Monday, March 31, 2014

King Hammond with the Sound Syndicate "Skaville Ole" b/w "Gimme Some Soul"

7" vinyl single

(Review by Steve Shafer)

With the typical cheekiness and aplomb that I absolutely love and expect from the great King Hammond (AKA Nick Welsh) comes his latest single "Skaville Ole," recorded with the Sound Syndicate. This cut reclaims the first big hit he wrote for Bad Manners way back in 1989 ("Skaville UK") and refashions it (a bit) for the Spanish ska market (Liquidator is based in Madrid; the Sound Syndicate are KH's backing band whenever he tours Spain). While this version contains little actual Spanish language, it does sport all sorts of signature King Hammond touches (the space-age keyboard sounds and Hammond organ found on his 1989 debut, Revolution '70)--with his irrepressible vocals riding atop the musical stampede (at the end of the track you hear Nick say, "Man, you guys just nailed the late '80s King Hammond sound!"). It's all pretty fantastic!

In keeping with 80s ska sounds, "Gimme Some Soul" is a sweet new 2 Tone-ish ska track credited both to King Hammond and the Sound Syndicate. As might be expected, KH needs something real and true along with a piece of her heart. King Hammond obsessives must have this single--but ska fans of every stripe should support the King and Co. and pick up this great piece of wax.

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King Hammond fans take note: The word from our friends Bim Skala Bim is that King Hammond will be doing a bunch of dates with them this coming August (8/14: Middle East in Cambridge, MA; 8/15: Wellfleet Beachcomber, Wellfleet, Cape Cod, MA; August 17: Manchester 65 in Providence, RI; and more!). So, if you're going to be anywhere in the Northeast USA this summer, make sure to catch two of the best ska acts around!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Duff Review: "Prince Fatty vs. Mungo's Hi-Fi"

Mr. Bongo Records
LP/CD (several tracks released as 7" singles, too)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

If you're wondering whether or not to pick up the new Prince Fatty vs. Mungo's Hi-Fi soundclash album featuring what have to be the two best reggae producers/collectives/sound systems today, it's a no-brainer--this is unquestionably one of the top reggae releases of 2014. Yes, all of the songs from both crews have been previously released--but the raw material used here is incredibly good (Mungo's Hi-Fi tracks come from their albums Sound System Champions from 2008 and their Forward Ever from 2011 and feature Sugar Minott, Top Cat, Soom T and Marina P, while the Prince Fatty cuts are from various releases featuring Hollie Cook, Winston Francis, Horseman, and The Pioneers' George Dekker--most notably Cook's debut album, Prince Fatty's Supersize, and Prince Fatty Versus the Drunken Gambler) and what each producer does with their allotment of tracks is nothing short of phenomenal.

The brilliant twist here is that Prince Fatty and Mungo's Hi-Fi have versioned each other's songs in their own particular style--and both, in many ways, have improved upon (and not merely re-fashioned) the other's work. I'm a bit embarrassed not to know the Scottish (!) sound system Mungo's Hi-Fi better; I had to look up samples of the original tracks in order to be able to compare them to Prince Fatty's versions. But, I discovered that the Mungo's Hi-Fi source tracks vary between loose, late-70s roots reggae to early, computer-y dancehall. In Prince Fatty's hands, everything is tightened and revved-up, and given a full, rich, warm aural sheen. I particularly liked Prince Fatty's versions of "Herbalist" (with Top Cat), "Scrub a Dub Style" (with the great, late Sugar Minott and Horseman), and "Under Arrest" (with MC Ishu)--which features the terrific lyric, "Hands up a Babylon/You're under arrest!/Selassie are ya victim/Haile Haile the best!" that turn these driving-while-black/stop-and-frisk times on their head.

