sense the end of their power
Coming near

Black man rising in Asia
Uniting in Africa
They demanding freedom in Jamaica
Put fire under the mighty in America
Black man upheave to get rid of white supremacy, yes

He's glad he's free
But he must go to school to learn science
And establish self-rule
We must take the resources from under our feet
Build house, make clothes, and grow food to eat
Then our children will have an independent future
Based on the same foundation as Black Power"

One might think "Free Love" (also 1967) to be commentary on the sexual liberation that took place in the 1960s, but it's actually about demonstrating empathy and caring for other black people (and shedding the legacy of slavery and one's slave name): "Learn to love your brother/And never let let him suffer/We must join hands together, brothers/Our unity will conquer...Build homes for each other/And grow food for each other."

Just as he decried black on black, rude boy crime/violence through his series of hilariously over-the-top Judge Dread sides (note that the judge was Ethiopian--not part of the colonial/white justice system; in Bradley's book, Buster states that the impetus for recording his anti-rude boy tracks were real life events: several rude boys he knew who had gone into a school, beat up a teacher, and raped a girl), Buster, mindful of the influence of music on Jamaican civil society, called out any behavior antithetical to Black Power (and Muslim) doctrine that denigrated black people and played into whites' racist stereotypes of blacks. Loosely adapted from Psalm 23 (which is typically recited at Christian funerals: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil..."), "Drunkard Psalm" pointedly warns the listener in typical Prince Buster fashion as to why black men should avoid the regular and excessive use of alcohol:

"Words of wisdom cometh from the wise man
Wise man says: This is the Drunkard Psalm
Through the inspiration of I, Prince Buster

Rum is their shepherd and they live in want
It maketh them to lie down in the gutter on an empty stomach
And vomit up some green things they did not eat
It has anointed their income with outcome
It leadeth them in the path of destruction for its proof's sake

Yea, though they walk through the streets of Kingston
They're as hungry as hell, and they do fear evil
For they cannot see

It prepares disaster before them in front of their friends
And, for a long time, it has anointed their head with blood
Their veins run dry

Surely man, surely, surely as the sun riseth
Poverty and hunger shall follow them all the days of their life
And they shall fight with the landlord forever

I gave to you the Ten Commandments
But your Ten Commandments cannot be kept
Unless you set an example for your woman-kind
Thou shalt not drink the rum
It's for destruction

This is the Drunkard Psalm
Keep it set in your mind
And you'll have a good clean living

Words from the wise man
Words from the wise man
Wisdom cometh from the wise man
Take heed to the wisdom of the wise man"

It's a powerful rocksteady track--one of my favorites (and recorded with his All Stars, a rotating group of top JA musicians, including Arkland Parks, Charles "Organaire" Cameron, Dennis "Ska" Campbell, Don Drummond, Ernest Ranglin, Gladstone Anderson, Jah Jerry Haynes, Karl Bryan, Lloyd Knibbs, Lynn Taitt, Oswald Brooks, Raymond Harper, Rico Rodriguez, and Val Bennett)--particularly since his spoken words are delivered over an insistent backing musical track that creates a magnificent tension by repeating the same guitar chords, sequence of piano notes, and horn lines in a seemingly endless loop.

"The Blues" is an alternate take of Buster's "Earthquake" (which is derived from Johnnie Taylor's Stax/Northern Soul track "Blues in the Night"; Buster even mentions the title of this song in his lyrics) and boastfully relates how Prince Buster will defeat his Orange Street competitors (Orange Street, of course, was then the heart of the Jamaican music industry, lined with record shops and recording studios) with the aid of world-renown black athletes Abebe Bikila (an Ethiopian two-time Olympic Gold medalist marathoner--in 1960 and 1964), Sonny Liston (at that point, the former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion), and Muhammad Ali (the newly crowned World Heavyweight Champion). Even these many years after breaking away from his former employer, during which he achieved great artistic and commercial success, Buster still couldn't resist delivering this line to tweak the nose of one particular rival, "The Prince comes out on Orange Street/And the Beat starts to retreat" (Downbeat the Ruler, of course, was the name of Coxsone Dodd's sound system).

