Thursday, July 21, 2011

Duff Review: Earl Zero "None Shall Escape the Judgement" b/w " Judgement Version"

Channel Tubes
7" vinyl single and digital download

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Diligent students of reggae will know of Earl "Zero" Johnson and the cruel twist of fate that was visited upon him early in his career. For those of you not in the know (like me, until I researched him a bit), this story is worth recounting as an example of how brutal and hit-or-miss the music business can be.

In 1975, producer Bunny Lee came across Earl Zero performing his self-penned song "None Shall Escape the Judgement" and had him cut a recording of it at Treasure Isle. The record was given a limited release and for whatever reason went nowhere. Sensing that this song deserved to be a hit, Lee took another stab at it and had newcomer Johnny Clarke record new vocals--and the track went on to become the biggest selling single in Jamaica in 1975, launching Clarke into superstardom and establishing the track as a roots classic. To make matters worse for Zero, he (mistakenly) wasn't given writing credit on the label (which went to Clarke), so many people never realized he had created this massive hit. (Zero did score a hit later that year with "Righteous Works," which kick started his career...)

Zero re-recorded "None Shall Escape the Judgement" several times over the years (a few examples of which can be found on the albums Visions of Love from 1980, as well as And God Said to Man from 2010--both of which are available from Ernie B's Reggae), but to this listener none of these quite captures the Revelations end-of-days urgency and dread--as well as the bliss of deliverance--as this new version produced by Brett Tubin.

Zero sings:

"None shall escape the judgement in this time
These words I sing to all mankind
None shall escape the judgement in this time
These words I sing to all mankind

Arise black one
Jah Jah is our god and king
Jah will declare equal rights
and justice among the heathen

The wicked must fall
Only the righteous shall stand
In this congregation of King Selassie I
Anything Jah say, I and I will always do
Anything Jah say, I and I will always obey
Because I love Jah"

Tubin recruited a stellar band to record the new rhythm track (with Eddie Ocampo on drums, Steve Capecci on bass, Victor "Ticklah" Axelrod on keys, Andy Bassford on lead guitar, and Brett himself on rhythm guitar) and arranged for Zero to lay down new vocals. The results are phenomenal. The mega-tight performances, brisk tempo, and almost militant tone perfectly reflect the song's lyrical content (particularly compared with several previous versions which didn't convey the dire warning of the song: soon Jah is sending the four horsemen of the apocalypse to mete out justice to the evildoers in repent now). This very well may turn out to be the definitive version of this song and honors Earl Zero's musical legacy extraordinarily well.

Preview both tracks here.

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Duff Review: The Selecter "Back to Black"

Vocaphone Records
digital single and 7" vinyl record

(Reviewed by Steve Shafer)

On the flip side of their new double-A single (the other track is version of Woody Guthrie's "All You Fascists" called "Big in the Body, Small in the Mind" reviewed by The Duff Guide to Ska here), The Selecter transform Amy Winehouse's Brill Building-y "Back to Black" into a sensational, brisk-paced ska cut. For those not familiar with the song (and I'll admit that I wasn't, but should have been), it's about a woman who is devastated after her man leaves her for an old girlfriend: "We only said goodbye with words/I died a hundred times/You go back to her/And I go back to black." Her life is drained of color, purpose, and joy without him in it. She's left dead inside.

Pauline's impassioned performance definitely packs an emotional wallop (particularly compared with Ms. Winehouse's resigned-to-her-fate original), though it's strangely incongruous with her fiercely independent public persona. I can't imagine Pauline ever in such a lopsided relationship (she's certainly not the "Perils of Pauline" damsel in distress needing a man to save her or validate her self-worth--if anything, he should be worried that she'll kick his ass). It's also in stark contrast with the righteous indignation she unleashes on the anti-fascist beatdown of "Big in the Body, Small in the Mind." (Whether on purpose or not, there's a nice synergy/play on words at work here between Pauline's surname, the title of this song, and the title of her new autobiography, "Black by Design.")

Some (the detractors and doubters) may want to raise the alarm that both tracks on this single are covers. Having heard several other cuts off their forthcoming album, Made in Britain (to be released on September 1, 2011), I can attest that it's certainly not for lack of original and/or strong material. One can deduce why each cover was chosen: "Big in the Body..." re-affirms the wonderful 2 Tone tradition of promoting racial harmony (a message that far too many people still need to receive these days), while "Back to Black" is simply a fantastic song that will be instantly familiar and appealing to both ska and non-ska fans alike. These are the teasers to re-introduce you to the band and remind you why you love Pauline, Gaps and The Selecter in the first place...there is much more goodness to come.

