Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Too Much Pressure

Dear Duff Guide to Ska Readers:

Sorry that there hasn't been anything new to read here for awhile. My day job was all consuming for about a week and a half, and I was completely off the grid (my wife and kids barely saw me during this time). I survived and am back in business. Lots of stuff coming out of the pipeline soon...

Thanks for your patience!


Monday, April 13, 2009

Wackie's Rises Again in the Bronx!

The New York Times is not known for keeping particularly close tabs on musical subcultures or trends, but every once in awhile they publish a nugget of an article like this: reggae producer Lloyd "Bullwackie" Barnes, who established one of the first US-based reggae labels in the Bronx--Wackie's-- in the early 70s (and worked with such reggae artists as Horace Andy, The Mediations, Stranger Cole, Sugar Minott, and Leroy Sibbles), has re-opened his studio and plans to start releasing new titles soon.

Here are some choice paragraphs from the article:
Mr. Barnes was raised in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica, called Trenchtown, considered the cradle of reggae. As a teenager, he regularly attended ska shows and dub concerts where D.J.’s, known as sound system men, traveled from party to party, spinning records, which they punctuated with signature sound effects.

Later he befriended the producer Clement Dodd and hung around the legendary Studio One in Kingston, where Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Maytals and Burning Spear all had sessions. “I found a certain peace in the music,” he said. “It’s not always good times, but the music gives you that.”

In 1967, Mr. Barnes emigrated to New York, first to Brooklyn, where his mother lived. “It was a time to meet people of the same heritage, West Indians from all over,” he said, describing the large influx from the Caribbean to the city.

He attended a trade school, learning upholstering, but eventually settled in construction work. Spending his days tying steel for reinforced concrete, at night he would be a D.J., lugging turntables, crates of records and speakers on the subway with friends to gigs in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

“We didn’t have no car then, so we took the train,” he said.
The image of him transporting his sound system around the outer boroughs on the train is just so incredibly representative of New York City in the 1970s--people just did what they had to do to do their thing, even if it was kind of unorthodox, and no one would give you a second glance. And you always caught some weird stuff going down in the subway then. As a kid, I regularly saw this guy who would roll through the subway cars on a makeshift skateboard begging for money--and the freakiest/nightmarish thing about him was that he had nothing below around his belly pelvis, legs, or feet!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Verdict on The Specials' Reunion Tour

What's going on? The Specials (without Jerry Dammers) hit the Beeb for the first time since "Ghost Town," Madness is releasing a new album in May and headlining festivals in the UK and Australia, and the US version of the English Beat is prowling the US and Canada just over 30 years from band's first gig on the day Three Mile Island nearly melted down (and, in an intriguing development, Dave Wakeling is getting much more specific about recording and releasing a 7 track EP of new material), it makes me wonder if I've been clocked in the head and come to, bad skin and all, in the early 80s (hell, even No Doubt is covering Adam & the Ants' "Stand and Deliver" as their signature comeback song--banking on the past success they had with Talk Talk's "It's My Life").

In particular, The Specials' recent appearance on the Jools Holland show (yet another 80s connection--he was a member of Squeeze) has received a lot of play in the press and blogosphere. Even though I was very ambivalent, if not somewhat hostile, about the fact that Jerry Dammers is not participating in the reunion tour, I decided to put my skepticism aside and check out the videos for myself.

The band's performances are tight and energetic (though Terry Hall really looks like hell and doesn't have the upper register anymore to hit the higher notes in "Gangsters") and it's great to see that the band still has the chops to pull it all off after all these years. But then it strikes me: apart from this being the 30th anniversary of the release of "Gangsters," there isn't much to get all excited about, is there? After all, it's not a true reunion tour and various permutations of the band have been playing out--and working the very same material--since 1993 or so. While I have great respect for every member of The Specials, what do they really have to offer this go-round except for another nostalgia trip?

