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Pulse beat

Dave Ramsden in Melody Maker

1 April 1978

Steel Pulse group photo - from Melody Maker.

Steel Pulse are a young black seven-piece reggae band from the Handsworth district of Birmingham. Four were born here and the other three have been in England since their childhood. Like the other British reggae bands this means that their music, while it has its roots in a Jamaican tradition, strongly reflects the feelings of the black community in England.

Out of this a new kind of reggae is emerging. British bands are no longer merely trying to imitate Jamaican music but are finding styles of their own. Recognition has been slow in coming to them, however, and paradoxically for Steel Pulse and some of the other bands it has been with white audiences that they have first made their major breakthrough after years of playing the small black clubs. This is perhaps because black people have always regarded British reggae as inferior to the more 'rootsy' Jamaican music whereas the punks who discovered reggae for the first time had no such prejudices. It wasn't unrtil they played as support to Burning Spear at the Rainbow that they reached black people in a big way.

Steel Pulse started around the end of '72 when David Hinds (lead vocals and guitar), Basil Gabbidon (lead guitar and vocals) and Ronnie McQueen (bass), inspired by the Wailers' 'Catch A Fire' album, decided to make some music of their own. Only Basil could play but he taught the others, and with the addition of some school and college friends the band was formed...Selwyn Brown (keyboards and vocals), Fonso Martin (vocals and percussion), Michael Riley (vocals and percussion) and Steve Nesbitt (drums) make up the rest of the band.

They played occasional gigs on the local West Indian club circuit, and with the proceeds, about 100, they made their first single Kibudu Mansatta Abuku. The breakthrough came when they played at the Vortex with Generation X and were a great success. A tour with the Stranglers and a successful single Nyah Love, gained them a strong punk following, and then came the Burning Spear tour. Now, with a contract with Island and a new single, Ku Klux Klan, they look set for even greater success.

Reggae is a music that deals with reality. Situations, however, vary from place to place and life in England is very different from life in Jamaica, while life in Birmingham is also different from life in London. When I met David, Michael and Fonso I asked them if they felt that coming from Birmingham gave them a different viewpoint. "Completely different. The environment for a start. We're not looking at things as commercially as in London. What we're doing is coming from what we've experienced in the environment, like suffering - not on a great scale like in other cultures but on a small scale - our suffering. We see the people in London as having a thing to live up to. It's not there in Birmingham. You've got to do what you're doing right and then come to London and really get it across. In London, you're supposed to be doing it so people will like it."

Though black and white mix well enough, after school, when most of the white kids get jobs and the blacks don't, contact is lost and frustration and resentment creeps in. As David puts it; "I used to know white people at school and college. After I left I was on the dole for about a year. I didn't come into contact with white people at all except when I went to the dentist or to sign on. That's when I really knew what was happening. I tried getting jobs. I've got five 'O' levels and an 'A' level and every job I go for they say 'sorry mate, you haven't got the experience'."

With the National Front capitalising on the economic situation by directing white people's fears and insecurities against black people, life is not easy. Perhaps the acceptance of reggae by white people can do something to help by at least opening up lines of communication. If they pay attention to the lyrics it might at least produce a little more understanding. Says Michael; "It works both ways. Some get into it for the wrong reasons. they go so far and they don't want to go any further. A lot are into the music just for the music and they don't understand what's being said. It helps in the way that a black man can have something to live for - it's his breadline. But if it's his breadline he's just going to churn it out. Rubbish that's going to be accepted by white people who've just got into it. But those who know are going to say it's rubbish. It's good that reggae brings white people a little closer to black people's situation. It's not going to do nothing, just bring them a little closer."

They are very concerned that commercial pressure may dilute the music in the process of it gaining wider acceptance. However, the bands they cite as personal favourites, the Wailers, Burning Spear, Third World and the Gladiators, have all managed considerable success while still playing strong and committed music. "Punks can see a different approach and a different lifestyle. That's why I have a lot of respect for the punks. Punks were more aware of what we were saying than even some black people."

Text copyright Melody Maker 1978, used without permission.


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