Speech 214 Fall 09
Rhetoric of Reggae Term Paper
Steel Pulse, Biography and Sociopolitical Messages
Steel Pulse is one of the most influential and recognizable names
in music, a majority of their songs are sociological tools that push us to
evaluate our society, while other songs simply make us want to dance. Steel
Pulse was formed in 1975, at the Handsworth Wood Boys School, in Birmingham
England, with David Hinds doing lead vocals and playing guitar, Basil Gabbidon
playing lead guitar and doing vocals, and Ronald McQueen on the bass. David
Hinds became the leader of the group, writing a majority of the lyrics, the
bandŐs music incorporated jazz, reggae roots, as well as influenced rhythms.
Coming from humble begins, as the sons of poor West Indian families the band
had to take great strides to achieve success, which pushed them to recruit new
The newly recruited members of the band were Steve Nisbett, Alphonso Martin, and Selwyn Brown. Most group members had a comical personalized nicknames, Ronald McQueen was known as Stepper, Steve Nisbett was known as Grizzly, Alphonso Martin was named Phonsoand Selwyn Brown was known simply as Bumbo. Steven Nisbett took over the responsibilities as the drummer, while Martin Alphonso contributed strong backup vocals, and became the percussionist, while Selwyn Brown handled the keyboard. Ronald McQueen came up with the bandŐs name Steel Pulse from a renowned racehorse, and the musical journey began.
The band began as most bands do, as played in small clubs in their general area around England. More and more the band began to play shows that benefited a campaign they grew to have strong ties with known a Rock against Racism. Rock against Racism began in a controversial manner, when bigot hypocrite musician Eric Clapton made anti-immigration remarks at a 1976 concert in England, saying that England had become over crowded. Clapton went on to say that he was in full support of a man named Enoch Powell, who was well known for his anti-immigration and racist beliefs. To make matters even worse, Clapton had just made a hit song cover off a Bob Marley song I shot the Sheriff. The idea behind Rock against Racism was to form a musical alliance that promoted healthy communication amongst people, and at their core, thatŐs what Steel Pulses music is about.
The band began making their way through several musical labels, first was Dip, they released their debut single entitled Kibudu, Mansetta, and Abuku. The next label was Anchor, and the band released another singled called Nyah Love. Though the bandŐs first few singles were about urban black youth, and returning to the Mother land or Africa, they ironically attracted young white audiences, whose musical taste and style stigmatized them as punks.
Through their close relation with the Rock against Racism campaign, the band began playing concerts with punk bands, and grew popular amongst young white audiences who were rebelling against the cultural norms of the time. David Hinds was quoted as saying Punks went absolutely ape-shit. We were saying things that they wanted to hear. We were against the grain. For example, we wore stage clothes that was representing different walks of life. Ronnie came out with a tails outfit and a bowler hat representing the bureaucracy side of England. Michael dressed like the local vicar. So it was like, we came to preach. Phonso dressed up like an eighteenth-century footman. It was immediate mayhem. Ironically the band was refused live gigs in areas populated with a black majority like the Caribbean venues as well in the Midlands, simply for their Rastafarian beliefs.
Though the band did enjoy working with punk acts, the more their popularity grew, the more it seemed fitting for them to begin working with different bands in their reggae genre, and they started opening for Burning Spear, which lead to them being signed by Island Records.
In 1978, the band released their first single for the label Island Records, the song was Ku Klux Klan. The song focuses on the KKK, but mainly the KKKŐs hateful messages, and extreme threats and violence, Steel Pulse was beginning to make their voice known as a band with a message. To follow up Ku Klux Klan, the band released Handsworth Revolution. Handsworth Revolution deals mainly with issues of politics, and religion. ItŐs been said that Handsworth Revolution, sparked British Reggae. The single Handsworth Revolution climbed to number nine of the British charts, signifying that the band had finally made it, and that they had reached a very broad and diverse audience. Their newly found fame led them to start working with bigger acts, like Bob Marley and the Wailers during a tour of Europe in 1978. The bands popularity continued to grow as they made appearances on television shows such as Top of the Pops and Rock Goes to College.
