the story of an artist...
Colin Wayne Gabbidon was born in Kingston, Jamaica on 19 October 1957, the second son of Joseph and Dorothy and one of five children, four boys and a girl. For the first six years of his life he remained in Jamaica and particularly with his grandmother in the coastal parish of St Mary's, once his parents had left to 'look for a better life' in England. He recalls his early childhood in the countryside revolved around getting into mischief and having lots of fun. His parents came to England at the back-end of the 'Windrush' generation of Jamaican and West Indian immigrants who poured over to England in search of work and a better future and Colin and his elder brother by two years, Basil, followed just before his seventh birthday, in 1963.
Their first home, in Alfred Road, was in the centre of the thriving Afro-Caribbean community in the Birmingham inner city area of Handsworth. Colin attended Rookery Road junior school, where he enjoyed football and cycling and where his artistic flair soon became evident at a young age when his drawing of a tea plantation impressed his teachers. As Colin explains, "I was already developing an identity and was showing others how to draw. But Basil was a brilliant artist, much better than me at the time, on a different level. His sketching was just so good, his drawing would 'get up from the page' which meant it was very good." Once Colin moved to Handsworth Wood Boys' school in Church Lane, the input from specialist art teachers honed his skills and he soon learnt how to paint correctly. One of his sidelines was drawing, and selling, pictures of the pop idols of the time like David Cassidy and Michael Jackson, to the girls in the school next door. That made the otherwise shy and reserved youngster, very popular. Colin enjoyed life at Handsworth Wood. He loved his art lessons and his sports, playing for the school at football and also representing them at cross-country. He also took part in the 4x100 metres relays though never reached the heady heights of Basil, who went onto become English Schools Champion at 110 metres hurdles at the age of seventeen.
Music had been a constant with Colin and Basil from an early age. Alongwith a neighbour, Donald Perrin, they practised Johnny Nash songs, with Basil on guitar accompanying the other two, singing and day-dreaming of getting their break on the tv show, Opportunity Knocks. Basil was a self-taught guitarist, though at this time, Colin hadn't picked up on an instrument. The influence of an older cousin, Rupert, who they went to watch play in his band, a local reggae outfit called Cock & The Woodpecker's, alongwith the music of the Jackson Five, planted the seed of an idea in Colin's head that he wanted to play drums. Without the funds to take his dream any further at the time, he carved his own drumsticks and practised on his parent's kitchen chairs or a large wooden box. In fact, when Colin and the other members of Steel Pulse began rehearsing seriously, Colin was still using a wooden box to provide the rhythm beat. It wasn't until he left school and started working, that he was able to get his first drumkit.
When Colin wasn't at school, or playing table tennis at the Canon Street Church youth club or joining his friends in the local boy's brigade group, he and Basil would discuss ways of getting something going in a musical sense. Their thoughts turned to establishing a Gabbidon dynasty with their other two brothers to rival the Jackson's, or Basil would be teaching his friends how to play guitar and bass in the kitchen of their terraced Headingley Road home and that's where they first began their jamming sessions with David Hinds, a close schoolfriend of them both. It was 1973 and they had dreams of making it big. Basil and David had left school and were at Art College, making money from Saturday jobs at a local supermarket and were able to buy their guitars. Colin was still at school and had to make do with his wooden box as a substitute drumkit. To begin with, Colin was overlooked as the drummer and another schoolfriend was mentioned. The normally quiet Colin surprised himself by putting his foot down and demanded his place in the fledgling trio, which Basil and David accepted. They soon co-opted another ex-Handsworth Wood pupil, Ronnie McQueen and his bass into the sessions and it was Ronnie who conjured up the name of the band, Steel Pulse, taken from a racehorse that had done so well a year before. It seemed to fit perfectly.