Mungo's Hi-Fi take Prince Fatty's highly polished tracks and bring them back to the future of early 80s Prince Jammy-style dancehall. Since I'm very familiar with all of the Prince Fatty songs here, I particularly appreciate and love their transformation via Mungo's Hi-Fi imagination in the control room. Hollie Cook's haunting "Sugar Water" (one of my favorite songs ever) now floats above a fantastic propulsive bass and drum track, George Dekker's "Say What You're Saying" sports these Inspector Gadget-like keyboard lines, and Winston Francis' "Dry Your Tears," and Horseman's "Horsemove" receive equally as cool and inventive treatments.

Fans of both Prince Fatty and Mungo's Hi-Fi are really going to dig this album--but even if you've never heard a track from either group, this is an essential purchase for all fans of ska, roots reggae, dub, and dancehall.

If we're lucky, the gods of music will permit/facilitate another collaboration like this between Prince Fatty and Mungo's Hi-Fi in the near future...

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Duff Review: Bim Skala Bim "Chet's Last Call"

Bim Skala Bim Music

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I first encountered Boston's Bim Skala Bim when I picked up the Skankin' Round the World compilation (Unicorn Records) in 1988 and heard their song "Bangin'," which is about two people in a relationship driving each other crazy, not the cruder meaning of the word: "You've got me bangin'/my head against the wall!" (This compilation clued me in on how there was a whole lot of ska music being created outside of the USA--I had assumed everything had pretty much ground to a halt in the UK after the demise of 2 Tone; imagine how psyched I was to find out that Bad Manners was still active; incredible acts like Laurel Aitken and the Potato 5, The Trojans, and The Deltones even existed; and that there were even other ska bands in Europe, like Mr. Review, Saxawhaman, Kortatu, and Spy Eye!). I heard more Bim on the first (and brilliant!) US ska compilation, Ska Face (Moon Records, 1988), which featured their "Shoes," and then picked up their tremendous second album Tuba City (1989) at either Bleecker Bob's or CBGB's Record Canteen because it was released around the same time and on the same label as The Toasters' extraordinary sophomore album, Thrill Me Up. (I caught both bands at The Ritz--along with the NY Citizens, who were supporting their debut LP On the Move--in March 1989, just before Tuba City and Thrill Me Up were released; I'm pretty sure the gig was supposed to be one giant record release party for both bands...) I had been a huge fan of The Toasters since first hearing their first EP in 1985, so their close association with Bim Skala Bim was significant and compelled me to learn as much as I could about them (which wasn't easy in the pre-internet days!). And it turned out that Bim's story was strangely intertwined with The Toasters'.

The parallels between Bim Skala Bim and The Toasters were striking: both bands formed in the early 1980s; their original line-ups featured male and female co-lead vocalists (Toasters: Bucket and Vicky Rose; Bim: Dan Vitale and Jackie Starr); their debut releases came out within a year of each other (The Toasters' Recriminations EP in 1985; Bim's debut LP in 1986); they helped foster vibrant ska scenes in their respective cities; both established long-running ska labels and issued some of the first ska compilations in the USA (see Moon's New York Beat: Hit and Run from 1985 and Razorbeat Records' Mash It Up! from 1987); and they worked collaboratively to support the burgeoning ska scene in America (that eventually gave rise to the so-called Third Wave of Ska in the 1990s).

After they had released the The Toasters' smash debut album Skaboom in 1987, Bucket had convinced Celluloid Records to give The Toasters their own ska imprint--Skaloid--which issued The Toasters' Thrill Me Up, Unicorn Records' Skankin' Round the World comp--and Buck arranged for Skaloid's release of Bim's Tuba City. Even though Skaloid's parent label went under about a year later (though Celluloid was revived in the mid-1990s and issued bootleg copies of all of these releases), it provided some desperately needed resources to some of the major players on the US ska scene--it had the money to press up LPs and CDs and a reliable distribution network that made sure the releases hit the right record shops and reached the fans, something Moon had struggled with for years (a series of distributor failures had plagued Moon in the late 80s, swallowing up whole pressings of releases like Ska Face and denying the label of desperately needed cash and ska fans of amazing recorded music).

