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Finger on the Pulse

Steel Pulse celebrates 25 years of Rasta revolution

"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.

Almost 20 years later, Hinds recalls the achievement with glowing self-admiration: "We pursued the venture, executed the album within 28 days, and came out with a record that is still a force to be reckoned with."

That's no idle boast. True Democracy is one of the most vital albums in the genre's history, an immaculate synthesis of pure roots and the shimmering technology of the day. With unbridled optimism True Democracy's tunes overflow with jubilation and propulsive riddims, and a fair amount of sermonizing. "Man No Sober" and "Leggo Beast," tackle the evils of alcoholism and adultery respectively. On the cover Hinds is pictured delivering the good word to his bandmates from a hymnal.

To this end "Chant a Psalm" finds Hinds simultaneously at his most erudite and ebullient. Taut and muscular with a synthetic gloss that doesn't obscure the fiery convictions within, the song is one of the most exuberant offerings in the Steel Pulse oeuvre. Hinds' voice, strong and rock-steady, keeps the upper register occupied but contains a growl that emerges when required.

After connecting with True Democracy, Steel Pulse found the tide turning again. As the decade progressed, the only reggae making commercial inroads was much more party-oriented.

"By the mid '80s, our style of politically conscious, spiritually aware reggae music was being phased out," Hinds recalls. "We had to try to get ourselves strengthened within the American market to stay alive, and we thought it was necessary to have a combination of politically oriented songs and songs we called 'bait music,' songs that had a pop aspect to it so we can stay in the mainstream."

While Steel Pulse -- now down to a core trio of Hinds, Nesbitt, and Brown -- was recording 1984's Earth Crisis, the band's label, Elektra, increased the pressure to conform by issuing the band an ultimatum: Make the album sound like Eddy Grant (who had found success with "Living on the Frontline" and "Electric Avenue") or take a walk.

"We did what we thought was the best idea to stay alive as a band," Hinds recalls. "And we ended up doing 'baby, I love you' tracks."

In particular 1986's Babylon the Bandit displayed a tendency to veer in this dance hall direction, though Steel Pulse was rewarded with a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. "The album had flaws in its overall delivery," Hinds complains. "A track like ['School Boy's Crush']-- if that's not bubble-gum, I don't know what is. Like I said, the music suffered somewhat."

Released on MCA, 1988's State of Emergency brought back vestiges of the old passion, but it wasn't until 1992's live set, Rastafari Centennial, that the band overhauled its original, rootsy mission and returned to form with an emphasis on older material.

1994's Vex and 1997's Rage and Fury continued this streak, showing that Steel Pulse's strength of purpose hadn't been diminished by commercial constraints, time, or struggle. Another live recording, last year's Living Legacy, reprises versions of old favorites like "Ku Klux Klan" while trumpeting newer anthems like the steaming, tropical "Islands Unite." During a medley of '70s-era songs, scriptural concerns arise again on "Not King James Version," where Hinds calls into question the Bible's blind eye to African history. "Ancient prophets… like Daniel, King David, and Abraham Israel were all black men," he preaches in the song. "Phoenicians, Egyptians, and the Moors built civilization, that's for sure."

Moreover, Living Legacy captures a chemistry the studio albums have at times missed, with stunning musicianship taking the lead and Hinds connecting with the crowd. The band sounds bigger, too: In concert the threesome expands to a vivacious nine-piece, with keyboards and backing vocalists. Had Steel Pulse opted for the more commercial road taken by peers like Inner Circle or Third World, Living Legacy would likely be a tired rehash of weak radio hits instead of powerful summation of the last quarter-century.

But it's with a mix of regret and pride that Hinds sums up his own legacy, especially his lack of financial savvy in the early days. "It can leave me somewhat depressed," he says. "I was taken advantage of, coming from a hick town to things that were happening in a corporate world. It was almost like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, where no man has been before. That's how we felt when we went down to London and met the record industry." Bitterly Hinds claims he's never seen any income from the group's initial recordings.  

"There's so many albums out there that we haven't benefited from, but what keeps me strong is to know that the people have benefited. So many people… come around backstage and say, 'You turned my life around when I met you 15 years ago, and you signed an autograph and went on to say this,' you know? I can't remember a lot of these people from a can of paint, but I leave feeling that I've touched the hearts of a lot of people. And that's good."

Contact Jeff Stratton at his e-mail address: jeff.stratton@newtimesbpb.com


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