Their rehearsals moved to Ronnie's loft at his parent's home in Sandwell Road and Selwyn Brown, who'd returned to the area from Nottingham, and Michael Riley soon joined the burgeoning band. They were both former schoolfriends of the others. Selwyn played keyboards, Michael was a vocalist and another school chum, Trevor Christie, played percussion for a short while before moving to Coventry. Their sessions were mainly covers of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh tracks, some Ken Boothe numbers and Marvin Gaye's Lets Get It On was a favourite. Colin and Basil liked all styles of music, from the pop charts to reggae to jazz. In fact jazz was Colin's first love. He recalls, "that's what helped us to later create our own individual style, that's why Steel Pulse were so totally different. When Basil bought Marley's Catch A Fire album, it was a big influence, a real eye-opener." He continues, "I studied Carlton Barrett's (Marley's drummer) style, as well as Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd, from the jazz point of view. We watched bands like Cock & the Woodpecker's and a local lover's rock band called Velvet Shadow, but our style was totally different to these bands. The Steel Pulse sound had a real hard edge to it."
Colin was now sixteen, it was the middle of 1974 and he was due to leave Handsworth Wood to join the workforce. His aim was to get a job and to buy his first drumkit. He managed both almost immediately. The job, as a trainee tool maker for a steel company called JR Gaunt's, provided him with the funds to buy a four-shell Premier Olympic kit for around £100. He was ecstatic. "I kept it simple in the early days but played it loud and heavy. I remember that I played the bass drum so hard that I broke the foot pedal not long after I got the kit. It was cheap so I bought the proper Premier pedal, I was really excited. As I improved, I played around with the groove and the beat to keep it different and not repetitive." The drumkit took his music to a new level and he continued to paint in any spare moments when he wasn't working, rehearsing with the band or practising Aikido, a Japanese martial art he'd taken up around that time. The job at Gaunt's was to last for the next four years, during which Colin achieved his City & Guilds qualifications and enjoyed the experience. Afterwards, he went to work with his father's building firm for a few years before music and painting assumed greater importance in his life.
Coinciding with the arrival of Colin's new drums, the band moved their rehearsals to David's cellar at 16 Linwood Road, which was to be their base for the next few years. At the time, Basil and Selwyn were responsible for most of the lead vocals though Colin felt David could take on more of the mantle and did his best to persuade him to do so. Amongst their repertoire at this time were early versions of their own compositions like Nyah Luv, Handsworth Revolution and a rock-soul track that Basil wrote called Conscious. Colin recalls, "Basil was writing a lot of music as was David. A lot of things were written in 1974. I think we were finding our identity, that was when we were clicking. We'd been together for less than a year and were working so fast. The excitement was high, we were anxious, we were keen, we wanted to express ourselves. We were serious and our music reflected what we were."
It was now the right moment to expose the band to public scrutiny. Lee, their manager at the time, booked them their first live gig locally at a small working-class pub called the Crompton Arms. A hub for local bands at the time, the pub was located on Crompton Road in Lozells and the audience for their debut performance, in January 1975, numbered the pub's regulars and friends of the band. Selwyn did the majority of the vocals as they played a mix of cover versions from Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Ken Boothe and some dub numbers. It went well and they returned to the Crompton soon after, as well as gigs at other venue's like Barbarellas and the Grand Hotel in the city centre, the Ridgeway on Soho Road, the Tower Ballroom in Edgbaston, at former British heavyweight boxing champion Bunny Johnson's club in Digbeth before it burned down and they even returned to their old school to play a reunion gig. However, it wasn't all plain sailing for the band. Even the black clubs put up barriers, especially against youths with dreadlocks. As Michael Riley points out, "they started saying, to get in the club [the Santa Rosa club in Handsworth] you had to wear a shirt with no hat and your hair combed out, which eliminated all Dreads and got all these artificial, snobbish black people to take over for a while. But there weren't enough, so they had to start allowing hats in again as long as they were allowed to look under them for locks first." At another club, the Jodori, just outside Handsworth, the band used to have to smuggle in the two of their members who had locks so that by the time the enraged owner saw them they were on stage and it was too late.
