British reggae really became itself with Steel Pulse. Their single Ku Klux Klan is one of the great punk singles, without being a punk record. The record encapsulates the anger of British black youths, just as LKJ put that same frustration into poetry.
The band gigged hard. They played with plenty of punk bands and were instrumental in making reggae part of punk’s repertoire.
It’s gigs and music that help bring people together and realise what they have in common, as much as dole queues, dead end jobs and no choices.
Steel Pulse, Black Slate, Matumbi, Misty in Roots and more were as vital to the explosion of punk as White Riot.
This interview is by Chris May and was in Black Music magazine, February 1978.
Doubting Toms, Jamdown snobs and fascists beware. British reggae is coming of age. Lyrically, environmentally and musically. Matumbi started it. Delroy Washington expanded it – and Steel Pulse are bringing it to fulfilment. The chimes they are a changing. Less recycled JA cliche Whip Them Jah copouts. Less weakhearted pseudo-mystic obscurantist ganja babbling about exodus. Pulse and their brothers sing about black people in Britain…who intend to stay in Britain…singing about their hopes, fears and enemies right here in the sceptred Isle.
Rocking Against Racism, one of the latest additions to Pulse’s repertoire, is just one concrete example among many. The targets of the new breed lyrics reflect black British life experience. And so does the music that pounds out behind them. It’s roots reggae alright, but British roots reggae. Solid, rocking cousin of JA rhythms spiced with new colours and textures. The product of a material and spiritual culture far removed from that of Jamaica. If you want to hang a tag on it call it Cosmopolitan Reggae.
But don’t – within earshot of Steel Pulse – ever call it ‘Jah Punk’. The reggae/punk link-up, if it ever was anything much more than a well-intentioned music media fantasy, fed by superficial bourgeois football-terrace obsessions about Real Street Life, now resounds with a deafeningly hollow ring. Pulse are grateful for the impetus that label gave to their ‘overnight success’ story (it was a long night, approximately three years) but they’re also aware that their role as the rock media’s numero uno Jah Punk band did them more than a little damage with black audiences.
Michael Riley (top) and Steel Pulse wearing Klan hoods at a gig at the Hope ‘n’ Anchor.”Jah Punk,” said David Hinds, the band’s rhythm guitarist and lyricist “punk that!” And the rest of the group agreed. “We’re grateful for it in a way of course, very thankful, cos it did get our name stuck in people’s heads. But a lot of black kids got the wrong impression, they thought we really were a punk band you know. And we’re not, we’re a reggae band. What happen, right, is that the black kids read about this Jah Punk thing and said ‘fockeries, they’ve sold out.’ Cos the thing about newspapers is they stick in the mind as far as black people are concerned. For a lot of them the newspapers is gospel. And I can see why the press got onto that, we live in a commercial world and if you can put something that catches the mind on top of a magazine then it will work, sell more paper. But like the youth we don’t like such a connection between Jah and punk. It’s been used in a way that’s sort of meaningless, and blasphemous. God is not a punk. God is God and he doesn’t sniff glue. It’s all just a mockery of God. So we’ve been getting a load of this ‘sold out’ reaction, but fortunately it’s dropping off now. The gigs we did with Burning Spear were really beneficial to us, helped a lot, we’d lost a lot of the black kids but Burning Spear sort of put everything back to how it was, turned everything regarding black people upside down. It’s all coming back into place now.” How about “Jah Rock” I asked? The other tag that’s been applied to the band’s music. “Well (a long pause) yeah! Could call it rock – but not perhaps in the way you’re thinking. Rock in the sense that you rock! Rockers rock. Cos you must rock to the music, you must rock to reggae. Reggae is rock, yeah, like it.”
So sudden has Pulse’s national breakthrough been that there’s a widespread notion floating around that some bright spark wrote a song called Nyah Luv, hauled a bunch of studio musicians in to cut it and, when it hit, shoved them out on the road double fast for a sweet cash in. In fact the group have been working out of Birmingham for almost four years now, with an essentially unchanged line-up – Selwyn Brown (keyboards), David Hinds (rhythm guitar, vocals), Basil Gabbidon (lead guitar, vocals), Alphonso Martin (vocals, percussion), Ronald McQueen (bass), Steve Nesbitt (drums) and Michael Riley (vocals, percussion). And neither is Nyah Luv their first single – Kibbudu Mansatta Abuku, on the Concrete Jungle label, was one of last year’s top ranking cult hits.
Nurtured by the idea that Pulse burst out of the hype-blue just a few brief months ago is another, equally misconceived, assumption. The oft heard accusation that the band stole the concept of their bizarre stage gear, and general presentation of their act, from Matumbi’s trailblazing efforts. Not so, the group are at pains to point out. Their theatrical approach stretches back to the early days, before they’d even seen Matumbi; and far from being a mere routine showbiz gimmick was inspired more or less spontaneously by the themes of various songs they were writing.