The phenomenal, minor key instrumental "7 Wonders of the World" (1967) is particularly notable for being a precursor to the "Far East" sound that became popular in the early '70s roots reggae/dub era (and was mastered/popularized by Augustus Pablo, along with sound engineer-producer King Tubby and producers Clive Chin, Leonard Chin, and Herman Chi-Loy), and for featuring trombonist Don Drummond (who also pioneered the "Far East" sound through several of his own compositions, like "Confucius") and Jackie Mittoo on keys (according to Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton's Reggae: 100 Essential CDs). One presumes its inclusion on this compilation is because The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt--an extraordinary African-built monument in the (black) cradle of civilization that was the tallest human-made structure for almost 4,000 years--is the only one of the ancient seven wonders that still exists. In addition, the Pharaohs' pyramids also remind one of the biblical deliverance of Israelites from slavery in Egypt, which has great relevance to Rastafarians, in that they considered this episode to be analogous to their coming deliverance from Babylon. (I named my 1999-2001 digital-download only ska/reggae label 7 Wonders of the World Music after this song.)

Then there are a few cuts that appear to have a tenuous connection to this compilation's theme at best, like "Shepherd Beng" (with Teddy King who ends up singing a bit of Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman," first recorded by The Impressions) and "Prayer (Guns for Hire)." While both are wonderful tracks (and hard to find!), the former is about someone negotiating with great specificity with an Obeah Man named Shepherd Beng over what it will take for him cast a spell to return his wife who left him for another man, while the latter is mainly a series of boasts like, "My gun's for hire/you'd better retire/If that's your desire" and, "On guitar is Lynn Taitt/he's my musical mate/He never hesitates/To give you rocksteady," followed by lots of James Brown-like exhortations like, "sock it to me!"

After this diversion, Africa - Islam - Revolution finishes strong with several incendiary and musically groundbreaking tracks. "Message to the Black Man" and "White Man's Heaven" (1968) are two parts of the same song ("White Man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell"), an adapted and much improved cover of a 1960 spoken word over an instrumental track single by Louis X, a 1950s calypso singer who sometimes went by the stage name The Charmer, but was also known as Louis Farrakhan, a minister in the ONOI who in later years became infamous for his anti-Semitism and extremism (there's more on him later in this piece). Message to the Black Man was also the title of a 1965 book by Elijah Muhammad that was banned in Jamaica by Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, who believed that black nationalist and Pan-African literature and thought could threaten the stability of a relatively new independent Jamaica. Buster was charged with possession of this prohibited book, which triggered university protests where Buster publicly called the PM a colonialist-like "Pharaoh" and wrote the song "Pharaoh House Crash" about him (borrowing The Ethiopians' "Everything Crash"). Shearer lost the following election and the next PM lifted the book ban. Buster grafted on a Black Power directive to the beginning of "Message to the Black Man," before recounting the extensive history of white supremacy, its devastating impact on black people throughout much of history, and how Christianity was often co-opted to enforce it. Chapter one of this song--"Message to the Black Man"--largely follows Louis X's text, but Buster significantly re-writes Chapter II--"White Man's Heaven"--to be Jamaica-specific (and explicit in detailing the brutality inflicted on black and brown people by the white European slavers) and establish the narrative that Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslims, was divinely sent to help deliver Jamaicans from racist whites.

"I'll live for you
And I'll live for me
I'll live to bring a message
So the black man will be free

Black man, if you're black
You should be thinking black
Eating black
Sleeping black
Walking black
Buying black
Drinking black
And be proud that you're black
This is a message to the black man...

...Why is everybody making progress
Yet we seem to be lagging so far behind?
Why are we mistreated?
Why are we in this condition?

Stripped of our names, our language, our culture, our God, and our religion
Here in Jamaica, all of our religious training
Has been gotten by the preacher
He has told us of a heaven way up in the sky
That we can't enjoy now, but rather after we die
But all of the years that we're living
For us, there's nothing but hell
Pain, torture, and misgiving
Yet the Bible speaks of a heaven
Filled with material luxuries
Which the white man and the preacher
Has right here, so we see

So my friend, take it for what it's worth
Your heaven and your hell is right here on this earth..."

[Chapter II]

"...When John Hawkins showed up in our country
Telling us of a land filled with luxury
He said, 'Black man, follow me to Jamaica
Where you'll find more gold for your labor'
Where poor parents work, worked hard to the bone
Ever since that time, he's been resting with the gold
We landed here in Jamaica
400 years to suffer
So my friends, it's easy to tell
That the white man's heaven is a black man's hell

When the slave master wanted to have some sport
He would beat up on our parents
Cruelty of the worst sort
Like burn them at stake
Hang them in tree

Though you're pregnant, black woman
You pull the plough
Like a horse, like a dog, or even a cow
He filled your womb with his wicked seed
His half-white children you were made to breed
So my friends, it's easy to tell
That the white man's heaven is a black man's hell

