Looking For Democracy

Greg Marshall in Black Music

April 1982

Steel Pulse on the cover of Black Music April 1982

Caught inna limbo, musicwise and lyricswise: Steel Pulse's content was always a little too down to earth for Babylon's liberalthinkingaylibbinwhalesavingnonukinreggaebuyin' trendies, and not nearly mystical or incomprehensible enough for pie-in-the-sky idren. And the mainstream radio programmers threw it out for being too black. Short of dressing up as pirates or building pyramids, the band's short haul to oblivion seemed inevitable. That was five years ago. Today, backed by their own record label and management company, the near-forgotten sons of Handsworth have strutted back into town bearing musics and attitude that don't seem to have changed. Just how was it done? Greg Marshall asks David Hinds.

The first time I met David Hinds, Pulse's front man, it was 1980 and I was doing an interview for 'Britain's only black magazine', which ought to remain nameless. Hinds was sharp. Three years of standing on the verge had honed his natural edge, and as we talked off the end of a C120 cassette he dealt with everything from the Bristol riots to tuning a guitar. Laying it down, then tearing it up.

All too near the bone to nuzzle up next to the curly perm ads and Knightsbridge clothes, or so it seemed. The closest 'Britain's only black magazine' brought it to publication was 'well, it's very good, but all this talk about being black is hardly what we want in a black magazine.' It was consigned to the Maybe One Day file, and forgotten. So when the album True Democracy brought with it a second chance, with a more upfront magazine, I was glad to find Hinds as high spirited, humourous and incisive as the last time. After a good laugh about the fate of the last feature, and a cryptic "I thought as much" from grinning Michelin Man of a dread Pulseperson Andy Bowen, we got down to the serious business of Pulse past, present and future.

"In the beginning, it all seemed to get off to a flying start. Everybody was digging the music, sales were good, we got a lot of work and there were no complaints." Hinds is referring to the pre-Two Tone period of hope, when the Anti Nazi League rallies billed black and white acts together and had almost an entire generation rocking against racism in parks and auditoriums up and down the land. Ok so far, but it was from here that the problems started. "We were introduced to the public and the media as a punk/reggae band, which was wrong. At the ANL concerts, punk bands were always top of the bill, which put a lot of the black audience off. Then, when we did Ku Klux Klan (their first major single), the subject matter was taken the wrong way. People couldn't really see what we were saying, they thought we were pro KKK and turned away from us. That was a funny thing, because many of the same people bought the album, Handsworth Revolution, and found that too radical. By then though, black people had started to take an interest in what we were doing, which was a good thing, but by now we were getting popular. We got Top of the Pops, Rock Goes to College and such like, and the black people that had been listening stopped taking us seriously. A band, or anybody, that has made it in the white man's eyes is often not seen as good from an ethnic or cultural point of view. The cultural revolution will not be televised!"

Things didn't look quite so cool for Steel Pulse now. Rock Against Racism didn't really last, their record sales dropped off and the band's ace-in-the-hole, their supercharged stage show, wasn't enough to save them (because it's records that sell show tickets, and not the other way around). Conflict with record company and management alike led to contracts being discontinued, and the decision to go it alone. The two years' silence starts here, when for all people connected with reggae music in this country seemed to know or care, it was as if Steel Pulse had never existed.

Not so. While Babylon slumbered, the Birmingham beavers made busy. "During the last two years the band was mostly on the road, abroad, and trying to get our own business side together. In that time our contract with the management we used to have ran out, and we decided to set up our own business. The band did spend a lot of time getting knowledge and experience of the business so we could do it for ourselves. Until we started on the album (late in 1981), we did a lot of tours. Most of it was in the States.

Steel Pulse records have always enjoyed healthy sales on the other side of the Atlantic, and the recent upsurge in the popularity of reggae music (Stevie Wonder, Gill Scott-Heron, War, etc) as a valid and vital cultural expression in black America put Pulse in the right place at the right time. The 'right place' it seems was all over the place, and their tours of the continent took in everywhere: New York, Atlanta, California, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago and most points in between. How did it go down? "It went down a storm! As a matter of fact, from right since Steel Pulse has ever been together as a band, I think the States was the best reception we've ever had. We were playing to people who like the music, were curious to see the band and genuinely believe in what the band has got to say. Before they even saw the band, they were into it, so when we actually came there and played it was like a bonus. And we didn't disappoint them, it wasn't like they were saying 'Oh gosh, I was expecting something better, or different', it was a tremendous response. That boosted the band's morale, we needed it. Believe me, those two years weren't easy."

To me, black America has always had a more positive approach to black consciousness than my home country has yet found: it is part of the lifestyle, rather than a hobby. Therefore, Steel Pulse should appeal. But wouldn't a song about Handsworth, for instance, come over as slightly irrelevant to a kid living on Chicago's South Side? "We found that the people over there took the subject matter of Steel Pulse music a lot more seriously than they do in this country. It does pertain to them a lot directly, with things like Tribute To The Martyrs, George Jackson and stuff, but also we reach them indirectly. Although what we sing about is situations that are happening in England, it's universal. It's what we said at the end of Handsworth Revolution: 'One black represents all, all over the world'. What we were saying is that although it is a Handsworth revolution, the same instances are happening in places like Johannesburg, Zimbabwe, Harlem and Watts, and they could understand that. I think that the reason our subject matter was taken so seriously, is that things are changing in America. Blacks in America are now tuning into the same sort of frequencies that they were tuning into in the sixties. Because since the Panthers, and Civil Rights back then, nothing has really happened for them - but now they are seeing certain things happening for black people in other parts of the world, they feel that once again, things can happen for them."

