Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Duff Review: "007 Licensed to Ska: James Bond and Other Film Soundtracks and TV Themes"

The cover features the title of the album within a stylized barrel of a gun (used in all of the Bond films); Don Drummond is featured in an inset photo playing the trombone.Soul Jazz Records
5 x vinyl single box set

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While it was common practice for the original 1960s instrumental ska bands to cover popular songs and movie themes of the day, the James Bond connection to the Jamaican music scene was firmly cemented in 1962 during the filming of the first Bond film Dr. No, which was set on the island (as were Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun). Of course, Bond author Ian Fleming lived in Jamaica on an estate called Goldeneye, and he was the one who recommended future Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell to Dr. No's producers as a location scout and production assistant (the Blackwells were neighbors of Fleming, and unbeknownst to her son, Blanche Blackwell had a long-term affair with Fleming). Chris Blackwell, in turn, introduced composer Monty Norman, who had been hired to write the Dr. No soundtrack, to the "uptown" and more respectable Byron Lee and the Dragonaires (both guitarist Ernest Ranglin and trombonist Carlos Malcolm were in his band), who recorded the calypso-ish music on the movie soundtrack, and appeared in the film performing "Jump Up" (Blackwell apparently can be spied dancing in this scene, too).

In addition to the fact that the first Bond movie was shot in Jamaica, the stylish, womanizing, and legally transgressive Bond character resonated with many Jamaicans, as he was akin to the rebellious rude boy persona associated with toughs in the sound system scene (and street-level gangsters)--and celebrated/decried in the ska music of the early to mid-1960's (see Stranger Cole's "Rough and Tough," The Wailers' "Simmer Down," "Rude Boy," and "Jailhouse," Alton Ellis' "Dance Crasher" and "Cry Tough," Baba Brooks' "Gun Fever," Desmond Dekker "Rudy's Got Soul" and "007 (Shanty Town)," Derrick Morgan's "Tougher Than Tough" and "Cool Off Rudies," The Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad," The Valentines' "Blam Blam Fever," Prince Buster's "Judge Dread," Lee Perry's "Set Them Free," Dandy Livingstone's "Rudy, A Message to You," and dozens more).

In terms of risk management, since the better songs from movie and TV soundtracks already were well-known and liked, it made financial sense for budget-conscious record producers like Studio One's Coxsone Dodd to try to capitalize on their popularity by recording and releasing cover versions given a ska spin by some of the JA's best musicians (and they didn't have to solely rely on their roster of composers coming up with new material to record that may or may not sell). While most popular music is open to individual interpretation--we are free to associate whatever emotions and personal experiences we want to them (despite the songwriters' intentions)--these highly evocative and dramatic film and TV theme songs are specifically crafted to musically brand the traits of their particular fictional leads and frame their back stories. (To put it crassly, the theme songs are more sophisticated, bigger budget jingles to help sell movies instead of breakfast cereals.) Whenever I hear the opening guitar riff of the Bond theme, I'm thinking about how cool and sadistic Sean Connery is in that role, not what I was doing or how I feeling when I first heard it (and I don't even remember when or where I first heard it)--though listening to it always makes me feel cool and deadly like Bond. Within a matter of a few minutes, these theme songs aim to elicit specific moods and memories from listeners, calibrate their expectations for what this show or movie will deliver, and set the stage for all that is to transpire once the action starts. So, in this manner, popular theme songs often create uniform reactions (in terms of emotions and memories) across large groups of people that can be used and borrowed by others via cover versions.

For Record Store Day 2020, Soul Jazz Records collected many these now hard to find and pricey James Bond-related Studio One recordings (plus three others--hence the ridiculously long title of this release) in the superb and instantly collectable 007 Licensed to Ska: James Bond and Other Film Soundtracks and TV Themes 7" singles box set. Almost all of them feature Studio One's ace house band The Soul Brothers--Jackie Mittoo, Roland Alphonso, Johnny Moore and Lloyd Brevitt--who formed right after the dissolution of The Skatalites in the summer of 1965, and were joined by a rotating group of top JA musicians, including Bobby Ellis, Bryan Atkinson, Bunny Williams, Dennis "Ska" Campbell, Harold McKenzie, Harry Haughton, Jah Jerry Haynes, Joe Isaacs, Karl Bryan, Lester Sterling, Lloyd Knibbs, Lynn Taitt, Sam Wells, Vin Gordon, and Wallin Cameron. Dodd, naturally, was at the controls, producing all of these sessions. Notably none of these tracks are straight covers. They've been interpreted through a Jamaican ska-jazz lens by gifted musicians, who have utilized the widespread recognition and appeal of these movie and TV show themes, but transformed them into something new that they own--transmuting commerce back into art.

