Steel Pulse is an important band in the history of reggae because, along with Aswad and Matumbi, they proved that good reggae music could come from England too, and that Jamaicans did not have a monopoly on reggae. Up until the mid-1970s there seems to have been the perception in England that “real reggae” could only be “produced” in Jamaica. Consequently local reggae bands like The Cimarrons had struggled to establish a reputation as performers.
Steel Pulse was formed in the mid-1970s in Handsworth, an area in Birmingham where many immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and from the West Indies had settled down in the 1950s and 1960s. These immigrants had come to England to rebuild the country after WWII, to work in the expanding National Health Service, in factories, as bus drivers for the men and as cleaners for the women. Many Jamaican women worked as nurses and many Jamaican men found jobs in the building trade, working on building sites. By the mid-1970s their children were in their late teens or early twenties and were part of the “Black British” generation. They had been born in England but were of Indian, Pakistani or Jamaican parentage. They were “British” by birth but felt culturally different and were in fact torn apart between two cultures. The late 1960s had seen the racialisation of politics in England with both Labour and Conservative governments passing laws to reduce the number of immigrants coming into the country , and in 1968 the Conservative politician Enoch Powell had made his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham in which he had predicted that if more immigrants were let in, then rivers of blood would flow and civil war would engulf England. The 1970s were marked by the first oil crisis when OPEC countries decided to increase the price of oil. The unemployment rate shot up in England because the country was unable to compete with its European rivals and had a very old industrial sector. Although the vast majority of English people were tolerant and decent people, immigrants were sometimes blamed for the country’s ills and race became a political issue. In cities like Birmingham with large concentrations of West Indian people, Jamaican reggae became more than a music to dance to. It became a vital part of thei life as David Hinds explained in an interview granted to the journalist Chris May in 1978 :” As soon as you leave school you find that all the things you were promised – a job, a future and so on – it’s all different. When you realise that, all you’ve got to turn to is your own culture and yourself. There’s nowhere else to look. A black man doesn’t get much say in the way things are run outside music. That’s why music is so important. The music becomes the message”.
The members of Steel Pulse grew up in such an economic and social environment, but not in a ghetto. Indeed they went to school with other English children, were exposed to British culture, pop music, rock and punk. The Beatles, The Who, pop music and progressive rock were part of their cultural baggage when they formed their first band in January 1975. They gigged on the local circuit for a while before releasing their first 45, “Kibudu, Mansatta and Abuku” on the Dip label in 1976. Later “Nyah Love” appeared on the Tempus label with “Bun Dem” on the flip side. When Burning Spear toured the UK for the first time, they were hired as opening act. On the strength of their live act, they signed a contract with Island Records which released their first LP, Handsworth Revolution, in 1978. This was followed by Tribute to the Martyrs in 1979 and Caught You (Reggae Fever in the USA) in 1980. On account of low sale figures for Caught You, the band was dropped by Island and their morale was pretty low. Fortunately their performance at Reggae Sunsplash 1981 was well received and the band was given one whole side on the double LP Elektra released later on (Reggae Sunsplash ’81: A Tribute to Bob Marley, Elektra, 1982). That LP contains the band’s stunning rendition of Bob Marley’s “Smile Jamaica”.
In the 1980s Steel Pulse became more of an international reggae band and toured the USA where their live appearances earned them a new audience. 1982 saw the release of True Democracy, an LP which is considered by many critics as one of the band’s finest. Their next effort, Earth Crisis (1984), raised a few eyebrows on account of its very “American” and keyboard-dominated sound. Many fans turned their backs on the group but new fans were won over by their very modern sound. By then two founding members (Ronnie McQueen on bass and Basil Gabbidon on guitar) had left the band. David Hinds, Phonso Martin, Steve Nisbett and Selwyn Brown remained and a new bass player, Alvin Ewen, was brought in.
Their next album, Babylon the Bandit, continued along the same lines and was produced, like Earth Crisis, by Jimmy Haynes. This effort won the band a Grammy award for best reggae album for 1986. Steel Pulse released State of Emergency and Victims in 1987 and 1991 respectively, two albums which were interpreted by some fans as blatant attempts at cracking the “American market” and by other fans as progressive efforts to push back the limits of reggae music. In spite of this controversy, Steel Pulse had remained extremely popular in Europe, and particularly in France where their 1992 live effort Rastafari Centennial: Live in Paris -Elysée Montmartre had been recorded. The band seemed to go through an identity crisis in the 1990s and went back “to their roots” with Vex in 1994, and album which was recorded in Jamaica and which incorporated the new sounds of dancehall. The album was very well received by the critics and the fans alike and proved that the band was able to reinvent itself as a “modern roots” outfit. In 1997 Rage and Fury continued along the same lines with a modern roots sensibility. Since then the band has continued to tour extensively, releasing African Holocaust in 2004 and appearing at major festivals all over the world.
