No Jah-babble in-a Birmingham

Pete Silverton in Sounds

22 April 1978

Steel Pulse relax in a park [photo: Jill Furmanovsky: Sounds]

"Reggae is hip. Punks said it was ok way back and how the parasitic shower of hustlers and sycophants who comprise the music biz are catching on. Starting the big climb up the white rock candy mountain, (Steel Pulse are) now headlining gigs at smoothie London venues." The Leveller, March 78. "Four hundred years...slav'ry...four hundred years...slavery."

As the seven-piece throat of Steel Pulse concentrates hard on spinning their acapella tale of enslavement, concentrates on phasing, on timing, on melody and if it's in time and then the imports of the words, the debris flies towards the stage, lobbed by the same knuckle-headed Stranglers' fans that are taking great delight at proving they've got at least some bodily secretions by gobbing hard and constant at this vision of seven craziliy-dressed niggers who keep on singing. "Four hundred years...."

"It was worth it, wasn't it?" offers one of the wits in the audience, while the rest just clap out of time, trying to make the band miss its beats. Smiling Jet Black shifts his advanced years and eighty-five stone into action, wanders on to the stage and grabs the mike. "You bunch of wankers. We invited this group. They're our guests. We like 'em." The crowd of course, slip immediately into a wonderful imitation of church mice. "He came on," explains Steel Pulse singer Michael Riley, "because we didn't come off. We stayed on while they were chucking tin cans and flobbing at us. The Stranglers expected us to come off. They were standing at the side and were surprised to see us stay on." "The Stranglers came onstage and stood up for us," adds keyboard player Selwyn Brown, "from then on it was up to us to stand up for ourselves as well. People have got to stand up for their rights. It's just the rights of living. That's all it is."

Welcome, one and all, to this piece by one of the parasitic shower of hustlers and sycophants. The same shower that Steel Pulse are now involved with every day as their first single for Island, Ku Klux Klan, steps steadily up the charts. The same shower that helped it on its way. Presumably the same shower that's currently ensuring that such an infectious (and serious) slice of vinyl rhythm gets less airplay that Devo's Satisfaction. Michael Aspel might play Ohio remake/remodels but he wouldn't (so far) soil his decks with fiery young black Handsworth revolution. The whole of the radio world seems to have decided just what side it's on when it comes to Steel Pulse. There's even documentary proof of their exclusion from the airways. Check out the airplay frequency rating in the trade paper Record Business and you'll see that KKK is getting less spins than just about any other record in the Top Hundred. That doesn't necessarily imply a conspiracy - although the band's tale of one Birmingham dee-jay being threatened with the sack if he played it certainly points that way - but it's yet abother indication of the barriers that can seem so strong, so unimportant that sometimes you can even forget they're there. Hell, even we've dealt Steel Pulse a touch of the cold elbow. Despite the fact that we put baby-faced guitarist David Hinds on the cover last Autumn (the 'Jah Punk' special), this is the first proper feature on the band that's appeared in these hallowed pages.

'Blackman do unto the Klan as they would do to you, in this case hate thy neighbour, those cowards only kill who they fear, that's why they hide behind the hoods and cloaks they wear.' Imagine that sung by two black guys with KKK type white hoods draped over their noddles and you've got an idea of the potency of Steel Pulse onstage. In full swing and chanting down Babylon, they're a unified, spectral presence. In their, er, demonstrative, stage clothes, they look like a heaven and hell voodoo dream. If you think this is just more pseudo left-wing liberal dribblings (thank you for your delightful phone call, Tottenham NF), that Steel Pulse are only in favour this week because they're indulging in the sort of fashionable political spiel that appeals to us scribbers, well Steel Pulse are just as much Steel Pulse when they stamp out the very stoned fun of Collieman which is about their drummer, Steve Nesbitt, who has the habit of grabbing every last sliver of smoke and sucking it down into his lungs.

But, evade the question whichever way I or you want, songs like KKK and Handsworth Revolution, the title track of their forthcoming album, are still the focal point. They're why the band existed in the first place, godammit. And it is certainly not trendy band-waggoning. Speaking to Selwyn and Michael in Island Studio where they're recording with ex-Wailers engineer and ultra-hospitable Karl Pitterson producing, they stressed that they'd been playing KKK for a long time, that they'd felt for a long time that they'd had something to say. "Where the drive came from really," explained Selwyn, "was hearing music like Bob Marley's Catch A Fire and Burnin'. At that time it was unheard of for reggae to sound like that. It wasn't really the words and the time. When you got into the music, you got into the words later. It was like growing up in this country right, I got used to hearing arranged music all the time. Even down to pop music, Beatles music. It has a good intro. You always get a good middle and catchy melodies and this and that. And reggae - even though I was into it at the time - it wasn't strong enough that it'd make me pick up an instrument."