007 Licensed to Ska kicks off with The Soul Brothers' "James Bond Girl" (1966), a great minor-key Roland Alphonso original that captures the frisson in the sexual allure and possible menace the woman in this role presents to 007 during each mission, and nicely incorporates the John Barry/Monty Norman Bond theme in its intro and outro. It's paired with Roland Alphonso and The Studio One Orchestra's excellent ska-jazz take on "From Russia With Love" (1965) by John Barry and Lionel Bart (Alphonso has a sweet solo here).

Record two features a beautiful Jamaican jazz read of the instrumental version of John Barry's "Thunderball" by The Soul Brothers (the Keyboard King solos), which is backed with Mittoo's awesome 1969 keyboard-heavy reggae funk cover of Dominic Frontiere's "Hang Em High"--from the spaghetti Western-like revenge film of the same name (the track is clearly an homage to Ennio Morricone)--which appeared on Mittoo's Keep on Dancing LP.

"Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (1967)--Bond summed up in a nutshell--by John Barry and Leslie Bricuss is another instrumental cut from the Thunderball soundtrack (though there is a version with lyrics sung by Shirley Bassey). The Soul Brothers drain the schmaltz to reveal the cracking melodies hidden within that made for a perfect Skatalites-like ska track. The dark and wonderful "007" by The Soul Brothers is credited to Alphonso/Dodd/Mittoo, though some of its horn melodies may share some notes with Barry's "007," also from the Thunderball OST, but the song thoroughly sounds like it's theirs.

Lee Perry and The Wailers' terrific "Pussy Galore," a 1965 Dodd/Perry original, is a fairly conventional ska song with Perry's weirdness lurking beneath the surface, just itching to be released. Scratch warns the listener, "If you are rich and wanna get poor/Just fall in love with Pussy Galore" (the character, apparently based on Blanche Blackwell (!), appears in Goldfinger and is played by Honor Blackman, who was in the TV show The Avengers as Dr. Cathy Gale before Diana Rigg came on as Emma Peel). The Soul Brothers' jaunty "Mr. Flint" (1966) borrows Jerry Goldsmith's theme for the James Bond spoof Our Man Flint.

I never before realized that The Skatalites' incredible 1965 cut "Ball of Fire" (AKA "Echo Four Two") was composed by Laurie Johnson for the short-lived 1961 British police procedural Echo Four Two (Johnson famously wrote the theme to the TV show The Avengers). To this day, it stands as one of The Skatalites' best recorded performances. The set is rounded out with a rare lounge-y interpretation of Barry's "007" instrumental by The Soul Brothers retitled "James Bond Danger Man."

Hopefully, Soul Jazz Records will also release this collection as an LP someday, as something this good should be available to the ska massive, not just those lucky enough to come across this singles box set on Record Store Day. There's the potential for good commerce in making this art available to the masses.

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Monday, September 28, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Top Shotta Band Featuring Screechy Dan, and The Return of Flying Vipers

