Friday, October 31, 2014

Update: Tracklisting for Rhoda Dakar's Bodysnatchers Album!

While we recently learned who joined Rhoda Dakar in the studio recently for her PledgeMusic project to record (mostly) unreleased Bodysnatchers songs (members of The Specials, Pama Int'l, and Intensified), we now know which songs they recorded:

"Easy Life"
"The Ghost of the Vox Continental"
"Happy Time Tune"
"Private Eye"
"Too Experienced"
"The Loser"
"Mixed Feelings"
"Let’s Do Rock Steady"

And since the project has been "overfunded" at 156%, an additional digital download-only track will be recorded and made available only to pledgers.

Obviously, a few of these tracks were recorded by The Bodysnatchers and released as singles on 2 Tone ("Easy Life," "Let Do Rock Steady," and "Too Experienced") and "Hiawatha" was released as The Belle Stars' debut single (though it was a Bodysnatchers original). The rest you only may be familiar with if you were in the right place and time to catch The Bodysnatchers when they were in action on stage (sadly, I was not--so these are mostly new to me!).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Members of The Specials, Pama Int'l, and Intensified Join Rhoda Dakar In the Studio to Record Unreleased Bodysnatchers Songs!

If you're looking for another reason to support Rhoda Dakar's PledgeMusic project to record The Bodysnatchers' unreleased 2 Tone-era material (in celebration of that band's 35th anniversary), she announced last week that the recording had begun and revealed which musicians were with her in the studio:

Drums: Mark Claydon (The Get Up)
Bass: Horace Panter (The Specials)
Keys: Sean Flowerdew (Pama Int'l, Phoenix City All-stars)
Guitar: Lenny Bignell (The Sidewalk Doctors, Phoenix City All-stars)
Guitar: Lynval Golding (The Specials)
Sax: Karl Wirrmann (Intensified)

Obviously, this is an incredible band backing Ms. Dakar on this project--and the presence of two of The Specials should make this of even greater interest to ska fans!

If you're interested, there is still time to support Rhoda Dakar's PledgeMusic project (I've already put up the cash for a CD and a limited edition, hand-numbered LP, since I have a romantic attachment to vinyl!). It's your chance to get your hands on what arguably could be considered a "lost" 2 Tone album--music from The Bodysnatchers' set that was never committed to tape...

Read a recent and fantastic Fred Perry Subculture interview with Ms. Dakar here.

And listen to an October 8th interview with Ms. Dakar on CKUT's Roots Rock Rebel show (that refers to an earlier Duff Guide to Ska post on this PledgeMusic project!) here.

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On a related note, while I was putting together a post on the (30th anniversary) reissue of The Special AKA's In the Studio album on heavyweight vinyl, it reminded me of how essential Rhoda Dakar's singing was to the extraordinary sound and brilliance of that album (plus, she co-wrote the sublime "Nelson Mandela")...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

John Holt, RIP

The great reggae singer John Holt, who first rose to fame with The Paragons, passed away in London on October 19, 2014 at age 67. The cause of death has not yet been released. Read Holt's obituary in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and the BBC News.

We extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends.

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Like many people, I first heard Holt's music via Blondie's cover of "The Tide Is High" (which was featured on their Autoamerican album, released in 1980--and was a number one single on the Billboard Hot 100, selling over 1 million copies in the USA). After I discovered ska via 2 Tone in the early 80s and began to learn more about the Jamaican originators, I discovered The Paragons and came across some of Holt's solo work on various rocksteady and reggae compilations (I think the first solo Holt song I heard was his amazing cover of the somewhat cheesy "Mr. Bojangles" on the bizarrely sequenced The Trojan Story!). But my two favorite Holt songs--which are possibly some of the greatest rocksteady/reggae cuts ever written and recorded--are "Ali Baba" (from 1969 and produced by Duke Reid) and "Strange Things" (from 1971 and produced by Phil Pratt), both of which sound completely otherworldly--and are out of this world. The man and his wonderfully smooth, rich, and expressive tenor voice will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Last Reissue: The Special AKA's "In the Studio" Heavyweight Vinyl LP

Heavyweight vinyl LP

It appears that Rhino's and Parlophone's campaign to reissue all of The Specials' albums on heavyweight, 180 gram vinyl will soon be complete with the upcoming release of The Special AKA's remastered In the Studio album on October 27, 2014 in the UK and on November 17, 2014 in the USA. While used copies of this original LP are fairly easy to find, this will be the first time this record will be back in print since 1984.

