Sunday, February 21, 2021

Duff Interview: Author Daniel Rachel on Writing the Liner Notes for the Deluxe Reissue of The Selecter's "Too Much Pressure"

If you haven't heard yet, on April 23, 2021, 2 Tone/Chrysalis is releasing a deluxe reissue/remaster of The Selecter's debut 1980 album Too Much Pressure as a three-CD set and LP + 7" single + 7" single live EP (each edition includes previously unreleased material and super-fans will likely want both). My ears pricked up when I spotted that music journalist Daniel Rachel had written the liner notes for this reissue (included only with the CDs), as he is the author of Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge and co-author of Ranking Roger's I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat (which I reviewed here)--two of the best and most essential books about 2 Tone ever published. So, I was eager to speak with him about this reissue and what he might have uncovered during his research. Daniel was most generous with this time and spoke with me earlier this week on a fairly wide range of topics related to The Selecter's Too Much Pressure and the 2 Tone era. Please note that the transcript below has been slightly edited for clarity and length (though it's still a long read...).

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Duff Guide to Ska: So, a couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Neol Davies about recording Celebrate the Bullet. But he mentioned that he had tried to get his hands on the original tapes for Too Much Pressure, because he wanted to do a remix. And I remember reading how the band felt rushed when they recorded the first album and really weren't always happy with the results. Do you know if they're happy with this new remaster. And were they involved with it? 

Daniel Rachel: Well, I think with the first album, the problem was the choice of the producer. Charlie Anderson brought in Errol Ross, and not all of the band agreed with his choice. Neol, particularly, wanted to stay with Roger Lomas, who had recorded "On My Radio" and "Too Much Pressure." But with that change and experience in the studio in December '79 made the experience fraught for them, I think. Pauline didn't get on with Errol at all, and there was a mixed reaction to Errol's approach to production. And added to that was the cantankerous nature of The Selecter, in which they kind of existed because of their differences. Of course, their differences caused a lot of the antagonism between them, which would eventually erupt and cause them to split in summer of 1980.

So, the album was rushed. Even though it was in a tight period, The Selecter were well played in by that point. They'd done the 2 Tone Tour and had done a fair amount of their own touring. But, at the same time, they had only existed as a band for a little more than six months, if that. You know, you're talking June, July, 1979, and then they're recording an album in December. And if you take into consideration the gestation time of a band forming, having to get to know one another as musicians, having to write songs, agree on songs, rehearse songs, get them tight, form a musical relationship--that's an incredible demand on any set of musicians. The fact that they were even up and running within literally weeks is quite astonishing. 

(l-r) The Selecter's Arthur "Gaps" Hendrickson,
author Daniel Rachel, and The Selecter's Pauline Black
So, then in answer to your question, the original master tapes were found, and they had been remastered, not remixed. Who's heard the tapes? Neol's heard it, Pauline's heard it. And that may be it at this point. I think all the other members of the band, except for Desmond, were invited to be involved in the project and to a greater or lesser degree, they did or didn't.

Duff Guide to Ska: And were you able to interview all of the band members?

Daniel Rachel: No. The invitation was sent out to every member of the band, and some declined, didn't want to contribute. Pauline didn't want to, even though I know Pauline and get on with her well. I have the strange experience where I can chat her, but we didn't chat about the album. But that's her right. Desmond is not in a healthy place, I understand, for him to be involved. And the connection was never directly with him, it was through a family member. And I've spoken to everybody else.

Duff Guide to Ska: When you were putting together the liner notes for this reissue, did you learn anything from either your research or speaking with the band members that you didn't know back in 1980 or that surprised you?

Daniel Rachel: An enormous amount. Before I got involved with writing the sleeve notes, I'd started writing, and am currently writing, the story of 2 Tone Records, with an attempt to try and lay down a definitive version of events by revisiting everything I can find in the archive--and coupling that with attempting to speak to every member and backroom staff member of 2 Tone/Chrysalis that is possible to this day. So, I've spoken to already more than 60+ people and laid down a lot of research. So, yes, as I get inside The Selecter, I've uncovered an incredible amount of stories, and try to get to the bottom of what was going on with the recording of the album. And that was incredible. 

Of course, some members of the band don't often talk or haven't talked for a long time. So, their experiences haven't been put on the record. Whereas, Pauline will often talk about that period and Neol will, it's a lot rarer to hear H talk or Compton, even. Both of those people have got fantastic memories and fantastic opinions. As a fan of the band, and if you're a fan of 2 Tone, what you most probably want is to hear the rounded version of events. As you well know, with seven people involved from the band, with their producer making eight, and I spoke to Errol as well, they've all got their eye on how it happened, and some of those stories concur and some of them are vastly different. And that's the joy of history. There's no one simple truth that can exist at one time, right? 

Duff Guide to Ska: Yes, absolutely. Were you a fan back in 1980? Were you a 2 Tone fan, a Selecter fan?

Daniel Rachel: In 1980, I was 10 years old. I was a fan through through magazines, and I was a fan through BBC Radio One and Top of the Pops. I think the first record I ever heard was "Too Much Too Young" by The Specials. And I remember learning the lyrics to those songs as an 11 year-old and performing them in school with a bunch of mates in front of the class. Then I seriously got into 2 Tone increasingly with each year through "Ghost Town." And I then I continued with it, so I was really into following stories about Special AKA in that period as well.

Duff Guide to Ska: As a side note, I'm a fan of your book with Ranking Roger and then your other book Walls Come Tumbling Down. The latter book is amazing--I've called it the best history of 2 Tone that's out there. But did you did you ever come across George Marshall's Two Tone Story back from the late '80s?

Daniel Rachel: George Marshall's book is fantastic. It was originally part of The Compact 2 Tone box set, and you could buy it on its own from ST Publishing. It's really great and so important because at the time it was written in the early '90s. So it's only less than 10 years on from the events, and it's got the spirit of George Marshall as a fan. As he writes, I think it's in his introduction to his book on Madness, he doesn't claim to be a writer or an author. He's just writing from passion. And I love that as much as I love the book Total Madness he wrote.

He can write and really got in great detail. And I think that set the template for 2 Tone books. But, of course, I don't think a lot of material was necessarily available to George Marshall at this point that he wrote it. And subsequently you can find now the full stretch of UK fanzines and all the music papers, from Sounds, New Music Express, Melody Maker, Look In, Smash Hits. You know, there's so many places where all of the 2 Tone bands did interviews. Fanzines, for example, is where musicians were historically looser with their tongues because at that period in '79, '80, '81, you didn't think if you did an interview in a small town somewhere in the United Kingdom for a fanzine anybody was going to read it beyond that. You get a lot of honesty, right? Likewise, there are a lot of musicians subsequently that, as they reflect back on that period, have got an important distance. They are freer to tell stories that they wouldn't have told you at the time--or their memories can be sparked by different archive material. And you get different perspectives and the newer versions of older history, I guess. So, George Marshall, great template, but there's a great depth and exciting narrative to reveal.