The cover illustration features a Black couple riding a motorcycle with a cloud of smoke behind them.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  •  A mainstay of the Brooklyn ska and reggae scene, Top Shotta Band (led by ex-Slacker/Murphy's law trumpet man Mush1, and including Slacker Vic Ruggiero and The Far East's Maddie Ruthless) featuring Screechy Dan (Megative, Leon Dinero, Vital Crew, Big Yard, Shaggy Posse) have released their incredible second album Spread Love (LP, Liquidator Music, 2020), which is available in the US directly from the band (direct message them through their FB page) or through one of my fave BK shops, Record City. Striving for--and achieving--a vintage, live ska studio sound like those created by Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster, and Justin Yap (all of whom worked with The Skatalites--they're the act Top Shotta Band channel and honor exceedingly well on this LP), Spread Love is--shocker!--filled with songs about romantic love, and love and respect for your fellow human beings and yourself. "Share My Love" (Screechy Dan's pitch for why he should be her man) and the awesome "Cool and Deadly" ("I'm a champion/I'm nobody you can stomp on/But you can keep your eyes on/A conqueror, that's what I am!") already have been spun off on a Liquidator 45. But there are loads of additional top-shelf tracks, including the encouraging wisdom shared in "No Complaints" ("So, live the life you love/And love the life you live/Don't worry about what could have been/Be thankful for what is"), the head over heels profession of love and devotion in "Coming Over," the rhythmically unusual "Johnny," the cool out son cut "Easy Yourself" ("The more you think you tough/The more you gonna suffer"), the killer dance floor filler "Ska Ska," and the wonderful duet in the anti-bad boy cut "Rude Boy" ("Boys and girls, this is my story/Make sure you have all of Jah glory/And no, don't you be a rude boy, I tell ya"). If traditional ska is your thing, this album is a must.
    The cover illustration features a volcano erupting, while in the foreground snakes slither through a jungle littered with skulls and bones.
  • Since Flying Vipers' incredible debut full-length record Cuttings is soon being released on plum-colored vinyl by Jump Up Records, it's worth revisiting my review of the digital version of this album from back in July:
"After releasing a series of superb cassettes (The Green TapeThe Copper Tape), and physical and digital singles ("Highest Region," "Nervous Breakdub (Pandemic Version)" b/w "PMA Calling") over the past few years, Flying Vipers have finally issued their first long-player Cuttings, which, as one would expect, is crammed with incredibly hooky, dubby roots reggae instrumentals reminiscent of Dennis Bovell's magnificent productions and Perry's recent and awesome collaborations with Adrian Sherwood and Daniel Boyle
Cuttings, of course, refers not only to the leaves that have been harvested from cannabis plants, but these musical fruits of the band's labors in the studio--and they have one bounteous crop here. Highlights include "Leaf Miner," which has a wonderful interplay between a rigid and relentless bass riff and a series of answering free flowing Rhodes piano lines; the prescient, apocalyptic "Two Twenties Clash" (and people thought things were bad back in '77!); the Bunny "Striker" Lee tribute "Flight of the Gorgon" with its majestic, panoramic horns; the bad-ass "Scorpio Son" and its version "Son of Scorpio"; and the supremely confident and untouchable "Puff Adder" (many of the cuts on this album are ripe for being versioned by deejays and singers--and becoming well-known riddims in their own right). 
Flying Vipers are comprised of the devastatingly good rhythm section of Marc and John Beaudette (Destroy BabylonThe Macrotones), the gifted Zack Brines (Pressure Cooker) on keys, and Jay Champany (10 Ft. Ganja Plant) on percussion and the master at the analogue controls (plus ace guests on horns, sax, flute, clarinet, and binghi). 
If you haven't been paying attention to this band, Cuttings is a brilliant introduction to the mighty Flying Vipers; and if you have, you're going to love this album!"
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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Duff Review: Various Artists "2 Tone: The Albums" Box Set

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Released as part of the ongoing 40th anniversary celebration of 2 Tone (which has included a box set of 2 Tone vinyl singles), the eight-CD box set 2 Tone: The Albums captures most of the extraordinary music issued by this label over a short number of years--and soundly reminds one why 2 Tone continues to resonate with old fans and new converts to the present day. This box set is comprised of The Specials' The Specials, The Selecter's Too Much Pressure, The Specials' More Specials, Dance Craze, Rico's That Man Is Forward and Jama Rico, This Are Two Tone, and The Special AKA's In the Studio. I've seen and agree with comments from fans lamenting the exclusion of The Selecter's Celebrate the Bullet--even though they had left the label by the time it was recorded, The Selecter were still on Chrysalis, and Celebrate is unquestionably a 2 Tone record in sound and spirit. I also believe The Specials' phenomenal Live at the Moonlight Club--recorded just a few months before they went into the studio with Elvis Costello--should have been included in this collection, as it actually serves as a better debut album than the studio version, and documents the band at its best in performance.