When the white man came to Jamaica
He told the Arawak, 'I'm your white brother'
He said, 'Red man, I'll treat you the best'
Yet, instead, he pushed them Arawaks further west
With his white woman and firewater
Tricks and lies, he stole Jamaica

So-called Negros
Open up your eyes
Black man everywhere is on the rise
He's kicked the white man out of Asia
And he's going fast out of Africa
With every ounce of strength and breath
His cry is, 'Give us Liberty or give us death!'
The whole black world is rising up with you
To see what the so-called Negro is going to do
So my friends, it's easy to tell
That the white man's heaven is a black man's hell

God made a promise to Abraham
That his seed would be a stranger in a foreign land
They would suffer and be afflicted for 400 years
And then He would come and wipe their tears
Our God and Savior, Allah has come
And He has prophesied the white man's day is done

He has given us a divine messenger
One prophesied would come
His name Elijah
Look in Malachi four
We can now stand up
The whole world to tell
Our God has come to take us to Heaven
And push the devil back into hell"

In 1974, according to the compilation liner notes, Elijah Muhammad and other officials in an ONOI delegation spoke at a rally before 20,000 people at the Kingston National Stadium, and Muhammad Ali, who was being hosted by Buster, met with Prime Minister Michael Manley. No doubt, the popularity of the ONOI--and Buster's advocacy on its behalf--and its black nationalist message greatly alarmed the conservative Jamaican political establishment (as well, Manley was a democratic socialist, had instituted many progressive and socialist policies, and improved relations with Castro's Soviet Union-aligned Cuba--much to the United States' dismay).

While Prince Buster generally is not as recognized as other dub pioneers like Lee "Scratch" Perry (Blackboard Jungle Dub), Clive Chin (Java, Java, Java), and Herman Chin Loy (Aquarius Dub), his album The Message Dub Wise (released in 1973, the same year as the aforementioned records and, as Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton in Reggae: The Rough Guide state, "is as enigmatic and extraordinary in its way as Blackboard Jungle Dub or Aquarius Dub") featured dubs of two recent, popular tracks: Augustus Pablo's "Java" and The Abyssinians' "Sata Masa Gana." This compilation's "It's a Fire" is a version of "Java Plus" that appears on The Message Dub Wise and was recorded with Pablo Black on melodica--and features Buster toasting (!) a very Rasta-like, Book of Revelations-inspired set of lyrics:

"Some say it will be a revolution
Some say what a confusion
The righteous say what God say
If a fire, let it burn
If a blood, let it run
I and I know a change must come
The righteous are promised to beat down Babylon
Babylon is wicked
Babylon is evil..."

At the time, only a few other reggae musicians were releasing similarly apocalyptic, divine judgement-themed records (Niney the Observer's 1971 classic "Blood and Fire"---which quotes Joel 2:30--warns of what will happen to those who don't seek deliverance from God; released the same year, Max Romeo's "Let the Power Fall For I" seeks similar punishment for Babylon: "Oh, let the wicked burn to ash for I/Let the wicked burn in flames"), but none of them were publicly involved with a Black Power/black nationalist organization that could draw and influence 20,000 sympathetic or aligned Jamaicans to a rally in the heart of Kingston. No doubt, Jamaican politicians and elites took note of potentially seditious messages like these, even if they were couched in Rastafarian and biblical references.

The instrumental "Sata Masa Gana" that appears on Africa - Islam - Revolution is less dubby (and far less adventurous) than the version Buster included on The Message Dub Wise; it focuses more on the Rasta drumming and trombone melody and forgoes the fantastic flute lines and sound effects. The Abyssinians first recorded this track (which is based on Carlton and his Shoes' "Happy Land") for Coxsone Dodd in 1969, but he refused to release it, as he thought it had no commercial potential, according to Lloyd Bradley; the band eventually bought the tapes and issued it themselves in 1971 on their Clinch label to great success and it became a roots reggae classic. "Satta Massa Gana" is ancient Ethiopian Amharic for "He Gave Praise" and expresses the Rasta longing for repatriation to an idealized Africa/Zion, which certainly overlaps with Buster's push for black nationalism/Black Power.