In all honesty, had Jerry Dammers signed on, I'd happily put down the cash to see them (provided they made it to the States), but I'm now thinking more and more that he was right to challenge the band to offer the fans something new and to refuse to participate unless they do so. Jerry is uncompromising in his vision--which has to be a pain in the ass to deal with sometimes--but his track record is impeccable: the extraordinary 2 Tone label/movement; his brilliant Peter Tosh/Walt Jabsco logo; the fact that The Specials' debut album sounds as sharp and angry and fantastic to me from start to finish as when I first heard it a few decades ago; the seething bitterness of young dreams dashed in "Ghost Town'; the joyous "Free Nelson Mandela" that I spun in basement parties in high school that helped spark a world-wide effort to release another man uncompromising in his determination to resist and defeat the apartheid government of his own country. All of this and more continues to influence and have great impact upon our culture and successive generations of youth.

It's painfully obvious to me that The Specials desperately need Jerry Dammers if they want to take the band to the next step in its evolution, whatever that may be (the limp Today's Specials is my Exhibit A). Yes, the fans still expect to hear their beloved hits (and there is nothing wrong with giving the people what they want). But wouldn't it be absolutely brilliant if they didn't just rest on their laurels (surely dried out and brittle with age by now) and wrote new material with Dammers (as well as reworked some of their hits for the road) and became, once again, an extraordinarily vital band connected with, and relevant to, the sound and tenor of our times?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Madness Update: Free UK Gigs, New Album, Tribute Album

From Yahoo Music News (UK & Ireland):
Free Madness
(Tuesday April 07, 2009 12:29 AM)

Madness will make a number of live appearances in Camden later this month, it has been announced.

The ska-pop legends are set to launch their new album with a series of free concerts on April 24 in their spiritual home.

The undisclosed performances coincide with the Camden Crawl but fans will not requite wristbands to get in.

The events are being co-ordinated by BBC 6 Music, with one fan set to get the opportunity to appear live onstage with the band.

As previously reported, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Fall, The View and Little Boots all play the Camden Crawl this year.

The new Madness album, "The Liberty Of Norton Folgate", is released on May 18.

I love Echo & the Bunnymen, The Fall, and Madness, but there is no possible way I can imagine finding myself over there to take in all that musical goodness. Just ain't gonna happen.

Every feel like you're a person not synched up with the times--or a geographical place? It's not just me, right?

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Also in Madness-related news, the Madness 30th Anniversary Tribute Album website is live (make sure to check out the freaky gone native King Django photo). Here's the list of bands/tracks that made the final cut:

30 Years of Madness (Big 8 Records)

Backy Skank : In The Rain (McPherson/Madness)
Boy In The Boat : Day On The Town (McPherson/Foreman)
Cherry Boop and the Sound Makers : Cardiac Arrest (Smyth/Foreman)
Desorden Publico : It Must Be Love (Siffre)
Dr Ring Ding and The Senior All Stars : Madness (Campbell)
Ejectés : The Prince (Thompson)
Freddy Loco feat "Rock steady" Freddie of NYSJE : Return of the Los Palmas 7 (Barson/Woodgate/Bedford)
Gordon : Michael Caine (Smyth/Woodgate)
Indeed : The Sun and The Rain (Barson)
Inspector : Our House (Smyth/Foreman)
JAG : You Said (McPherson/Barson)
Jah On Slide : Bed and Breakfast Man (Barson)
JNEB : In The City (McPherson/Smyth/Barson/foreman/crutchfield/inoue)
King Django : Nakht Shifl Ken Kayro (Night Boat To Cairo) (McPherson/Barson)
Les Touffes Krétiennes : On The Beat Pete (Thompson/Madness)
MOT : Sign Of The Times (McPherson/Barson)
No Dread & Black Sifichi Never Ask Twice (McPherson/Barson)
Niko Costello : Drip Fed Fred (Thompson/Barson)
Statuto : Un Fiore Nel Cemento (Johnny The Horse) (Smyth)
The Chancers : Deceive The Eye (Foreman/Bedford)
The Inflatables : One Better Day (McPherson/Bedford)
The Opium Eaters : The Opium Eaters (Barson)

The CD is out in May and they state that it can be pre-ordered from Amazon in the US and UK. Oh, and they've posted an interview that JP Boutellier did with this here blog about the project. (I appreciate your help in spreading the word about The Duff Guide to Ska, JP! Thanks!)