While the majority of these albums have been previously released on CD over the decades, 2 Tone fans will still be enticed to pick up this set, as this edition of Dance Craze restores the Madness tracks that were excised from previous CD reissues over copyright issues, and for the fact that Rico's magnificent Rico Jama has never before been available on CD outside of Japan (and import, vinyl copies of both of Rico's 2 Tone albums were hard to find in the USA even when they were first released!). Jerry Dammers led the art direction for the packaging, which is sharp and in line with 2 Tone's established retro aesthetics. Each album is housed in a mini-LP sleeve with its original artwork, and the inner sleeves feature the albums' original paper labels and other graphic elements. Dance Craze and This Are Two Tone were remastered for this release (both are also being issued in half-speed master editions for Record Store Day 2020; neither has been repressed on vinyl since the 1980s; Chrysalis--please give Rico's albums the same vinyl reissue treatment!), and the other albums feature new or 2015 remastered versions. And the list price is a very reasonable £35.99 (around $38), though you'll have to find an import copy if you're not in the UK.

Lastly, I'd add that the tremendously good and insightful liner notes by Peter Walsh and Jason Weir of really cap an already fantastic package. Even though I'm fairly knowledgeable about all things 2 Tone, I learned many new details, such as what the "Ultra Stereo" listed on the back cover of More Specials referred to ("instrumental tracks were pushed hard left and right in the stereo field so listeners could listen to two completely different mono albums" by adjusting the balance knobs on their stereo receivers; I tried it while listening to "Man at C and A" and it works!); the fact that the E in More Specials was sometimes deliberately scored in ads or obscured by a what appears to be a hype sticker ("includes the single Stereotype/International Jet Set") on some album covers, so that it ironically read MOR, as in "middle of the road," which the album certainly was not; and that Rico's cut "That Man is Forward" was included in the soundtrack for Barbet Schroeder's great 1987 Charles Bukowski bio pic Barfly with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.

Obviously, 2 Tone: The Albums is the best introduction to these bands that a newbie could ask for. But long-time fans, whose old, well-worn and merely adequately mastered CDs could use updating, should definitely consider springing for this terrific box set.

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Shameless plug: You can find my reviews of reissues of many of these 2 Tone albums, as well as write-ups of all of the 2 Tone bands' more recent records, gigs, books, and movies in my new book, The Duff Guide to 2 Tone, which is available worldwide through Amazon, and Copasetic Mail-order in Germany.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: The Bakesys, No Sports

The cover is a close up of a worn British public phone with the numbers 999 peeling off.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • The Bakesys are back with a new song that was recorded during the sessions for their great More Bakeseys album (for a refresher, here's my review of it from back in 2017). In case there's any question about who "Rich Boy Rude Boy" (digital, Do the Dog Music, 2020) is really about, there's a snippet from a Congressional hearing featuring Donald Trump's former lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen--Question: "Did the president or his company ever inflate his assets or revenue?" Michael Cohen: "Yes." Like its related cuts on More Bakesys, "Rich Boy Rude Boy" mines the latter day Specials sound (found on More Specials and the Ghost Town EP), and is explicitly left-wing protest music--with a socialist message at the end--calling out the despicable, if not outright evil, things many of the rich do to attain and maintain their wealth. Despite its somewhat dour tone, it's an immensely winning, well-done reggae track. And did I mention it's free?
    The cover illustration is of a coat of arms featuring pork pie hats, checkerboards, and Doc Marten boots.
  • Back in the day, if you were lucky to be following the extraordinary late '80s/early '90s UK/European ska scene--most of which was captured for posterity via a string of amazing releases on Unicorn Records (their owner had an impeccable taste in bands, but--fatal flaw here--failed to pay them their royalties!)--you undoubtably loved Germany's No Sports. Massively influenced by The Specials and Selecter, No Sports revved up the beat and supercharged their 2 Tone sound on their stellar 1989 debut album King Ska (recently reissued by Black Butcher Classics/Mad Butcher Records and available in the US via Jump Up)--one of the best records of that era--adding a bit of lyrical (and vocal) zaniness to very relatable, everyday songs about work, rest, and play (I'll write this album up at some point in the near future). No Sports' 1990 follow-up was their stunning Stay Rude, Stay Rebel EP. The fantastic anti-racist/anti-fascist title cut was particularly meaningful at a time in Germany soon after reunification (the Berlin Wall fell in '89), when newly-found patriotism for a unified Germany gave far-right hate groups the cover to actively recruit new legions of goons, and led to attacks on Germans of color and non-white immigrants. (No Sports' peers The Frits' 1991 album Little Idiots is practically a concept album about this era that both mourns for a Germany filled with so much hate and pushes fiercely back against it, with songs like "Searching for Another Place in Town," "The Most I Hate is You," "Little Idiots," and "Bonehead.") No Sports' "Stay Rude, Stay Rebel" is an immensely catchy track that, like other powerful 2 Tone songs written in response to dark times, effortlessly moves both body and mind: "Stay rude against the fascist regimes/Stay rebel against politicians' dreams/Stay rude and fight back against injustice/Stay rebel against racial prejudice." And the chorus--in a very RAR move--is aimed squarely at on-the-fence skinheads: "Stay rebel--stay S.H.A.R.P. [Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice]" (a spoken word bit adds: "Skinheads remember your roots/Think with your brain and not with your fucking boots"). The other great cuts rounding out the EP are the jaunty "Tour de France" (an original, not a Kraftwerk cover) sung in French; the demented "Love Song"; and the magnificent Madness-y pop-ska epic "Girl (Tango)" ("She was not very pretty/She had no class or style/She was just a girl/But she had that love of I"). This reissue of Stay Rude, Stay Rebel is a 7" picture sleeve single (as opposed to the original's 12") and brought to us by Black Butcher Classics/Mad Butcher Records (and also available in the US via Jump Up); props to whomever redesigned the background on the paper label from the original blue unicorn silhouette to the cartoon butcher. (Related reading: I wrote about many of Unicorn's releases for a 1998 issue of The People's Ska Annual.)
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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Prince Fatty and Shniece McMenamin, Joe Yorke and The Eastonian Singers