Duff Guide to Ska: This reissue features a fair number of unreleased live tracks from The Selecter. Do you know where they've been all this time? Where were they sitting for the last 40 years? 

Daniel Rachel: I think they've been sitting in record company archives, because the ownership of the label has changed so many times, originally from Chrysalis to EMI it was, at one point. One of the guys at Chrysalis now, Dermot James, he's great because he's a real fan of the music. And that's why there have been all of these reissues, and certainly more possibilities now for 2 Tone stuff to come out, and unreleased stuff, because he's prepared to dig in there and find it.

He gave me a load of different track sheets of what was in the archive and asked me what's there that would be brilliant to release. So, I went through all of that. And then you can get rough mixes done of different concerts. So, I had those done up. And then coupled with that, Neol had a few tapes of Selecter concerts either originally from those 2 Tone archives or board mixes from a couple of gigs. So, my job was to go through all of the live tapes from '79 and '80, and say, "this is what's great, and we could use this, and this would be brilliant." And then it had to exist on multi-tape, so that it could be properly mixed. So that was just so exciting--I loved it!

Duff Guide to Ska: That's amazing!

Daniel Rachel: Wow, some really amazing revelations--like, who has ever heard, unless you were at The Selecter gig in 1979 or early '80, who has ever heard them playing the song "The Selecter"? It's really brilliant. It's got Gapper toasting over the top of it. And then there's the brilliant version of The Upsetters "A Live Injection." So, you get an instrumental version, as it was, of "A Live Injection" really showcasing Desmond Brown's organ skills that then cuts momentarily as a link into "Mony Mony," that Tommy James & The Shondells track, which seques into the beginning of "Too Much Pressure," and then comes "Too Much Pressure." And all of that put together, which is about nine minutes, is just great! And then they started the gig with "Soulful I," the [Lee "Scratch" Perry] instrumental.

And so things like this were really, really brilliant to hear. And then just the fact that we then get to the Too Much Pressure tour, the second 2 Tone Tour in February, March 1980, they've really played in the tracks that they were laying down on the album two months, three months before. And so there's a new energy in the tracks. There's only about, I think, four of those recordings on this.

But the key recording is The Selecter at Tiffany's, which was the key venue in Coventry, which they played in December 1979 at the end of the 2 Tone Tour. And they support The Specials. You can just feel the raw, visceral energy of the hometown audience throughout the whole gig. There's a run on tickets, because there's been some forgeries. So, there's massive queues to get in--a demand, and feeling of those lucky ones that were in Tiffany's. They just explode as the band come on stage and The Selecter played great. Everybody knows that's a 2 Tone fan, the B-side of The Special's Live EP, the "Skinhead Symphony," which is from that gig, which sounds like one of the greatest concerts ever. On the flipside of The Selecter single "Missing Words," "Carry Go Bring Come" is from that gig and, as a fan, who's ever not wanted to be one of those members of that audience? And here's now the whole concert.

Duff Guide to Ska: Oh, that's extraordinary! Do you know if 2 Tone/Chrysalis have plans to do sort of a deluxe reissue of Celebrate the Bullet?

Daniel Rachel: I don't know. If there's demand...

Duff Guide to Ska: I'm curious because fans definitely consider that part of the 2 Tone canon.

Daniel Rachel: It's not, though.

Duff Guide to Ska: I know technically it's not. But personally as a fan, I've always felt that it is. Do you know if they're thinking about doing any of Rico's albums? 

Daniel Rachel: Well, Rico's albums were released this last year, weren't they, on that 2 Tone box. Jama and That Man is Forward were included on that. What I would love to hear is the tour that Brad, Horace, and Jerry did with Rico. Wouldn't you love to hear that? You know, the tour when they backed him?

Duff Guide to Ska: Yes, I don't remember the exact date, but I do remember that they did that tour. Yeah. Oh, that'd be extraordinary. When would that have been?

Daniel Rachel: Rico Jama came out just after the split. Well, I think the tour was '81, wasn't it?

Duff Guide to Ska: The tour was probably earlier. Yeah. So it's probably '81. So, they're still just at their height.

Daniel Rachel: I'm getting confused at dates. I've looked at too many dates today. I've got numbers running in front of my head to all kinds of things. Jerry keeps on saying to me, "you know more about 2 Tone than I do, Daniel. Just tell me what happened on this date."

Duff Guide to Ska: But that's probably true, right? Because you're getting all the other viewpoints and conversations and memories that he didn't necessarily have access to.

Daniel Rachel: The mad thing about talking to Jerry is that, of course, you forget as a fan, that they were busy doing their own thing. So, at the time, they don't necessarily know what the other bands are getting up to. They hear bits and pieces, but you kind of think that they would know it all inside out. But, the reasons why The Selecter decided to split, I don't know how much Jerry knows about stuff like that.

Duff Guide to Ska: Well, it's so crazy when you think about how intense and brief a period it actually was. The Selecter was only around for about two years.

Daniel Rachel: The Selecter in their original incarnation was 12 months. It was the summer of '79 and they split in the summer of 1980. And then they continue with two new members. So, that's just an extraordinarily short period of time, isn't it? 

The Bodysnatchers were together for 11 months. And that's mad, from their first gig in November '79--and they rehearse for a bit before--and then they split 31st of October, 1980. That's 11 months. And, yet, Rhoda [Dakar] has probably been asked about it every single day of her life since. It must drive her mad! 

Duff Guide to Ska: Did you hear the album that she recorded a few years ago?

Daniel Rachel: Of course, I hang out with Rhoda a lot, and drive her mad with asking her questions about The Bodysnatchers. Oh, she's great. Horace played on that album and Lynval added a bit of guitar.

Duff Guide to Ska: That was a great album. [I reviewed it here.]

Daniel Rachel: You know, the thing is, you can't replicate what a band did--it's all the individual components of that band that make up the total sound. Although they were doing the songs of The Bodysnatchers, which Rhoda rightfully credited the album as Sings The Bodysnatchers, it's not The Bodysnatchers. You can hear that by listening to the John Peel sessions, Kid Jensen sessions. You can hear what the original Bodysnatchers sounded like. And it's not what the album is.

Duff Guide to Ska: It was still nice to have, particularly for fans in the United States. I had never heard some of those songs before. So, it was nice to have even if it wasn't the full Bodysnatchers experience.  But it definitely gave a fan like me a really good idea of what they were about, because in the United States, they're really just their two singles.

