Town and country
England--particularly London--has long served reggae in much the same way as Chicago served the blues: the place you go to acquire sophistication and polish. As a result, English reggae acts tend to be slicker than their Jamaican cousins; they also tend to be more liberal stylistically. British reggae acts often pursue blended sounds or whole new genres (lover's rock, for instance). Of the great hybrid bands that sprang up in the '70s, Steel Pulse was perhaps the best. UB40 couldn't wait to roll over and do Neil Diamond covers, moving into pop pap with blinding speed; Aswad seemed to run out of ideas--or at least raison d'étre--in the mid-'80s. Only Steel Pulse--founded in an economically blighted section of Birmingham by core members David Hinds, Selwyn Brown, and Steve Nisbett--seemed to sustain the fire of their early releases. Handsworth Revolution was their angry, righteous debut in 1978. The title track asked "doesn't justice stand for all?" in a tone that was part demand and part dare but devoid of supplication.
Like most popular reggae acts of the time, Steel Pulse loosely followed a Bob Marley-Wailers model, but went further afield in search of influence than any other group, adding touches of flamenco, European machine-pop, and R&B. Tribute to the Martyrs (1978) and Reggae Fever (1980) continued the trend toward an updated sound that retained traditional commentary. As the '80s wore on--and, not coincidentally, as England embraced conservative Thatcherism--some of the heart seemed to go out of reggae in Britain. Steel Pulse wasn't immune to this malaise, but their first three albums are still among the best British reggae produced, more than able to hold their own against the music of the homeland.
Still, the group soldiered on, releasing solid, serviceable--but seldom inspired--albums into the '90s. Last year was a banner year for them: They not only released Rage and Fury--their best work in quite a while and a nominee for a 1998 Grammy in the field of Best Reggae--but Island Records also put out Sound System Island Anthology, which brought together the band's essential first three albums, spiced up with a selection of live cuts and 12-inch remixes. That music still has a righteous glow and an angry edge that Rage--title notwithstanding--just can't match.
As if to borrow a bit of that old-school magic, Rage reprises "Ku Klux Klan," off of Hardsworth Revolution--this time with a horn section--and rails against crooked politicos, the media, poisonous race relations, and the soiled environment. The band continues to expand its somewhat chameleon-like style, incorporating hip-hop ("Black Enough?," which features Spearhead's Michael Franti rapping), dancehall, synths and samples, and R&B. That they introduce these different elements so seamlessly may disqualify them as archivists, but it's to their credit as shepherds as they guide their music into the next century.
Steel Pulse plays in Fort Worth at the Caravan of Dreams on Friday, February 20.
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