The cover illustration features Prince Fatty as the Mad Hatter, Shniece as Alice, and the Rabbit.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • Inspired by a request from a TV/film/game music licenser for a reggae take on a '60 Free Love-era tune (that he didn't have at the time), Prince Fatty took up the idea and decided to cover Grace Slick's classic 1967 psychedelic rock cut recorded with Jefferson Airplane "White Rabbit"--but renamed as "Black Rabbit" (7" vinyl picture sleeve single/digital, Evergreen Recordings, 2020). With lyrics drawn from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and music influenced by Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain and Ravel's Bolero, "White Rabbit" was about "following your curiosity" and expanding one's mind through hallucinogenic drugs--as well as calling out the hypocrisy of parents who willingly read their children stories filled with pretty explicit drug use (like Carroll's), but then condemned their kids' drug experimentation as they approached adulthood. (The opening lyric, "One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small," makes me think of the red pill/blue pill sequence in The Matrix.) The minor-key grandiosity of the original lends itself quite well to Prince Fatty's spaghetti Western reggae-like setting, and Shniece McMenamin's superb, commanding vocals are the perfect guide for a vividly surreal trip like this. I'm not much of a fan of the original--which takes itself far too seriously, actually--but Prince Fatty's version goes down quite well. 
    The vinyl single features a paper label with the name of imprint (Happy People), as well as the song title and name of the musical group.
  • On Joe Yorke and The Eastonian Singers' sensational roots reggae single "Judgement Tree" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020), a Revelation Time of sorts has come and punishment has been meted out. Employing the Biblical symbolism of fruit bearing trees as representations of good and evil (see Matthew 7:16-20: Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them."), this track paints a hell on earth that might be dispelled if the righteous singer can vanquish the emblem of evil that has defiled the land (and unfairly condemned him): "When I arise/The black sun shines/No birds sing for me...After all the wrong you've done/Doomsday's here before tomorrow comes/And the branches rot beneath your feet/You run to the rock and it will be melted/You run to the sea, it will be boiling/The tree is so big and broad/Though this axe, it may be small/Well, I'll still cut you down/You will fall...Judgement's cast its shadow over me." Yorke's fantastic falsetto is appropriately otherworldly (and reminiscent of The Congos, Junior Murvin, etc.), and Eeyun Perkins' (Waggle Dance Records) production and dub ("Drayman's Special") are wonderfully executed. "Judgement Tree's" lyrics are haunting and grim--and a positive outcome may not be fated--but the riddim's mighty seductive, indeed. (This cut and Yorke's other Happy People single "Tonight" come from The Co-operator's 2019 album Rhythms from the Kitchen Sink.)
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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Me, Mom, and Morgentaler "Racist Friend"; Various Artists "Ska Against Racism"

The cover features an illustration of both white and black hands with their pointer fingers extended.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

