Sunday, October 13, 2013

Duff Review: 7" Reissues of The Toasters' "Recriminations" and "East Side Beat" EPs!

Black Butcher Classics/Mad Butcher Records
7" vinyl singles
Available in the U.S. through Jump Up Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Generally, I'm not a huge advocate for the re-issuing of records that have seen multiple releases over the years--unless it's being done to put something back in print, or to offer something new in the package that significantly enhances the release. While The Toasters' Recriminations (issued as a 12" EP on Moon Records in 1985 and 1989, and Britain's Unicorn Records in 1988) and East Side Beat (issued as a 12" EP in Ska Records in 1987) are long out-of-print, used copies can be tracked down fairly easily on the internet--and the tracks themselves are all currently available on the expanded Skaboom CD on Megalith Records (and available through Impact Merchandising). Having said that, I find myself delighted to have the new Mad Butcher 7" vinyl reissues of these EPs (I have all three versions of Recriminations, but I never purchased the East Side Beat EP back in the day--I already had those tracks and it was a somewhat pricey for a college student and hard-to-find import). Part of this is due to my insane obsession with the 7" single format (in hindsight, it's seems odd that these four-track EPs weren't originally issued as 7" singles, but 12" EPs were all the rage in the 80s and the default format for any release that contained more than two tracks). But this repackaging also provides ska fans--32 years after the group's founding--with the opportunity to reassess some of The Toasters' earliest and most essential recordings from two of the best iterations of the band.

The Recriminations EP was the band's brilliant opening salvo (yes, nitpickers, The Toasters' first release actually was "Beat Up" b/w "Brixton Beat," which came out in 1983 on Ice Bear Records--but Recriminations put The Toasters on the map: it was the first release from an American ska band to score national distribution, and, thus, reached and influenced ska fans far beyond Gotham's city limits). I bought it in back in 1985 at Sounds on St. Mark's Place, never actually having heard or seen the band. The only thing I did know was that it was a ska record and since I loved The Specials, The Selecter, English Beat, and Madness, I wanted more ska music!

To be honest, at first listen, I wasn't sure what to make of The Toasters version of ska on Recriminations. It certainly wasn't 2 Tone (which I expected it to be, since that was the only kind of modern ska I had ever heard; and if my memory is correct, I picked up Fishbone's EP debut and The Untouchables' Wild Child soon afterwards)--it was this scrappy, New Wave-influenced version of ska (with some Duane Eddy gee-tar thrown in to great effect!). But once I placed my preconceptions aside, I warmed up to Recriminations quickly (to this day, all of these songs are amongst my favorites). The songwriting is fiercely original; the performances are energetic and tight (and probably came close to capturing what they sounded like live at the time); the production is pretty warm and decent for a DIY effort recorded on the cheap (Recriminations was produced by New Wave's other angry young man, Joe Jackson, a fellow Brit and footie fan whom Bucket had met when he was manager of the comic book/sci-fi shop Forbidden Planet in Greenwich Village); and I loved the vocal interplay between guitarist/songwriter Bucket and bassist Vicky Rose (this version of the band also included Steve Hex on keys, Gary Eye on percussion, and Danny Johnson on drums).

Side A of Recriminations (which could have been called their 'R' EP, since all of the songs start with that letter) contains songs about sour, severely dysfunctional relationships--the prickly and perennially frustrated "No Exit" hell of the title track: "We get ourselves in situations I don't understand/That always leads to confrontations getting out of hand/It always ends in recriminations, "What is it I said?"" and the melancholy "Razor Cut" (with the metaphoric or real life threat of suicide--you decide): "You bend me out of shape like modeling clay/You can twist me almost every way/There's been to much violence, too much pain/I can't make it through another day/But when I ask for more/That's when I find you on the bathroom floor..."

Recrimination's flip side expands the lyrical horizon to include commentary on the demise of a scene (and society) and the fear of nuclear armageddon. Arguably The Toasters' first underground hit, the full-on reggae cut "Run Rudy Run" (which, to these ears, borrows some of its arrangement from The Ruts' "Love in Vain"--the B side to their incredible "Staring at the Rude Boys" single; the earliest version of "Run Rudy Run" was originally written and performed while Bucket was in the UK in the late 70s and in a reggae band called The Klingons) features Joe Jackson on melodica and describes the attempt to have a fun night on the town (hit some clubs, catch some bands), but results in a crappy, disappointing evening instead. But it's also about the senselessness/corruption of how things are:

"Hit the inner city before the main man hits the town
Spent our cash on looking flash and heavy jab jab sound
The clubs have turned their bouncers on the drunken, mindless crowd
You hear nothing from your logic clock

Run, Rudy, run...

Juvenile delinquents given sentences of gold
The push for Radio City, reach our drat and nasty goal
Cups are gettin' empty, the boys are getting old
You hear nothing from your logic clock
Run, Rudy, run...

Silence in the city on the night before the crash
The cops have sold their holdings at the diamond Wigmore bash
The clubs have turned their goon squad on the drunken struggling mass
Nothing from your logic clock..."

