The Boys of Birmingham
It's easy to assume that reggae music is a product of Jamaica alone. The island has produced all of the genre's biggest names for the past 40 years, and it's still ground zero when it comes to discovering what's hot. Reggae music was undoubtedly born in Jamaica, but if you branch out across the Atlantic, you'll see that for a considerable amount of time during the late '70s and '80s, England was an underappreciated mecca for reggae music as well.
Bands from Brixton, Birmingham, and London put their own spin on reggae and kept the culture moving forward all the way until dancehall surfaced in the late '90s. But before that, a hard-driving subgenre emerged; acts like Aswad, Black Roots, Apache Indian, and UB40 charted internationally and were able to steer reggae culture in a different direction.
Although most of those bands have come and gone, one group out of Birmingham is still around and making roots music for anyone who still wants to listen. The name Steel Pulse doesn't often invoke the same rebellious thump that it used to, but the band is still touring, still making new music, and band members still consider themselves relics from a time when roots music was king. Steel Pulse was once a household name within reggae music, and it's cranked out a bunch of hits over the years. Tracks like "Handsworth Revolution," "Sound System," and "Babylon Makes the Rules" were some of the toughest and, unfortunately, most slept-on tracks in reggae. Though sometimes overlooked, songs like those helped take the band beyond the confines of England and into the greater reggae world as we know it.
But when you talk with the band's affable longtime frontman, David Hinds, he suggests that Steel Pulse was one of the most misunderstood bands of its era as well. Blacks didn't always get it, Jamaicans on the island were quick to ignore it, and, when the group started in 1975, it had to align itself with an unlikely group of musicians just to get started.
"When we first started out, we jumped on the punk-rock band circuit because most blacks didn't understand us," Hinds says during a recent phone interview. "At the time, punk rockers were accepting anything that the system wasn't accepting. Since reggae wasn't accepted, they'd let us open up for other bands and build an alliance."
It probably sounds like a strange union, but counterculture Brits with Mohawks and Rastafarians had more in common than many would at first assume. Both were revered as outlaws, and without trying to be stylish, both punks and Yardies (British slang for Jamaicans) had their hairstyles and dress codes, making for an interesting mixture in the middle of a dance floor. In the band's early days, newspapers routinely called Steel Pulse "Jah Punk" because of its popularity with the Sex Pistol-loving punk rockers of the day. That doesn't mean the two worlds always got along.
"There were issues with racism," Hinds says. "The spitting and throwing beer mugs at us all happened... no doubt about it, but once they got the message that we weren't about that, the audiences adjusted."
Many of the band's early songs do have a punk edge to them, like "Ku Klux Klan," a song that called out hate groups like the KKK in America but those in England as well. In fact, in their early days, they were known just as much for their wild hairstyles as their controversial lyrics. The band members all had huge, aerodynamic dreadlocks that seemed to defy gravity, and when they got on stage, they shouted lyrics that could have given the queen a heart attack.
Over the years, Hinds has always been quick to pen songs about racism and oppression, the dominant issues in his working-class Jamaican immigrant neighborhood. Whereas Jamaican reggae bands on the island were all writing songs praising Jah, Steel Pulse didn't spend a lot of time praising anything, instead singing lyrics that addressed societal ills.
"I think it's because we come from an urban society," Hinds says. "We made the issue stick. It's different, because Jamaicans don't always talk about racism. It's more classism there... more poverty and suffering and not paying the rent. But we're from England. And it's about racism and chattel slavery and the oppression we've been dealing with for 400 years."
The band's heyday has past, Hinds concedes, but he doesn't think there's any lack of moxie on the band's part that would explain its decline in popularity. Rather, he points the finger at dancehall, the subgenre that made roots-rock reggae seem less interesting.
"A lot of people didn't give us a chance after dancehall came out," Hinds says matter-of-factly. "I'd say that dancehall killed all our popularity, but that's been true of a lot of reggae bands that are conscious and spiritual and political."
When Steel Pulse tours nowadays, it tries to keep the rocker vibe alive, but it also mixes in new songs. It's hard to say how much longer the band will be around, though. After 32 years, it's proven all it can, and Hinds is bold enough to give the group five years tops before calling it quits.
"We don't want guys walking around the stage with walking sticks," he says laughing. "Rock groups can get away with that, but we don't want to be on the oldies night."
In England, hip-hop and garage have become the popular forms of music, and Hinds doesn't think the band has much vitality left in its own country.
"People aren't listening to reggae that much in England," he says. "It's all garage music. Dizzee Rascal and whatnot. I understand things change, and to be honest, I'm happy to see any black act making a dent in this music industry, because it was hell for us. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, it was rough."
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