If racism means both racist action and inaction in the face of racism, then antiracism means active participation in combating racism in all forms. -- Ibram X. Kendi, Founding Director, Antiracist Research and Policy Center, American University

  • The great late '80s/early '90s Montreal-based ska band Me, Mom, and Morgentaler has virtually reformed to record and release a benefit single featuring The Special AKA's iconic and uncompromisingly anti-racist track "Racist Friend" (Digital, self-released, 2020; "Racist Friend 2020 Dubmatix Dub" is the B-side), with all proceeds donated to À deux mains/Head and Hands (a long-standing social service organization serving marginalized youth in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighborhood of Montreal). According to the band's liner notes, Me, Mom, and Morgentaler first started performing this track back in the late '80s in response to neo-nazi boneheads who would sometimes crash their shows. Titled "Racist Friend 2020," this terrific version has more of a groove to it than The Special AKA's original, and sports a pointed and powerful rap that speaks to our times: "Look, I know the playbook/The racism ain't a bug, it's a feature/It's time to unlearn what they didn't teach ya...My people are more than collateral damages/Of red lines, hate crimes, Can I speak to the manager?/We got it on camera, but still some deny it/It's time to speak up, they stay quiet/You can't stand by it and expect that I will be your friend/It's time to bring this to an end."  
    The cover illustration features a trumpet and bullhorn positioned in the shape of an X.
  • While the Mike Park-organized 1998 Ska Against Racism tour was extremely well-intentioned--and did raise $23k for Anti-Racism Action and the National Council of Churches' Burned Churches Fund--its execution and effectiveness were decidedly mixed, as this long Chicago Reader feature makes painfully clear. Over 20 years later, with an overt bigot in the White House enacting racist policies and egging on emboldened white supremacist hate groups, and the pernicious effects of systemic racism on Americans of color still unresolved, Bad Time Records, Asian Man Records, and Ska Punk Daily have put together the new 28-track compilation Ska Against Racism (Double vinyl LP/digital, Bad Time Records 2020) in responsewith all proceeds going to The Movement for Black Lives, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Conscious Kid, The Alpha Institute, and Black Girls Code. While this compilation of new, unreleased, and rare cuts leans heavily toward melodic ska-punk (with really catchy tracks from Mustard Plug, The Interrupters, Bite Me Bambi, JER, Buck-O-Nine, Left Alone, Omnigone, Kill Lincoln--with "David Duke Is Running for President," which actually happened in 1988--and others), there are tracks from several notable traditional and modern ska acts in the mix. Some of the many highlights on Ska Against Racism include the 2013 Operation Ivy reunion of sorts found on Tim Timebomb featuring Jesse Michaels' "Living in a Dangerous Land," The Chinkees' "Run for Help," The Planet Smashers' "The Pledge" (to fight hate), The Doped Up Dollies' cover of The Special AKA's "Racist Friend" (great harmonizing here), Hepcat's "Nigel (Quarantine Version)" (a revisit of their 1990 debut single, an ambivalent ode to the JA rude boy rebel life), Westbound Train's "Wash Over Me," The Skints' "Restless (Heavy Dub Mix)" (which is about the effects of institutional racism with references to police killings of unarmed black people and the horrific Grenfell Tower fire), Catbite's "Asinine Aesthetic" (which sounds like X meets 2 Tone), The Suicide Machines with Gangster Fun's singer John Bunkley's "City Limitations" (about how racism helped fuel the decline of Detroit), and The Porkers' "The Good Egg" (which refers to a real-life incident where an Aussie teen cracked an egg on the head of an anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim senator). While I'm not a big fan of ska punk, I really enjoyed this comp--the quality control is high and all bands bring their A game. Everyone involved in Ska Against Racism put their time, effort, and money where their mouths are. If you consider yourself to be anti-racist, you should, too.
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Saturday, September 5, 2020

I'm Interviewed About "The Duff Guide to 2 Tone" by Charles Benoit of "Reggae Steady Ska"!

I recently had the great honor of being interviewed about my new book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone by the wonderful Charles Benoit of Reggae Steady Ska (he also plays tenor sax in Some Ska Band). Our relatively short (10 minutes or so) video is posted below. (See my pandemic beard in all of it's glory!)

Thanks to Charles for the thoughtful questions and taking the time to conduct the interview! It was fun!

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Friday, September 4, 2020

Duff Review: The Dreamlets "Sunny" b/w "My Heart is Crying"!

