By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
"Where there's no respect, there's hatred," cautions David Hinds, leader of the indomitable reggae outfit Steel Pulse. "And where there's hatred, there's instant violence, and it leads ultimately to death."
Such dire sentiments from Hinds are nothing new; he's spent 25 years using Steel Pulse (performing in Sunrise June 21) as a platform for his social conscience. And when he looks around, he usually sees crisis.
"The community, I sadly say, is in a quagmire situation, with the youths literally out there shooting themselves to death for trivial reasons. What's absent from the youth culture is an education when it comes to worldly issues," Hinds declares. "And I think that's a step toward destroying mankind."
Hinds' viewpoint doesn't originate from the mean streets of Kingston. In fact he reveals that it's been five years since the band has even set foot in Jamaica. Growing up in the '70s in a ghetto of Birmingham, England -- an economically depressed industrial town much like Detroit at that time -- left Hinds with urban survival skills as well as the clipped, proper speech of his homeland. "Ring me back straightaway?" he asks before conducting this phone interview.
After a musical and cultural epiphany triggered by Bob Marley's Catch a Fire album kindled the reggae coals for Hinds, he formed Steel Pulse in Birmingham at the start of 1975. The singer-guitarist began the group with fellow West Indian immigrants Basil Gabbidon (vocals, guitar) and Ponnic McQueen (bass) and set out playing Marley and Burning Spear covers. After acquiring drummer Steve Nesbitt and keyboardist-vocalist Selwyn Brown, the sound took on calypso, African, and jazz attributes, while remaining close to its Jamaican roots. Steel Pulse struck its first blow with the forceful manifesto of 1978's Handsworth Revolution, which mirrored the racial strife that then had a grip on the ghettoes of Birmingham.
"I remember vividly a situation where the National Front (a racist branch of the skinhead movement) came in and held a meeting in a school right in the heart of a black community," Hinds says. "The school was under siege for several hours. The police were there to escort them back to their cars. There was bloodshed, buildings were looted, people were hurt."
Incidents like that one spurred the band to adopt an uncompromising mix of roots reggae and political activism. "And although we were young, that philosophy strengthened our immune system against Babylon," Hinds declares. That strength has been called upon again and again throughout the band's career, as its political and musical ambition has constantly come under attack by commercial forces, eager for the band to dilute its message in order to sell more records.
In fact Steel Pulse encountered opposition from the outset. White-owned dance clubs in the English Midlands, unaccustomed to the group's mystical religion, dreadlocked appearance, and ganja use, initially barred the band from performing. But Steel Pulse found support by aligning itself with the growing punk-rock uprising, which injected the band with a set of new values.
"It was never in us to go out and buy a punk-rock or new-wave record," he claims. "There was a strong identification crisis taking place in England, and we just didn't care about anything else apart from our reggae music."
But the punks -- also struggling for respect, recognition, and airplay -- accepted the Rastafarians as oppressed brothers after realizing reggae had an equally tough row to hoe. The formative Rock Against Racism movement further unified the two sectors, best exemplified by the Clash's unique hybrid.
"Although we were out there as musicians among the punk-rock acts, we decided to try to share the same sentiment in the end, because we were everything the system was rejecting," Hinds elaborates. "It put us more in the driver's seat to appreciate what the punks were about."
Recorded artifacts from this time period highlight the unlikely juxtaposition: The herb homage "Makka Spliff (The Colly Man)" appeared on a 1978 compilation called Live at the Electric Circus alongside early offerings from the Fall, Joy Division, and the Buzzcocks. Three years later in the film Urgh! A Music War, Steel Pulse's protest anthem "Ku Klux Klan" was sandwiched between Jools Holland and Devo. Two other groups with whom the band shared the stage early on -- XTC and the Police -- left an indelible sonic impression on Steel Pulse that can be heard to this day, especially in the button-tight arrangements and choppy, slashing guitar work.
After punk softened into new wave, Steel Pulse found that its comparatively militant stance didn't fare well against the feel-good reggae in vogue at the time. But in making a direct appeal to American pop music fans, the band inadvertently produced a milestone with 1982's True Democracy, a record, Hinds says, that was the result of a make-or-break situation.
"We were on the verge of being kicked while we were down. We had no record company, we had no management, and we were flat broke." An obscure Danish label with money to burn and a new, state-of-the-art studio came to their rescue. Looking for a guinea pig to help test and calibrate the equipment, the firm took an interest in Steel Pulse and recorded the album free of charge. The band rose to the occasion with a win-win compromise, producing the musical equivalent of a précis of all things Rastafarian, illustrated with bright synthesizers and sing-along choruses that made for an engaging kind of techno-reggae.