Old News: History of Moon Records in "Alternative Rock"

I'm not quite sure how I missed this when it was first published in 2000 (oh yeah, I was struggling to keep 7 Wonders afloat and everyone but the faithful few hated ska), but the mega-prolific music writer Dave Thompson , who reviewed several Moon releases in Alternative Press back in the 90s, covered the basic history of Moon Records (somewhat accurately) and the American third wave ska scene in his book "Alternative Rock" (Miller Freeman Books). I had seen this title at a bookstore a few years ago and didn't catch the brief chapter on ska (though I remember thinking at the time that his decisions as to which alternative bands to include and omit were really odd).

Anyhow, I came across the Moon Records entry accidentally via a Google Book Search (read "The Moon-Ska Stomp" chapter here). If you pick up a copy of the book (which is out-of-print, but can be purchased from on-line used booksellers--I bought my copy from Powell's), you'll also find that it has a partial Moon Ska discography (it fails to list any release after MR100, which was supposed to be a re-issue of the "NY Beat" and "Ska Face" comps) and features a decent Toasters entry (the only third wave ska band to rate an overview in Dave Thompson's book!)

Let the nitpicking begin, y'all!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Are You There, Jah? Part 2

Thanks to Ray M. for pointing out this wickedly funny and smart video...(and please note that it's not taking a poke at Rastafarianism, but white, upper-middle class, Babylon-bred-and-butter rasta-wannabes).

Sony Reissues Prince Buster Sings His Hit Song "Ten Commandments"

It's not every day that a major label (what's left of 'em) reissues a classic ska record and gets it so right. Sony Music (in partnership with Reel Music, a label devoted to reissuing soul and reggae albums) has remastered (from the original analog tapes) Prince Buster's 1967 compilation Prince Buster Sings His Hit Song "Ten Commandments," which was first released by RCA Victor in the US. This album probably came about because earlier that year, Buster had appeared at the New York World's Fair representing Jamaica, along with Jimmy Cliff, Monty Morris, Millie Small and others, and then followed it up with a successful tour of the United

This is the first time this album has appeared on CD and they've done such a good job with the remastering that when you're listening to "Is Life Worth Living" you'll find the sound so crisp and natural that it seems like you're in Federal Studios with The Prince. Also, the CD booklet contains an extensive essay on Prince Buster by reggae/Bob Marley archivist Roger Steffens (nothing earth-shattering is revealed, but it is good nonetheless). Just so you know, The Duff Guide to Ska is no shill for the man-- I bought my copy of Prince Buster Sings His Hit Song "Ten Commandments" through Ernie B's Reggae (which, by the way, is an amazing source for ska and reggae LPs and CDs).

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About ten years ago, during the tail-end of the third wave skaboom, the majority of Prince Buster's back catalogue was out-of-print. As a result, I spent far too many blurry-eyed days scouring the internet, trying to track down the Holy Grail of Prince Buster comps: The Prophet (on Lagoon Records in France, which was forced to withdraw it from distribution, as there was some dispute over who had the authority to license the tracks to the label) and the Gaz Mayall-selected King of Ska (on Quattro Records in Japan--this was several years before it was released on Prince Buster Records and then Jet Star). So it just seems plain ironic to me all these years later, now that the US ska scene is once again firmly rooted underground and generally unrecognized and unheralded, that practically all of his original albums (even the formerly hard-to-find The Message Dubwise) have been re-issued on LP and/or CD and are readily available.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to pick up Hush Up, a terrific Prince Buster comp put out on Islam Records (one of Prince Buster's many imprints) from Interpunk of all places. I assume that Buster put this out himself (the label's address is in Miami, Florida, where Buster lives), but I've never come across it anywhere else again. It's a shame, as it's a good mix of tracks found on Fabulous Greatest Hits and King of Ska, as well as some of his later work with Gaz Mayall and The Trojans. Snap this one up if you ever come across a copy.

Here's a plea from a fan: someone (Blood & Fire or Pressure Sounds listening?) should put together a box set of Prince Buster's recordings and productions, featuring rare releases, extensive liner notes, lovingly remastered sound, film clips from the New York World's Fair and Ready Steady Go!, the works--the audience for this is out there (there may not be tons of ska fans, but the world holds more reggae fans that we expect it does...).

And we need to enjoy ourselves, it's later than we think...