Friday, December 26, 2014

Duff Review: "Rhoda Dakar Sings The Bodysnatchers"

Pledge Music
CD/LP/digital download
(The CD is also available to purchase through the London International Ska Festival website.)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Of all the 2 Tone-era bands, The Bodysnatchers (2 Tone's only all-female act--and the only women in the late 70s UK ska scene apart from Pauline Black) were the ones who were criminally under-documented on vinyl during their relatively brief--but brilliant--existence, from late 1979 to 1981. Apart from two fantastic singles (a cover of Dandy Livingstone's "Let's Do Rocksteady" b/w "Ruder Than You," co-written by The Bodysnatchers and the band's friend Gaz Mayall in 1980; and the band's "Easy Life" b/w a cover of Bob Andy's "Too Experienced," also released in 1980) and an amazing live version of "Easy Life" included on the Dance Craze soundtrack (1981), The Bodysnatchers weren't able to keep it together long enough to record their debut album before fragmenting over how to move forward. One faction of The Bodysnatchers wanted to go pop (the majority of the band): Sarah Jane Owen, Stella Barker, Penny Leyton, and Miranda Joyce formed The Belle Stars, releasing a pop version of The Bodysnatchers' original "Hiawatha" as their first single (later, they had a massive hit with their cover of The Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko"--the song was originally written by James "Sugar Boy Crawford"--when it was featured on the 1988 "Rain Man" film soundtrack); after The Belle Stars' demise, Owen and Layton then joined The Deltones, another amazing all female UK ska act, in 1984. The remainder of The Bodysnatchers wanted to be more political--Ms. Dakar and Nicky Summers went on to work with The Special AKA, releasing the first Bodysnatcher song the band ever wrote, "The Boiler" (an extremely disturbing story of date rape, only meant to be listened to once, according to Jerry Dammers); Dakar then joined The Special AKA, singing and co-writing songs on their sole studio album (read my thoughts on that record here).

After two long, challenging, and apparently very unpleasant years recording The Special AKA's extraordinary In the Studio (in a recent interview with Reggae Steady Ska, Ms. Dakar stated that she's never listened to the finished album), Ms. Dakar took a long break from the ska scene (though she did occasionally sing and record in the 80s and 90s with non-ska acts like Happy House, Palm Skin Productions, Dr. Robert of the Blow Monkeys, and Apollo 440). However, according to Paul Williams' book "You're Wondering Now: The Specials from Conception to Reunion," in 2002 Jennie Matthias (Belle Stars/Big 5) contacted Dakar to see if she was interested in touring with her and Pauline Black of The Selecter as part of a "Ska Divas" supergroup, performing Bodysnatchers, Selecter, and Belle Stars songs--all backed by a band that included Nick Welsh (who, at the time, was the songwriter and bassist of that iteration of The Selecter, and had been a member of Bad Manners, as well as the man behind King Hammond).

These shows rekindled Dakar's love of ska music and later led to a series of fruitful collaborations between her and Welsh (that apparently had been initiated at the suggestion of Ms. Black). In 2006, Welsh left The Selecter and formed Skaville UK--and arranged for Dakar to sing vocals on several tracks on each of that act's two albums (1973 in 2006 and Decadent! in 2008) and she performed gigs with them, as well. Welsh also co-wrote several songs and played all of the instruments on Dakar's 2007 solo record, Cleaning in Another Woman's Kitchenand the two released the more rock-oriented Back to the Garage in 2009. Dakar also was a featured guest vocalist on Madness' "On the Town," from their stunningly good 2009 album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate (read my thoughts on that record here).

After having been approached by a seemingly never-ending stream of Bodysnatchers and 2 Tone fans over the span of several decades about the possibility of her releasing an album of unrecorded Bodysnatchers' tunes (a full-on reunion was never in the cards; the split in 1981 wasn't amicable)--coupled with the 35th anniversary of the band's formation and an opportunity to perform Bodysnatchers' songs on Halloween at the Jazz Cafe in Camden--led Dakar to get in touch with Sean Flowerdew (Pama Intl/Phoenix City All-stars/London International Ska Festival) to see if he thought it was feasible to put together some sort of recording. Of course, he did--and with Dakar's suggestion that they crowd fund the album through PledgeMusic (full disclosure: I financially supported this project in exchange for a CD and LP!), they assembled an all-star ska backing band (featuring two Specials, Lynval Golding on guitar and Horace Panter on bass; Sean Flowerdew on keys and co-producing; Mark Claydon of The Get Up on drums; Lenny Bignell of the Sidewalk Doctors and Phoenix City All-stars on guitar and co-producing; and Karl Wirrmann from Intensified on sax) and recorded 10 tracks live in the studio in one day (including five original and unrecorded Bodysnatchers songs).

