Originals - Steel Pulse

John Masouri in Echoes

March 2006

"It's been thirty years since I picked up my guitar for the first time, and we've been to hell and back during that time," says Steel Pulse's David Hinds, whose chimney pot dreads have gifted the band its most arresting visual identity over the years. David is the lead singer, guitarist, chief songwriter and also spokesman for Pulse, whose Rasta imbued message songs continue to find a worldwide audience, despite their intermittent bouts of popularity here in England. Prophets are rarely honoured in own lands after all, and yet their last album, African Holocaust, remains as relevant and hard-hitting as ever thanks to songs like Blazing Fire, Dem A Wolf, and Global Warning, plus cameo appearances from Capleton and Damian Marley.

Their journey began in 1974, when Hinds and his friend Basil Gabbidon started jamming in David's basement. Their first gig happened a year later at the Crompton pub in Handsworth, where the two schoolmates were joined by Selwyn Brown on keyboards, Ronnie McQueen on bass, and Basil's brother Colin on drums. It was a time of growing cultural awareness among British born blacks, and bands like Aswad, Misty In Roots, and Black Slate had responded to the clarion calls from Jamaica by forging their own brand of roots reggae music - one informed by the British experience, rather than the shanty towns of the Caribbean. After winning a talent competition where first prize was a recording session with Matumbi's Dennis Bovell, Steel Pulse debuted with Nyah Love on the Anchor label in 1976. London gigs followed - Colin Gabbidon having been replaced by Steve Nesbitt, and the line-up expanded to include Michael Riley and Alphonso Martin on vocals and percussion.

By 1978, they'd signed to Island Records for three albums, beginning with Handsworth Revolution and Tribute To The Martyrs. Pulse's politicised militancy, which bore parallels with the spiky, angst-ridden emotions of punk, was heard to electrifying effect on songs like Handsworth Revolution, Prodigal Son and Ku Klux Klan - anthems of stirring quality one and all, and the tunes upon which the band's reputation stll rests to many, almost thirty years later. At its best, Pulse's late seventies material is vibrant and challenging, locked into the Marley blueprint but engaging in its use of bright melodies and hook lines. This whilst simmering with genuine resentment about life in Britain's inner cities, which led black and white youths alike to quickly identify with other songs of alienation like Drug Squad, Macka Splaff, Harassment, Babylon Makes The Rules and Sound System, which gave an unflinchingly honest account of life under Margaret Thatcher.

Pulse enjoyed three near-chart hits and backed Marley on a European tour whilst signed to Island, after which they struggled to compete with first Two Tone, and then the UK dancehall explosion. "The music industry disowned us at that stage, because in calling the music something else, namely 2 Tone, they were divorcing bands like us from what was happening," Hinds attests. "We weren't a part of it, even though it was our roots. Acts like Yellowman were the flavours of that decade, and a lot of people were led to believe, and especially the white masses within the music industry, that the political attributes of the music stopped after Bob Marley passed, not knowing that there were other bands like us doing the same thing. That's how it's been ever since. We spent a lot of time in Europe and the United States after that, where people still recognised reggae. England was saying that it was old hat, and was busy giving attention to the ska revival and whatever the punks were dealing with at the time."

By their second album, Tribute To The Martyrs, they'd added a horn section and consolidated their sound with help from producer Karl Pitterson. Instrumentally, the tracks had become more complex, and their lyrical themes wider in scope. Del Newman and then Geoffrey Chung took over for their last Island set Caught You, but the band were eventually dropped in the middle of their debut US tour in 1980 amidst growing label machinations and management disputes. The following year they became the first British reggae band to perform at Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica, where they are still held in high regard for having stuck to their roots and original inspiration.

Their next album, True Democracy, was recorded in Denmark and released on the band's own Wise Man Doctrine label. Tracks like Rally Round and Ravers were easily the equal of anything they'd recorded beforehand, and, yet had a thoroughly contemporary sound, enshrining Pulse's reputation among Britain's premier reggae outfits. True Democracy became the first of three albums for Elektra, who followed it with Earth Crisis in 1984. Songs of the quality of Steppin' Out, Bodyguard, Rollerskates and the title track should have ensured the band a Grammy award in 1985, but Black Uhuru, who'd already split up by then, won it instead. They did win a Grammy for their next set, Babylon The Bandit, although David Hinds wasn't the only one who thought this album wasn't anywhere near as good as its predecessor, and in fact several years went by before he even collected the trophy. Led by Not Kings James Version, Babylon The Bandit had appeared among recrimintaions between Pulse and Elektra, who'd refused to pay for lyrics to be printed on the album sleeve. The search was on for a new label and MCA won the race, although their attempts to transform Steel Pulse into a chart and/or FM radio band ultimately led to compromises that suited neither party.