Steel Pulse’s contribution to reggae music is astounding on account of their unique sound, their sense of the theatrical and of course their penetrating lyrics.
What drew many reggae fans to Steel Pulse was undoubtedly their totally unique sound. That sound has been described as modern, progressive and energetic, and is in fact a synthesis of various influences like jazz, punk rock, progressive rock and Jamaican music. The group also has a flair for introductions and the opening bars of Steel Pulse songs are often mesmerising or intriguing. For instance, the opening of “Handsworth Revolution” consists of a muted bass line accompanied by percussions and the effect produced is quite haunting. It sets the stage for the rest of the song. The first bars of “Blues Dance Raid” and “Prodigal Son” are explosive and rock-oriented and they really hook the listener.
The Steel Pulse sound is also marked by its combination of various influences like flamenco (on “Prophecy”), jazz (“Higher than High”) or punk rock (“Prodigal Son”). Hip hop and rap are also definite influences on Earth Crisis and Babylon the Bandit, while Jamaican dancehall features prominently on Vex, with Tony Rebel and other Jamaican artists. Rage and Fury (1997) features a nice cover of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”, which shows the band’s willingness to expand their sound twenty years after they first got together. Their constant efforts to expand the parameters of their sound got them into trouble with the more conservative reggae fans and started the well-known controversy about the band’s status. In fact the band’s reaction to that debate was masterful. The Vex album (1994), recorded in Jamaica and featuring such great modern artists as Tony Rebel, embodied the group’s conception of “roots music”: embracing tradition while expanding the sound. The song “Bootstraps”, which was a hit in Jamaica, is a good example of that new approach.
In the early days the Steel Pulse sound owed a lot to the artistry of Basil Gabbidon whose guitar lines did a lot to endear the group to many fans. Selwyn Brown’s keyboard work was also well in evidence on songs like “Handsworth Revolution”.
Steel Pulse’s sense of the theatrical has been noted by many journalists. The band has always been keenly aware of the importance of the visual impact an artist can have on the audience. In the early days, they wore costumes which symbolised the English class system and English culture. One member of the band would be dressed as a vicar, thus representing the Church of England and Establishment views on religion. Another musician would bear a bowler hat and a three-piece-suit, thus alluding to the upper classes. There would also be someone dressed as an eighteenth-century footman, and this could be seen as a comment on the way black people were treated back then. And of course David Hinds would soon appear on stage with his famous “stovepipe dreads”, an elaborate hairstyle which consisted in turning his dreadlocks into one long funnel or pipe. The effect was dramatic and reminiscent of the punk aesthetic (spiky hair, etc). In fact Steel Pulse had shared the stage with early punk bands like The Stranglers, XTC, The Damned and The Clash, and had gone down very well with the punk audience. David Hinds would also wear shades and brightly coloured clothes, which added to the band’s visual impact.
The best-known example of the band’s theatrical sense is of course the long white cloak and hood Phonso Martin woudl wear on stage during their rendering of “Ku Klux Klan”, one of their early hits. There is a video of the group’s appearance at Reggae Sunsplash 1981 which gives a pretty good idea of the kind of impact the band could have back then.
But Steel Pulse’s popularity has also been due to the quality of their lyrics and the themes dealt with in their songs. Indeed the band covered a wide range of local and international concerns, and they did not stick to one format. Steel Pulse sang conscious tunes, love songs and rocking anthems with the same gusto.
The first LPs, Handsworth Revolution and Tribute to the Martyrs, contain their fair share of Rasta-influenced songs and the Bible features heavily in tunes like “Prodigal Son”, “Prophecy”, “Unseen Guest” and “Selah”. On the other hand, the band knew how to court an international audience , as is shown by the lightweight “Macka Splaff”, a herb song if there ever was one. The second LP, Tribute to the Martyrs, is probably the “heaviest” Steel Pulse album in terms of lyrics and seriousness. Apart from “Sound System”, which is a musically heavy tune celebrating a great Jamaican institution, the remaining seven songs are all political anthems in their own way, from “Jah Pickney – R.A.R” which sings the praises of the Rock Against Racism movement, a musicians’ collective which organised a series of concerts to counter the rise of the National Front in England, to “Biko’s Kindred Lament”, a tribute to Steve Biko, the South African activist who died in jail. The song “Uncle George” is about George Jackson, the “Soledad brother” who was killed in jail in 1971. One of the catchiest tunes on the LP was “Babylon Makes the Rules”, a song composed by the keyboardist Selwyn Brown.
The band’s last LP for Island, the very underrated Caught You (Reggae Fever in the USA) featured a mixture of roots reggae compositions like “Harassment”, “Heart of Stone”, “Nyabinghi Voyage” and lighter material like “Shining” and “Rumours”. This LP was marked by its stunning versatility and the range of musical styles covered is amazing: roots reggae (“Harassment”, “Heart of Stone”), funk and R’n’B (“Shining”, “Rumours”), jazz (“Higher than High”), lovers’ rock (“Caught You Dancing”). With this LP, the band was signalling that they did not want to stick to one format, roots reggae, which anyway was going out of fashion at the time, and they showed their versatility.Such a level of musicianship is reminiscent of Third World or the early Inner Circle.