In addition to the demonstrations noted above, Buster was arrested with Peter Tosh during a 1967 protest outside the British High Commission in Kingston over Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front white-rule/white supremacist takeover of black-majority Rhodesia (Rhodesia--now Zimbabwe--had been a British colony and Smith unilaterally declared independence from the Commonwealth), and in 1968, Buster was arrested again after leading a mass demonstration to protest the PM Shearer's refusal to allow Dr. Walter Rodney, a Guyanese-born professor in African History at the University Of The West Indies who was a socialist involved in the Black Power movement, to re-enter Jamaica after a trip to black writer's conference in MontrealAccording to Laurence Cane-Honeysett, Shearer had accused Rodney of "trying to incite a Castro-style revolution" in Jamaica; Buster later wrote an early reggae track in tribute to him, "Doctor Rodney (AKA Black Power)" (1968): "To be black with ambition in Jamaica is a dangerous thing/Doctor Rodney!" Only a few years later, Prince Buster himself would discover for himself just how perilous speaking one's truth to power could be.

By 1974, all of Prince Buster's political activism and Black Muslim proselytizing had become intolerable to unidentified members of the Jamaican political establishment and he allegedly was marked for assassination, according to Africa - Islam - Revolution's liner notes (during this time in Jamaica, political violence was tragically commonplace). However, Buster's standing among the Jamaican people was so high that a member of the hit squad assigned to murder him tipped him off to the plot, and Buster left JA to live in Miami for good, where he focused on running his other ventures, including his record shops, reissuing many of his singles and LPs, and operating his jukebox business. For the remainder of the 1970s, Buster occasionally released new music (including the magnificent "Uganda," a reworking of Don Drummond's "Green Island" that he recorded with The Revolutionaries and released under his Muslim name, Muhammed Yusef Ali), but in general had tired of the Jamaican music industry and was not enthusiastic about some of the directions reggae was heading, including the deejay style.

Of course, in the late '70s there was a resurgence of interest in Prince Buster's music, when many of the many of the 2 Tone bands covered/adapted his songs (see The Specials' "Gangsters," "Too Hot," "Stupid Marriage," and "Enjoy Yourself"; Madness' "The Prince," "Madness," and "One Step Beyond"; The Beat's "Rough Rider" and "Whine and Grine"). In a somewhat belated response to Madness' 1979 entreaty, Buster released the new and quite good single "Finger" in 1981 on Arista in England (its subject is similar in theme to his "Don't Throw Stones": "So when you're pointing your finger at me/Remember four of them pointing at you"). Post-2 Tone, Buster was lured back to the stage for an appearance with The Skatalites at Reggae Sunsplash in the UK in 1984, and an encounter with Gaz Mayall led to additional touring (and a life-long friendship), as well as shows and a 12" single with Gaz's ska band The TrojansBuster also re-recorded his song "Madness" with a reformed Selecter in the early 1990s and released a live album of many of this hits with the Determinations in Japan in 2003.

Prince Buster remained a devout Muslim until his death in Miami on September 8, 2016.

+ + + +

In the years after the passing of ONOI leader Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his more progressive son Wallace D. Muhammad (also known as Warith Deen Mohammed) transformed the ONOI so that it was in line with the tenets of mainstream Sunni Islam, dropped the black separatist stance and belief that all white people were "devils," and eventually changed the name of his organization to the American Muslim Mission; notably Muhammad Ali followed Warith Deen Mohammed to orthodox Islam (and one could reasonably assume that Buster did, too; there's no evidence to the contrary). However, Louis Farrakhan--who had risen in stature within the ONOI after Malcolm X renounced and left the ONOI in 1964--broke off from the American Muslim Mission in 1977 and established a more extreme version of the Nation of Islam (NOI) with his followers, one that has been openly and virulently anti-Semitic and homophobic--and explored alliances over the years with white hate/separatist/supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, National Front, and Richard Spencer's alt-right/white nationalists. While most people are more familiar with the Farrakhan version of the Nation of Islam, anti-Semitism wasn't a pronounced feature of NOI's first incarnation under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad (though ONOI's 1967 anti-Zionist stance in support of the Palestinians became a platform for Farrakhan's anti-Semitism, and Elijah Muhammad had repeated the despicable anti-Semitic trope that all Jewish people were deserving of hatred as they were responsible for the betrayal and killing of Jesus Christ--a vile thing that many mainstream Christian leaders had propagated for centuries).

It should be emphasized that none of Buster's songs collected on Africa - Islam - Revolution contain even a hint of anti-Semitism, nor do any of the other Prince Buster tracks that I've encountered over the years. As well, Prince Buster's black separatist stance was never was expressed as a blanket hatred of all white people (just the racist ones!)--and should be understood in context as a response to the systemic racism, oppression, and inequality that black people have experienced for millennia at the hands of white supremacists and through their institutions, policies, and social structures.

