STEEL PULSE - ARTICLES
October Revolt in ZigZag No.86
Hey, come on all you people out there - you like a good deal? Well I've got one - Steel Pulse. This is no mass-produced, rush release defect product - specifically pre-packaged for the commercial market. No! these guys' music, it's like home-made jam, natural, full bodied with all the goodness of real reggae coagulated with the fruit - this being the heart of reggae information of beneficial to us all. Once you unseal the jat there's a volatile concoction, that I guarantee will not simply re-charge your batteries - once you've tasted the contents - but leave you incredulous and wanting. Steel Pulse are real hookers!
Unlike gunhounds trying to dig up a fast reputation, SP 'done their time' and spent the early days in Birmingham playing all the places possible, until they exhausted that circuit. They got their lucky break at the Vortex out of which came the Stranglers tour. They fast became branded as 'punk' since they played with the Slits, XTC, Siouxie, Clash and the Stranglers on occasions which invariably meant appearing in punk venues. When Steel Pulse firmly denied being punks they immediately recovered the black audience from Handsworth - who had followed the group since the embryonic stages of the band's evolution. SP were the first reggae group to sell out at the Roundhouse. In January '78 they signed up with Island after careful consideration - and they have just returned from an overwhelmingly good reception while touring as support to Bob Marley in Holland. Which annihilates one of their ambitions, that being to support Marley.
Playing recently at Regents Park, one realised that Steel Pulse don't demand attention - they unknowingly attract it like a magnetic force. The entire audience was behind them heart and soul. Ku Klux Klan devasted the calm - brought on by the previous number and there was something positive and alive in the air, which created an eruption. Everyone stood up and moved synonymous with the group, one throbbing, alerted mass. SP had totally involved the audience. Da place woz a rockin wid dem swing-airs! David Hinds (guitar, vocals) looked like a jail-bird in prison clothing, Selwyn Brown (keyboards, vocals) came out in military style dress, while Michael Riley (vocals, percussion, mouth harp) and Fonso Martin (vocals, percussion) appeared in Klan hoods that Riley had made along with two cloaks. Oh yeah, there was also a priest, who was either Basil Gabbidon (guitar, vocals) or Ronnie McQueen (bass). Steve Nesbitt (drums) is the oldest member, he's thirtry, the others are 21 or 22. Nesbitt is one of three out of SP who was born in Jamaica.
Their first album Handsworth Revolution, is out on July 21 and no reggae fiend on dis-er-ert should miss out on it. It's a killer! - that'll knock you cold. The music is fast, penetrating and shows Pulse at their best, perfect rythmic blending and haunting dubs that will blast ya! The album cover alone is a masterpiece conceived by SP. The picture of a crumbling city and vegetation devouring the ruins - the guy in the shirrt symbolises the black man striving for the white man's culture. Whereas in contrast the stream of white light showering the seven children shows us the awakening consciousness being born within the core of the seven.
Hearing SP, anyone with some knowledge of reggae would think they'd just flown in from Jamaica presuming this to be their (SP's) native birthplace. Their sound is so authentic, the music permeates the soul and doesn't attack the senses. And although the songs portray simple imagery: 'Walking along just kicking stones, minding my own business' and what appears to be superficial irrelevance - don't be fooled, no group's message runs deeper than that of Steel Pulse. "We are putting over the feelings of the black kids here, about the trouble that is going to come" - Fonso Martin. The trouble being the ever-hungry threat of subversive movements taking over, gaining control and totally oppressing not only black people but all those who oppose the demonic regime. The National Front, being the worst offenders, along with the Ku Klux Klan and CIA, appear in the prophetic words of SP's songs. And it's these against whom we must stand strong, we've gotta chant them down. "It you're picked on, and picked on, you have to take a stand" - SP. The group are also asking the black community to stop identifying with whites, and look within themselves - their culture, and to recognise their own strength and bring out black qualities innate in themselves. "The hustlers of life have hooked and drained you, from the man, from the man that you used to be" - Prodigal Son.