Established in the music world, the band began to make more politically charged music, which can be seen in their follow-up album to Handsworth, titled Tribute to the Martyrs. Simply by its name Tribute to the Martyrs suggests that the album has a more intense message about politics, race and religion, than their past albums. A simple assessment of the words in the title of the album Tribute to the Martyrs reiterates some of the messages from the songs on the album. www.dictionary.com describes a martyr as, a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounces his or her religion. As previously mentioned, Steel Pulse was denied live appearances at certain venues in the Caribbean in the Midlands due to their extreme Rastafarian beliefs. The beliefs of Rastafarianism include use of cannabis in a spiritual manner, the rejection of Western society; often referred to as Babylon. The religion is recognized throughout the world and it maintains that Africa is the birthplace of man, and that holds sociopolitical views about Jamaicans. The sociopolitical views they hold as a key element of their religion, as well as the negative view of Western society makes Rastafarianism a legitimate sociopolitical tool, and Steel Pulse serves as its messenger through their music.
Though the graveness of the sociopolitical aspects of their music canŐt be ignored when discussing Steel Pulse, it is also imperative to remember that the band enjoys making music, that includes feel good songs audiences like to dance to. In 1979 they headed back to the recording studio to start another album they finished in 1980, titled Reggae Fever. The album didnŐt focus on serious issues the band took a lighter tone as far as the overall message behind the album, and had fun in the recording studio. Unfortunately however, the album didnŐt see any more success than their previous ones, and the band got a new manager. Tom Terrell became their new manager, and wanted to spread their music to the United States. Terrell arranged for the band to play live in Washington D.C at the 9:30 club, May 21, 1981 for Bob MarleyŐs funeral. It was broadcast live around the world.
Tom Terrel continued the bands journey into popular musical cultural in the United States by booking the band at the UCLA Reggae Festival in 1982. At the festival Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons was there, and commented on their performance as spirited performance that mixed bouncy good-time reggae with healthy doses of witty political rage lead singer David Hinds was particularly entertaining, and his weird, nuclear plant-shaped do made him recognizable even from clear across the pit of writhing skankists. The bands great success at the reggae festival got them signed by Elektra records, and they began to record another album in Denmark over the span of twenty-five days. The album was titled True Democracy, and saw the band make a move back towards their politically charged music, with special attention to keeping a steady melodic flow. The slight alteration in their music produced a dub version of Dub Marcus Say of one its singles Worth His Weight in Gold Rally Round.
Throughout the early 1980Ős the band was continually making sociopolitical strides with their music, the 1982 release of the album True Democracy shows David Hinds reading the bible to the rest of the band. Though the band was doing well, they werenŐt achieving the cult classic popularity that Elektra records wanted them to have. In 1984 they switched producers yet again, and the band began the album Earth Crisis, which saw two members, Basil Gabbidon, and Ronald McQueen, leave the band before the album was even finished. The album focused on the possible negative aspects to the advancements in technology during that time period, which many artists wrote such as Timbuku3 with the 1986 release of FutureŐs so Bright I Gotta wear Shades. Earth Crisis sees the band mix songs that make you want to dance, with songs that are more politically based, and dealing with things such as technological advancements. Roller skates, a song featured on the album and has a catchy chorus that sings Life, life without music, I canŐt go, no, a cleverly written song about how a man stops to give someone directions, and the person steels and destroys the radio out his car and drives off. Music being the most essential thing in this manŐs life he shouts Guy jumped on me messed up my clothes Smashed and grabbed my radio calling all detectives a criminal at large smoking a big fat cigar in a flashy car and think him some super star. The album and several songs on it such as the eighth song on the album called Wild Goose Chase, caused some controversy. Through his lyrics Hinds was trying to explain his distaste for the way man began to use technology in ways to counter nature, specifically in reference to in-vitro fertilization. The mixed reviews made way for another album with fair results, but still not capturing the success Elektra records wanted, so they decided to put more elements of pop into their music for the following album. Basil Gabbidon, and Ronald McQueen had been replaced by Carlton Bryan, and Alvin Ewen. In 1986, the band finally met Elektra records goals and produced a Grammy Award winning album titled Babylon the Bandit. The award was bittersweet, and saw the band lose a large portion of their fan base, due to the fact that the new pop sound Elektra records forced them to use, made them sound generic, and older fans felt they had sold out. Shortly after the band received the award, they were released as artists from Elektra records.