Daniel Rachel: That's all there was to hear. Plus, what was on Dance Craze.

Duff Guide to Ska: When should we be expecting your book on 2 Tone or are you still in the depths of research?

Daniel Rachel: I really don't know. I'm in a very strange, but exciting position. This year, I have four books coming out in my name, two of which have come out before and two are new. So, by doing that, I've really struggled to keep going with the 2 Tone book because my attention is just being demanded by the other releases.

Duff Guide to Ska: What are the two new books?

Daniel Rachel: The old one's a paperback of Don't Look Back in Anger and a new, slightly edited version of Ranking Roger's book. The new books are both coming out in August. One is Oasis: Knebworth, the text I've written, and the photography is by Jill Furmanovsky, which is about the Oasis weekend at Knebworth in August '96, which was, for this country, kind of the defining cultural moment of the decade. And then at the end of the month, I've written a book called Like Some Forgotten Dream, which looks at if The Beatles hadn't split up, what would have been the album they would have recorded in late '69, early 1970.

Duff Guide to Ska: Do you want to give a little hint of what the answer is or should people wait to buy the book?

Daniel Rachel: I'm happy to. The first quarter of the book just looks at all the "what if" moments, mainly starting with the "Get Back" sessions in January 1969, and looking at why that was an incredible, productive time for The Beatles--and how all of Let It Be and more than half of Abbey Road were written in that time. There were quite a lot of songs that would become solo records for each of The Beatles a year later were in some form or other rehearsed in that initial period. Things like "Gimme Some Truth," "All Things Must Pass," "Another Day." Then it looks at some of the moments where, had it been for just slightly different circumstances throughout that year, '69, they could have kept it together. And then based upon John Lennon in a meeting at Apple in '69, saying, "how about on the next album I do four songs, Paul does four, George does four, and Ringo does two?" He proposes that. I take that argument to say at that exact moment, if they had agreed, here are the songs that were written, were being written, or could conceivably have still been written in the next six month period--and it kind of formed an album. I take each of those songs and tell the back story to how they came about, and really get underneath the involvement of how they were written. So, there were lots of arrangements, say, for the song "All Things Must Pass" that Paul and John did--vocal arrangements, bass arrangements, musical arrangement. Really exciting stuff. Or how Paul worked with John on "Gimme Some Truth." Lots of stories like that. So, it was really exciting to do.

Duff Guide to Ska: I see the the great appeal in doing that and why people would want to read it. For music fans, there's always that "what if?" You see, after a band splits, where they go, and one faction does this, the other faction does that, and you're like, "that could have all been back together, and on one album with one band."

Daniel Rachel: Have you ever done that with The Specials' In the Studio? Can you imagine "What I Like Most About Your Girlfriend," if Terry had sung that? And, of course, Jerry used to write for Terry's voice. And then what if The Specials had done "The Lunatics...", which [Fun Boy Three] had demoed when they were members of The Specials with the view of giving the song to The Specials?

Duff Guide to Ska: Yeah, it's really tantalizing.

Daniel Rachel: I mean, it's kind of a form of madness, but at the same time irresistible. You can't help to sometimes listen to those songs and just imagine the organ solo in "The Lunatics..." if Jerry had got hold of it. Wow.

Duff Guide to Ska: It's extraordinary. I'm interested in the newer version of the Ranking Roger book. What was revised or added?

Daniel Rachel: Oh, to be honest, it's hardly anything really. It was because the publisher Omnibus are publishing what's known as a "B format" book, which I think just means it's slightly smaller. It just gave me an opportunity to correct a few things that were not right in the text. My final edit, that I went over with a kind of a fine scalpel, I'm not sure made the final publication, so it just gave me an opportunity to tighten up a few sections.

I think I might have found three more gigs for the gigography. I mean, it's really, really hard to find out what The Beat did in the US in the latter years. To nail down for certain every single date.

Duff Guide to Ska: For something I'm writing, I was trying to look up a gig The English Beat did at Roseland in New York in '81, and it's hard to find, it's hard to figure out.

Daniel Rachel: I wrote that gigography for Roger's book originally just because I needed reference for myself to try and make sense of the story. And then as I was giving it more and more, I realized, well, this doesn't exist and nobody's ever done it. And there's that great Specials' gigography in Paul Williams's book. And I thought, if I've got it at home here, the least I could do is share it, and accept the wrath of people going, "you didn't say about this gig I went to, it was the best one of my life, you charlatan!"

Duff Guide to Ska: Oh, I think it's fantastic. And I think people will be referring to it for years, I'm sure. So, any final thoughts or things you'd like to share about the liner notes for The Selecter reissue?

Daniel Rachel: I guess the only thing is really, in one sense, is because it's a record company release, there is a certain reserve about how much people can be critical of one another. Or the experience of making the record. It's not the right place to do it, because the release is a celebration of Too Much Pressure, not a condemnation of the record. And so there's a hell of a lot of conversations I had with members of The Selecter that I now intend to use for my book and not for the liner notes.

Just from a personal point of view, the joy that my name might be on something that is a kind of a semi-2 Tone release is unbelievable. 

Can I give a mystery to your readers for them to try and solve?

Duff Guide to Ska: Yes, please.

Daniel Rachel: On the second CD of the release is the single version of "On My Radio." When Roger Lomas mixed "On My Radio" and "Too Much Pressure," he did two versions of each song. They're almost identical, and then one of those then became the cut for the single. But the two versions I heard--I'm convinced--are not the version on the 2 Tone single that I own.

There's something slightly different on Pauline's vocal, on the effect. I can't work it out... It's real trainspotter stuff.

Duff Guide to Ska: I'm sure there is someone out there that will have the answer. Because the fans really know their stuff and are so deep in the minutiae. They will know.

Daniel Rachel: There's something of an effect that Roger put on Pauline's voice, where it goes "radio-oh-oh-oh-oh" and the effect is on the i-o of radio. And that part of the track is throwing me.

Duff Guide to Ska: I think what so perfectly encapsulates everything about The Selecter is how they would have these staged fights during their performance and people thought they were real. And I think there was real emotion behind the aggression that was expressed. And I totally agree with your assessment that, even though a lot of them were always at odds at each other, it really made for an amazing band.

Daniel Rachel: I remember writing about that in Walls Come Tumbling Down. The idea of presenting the theatrical idea of fighting is--it doesn't achieve anything, or it shocks the audience who are fighting to go "hold on, why have they all dropped their instruments, why are they laying into each other?" And at the same time, it became this excuse to pile into one another and throw a few punches.