Sound systems were the main avenue for the youth of Handsworth and the other Caribbean communities to hear their favourite music around this time. The top systems like Quaker City, Mafia Hi-Fi and Studio City travelled the country playing to packed audiences in clubs and 'blues'-dances. Vying with each other for the latest pre-releases, they also bought unique dubplates from bands to play exclusively at these sessions and Steel Pulse were no exception although they were prudent in the number of plates they produced. Colin, buoyed by their early success, suggested that they take their music to a major record label like Island even at this early stage though Basil curbed his enthusiasm by saying the time wasn't right. The band were ambitious and passionate about their music but at the same time realistic and shrewd enough to realise that they had to perfect their unique sound before unleashing it on the public at large. Basil often said that to achieve lasting success they had to stand out from the rest and to have an 'international' sound that would appeal to as many people as possible. One of their attempts to present their unique sound was to call their particular style of music, 'Taffri'. It didn't catch on as other styles like punk rock or Two-Tone would in the future, but it demonstrated their burning desire to create something new.
Colin would often accompany Basil to watch other bands play. His own favourites were The Cimarons, though a couple of gigs they attended in 1975 were to make a significant impact on them both. A couple of years earlier they'd watched the Jackson Five at The Odeon in the city centre, but that was topped when in July 1975 they watched the great Bob Marley and the Wailers, who'd blown them away with his Catch A Fire album two years earlier and then followed that up with his subsequent releases, Burnin' and Natty Dread. His influence on their music was considerable. Marley's support act that night at The Odeon were Third World and the Gabbidon brothers were mightily impressed, with Basil exclaiming, "yes, that's the sound, that's the style I'm after." A couple of months later, the two brothers travelled down to the Notting Hill Carnival in London and were able to see another Third World performance and to speak to members of the band afterwards. Their friendship would last for many years to come.
Steel Pulse themselves were expanding their horizons. Their live performances began to spread far wider than the immediate locality of Birmingham. Playing to mostly black audiences in clubs up and down the country, they were regularly seen in venues such as working men's clubs in Wolverhampton and Wednesbury and the more upmarket Bamboo club in Bristol, the Venn Street Social club in Huddersfield, various clubs in and around London and the International clubs in Leeds and Manchester. They always took a loyal following to these gigs and Colin remembers, "seeing a long line of car headlights following us to our gigs along the then-empty motorways. Petrol was cheap and we had a lot of followers." After initially using their father's mini van to transport the band's equipment, they purchased a large green Bedford transit van which David's cousin, Keith Ebanks, would drive around the country. Closer to home, they entered and won a prestigious talent competition at the Santa Rosa club in Handsworth promoted by record shop owner Cecil Morris. Their winning entry was Nyah Luv, a tune that David wrote and which beat off the rest of the competition for the prize that included money and free recording time in a studio. The competition was judged by Dennis Bovell, the man behind the band Matumbi and a leading light in black music circles in Britain at that time. With his encouragement, boosted by the cash windfall and feeling confident with all the hard work they'd put into perfecting their musical style, they went into the Bristol Street studios in the city centre to record the band's first single, Kibudu, Mansetta and Abuku. Written by Ronnie and with Selwyn singing the main vocals, 1,000 copies of the story of three African slaves were pressed and distributed by a small reggae label in London called Dip. It was intended as a statement of the Steel Pulse sound and played in clubs, at sound system sessions and on pirate radio stations, it took the band onto a new level of their development.
It was now November 1976 and Colin had reached a defining point in his music career. Alongwith Basil and David, he'd been there at the beginning of the creation of something special and had played a significant part in the band's early successes. However, amongst the band members there was some discord with Colin's style of drumming that meant rather than allow the disharmony to affect the band, Colin agreed to leave. It was a hard decision for him to take as he'd been proud of what they'd achieved so far and like the others he wanted to see how far it could go. However, as he recalls, "for things to move on, it's best for there to be harmony, so if other people are uncomfortable and you're not comfortable, it's best to split and to go your own separate way. For me I'd been there at the planting of the seed and no matter what, I wanted to see that seed grow. If it means a sacrifice and moving on and not being there, I won't disrupt the seed from growing, I prefer to leave and move on." And that's what happened. Colin said his goodbyes but remained their staunchest supporter. Replacing Colin in the band for a few months at the start of 1977 until Steve Nisbett arrived in the middle of the year was another former Handsworth Wood pupil, Donovan Shaw.