While some DGTS readers of a certain age may have been fortunate enough to have seen The Bodysnatchers perform many of these tracks live, this record will be the very first opportunity for many a 2 Tone/Bodysnatchers fan to experience much of this music (it was mine!) and they won't be disappointed, as the songs and performances are nothing short of stellar (Ms. Dakar is in extremely fine form)!

[Some may grouse about the inclusion of the three previously recorded cuts here, plus another cover that was captured in Dance Craze--"Easy Life," Too Experienced," "Let's Do Rocksteady," and Desmond Dekker's "007"--but they likely would have appeared on The Bodysnatchers album, had that come to pass back in 1981. The versions here compare very favorably with the original arrangements (these aren't radical updates--they're true to The Bodysnatchers' 2 Tone sound--and they're terrific) and they deserve inclusion on Rhoda Dakar Sings The Bodysnatchers, since they are the band's signature tunes.]

Much like The Slits' "Typical Girls" (and keeping with 2 Tone's mission to address social, political, and economic injustice within undeniably catchy songs that make one want to dance), The Bodysnatchers' "Easy Life"--the first track on Rhoda Dakar Sings The Bodysnatchers and certainly one of the band's finest moments--challenged 1970 British society's prevailing and very much entrenched attitude regarding the role of women (something we're still grappling with today) and acknowledged how difficult it was/is to defy these imposed expectations and fight for real equality--particularly for young women just reaching adulthood. It was also revolutionary in that they were women singing ska songs--in a scene dominated by young men--from a woman's point of view:

"I've been waiting so long
For this here time to come
I've been waiting ever so long
For this here time to come
But now it's here, do I want it?
Now it's here, I'm not sure if I want it
Why don't I plump for the easy option?
Yes, I could go for the easy option

It could be so easy
Life could be so easy
It could be so easy
Life could be so easy

We are near to our equality
Girls and boys with pay parity
We are near to our equality
The law says there is equal opportunity
But still it's a struggle
Yes, life is still a struggle
I could stay home and play houses
Care for my man and press his trousers

It could be so easy...

Hey girls, it's not too late
To stay home and vegetate
Just like mamma says you should do
Life society says you should do
Is this our natural fate?
I wasn't born to procreate
If I didn't have to use my brain
I know that I would go insane
I refuse, I want to say no
I don't care if it's hard, if it's slow

It could be so easy..."

(One much appreciated bonus to picking up this CD is that it contains song lyrics in the insert; before it arrived, I had been listening to the digital download tracks over and over in my attempt to discern the lyrics to the previously unreleased tracks! Note to bands: Please take the time, effort, and expense to print/post your lyrics somewhere so that fans can easily discern your songs' messages...)

"The Ghost of the Vox Continental" (the Vox Continental is a transistor-based combo organ that was used by Jerry Dammers and Madness' Mike Barson, amongst many other 2 Tone and new wave musicians) is an amusing ghost story about a keyboardist who is crushed by his organ during a load-in, but, even in death, is so devoted to the band that he continues to perform at gigs ("The ghostly keyboard player/Returned to haunt the band/The untouched keyboard moved to/The touch of a ghostly hand...They tried hard for a replacement/But no one stayed for very long/No need for them to learn the set/Vox Continental knew each song"). Of course, the song features a very prominent organ line that has slight echoes of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" (which has been associated with horror movies since its use in films like "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in 1931 and the 1962 Hammer Production of "The Phantom of the Opera"; many ska fans will recognize that The Toasters used its opening measures as the introduction to "Frankenska," on their 1988 Thrill Me Up album).