Juliet De Vie is brilliant to talk to about that. She's the original manager of the band and co-ran the 2 Tone London office with Rick Rogers. Juliet was pulling her hair out trying to manage these eclectic, divisive people. She's great. I think her contribution to Walls Come Tumbling Down was brilliant.

Also, the other thing that's on this release is the "Cool Blue Lady" track. That, as you know, is on Celebrate the Bullet. From the evidence I've seen, that's played by the original members of The Selecter--unless the bass is Roger Lomas. It comes out of the same session as "The Whisper" and "Train to Skaville."

Duff Guide to Ska: Those were recorded when they got back from the U.S. tour, is that right?

Daniel Rachel: Yeah, in the summer of '80. 

Duff Guide to Ska: Then right after that is when Charlie and Desmond left to form The People. 

Daniel Rachel: Well, I don't I don't think they left to form it. I think they formed it as a result of not being part of The Selecter. It's a subtle choice of words there that has a separate meaning.

Duff Guide to Ska: Yeah, absolutely. OK, well, unless you have anything else to share...

Daniel Rachel: No, I mean, it's great fun to talk to somebody across the pond who's a 2 Tone fan. Wow, what a great thing to do.

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Thursday, February 11, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: New Singles from Babylove & the van Dangos, Cartoon Violence, Gentleman's Dub Club & Hollie Cook, and The Porkers

The cover illustration features a big, round dust cloud (with a fight between several people hidden its center), with various feet and hands sticking out of it, some clutching instruments, like saxophones and guitars.(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Babylove & the van Dangos have released the excellent new rocksteady digital single "Soldiering On," which, on its face, celebrates the band's 15 years of existence, acknowledges how fortunate they are to be able to do what they love, and coveys what it's been like on tour for a lot of that time ("A thousand laughs and a thousand tears/A million joints and a million beers...Soldiering on/And putting another mile behind us on the autobahn"). But it's also a message of encouragement to just keep on going, no matter what life throws at you ( a global pandemic), with the hope that you've somehow made a difference in the lives of the people around you, so that "somebody will remember when we're dead and gone." (The music video for the track features footage from over the years of the band's antics on stage, behind the scenes, and on the road--and will make you long for a time when we all can be together and enjoy live music as one.)...Cartoon Violence have used their lockdown time very well and recorded the stellar new digital single "Friend or Foe" (which is likely the teaser for a new physical EP in the coming months). This super-upbeat 2 Tone-ish track is about being in such dire straights that you'll gladly accept assistance from whatever quarter it comes from: "This town is really sinking (hide the shame)/Everybody's out looking for who's to blame/On account of all the drinking (give it a name)/Noah's gonna have to fill his ark again/And all the king's groupies (and all the king's men)/Couldn't put me back together again/Is anybody out there?/Can anybody hear me?/Friend or foe/Let me know/'Cause I don't think that I'll make it on my own/And I need a helping hand..." (make sure to check out the video for this song--you can't go wrong with Harold Lloyd!). If you're buying this cut via the band's Bandcamp page, you'll also be treated to a live version of "Better" from Tit for Tat recorded in Vienna back when these things could happen...To be honest, I've always thought that Hollie Cook's best collaborator was Prince Fatty (it's hard to top her debut album--which I reviewed years ago), but I rather like the new smooth, Quiet Storm reggae single "Honey" ("Don't know what to do with this forbidden fruit/Temptation always leads to you/Sweet honey, it tastes too good to be true...") she's on with Gentleman's Dub Club (stream it here). GDC's new album Down to Earth comes out on March 19, 2021 from Easy Star Records...Recorded well before, but released about a week after, Trump incited a seditious, white supremacist insurrection (months in the making) that came horrifyingly close to decapitating the Legislative branch of the United States government (and only failed due to the heroism of most members of the Capitol police and a lot of dumb luck), "Big Baby Man" is The Porkers' hilariously brilliant and catchy takedown of America's worst president/human being ever--and should serve as Trump's political/personal epitaph and be required to be played in the background every time his enablers, conspirators, and supporters are interviewed on TV trying to gaslight everyone with their hate, lies, and conspiracies. The lyrics--so worth quoting in full--provide a fantastic summary of the disastrous past four years, capturing a lot of the lowlights of the fascist, white grievance-nurturing, wannabe president-for-life narcissist:

"Big, big baby man
He's a big, big baby man (child)
Big, big baby with his little baby man hands

Hey America, what have you done?
You made that con man into your number one
He's lying and denying, and he's getting away with murder
Deceiting and a cheating, and loves a hamberder

Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah! [The perfect chorus for Trump and his perpetual and paradoxical winner/victim MAGA patriots!]

Don, Jr. and Eric want daddy's approval
The Democrats pushing for impeachment removal
You've seen the First Lady, it looks like he bought her
But he tells everybody that he loves his daughter

He never built a wall, like he said he would
He said nazis weren't bad and some were good!
He said the Covid would just disappear
He bragged and he lied, and the rednecks cheered

He lost his friend called Jeff-er-y
He confused everyone with cofveve
He has the best higher capability
[Sound clip of Trump] ''

He fell in love with foreign dictators
And somehow was going to make America greater
A whining and a wailing when he lost the election
You gotta believe me...he's a big, big baby man!

Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah!

(Everybody sing along with the animated video here!)

Trump famously has no sense of humor, so what better way to "honor"/wound/deflate him than with a cutting song like this!

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Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Georgetown Orbits "Stay Strong" b/w "Hang On Sloopy"

The cover illustration features a cat sitting in an alleyway in the foreground, with Seattle's skyline--including the Spaceneedle--in the distance.Ready to Launch Records
7" vinyl picture sleeve single/digital (includes two bonus tracks)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Like much of the ska and reggae that has been produced during the past pandemic year, the latest single from the Georgetown Orbits offers two songs of encouragement to steel ourselves for another plague year and keep our sagging morale up. "Stay Strong" is a fantastic reggae track full of determination and grit (with a bass line that seems like it's prodding one forward, just to keep you in motion): "I know tomorrow the sun will shine again/I know tomorrow there will be no more pain/We've all seen those days/All been through those times/We've got to stay strong/We've got to carry on..." The flip side is a sweet reggae cover of the McCoys 1965 everybody-singalong garage rock hit "Hang On Sloopy," which is about a girl from the poor part of town that everyone puts down, but the singer doesn't care; he just loves her, and wants to buoy her spirits. The song was originally written (by Wes Farrell and Bert Berns) about a real life jazz singer named Dorothy Sloop from Steubenville, Ohio (which is where my paternal grandmother was from; her father was a jeweler who lost almost everything during the Great Depression, though a few items somehow survived and were passed down--I was lucky enough to use one diamond for my wife's engagement ring). It also happens to be the official rock song of the State of Ohio and played at Cleveland Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers games to rally the fans, but you can use the Georgetown Orbits' version simply to brighten your day. And it will. (The digital single includes excellent dub versions of each track.)