State of Emergency was the first of four albums for them, and received mixed reviews on its release in 1988. This was the same year Pulse's Can't Stand The Heat appeared on the soundtrack of the Spike Lee movie, Do The Right Thing. Gigs supporting Santana and Bob Dylan then confirmed their growing popularity in the US before they headed back to Birmingham to record Victims. 1992 saw the release of Rastafari Centennial, which they recorded live in Paris, and a date with Bill Clinton, who invited them to play at his inauguration ceremony. Their final album for MCA, 1994's Vex, was recorded in Jamaica, and again contained its fair share of highlights, including Islands Unite, Back To My Roots and Bootstraps, featuring Tony Rebel. A year of internal changes followed, after which David took over control of the band's affairs. One of his first acts was to reactivate the Wise Man Doctrine label, upgrade facilities at their Birmingham studio, the Dub Factory, and record Franklin's Tower for an album of Grateful Dead reggae covers.

A hits collection, Rastanthology, then compiled the best of the group's post-Island output before they joined forces with Graham Dickson for Rage and Fury, which Blue Moon released in 1997. It was their first studio album in four years, and recorded in its entirety at the Dub Factory. Critics described it as their most convincing collection of songs in over a decade, since it bristled with the kind of fiery polemics used at the outset of their career, and was tougher musically than anything we'd heard from them in a long while.

Pulse's problem was that they sought to project themselves as freedom fighters, but would have to occasionally dilute their music as they bounced from one major label to another. This habit rendered their message a little hollow at times, but they've sounded hungry again in recent years since assuming control of their own musical direction. The title of Rage and Fury was a clear indication of intent, and was borne out by tracks like Black and Proud, KKK In the Jungle [a remake of their 1878 hit, Ku Klux Klan] and The Real Terrorist, which are typically uncompromising. The latter's an accusing protest song on a grand scale, with its stubborn b-line and snarling lead guitar: Black Enough features Spearhead's Michael Franti, whilst Role Model and I Spy are the closest tracks to outright dancehall in their entire repertoire. In contrast Brown Eyed Girl was radio-friendly to the max, except Radio 1 refused to play it for some reason, thus delaying the band's renaissance on a wider scale.

Only Selwyn Brown and Steve Nesbitt were left of the original Pulse line-up by this time, but David Hinds has always been their focal point, and so long as he's still writing the songs and fronting the band, there's little discernible difference. This was proved when Steve 'Grizzly' Nesbitt went missing from the last album, African Holocaust, which has Wayne 'C-Sharp' Clarke playing drums in his place. After thirty years on the road, it's inevitable that people want a break from the endless round of touring and recording. He and other former members deserve their rest, whilst David himself should be commened for keeping the spirit of Pulse alive and kicking well into the millennium, despite the obstacles they've faced over the years.

"The system knows that we know what they're trying to do by stifling everything we say," he says, referring to the band's struggles in connecting with a mainstream audience. "That's how it's been all the time, and this is why Steel Pulse has had such a hard time. I've seen interview after interview about exploitation, and yet there's nobody who's been honest about what's happened to Steel Pulse. We've been knocking about for years, along with the rest of our contemporaries from the British reggae scene, and yet this music wasn't accepted until UB40 - a mixed band - started playing it. We know how it is, and we in Steel Pulse don't give a damn in pointing that out."

That he's still unbowed, and still writing, singing and recording as if his life depends on it, says a great deal about the enduring power and quality of Pulse's music. If he keeps on for another thirty years, they may even receive some long-overdue respect and recognition here in Britain, where grassroots audiences seem to prefer their musical heroes to be Jamaican, rather than from the same streets as them. In the meantime, look out for a dub album of African Holocaust featuring engineers such as Dr Dread, Dennis Bovell, Stephen Stanley and others. To be released on the band's own label, naturally.

Text copyright Echoes 2006, used without permission.

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