“Definitely UNTRUE!! I mean you are influenced by bands, you go to a gig and look at a band and you say ‘what have they got, why are they so good or why are they not so good’ and so on and you kind of get ideas…emerging naturally. We don’t go out to copy, no way. We didn’t just wake up and say let’s wear weird suits and let’s wear Ku Klux Klan masks, it wasn’t like that at all. It all developed according to the material, and it’s been a gradual process. For instance when David wrote Ku Klux Klan it seemed an obvious idea to wear KKK masks. So we tried it, a little bit dubious at first about whether it would go down alright, but the people loved it. Or David’s city-gent suit, that’s just a mockery of corruption, the way society is. And Basil’s gear, the Ethiopian red, gold and green, is also a mockery of the regimentation of this society. Because a lot of what we sing about is corruption, the ‘civilised’ world, so we dress up accordingly. To match the lyrics. And Selwyn’s got a soldier’s costume, to show aggression, ‘cos there’s a tune we do called Soldiers. It all just fitted in natural. We’re aware that the costumes help us get across, but that doesn’t mean they’re just a gimmick thing. You see black audiences get easily bored – like they’ve seen so many reggae bands that they tend to take it all for granted – so you’ve really got to come over hard on every angle, every way, and you make it as dramatic as you can. That means using musical and visual symbols and imagery.”
Basil Gabbidon in Ethiopian colours on stage. Much of Pulse’s current set – notably Soldiers, Ku Klux Klan and Rocking Against Racism – communicates on direct political level, an assertively non-metaphorical level unusual in reggae today, and bearing close similarities to the work of Peter Tosh. But the band are as chary of being labelled Political as they are Black Punkers. “We’re not real left wing revolutionaries you know. No, we’re not political at all in fact. We’ve just got something to say about things we don’t like. Or things we do like. Sure we’ve done benefits for Soweto, Rock Against Racism, the Young Communist League – but the only significance of that for us is what we’ve got to say. We don’t label that politics.” What” Why? “Well, we’re just speaking the truth and politicians they don’t speak the truth. We’re just expressing ourselves. We’ve got something to say which involves black people – and white – like depression, suffering, racism, exploitation. We simply want to deal with mankind getting a fair deal. And we’re also out to make people enjoy themselves. Because we are musicians, in the full sense of the word…entertainers. We have ideas to project and we project them through music, which we enjoy. That’s why plenty of our music is jolly, because we want to help people reach out for happiness.”
“Mind you, we can’t always be jolly. Rocking Against Racism isn’t jolly. We believe the Front have got to be stopped; cos they won’t allow the truth. All that NF stuff, it’s typical Nazi talk. And we’ve been on some of the anti-Front demonstrations in Birmingham, doing our duty call. But whether you want to call our lyrics political or not they’re definitely dealing with the British environment rather than the Jamaican one. The way we see it both sides are contributing to a cause. The bands in JA are more down to the roots, they’re going back onto the religious side of things, they’re contributing their angle to a cause., We here are doing that, but we’re putting forward things that are happening now, things like the KKK and the NF. Musically speaking we’ve been very much influenced by the Jamaican reggae but we’re playing the reggae we feel in England or in Handsworth (Birmingham) where we’re from, and the Handsworth feel is different from the Jamaican feel. And we don’t really know what Jamaica’s like now, we know what it was like, as children, but we don’t know what it’s like now. But their situation must be different to ours – you can feel it in the music it’s so different. Over here there’s so much different influences, different sorts of music; you got rock, you got jazz, you got punk, you got all sorts of music, soul, the lot. All these influences in the back of your mind, you put them in your music without really realising it, subconsciously almost. And it becomes natural. We think that’s the direction to go in, and if we don’t succeed well that’s too bad. If we succeed all well and good. UK reggae in general is definitely as strong as JA reggae, you’ve got Matumbi to prove that, and Aswad too, that’s living proof. But Jamaica remains reggae still. Jamaica is reggae, cos that’s where it all started. You gotta respect that.”
Finally, I asked, did the band’s new fame (if not fortune) mean they’d thought about moving out of their Birmingham home patch, Handsworth, and coming down to London? They certainly had. “We don’t intend to move at all. No, no, no, no. There’s too much pollution in London – physical and mental. Swell headed musicians, and we don’t like the water. In fact when we get to put out our first album we want to call it ‘Handsworth Revolution’. To put one in the eye of the London swell heads. And anyway this success everybody’s talking about. It hasn’t rubbed off on us or changed us as people. And we certainly aren’t any richer! The more we get on and get more successful – according to the media – the more you get this feeling we’re getting closer to being ripped off. The funny feeling that something’s going to happen and smack!…right back down to the last rung on the ladder. One step forwards, two steps backward. You see we’re gifted with good luck – that’s why it’s only taken us four years to get a break!”.