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Duff Review: Various Artists: "Staring at the Rude Boys: The British Ska Revival (1979-1989)"

The cover illustration features a close-up of the type of skinny tie and suit coat worn by rude boys and girls.Pressure Drop/Cherry Red Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Named after one of the greatest non-ska tributes to the scene (by The Ruts, of course, who also appear on this comp backing Laurel Aitken), Pressure Drop/Cherry Red's Staring at the Rude Boys: The British Ska Revival (1979-1989) does a superb job of documenting the UK ska scene from the rise of 2 Tone through the "New Ska" scene that emerged in its wake in the latter half of the 1980s and was promoted by Unicorn Records (which coined the "New Ska" moniker), Staccato, and Gaz's Rockin' Records. This compilation presents 69 tracks over three CDs--with mostly excellent liner notes on each song/band (though there's a cringeworthy error in the Laurel Aitken/Potato 5 entry)--and while the 2 Tone and New Ska cuts are terrific (if not already featured on many other likeminded comps), the real treasure here are the dozens upon dozens of cuts from lesser-known, obscure, and even one-off novelty tracks that capitalized on/took a bit of the piss out of 2 Tone (see The Charlie Parkas' "Ballad of Robin Hood" and Max Headroom & the Car "Parks'" "Don't Panic"). Some of these non-2 Tone songs are more rough than ready, but the majority are good to great, and many of the original records now nearly impossible to find or quite pricey. Even though I'm a long-time fan/collector of UK ska from this decade, a surprising number of these songs are new to me, and this compilation fills in a big gap in my knowledge and collection (and may do the same for you, too). 

With its quality control so high, it's hard to go wrong when selecting 2 Tone tracks for inclusion, and the songs collected here are mostly deeper cuts (such as The Specials' "Little Bitch," Madness' "Bed and Breakfast Man," Bad Manners' "Inner London Violence"; and I'm particularly pleased with the choices of The Selecter's "Street Feeling" and The Beat's "Whine & Grine/Stand Down Margaret"). JA ska legends Rico, Desmond Dekker, and Laurel Aitken who were involved with or active during the 2 Tone-era are well-represented (with "Sea Cruise," "Rude Boy Train," and "Big Fat Man" respectively), as are Judge Dread (with the atypically non-slack "Ska Fever," where he's backed by The Cimarons) and Arthur Kay (an original '60s-era mod and musician who recorded with Rico and appeared on many Trojan releases; his "Play My Record" is included here). 

Among the lesser-known 2 Tone-era cuts are real gems from Ded Byrds ("Rich and Nasty"), Rockers Express ("Phoenix City"), new wavers Graduate (many know that this band featured future Tears for Fears-ers Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, and their Elvis Costello/Madness pastiche "Elvis Should Play Ska" is irresistible), The Akrylykz ("Spiderman," with future Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift, of course), The A.T.'s ("One More for the Road"), The AK Band ("Pink Slippers"), the pre-Ska-dows Sax Maniax ("Never Gonna Lose Me"), Case ("Oh"--this act featured Neil Pyzer, who would go on to Spear of Destiny, and more recently serve as producer, songwriter, and member of Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson-led version of The Selecter), Plastic Gangsters AKA oi band the 4-Skins ("Plastic Gangsters ("I Could Be So Good for You)"), new waver Kim Wilde ("2-6-5-8-0"), the Dublin-based Resistors ("Jeanie"), and The Ska-dows ("Ska'd for Life"--for some reason, back in the late '80s I failed to pick up the 1988 reissue of their only LP, but like them so much that I just tracked a copy down now on Discogs). Interestingly, some of the best tracks also come from moonlighting mod bands--The Merton Parkas ("Give It To Me Now") and The Lambrettas ("Poison Ivy"). 

The last two-thirds of disc three spotlight many of the incredible mid-to-late '80s New Ska bands, including Laurel Aitken & the Potato 5 ("Mad About You"), Burial ("Sheila"), Buster's Allstars ("Skinhead Luv-A-Fair"), King Hammond ("King Hammond Shuffle"), Mark Foggo's Skasters ("Skadansk"), The Hotknives ("Dave and Mary"), Maroon Town ("Pound to the Dollar"), The Loafers ("The Undertaker"--their keyboardist Sean Flowerdew would go on to organize dozen of London International Ska Festivals, play in Special Beat, form Pama International, and create Happy People Records), The Deltones ("Stay Where You Are"), The Riffs ("Blind Date"), and others (what, no Trojans?). If you're not already familiar with these New Ska acts, get ready to track down many more releases--they issued a ton of essential records within the span of a few years.

Overall, you'd be hard pressed to find a better compilation that attempts to represent this key decade in British ska than Staring at the Rude Boys.

+ + + +

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Kevin Flowerdew's recently released The Ska Librarian's 2 Tone Time Machine, which makes a stellar companion piece to Staring at the Rude Boys. Flowerdew's first skazine Rude began publishing in 1989, right at the tail end of the New Ska period, and ran through 1996, when he switched its name to Do the Dog Skazine to match the record label he launched (both continue to this day). With The Ska Librarian's 2 Tone Time Machine, Flowerdew covers the UK and international ska scenes as if he had been producing Rude from 1979 through 1988. Unsurprisingly, there's a fair amount of overlap between the bands featured on Staring at the Rude Boys and those that Flowerdew writes about in The Ska Librarian's 2 Tone Time Machine--and he provides some really helpful context and history that will only deepen your enjoyment and appreciation of this comp. 

+ + + +

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Duff Review: Aaron Carnes "In Defense of Ska"

The book's title is painted on the wall of a punk club that features graffiti like "smash racism" and "ska sucks," as well as a variety of ska band and label stickers.Clash Books

[Disclaimer: Since I was the director of marketing, promotions, and production for Moon Ska Records for most of the 1990s, I was interviewed by Aaron Carnes on several occasions for this book, and am quoted in a few chapters.]

(Review by Steve Shafer)

One's enjoyment of Aaron Carnes' book In Defense of Ska mostly likely will be predicated on your opinion of ska-punk, and if you hold notions that any sort of affiliation with--or devotion to--ska music is something to be embarrassed about (the author loves the former and apparently has had to advocate on behalf of the latter on many occasions). Carnes is a music journalist (Playboy, Salon, Bandcamp Daily, Noisey) and former drummer for the '90s, Bay Area ska-punk band Flat Planet, who happened to catch a Skankin' Pickle show in 1992 and was converted to ska for life. So, his passion for the music is come by genuinely, and he's lived the life on both sides of the stage's edge.