Happy People Records
Pink or black vinyl single/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I've been hearing about the brilliant Japanese rocksteady female vocal trio The Dreamlets for ages, but have found it quite difficult to acquire any of their music, even though they've been releasing singles and EPs since 1996. Either the record is out of print or commanding astronomical prices on Discogs. And, apart from their 2001 Ready Rocksteady Go EP on Germany's Brutus Records and  2003 "My Boy Lollipop" single on Gaz's Rockin' Records, The Dreamlets haven't released anything else outside of Japan--until now. Sean Flowerdew's Happy People Records is issuing a limited-edition single featuring two choice cuts from The Dreamlet's back catalogue: "Sunny," which appeared on their 2004 Moon Beat 45 and "My Heart is Crying," the B-side to their "Destiny" 2004 Moon Beat single. "Sunny" is a gorgeously sad version of Bobby Hebb's 1966 soul-jazz hit, written in response to both national and personal tragedy--JFK's assassination and the fatal stabbing of Hebb's older brother Harold. Yet, instead of being knee-capped by loss and grief, Hebb finds strength and inspiration in their memory: "Sunny, yesterday, oh, my life was filled with rain/Sunny, you smiled at me and really, really eased the pain/Now the dark days are done, and the bright days are here/My Sunny, one shines so sincere/Sunny one so true, I love you." "My Heart Is Crying" is (from what I can tell) an incredible original vintage-style rocksteady track full of intense longing and desire. This one's a bit pricey if you're outside of the UK, but worth every cent and more.

Also of note, Happy People Records is issuing two other very intriguing singles--The Loving Paupers' "And the Piano's Playing" b/w "Enemy of History" (both from their superb debut LP Lines) and Capitol 1212 featuring Earl 16 covering Joy Division's "Love with Tear Us Apart" b/w "Dub Will Tear Us Apart" (the incredible vocal cut is from the 2018 Scotch Bonnet comp Puffer's Choice, Volume 2, while the dub is exclusive to this single). All of these singles will go quickly.

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Thursday, September 3, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: King Kong 4, and The Red Stripes!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
  • After raving about their series of digital singles and EPs released over the past several years, I'm thrilled that King Kong 4--which features members of Canadian ska acts King Apparatus, Prince Perry, and Lo and the Magnetics, led by KA's Mitch Girio--have released Punch It! (Black or blue vinyl LP, Jump Up Records, 2020), a compilation that assembles all of these tracks on one knock-out slab of vinyl. If you've missed out on this band previously, King Kong 4's sound is 2 Tone plus power-pop, the dark ska tracks on More Specials meets the bite of This Year's Model, with songs that breathe life into stories about personal, everyday dramas (love, mostly), and some about matters that have more ominous implications for everyone. The lead-off (and best) track here is "Profile Of A New Elite," which is about the awesome power parents have to raise either good and decent human beings or menaces to society, while "Speaking for the Skeptics" (which features a new music video) is concerned with unrequited love with a telephone psychic (both are from the 2017 single More Than Just a Plateful, which I reviewed here). The spaghetti Western ska instrumentals "Going A Bit Mad in Our Own Way" and "To Lose Before You Start" were inspired by Nevil Shute's post-World War III/doomsday novel On the Beach, where the last bits of humanity in Melbourne, Australia wait for the the nuclear fallout to reach and kill them (these are from their 2017 EP There's Not Much That You or I Can Do About It, which I reviewed here). "Breaking My Heart Again" is about loving someone who's unavailable from a distance, and "Annabelle" is coming undone by mind-altering drugs and/or mental illness (both are from KK4's 2017 single You Lie Awake, which I reviewed here). "It's Quitting Time" celebrates the daily five o'clock whistle, "Taking Back the Ring" is about repeatedly forgiving a repeat cheater, the end of the night "Drink In Your Head" is about assessing what transpired while you were under the influence, and "Grenadine" is mean to you, but you love her anyway (all are from their 2018 EP Songs for Olly, which I reviewed here). And, even though I missed writing them up, "Lessons Learned" ("You promised to be my honey/Before you took all my money/Lesson learned and know I know/It's all for naught") and "All Those Wasted Days," which urges a friend to get out of the pleasant and easy, but soul-killing suburbs to fulfilling the longing for "someone or something, someplace else," are equally as excellent as everything else here (and are from the 2017 single If Those Rays Don't Kill You First). Can an album of tracks from several yesteryears be a contender for one of the albums of this year? I certainly think so.
    The cover features a collage of photographs of each band member performing.
  • Hong Kong's Red Stripes have released a terrific, free (or pay-as-you-wish) album titled The Live Sessions (Digital, Mod Sound Records, 2020), which features a healthy mix of tracks from the band's two albums proper, In the Ska East and Made in Hong Kong (read my reviews of them here and here). These recordings, captured live in the studio in front of an invited audience, are both warm and bright, and the band's performances are spot-on and spirited--proof positive that The Red Stripes have the goods in performance. While the song arrangements don't deviate much from their album versions, it is good to hear some of your favorite tracks out in the wild, so to speak (particularly "Made in Hong Kong," "Don't Build Twice," "Rude Rude Rude," "Innocent," and "Big Boss Man"). And it sure sounds like these were fun nights to be in the crowd.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Duff Review: Lee Perry "Black Ark Days: Play On Mr. Music" (plus Jeremy Marre's "Beats of the Heart: Roots, Rock, Reggae")