Unfortunately, the album did not sell very well, and Island dropped them from their catalogue.
1982’s True Democracy opened with one of the most upbeat reggae tunes ever recorded, the Bible-inspired “Chant A Psalm” which, despite its heavy Rastafarian leanings, contains a pretty universal message about sticking it out and never giving up. That tune was followed by the rocking “Ravers”, a crowd-pleaser during the band’s concerts. But the two highlights of this LP were of course “Worth His Weight in Gold (Rally Round)”, a tribute to Marcus Garvey, and the chilling and accusatory “Blues Dance Raid”, with its dramatic introduction and memorable bassline. The song was about the “raiding” of a Jamaican party (“blues dance”) by the police in search of drugs. The lyrics are very straigthforward: “The pigs come to destroy Rasta cry blood / Dreadlocks cry blood”. The album was also notable for the inclusion of a love song by the percussionist Phonso Martin, “Your House”.
After the release of True Democracy, the band went through a period of soul-searching as roots reggae was no longer fashionable, and they adopted a more “modern” and keyboard-dominated sound for their next albums, Earth Crisis (1984), Babylon the Bandit (1985) and State of Emergency (1987).
Earth Crisis was marked by a very bright sound and new arrangements which supported songs like “Stepping Out”, the title-track and “Roller Skates”. The title-track, “Grab Education”,”Bodyguard” and “Wild Goose Chase” were the four “conscious” tunes, but what is interesting about this record is that it blurred the boundaries between “roots reggae” and “pop reggae” for want of a better phrase. For instance, “Roller Skates”, a song that might seem lightweight on the first listening, is in fact about the power of music. The song ends with an American-style rap done in Jamaican patois, which was quite unusual at the time, interspersed with the lines “Life without music, I can’t go”. The impact of the song builds up gradually and by the end of the tune the listener is hooked. “Bodyguard”, a song about the paranoid lifestyle of politicians and heads od state, combined strong lyrics (“Bodyguard, I wouldn’t like your job; snakes in the grass, they know not God/ Politricksters drinking human blood”) a powerful bassline and good arrangements. The originality of the song is that the band see things from the bodyguard’s point of view, actually feeling sorry for him.
Earth Crisis was followed by Babylon the Bandit one year later, an album that won Steel Pulse a Grammy Award for best reggae album for 1986. The album contained three great tracks: the moving and prayer-like “Blessed is the Man”, ” Save Black Music” and “Not King James Version”, an Africentric take on the (re)writing of history by European colonisers and the consequent neglect of other civilisations. The other tracks are not as successful as similar material on earlier albums, but the album certainly has its moments, like the lead guitar (Carlton Bryan) on the title-track and Selwyn Brown’s singing on “Don’t Be Afraid”.
The same uneven mix of strong material and weaker songs could be found on the band’s next efforts, State of Emergency (1987) and Victims (1991), with the same kind of sound. An effort was made to incorporate urban R’n’B and soul and this worked well on “Said You Was an Angel” (on State of Emergency) and on not so well on “Soul of My Soul” (on Victims). The first track on Victims is entitled “Taxi Driver” and is about the racial discrimination suffered by black people when they tried to flag down a taxi. The song features bright arrangements with a jazz and an R’n’B flavour and is pretty successful, and tunes like “Gang Warfare” and the title-track were quite strong, but the album was marred by too many weaker tracks. The same could be said about State of Emergency. The band seemed to be lost at the time, searching for a new approach, a new “sound”, and they lost some of their early fans in the process.
Which is why they felt the need to go back to their roots with their next effort, entitled Vex (1994). The album was recorded in Jamaica and was on the whole an attempt at incorporating the latest dancehall vibes while remaining faithful to their roots. The lyrics and the arrangements are very good throughout, with three outstanding tracks at the beginning, “Bootstraps”, “Back to My Roots”, and “Island Unite”. There was also a very sombre and moving song about the plight of Jamaican immigrants in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, “Dirty H2 0”. So the album acknowledged the band’s roots in Jamaica but also their parents’ experience as immigrants in England.
Like Third World, Inner Circle and the more obscure In-Crowd, Steel Pulse have over the years pushed back the boundaries of reggae and have not been afraid to take risks in the process. By incorporating rock, the energy of punk, jazz, R’n’B and modern dancehall into their sound, they have made reggae music accessible to a worldwide audience and paved the way for many new bands today like SOJA or Groundation to name but two of them.
Hebdige, Dick. Cut’n’Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. London: Comedia, 1987.
Huey, Steve. “Steel Pulse”. Allmusic.com.
May, Chris. “British Reggae 1”, Black Music (1978).
Van Pelt, Carter. “Roots ResurrXtion”, The Beat (Vol.14, N°2, 1995).