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

+ + + +

Soon come: The Duff Guide to Ska interview with Pauline Black, as well as an advance look at The Selecter's new album, Made in Britain.

+ + + +

+ + + +

Update:In light of Amy Winehouse's death, The Selecter cancel the digital release of their cover of "Back to Black." (The track will be included in their forthcoming album, Made in Britain, and can be found on the "Big in the Body, Small in the Mind" vinyl single.)

Here's the official Selecter press release...



The flip-side of The Selecter’s limited edition double A-side 7” vinyl, “Back To Black”, released on Saturday July 23, was recorded months ago as a tribute to Amy Winehouse’s interest in 2 Tone and as a thank you to the singer for helping to put ska back in the public eye. Pauline Black and The Selecter are shocked and saddened that this so suddenly and so tragically coincided with her untimely death.

In respect and homage to her memory, The Selecter will not be releasing the download version of Back To Black, which was initially due for release on Jul 31.

The other A-side, Big In The Body - Small In The Mind, also turned out to be eerily prescient. A thorough re-working of Woody Guthrie’s All You Fascists Bound To Lose, it sets the Selecter agenda, which notes that racism is still on the rise and on the rise in Europe - a statement sadly vindicated by the horrific events in Norway at the weekend.

Pauline Black and The Selecter’s thoughts go out to the family and friends of Amy Winehouse and those murdered in Norway. Sometimes it’s not good to be in tune with the zeitgeist.

New Video: Santogold and the Beastie Boys "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win"

This is so fantastic on so many levels--think Santogold and the Beastie Boys meet Todd Haynes' "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story"... Spike Jones does it again! Simply awesome.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Duff Review: The Jokers "Brixton" b/w Lloyd Charmers "The Premises"

Trojan Records
7" heavyweight vinyl

(Reviewed by Steve Shafer)

The ninth entry in the Trojan Limited Edition 7" Single series focuses on two rare cuts from ska/reggae singer, songwriter, keyboardist (The Charmers, The Uniques, The Hippy Boys, Lloydie and the Lowbites), and producer (Ken Boothe, Marcia Griffiths), Lloyd "Charmers" Tyrell, best known for the classic "rude reggae" track "Birth Control" (which was later adapted by The Specials for "Too Much Too Young", which--as all 2 Tone fans know--advocates the use of prophylactics, natch).

By 1969, Charmers' productions released on his independent Jamaican label Splash were being licensed in the UK by Pama (and issued on its imprints Nu Beat, Gas and Camel) and Trojan (on the Songbird, Duke and Explosion labels) to help feed the skinhead reggae phenomenon (roughly 1968-1971, when over 20 early reggae singles reached the UK pop charts, including The Upsetters' "Return of Django," Harry J All Stars' "Liquidator," Boris Gardiner's "Elizabethan Reggae," Dave & Ansell Collins' "Double Barrel" and "Monkey Spanner," Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" and "It Mek," Max Romeo's "Wet Dream," The Pioneers' "Long Shot (Kick De Bucket)," Bob & Marcia's "Young, Gifted, and Black" and "Pied Piper," the Melodians' "Sweet Sensation" and Nicky Thomas' "Love of the Common People"; it should also be noted that Laurel Aitken was enormously popular during this period, scoring a string of skinhead reggae hits like "Whoppi King," "Haile Selassie," "Landlords and Tenants," "Jesse James," "Skinhead Train," "Rise and Fall of Laurel Aitken," "Fire in Mi Wire," "Pussy Price," and "It's Too Late").

The two Lloyd Charmers tracks featured on this single, which he wrote, produced, and performed, were recorded with The Hippy Boys--Alva Lewis (guitar), Upsetter Glen Adams (keyboards) and future Wailers, Aston 'Family Man' Barrett (bass) and his brother, Carlton Barrett (drums).

The groovy (and probably slightly naughty) "Brixton," later curiously dubbed "Soul Of England," has a percolating organ line and guitar rhythm that reminds me a bit of Laurel Aitken's awesome "Reggae Popcorn." The vocals alternate between sung and spoken bits (with a Louis Armstrong impression thrown in the mix) that are mostly a string of non-sequitur exhortations like "I love you baby/Like the twilight hour" and "It's nice, ain't it?/Like rice with spice" and "Put all you've got into it, mate!" Whatever is going on here, the feeling that's conveyed is one of good times--and it's very infectious. "The Premesis" (aka "Big Five") is a great propulsive, organ-driven skinhead reggae instrumental typical of the era (think Clancy Eccles, Harry J All Stars, The Upsetters, etc.). Put on either track and watch the dancefloor fill up.

