Thursday, February 15, 2007

Reggae Rebellion

By Patrick S. Pemberton

Selwyn Brown, left, and David Hinds have been part of Steel Pulse from the beginning. The reggae veterans will perform at The Graduate in San Luis Obispo on Monday.
When The Police added reggae rhythms to songs like “I Can’t Stand Losing You” or “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” chances are they were fusing a little Steel Pulse into their music.
Back in the ’70s, The Police opened for Steel Pulse, a British reggae act that curiously found its initial audience among punk rock fans.

While Steel Pulse didn’t blend punk, rock and reggae as blatantly as The Police, they clearly related to the punks.

“A common factor was that we were both against what the system was about, politically and socially,” said David Hinds, lead singer of the band since its inception in 1975.
Steel Pulse has always fought the system, whether recording songs about injustice or suing a New York City cab service for discrimination. (The class action suit is still pending, Hinds says.)
“It’s nothing contrived or anything like that,” Hinds said. “We just see the world as it is and we just sort of point out what’s going wrong.”

When the band started out, it couldn’t land gigs in the Caribbean because of its Rastafarian beliefs, so it gravitated toward punkers, touring with acts like The Clash, Generation X and XTC.
Songs like “Ku Klux Klan,” “Not King James Version” and “Taxi Driver” (inspired by their lawsuit) typify the band’s politically-charged lyrics. To add impact to their songs, the band is known for wearing costumes — like Klan robes – during their shows.

The band’s most recent album, “African Holocaust,” featured roots reggae paired with lyrics about global warming, war and race.

Hinds spoke to The Tribune about punk, Klan robes and Bob Marley from a hotel in Kansas City, Mo.
Q: How did the audiences react to reggae when you did a punk show?
A: They reacted in a positive way. The positivity sort of backfired from time to time, where they sort of more than appreciated it. They started spitting and throwing beer on the stage, which is their way of saying, “Yeah, we totally approve of what you’re doing.”
Q: The Police obviously have a reggae influence. What do you think of their reggae sound?
A: I thought reggae needed more of a contemporary kind of groove to it. It was a bit too laid-back to move forward amongst the other music in the scheme of things. I think after a couple of hits from Bob Marley and certain bands that had pace in their music, like The Police, reggae started to realize that it had to step up the beat on the tracks. The Police is one of the bands that, to me, contributed a certain energy to reggae music. And I always appreciated the lyrical content of The Police.
Q: I read somewhere that back in the Island Records days, you were pressured to become more commercial. I think there’s even one story where you guys were asked to be more like Eddy Grant.
A: That was asked of us as well when we in the middle of recording the “Earth Crisis” album. But when the album got released, the company changed its tune for a while.
Q: What did they say?
A: During that period of time Eddy Grant was in New York, getting a lot of positive publicity and write-ups, so they were getting a bit nervous about Eddy coming back to town and making things happen. We were a different band with a different approach, and we had a different image than Eddy Grant. But they weren’t aware of that because larger companies cannot see this and the actual ins and outs of the music other than looking at statistics. As you know, Eddy Grant, although he’s still producing music out there, did not have the same longevity that we had. No disrespect to Eddy — he’s an excellent musician in his own right. ... But at the end of the day, it’s perseverance, and we persevered.
Q: How did you guys have to compromise through the years?
A: We started to dilute the lyrics somewhat and also the grooves behind the lyrics. So instead of writing an album with 10 political songs, you sort of write an album with seven political songs, and then three poppy-sounding ones. You tried to match what was going on, realizing that after the death of Marley that reggae music was losing its popularity. So we started trying to get a bit of funk or R&B kind of sound into what we were doing. It backfired more than it benefited us.
Q: Some people didn’t like that?
A: Our hard-core fans weren’t too appreciative of it. We lost an audience for quite a while.
Q: Do you still dress in the Klan robes?
A: You know something, we don’t, but I’m thinking it’s about time that we do that now because I’ve been watching the news since I’ve been in the U.S. about the Klan on the rise again.
Q: Did it conjure up any feelings when you had those guys in the robes onstage?
A: The whole idea when we started that was to be thought-provocative — to be very controversial. We thought instead of just singing this s---, why don’t we act it out? We did that with so many things. I used to come on the stage dressed in a prison uniform with a ball and chain on my legs.
Q: When you think of reggae, Bob Marley is obviously at the top of the hierarchy. Is it kind of hard to get away from the shadow that he cast?
A: It’s hard, but who wants to get away from that shadow? I don’t want to get away from that shadow. Mike Tyson was always in the shadow of the greats, like Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali and all those guys, and he’s probably got an attitude about that. But when I look at the world of Bob Marley and what he stood for and the amount of people he reached with the music and how he came from the same background as I did and my parents did (his parents were Jamaican), and had a similar struggle to get his music exposed, it’s an honor to be under the shadow of Bob Marley. I like to believe we’re still catching up, so it gives me incentive to keep going.
Q: How did a British reggae band wind up performing at the White House for the 1993 inauguration festivities?
A: That’s a good question. You’re gonna have to ask the man who hosted “An Inconvenient Truth.” It was his idea, really. Al Gore was an admirer of Steel Pulse music back in the day.
Who knows — maybe if Hillary wins it, we’ll get out there again.
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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