Carnes' In Defense of Ska is less a linearly laid out argument for the legitimacy of the genre (and jab to the haters' noses) and more of a scattershot collection of essays that is part ska history, Flat Planet road warrior band memoir, elaborate love letter to Skankin' Pickle (whom Flat Planet played with and Carnes became fast friends with their prankster merch guy Kevin), and batch of sad tales of great ska bands almost hitting it big, but stymied by self-sabotage, or a music industry that still doesn't really understand the music or know how to market the genre (see The Untouchables, Fishbone, The Toasters, Blue Riddim Band, The Shakers, Heavy Manners, The Uptones, Crazy 8s, and others). It's a fun and oftentimes very funny, breezy, and compelling read that can be enlightening (particularly the chapters on the origins of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice; DIY touring with Book Your Own Fucking Life; the Mexican ska scene; and a delicious skewering of MTV's hamfisted SKAturday special hosted by Carson Daley) or perplexing (he posits that Millie Small's one hit wonder "My Boy Lollipop" ruined ska's chances of later breaking big in the U.S.; strongly feels that Reel Big Fish really deserves your love; and spills a lot of ink on the story behind Whole Lotta Milk and Propagandhi's versions of "Ska Sucks"), and essentially makes the argument that like the punk underground, the American ska scene is filled with some amazing and talented musicians--completely deserving of your respect--who just don't care if they're perceived as uncool by the mainstream (unless they want to sell out and then ska becomes a liability), and are incredibly content with pursuing their labor of love, against all odds, in semi-obscurity. 

The original Jamaican ska musicians, and the bands associated with 2 Tone and American ska in the 1980s (which were often lumped in with new wave) have always been considered "cool" by just about everyone who's ever been aware of them. They've never needed defending. But a lot of Americans have a hard time comprehending ska. Unlike their British peers who grew up with Jamaican people, culture, and music, many Americans have found Jamaican ska and 2 Tone inaccessible, as for them it lacked context and didn't manifestly fit in with/relate to the history of American popular music, even if Black American, R&B, and early rock 'n 'roll directly influenced ska's birth. But a lot of Americans in the 1990s could easily relate to a hybrid of ska that incorporated and emphasized punk rock (after all, punk--in the form of grunge--finally broke in America in 1991). And this where ska-punk, for all of its merits, became problematic for ska.

As the U.S. music industry took note of the ska boom taking place on the underground in the mid-'90s, the only types of bands they felt were ripe for exploitation were of the ska-punk variety (because they knew how to sell punk--the majors had largely written off ska fifteen years earlier, when 2 Tone failed to catch fire here like it had in the UK, due in some part to their label's failure of imagination in marketing Black ska music made by interracial bands within a racially segregated music industry), or pop bands that had distant ska roots or a tenuous associations to the genre (and there even were some acts that were absolutely not ska, but bizarrely labelled as such in the hope of cashing in on the hype). And a fair number of the more popular ska-punk bands reveled in goofy costumes and comical/absurd stage antics, which seemed to make it all a big joke. I'd argue that some, though by no means all, of these high profile ska-punk and ska-pop acts became the definitive image of ska in the public's imagination--the stereotype of a ska band--and the vessels for all of the vitriol and disdain of people in the music press/industry and others who just didn't like or "get" the music, or realize that it came in a variety of flavors (several times Carnes notes the tension within the larger ska scene over who the music belongs to--rude boys/girls and skinheads vs. ska-punkers, etc.--and what it should sound like and how fans and bands should look and behave). So, all the haters who have been deriding ska and anyone associated with it are most often hating/shaming those from or loving ska-punk bands (there's a whole chapter about it in Carnes' book). 

And that's why no one has ever had to defend ska bands like Hepcat or The Pietasters from ridicule...there's no need to.

+ + + +

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Take: Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts "Covid-19 Special" b/w "Lockdown"

The artwork features the single's paper label with the imprint (Tip-A-Top), song title, and band name.
Tip-a-Top Records
7" vinyl single/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While they closely model their sound after The Skatalites of the '64-'65 era, Swiss band Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts are no tribute act. This terrifically gifted group of musicians write their own tunes and have no agenda other than getting people on their feet to dance. Following The Skatalites' lead in titling their instrumentals after newsworthy people (Lee Harvey Oswald, Malcolm X, Christine Keeler) and current events ("Independence Anniversary Ska" celebrates Jamaica securing its independence from the UK, while "Sudden Attack" conveyed Cold War anxiety of nuclear war), the brilliant instrumentals on Sir Jay & The Ska-Tanauts' new single acknowledge the grim reality that everyone has been enduring over the past year. "Covid-19 Special" is a majestic, if not somewhat muted, track with an irresistibly propulsive rhythm and memorable and slightly mournful horn lines. It's definitely danceable, but there's an undercurrent of dread and danger (who will the virus strike down next?). "Lockdown" is a much brighter, almost manic affair, as if the band is endeavoring to keep our collective spirits up as we hunker down in isolation until the horrific rates of new infections and deaths subside, and the public health authorities can get those shots in our arms. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Various Artists: "Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3"

The cover features cartoon versions of a rude boy, punk, and skinhead reading issues of "Do the Dog Skazine"
Do the Dog Music

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Since Kevin Flowerdew's essential Do the Dog Skazine is so thorough in its coverage of the global ska scene--far beyond what I'm able to digest and review each year for The Duff Guide to Ska--it only follows that I've only heard around half of the bands/songs on his fantastic new compilation Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3. This compilation features an extremely generous 47 tracks (!) of ska varying in style from traditional to 2 Tone to ska-punk from acts all over the world (some of them singing in languages other than English). Come for some of the better-known bands on Do the Dog Ska-A-Go-Go, Volume 3 like The Planet Smashers, Maroon Town, Cartoon Violence, The Bionic Rats, The Bruce Lee Band, Erin Bardwell, Crazy Baldhead, King Kong 4, The Co-operators & Friends, The Pomps, Detroit Riddim Crew, Catbite, The Skapones, Zen Baseballbat, Barbicide, The Abruptors,  Stop the Presses, The Players Band, Bad Operation, Some Ska Band, The Simmertones, Flowerdew's own Bakesys, and you'll walk away with many new faves, including acts like T-Killas, The Kubricks, RudeSix, GoGo 13, Los Fastidios & Elisa Dixan, and more. All participating acts contributed their music to help Kevin keep on publishing future issues of Do the Dog Skazine, which--in old school zine fashion--is only available in its print version from the man himself

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: "Reggae Dynamite, Volume 2" EP w/Melbourne Douglas, The Regulators, and King Deadly