It's easy to let yourself be swayed by the hypnotic persuasion of the music - and therefore overlook the warning that the prophecies are coming true. The nourishing full ness of Steel Pulse may lull you, but as in Prodigal Son - there's a sudden awakening jolt at the end. For SP, music is a mode which enables them to communicate their beliefs to others - it's literally a moral obligation, they have adopted a responsibility to the community. It's like Steel Pulse are the triumphant inheriters of Jah, and as successors they are passing on their history. This thought-provoking, controlled defiance contained in the lyric: "Let us cleanse your body from/Your service to the swine - because/You've been dead and now to annoint your head/With wisdom, knowledge and understanding/A lesson has been taught my friend"...never degenerates to become drole, or over-stated, which keeps the people coming back for more...and more...and more. "The Ku, Ku, Klux, Klan/Rape, lynched, kill and maim/Things can't remain the same/ Yah. No!" Sisters and brothers, Steel Pulse are gonna tear out da rasta in ya spirit. Yah! Take heed and be warned.
ZZ: Why did you start: was it for money, fame, love, or did you what to teach? SP: There's draughtsmen, electricians, accountants among the group - some of us were at art college getting degrees - so it wasn't for the sake of the money. 'Cos if we'd pursued our various professions it would have come eventually. But it was like frustration in these jobs. We was up against a situation where we all had different apprenticeships, but I was the only black guy in my firm, David was the only black guy at art college. Selwyn the only accountant. You always felt the odd one out. We'd all been to school together and we'd meet off and on and talk about it - what happened - what took place at work - and that we were frustrated about it, and we all had music in common.
ZZ: Did any of you play instruments at that time? SP: No, none, We left school and you're programmed 'job' 'job' - and that's what you went into. We all broke off these apprenticeships. Music was part time for us. We were studying but we weren't really interested - homework didn't get done - and one side fell down. You'd be thinking of another song instead of getting into your homework. When you explained this to the guy at college that you're giving up that apprenticeship, that's so hard to get - for music - it didn't come across. We started off with David and Basil. We used to practice at Ronald's house, then Selwyn came and practiced organ. We knew bugger all about music. ZZ: Can you read music? SP: A little but it's not something we feel's necessary. It comes from within yourself. If we was to study music, we'd develop a different feel. It's something else. Like going over what everyone else has done - you'd probably end up with classical reggae. We're not into that - it's gotta come from you all the time. We came together very slowly every evening 6-9 or 6-12. We was a nuisance at David's parent's house and we used the cellar. Then you'd cop out on your homework to the extent...fuck da job!
ZZ: What were you doing in '71 when it was fashionable to be 'young, gifted and black'? SP: It was near the time that Catch A Fire came out, Bob Marley's album - and that's where it all started really. Bob Marley was, call him an unknown then and Catch A Fire really came across to us as somebody who had a lot to say and the way he went about his music was different from, say, 'Young, gifted and black' and Dave and Ansel Collins and all those, and we thought we could do something along the same lines. We started off by playing tracks from the same album. ZZ: Around Handsworth? SP: No, no, you see, we was a long time practising before we actually did a gig. You know our first gig was a long time coming - we didn't wanna go out there and be laughed at, not knowing our instruments fully, not being professional at anything - you wanted to do it right before you went out. We spent a lot of time in the cellar. Our first gig was in a pub called The Crompton: the guy was good to us. It was £20 for this (laughs) gig! (Recovers, just). It was good, it was a laugh - that's where you got all your nerves and sweating your bollocks off!