"Like we were in the States when all those riots were happpening in England, and I'll tell you this much, there's a lot of black people over there who don't have England in mind as a country, especially to know that there's a lot of black people here. But when they found out, it was in their news about so much riots and that, and it reminded them of what happened in Watts and Detroit. It boosted their spirits, that riots were happening over here, and added to that more militant mood. Now they are aware of England and what is going on here and they want to learn more about it. And that's where Steel Pulse music can help. I think the people in America will be able to relate to the new album a great deal as well. There's a track on it called Who's Responsible?, and when I wrote it I had the Deptford fire in mind. It happened just before we went away, and I had it in my head all the time we were touring and got the vibe to write that song. Then when we were away I found out all about those kids missing and murdered in Atlanta, so that particular tune I dedicated to the parents of those children. It's all the same thing, and I think that in the States they will see that we all face the same pressures all across the world, and will relate to the album because of that."

The new album, although the band's best artistically, is perhaps the hardest to relate to here at home. It contains two tracks, Rally Round and Leggo Beast, that at first hearing seem to go in direct contradiction to Hinds' previous ideals on record, and Hinds as I know him. Respectively, they talk about back-to-Africa, something I've always felt did more harm than good to an already disillusioned UK youth, and women seen as sirens seducing men away from the straight and narrow, one of the less tolerable and more publicised aspects of Rasta. Has time changed any thoughts, or was it just appearances being deceptive? "Rally Round is a rallying call. I put together a lot of Marcus Garvey's concepts and doctrines to become a story line, so people who have never read them could attune to them musically. I don't actually say 'Back to Africa' on it, because my stance on that has not altered. I still believe that it is very important for anybody, especially a black person, who is stuck in a country that is alien to himself to make ends meet in that country before trying to make ends meet anywhere else. You have to know what you are doing where you are, before you can go somewhere else and try to do something. But, Africa as part of our history and culture is very important spiritually, and it could apply physically, just that when the time is right for each individual so that it wouldn't be going from the frying pan into the fire."

"Chant A Psalm is much the same, it says read your psalms, your scriptures, and there you will find the answers. Mostly the album is about finding the truth within yourself, through studying Africa, the Bible or anything that will help. The album is comprised of varied subject matters that all lead to the one concept. That concept is to try to find a place where we can really get things together through faith. Get things together as a nation with fairness and righteousness, because if you have those things, you're bound to find love." A closer examination of the Rally Round lyrics proved that to be true: it is more an education than a call for mass migration, it's just phrased a bit subtly.

The mention of Leggo Beast brought a wry smile to Hinds' face. "I wonder why that's giving people trouble! I had a feeling it would, but it's in no sense showing a chauvinistic attitude. Simply it's saying that we black people have got to get our own house in order, and that's one of the ways to do it. But there's certain women that decide to do the contrary, and break up a lot of togetherness within the community, like destroy certain things within the home. Then, if things go wrong in the home, the community will break down. I know that men can do it also, but you find that there's so many songs talking about men doing it yet there's always two sides to everything. It's not about all women either, just a few. I, and the rest of the band, hold women in the greatest respect. Who's the first person you see in the world? Who gives you the love and affection you need? I don't hold with women being second class or anything like that, and the true Rastas don't either. The song was a certain vibe that I had at the time, and I knew it would lead to controversy. I though a lot about leaving it off the album, but I must've written it for a reason, so I left it on. A little controversy can sometimes be a good thing (another wry smile), but I hope in the end that people don't take it the wrong way because it was written with the best intentions." I'm glad that's all cleared up, because if Steel Pulse had changed their ways, there wouldn't be much left. They've always been one of the most realistic, mentally-together reggae bands.

We move on to the future. Aside from Handsworth Revolution, which had first-time-around shock value, True Democracy has been the best received album from Pulse. "I think this one will do well, because the sound of reggae music in this country is changing, and our style will fit in better now. Five years ago, the bands were just imitating the Jamaican sounds, and not letting the other influences, from this country, through. Now the English reggae sound has come into its own, and been accepted by the youth, we have a good chance. We're just doing the same as we did five years ago, but the actual textures of the intruments and the melodies they play are much more important now. More important than just bass and echo and reverb. If you could hear the difference between a Jamaican sound system and an English one, in the way they set up the controls, you would know what I'm talking about. Reggae music in this country got stuck in a rut a couple of years ago, but the people are pushing it out of that now. They want a more interesting music, and Steel Pulse music has always been that. We feel the time is right for us NOW."

It could well be, as in the summer the band attended the Sunsplash reggae festival in Jamaica, the first overseas reggae band to do so, and were one of the event's biggest hits. Even if they do hit big with this album though, they're not going to be content to leave it at being megastar performers. The band's Wise Man Doctrine business set up and record label will be used to bring forward new talent, youths who might get overlooked by the majors. Much like Bob Marley's Tuff Gong. That is something which Hinds feels very strongly about, as he can well remember being in the same position himself. Such an aim serves as a fitting summary of him; as an artist with humanity close to his heart, and an artist proving that, eventually, true convictions are their own reward.

Text copyright Black Music 1984, used without permission.

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