Also, there's scant mention of women in any of these songs, which is not surprising, given that women were subjugated and without much agency in that time and place--and whose role was seen as complementary to men's within the ONOI (focused on motherhood, family, etc.). They either need good examples set for them ("Drunkard Psalm"), are used to illustrate the very real horrors of slavery ("White Man's Heaven"), or are like possessions that can be bought back (""Shepherd Being"). Their role in the revolution was limited.

Lastly, how does one reconcile the fact that during this very same period, when he was releasing these religiously and politically-themed records, Prince Buster issued a slew of slack (full of sexual innuendo) cuts on the albums She Was a Rough Rider, Wreck A Pum Pum, and Big 5? The answer, most likely, was commerce. Buster's controversial Black Muslim and Black Power records were often avoided by Jamaican radio, which seriously cut into their promotion and sales (Laurence Cane-Honeysett: "...in a letter to the Jamaica Gleaner early in 1969, he [Buster] complained that the apparent radio ban had resulted in the disposal of some 30,000 unsold records the previous year")--but sex sells. And Prince Buster, ever the shrewd businessman, sold a lot of "Rough Rider," "Wreck A Pum Pum," and "Whine or Grine" singles...

+ + + +

Friday, January 31, 2020

Madness Working on New Album

It's been just about four years since we've seen a new album from Madness (their last one was 2016's Can't Touch Us Now, which I reviewed back then), though the surprise release of "The Bullingdon Boys" digital single last fall certainly suggested that more music from the Nutty Boys would be forthcoming. Now comes word via the February 2020 issue of MOJO that Madness are indeed working on a new studio album--their thirteenth!--with one of their favorite ace producers Clive Langer (see photo of this music news item at right).

Perhaps we'll hear some of the new tracks during Madness' mini US tour with Dave Wakeling's English Beat this May? (The NYC date is on Friday, May 22 at the Manhattan Center; some tickets are still available, though it appears that the less expensive floor tickets are all gone at this point.)

+ + + +

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Duff Guide to Ska Winter/Spring 2020 NYC Ska Calendar #1

Friday, January 31, 2020 @ 11:30 pm

Barbicide (plus DJ Ryan Midnight spinning ska in the front room from 6:00-10:00 pm)

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (Aves A and B)
New York, NY
No cover, but bring cash for band tip bucket!

+ + + +

Friday, January 31, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan, Boomshot!, plus Selector Agent Jay

Piano's
158 Ludlow Street
New York, NY
$10/21+

+ + + +

Friday, February 28, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

Subway to Skaville presents: The Ladrones, Barbicide, Calavera NY Club, J Wahlberg (of The Screw-Ups), plus DJ Ryan Midnight

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (Aves A and B)
New York, NY
No cover, but bring cash for band tip bucket!

+ + + +

Friday, March 27, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

The Slackers, Crazy and the Brains, The Scotch Bonnets

White Eagle Hall
337 Newark Avenue
Jersey City, NJ
$20

+ + + +

Friday, April 24, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

Crazy and the Brains, Catbite, Answering Machine, Love is a Fist

The Gutter
200 North 14th Street
Brooklyn, NY
$8 in advance/$10 day of the show
21+

+ + + +

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

The Aggrolites, The Far East

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$20/All ages

+ + + +

Thursday, May 21, 2020 @ 7:30 pm

NY Ska Jazz Ensemble

The Iridium1650 Broadway
New York
$25/All ages

+ + + +

Friday, May 22, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

Madness (40th Anniversary Tour), The English Beat (featuring Dave Wakeling)

Manhattan Center
311 West 34th Street
New York, NY
$44.50-$110
+ + + +

Saturday, June 20, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

Calavera NY Club, Sgt. Scag, Stop the Presses, Disposable

Arlene's Grocery
95 Stanton Street
New York, NY
$10 in advance/$12 day of show
21+

+ + + +

Saturday, June 27, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

Radicsfest w/The Toasters and more TBA

Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
(Tix not on sale yet.)

+ + + +

Monday, January 20, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Zen Baseballbat "You Won't Get Paid" EP, plus "Place Like This" single!

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Zen Baseballbat You Won't Get Paid (CD EP/digital, self-released, 2020); "Place Like This" (digital single, self-released, 2020): I completely missed out on Zen Baseballbat's activities in the early 2000s (when they released two albums on Moon Ska World), but am grateful to have been turned onto this fantastic band now, thanks to the intervention of Kevin Flowerdew of Do the Dog Skazine/The Bakesys. Zen Baseballbat's new EP You Won't Get Paid is an incredibly appealing mash-up of modern ska/reggae plus synth-pop, New Wave, and krautrock married to explicitly left-wing lyrics about living in an era where there's no bottom to the depths of shamelessness, self-dealing, lawlessness, and cruelty that those in power will sink to.