According to Paul Williams' "You're Wondering Now: The Specials from Conception to Reunion," The Special AKA's In the Studio took two, very difficult years (during which Jerry Dammers nearly lost his sanity and nearly took John Bradbury, Rhoda Dakar, John Shipley, Gary McManus, Stan Campbell, Dick Cuthell, and Rico Rodriguez with him!) and almost half a million pounds to record, which swallowed up the budgets of the three additional albums that the band were contractually obligated to deliver afterwards. (The This Are Two Tone compilation was released in 1983 by Chrysalis in an attempt to recoup at least some of the money that was hemorrhaging in The Special AKA's never-ending recording sessions). Upon its release, In the Studio generated great reviews, but wasn't the hit Chrysalis or the band needed it to be (it only climbed to #51 on the UK charts)--though "Nelson Mandela" made it up to #9 on the UK singles chart and became a worldwide anti-apartheid anthem.

Back in 1984 when I was still in high school, I picked up In the Studio after hearing the incredible "Nelson Mandela" on WLIR, the awesome new wave/modern rock radio station on Long Island that broadcast to the New York City area. Even though it wasn't a ska album (by then I was used to my former 2 Tone heroes moving far beyond ska; Madness and The Beat had already led the way) and "Nelson Mandela" wasn't representative of anything else on the record, I completely loved it. In the Studio was a compelling, sophisticated, and meticulously crafted mix of no wave jazz, reggae, and soul that grew on you and didn't sound like anything else that was unleashed on the UK pop charts in 1984 (i.e., Wham, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, etc.). The album was claustrophobic (see "Night on the Tiles" and the jab at "Housebound" agoraphobic Terry Hall), full of righteous outrage (see "War Crimes," which was about Israel's invasion of Lebanon), brutally uncompromising in its principles (see "Racist Friend," which urged you to completely disassociate yourself from anyone, friend or family, who held racist views), and yielded what may be the catchiest protest song ever written and recorded, the euphoric hit "Nelson Mandela" (pleading for the release of the ANC leader who had been jailed by the apartheid South African government for decades)--the one moment of pure joy on record that often found the world to be a terribly and disappointingly ugly, petty, predatory, and unjust place (see "Alcohol," "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend," "Bright Lights," "Lonely Crowd," and "Break Down the Door").

In the Studio wasn't the hit pop album that the Chrysalis execs pined for (while facing down all of that red ink on their spreadsheets) or the ska album that Specials fans were expecting following the brilliant Ghost Town EP (though their hopes would have long been dashed by the string of decidedly non-ska singles from this album that preceded In the Studio's release). The Special AKA--defiantly led by Jerry Dammers--stubbornly refused to give the people what they wanted, but delivered what they thought they needed to help them navigate increasingly desperate times. Thirty years on, In the Studio sounds as strikingly unique and innovative as it did in 1984--every song is stellar--and its lyrics still contain their sting and relevance. The music and its messages endure. I only wish that The Special AKA could have found a way forward. I suspect that there was much more musical brilliance to come.

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Here's a live performance of "Nelson Mandela" by The Special AKA (but without Stan Campbell, who had left the band by then) with Elvis Costello, Ranking Roger, and Dave Wakeling that was taped for The Tube in 1984.

And here's the fantastic (and hilarious) video for "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend"...

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Duff Review: Radio Riddler "Purple Reggae"

Mita Records
CD/digital download

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As someone who loves all things new wave and who's a member of a band doing ska/reggae covers of new wave/post punk hits, my antennae shot up when I first heard about Radio Riddler's Purple Reggae project, a song-by-song reggae take on Prince and The Revolution's Purple Rain. Back when this record and film were released in the summer of 1984 (following the massive success of 1999--so much so that my dad even used my purple 1999 t-shirt with the title song's lyrics on the back for a cringe-inducing sermon he gave one youth Sunday at our church), Purple Rain was one of those near-perfect albums (take a look at the track list), where almost every song on both sides of the record was stellar. And the songs touched on enough musical genres to have extraordinarily wide appeal--they attracted fans of new wave, classic rock, pop, funk, rhythm and blues, and more.

