Righteous finger on reggae pulse

By Scott Kara

Steel Pulse jumped on the punk rock wave that swept through England in the 1970s, says front man David Hinds. Photo / Supplied
Steel Pulse jumped on the punk rock wave that swept through England in the 1970s, says front man David Hinds. Photo / Supplied

When Steel Pulse started out in the rough and tough Birmingham district of Handsworth in the mid-70s they got support from an unlikely source.

While the roots reggae band were shunned by live venues and radio stations because of their staunch lyrics about the plight of black youth, racism and police brutality, the punk crowd liked what they heard.

"At that time in Birmingham it was hard to get on the radio if you were a black artist, unless you were on Motown," remembers co-founder and front man David Hinds. "It was like climbing a mountain with one leg. But we generated our fan base around small clubs and managed to amalgamate ourselves with the punk rock acts that were happening at the time."

One of Steel Pulse's early singles was Ku Klux Kan, off their 1978 debut album Handsworth Revolution. Musically it's a cruisy and lilting reggae tune, but lyrically it is combative and resolute with lines like: "I come face to face, with my foe, disguised in violence from head to toe".

He remembers there were one or two black DJs who got the band's early tracks on the radio.

"But when they heard Ku Klux Klan even they were stricken with what the lyrics were saying. If they played it, it would cost them their livelihoods. So it was almost a no no from the get go."

However, they scored support slots with bands like the Stranglers and the Clash and while some British reggae bands fought against the punk rock association - "They didn't want to have anything to do with that racket" - Steel Pulse jumped on the bandwagon.

"And to be honest, if the punk rock movement had not happened in England there would be no Steel Pulse - or any [British] reggae. Because it was on the backs of the punk rockers that reggae got its foot in the door."

Hinds reckons the two styles rubbed along together because both were all about anarchy. "Reggae, rasta, roots, repatriation, and riots against police brutality. So it was all about anarchy and the punks had their version of anarchy and they would go around buying expensive cardigans, and other clothing, and start shredding them. They did the same thing with their skin with pins and needles, and that came through in their music.

"And back then they said to themselves: 'Hang on, here's another style of music that's about anarchy, so lets join them'. And that's how reggae got on board."

Handsworth Revolution was released by Island Records, Bob Marley's label at the time, but in the 80s Steel Pulse took on a more commercial bent with albums like Caught You and State of Emergency. However, despite this more mainstream edge, the Steel Pulse message has always stayed the same: "To fight injustice, educate, and be positive."

Hinds says this mandate came out of living in Handsworth, a predominantly black and Asian community which he describes as a hostile and heavy place in the 70s.

"The blacks who came there from neighbouring districts were pretty much afraid. It wasn't exactly a gang thing going on, but so many incidents happened in Handsworth that it got a negative reputation.

"Both blacks and whites alike outside that district were pretty much afraid to wander in. But as far as I was concerned it was pretty harmless because I was born and raised there and my friends were from there."

Hinds and friends like guitarist Basil Gabbidon and bass player Ronnie "Stepper" McQueen, who he formed Steel Pulse with, were among the first generation of West Indian immigrants born in Britain by parents who had migrated from the Caribbean in the early 50s.

"Small West Indian communities started building up in all the major cities in Britain, especially London and Birmingham, and because of the high influx of immigrants there was high unemployment and there was always someone to blame for that. There were also the tensions with police, and on the other side there was racism kicking around with the rise of the National Front who were launching a political party at the time. So out of that political and social atmosphere Steel Pulse was born."

Because of the mix of cultures in Birmingham, Hinds and his band mates were exposed to many different styles of music, which is why everything from jazz, R&B, Latin, electronic and dance music has crept into their sound over the years.

This meant, back in the early 80s especially, Steel Pulse was distinct from the reggae coming out of Jamaica.

They first went there in 1981, just a few months after Bob Marley died, and Hinds remembers "my knees were shaking, and my teeth were chattering".

He need not have worried because even though they were very different they got respect because they sounded unique.

"And ever since Jamaica has embraced [us] and holds us in high regard because of our contribution to the music."

Lowdown

Who: Steel Pulse, British roots reggae band
Where & when: Raggamuffin, Rotorua International Stadium, January 23, 4.45pm
Key albums: Handsworth Revolution (1978); Babylon the Bandit (1986)

- NZ Herald

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