The ironically bright title track condemns an increasingly rapacious economic system that offers fewer and fewer crumbs to the people doing the actual grunt work (all while those at the top funnel cash to politicians who do all they can to slash the social safety net and deregulate business): "I've been shoveling shit for far too long/My body aches, but my head is strong/I haven't got a pot to piss in/Yet, you want me for next to nothing/You won't get paid/Billinger, billinger, billinger" (roughly translated from German as "cheaper"). In the grayer "Reasons for Living," the band posits that, despite its trappings as a liberal democracy, England has become a surveillance state that the Stasi could only dream of, with the government's ability to easily monitor its citizens via hacked public and private security cameras, cell phones, smart speakers, email, texts, social media (this last one, our own fault, really), etc.--the song is sung from the perspective of imagined officers at the Home Office: "We have reasons to believe that.../You have been living six months behind sound proof privets/Treading on grapes, but the wine still tastes of feet/You were knee deep in chocolate decisions/A sweetened informer dropped you in it/We know who you are/We know where you’ve been/It’s colder in St Helens than Cold War Berlin" (St. Helens is a town located between Liverpool and Manchester and near Zen Baseballbat's home base in Widnes, Warrington).

"There's Going to Be Trouble" is a grand reggae track that employs a spoken 2017 quote from socialist filmmaker Ken Loach regarding Tory austerity-imposed cuts to unemployment benefits in the guise of welfare-to-work requirements intentionally designed so that many people couldn't meet them: "Sanctions are a cruel and vindictive way of treating vulnerable people. This is an extraordinarily cruel thing. They're driven to food banks. When you stop people's money, you force them into the direst poverty--they have nothing. Punishing the poorest and blaming them. Now, don't you think that's absolutely disgusting?" The title of this song is its chorus, sung over and over, as both warning (there's going to be unrest when desperate people have absolutely nothing left to lose) and an appeal of sorts (it's in the rich and powerful's best interest to maintain a livable bottom rung to capitalism, so as to keep society from devolving into widespread chaos and violence, which wouldn't exactly be good for the financial markets). While it's almost too on the mark to be satire, "A Backstage Pass to The Stanley" (which sounds like it could be a The The circa Mind Bomb track) offers brutal commentary on our sick society's never-sated desire for real and staged Hunger Games-like acts of violence, freakishness, and self-humiliation as entertainment: "Ladies and gentlemen/Put your hand grenades together and give a warmonger's welcome for tonight's doomed fancy fella/Testing intestines, one-two, one-two/Take a big deep breath/I’ll bicycle kick myself to death/Vomit a Sinatra, a Nat King saliva/Return to sender/The awfully wedded karaoke machine/When there’s a hole in the chest/Expect nothing less/Than a man with a gun and a grudge in suburbia." All the bread and circuses helps keep us from noticing what's going on behind the scenes--and to us. (Also, there's a hidden, bonus track on the CD--a mildly ska-ified cover of Camper Van Beethoven's jangly 1985 left-of-the-dial hit "Take the Skinheads Bowling," which seems appropriate, as it's a nonsensical song that's perfect for a time when nothing in the world makes sense.)

The digital single "Place Like This" is electro-spaghetti Western-reggae (think Kraftwerk, Big Audio Dynamite's "E=MC²," and maybe a bit of Yazoo) that the band has dedicated to, "the one too many, midweek disco dancers, desperate for a shag and falling asleep on the bog in a niteclub at 4am...an anthem for the knackered." More than one listener of a certain age will relate to lyrics like this: "Biology laid bare/Bodily functions everywhere/Why to we always end up in a place like this?/Dressed head to toe, an anniversary/Is everybody here in the mood, but me?" In their comments about this song, Zen Baseballbat adds (figuratively, but also a bit literally), "celebrate the shit, it's all we have left." And the band's happy to provide this brilliant and spot-on soundtrack for the occasion.

