Tribute To The Martyrs album review

Chris Bohn in Melody Maker

30 June 1979

The ironies inherent in Steel Pulse's second album are unsatisfying in the extreme. Here's a collection of politically motivated songs of oppression presented with a dispassionate dryness that diminishes rather than reinforces their potency; and in attempting to broaden their attack against racism, they've only succeeded in diluting it. Ambitiously, they've placed this country's racism in a global context by stating the cases of George Jackson and Steve Biko in particular and Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle in general - all featured, incidentally, alongside Selassie in the Mount Rushmore-styled carvings on the sleeve.

Unfortunately, when they particularise the jail deaths of Jackson and Biko, they don't really tell us anything we don't already know and, what's more surprising, their dispirited performances fail to inspire compassion either. Take, for instance, Uncle George - 'The fuzz claimed he suffered a disease call/ Rebelling for a cause' - and place it next to the more spirited individual represented in Dylan's George Jackson. 'He wouldn't take shit from no-one/ He wouldn't bow down or kneel/ The authorities all hated him/ Because he was just too real.' Or Biko's Kindred Lament; 'Blame South African security/ A no suicide he wasn't insane,' contrasted with the Doctors' sardonic 'Sudden noise of breaking bones in custody/ Must be another rebel falling down the stairs again.' (Bulletin).

Maybe Pulse are just too close to the subject to succeed with objective statements. However, their more generalised title-track works better, especially on the fade-out dialogue, which finishes positively with 'I and I was born/ Rich nor poor/ I and I was born naked/ You hear something....BE SOMEONE' (their emphasis). It could be argued that too much importance is being placed in the lyrics, but the album is mixed with the voices so far forward so that the words have to stand naked. The tunes themselves are not strong enough to carry the titles, except the hook from Babylon Makes The Rules.

If the political numbers miss the mark, the more traditional spiritual ones fare better, like the opener, Unseen Guest, which recounts the prayer of condemned man. Their immense popularity places them in an important position of influence as a British reggae band, and laudably they aren't abusing that status by taking the easy route of using overly-emotive chants and catchy slogans. But unless they articulate their undoubted knowledge more positively in their songs, their followers won't gain much. That would be a waste of talent and, ultimately, support.

Text copyright Melody Maker 1979, used without permission.

Steel Pulse's David Hinds on stage.

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