When Trojan says heavyweight vinyl, they're not kidding...this disc is ridiculously and (for vinyl lovers) satisfyingly thick! In this digital age when song files can vanish into the ether with the click of a mouse, it's nice to have your music on something so substantive!

Info regarding other singles released in this series can be found here; next up is "You Are The One" by Romeo & the Emotions b/w "Girls Like Dirt" by Phil Pratt on the Big Shot imprint.

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

Friday, July 8, 2011

Duff Review: Hollie Cook "Hollie Cook"

Mr. Bongo Records
CD and LP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Hollie Cook has branded her compelling mix of roots reggae and Sade-like, chanteuse-styled vocals (a contrast in styles that works brilliantly here) as "tropical pop." While this label connotes images of sculpted and curvy young bodies cavorting alongside crystalline Caribbean waters (and helps her to avoid having this album shunted solely to the reggae section of iTunes, the record shop, and radio playlists), the oftentimes gorgeous music and lyrics reflect a far less happy place--with lovers using, isolated from, betraying, and (psychologically) maiming each other.

Cook's producer/collaborator/co-songwriter Prince Fatty has done a superb job of creating a warm, confident, golden-era-of-the-70s reggae sound that plays extraordinarily well off Cook's modern pop vocals (and what a pure, ethereal instrument she's got) on her nine-track debut. The rotating backing band is consistently spot-on, with guest artists like guitarist Dennis Bovell (Linton Kwesi Johnson) and singer George Dekker (Pioneers) raising the level of quality even higher.

The album leads off with two tracks that comprise her excellent first single (reviewed by The Duff Guide to Ska here). "Milk and Honey" is about someone so removed from life--aware of everything going on, but disdainful of and unable to take any joy in it: "Every day/in the morning paper you/You got the News of the World/You're gonna make them change/It’s time to laugh all alone in your room/If only you could shine through the darkness." And the only path to salvation/deliverance (milk and honey are fruits of the promised land, after all) is to "taste" life again--to choose to live, not merely exist. "That Very Night" may remind one a bit of a Specials AKA In the Studio-type reggae excursion (where Dammers delved into alienation, madness, betrayal, addiction, and agoraphobia)--particularly Hollie's detached and disaffected vocal delivery (think Terry Hall) as she sings, "You are the perfect boy/for my brand new number/I have bought the purse/and the spring time flowers...all around, oh/You'll be a charming boy/not like my previous one/'Cause he disappeared and left me all alone/with my frozen heart...oh." The track is shimmeringly, nite club gorgeous, but could never mask the emptiness and pain of "going through the motions" evident at the core of Cook's vocals.

The cover of The Shangri-las' "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" is even more haunted and lonely in this reggay-fied version and, of course, recounts the shell-shocked devastation ("Oh, what will happen to/the light I gave to you/What will I do with it now?") at receiving a "Dear Jenny" letter after the singer's boyfriend went overseas (to war?). The protagonist of "Sugar Water (Look at My Face)" has been so damaged by her relationship with a lover that it's almost as if her very body chemistry has been monstrously transformed: "Look at my face/look what your charm has done to me/and the sugar water runs through my veins/it's really so odd...sweet darling, is it night or day?/Can you say my name?/Can't you see I'm losing my head because of you?" The spectacularly deep and dubby bass line of the track plods along, as if reflecting the singer's stumbling around in a daze, as she loses her grip on reality. It's a chilling song--one can almost imagine the inevitable and furious revenge to be visited upon the guy who messed with her.

"Shadow Kissing" starts out with "That Very Night's" eerie organ line, but then blossoms into a wonderfully different version of this cut with some lovely, evocative imagery: "I'm shadow kissing you/on my balcony/A serenade from you/echoes in the street...Oh, we know we're magical/I hear your thoughts/and you read mine." You can hear the longing and ache in her singing due to their inability to directly, physically connect, but it's like the very air they share transmits their feelings and touch.