It's the "Friday Night, Saturday Morning"/"Do Nothing" lyrical mash-up for a dangerous and crumbling early 80s New York City (it also makes me wonder if it refers, in part, to the episode where Bucket showed up at Roseland to see The Beat in 1981 and found the giant ballroom dancefloor mostly empty--which put him on a mission to spread ska in America).

As quaint and outlandish as it seems now, in the 1980s (with Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan loudly rattling his saber and railing against the Evil Empire of the Soviets), we all believed that there was a very good chance we'd perish in an all-out nuclear war (scroll to the bottom of this post for much more on this topic, including a list of the many of the ska and New Wave-era songs that were inspired by the dread of living with the knowledge that somewhere in the Soviet Union was nuclear missile with your name on it). Bucket took this dread and served up a droll, very British take on the nuclear armageddon in "Radiation Skank" (which seems inspired both by H.G Welles' "War of the Worlds"--the novel takes place in England, you know--and Stanley Kramer's movie "On the Beach"):

"When I wake up in the morning
Get my breakfast at the larder
Take my cup of tea
And go out in the garden

What's those lights up in the northern sky?
It looks like London's burning
But then it could be Bristol
I'm really not that certain

Sorry boys, it's a big mistake
Like to stop the rockets
But it's much to late

When it drops its bombs on England
I'll make sure that I'm not there
I'll be in the Caribbean
Or somewhere like Australia

'Cause I don't want to be a mutant, not I
Arms and legs in funny places
My elbows where my hands are
My ass right where my face is..."

On each of The Toasters' albums in the 1990s and 2000s, the band revisited one of their early hits; Dub 56 features "Razor Cut" and One More Bullet contains "Run Rudy Run." These amped-up interpretations are fine, but they lack the edge, grit, and ballsy vitality of the originals; they're almost too polished. The Recriminations versions of these songs are definitive. (The sleeve artwork featured on the Mad Butcher edition of Recriminations comes from the 1988 Unicorn release, featuring Bob Fingerman's illustration that originally was on the back cover of the 1985 Moon release.)

The 1987 East Side Beat EP features the Skaboom-era band and is one of the piecemeal ways that album was released in the UK. Essentially, Skaboom was split in two, with Unicorn receiving the majority of the Skaboom tracks for its Pool Shark LP (which includes a few tracks that didn't appear in the US until the Moon Ska re-release of the Skaboom CD in 1994: "Matt Davis," "Renee," "Ideal Man," and "Naked City") and Ska Records getting "East Side Beat," "Mr. Trouble," "Manipulator," and "ABCs." The band had expanded considerably since Recriminations--the only holdovers from the 1985 version of The Toasters were Buck, Steve Hex, and Gary Eye. The Unity Two, Sean "Cavo" Dinsmore and Lionel "Nene" Bernard, were also on vocals with Bucket, along with Brian Emerich on bass, Jonathan McCain on drums--and the band now sported a full horn section: Marcel Reginato on alto sax, John Dugan on tenor sax, Greg Grinnell on cornet, and Anne Hellandsjo on trombone. The Toasters' songwriting (now split between Bucket and Sean Dinsmore) and performances had evolved and matured into what is now considered the classic, instantly recognizable Toasters' sound that won over fans worldwide (and would be further explored on the terrific Thrill Me Up). I was fortunate to see both the Skaboom and Thrill Me Up-era Toasters, both of which put on brilliantly energetic and tight live shows and are probably my favorite permutations of the band. (Check out East Side Beat's fantastic film noir-ish cover art by Don Alan, who also designed The Toasters' Black Flag-like logo with the three black bars and musical notes.)

"East Side Beat" is Buck's re-write of his "Brixton Beat" (which originally was inspired by the Brixton riots of 1981 that were the result of police oppression of minorities--particularly their use of the "sus" law, and the high unemployment/no future of Thatcher's England) off The Toasters' debut 1983 single, though it relocates the action from the poor, inner city London neighborhood of Brixton to Manhattan's seedy, low-rent, and somewhat dangerous (in the 80s and early 90s, anyway) East Village/Lower East Side/Alphabet City. It's now one of The Toasters' signature tunes, and has been played as an encore during their sets for decades. But even back in the late 80s, this was one of their most popular tracks and was guaranteed to get the crowd jumping in the air, pumping their fists, and shouting along with the "oi!" chorus.

Essentially, "East Side Beat" is the NYC rude boy (in all senses of that word: ska fan, rebel, criminal) night-on-the-town experience. Some are looking to check out the bands in the clubs or pick up women in bars; others are out to commit some crimes; and then there are the unfortunate rudies in the "wrong" skin brought up on bogus charges by racist cops and convicted by a justice system that is hostile to people of color. All are dealing with the risks of transversing the sketchy, violent, and decaying (but also funky and cool) urban landscape (Tomkins Square Park, in the heart of the East Village, was part open-air drug market and part homeless encampment, and you you rarely ventured past Avenue B into the drug den/projects of Alphabet City, even during daylight hours). But it's also where the ska scene was at in 1980s if you were going to catch a band or hang out with your crew in a dive (like Blanche's, The Toasters hangout, on 7th Street and Avenue A, right across the street from Tomkins Square Park).