A collage of pictures features male and female anti-racist skinheads, as well as Black, Jamaican sound system operators and deejays.
Original Gravity
7" vinyl picture sleeve EP/digital

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Anyone looking to satisfy a craving for late '60s/early '70s skinhead reggae sounds--Symarip/Pyramids, Harry J Allstars, Dave and Ansel Collins, The Upsetters, and countless others--need look no further than Original Gravity's brilliant Reggae Dynamite, Volume 2. Written, performed, and produced by Neil Anderson plus an ace collective of musicians and singers, this EP sports two fantastic vocal cuts by JA-based Melbourne Douglas, as well as killer instrumentals by The Regulators and King Deadly. At the start of "Rudy Skankin' on the Moon" (shades of "Moon Hop"/"Moonstomp" in theme and sound), Douglas exclaims, "Kingston, we have a problem!" and recounts the hilarious tale of a rude boy accidentally left behind after a moon landing who just has to "keep on moon stompin'' until the next scheduled moon shot can collect him (in three years!). As its title suggests, Douglas' "Rude Boy Don't Fight Tonight" is a mid-tempo, anti-violence plea "to be cool when you go downtown tonight" and features soothing hammond and trombone solos. The Regulators "Caymanas Park Rocket" (Caymanas Park is a racetrack in Portmore, JA, just outside of Kingston) is a spirited instrumental keyboard tribute to a (hopefully) speedy steed, while King Deadly's extraordinary "Joshua A Mek Riddim Run" could be a long-lost Sound Dimension cut--it's one of the best new instrumentals in this vein that I've heard in recent memory. 

(Keep close tabs on the Original Gravity label--they're releasing all sorts of great new ska, soul, funk, and R&B singles as of late. Ska fans should definitely check out Prince Alphonso & The Fever's "Tune Up Ska" single, as well as the other sides available from The Regulators!)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Boomtown United "Tuffer Than I"

The band's name is surrounded by leaves of laurels.
Digital, self-released, 2020
LP/CD/cassette, Jump Up Records, 2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Tuffer Than I is the first full-length from St. Louis, MO's fantastic Boomtown United (I reviewed their debut EP back in 2018). Top to bottom, this is one terrific album, filled with hook-laden, 2 Tone-influenced songs about love and navigating life's struggles. 

Actually, this record covers a whole lotta love. The Chuck Berry-ish "How I Feel" is full of declarations of love (and great sax and trumpet solos): "I wanna be the music that you choose in your darkest of times/A rest, a treble clef, the rhythm and rhyme." The rocksteady scooterist love song "Ride or Die" pledges fidelity forever, no matter what awaits them down the road, while the sweet "Back for You" (and its dub) promises that he'll return from wherever he's being forced to go (jail?). The minor-key "Feels So Nice" conveys some real urgency--even a bit of menace--in its physical longing and lust (which she wants consummated over and over in "Volcano"); "Love You Down" is its more innocent twin--the singer is head-over-heels and can't get her out of his head after she asked him to dance (you'll have trouble getting this song out of your brain, too). The calypso-y "The Only One" lightheartedly tells the tale of two guys who don't know they're in a love triangle ("They’re falling in love while she’s having fun").

A few cuts stray from the subject of sex and romance. "Wayside" urges the listener to cast aside any fears and distractions to prevent them from bogging you down ("Driftaway" seems to be a warning as to what happens when you don't). The super-catchy "Harder Than You Know" is an anthem for people struggling with addiction:

There’s a scent in the air takes me back somewhere
Somewhere I never should have been
And there’s a taste in my mouth, no I can’t get it out
Reminding me of when I was at the edge
I’m at the end of my wits with the shakes and the fits
I desperately need this change
I’ve got to be stronger, hold on them a little longer, and maybe this feeling will fade…

The singer in the spectacular Western ska "Tuffer Than I" features over-the-top, Prince Buster-level rude boy/outlaw boasting as the singer mows down wave after wave of his approaching foes: 

5 by 5, it’s still suicide
We’ve got the coffins in the back
6 by 6, we stack 'em like bricks
We only speak facts
7 by 7, none of them go to heaven
They all go to hell
8 by 8, they accumulate
And you’ll get used to the smell

And, as if to prove their 2 Tone bona fides, Boomtown United includes their scorching version of The Specials' dystopian love song "(Dawning of a) New Era," which they also contributed to the Specialized Records/Jump Up Records Check One-2: Spirit of '79 comp (which I reviewed back in 2019).

If you claim to like 2 Tone ska, Boomtown United's Tuffer Than I is a must get.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Duff Review: The Co-operators & Friends: "Beating the Doldrums"

The pencil drawing features a figure hunched over playing a melodica in a recording studio with instruments and gear strewn about, and plants growing everywhere.
Waggle Dance Records
Digital, 2020
LP, 2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As I sit here typing out my review of The Co-operators & Friends Beating the Doldrums, I worry that I won't do this phenomenal and beautifully crafted album justice. Not only have ace musician/producer Eeyun Purkins and his crew of exceptional collaborating singers and players created a collection of stellar ska and roots reggae songs, they've managed to adroitly articulate all of the injustice, absurdity, violence, oppression, suffering, and dread that many people experience while simply trying to get by in this day and age. The Co-operators & Friends' Beating the Doldrums delivers relatable glimpses into everyday lives that are sharply and unfussily portrayed--and, at times, are almost poetic in their imagery. And the music is highly melodic, always memorable, and absolutely magnificent. 

A common thread in many of these songs is the challenge of trying to survive in the big city. The majestic reggae track "Gentrification" is both celebration of the vibrant multicultural communities that thrive in less-wealthy urban neighborhoods (expressed through the fantastic diversity of food, like Joe Stummer's "Bhindi Bhagee") and staunch defense against greedy real estate developers intent on destroying it all just to line their pockets. (It's so catchy that I woke up this morning with this track running though my head.)

Down on the city’s street
I can hear the distant beat
Of the soundsystem
Rocking the bass and drum

Cramped from the tower blocks
Down to the squats and shops
Buy Ackee caliloo
Bhaji, Dahl and samosa, too

Rich in culture and community
Next door neighbours like family
And I loved it that way
Before the money men came to play

Gentrification (Invasion, invasion)
Gentrification (Invasion invasion)

You talk with scorn uptown
About how things are going down
You talk about our streets in fear
Dangerous 'cos you're not welcome here

You come to take life blood
From the place you call the hood
You're sending in the law
Looking for papers, drugs and more

Joe Yorke's transcendent falsetto on this tracks and others is something to behold and, as I've previously noted in another review, similar in calibre to The Congos and Junior Murvin. 