ZZ: After doing the Stranglers, you toured with Burning Spear. Was this a break for you? SP: yes, but it was a break to a different audience - the difference being the Strangler audience were all white while the Burning Spear was a large mixture, more so black than white - about 60:40. At the time we was getting recognised as only playing to whites so it was good for us that we supported Burning Spear and got across to a black audience. ZZ: What's so great about the Stranglers? SP: We like their music and the aggressiveness in their music, and what they had to say. Plus the fact that when we was on tour with them they stood for a lot of things we stood for. Our first gig with them - we were booed off stage - we had lit matchsticks chucked at us and cigarette butts. ZZ: Where was that? SP: Er....Leicester, a big hall, biggest venue at the time, 4,000, half way through the first number - it was fashionable then to flob at people and we weren't into that, that's our first experience of it, and the Stranglers were expecting us to walk off stage - and we didn't. We pursued the first number, we finished it y'know? We started the second one and more boxes came over, lit matches and we were just about to stop - and start cursing the audience when I think it was Jet, the drummer, came on and he says to the audience "Look you bunch of wankers, Steel Pulse are our guests an' anyone who doesn't like 'em - come round the back and sort it out with us!" Then the audience turned and suddenly they were well into us. We played and done an encore and everything - it was great, but it's the first time we realised how much power say an artist has when the fans are really into him. They completely changed their tune. ZZ: Would you like to have that power? SP: I don't know. We'd like people to listen to what we're saying and for it to have some effect on 'em - right, but we're not into a power trip. We'd like people to look into what we're saying, and appreciate it for what it is.
ZZ: What's Handsworth like? SP: It's very different from the picture the press portrays of it - this being the daily papers - when they make out that it's ruled by Natty Dreads, it's full of muggers. They give a very depressing story of it. In fact they made Birmingham out to be the biggest ghetto in the UK at one time. ZZ: A black ghetto: SP: Yeah, we got a completely different picture of it - which we're portraying in the album, this being that the situation there amongst black youths is one brought on by the media. It's like saying - there are a lot of black kids out of work, they do mug, they do steal but the reason behind these events is due to the fact that they can't get jobs anyway. They stick you on the dole so long - they cut you off, and you try to get work, but they don't want you to work - you go for a job and they turn you down. And you've got no real alternative, because you can't live without money. Right? So when they do turn and, say, mug somebody - there's no alternative - but the press don't show that side of it, they blow up the fact that there's muggers in Birmingham, they steal...
ZZ: Are there any struggling reggae bands in Handsworth? SP: Quite a few, like on the same road we used to practice on there were about another two bands there trying to get out. The thing about Birmingham is, and black bands, is when you start out you've got a certain amount of clubs you can circle. Birmingham isn't that bright when it comes to places to play. So you end up doing this complete circle in about six weeks, a month. Then you're back in the same clubs - so sooner or later the audience get fed up with seeing you - but it's hard to get out - we managed it...after two years. We came down to London, but you fall into another circuit - only a different area. Where you don't get recognised, because the press doesn't really cover black bands, unknowns. They don't go into black clubs and discover unknown black bands, you gotta come out and meet them somewhere. And that's what we done. ZZ: Are you popular in Birmingham? Have you got a fan club? Do you have a following? SP: (giggles) When we first started out we had a very big following in Handsworth. You know? It was like the whole of Handsworth was behind us. We'd play in a club and it was completely packed with all our school mates. Then we decided to make a break and come to London - we were thought of as punk - like at one time in Handsworth - because they don't read the music press, everything's by word of mouth, things get distorted - we had turned into the first black punk band. And if you was to an average Dread in Handsworth we was playing punk - I mean we weren't but that's what they thought. We lost a lot of our following because of our association with punk. This is why, when we did the Sight and Sound programme we announced publicly that we're not a punk band - we never did play punk, we never will. And that did a lot to get our following back. But it's still growing.
ZZ: Yeah, but it was good for you to be in with the punks - it was like an opening for you - being accepted by something so fashionable at the time that really brought you into the limelight. SP: Yeah, the punks did a lot to help reggae but a lot of people didn't see it like that - they made it fashionable, a fad. They're into it - but not for the reasons say a black guy would be into it. In the background of reggae you've always got someone crying out - right? And a lot of them didn't understand what was being said in the music. They got off on the music - but what was being said was overlooked. The true lyrics of the thing. ZZ: And although punks liked it, there haven't been any white punk reggae bands in the last two years. SP: No, no. There haven't, not here. Outside Britain there are. We was in Sweden, there's a white reggae group and they're one of the top bands in Sweden. They've been doing it for about three years. They done Bob Marley songs and translated them into Swedish. The difference was, they really looked into what the guy was saying - checked upon the background and appreciated t - where they translated the words.