"In a beat up Ford Cortina on Saturday night
Second Step and Urban Blight
Here come The Boilers, check out The Scene
But that's never Too True, if you know what I mean
The reception is cool, so turn up the heat
Come on boys, do some East Side Beat

Pick up your piece and make your play
I wonder what the old man will say
Caught in the act with a gun in your hand
And a fat old judge doesn't understand
Burning and looting down on the street
Come on boys, do some East Side Beat

Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!

Out in the jungle on a Saturday night
Trip over a junkie and there's two in a fight
Go over to the fellas, just chewin' the fat
Shark skin apes in pork pie hats
Big ugly skinhead across the street
Come on boys, do the East Side Beat

Into this stinker for a rack of pool
There's a girl at the bar who's beginning to drool
One more chaser, I'll move right in
She gets much fresher as I fill up my skin
Keep my whiskey cool, just like me
Come on boys, do the East Side Beat

Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!

So it's up in the morning, to try to get straight
Out on the turf, it's a theatre of hate
In a land you can't even call your own
And the big fat coppers won't leave you alone
Push you around, do the law with their feet
Come on boys, do the East Side Beat

So it's off to jail and up in the dock
Send you off for a short, sharp, shock
Tell racist jokes as they put you away
Never even listen, "What the hell you say?"
Burning police cars down on the street
Come on boys, do some East Side Beat"

Bucket's fantastically comical and paranoid "Mr. Trouble" updates and pays tribute to the rude boy decrying/mythologizing sides of Prince Buster ("Judge Dread," "The Barrister'") and Derrick Morgan ("Tougher Than Tough," "Retrial of Rudies") et al:

"Trouble is his middle name
Kicking Bucket, that's his game
You can't stop him, he's quite insane
Al Capone, Mr. Trouble!

So up he comes, and down you go
Thirty coffins in a row
Get outta town, and don't be slow
Baby Doc, Mr. Trouble!

He's figures big in scary tales
Walks on water, sleeps on nails
Shoots to kill and never fails
Scarface, Mr. Trouble!

He's nine feet tall, and six feet wide
Fists like mallets by his side
You can run, but you can't hide
Hell his name? Mr. Trouble!

Death and murder is his plan
He'll wipe you out
To the last man
You better get out while you can
Baby Face, Mr. Trouble!

He's got a .45, a .38
Brass knuckles, knives, and a razor blade
He likes his job, he doesn't get paid
Jack Ruby, Mr. Trouble!

If you don't like knuckles in your face
Get out of town, no time to waste
You'll disappear without a trace
Take care, Mr. Trouble!

So when you hear the sirens wail
Mr. Trouble he's on your trail
Some cretin let him out on bail!
Judge Dread, Mr. Trouble!"

The slightly misogynistic "Manipulator" (written by Bucket and Dinsmore) may not be the most enlightened song about women who use their wiles and feminine charms on men to get what they want ("All the fellows dig her cause she's funky fresh/Some people call her Doris but her name is Bess/She's always in the bar, you know she drinks for free/Why should she have to pay when there are suckers like me?"); but its catchy melody and bemused self-awareness help to redeem its sins.

"ABCs" is the Unity 2's signature tune (and great live), a great jazzy-reggae anti-drug toast/rap--essentially, a drug alphabet primer for the denizens of Alphabet City (which they later re-worked for their reggae/hip hop solo album What Is it, Yo? for Warner Brothers Records a few years later):

"Inna de A - Is for alcohol
Boom up the B - Is for booze, ya know
I man can C -Is for cocaine
Dope up de D - And dope a running in your veins
Big up de E - That is for E-balls
Flip-flop the F - Your future's written on the walls
Gang bang the G - That is for greed
Doing the H - A very stupid, dangerous deed
And I...

An intravenous injection
Jazz up the J - C'mon homie, just try one
No more KKK - On the corner, you'll find crack
Lionel the L - Stop fessin,' 'cause it's drugs you lack
Mash up the M - M is for you mind
Nuh nuh nuh N! - You need narcotics, just to unwind
Oh, oh, ponna O - You could get an overdose
Give I a P - The price you pay for cuttin' it close

What's up with S - It's a constant search for drugs
Tease de T - And then you got beat up by thugs
You and U - Is united we stand
Why up de V - I got some valium in my hand
Dup up W - Is for woe is me
What's up with X - I also tried some ecstasy
Mister Lionel fe you ask why - The choice you make is yes or no
Zozo de Z - So, don't be a zero


If you didn't have a chance to pick up these EPs back in the late 80s--or weren't even born yet!--grab a copy of each while you can. And if you're a Toasters' completist or love collecting ska vinyl, do I really need to encourage you to buy these?

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