Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"The Specials" and "More Specials" UK Vinyl Reissues

Following The Specials' recent Record Store Day single (which contained previously unreleased dub mixes of "Rat Race" and "Sock It To 'Em, J.B!"), Rhino Records in the UK is re-issuing The Specials' first two albums on heavyweight vinyl. Of course, these are the British versions of the releases--so The Specials (available in the UK on June 9, 2014) doesn't include "Gangsters," but (and this is pretty cool) More Specials (already released in the UK) sports a free 7" single like the original release: "Braggin' and Tryin' Not To Lie" by Roddy Radiation and The Specials b/w "Rude Boys Outa Jail" by Neville Staple AKA Judge Roughneck.

The pre-order of the imported version of More Specials (released on May 6, 2014 in the USA) on will run you a steep $50 (!), so you might want to try, where it's about $38 (though you'll then have to pay a bit more for shipping).

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May 15 update: You can pre-order More Specials in the USA from Insound for about $22...

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Also, earlier this month, The Specials released a video of a new arrangement of Lynval Golding's ever-relevant "Why?' from the stellar 1981 "Ghost Town" EP. Check it out below and see what you think...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The "Cuban Missile" from King Hammond!

I love both Laurel Aitken and King Hammond, so this one is a no-brainer for me (the Godfather of Ska was actually born in Cuba and the title of this track refers to the Cuban Missile Crisis)! But I'm asking you to please consider supporting the amazing Specialized/Teenage Cancer Trust cause by buying this track (which will be released on iTunes, CD Baby, and other digital download sites tomorrow)--and be on the lookout for the Madness-themed Specialized 3 Mad Not Cancer benefit CD this summer (which just happens to include a track from Rude Boy George--the band I'm in--which covers "Driving in My Car").

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Jerry Dammers To Receive Award in South Africa for "Free Nelson Mandela"

The Guardian and BBC are reporting that Jerry Dammers is being awarded the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo by the South African government "for outstanding work benefiting the country" in recognition of his incredible song "Free Nelson Mandela," which was recorded and released by The Special AKA in 1984. The song raised worldwide awareness about the oppressive and inhumane South African apartheid government and its terribly cruel treatment of Nelson Mandela (who was jailed as a political prisoner for 27 years) and the African National Congress, the political party/resistance movement organized against the apartheid system.

Dammers will receive the award (one of South Africa's highest) this weekend at Freedom Day in Pretoria--which marks the 20th anniversary of South Africa's first democratic elections after the fall of apartheid rule (when Nelson Mandela was elected president).

The award is named after Oliver Tambo, the formerly exiled president of the ANC; his son Dali was the founder of Artists Against Apartheid who asked Dammers to start the UK chapter of this organization back in the 1986 (listen to several audio interviews with Dammers about his involvement with Artists Against Apartheid and how he came to write "Free Nelson Mandela").

Here is Dammers' reaction to receiving this award, as quoted in The Guardian:
"I never expected anything like this when I wrote the song," Dammers said. "It's a fantastic honour and it's amazing that it's remembered in South Africa. But it's important to remember that I did what any decent person would do in my position. And it's nothing compared to the sacrifices the people in South Africa made to fight apartheid."
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We'll have a more in-depth post up in the near future about "Free Nelson Mandela's" cultural and political impact.

Duff Review: The Meow Meows "Somehow We Met"

Killer Ska
Limited edition color vinyl LP on Jump Up Records, 2014

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Somehow We Met, the fantastic Prince Fatty-produced second album from the Brighton, UK female-fronted The Meow Meows, brims with so much originality and brilliance that you'll want to run out and thrust it into the faces of all those who dismiss the contemporary ska scene as a tired, uninspired revival of a revival of a revival (since this album handily refutes all of these unfair criticisms). While other ska bands have mixed in elements of fuzzy garage rock and sunny 60s AM/girl group pop into their sound (I'm thinking of you, Deltones!), not many have done it quite like this. The Meow Meows' music is firmly rooted in 2 Tone and modern ska (as represented by The Toasters circa their Thrill Me Up album), but the songwriting is so fully and uniquely their own that their sound also manages to defy the genre's boundaries. Don't get me wrong, Somehow We Met is a ska record through and through (that the ska faithful will love!), but it's one that even the ska haters just might be chagrined to find themselves liking.

While there are some nods to their musical predecessors and established ska conventions--see the song "Rude Girl's Gone To Jail," a tip of the hat to The Specials' "Rude Buoy's Outta Jail" that contains some Roddy Radiation rockabilly guitar licks and "England's Over," which is critical (in the 2 Tone fashion of decrying social and economic injustice) of the policies (in this case, the tripling of university fees) of "Coalition England," which is comprised of the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron, who is an acknowledged fan of the despised "Stand Down Margaret" Thatcher, and the Liberal Democrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg--The Meow Meows blaze their own trail with songs that convey strong emotions and tales of sticky situations (often about relationships, as well as female sexuality and desire), but whose underlying meaning or true message are sometimes opaque to everyone but their composers.