After leaving the band, Colin experienced a crisis of confidence in his own ability. "To be honest, personally I wasn't a great drummer at all, but I had a style. Leaving Pulse opened my eyes to realise that I didn't have it as a drummer. What kept me on the drums, was that people came to me and said I was a good drummer, you had a great style and that kept me going." He took a year out and was seriously tempted to take up the bass guitar. He'd been taught the basics early on by Basil and his cousin Rupert and he believes he could've made it as a bassist. Recalling the time, "After taking a year off, there was a knock on the door one day and I was invited to join a local Handsworth band called Steel Fingers. The first thing we did was to change their name to Odessus and then we dropped the O. The style was reggae but the lovers' style and a bit too regular. So I tried to put my influence into it. Individually we were good but our mental attitude was different to Pulse, we weren't the same, we weren't as one body as they were." Dessus played locally around Birmingham and further afield in Leeds, Bristol and London, releasing a single, How Can I Trust You, on the Red Tape label with moderate success. Colin remained with the band for four years, before leaving at the end of 1981, around the same time as Basil left Steel Pulse.
With Colin and Basil no longer in a band, it gave them the opportunity to rehearse and write together and try different things. Colin was passionate about the reunion and the chance to create something unique again. Including William Minto, the bassist from Dessus and a little later, the band's singer Alex Williams, a schoolfriend from Handsworth Wood, they did a few experimental gigs with different musicians including a show at Aston University that the city's radio station BRMB recorded. They were using the band name of Bass Dance though Colin would've preferred the name Gabbidon and were now under the management of Pete King, the former Manager of Steel Pulse, spending time rehearsing at his Sinewave studio in the city centre. In 1985 they appeared on the Channel 4 television show ClubMix, which Michael Riley, their former Steel Pulse colleague, produced. The band toured Britain, playing to a mainly white audience on the college and university circuit with their reggae and rock fusion sound. They paid a visit to Los Angeles in 1988 to play at a US-UK joint event and in 1989 recorded their first album, which they called Loud. Towards the end of 1990 they accepted an invitation to play in an open-air football stadium in Dusseldorf in Germany and for the next seven years they played regularly throughout Europe. Initially they performed extensively in Holland, before expanding into Germany, Denmark and France, playing in clubs and festivals and twice supported their old friends, Third World. An EP called Everybody Plays The Fool and their second album, Louder, were released in 1995 as the band continued to perform in Europe before the cost of touring became prohibitive and their final gig in August 1997 signalled the end of Bass Dance. Since then, Colin and Basil have remained more fluid musically, getting together with friends, under the names of Gabbidon Worldwide, Gabbidon International or more recently, Gabbidon, playing annually at the Birmingham ArtsFest or one-off gigs at venues like The Drum, The Jam House or the Birmingham Symphony Hall.
The other side of Colin's artistic nature, his painting and drawing, have taken on a more prominent focus in recent years. From his early days spent sketching and selling pictures of David Cassidy to the girls in the local school and his first self-portrait in 1975, Colin has progressed to having exhibitions of his art in both England and Germany, published prints and commissioned portrait work. He's a self-taught painter of real life scenes and portraits, mainly working with oils. His first exhibition was held in the Birmingham Central Library in 1985 and some of his portraiture work of six jazz musicians has been shown at the Symphony Hall. He's also sketched and painted many famous musicians which he's sold to retail outlets and street sellers, including one of his Bob Marley paintings that has been widely copied throughout Europe and America. At any one time, Colin will have two or three paintings in progress either on a commission basis or building up his own personal collection. Colin's first solo exhibition took place in June 2007 at The Drum in Aston and included twenty-one of his oil and pastel paintings and pencil drawings in a collection called Birmingham, & the People Of.
To speak to Colin and to find out more about his art and his music, contact him on
0121 554 8447 (studio), 07970 346370 (mobile) or e-mail
Above left: This is Colin's painting of Bob Marley that has been widely copied throughout Europe and America. Above right: One of Colin's paintings on the cover of a book of poems by his brother, Spicy Fingers.
The Basil Gabbidon Story
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Colin Gabbidon interviews conducted in May 2003.