ZZ: Were you looking for a chart success with Nyah Luv 'cos it got to number one? SP: The reggae charts don't mean anything in the reggae world - so many people trying to start their own little labels and promote their own single - and fiddling and cutting each other's throats, that you do a single, and if youknow the right person it would be number one - without selling a copy. So when we done Nyah Luv we did it to be recognised - to get our name on the map and we done a one-off deal with Anchor, but previous to that we did another single called Kibudu, Mansa and Abuku, on this black label. We wanted to do everything black, we came from Handsworth, blah blah. We said okay, we wanna go to a black guy, black studios and we done it. Nothing was heard of this single, we'd go to a record shop and he'd say "cor, selling well, I've ordered some more" - we'd go to this guy, producer at Dip and go "How's the single doing?" and he'd say "Well, it's not really selling" - we didn't get anything from that single at all. ZZ: Did it do anything for you? SP: That was the first time we was on vinyl - as far as recognition goes - it didn't do a lot. What happened to the single...we don't know. We done Nyah Luv as a one-off deal 'cos we were still looking for a major deal, none of the companies would touch us 'cos reggae still wasn't that fashionable. We went to all the major companies - Island included. And Anchor was the only one willing to risk it, they saw it as a risk at that time - and it sold, and they offered to sign us up. At that time we was in a position to choose. ZZ: Did Island say come back in a year or so? SP: Yeah, "a year or six months, we're tied up, we like your music, but we can't do anything now."
ZZ: What was Holland like? SP: When we played with Marley? (Yeah!) very good. It was interesting because Klan hadn't been out there very long and we went onstage and they were calling out in the audience for it - we performed it. It's hard to support somebody well established like Marley - all the fans come to see Marley and everything else gets in the way. ZZ: Did it shatter any illusions, you'd built up - playing and working with Bob Marley - or increase your love for him? SP: In a way it increased our respect for him - for the whole band, we had a lot in common - the problems we'd suffer they suffered too. I couldn't say it shattered any illusions, it made a clearer picture of what was taking place and what really went on behind the scenes. It gave a better and truer outlook. ZZ: Where did you play? SP: This cycling arena - on one gig, and the other was what appeared to be a big cowshed that they're turning into a venue - the capacity was about 8,000 on both occasions.
ZZ: I reckon Holland was a success. SP: Yes, I'd say it was, although we weren't allowed any encores, we had a strict thirty minutes, click! thirty minutes get off the stage. But we done well. After Holland we went to Sweden, to do a TV programme. ZZ: Had you split with Marley? SP: Yeah, over there they have a lot less places to play - so when a band comes over, they're very enthusiastic. They're really into reggae. It was interesting, down to the introduction they went to the extent where guys in doctor's outfits brought on the stretcher with this person on - and they were fiddling about with this person - and then went, "ah! Steel Pulse." ZZ: Did you expect it? SP: Nah, we was gigging when the cameras turned on us! ZZ: ["We use our heroes as inspiration and now we expect others to use what we can give" - Selwyn Brown] - Do you see yourselves as heroes or messengers? SP: Not really, all heroes are dead (laughs), like the Stranglers say No More Heroes. We messengers - call us messengers of Jah. 'Cos after all said and done we can only say what we have to say and then it's left to the individual to take it up or dismiss it whatever.
ZZ: Muhamed Ali is your hero - because he's a winner, he's black, successful, rich and respected? SP: A combination of all those things plus the fact, the respect he demanded from the white person - and if you were to check into the Boxing World - the hassles and the corruption behind it and all the things he went through and still come out with Black Awareness, it's like Joe Lewis and other boxers who went through - they might as well be white men in a black skin - if you know what I mean. But he came out and he still maintained his personality - he was unchanged really. ZZ: What is black consciousness? Being aware of your colour culture? SP: Again a combination. There's a lot of black people who honestly believe they're a second class citizen. If you take an average black person and say well you gotta improve yourself, the first thing he'd do is relate to the white man's way of life. He'd reckon he's gotta earn a lot of money, buy a house, speak perfect English - he's gotta straighten his hair.