A perfect example of this is the fantastically buoyant and groovy "Disaster! Disaster!" The singer is clearly in a terrible psychological state, but we're not given any insight as to why she's so alienated and pessimistic --and what from her past is tormenting her. Yet, we can all relate to this mood: "Don't try to talk to me today/There's people all around me/And I'm feeling strange/Just look left, look right and run away/Up and down the street, it's a strange escape/Disaster, disaster as I'm walking down the street/Disaster, disaster the only thing I see/Think faster, think faster, these ghosts that follow me." Another intriguing track is "Rude Girl's Gone to Jail," which is about setting an undefined something in motion that goes horribly awry, as well as trying to fight an adversary when the odds are very much stacked against you: "So I find my last working matches/And I start a fire/And they said they understood/But it was a lie/They ran away, they're gonna run around town/They're gonna burn it down now/They got a lighter, they're gonna fight her/Oh, but they burned, they burned it down..."

The sad and haunting "Milton Keynes" (a reference to one of the planned communities or "new towns" that have been built in the post-WWII UK--think Levittown, LI or Celebration, FL here in the USA) appears to be about becoming disoriented in the blandness, the sameness, and the boredom of a place and discovering the urge to escape it. You can easily imaging the reggay-ish "Banknote" being covered by Prince Fatty's incredible singer/collaborator Hollie Cook, but I'm not certain whether or not it's concerning the shedding of one's obsession with money and casting off its control over us (not a bad message in these terribly greedy, new Gilded Age times).

Things are more discernible when we enter the realm of romantic love and sex. "Just Too Young" (the title, intentionally or not, brings to mind The Specials' "Too Much Too Young" and the song has lyrical echoes of The Beat's "Walk Away") is about the woman extracting herself from a relationship with an emotionally stunted guy that has put everything into perspective for her ("Thought I was a creep and a fool/'Til I ran into you/And saw the things that you do/Now I see I'm not so bad/The definition of mad/has a picture of you"). The all-out late 60s pop of "Do Anything"--the only non-ska track here--is a powerful, catchy, and almost deliriously happy (now that the singer's free!) kiss off to a man who's done her wrong. "If You Were My Boy" is a sweet and lovely mid-tempo ska song (despite being complete unrealistic!) about pining for a guy that would set everything wrong right: "Nothing to drink the pub dry for/No need to start World War Four/No need to kick the bathroom door/...If you were my boy." The resigned "(I Don't Know Why) I Love You" is an honest look at how we don't mean to hurt the ones we love, but we do--and that there often isn't a good explanation for why we keep loving people within painful, complicated relationships ("So, let's make a promise/To never let it go/At least 'til the next time/We get back together/Forever/Whatever").

"WhyWhyWhy" is an ecstatic ska 'n' soul expression/celebration of pure female lust (which will make you want to get up on your feet and dance, amongst other things), while "Might as Well Be You" verges on ska-rock/punk with a tale of an almost monstrous, all-consuming female desire for flesh, sex, and inflicting damage: "Slipping through trees/And reaching the street light/Oh, please don't keep me waiting/Running in silence, and hoping for violence/I'm sick of hibernating...I can track you down and make you go down/The road or the river, your liver for dinner/I've got the taste of chase now." (All she needs are some fava beans and a nice chianti!)

One of the best songs on Somehow We Met is "Siberian Soup," The Meow Meows' kick-ass tribute to Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock collective that is actively opposed to President Vladimir Putin's anti-women and anti-LBGT policies (and what they perceive to be the Russian Orthodox Church's complicity); several members of Pussy Riot were tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years for their 2012 protest/performance in Moscow's main Russian Orthodox church, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and they became a cause celebre around the world (I just saw Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina interviewed on Bill Maher's show last night). While The Meow Meows singers stage a minor, personal riot of their own ("Take my clothes off and I put my lipstick on/Kick my legs in the air and I start/Singing your song"), what they really hope for is someday to have the same type of courage as the women in Pussy Riot: "Take your place now, to play the gig of your life/A rainbow coloured angry thorn in his side/I wish my words were even half as true/Wish once in my life I'd be as brave as you!" They want some of whatever inspired and fortified them to demonstrate in the first place and emotionally/psychologically sustained the Pussy Riot members during their hard time in separate gulags...

The Meow Meows' name might refer to the slang for Mephedrone (a plant food that can also be used as substitute for Ecstasy, according to the Urban Dictionary), but what they really are on Somehow We Met is a revelation. I highly recommend this record!

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The Meow Meows are:

Danny Noble: vocals
Hanna Mawbe: vocals
Claire Ellis: tenor sax
Emma King: alto sax
Matt Ellis: trumpet
Alex D. Hay: keys
Danny Ashcroft: guitar
Ian Mackenzie: bass
Matt Gale: drums

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Duff Review: The Specials "Sock It To 'Em J.B. (Dub)" b/w "Rat Race (Dub)"

2 Tone/Chrysalis
Vinyl single in 2 Tone sleeve
Exclusive Record Store Day 2014 release

(Review by Steve Shafer)

After spending an hour and forty minutes just waiting to get in the front door (about 200 people were in line in front of me), I managed to snag the last Specials Record Store Day single at Rough Trade in Brooklyn--and then had to face the grim 15+ minute line for the cash registers (later that morning, I spotted several more Specials singles at another record store in Greenwich Village in Manhattan that I happened to pop into on a whim--it had no lines at all--and bought The Stranglers' "Peaches" single and Joy Division's "An Ideal for Living" EP, both of which were on my RSD want list and nowhere to be found at Rough Trade).