The carousel-like organ line that opens "Happy Time Tune" belies the suffering and want contained within its lyrics. While enduring the cold and wet London morning, Ms. Dakar recalls a seemingly idyllic family holiday to visit relatives in Jamaica ("We played cricket on the soft grass/Picked Julie mango from the trees"). But these pleasant memories are tempered by the grinding poverty in Jamaica and the song suggests that one should always be aware and appreciate that some people don't have it as good as you do and will never have the chance to go on holiday from the day-to-day lives: "There is another side to Jamaica/Far away from your Orange Street/Where poor people live in iron shacks/No work, no shoes on them feet/For them, there is no happy time/For them, no sun a shine/For them, no bird a sing/You should know everything."

The brilliantly evocative and cinematic "Private Eye"--think Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in "The Big Sleep"--so deftly captures the essence and spirit of film noir. For portions of the song, Ms. Dakar is a femme fatale ("Said he liked my bleach job, used to be a brunette/I looked at him sideways, he lit my cigarette") who has a history with Marlowe ("He saved my life a few years back/Some crazy meathead was on my track"). One of the great things about this song is how its point of view shifts--at first, Ms. Dakar is the omniscient narrator describing Marlowe on a stakeout on Sunset Boulevard in LA ("Check the drugstore across the street/Saw his suspect come out to meet/Tall man in black, fedora hat/Hailed a cab/That was that"), then she's the femme fatale, followed by the aforementioned, stalking "meathead" encountering the PI ("Marlowe smashed through the door/Stuck a Lugar in my face!"), and finally she's Marlowe, with his lament about his destiny to live on the seamier side of life, but how his profession (and ingrained moral code) keeps him from succumbing to the plethora of sin around him.

"I don't know why I'm a PI, it just doesn't make sense
Every day's a parking lot, the crowd of losers is dense
Wheeling with wasters, dealing with drunks
Whiskey for breakfast, coffee for lunch
High-class fluff, low-class hotels
Drugstore cowboys, nights spent in cells
Got no family, I got no home
All my romance takes place on the phone
Don't work too much, it don't really matter
If I didn't exist like this
I'd be with the rest, in the gutter"

The immensely catchy "The Loser" finds the singer giving dating and sartorial advice to an uncool guy whose approach toward women is painfully wrong. He heeds all of it and transforms himself into a popular ladies' man. To the dismay of the singer, she finds herself falling for him, too, even though she knows his front is more of a put-on than real:

"Time when by and I noticed the change
Acting still, but the role was new
You tried less, achieved and enigmatic pose
Taken in, girls surrounded you
Suddenly, when next we met
I realized I'd fallen for this drip
On each arm clung adoring girls
"By the way, thank you for the tip""

The take-away of the incredible, but sorrowful, rocksteady-ish "Mixed Feelings" is that one shouldn't settle for relationships that are conflicted, compromised, or fake: "So many people spend their days/Wondering if they like or hate/Too many people waste their time/Telling, telling the truth and wish they were lying/They are laughing, but crying/Just crying inside/Knowing their heart was broken..."

Apart from the strange notion that had the native peoples of North America only shared their lands with the white European invaders and not fought "with national pride," they wouldn't have been almost completely wiped out, "Hiawatha" is a welcome plea for rejecting nationalism and embracing multiculturalism (two prominent issues that England was beginning to grapple with in the late 70s/early 80s), as well as keeping in mind that we're all descended from common ancestors, if you go back far enough: "Integration, social changes/Different customs, faces/Stops us from getting in a rut." (It should be noted that in the Belle Stars' music video for "Hiawatha," the awful "native" costume touches and set--with totem poles!--trade on stereotypes and almost negate the positive message of the song!)

Rhoda Dakar Sings The Bodysnatchers is The Duff Guide to Ska's pick for album of the year. It's a superb album in its own right and an incredibly momentous development for the global ska scene--a "lost" 2 Tone record has been recovered, finally rendering the 2 Tone label discography complete. Get Rhoda Dakar Sings The Bodysnatchers now!


Jon said...

Small correction, "Too Experienced" was originally written (and performed by) the late, great Bob Andy.

adi said...

an enjoyable read thanks

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Jon and Adi!

Yes, I will make that correction regarding the composer of "Too Experienced!"