Reggae producer Lee Perry is shown smiling as he adjusts some of the knobs on a recording mixing deck.
Rock A Shacka

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Lee Perry's Black Ark Days: Play On Mr. Music is a stellar collection of mid-1970s rarities produced by Perry at his legendary Black Ark studio (where he, of course, created some of his most brilliant productions, including The Congos' masterpiece, Heart of the Congos). Play on Mr. Music is most notable for its title track, the recording of which was captured in Jeremy Marre's excellent 1977 documentary Beats of the Heart: Roots, Rock, Reggae (he also directed the superb Reggae Brittania, broadcast on the BBC in 2011). The song "Play On Mr. Music" features the stellar core of acts Perry was working with at the time--The Heptones, The Congos, and Junior Murvin--credited as The Upsetter Review. Apparently, this cut was quickly written just before Marre's cameras showed up, which makes it all the more extraordinary (and may explain why it sounds like it could have been off Heart of the Congos--they were likely recording it around this period). Other highlights on an album full of them are The Silvertones' alternate take of "Rejoice Jah Jah Children (Dub Plate Mix)," Jimmy Riley's soulful "Give Me A Love," Perry's own fantastic offbeat showpiece "Soul Fire" (which was the lead track on Perry's 1978 album Roast Fish, Collie Weed, and Corn Bread), Sam Carty's otherworldly sounding "Milte Hi Akhen aka Bird in Hand (Full Vocal Version)" (which is a cover of a Hindi movie theme; a dub version of this track appears on Perry's Return of the Super Ape), Mystic I's incredible and hard to find adaptation of the traditional gospel hymn "One More River to Cross," and Junior Murvin's wonderful take on Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (and there are dubs of many of these tracks by The Upsetters). Play On Mr. Music also includes liner notes by reggae expert David Katz that provide helpful context while you listen.

If you've never seen Marre's Beats of the Heart: Roots, Rock, Reggae, you should carve out the hour in your schedule to watch it, as it's an extraordinary document of the JA roots reggae scene in 1976. There are interviews and/or performances by Jimmy Cliff, Lee Perry, The Congos, The Heptones, and Junior Murvin, Joe Higgs, The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Bob Marley, Ras Michael, The Abbyssians, U Brown, U Roy, Inner Circle--who were wildly popular in JA at the time--and others. Jack Ruby (who produced Burning Spear's essential Marcus Garvey and Garvey's Ghost, and was father of The Toasters' deejay/singer Jack Ruby, Jr.) is captured auditioning aspiring singers, and we see singles being pressed in Joe Gibb's pressing plant. Rastafarianism is explained in a fairly clear-eyed manner. The pernicious legacy of British colonialism is addressed (and to some degree US political and business interests)--and lots of shots of people living in extreme poverty in Trenchtown's shantytowns are shown as proof--and Prime Minister Michael Manley comments on the intertwined relationship between reggae and Jamaican politics (Perry states, "Rhythm from the ghetto, lyrics from the streets"), as well as his county's embrace of democratic socialism as a means to alleviate the dire economic inequality experienced by most Jamaicans. The only odd bit is when the narrator suggests that rocksteady preceded ska. Otherwise, it doesn't get much better than this.

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