Regardless of being released by Elektra records, and the loss of two former original founding members of the band, Hinds and the rest of Steel Pulse ventured forward towards making their seventh album in 1988, with a new record label, and producer. The band signed a deal with MCA records, and hired Goodwin Loggie as their new producer. The album was a blatant attempt by both the record label, as well as the new producer, to push Steel Pulse into being a more commercially sounding reggae band. The goal was accomplished, and Hinds didn't seem to have as passionate of lyrics, (a possible result of the new commercial sound) lacking the cleverness so consistently found in his previous songs. Regardless of the new commercial sound, the 1988 record album was the most successful up to date, and the band reached a hundred- twenty-seven on the billboard charts, their highest ranking to date.
Shortly after the release and success of there last album, the band decided to participate in a fund raiser for the Jamaican victims of the 1988 hurricane, which devasted many Jamaican homes, and families. During the fundraiser the band met reknowned director Spike Lee, who informed them about a film he was directing at the time titled Do the Right Thing. The film focuses on race relations in the Bronx, New York in the United States. At the core of the race relations in the film, Spike Lee evaluates and focuses his attention in African Americans, whites, and Hispanics. The relationship formed between director Spike Lee, and the band allowed for them to record a song for the film, which Hinds wrote, and titled Can't Stand It. In hind sight, it makes perfect sense that a film director like Spike Lee, whose work has been categorized as sociopolitical, through his consistent, harsh and fair evaluation of race relations in the United States, would work with a Rastafarian band, who wants to spread a sociopolitical message.
The band continued performing and making live appearances through the late 1980's and into the 1990's. In 1991 the released another album, with the help of Paul Horton. The new album continued the bands new commercial sound, and only had a few songs that held any contextual meaning. The song Taxi Driver ultimately lead to the band filling a 1,000,000$ law suit against the New York City Limousine commission. The band was outraged, and furious by the blatant lack of respect by taxi drivers in the city, for African Americans, and Rastafarians especially. The main chorus of the lyrics explains the situation in full and explicit detail, ŇTaxi Driver Won't stop for me Whenever I flag him down He won't stop for me In a London city and in a New York There are no go areas after dark I say muggers on the streets And thief in the park Tramps pon the sidewalk A dem a sky lark Some a catch the taxi - when they reach Their spot Pretend to pay the driver And then they just run off Some a argue with the driver And say the fare aint right The next thing you know They have a kitchen knife. The song was categorized by music reviewers, as having a dancehall vibe, which was relatively new for the band at the time. With all the publicity through the law suit, and the strong lyrics from the hit song taxi Driver, the band received a Grammy nomination, and sold quite well, though it would be Alphonso Martin's last album with the band. Having already lost two members, the band released the need for more band mates, if they planned to keep touring. They added Clifford Pusey, who later came to be known as Monnie, as a guitarist, Sidney Mills added musical stylings on the keyboard, and Conrad Kelly who did percussion and occasionally added to the drums.
Staying true to their Rastafarian beliefs, in 1992 the band released a live album titled Rastafarian Centennial: Live In Paris - Elysee Montmartre, in order to mark the centennial of the birth of Haile Selassie. Selassie was the former King of Ethiopia, and is the equivalent in to Rastafarian religion, to Jesus Christ, in the Catholic religion, religious theorist have made relations between the two for years. The band decided to lessen the level of commercialism for this album, which is fitting for an album that was supposed to be a dedication to the divine leader of Rastafarianism. The most popular song on the album titled Rally Round is ten minutes long, and showed that the band could still motivate a crowd with their energy. The band received yet another Grammy nomination, and there work began to be recognized more so for the message than the commercial sound.
In 1993, when President Clinton won the election, he invited Steel Pulse to play at the inauguration, making them the first reggae band to ever perform at the White House, once again making a sociopolitical statement. If anything, this proved the bands general appeal to audiences, if not the interest that Western culture has in the messages spoken through Hind's lyrics.