And, merely noting the small point that I think whites picked up on Marley's lyrics first and the music came later, that pretty well explains why Steel Pulse could play a very central role in British music if they conquer the new territory they're beginning to map out. For black kids, because they'll be speaking to them directly from and about their own experiences, bypassing the distorting mirror of any messianic notions of a sunny, smiling homeland in the sun and recognising that, in Britain today, no-one can avoid the sticky and seductive clutches of immaculately-crafted Abba-style empty-headedness. For white kids, they've got the same kind of spade cool that attracted skinheads to the Pioneers and punks to heavy dub and, unlike say Black Slate, they don't attempt to reach the audience by indulging in a whole embarassing slew of showbiz bullshit like getting a bunch of atheistic honkies to sing out 'Rastafari' - all that appeals to is social workers and those with heavy guilt consciences.

Steel Pulse vocalists in the studio [photo: Molly Dineen]

All the band, more or less, come from Handsworth, a suburb of Birmingham that's come in for more than its fair share of immigrant horror stories. Calling the album Handsworth Revolution, they obviously feel strongly about the place. Elton John didn't call his debut Pinner Punch-up.

Michael: "Well it's not like what all the reports say about it like it's dark and crowded and they've chopped all the trees down so we can't swing in them and you can't walk down the road 'cos you'll get mugged and you can't go out at night (if you're white) 'cos you'll stick out like a sore thumb. All those rumours just ain't true. Go there yourself and see. You asked me about it like it was a thousand miles away. It's only Birmingham." Selwyn: "We feel comfortable there because there's a spirit down there, a sort of community spirit which we can't really find anywhere else. We'd like to see youth in Handsworth - all over as a matter of fact - we'd like to see 'em get together. But we're gonna start from our home and the place we feel most at home at in Britain is Handsworth." Michael: "It's been given such a bad name. We're trying to clean the name up, put it on the map as somewhere people, decent people live. Give people there - and by this I mean the youth - something to go for. It's like say I wasn't in a band and a group came from Handsworth and they called their record Handsworth Revolution, it would make me feel good and give me something to aim for. We called the album that because it talks about the black man and his situation. To listen to what's actually being said though is too much work when you want to enjoy yourself. And we understood that. So that's why we went to the extreme of the stage wear and hoods. As far as the gigs, that's all we can do. But for the elpee we can have a lyric sheet."

I told you about the KKK hoods but all the time onstage, the band are dressed as strikingly, as bizzarely. Selwyn as a soldier, Michael in priest's vestments (which are shrinking so fast, they'll soon be little more than a shimmy shirt). Ronald McQueen, the bassist, in top hat and tails. Fonso Martin, singer and percussionist, in bow tie and dude suit. Selwyn: "The clothes came out spontaneously but the reason they came out spontaneously was because of our material." Michael: "The hoods seemed extreme at the time but that's what we are in a way. When we wore them people started questioning what the song was about instead of just dancing to it."

Moving on, what about the Jah Punk business which I myself always thought rather spurious as it took the enthusiasm of a few white kids for reggae and the (supposed) similarity of the punk and poor black environment and turned it into a theory. Hardly the suff that went to construct the Socratic dialogues. Michael: "At the time we needed the exposure and we done it. As to what our fellow associates, so-called friends in Handsworth thought, they said we'd sold out. Our black following disappeared. We were a black punk band at that time." Selwyn: "As far as cutting out things like racism goes the link just wasn't that big, it was just a sort of fad. But the good thing was that people got into the music." Do you listen to any punk yourself? "I like the Stranglers and the Sex Pistols. The Stranglers mainly for the music itself. The rhythmic thing. It's got rhythm and it's strong and they attack. And when they go onstage, they're professional. They don't mess about. The Sex Pistols that's where the lyrics come in. Johnny Rotten's just taking the piss out of society and for a young white guy in this time to do that it's good 'cos he'll influence a lot of people."

What about the future? Selwyn: "Our convictions won't get any less strong because of the reaction from both sides...people buying our records and people attacking them." After I switch off the tape and started to go, Selwyn kept on talking, seemingly enjoying explaining himself and his music to a curious stranger/journalist. Then he picked up his Rock Against Racism badge and, rather curiously dropped his thick Brummie accent and slipped into Jamaican speech rhythms. It was as though he was unconsciously conveying how important it was to him. "It's a good badge, see, 'cos it means three things as I see it. First rock, meaning rock music, rock business against racism. Second, rock like you're rockin' like dancin' against racism. Then, it's like rock, like stone...hard. Like a pebble. Put it in the water and nothing can wash it away."

Text copyright Sounds 1978, used without permission.

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