It was inescapable, too. Cuts from Purple Rain were all over radio and MTV--and deservedly so. If you were a teenage consumer of music at the time, Purple Rain had a profound impact. Years on, the album has become a touchstone of your youth and the songs evoke all sorts of sharp memories. You know where you were, what you were doing, and who you were doing it with. I'll always remember how the girls in my circle of friends were all out crazy for Prince--they dug his music, his intense and charismatic performances, and his overt sexuality that was tempered by all the theatricality and androgyny. My girlfriend at the time was the one who scored us tickets to see Prince and The Revolution at Madison Square Garden and it was a pretty great show, even if we were in the last row in the nosebleed seats and could only see Prince through a pair of binoculars.

For the past several years, Radio Riddler--Brian Fast Leiser and Frank Benbini of Fun Lovin' Criminals--have been creating reggae and dub mixes of songs by many of their favorite artists (such as Marvin Gaye). This has led them to take on a reported five-year project in celebration of Purple Rain. (I wonder how Prince feels about Radio Riddler's logo, which appropriates Warner Brothers' logo. He had an ugly and long-running battle with WB, which was just recently resolved...) Timed to celebrate the 30th anniversary (!) of the release of Purple Rain, Radio Riddler's Purple Reggae, featuring guest vocals by Suggs (Madness), Sinead O'Connor, Ali Campbell (ex-UB40), Citizen Cope, Deborah Bonham (sister of the Led Zeppelin drummer), and Beverley Knight (a hugely popular soul/r and b singer in the UK, who has an MBE in recognition of all of her charity work), is an ambitious, ingenious, and throughly enjoyable tribute this classic album.

The most successful realization of this effort may be Radio Riddler's incredible version of "Let's Go Crazy" with Suggs on vocals--his relaxed, assured, and upbeat delivery is the perfect counterpoint to the amped up music and propulsive riddim he's riding. It's always been my favorite track on Purple Rain (I've always thought of it as a "1999, Part II" with its "enjoy yourself, it's later than you think" attitude about our mortality, coupled with the subliminal Cold War-era dread of living with the pretty high possibility of nuclear war--the air raid siren at the beginning and end of Radio Riddler's mix reinforces what was then a very real threat, as does the Pac Man-like "game over" sound effect when the track fades out...). This version uses many of the same elements of the original--Prince's unique, processed electronic drum sound, which is used throughout this album, and the song's emphasis on the repeated organ line--but everything's been revamped with a bouncy and extremely catchy reggae skank and it works exceedingly well. (I'd almost recommend you buy this album on this track alone, but that would give short-shrift to all the amazing songs that follow...)

"Take Me With U" moves into loping reggae/soul territory with Deborah Bonham's impassioned singing (it's no longer a duet, as it was between Prince and Apollonia) and this arrangement sheds some of the original's tightly-wound urgency, but in turn adds more emotional depth and impact. In contrast, "The Beautiful Ones'" tempo is sped up here, giving Prince's mostly breezy, delicate ballad (with Benbini singing falsetto) a bit of worried urgency over whether she'll choose the other guy over The Kid that the source lacks (until the end, of course, when Prince freaks out). Radio Riddler manage to translate the electro-funk of "Computer Blue" into a great horn-driven ska track (with a killer reggae break in the middle, featuring trombone and melodica). Back in the day, I remember thinking that "Darling Nikki" was a ridiculously indulgent (and kind of embarrassing) track (and it still is), marring Prince's otherwise extraordinary album. At least Radio Riddler's cooly seductive dancehall-ish version--with Benbini at the mic--is a much more pleasant/less skanky experience.

