Gary Bushell in Sounds, 12 August 1978
“We once beggars are now choosers/No intention to be losers/Striving forward with ambition/And if it takes ammunition/We rebel in Handsworth Revolution. ” Steel Pulse, ‘Handsworth Revolution’.
Steel Pulse on stage at the April 30, 1978 Carnival April 30, 1978, is a date irrevocably tattooed on my memory. A turning point in the fight against the new fascists in this country that I’m going to revel in telling my grandchildren about just like my grandad used to tell me about the ‘reception’ workers in South East London handed out to the Mosleyites before the war. Sure we’d had Lewisham 8 months before but that was different, a bitter, bloody and joyless triumph because no one enjoys violence. You use it when you have to, it’s called survival. April 30 Carnival was pure joy. Joy and amazement at the solidarity and camaraderie of the crowd, the never-ending stream of people pouring into Vicky Park, skins and punks and natty dreads, the kids united. Dreams come true when Jimmy Sham burst on with the Clash stage right and the sun burst through stage left with great sizzling slabs of heat sweating the crowd together. And then came Steel Pulse with their hypnotising rhythms weaving and twisting through the layers of people, involuntarily swaying that mighty crowd like huge melodic gusts of wind. Home grown dread wind.
Success has been a long time coming for the seven Brummie boys. 1978 is their fourth year on the road. For the first years they played the closed circuit of Birmingham reggae clubs, occasionally, like once every six months, breaking out and down to London. Lyricist, rhythm guitarist and lead vocal, David Hinds almost chokes on his MacDonald thinking about it…”You had to be recommended by a club owner in Birmingham before you could get to clubs in London and we didn’t get good testimonials because we used to play these old peoples clubs and they like Dandy Livingstone, Desmond Dekker, Ken Boothe sort of music. They thought we were a bit too aggressive, and we were on about subject matters in favour of Rastafari, and the older generation are not in favour of Rastafari, you know, from stories from when they were in the West Indies.”
But Steel Pulse were in favour with the mood of our generation and they grew from the first reggae act to play a punk club (supporting Gen X at the Vortex) to the first British reggae act to headline a major venue (the Roundhouse this Spring). A lot of factors helped them cross-over, above all their uniqueness: their expressive stage presentation, their distinctive melodies, their strong use of percussion and harmonies, all of which lift them, to non-connoisseurs like me, above the other reggae bands. And now the album smashes into the charts to prove their popularity. The album Handsworth Revolution, which I really enjoyed, came in, in this paper, for a lot of flak…David, and Michael Riley (vocals and percussion) momentarily forgot what paper I was from…
Michael: “Vivien Goldman, she doesn’t know f***-all, she’d made up her mind to knock the album before it had even come out.” David: “Someone like Vivien, if she doesn’t see a portrait of Marcus Garvey or Selassie or some dreadlocks on the front of an album and red gold and green paint strokes across it, it’s not a reggae album. She doesn’t realise we’re trying to break into something that’s really on a universal scale. Every time a reggae artist breaks into the big scene, writers always give the impression that they’ve sold out because he was a nobody in the first place. They knocked Marley’s Kaya album but if you check back and really listen to his music as much as I have, you’ll realise songs like Running Away and She’s Gone are some of his best numbers. Half of these things people call roots reggae, it’s like if we called our album Roots, or used catchy punch lines like Rastafari Lives they’d say ‘Gosh, it’s a hip thing’. Put on a special price, £6, and they think they’ve got a roots album under their arm.” Michael: “If you want to really analyse what we’re about you’ve got to check us visually, see us live, see other bands live, read the lyrics, check other reggae artists’ albums as well, the actual sleeves, what they’re trying to portray and then you’ll see if we mean business or whether we’re just in for a good time.”
