Steel Pulse at Leeds University (gig review)

Emma Ruth in NME

14 October 1978

Steel Pulse may well represent the 'coming of age' of British reggae, but - in terms of musical content and invention - their show here at Leeds University indicated that they have a long way to go. They're the best band of their kind in Britain right now. But their music is essentially very tame reggae. They rely on style and comprehensive rhythmic cohesion rather than possessing any magical mystery ingredient; any 'charisma' is projected mostly through the fancy dress.

The band made virtually zero announcements at this concert: they left the campaigning to their lyrics, and contrived an uneasy amalgam of beautiful (although essentially bland) music and heavy political statement. They plugged the message, but hardly the music.

For a seven-piece they're hardly taking reggae in a new direction. Bassist Ronnie McQueen, playing so laid back he makes 'Family Man' Barrett look like a neurotic, keeps a lot of the superfluous action under control - just as the Pulse's lead guitarist (the only one not wearing shades) occasionally saw the light and shared some around with Tosh-style guitar breaks. But "Handsworth Revolution", "Prediction", "Ku Klux Klan" etc gave them little scope to make more token contributions.

Steel Pulse's numbers are long, and comprise heavy use of percussion, dub effects, concurrent rhythms and the latest Island electronic gadgetry. The harmonies are straight Wailers, and nearly all numbers have the same chugchuguzzunkafrap beat and sound. As for the special effects, you get the impression their record company just told them: "Here's some heavy duty equipment - for Jah's sake, use it!"

As for their image, they either take it too far, go over the top, or miss altogether. Lyricist/rhythm guitarist David Hinds wore (no hum) a HMP Babylon convict's jacket, and one of the other guys (Michael Riley) plumped for the parody number, wearing an 18th Century black servant's outfit. It was all a bit too much: the implied Dar-Es-Salaam - Trenchtown - Handsworth triangle is just too corny for words, the Babylon/Handsworth correlation ridiculous. It's dumb if they believe it, phoney if they don't.

What you really need to consider when appraising Steel Pulse is: "What can we expect from British reggae?" These guys look too clean, too affluent, too complacent to possess the kind of desperation that spawned the music in Jamaica. They're not creating their own way out of the urban ghetto - they're merely copying the sound of the Caribbean. And I say this music would not cut it in Jamacia.

And ultimately, of course, if one was just expected to accept this as rock/reggae and nothing but, one would dismiss it out of hand. But Steel Pulse are British, and they have all the other paraphernalia (supposed incisive socio-political comment, unique reggae interpretation etc) going for them - which works as a psychological mind-block when it comes to assessing them as they really are. You feel you have to give them credit for their integrity, and consequently, everything else about them is enhanced accordingly.

You can't deny that Steel Pulse have stood up to be counted, and that if they use their growing power well, they'll be instrumental in developing the new black British consciousness originally encouraged by Marley: their message will doubtless be of significant use to young consumers - black and white - everywhere. But anyone wanting to understand rather than merely to hear what black consciousness is all about could do worse than go direct to the masters.

Text copyright Melody Maker 1978, used without permission.

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