Natty Dread Beat Down Birmingham

Neil Spencer in NME

3 December 1977

Steel Pulse in December 1977 (photo - NME)

Down at the roots something a stir. Down at the cold concrete roots of black British life. Past cultural realities: the white kid wants to join a band and be a rock star. Or be a footballer. The black kid wants to boss the toughest sound system in town, or else be a singer - reggae star, soul star. That's flip, but it serves to highlight why it's only recently that there's been a full-scale flowering of black British reggae bands - bands in the sense of rock band; a self-sustaining musical and vocal unit. Surrounded by rock bands, soul bands, and comparatively recently, by Jamaican reggae bands (apart from the Wailers there's only really been Third World), it's logical that second generation black Britons should finally follow suit.

And what bands they are: Matumbi, The Cimarons, Aswad, Black Slate, Delroy Washington & Zabandis, Steel Pulse - all playing reggae in a way that their Jamaican contemporaries never can - in the pubs, sweaty cellars, and draughty halls bequeathed Britain from Victoria's reign. There's something ironic and uplifting seeing The Cimarons chanting down Babylon in Hackney Town Hall, the greying images of the dead Empire looking down from the walls, or seeing Steel Pulse pillorying the Ku Klux Klan in some nineteenth century gin palace.

Steel Pulse are typical of the British black, new, er, way. Musically and lyrically they're skilled and inventive. For one thing, there's a lot of them (whoever heard of reggae four-piece?); they're young (average age early twenties); they write their own material; they're musically skilled and rhythmically compelling, and are totally captivating live. It seems wrong to single out one band from what's happening at UK roots at present, but it's Pulse who are rapidly emerging as the front-runners for cross-over success. Like The Cimarons and Black Slate, they've played punk venues, usually to strongly favourable reaction. They played admirable support to Burning Spear on the man's memorable recent visit; they were featured in The London Weekend Show last Sunday; and they have a fine single out on Anchor (Nyah Love) that's lodged near the top of the reggae charts.

Once seen, Pulse are hard to forget. Sartorially they range through African robes to militant chic to Great Gatsby to tail coats to lead singer Michael Riley's priest vestments and most points between.They're a seven-piece; two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, two harmonicas, percussion beyond counting, six hats, several beards, five excellent voices and seven pairs of shades (the resultant lack of eyeball-to-eyeball with an audience being one of their few shortcomings). "We'd seen other groups and no matter how good the music we still got bored," is how Michael puts it. "There has to be something more, to make the mind forget the feet, so we worked on the visual thing." One of the visuals the group came up with was for the two front men to wear the triangular white hoods of the Klan during Ku Klux Klan (a real mind twister, as you can imagine), but their visual dynamism goes beyond costumes. Their line-up also allows numerous permutations in sound and texture during the show. They can sing glorious five-part acapella harmony, play hard-hitting rockers, improvise in-number dubs, throw in some fine instrumental solos, and generally put on a show that knows how to grab an audience and tighten its grip. It's a feel that comes from years of second string gigs and endless hours packed in a motorway bound Transit - for me a more rootsy and accessible feel than that of a polished JA hybrid like Third World.

Steel Pulse - "people thought we were a steel band at first" - met at school in Handsworth, Birmingham, and played their first gig there at a pub called the Crompton three years ago. From this they moved on to playing the rounds of black clubs on what Michael calls a "dead end's fun playing there and it goes down well, but that's the beginning and end of it. We were going nowhere quickly." They cut a single for Dip Records - Kubulah Upsetter - an experience which lead guitar Basil Gabbidon says made them "wary of little producers." A breakthrough of sorts was when they were invited to play the Vortex with Generation X in one of the first punk/reggae collaborations.

"It was an experiment that worked," says Michael. "We were scared they wouldn't like us, getting stuff thrown at us, pint pots and stuff, but it went down well." Since then they've shared the bill with several punk bands, as well as playing rock venues like the Nashville in their own right. "The punks expect you to get fed up and walk off if they gob and throw things at you - we've had a lot of that at some places - but at the end of it all you still get good applause. We played with The Stranglers and they told the kids, 'Look, we like 'em so stop chucking things.' Then Jet Black told us that we had to tell the audience what we wanted. 'Hit 'em with a mike stand, if you have to,' he said."

So how about this great punk cross-over for reggae? "Well I have to say one thing straightaway," says Basil. "I don't like the idea of 'Jah Punk', we don't like that phrase..." Nothing to do with me squire, Viv Goldman's invention that. Delroy Washington don't like it either. But, reggae does have a strong following among the punks. "Yeah well, that Sounds front page was great," says Michael, "but it's got to the point where people in Handsworth call us a black punk band, which is stupid. Them no sure what we are," adds Basil. "Reggae is fashionable at the moment," offers Michael. "People think they should like it cuz they have been told they should. But also reggae now is like rock was at the beginning - just about a good time. The music's simple and you can dance to's refreshing."

Good time, sure, but Steel Pulse and reggae as a whole transcend that and stand for a lot more; like Pulse's attack on the Klan (liable to be their next single). The group are also working on a companion number pitched against the National Front. In short, they don't lack commitment, though they don't let it blind them to the joys of their music. Oh, and black kids also get to be footballers these days. You think it's an accident that Laurie Cunningham is pulling on an England shirt at the same time as all these bands are emerging? No, this is the start of an, ulp, Whole New Thing. Change is now.

Text copyright New Musical Express 1977, used without permission.

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