In a way, the perfect, glowing reggae-pop of "Body Beat" (which may remind one--in a good way--of Scritti Politti's "Word Girl" off Cupid & Psyche '85) resolves all the conflict, tension, and misery that precedes it, both in sound and content. The errant lover has returned (for a duet with Horseman, whose toasting is excellent throughout the LP) back where she belongs, but doesn't regret the journey: "It's been so long since I've been home/(I've been missing you from the start!)/My body beats and I'm feeling raw/Too many places I have gone (Where?)/Playing the game/Scoring my name/It couldn't have been so wrong..."

Hollie Cook's album should go over very big with ska and reggae fans--but also could have massive appeal to the more pop-oriented or alternative scenes, which as of late seem to be much more receptive at least to reggae-hybrid artists (Santogold, MIA, etc.). If any new reggae record this year deserves to be heard and loved by a lot of people, it's this one.

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

Thursday, July 7, 2011

NYC Ska Gig Alert: Dirty Reggae Party X with Coolie Ranx, Reggay Lords, and The Frighteners (plus Crazy Baldhead selectors and DJ Hahn Solo)!

Dirty Reggae Party X (10)

Friday, July 15 at 10:00 pm

The Frighteners (Brooklyn Rub-A-Dub champs!)

Coolie Ranx (ex-Pilfers, Toasters)

Reggay Lords (Brooklyn rocksteady with members of The Forthrights, The Hard Times, The Facts and The Slackers)

Crazy Baldhead selectors and guest DJ Hahn Solo (Dub Is A Weapon) spin the biggest tunes all night!

Goodbye Blue Monday
1087 Broadway (@ Dodworth)
Bush-Stuy, Brooklyn

J train to Kosciusko
Only $5!
All ages! 21+ to drink.

No BYOB or outside food!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Duff Review: Blue Riddim Band & Big Youth "Nancy Reagan" b/w "Nancy Reagan Remix 2011 - Voice of the People"

Rougher Records
7" vinyl single

(Reviewed by Steve Shafer)

Despite my burgeoning interest in reggae and ska (UB40, Peter Tosh, and all things 2 Tone) during my high school years in first half of the 1980s, I somehow missed Blue Riddim Band in their heyday (of note, they were first American reggae band to play Reggae Sunsplash in 1982--and the live recording from this event, Alive in Jamaica, was nominated for a Grammy in 1986; to this day, they remain the only American reggae band ever nominated for a "best reggae album of the year" Grammy).

Hard as it is to imagine now, back in the primitive pre-internet times, unless they played their record on WLIR (the Long Island-based alternative radio station that served as my lifeline to New Wave music), or I heard about the band through word-of-mouth, or I happened to read about them in Trouser Press (hell, even MTV was airing some pretty left-of-the-dial music videos back then), you could completely miss some incredible acts like this all-white reggae band from Kansas City, Missouri. I have to fess up to not encountering Blue Riddim Band until reading several recent posts on the band by Marco on the Bass, including one regarding their work with Ranking Roger and a more recent entry about their excellent new collaboration with Big Youth, the subject of this review.

The B side of this single is the original (and now remastered) 1981 version of "Nancy Reagan." Over an amazingly catchy roots reggae rhythm (laid down at Channel One in JA), the lyrics lampoon Mrs. Reagan, who was seen as frivolous, materialistic, detached, and aloof (her detractors mocked her as "Queen Nancy") during her first year as First Lady for renovating the White House, purchasing new White House china, and outfitting herself in very expensive designer clothing--all of this during a deep economic recession that was hurting many Americans.

Indeed, contrasted with the austere, humble, and introspective Carters, the formal and glamorous Reagans (both ex-Hollywood B movie stars) coupled with his administration's right-wing policies (which promoted "trickle-down economics," the disproved theory posited that if you focused solely on creating an environment where the rich and corporations could flourish through business deregulation and low taxes, the wealth created would somehow "trickle down" to the lower classes and take care of them as well--hmmm...taxes have been super low on the rich and corporations for the past decade and things are worse than ever for the non-rich) that decimated the social safety net at a time when unemployment was at a record high, gave their critics the strong impression that they didn't give a damn about poor and working class Americans.

In this context, the vapid, "Stepford Wives"-like depiction of Mrs. Reagan was a powerful political statement--and still has some sting left in it after all these years:

"My name is Nancy Reagan/My husband's name is Ron/He rules this nation/All my clothes come from the best designers/All my china is a perfect match."