+ + + +

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part V: Mark Foggo's Skasters, Lee "Scratch" Perry!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Mark Foggo's Skasters Ska Pig Returns (LP, Jump Up Records, 2019): For anyone counting, Mark Foggo's Skasters released their debut album Ska Pig 30 (!) years ago (I first encountered them in '89 on Skank Records' Ska For Ska's Sake compilation), hence the title of their new album, Ska Pig Returns. Throughout the decades, Foggo and Co. have been remarkably consistent in creating album after album of incredibly high energy, sing-song-y, slightly demented, but always entertaining 2 Tone-influenced ska (think Madness' "Land of Hope and Glory"/"Baggy Trousers" meets Ian Dury and the Blockheads' "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick"/"Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3") and their latest record doesn't disappoint! There's a stomper about encountering a woman on a train and thinking "she was the one, I was sure" but having her turn out to be the dreadful Theresa May and telling her off; a song about trying to make the best of things in increasingly dire times what with the planet dying and "Trump as boss" ("Eat Up Your Weeds": "Things are never as bad as they seem/But you never wake up from this one bad dream..."); and "Dum Diddy Die," a powerfully dark nursery rhyme of nonsensical sounds and disturbing couplets ("I've got to get a gun/And I got and fight the enemy/There's a very good chance/That maybe it's the end of me." But then there's the upbeat "Do The Monkey" (detailing the indignities the monkey in the zoo must suffer to get on); "London" is a really lovely, New Wave-tinged, unconventional tour of London ("Saw the queen and changed the guard/Breaking in, it wasn't hard/I just used my Oyster card/Had to beat the Scotland Yard/When I tried to steal the crown/The Beefeaters came and cut me down"); while the awesome "Rats and Mice" is about taphophobia, a fear that was much more widespread during the Victorian age ("Please build my coffin air-tight/But leave me for the rats and mice/And put me in a shallow grave/In case there's been a mistake/And I'm still alive!"). As you might infer from all this, Mark Foggo's Skasters' Ska Pig Returns seems like a blast--'cause it is!

Lee "Scratch" Perry Heavy Rain (LP/CD/digital, On-U Sound Records, 2019): This is the wild and massively good dub version of Perry and Adrian Sherwood's recent collaboration Rainford (reviewed by the Duff Guide here)--that actually overshadows its source material (and they include a few new cuts, too!). Heavy Rain plays to Perry and Sherwood's strengths as versioners; they're masters at revealing the dub versions not represented by, or hidden within, the official version (even if they created it in the first place). Perry and Sherwood have made space for the Rainford tracks to recombine, mutate, and augment--and their work reimagining the songs and adding effects, and blips and beeps both natural and synthesized is nothing short of brilliant. The deserved attention-getter is the incredible "Here Come the Warm Dreads" (the dub of one of Rainford's best tracks, "Makumba Rock"), with Brian Eno (get the punny title of this track now?) working his magic on everything coming out of your stereo's right channel. Perry's anti-capitalist/greed broadsides are largely traded in for the truly great Vin Gordon's melancholy, yet all-vanquishing trombone lines--and Gordon's playing is nothing short of magnificent on the now jauntier "Crickets in Moonlight" (original: "Cricket on the Moon"). Perry's "Autobiography of The Upsetter" is transformed into "Heavy Rainford," a wonderful conversation between a bluesy harmonica and reggae trombone (Vin Gordon, again!). The three new tracks that they slip in here are of the same calibre and fit in seamlessly. "Dreams Come True" is a slumberous cut that creates a musical twilight zone between the real and imagined (and this is apparently some of what Perry sees: "Mick Jagger/Tripe and banana/Rolling home from work work/Feeling kind of peckish/Flying to his home/To have his favorite dish/Ackee and saltfish"). "Above and Beyond" features both violin and sax lines ebbing and flowing over a strutting riddim, while "Mind Worker" (Perry: "I move brains and I transfigurate minds") has these amazing jazz piano breaks in the midst of a serious reggae groove. Heavy Rain has to be the best reggae album of 2019 and is certain to go down in history as another Perry/Sherwood masterpiece.

+ + + + 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska: Year of Reviews--2019--Part IV: Vin Gordon

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez may be more familiar to ska and reggae fans than Vin Gordon (AKA Don D., Jr.), there's no doubt that they've heard Gordon's trombone playing, as he's performed on hundreds of crucial ska, rocksteady, and reggae recordings (that's him on the foundational "Real Rock" riddim with Sound Dimension) and helped establish the classic and enduring Jamaican ska and reggae trombone sound, along with Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez, who were fellow alum of Kingston, JA's Alpha Boys School's music program under bandmaster Lennie Hibbert. (Gordon's Discogs entry is over 20 pages and includes his work on classic releases for just about every significant reggae artist you can imagine, including Lee "Scratch" Perry (he both performs and has writing credits on Scratch's latest albums, Rainford and Heavy Rain), Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Aswad, Coxsone Dodd (he was Studio One's main trombonist), The Heptones, The Ethiopians, Culture, Big Youth, Horace Andy, Mad Professor, Mighty Diamonds, Bob Andy, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo, Max Romeo, King Tubby, The Skatalites, Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, Alton Ellis, The Revolutionaries, and many more--he even recorded a ska LP during the 2 Tone era, which I picked up in the late '80s). Having said that, the number of albums released under Gordon's own name are relatively few, given his talents and the scope of his career.