ZZ: is this for a black man in England or Jamaica? SP: the black man in general. You go to Africa and they wanna be as the French - they dress ridiculously. In America - we saw a picture of a black guy in college with curlers in his hair - he wants to be so much like the white guy - he straightens his hair. What we're saying with 'Black Awreness' is respect yourself for what you are.There's nothing wrong with the black man. Talk about history - they wanna dismiss the fact that slavery took place when it did! You talk about the situation in Africa to certain black people and they say "they should sort it out themselves" when it's for those who know better to do better! If you're in a better position to do something about it - do it! You can't disassociate yourself with Africa, it's your roots - where you originated from. A black person says he's born here - he's British - but it's an accident of birthplace as far as I'm concerned. [Michael Riley] I'm not prejudiced - but at the same time I wouldn't look up to a person for the sake of colour. How deep sinks the colour of one's skin? It's a state of mind that they gotta get out of...you gotta be confident - you gotta stand up and be counted - regards to the cost!
ZZ: "At the moment the black man is looked down on" [Michael Riley]. Which blackman? By Whom? SP: Basically the white person. ZZ: So isn't it ironic that Jamaicans look down on Rastas - when they are the same people? SP: Yeah, but you gotta bear in mind that in Jamaica at one time they worshipped England as a mother country - and to promote oneself you had to adopt all white or English ways - and the Rasta completely goes against all that. He's a simpleton, an earthman, you know - he's not into fancy clothes, a car, a big job, he's into the basics of life - and you can understand that people working towards buying a house, a car, all the things they'd call a material world, would disagree with somebody who just wants a very basic - who wants to go back to the roots - the very roots it's going completely against what they're working towards. ZZ: Do the Rastas in Birmingham lead a problematic experience? SP: Yeah, but it's largely brought upon by the fact that you got a large amount of Dread. To the onlooker, a Dread, a Rasta, a black guy, they're all the same. The true Rasta is a peaceful person - he's not into stealing, violence - whereas you get the Dread - you can't blame him for what he does - really - he's a survivor - he's been compelled due to circumstances to steal - he appears a Rasta - the result being he gives the Rasta a bad name.
ZZ: "Our music is a forewarning. If we do make it, it means we get our message across to more people." What's the message? SP: There's a general message saying "Man should live better amongst man" in between that there's blatant statements about the Klan, the Front, about down in South Africa. You know about what was said - by various prophets quoted in the Bible - and it was overlooked and they're coming to reality - the Klan came over - they were here. ZZ: You predict that trouble is coming. What is the trouble? And how can we prepare ourselves? SP: We got a number called National Front (NF). "We're gonna hunt the NF" - what they stand for isn't in our favour at all - not even for the average person in Britain. It's in our favour to hunt dem - not literally. ZZ: How do you feel playing to 91,000 people at the carnival against the Nazis? SP: It got rid of your stage fright.
ZZ: So you've done a film and they're showing it in German universities. SP: Reggae is not that big in Germany and the film was to give them an idea of what's taking place, they done the same with punk. Only punk didn't take off over there, but they was really into reggae - they done us practicing Ku Klux Klan, Prodigal Son, they filmed us performing it - interviewed us. At the end he says "is there something you feel you should leave the German people to think about?" ZZ: Heil Hitler! SP: (Laughs) Yeah! David said that. The final question was how do you get into reggae! We said you gotta have a completely open mind, sit down, listen to the record and after hearing what this guy has to say check out his background and it's from this that you'll understand what he's saying. We have another film for an American crew from Boston to show the problems and hassles black people have in England, in the press black people aren't talked about. Outside England one wouldn't believe there's as many black people as there are here. It starts off (the film) with Handsworth Revolution - the music - and ends with the music of Klan, and clips of us playing - in between they show various movements in Manchester and London.
ZZ: Who would you most like to support you - apart from Social Security? SP: A smaller group who needed the help. That would sum it up really - I wouldn't put a name to it - but any group that needed the help. ZZ: Any offers? What's Steel Pulse's ambition? SP: One of the main things is we want people to take notice of us, we wanna have some beneficial effect on black people - and then a beneficial effect on Man!
Text copyright ZigZag 1978, used without permission.
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