(As I criticised Steel Pulse for not being radical/forward enough and endorsing traditional Jamaican style Rastafarian imagery/vocabulary that I know they don’t believe in instead of coming up with a new, individual form of expression, I think it’s an unfounded criticism bred of understandable annoyance at a negative review. I’m disappointed in the album, but I’m still a fan of the band – Vivien Goldman)
In fairness to Viv, she certainly hadn’t decided to knock the album before hearing it. But I think the impression she put over, albeit unintentionally, was one of ‘reggae is our specialist field, here’s a group who are going to get through to the public, so they must be bad.’ So Jah punk became part junk? Why did the boys think the album was cornering such a lot of white interest? Michael: “When this reggae phase started out it was all Jamaican reggae, everybody was buying these imports, but reggae was still foreign, they couldn’t really relate to it because it was coming from somewhere else. But we’re coming from the same place that they come from, we’re talking about our immediate surroundings.” David: “They relate to us because there’s a lot of things in our music that they already knew as music. They hear certain things, like in Prediction we start with a sort of flamenco guitar. Now every English person’s heard flamenco before so they take it in and hear how it’s treated in reggae, and they know we’re not just doing a regular album. I don’t think people find our music monotonous, they could tell which number was which. Plus there was the visuals, we represented what we played. If they couldn’t understand a word we were saying they knew we were portraying a form of society that we’re supposed to be chanting down. If you saw me in my prisoners outfit you knew I was portraying being held prisoner in Babylon itself.”
The whole Jah punk thing originally did you a lot of damage with black audiences didn’t it? Michael: “The majority of black people don’t read the actual music press. They get it by word of mouth about 100 times down, so by the time it gets to them…” David: “But the nice thing is now you go to Handsworth and you see a black person getting on a bus, mounting the stairs with the album under their arm. You go to the shops and find the album selling three every five minutes to black people so we know there’s a large percentage of black people in Handsworth buying the album. We’re reaching a black audience as well, that’s how we know we’re successful. See, you see a tree and you don’t think of all the roots underground keeping it alive, you see the tree. You check out the album, all those songs – it’s roots. It’s portraying a certain way of life which is really around Handsworth. It’s like a chapter in other words, it deals with a certain part of this way of life. Our next album early next year will be roughly based around the same context but it’ll be totally different in subject matter.”
On this album’s subject matter, you’re trying to get across to black and white, so why use standard rasta-speak…? David: “I’m using my sort of language, because it’s me, nobody else. I’m trying to portray myself in an environment that is not really my forefather’s environment. I’ve got to try and make my form of life exist in someone else’s.” But doesn’t it seem a contradiction to you to be in the forefront of the fight against racism in this country and at the same time say on Prodigal Son, ‘return Rastaman where you came from/The land of your forefathers’? David: “It doesn’t mean to go back to Africa, it means to go back to your original way of life. I’m using a metaphor. Wherever a man is he’s got to deal with that situation. He’s got to sort out that situation where he is to continue surviving. And I happen to be here living and I can’t see why I should have to go somewhere else. I’ve got to stay and sort it out. Like I say on Ku Klux Klan, ‘Stand strong black skin and take your blow.'”
Yeah, and isn’t that a welcome contradiction to all that Dennis Brown repatriation bullshit? But you’re not rastas are you Dave? “To say you’re a rastafarian you’ve got to say that Imperial Majesty Selassie is a living god…I wouldn’t say I ‘m a rastafarian, if I decide to be a rastafarian I want to know fully what it’s about. And there’s different kinds of rastas, some of them would be totally against the quotation of ‘Ku Klux Klan’ where I say ‘Blackman do unto the Klan what they would do to you, in this case hate your neighbour,’ because their way is love not hate. But when we say hate we mean that for you to strike a blow back against someone who’s hurting you, you’ve got to have ill-feeling towards him. You can’t hit a friend.”