Blue Riddim fan and boss DJ Big Youth does a wonderful job of versioning this track for the 21st century, with explicitly anti-war lyrics. On "Nancy Reagan Remix 2011 - Voice of the People," he chats:

"The voice of the people/is the voice of God/
War in the Middle East/war in the middle West/
War for the hopeless/war for the homeless/
War with the helpless/war with the needy/
War with the greedy/them a start the war/
War is not the answer/only love can conquer it/
War is not the answer/only love can conquer it..."

In particular, Big Youth connect the dots between the Reagan years and current day conflicts, particularly in the Middle East:

"It starts with Ron/and him give it to Bush/
war in the Middle East with them ancient Persians..."

If the voice of the people is the voice of God, as Big Youth toasts, then talking through the issues that divide us is the path to peace:

"Rise up people/let's have a conversation/
Rise up people/we don't want no bloody revolution."

Here's hoping that this single brings more attention to the legacy of this extraordinary American reggae band--and that Big Youth's message of love is taken to heart by all who hear it.

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

+ + + +

While we're on the subject of the Reagans and pop music, I can't help but mention the significant number of songs about the fear of nuclear war that were written during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Reagan's hard-line rhetoric and stance against the Soviets (several neo-cons in his administration--including Dick Cheney--who were disdainful of detente, increased defense spending to such a degree and implemented provocative polices that ended up re-igniting the arms race with the Soviets, since they were convinced that America was preparing for a nuclear first strike against them), his use of end-of-days evangelical language (Reagan told now-disgraced TV preacher Jim Bakker in 1980, "We may be the generation that sees Armageddon"), and itchy-trigger gunslinger image exacerbated Cold War relations between the nuclear superpowers to such a degree that millions of people throughout Western Europe and the U.S. (and one had to imagine the Soviet Union) were very worried that they might die in a nuclear war (I certainly was one of them).

Within this context, according to Dorian Lynskey's terrific book about popular protest music, "33 Revolutions Per Minute," an additional reason that bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Specials (as well as a slew of British New Wave acts) wrote about nuclear war was the May 1980 publication and distribution of the Home Office booklet (and release of accompanying short films) titled "Protect and Survive" (read a copy of the booklet here; see one of the films here), which grimly detailed the steps the public should take to attempt to survive a nuclear attack and (if they lived through the initial blast) the radioactive fallout afterward. Lynskey notes that even though "Protect and Survive" was "designed to reassure, it proceeded to scare the daylights out of anyone who read it." This and the very real placement of U.S. cruise missiles in the UK (as part of a NATO counter-move against a new medium-range Soviet nuclear missile) convinced many Britons that they would high on the list of targets should all-out war break out between the superpowers.

Some of the songs expressing the terrible nuclear war anxiety and dread of the early 1980s included: Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes," Time Zone's "World Destruction," The Fixx's "Red Skies" and "Stand or Fall," The English Beat's "Dream Home in NZ," "Two Swords," The Ruts' "It Was Cold," and "Psychedelic Rockers," U2's "Seconds," Fishbone's "Party at Ground Zero," XTC's "Living Through Another Cuba," The Selecter’s “Their Dream Goes On,” Nena's “99 Red Balloons,” The Toasters' "Radiation Skank," Prince's "1999," The Clash's “London Calling” and "Stop the World," Alphaville’s "Forever Young," Men at Work's “It’s a Mistake,” The Specials’ "Man at C and A," Elvis Costello's "Peace in Our Time," Billy Bragg's "Help Save the Youth of America," Depeche Mode's "Two Minute Warning," Ian Dury's "Ban the Bomb," Aku Aku's "Ground Zero," The Police's "Walking in Your Footsteps," The Untouchables' "Sudden Attack," and Bonzo Goes to Washington's “5 Minutes."

These anti-nuke songs helped a lot of people cope with the stress of living with the very real possibility of doomsday--and made you feel like you weren't the only freak up late at night wondering if a Soviet ICBM was going to erase all of your tomorrows in an instant. It also made it seem like something could be done to take some small measure of control of a completely out-of-our-control situation ("Forever Young" lyric: "Heaven can wait/we're only watching the skies/Hoping for the best/but expecting the worst/Are you going to drop the bomb or not?"), as musicians banded together for concerts supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and CND anti-nuke benefit albums like Life in the European Theatre (featuring tracks by The Clash, The Jam, The Beat, The Specials, Echo and the Bunnymen, XTC, and more). By giving voice to our collective fears and setting it to music you could dance to, these New Wave groups helped make it possible to live and even enjoy life at a time when world's leaders were unbelievably close (see Able Archer 83) to wiping us out forever.