Of course, both of these tracks are versions of songs off The Specials' second album, More Specials. While these dub mixes come from the same 1980 sessions as the album, they've remained in the 2 Tone/Chrysalis vaults until now. Of the two, John Bradbury's dub of The Specials'  awesome cover of Rex Garvin and The Mighty Cravers' Northern Soul right hook "Sock It To 'Em J.B." is by far the more inventive, successful, and enjoyable. Instead of just shouting out the names of  various James Bond films as they do in the album version of this cut, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding name check various spy/law enforcement agencies (MI5, Interpol, Scotland Yard, Secret Service, FBI, CIA, KGB, etc.) and chat about a special assignment rooting out one's inner weakness by blowing one's mind on ganja. I prefer this version to the original, as it's not as repetitive (with the "Sock It To 'Em" refrain visited over and over) and the dub effects bring it more into the ska/reggae realm.

Jerry Dammers' dub mix of Roddy Radiation's incredible "Rat Race" doesn't fare as well. It starts out promisingly enough, with a driving bongo beat, John Bradbury's drumming, the signature plucking of the piano strings, and some great keyboard lines dropped in here and there to remind us of the melody. But then the track fails to really go anywhere and doesn't use any of Terry Hall's vocals, Roddy's or Lynval's guitar licks or chords, or Sir Horace Panter's bass lines. As a result, it feels like it's not fully formed (which is a shame, since what's here is a great foundation to build on...) and seems very tenuously related to its source material. With More Specials, Dammers was very much about stretching the band's sound beyond 2 Tone ska to explore and incorporate other musical idioms, a goal that was much more fully realized with The Special AKA's discordant, no wave jazz/pop/reggae on their darkly brilliant In the Studio--where "Rat Race (Dub)" would have been far more at home.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Videos of Rude Boy George at Otto's Shrunken Head on 4/9/14!

Here's some more shameless self-promotion: two videos from Rude Boy George's recent Copycat 80s Cover Night show at Otto's Shrunken Head (a wonderfully seedy 60s-era tiki bar) in Alphabet City in Manhattan. The first is our cover of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" (with detours into Whodini's "Freaks Come Out at Night" and The Specials' "Ghost Town"), while the second features our version of Berlin's "Metro." (Thanks to DJ Xerox for having us and for shooting these videos!)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Rude Boy George Plays Otto's Wednesday, April 9, 2014!

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for some shameless self-promotion. The band I'm in, Rude Boy George (we do ska covers of New Wave and post-punk classics), is playing Otto's Shrunken Head in Manhattan tomorrow night (we perform at 9:30 pm). All details are below. Oh, and it's FREE. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Duff Review: Elvis Costello with The Roots "Ghost Town" b/w John Legend with The Roots "Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be)"

Ska Boots
7" vinyl single
Available through Jump Up Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Side A of the latest installment of the Ska Boots series captures a spectacular live cover of The Specials' incendiary swan song/#1 UK hit "Ghost Town" by Elvis Costello and The Roots. This particular recording comes by way of a performance EC and The Roots gave at Brooklyn Bowl in September of 2013, in support of their Wise Up Ghost collaboration (see a video of their cover of "Ghost Town" below). Of course, as every 2 Tone fan knows, Elvis produced The Specials' debut LP in 1979 and The Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela" in 1984--and Questlove of The Roots has an omnivore's knowledge of all things musical--plus The Roots are probably one of the best and most versatile groups around (hip hop or otherwise), fluent in just about every pop musical genre in existence. So, as to be expected, the results here are spectacular and beautifully convey the dread, anger, and desperation of the track and those times.

I really need to become much more familiar with The Roots' discography, as I was completely unaware of their sweet cover of Prince Lincoln and The Royal Rasses' soulful roots reggae cut "Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be)" with John Legend from their collaborative studio album Wake Up! (which was released in 2010 and features "soulful music from the 60′s and 70′s all with an underlying theme of awareness, engagement and consciousness"--all inspired by the election of President Barak Obama, our nation's first black president, in 2008). And this beautiful song contains some wonderful and still highly relevant lyrics: "Life is gettin’ harder and harder/More and more each day, yeah/Still, I am determined that I'm never gonna change my way/Thinking about love the way it should be/You gotta open your eyes and you will see/About love the way it should be/You gotta make up your minds and you’ll advance humanity." (I have to admit that I can imagine the president thinking these very thoughts as he tries to deal with all of the people in our government and our nation opposed to his every move--not because of his policies--but because of the color of his skin.)

Props to the Ska Boots designer who altered the Peter Tosh-based Walt Jabsco to look like Questlove on the Side A of the faux 2 Tone paper label and John Legend on the B side. It's a very nice touch on a very cool--and very socially aware--release.