While Prince and The Revolution's mega-hit "When Doves Cry" is a spare drums/keyboard track with no bass line (that endows it with a tension and claustrophobic feeling that reflects the pain and desperate sorrow in the lyrics--as well as a distinctive sound that was unlike anything on the radio at the time), Radio Riddler sneak the bass back in under the bubbling keys (after all, how can you have reggae without the bass?!). And their inventive arrangement (it opens with a marimba and accordion covering the keyboard riff from the original) along with Citizen Cope's wounded singing are completely stellar. Given Sinead O'Connor's past association with Prince (she had an enormous hit in 1990 with the Prince composition "Nothing Compares 2 U") and her well-known love of reggae (in 2005, she recorded the superb Throw Down Your Arms, where she covered roots reggae cuts by Burning Spear, Junior Byles, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Lee Perry, The Abyssinians, and others, backed by Sly and Robbie), it's brilliant that Radio Riddler were able to feature her on this recording. It's even more fantastic that O'Connor sings "I Would Die 4 U" (where Prince, um, strives to be like/assumes the qualities of the son of God and pledges to sacrifice himself in order to redeem his lover), given her deep religious beliefs and that fact that she's an ordained priest in the Catholic Latin Tridentine Church. She serves up a restrained, but very moving performance, as if she's already carrying the sins of the world on her shoulders and knows what will have to be done to save us.

The slow, but strutting funky-reggae arrangement of "Baby, I'm a Star" provides Beverly Knight the space to show off her gorgeous voice and considerable talent--and so effectively convey the mighty swagger of the lyrics that she gives Prince a run for his money. She owns this. Purple Reggae is capped off by an awesomely melancholic, but defiantly joyful rendition of "Purple Rain" sung by the unmistakable Ali Campbell. If you played this track for someone who didn't know what it was, they'd swear it was a long-lost UB40 cut from the 80s, when they were in their prime.

Radio Riddler's Purple Reggae is a superb (and fun!) re-imagining of this classic record, one that is faithful to the spirit and sound of the original, while successfully transforming these songs into dynamic, new reggae cuts. If you're a fan of reggae and of Prince, Purple Reggae is a must!

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Duff Review: The Bluebeaters "Toxic (One Drop Version)" b/w "Catch That Teardrop"

Record Kicks
7" vinyl single
(Available through Jump Up in the USA)

While I can honestly say I hadn't knowingly heard any version of Britney Spears' 2003 hit "Toxic" until dropping the needle on The Bluebeaters' 7" single containing their wickedly fierce cover of it, I've got to admit that the original is a truly great pop song--I've just watched the borderline NSFW "Toxic" video for the first time tonight...and now feel dirty! (My only excuse for being this out of touch was that 2003 was a particularly tough and weird year for me.) A well-constructed, catchy pop song should lend itself to being interpreted--and still sound great--in whatever musical genre you like (apparently "Toxic" has been covered by many bands of various musical stripes--including Hard-Fi, who mash it up nicely with The Clash's version of Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac") and The Bluebeaters' vintage ska stomp of "Toxic" is nothing short of stellar.

The flip side, "Catch That Teardrop"--and I only know this from reading about it on Record Kick's site--is a Northern Soul track, originally recorded in 1962 by The Five Royales from Winston-Salem, NC. And The Bluebeaters deliver another fantastic Skatalites-like cover with it (and certainly know how to pick great original tunes to play, both famous and obscure).

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Here are the lyrics to the chorus of "Toxic" that you'll find yourself singing days from now (get your falsetto in shape!)...

"With a taste of your lips
I’m on a ride
You're toxic, I'm slipping under
With a taste of a poison paradise
I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
And I love what you do
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?"

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Life's Little Victories: Record Collecting Edition #4

Editor's note: Forgive me, but this post is a little heavy on nostalgia and my own personal history. Read ahead at your own risk...

I have to admit that every once in a while, when I first slide out a newly purchased used record from its sleeve, I secretly hope that the record's previous owner accidentally left some weird and wonderful surprise in it--like clippings of reviews of the album or some band-related memorabilia--in addition to the original lyric sheet (which is always appreciated). In the past year or so, I've bought used LPs that contained someone's typed (on a typewriter!) and annotated lyrics for The Equators' Hot, as well as the free single that came along with the first pressing of XTC's Drums and Wires that was now in my hands.