While Bim Skala Bim was strongly influenced by 2 Tone like The Toasters, Untouchables, and Fishbone, their sound (and vibe/look) incorporated elements of 60s hippie rock (see their cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your  Love"), making them stand out from their contemporaries (and, no doubt, giving them an avenue to appeal to those beyond the ska faithful). Like these other pioneers of US ska, Bim had an enormous impact on the American and world-wide ska scene (Bim were so popular amongst European ska fans that they played the first London International Ska Festival in 1988--a recording of the festival released on Buster Bloodvessel's temporarily revived Bluebeat Records captured one of their best early tunes, "Jah Laundromat," which features the lyric: "We'll wash all our sins away/down at Jah laundromat today"; The Toasters played the second LISF in 1989). Now, twenty-eight years (!) after their debut album in 1986 and thirteen years after their most recent album Krinkle in 2013, Bim are back with a fantastic new CD, Chet's Last Call, which serves up another set of terrific songs about everyday life and is sure to please their legion of fans.

Even though lead singer Dan Vitale now lives in Panama (Bucket now hangs his baseball cap in Spain!) and some other members of the Bim have spread out across the US, for the past several years, the band (largely unchanged since the early 1990s: Vinny Nobile on trombone and vocals, Jim Jones on guitar and vocals, John Cameron on organ and piano, Mark Ferranti on bass, Rick Barry on percussion, Jim Arhelger on drums, Dave Butts on sax) has reunited for summer shows in the Boston area and on Cape Cod, which, no doubt, yielded the laid-back, t-bone driven instrumental "Summer of Ska" and the more tense "Buses, Boats, Planes, Trains, and Taxis" (this upcoming summer is no exception--Bim's playing dates in Boston, Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island this August). But the best songs here concern work and play (mostly play, really)." Get Us Out" is a sweet, shambling, and chivalrous rocksteady cut about going to a party with a girlfriend/wife and promising you'll facilitate the quick exit if things go south ("I know how to get us out of here/if we need to get out of here/I know how to get us out of this/We can stick around for just a little bit/I know how to get us out of here/if it gets to late/if this party's strange/We don't have to stay." The upbeat "Dance with Me Darlin'" suggests that the party turned out to be alright--good enough to hit the dance floor for some close dancing that feels mighty good.

My favorite track on the album, "On the Dance Floor" (and the one that reminds me the most of all of Bim's signature sound--as embodied by a song like "Diggin' a Hole") is a scorcher of a tune about having a crush on someone at work who seems demure and distant--and then bumping into them at a club and discovering they're a completely different animal: "I see your light on after quitting time/I wonder if you notice mine/Do you even know I'm here?/We share a wall, never talk at all, till you said/"I'll see you Monday, on the other side"...That night I went out to the dancehall place/Where I saw a familiar face/From the side, your profile/You're wild, on fire!/We all just can't believe what you've been keeping up your sleeve/and, good god, now you've revealed it and everybody knows/On the dance floor, on the dance floor/Now everybody knows."

"Phony" is a frenetic flip-off to all the soul-sucking fake people that plague us at times ("I see you coming with your plastic smile/I see you coming from a hundred miles/Phony, baloney/Oh, what a wicked way to start the day/So many words, nothing to say/Phony, baloney/I can see, I can you coming/I can smell, I can smell a rat/Can't afford all the noise that keeps on coming from your mouth..."). "Hat When You're Not" is a loping reggay-ish cut about the toll that long road trips take on your body and soul ("Driving all night and your eyes are bloodshot/You feel like you're wearing a hat when you're not"). I think the dancehall-ish "Papa Don't Put Too Much Pepper" is about doing the pepper seed dance ("It's such a fine line/the way you dance and grind/Papa don't like it/and says it that it has to stop"), but there are also references to food and cooking--are all the peppers making the dancing too hot? Could be... The album is bookended by the catchy rocksteady track "Everybody's Got Their Style" and its version--part mission statement, part plea for tolerance and multiculturalism: "Not counting colors/Not taking sides/So many various shapes and size/Culture-wise."