But if Steel Pulse have got reservations about rastafarianism, David has got no doubts that the culture has given the black community a sense of purpose, and identity which came out when I asked him if he thought black coppers were selling out… “Not sell-outs, arseholes. The older people see black people getting picked up by the police and they say the only way to solve the situation is to keep out of the way. But that’s not the answer because one day it’s going to happen to them. We’re different, we are willing to do something about it. That’s the way the young people are thinking now. You know, you see the dreads, you get your bad boys, you got your good boys, you see them reasoning about situations happening in the papers and in the bible, what is prophesied and what is happening now. They’re all getting themselves together, but at one stage before rastafari culture came you’d find black people’d be always down each others’ throats.”
Michael: “Yeah, but most people have got completely the wrong impression about Handsworth, they think it’s a big place that covers the whole of Birmingham and it’s run by a whole load of dreads, I heard it described as the ‘streets of fear’ once, you know, you can’t walk down the streets after dark without being mugged, police are continually picking up guys, it’s a bad place in general right? If you were to go there you probably wouldn’t recognise it, it’s completely the opposite. You’d say hello to a guy without even knowing him, it’s that sort of place.” ‘Handsworth shall stand firm, like Jah rock fighting back…’
But being part of Handsworth, doesn’t make them ignore the worldwide oppression of black people, ‘One black represent all, all over the world’. And naturally Southern Africa is a major talking point, the ‘civilisation’ the Western world is busily engaged in propping up while the Soviet bloc see it as a means of advancing their imperialism. ‘Bodies in mutilated condition/faces scarred beyond recognition/Is this what civilisation means to me?’ Then without it I prefer to be.’ Steel Pulse, Soldiers.
“They refer to themselves as being civilised right?” Michael sits forward, uncharacteristically solemn, “but you’ve got one half the world starving, you’ve got the other half wealthy. You know, you’ve got all these politicians dictating how much you’ve got in your wage packets, you’ve got the Front which they’ve promoted to the size they are now, you’ve got the Klan coming over, their purpose to remove all black people. This is supposed to be their civilised world. Well if that’s civilisation I’m a monkey’s elbow.”
Do you consider yourselves socialist then? Michael: “Political parties to a black guy are all the same. No matter who you elect into power when you’re that far down the scale it makes no difference, you’re still underpaid or out of a job.” David: “We’re not anti-white, and when we play and we see there’s a lot of white people and a lot of black people, we know there’s still suffering on the land of all kinds and there’s still oppression of all kinds.” So are you optimistic about the Front’s present decline? David: “I’m not really optimistic because you can smash the Front’s organisation, but you can’t really smash a set of people who think that way.” True, but I think if punk’s done anything it’s created or corresponded with a whole feeling of anti-racism and anti-authoritarianism… “It’s a step in the right direction, but you’ve got to bear in mind that punk is fashion now. It happens to be a good fashion because punk was against the system, like reggae music. But I don’t want reggae music to come and go as a craze, I don’t want it to be an exploited music like soul and funk is to me. Like straight disco music, ‘Lah we’re going to a party’ and then the next record they put on, ‘Lah we love you baby’. We don’t want that when they put a record on it says ‘Jah, Jah this’ and the next one says ‘Natty Dread this and that’ and you put on another one ‘Babylon this and that’. We don’t want reggae to come into that sort of context at all.”
Handsworth Revolution then as an album has two meanings. Firstly it represents a breakthrough for British reggae. It’s a coming of age and a musical progression with an original sound and relevant subject matter. But also Handsworth Revolution means something else: “Revolution means a whole upset in the system,” David says slowly, “turning it upside down, shaking up what you want. That’s what I mean by revolution.”
Ten years ago, Bobby Seale wrote a book about the American Black Panther Party called ‘Seize The Time’, in it he summed up their position thus: ‘We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism.. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.’ In their time I believe the Panthers were in the forefront of American black consciousness. In our time I believe Steel Pulse are in the forefront of British black consciousness. It’s like Tawney once said, you can skin an onion peel by peel, but you can’t skin a tiger claw by claw. Only solution revo-revo-revolution…