UK reggae producers/musicians Al Breadwinner and Nat Birchall (a celebrated jazz performer in his own right) had this in mind as they were planning their next Sounds Almighty album of roots reggae instrumentals with Gordon--and decided to turn it into a full-on Vin Gordon album instead. What's wild is how this record came together. Birchall composed the instrumentals for the album, and then he and Breadwinner recorded the rhythm tracks (Birchall on bass, piano, percussion and Breadwinner on drums/percussion, guitar, organ, and piano). Then Vin Gordon joined them in their analogue studio, listened to each cut a few times and came up with his horn lines on the spot (in old school Studio One fashion), which were then recorded in a day--and the horn melodies were added later by David Fullwood (trumpet), Stally (bari sax), and Birchall (tenor sax). The result, Vin Gordon's African Shores (LP/CD/digital, Tradition Disc, 2019), is a phenomenally good and moody roots album that's similar in sound and vibe to King Tubby's and Lee "Scratch" Perry's mid-'70s output--and showcases Gordon's virtuoso, improvisational playing floating over razor sharp riddims. All of these tracks are relatively spare and uncluttered--allowing for ample space between the notes--and feature almost hypnotic bass lines and beats. The majestic "African Shore" and its "Gold Coast Dub" evoke unending, wide screen coastlines of an extraordinary continent that is the ancestral home for the African diaspora and whose resources, natural and human, were wickedly exploited by white Europeans. "Styler Man" is a ringer for a classic Skatalites tune ("Dubbing Style" is its pair), while "Spill Over" is funky reggae like Jackie Mittoo used to do. I have no idea what the mysterious "Gusum Peck" refers to (its companion "Voodoo Man in Dub" suggests something to do with syncretic religion), but it sounds fantastic, in all senses of that word. Like its title suggests, "Sa La Vie" features a gorgeous, laid-back, "come-what-will" melody (and pace) that's the perfect closer to an album that somehow frees the listener to slow down and experience whatever feelings, memories, or dreams this set of songs conjures up whenever they're played. Here's hoping that Birchall and Breadwinner keep on collaborating with Vin Gordon and showcasing the exceptional talents of this true legend of ska and reggae.

+ + + +

Monday, January 6, 2020

In Memory of Jason Lawless/Benefit Show in Celebration of His Life

Illustration of Jason Lawless by CHema Skandal. 
If you're connected to the US ska scene--particularly in Southern California--you've most likely learned the awful news via social media that long-time ska fan, record collector, promoter, DJ, and blogger Jason Lawless (nee Sirota) passed away around New Year's Day at age 41 (Lawless had a long history of complex medical and financial issues). Lawless was a vital and beloved fixture on the LA-area ska scene--and was also connected to many ska fans and players around the world.

I didn't know Jason well and had never met him in person, but was a big fan of all of his efforts to big up the ska scene through his Lawless Street blog, Dancing Mood ska forum, and Moondust Records label.

Back in October of 2011, I published an interview with Jason about his Reggae 69 Fan Club and the launch of Moondust Records. And in December 2012, as part of The Duff Guide to Ska's "2012: The Year is Ska" series, Jason was kind enough to share his thoughts on his five favorite ska releases of 2012; the top five ska shows he attended; the best ska merch he spotted; his ska regrets over that past year; and his ska hopes for 2013. Both posts might provide a bit of insight as to who he was as a person and as massive fan/supporter of ska.

I offer my deepest condolences to his family and friends. May he rest in peace.

+ + + +

If you're anywhere near the LA area, a show in honor of Jason's life will be taking place on Sunday, January 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm at Boomer's Cocktails in Long Beach, CA. All details are below.

Soulside Productions in Sympathy presents:

Jason Lawless Benefit Show: Celebrating the Life of Jason Lawless

Live performances by Greg Lee (Hepcat), Chris Murray, Jesse Wagner (The Aggrolites), Los Aggrios, Jah Faith, Swinging Johnny, Queen P., and The Lawless All Stars (featuring members of Western Standard Time, See Spot, The Debonaires, The Expanders, The Aggrolites, Ocean 11, The Allentons, Capsules, and Mobtown).

Sunday, January 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm

Boomer's Cocktails
5456 East Del Amo Boulevard
Long Beach, CA

Donation required for entry--and all donations will go to Angel City Pits Dog Rescue.

This is a 21+ event.

+ + + +