It's always great to see the ska greats back in action, creating new music, and not merely relying on past glories and nostalgia simply to help fill the coffers. Here's hoping that the members of Bim continue to go on finding the time to keep on moving forward and doing what they sure do best.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Record Store Day Ska Releases!

Even at the ripe old age's just say in my advancing years, I'm still a huge record collector, regularly scouring some of the record stores near work for ska, reggae, and New Wave/post-punk and ordering all sorts of used and new vinyl online. So, each Spring, I'm always excited by the approach of Record Store Day and all of the cool, limited-edition vinyl released on this, the most holy of all record collecting days. In years past, I've always been particularly jealous of RSD in the UK, since fans there always seem to have a better selection of releases to choose from (particularly if you're a fan of ska, reggae, New Wave, and post-punk).

Having said that, this year's RSD (April 19, 2014) in the USA will feature two (!) excellent ska records: a 7" vinyl single of unreleased tracks from The Specials ("Sock It To 'Em JB (Dub)"/"Rat Race (Dub)," spun off their More Specials album) and a 12" vinyl reissue of Fishbone's stellar debut EP.

I'm also psyched for RSD releases from Devo, Joy Division, Tears for Fears, The The, The Stranglers, Ramones, and Joan Jett (yes, my formative years were in the 80s!).

See you at the record shops!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

King Hammond "Revolution '70" and "Tank Tops and Hot Pants" CD

Limited edition CD

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Back in the late 80s, Bad Manners' bassist and prolific songwriter Nick Welsh followed up on his stellar work for their 1989 Return of the Ugly album (Nick wrote "Skaville UK," "Since You've Gone Away" and "Memory Train"--and co-penned "Rosemary" and "Return of the Ugly"; this album remains one of Bad Manners' best) with a persona and record that celebrated the late 60s/early 70s skinhead reggae explosion in the UK: King Hammond's Revolution '70 (released on Buster Bloodvessel's then newly-revived and licensed Blue Beat label). At first, almost on a lark, Nick promoted King Hammond's debut album as a long-lost Jamaican gem of the skinhead reggae era, but he quickly fessed up about the charade in order to lay claim to all of the accolades the album was (deservedly) receiving.

After reading George Marshall's review in his essential (and very much missed) "Zoot" skazine (see the scans below from my personal copy), I mail-ordered the Revolution '70 LP from Unicorn Records and when my needle hit the record was immediately struck by Welsh's fully-realized sound and vision for King Hammond. The organ-centric music (in more ways than one!) pays loving homage to the skinhead reggae keyboard greats like Harry J, Jackie Mittoo, Winston Wright, Glen Adams, Ansel Collins, et al, while sounding thoroughly original (which it is--the cuts here are all Nick's). In fact, two of the vocal tracks on Revolution '70--"Stay with Me Baby" and "Oh Lorna!" are really pop-hits disguised in boots 'n' braces (Nick revisited "Stay with Me Baby" on his terrific Soho Sessions album, where he re-worked many of his greatest ska songs from the 80s and 90s on acoustic guitar).

George Marshall's review in Issue 13 of "Zoot" (1989)
Thematically, these songs cover skinhead reggae appropriate pop culture topics--which Nick clearly relishes--such as Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns ("One Dollar Hotel" and "Hammond's Showdown"); Bruce Lee/martial arts films ("Enter the Dragon"); gothic horror movies, no doubt, of the Hammer Horror variety featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing ("The Satantic Rites of King Hammond" and "King Hammond vs. The Exorcist"), the soft-porn pop songs (with lots of sexually suggestive moaning) of Serge Gainsbourg (did you know that in 1979 he released a decent album of French reggae songs with Sly and Robbie called Aux Armes et Caetera?), and the hilarious rude records (for those of us with dirty minds to read into all of the double-entendres) of Lloyd Charmers (AKA Lloydie and the Lowbites), Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, Judge Dread, et al (sample lyric from King Hammond's, ahem, "Pussy Power": "You must succumb-ah to my cucumb-ah").