The urgent ska cut "Sleepwalkers" conveys how urban life can be bleak and soul-crushing (and suggests that escaping to the country may be the only salvation); Kitma delicately sings, "Even when the sun shines, it's raining/So we stay here in the cage, and fire, dazing/And the smoke clouds up my face/I'll sleepwalk back to bed/And dream about the right way/I've got to out of this place." In the mournful "Agony," Lintang sings about how she is left despondent and almost paralyzed by how our system of living has failed so many people in myriad ways: "Agony, agony got me front, left, and sideways...everything seems broken." "Concrete, Steel and Stone" (released as a single on Happy People Records--read my review of it) features Perkie's gorgeous vocals (delivered quite gently, as she's bearing bad tidings that we know in our hearts are true), which float over a brisk ska beat and express profound sorrow and regret that we live the way we do--out of synch with nature and the world around us, in a prison of our own making (that may be turning into a tomb): "Cars cross fibres, thread veins, sew layers, vessels of busy brains/We don't always notice our chains/So, we don't make change/We stick to the root we feel most comfortable in/But is this your skin?" Lives are off-kilter or becoming increasingly untenable.

But not all is unbearable. 

The bright Spanish-language "Florecer" (to thrive or flourish) sung by Elio AM sounds like something that could have come off The Clash's Sandinista (which I've been listening to a lot, since it was just the 40th anniversary of its release), and the sprightly ska of "Pocket Change" (are you down on your luck and asking for some or is it all you have to get by on?) features some great guitar and keyboard solos. And there's the righteous reggae cut "The Thief & The Liar," about a reckoning for corrupt politicians, who ignore their responsibility to serving the public good at their own peril. Perkie's delivery is fantastically laid-back and confident--world-weary, but determined to set things right.

We could spend our time waiting for them to save us
It's like wasting your days waiting for the bus
The first one doesn't come, and the second one's too late
So, it's best to walk your own way and seal your own fate...

...Bring another log for the fire
And throw on the Thief and the Liar

Can you feel the flames burning?
Bet you wish you weren't a politician
You call us criminals, but you're the crooks that throw the book for all the liberties that you took
You dig your own grave, hard and dogged Thief
The wolves are hungry, looking for something to eat
And they're coming for you, live or dead
It's all on your own head, you made your own bed...

Joe Yorke sings about the casual violence encountered on nighttime transport after the pubs close down is given--in a gently parodic fashion--Homeric epic poem status in the delightful "War on the Nightbus" (shades of "War ina Babylon"):

It was night then and the moon was low
Im was on the night bus moving so slow
Packed in like sardines, tight we were tight
Somebody tell me please did the city sleep that night?

Down in St Paul’s they were dancing til the morning
But on the top deck they started warring
They a shout and they push and push come to shove
Down the stairs he fell, crashing down from above

War, war, war on the night bus
Ism and schism, they fight and they fuss

He was loud and his mouth ran so fast
He stayed on the bus and I saw it sprint past
But he didn’t stay long, the eviction came firm
After he tumbled down the stairs he landed on the curb
I saw a look of shock glimmer in his eyes
As the fists and the kicks silenced his cries
He had it coming I have to say
But I just can’t take the conflict these days

It's brilliant.

For all the longing to flee the concrete jungle, life in the country is not necessarily idyllic. In the gorgeous "High on the Mountain," Beanie sings about someone who couldn't make the escape with her--the loss she feels even in such an awe-inspiring place: "Oh, I wonder if you ever think of me/Or if time's blown your memory/As I listen to the breeze blow gently through the trees..." In the beautiful, dream-like track "Turnpike Town" with vocals by Joe Yorke, this hidden, semi-mythical spot in the countryside may not be the hoped for Zion: "You might get chased by a pack of dogs/Or you might just be fine, who knows?...You could say that it's a refuge from Babylon's cruel embrace/But we all know liberty lives in a long forgotten place." Perhaps it's best to seek a balance between city and country life?

There are no answers offered in Beating the Doldrums. Yet the emotions and many of the experiences expressed in these songs are shared by everyone--and The Co-operators & Friends' music that expresses all of these hopes, fears, and blues, is in a language that unites us, can be a companion that sustains us in our darkest hours, and has the potential to save us from ourselves. 

The Co-operators & Friends Beating the Doldrums is, hands down, one of the best records I've heard in recent memory.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: Kitma "Runnin'" b/w "Runnin' Dub" and The Soul Sauce meets Kim Yulhee (featuring Yun Seok Cheol) "East Sea"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

  • The vinyl single paper label lists the performer, song title, and imprint (Happy People Records)
    While I'm still in the process of digesting musician and producer Eeyun Purkins' brilliant new album Beating the Doldrums by The Co-operators and Friends, he and Kitma--one of the wonderful singers in his musical orbit--have issued a new heavyweight (in every sense of the word) single "Runnin'" b/w "Runnin' Dub" (7" vinyl single/digital, Happy People Records, 2020). The alluring and hypnotic reggae cut "Runnin'" is a journey through a series of surreal nighttime visions (chasing whiskers blowing about; crawling through walls): "I'm in a lucid dream...Where the lights go out and the people can't sleep/Nothing but heels gonna follow my feet...I'm on the run again." The odd goings-on are subtly reinforced by the slightly off-rhythm thumb-piano sounds tinkling in the background in the left speaker/headphone. And its dub version is even trippier with a heavy dose of menace in the mix (a brash pipe organ-like horn blares out the melody in parts). This is the business!
  • The vinyl single paper label features the artists and song title, and the sleeve features a stylized drawing of a tree.
    The latest single from The Soul Sauce "East Sea" (7" vinyl single/digital, Eastern Standard Sounds, 2021) continues their collaboration with pansori singer Kim Yulhee as they reimagine traditional Korean folk music in ska and reggae settings (see my review of their "Swallow Knows" single from earlier this year). For South Koreans, the East Sea holds considerable spiritual, cultural, and historical significance (and there has been a long-standing dispute with Japan over its name that is particularly loaded, as it relates to Japan's brutal annexation of Korea from 1905-1945), and this type of Korean folk song--a Minyo--expresses the emotions of everyday people through songs of struggle, heartbreak, and despair. From what I can tell (and if Google Translate is accurate enough), the song is about someone traveling at sea (or they have already reached their destination), separated from the one they love: "At the pier where I left, only my heart embraced me/Are you carelessly leaving me?/When will you come?/When you leave, I'm waiting for that day to come...Even tonight, only the lighthouse lights flicker so lonely/Ulleungdora [a volcanic island] towering over the East Sea." Despite these downbeat lyrics, the music is brisk and cheery top-notch traditional ska, and Kim Yulhee's singing is rousing and vigorous (as opposed to mournful and defeated). It's different from the standard ska fare--but really amazing!