The following year in 1994, the band had one of their busiest years to date, the headlined the following festivals, US Reggae Sunsplash Tour, Jamaican Sunsplash, Japan Splash, Northern California's Reggae on the River Festival, and they even did a tour of South Africa, which is infamous for its racial tensions, and system of repression known as apartheid. The band found time to release an album titled Vex Vex. This album officially marked the bands return to their classic reggae roots. This is seen by the bands titled of the song Back to my Roots. The lyrics explain the return to the original sounding Steel Pulse, and read
ŇWoe Na Na Na Hey Yeh Yeh Oh Yeh This is to whom it may concern Raggamuffin rastaman return Says we all got a lesson to learn This is the reason that I'm back to my roots
Back to my roots I'm back to my roots We took that commercial road Searching for some fame and gold And gained the whole wide world And almost lost our souls Some say we should
have lead the way Take it over from Bob Marley Got brainwashed by the system yeah What a heavy price we paid It's time to go back The way we was Reggae Raggamuffin rub-a-dubBack to my roots Back to my roots Back to my roots There ain't no turning back We pon de culture track.Ó
In the earlier stages of the bands career they had been denied the opportunity to play at certain venues in the Caribbean, due to their Rastafarian beliefs. In 1995 however, they were able to do an extensive tour of the Caribbean, which lead to the band playing at the legendary Hollywood Rock Festival in Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil. The band played with other famous performers such as and Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin, the Cure, the Smashing Pumpkins. The band decided to break free from the restraints of a record label, and decided to part from MCA records. They formed their own record label called ŇWise Man Doctrine.Ó
The bandŐs first album off the new label was titled Rastanthology, it was a best-of album, that sampled all the great music the band had created over the years. The band had creative ownership over the album and chose their favorite songs to display to audiences. Regardless of the creative ownership, and the new album release, the band once again signed with another record company by the end of the year. Rage and Fury, came out in 1997 under Atlantic Records. This album did a great job of incorporating an electronic sound, with the dancehall vibe the band was quickly assimilating too, as it grew in modern reggae. The most famous song of the album is titled Black and Proud, the lyrics sing ŇSay It Loud I'm Black And I'm Proud Say It Loud And I'm Black And I'm Proud Yeah I'm saying it lou-wow-wowed I'm black and I'm pro-wou-wowed It's no more to me A hidden mystery Of stolen legacy Of my history Cause I know my culture Of my ancestors So brothers and sisters No time fe jester Yes I've found my true identity The teachings of Imperial Majesty Up ye mighty race philosophy No more complex inferiority.Ó
The band continued touring all throughout 1997, but 1998 marked another historic year for the band, as they made a return to Africa to perform. The band hadnŐt been to Africa since 1983, when they still had the original members, and a different sound. David Hinds was quoted as saying ŇIt was a tremendous sight to behold and the ecstatic moral boost to our existence was so energizing.Ó The band continued to tour reggae festivals like the Spirit of Unity, and released an album titled Living Legacy, which was an accumulation of the live songs played by the band from the early and mid 1990Ős.
From 2000, to 2004 the band didnŐt do an extensive work, and Steven Nisbett decided to retire, leaving only two original members of the band, David Hinds, and Selwyn Brown. The remaining members of the band released an album in 2004 titled African Holocaust. The songs on the album were new, and the band decided to have it released through yet another record label, this time however, an independent label named Real Authentic Sound (RAS). The band also decided to hire a new producer, named Michael Henry, who would make the bandŐs sound more commercial, in an attempt to reach a broader audience.
Steel Pulse has continued touring consistently throughout the past few years, the band mainly plays their old songs, which have become reggae cult classics. A few years ago they played in Burlington VT, at the venue Higher Ground, where many UVM students saw them play. One student who saw the band perform live, and had been a long time fan, was quoted as saying Ň This was the best show IŐve ever seen, it was an awesome experience to be in the same place with those guys, playing the music you know all the words to.Ó Steel Pulse is one of the most influential and recognizable names in music, a majority of their songs are sociological tools that push us to evaluate our society, while other songs simply make us want to dance.