From "Zoot" Issue 13, 1989
All of these keyboard-heavy tracks (most which include all sorts of wonderfully over-the-top spoken, shouted, or sung exhortations--many sublime in their outrageousness) are top-notch and were particularly unique back in 1989, when most bands were in the vein of either The Specials or The Skatalites. No one was doing skinhead reggae (with the exception of the now late, but always great, Laurel Aitken--though even his recordings at this time with the Potato 5 and the Pressure Tenants were typically 60s-style Jamaican ska, even if the arrangements sometimes took on more contemporary elements). While I love all of the tracks here, the two that are my favorite are probably "The Satanic Rites of King Hammond" ("Take off your hot pants and suck...This is the Hammond House of Horror, dig the beat, kids...Let me take you to a deserted graveyard, where the bones lay rotting...I will lay you down on a grave and I will raise...raise with me baby! You may be Dracula, you may be Frankenstein, but nothing can save you from King Hammond! I'm coming to get you!") and "The March of the Skinheads," which opens with an air raid siren and briefly salutes The Ethiopians' skinhead reggae anthem "Train to Skaville" before heading off on its own course (Nick was also honoring his father here, who co-wrote a song for the Artie Scott Orchestra with the same title--and I can only describe it as the type of quirky instrumental pop song you'd hear on a light Doris Day-type movie soundtrack from the 1960s).

King Hammond's follow-up, Tank Tops and Hot Pants, didn't see a proper release (mostly due to the demise of Buster's Blue Beat label and Nick's split with Bad Manners for the reformed Selecter with Neol Davies and Pauline Black), but one of Trojan Records' subsidiary labels Receiver Records (which released the excellent live Selecter Out in the Streets CD) issued the mega 25-track CD Blow Your Mind in 1992, which contained both the LP-only Revolution 70 and the newer cuts, though the track order jumbled up songs from each album (interestingly enough, this reissue drops a few cuts--"King Hammond's Magic Roundabout," "Crossroads," "Kinky Version," "Baby Version," "King Hammond Shuffle," and "Right On King Hammond," the last two were featured on Skank Records ska compilations). I really wish Tank Tops had come out on its own on vinyl--look at that cover art by Steven Friel (who provided ska-themed comic strips for "Zoot!," illustrated many of Unicorn Records' album covers, as well as Bad Manners' Return of the Ugly and King Hammond's Revolution '70)!

Tank Tops picks up right where Revolution left off, with more stellar skinhead reggae songs about sex ("Psychedelic Pum Pum" and "Pussy Got Nine Lives"), Westerns ("Hammond Rides Again" and "Spaced Out Cowboy"), blood suckers ("Dracula AD 72"), and simply great tracks with suggestive names ("Confessions of an Organist," "Suck/Lick It Up," and "Soul Up"). The album ends with the only sung song--"Skinhead Revolution"--a brilliant, funky and soulful, power-to-the people early reggae track with a great "nah, nah, nah" chorus right out of early 70s ("Skinhead on a violent street/dances to a different beat/Get ready, get ready!/Revolution on the floor/To the sound of '74/Get ready, get ready!/Nah, nah, nah/Skinhead revolution/Tank tops and hot pants everywhere/Sexy skin chicks with skin cut hair/Get ready, get ready... "). After hearing this, you'll be eager to sign up for King Hammond's musical movement, too.

The Blow Your Mind is a hard CD to find and fetches a high price on the collector's market (as does the Revolution '70 LP). One expects that this limited-edition version of Revolution '70 and Tank Tops and Hot Pants will be similarly valued and very much treasured by ska and skinhead reggae fans, too.