Last week, I picked up a somewhat tattered, cut-out copy of The Untouchables' Agent Double OO Soul LP. I had bought the CD at Tower Records when the album was originally released in 1988, but never purchased the LP (I was in college, didn't have much extra money, and CDs were the special new format!). When I got around to playing the album the other day, not only did I find the vinyl to be in mint condition, but the sleeve also contained an Agent Double OO Soul comic book (which includes the songs' lyrics) and the very same promo poster that I had ordered back in 1988, which I eventually hung framed on the wall of the Moon Records store on East 10th Street (see it in the photo below). At some point in the mid-2000s, the poster was ruined--along with many other ska posters and t-shirts I had collected over the years--in a massive flood in my parents' basement. Water seeped into many of my Rubbermaid storage bins that I had been keeping there. By the time I realized what had happened a month or two later, everything was damp, rank, and moldy. I was forced to throw out bag after bag of ska history. So, I was thrilled to have another copy come into my hands all these years later.

My favorite musician Laurel Aitken at the Moon store on 10th Street
with The Untouchables poster on the wall in the background.
Coming across this record reminded me that I had written a review of Agent Double OO Soul for my Fordham University, College at Lincoln Center newspaper that was paired with my write-up for Moon Records' Ska Face: An All American Ska Compilation (see a screen grab of both reviews below from the 2/22/89 edition of the CLC Observer; you can also find my review of the NY Citizens' On the Move in the 3/23/89 issue). Even though there weren't that many ska fans at my college, The Untouchables were a familiar name to many, as they opened for UB40 at a concert at Fordham's Bronx campus in the fall of 1985 (unfortunately, I did my freshman fall semester at a college out in Ohio before transferring to Fordham in winter of 1986, so I missed this performance).

While my review of Agent Double 00 Soul might have been a bit overly positive and enthusiastic, it certainly wasn't the bomb that many deemed it to be. Like Fishbone's extraordinary Truth and Soul (which was released around the same time), Agent Double 00 Soul is poorly sequenced, burying all of the ska and reggae tracks on side two, many of which happen to be the strongest songs on the album (see "World Gone Crazy," "Cold City," "Shama Lama," "Cool Boy," "Education," and "Sudden Attack"). But, all in all, on Agent Double 00 Soul, The Untouchables had strayed too far from their brilliant and perfectly calibrated balance of Wild Child ska, soul, and r and b.

The UT's comic book!
When what may have been the last NYC Untouchables' date was announced for late April of 1989 at Joey Ramone's basement Downtown club (at the corner of Bond and Broadway), my friend and fellow ska fan Andy was reluctant to see the show, since he'd heard bad things about the record from some of his other friends. But once we were there, he was all in, as The Untouchables unleashed one of most brilliant and energetic live performances I've ever seen (Black Rock Coaltion funk-metal rockers 24-7 Spyz were also on the bill and were extraordinarily good). Much of the set was comprised of cuts from Wild Child, as well as the better ska/reggae songs off Agent OO Soul, but even some of their shakier tracks from Soul sounded pretty awesome in their live versions.

Walking in the rain back up Broadway toward Union Square after the gig (we were already soaked from dancing to the UTs), Andy and I passed a construction site across the street from The Cat Club (where Moon Records' NYC Ska Live would be recorded about a year later) that had a huge, many-layered section of wheat-pasted gig posters that was starting to separate from the plywood wall in the downpour. The Untouchables' poster for their Downtown gig was on the top layer, so we liberated what must of been a three feet wide by eight feet tall section of them (with countless other posters beneath them) and somehow got it back the apartment I shared with four other Fordham students up at 125th and Broadway (where my tiny bedroom was at eye level with the elevated number 1 subway train). This giant, sagging strip of posters was propped up against one wall in my room for the rest of the semester, but ended up in the garbage when our lease was up that summer. I was moving into my first post-college apartment with a bunch of friends and my girlfriend (now wife) and this large, dirty, and unwieldy bit of music ephemera had to go; we just didn't have the space.

My Untouchables shirt that I bought at their gig at Downtown in Manhattan on 4/29/89.