By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
The new Steel Pulse song "Back to My Roots" contains an admission most musicians would never make. "We took that commercial road/Searching for some fame and gold," sings lead vocalist David Hinds. "And gained the whole wide world/And almost lost our souls."
This verse is no fantasy scenario; it's the bare-bones truth behind the recent struggles of Steel Pulse, a British band that made some of the most potent reggae music of the Seventies before seemingly going astray. Like the members of Third World, Inner Circle and countless reggae acts that emerged in the wake of Bob Marley's international fame, Hinds grew to believe that he could more effectively spread his message if only he softened his militant lyrical stance, incorporated more standard R&B rhythms into his music and presented a less threatening image to record buyers.
"Originally we would have ten political tracks on an album," Hinds says, "but later we would have eight political tracks and two songs that would be about dancing and having a good time. And then it would be three songs like that, and then four, and five."
With Vex, the new Steel Pulse album on MCA Records, this percentage is heading back in the right direction. In addition to a pair of dub-oriented bonus tracks, the band (Hinds, keyboardist/vocalist Selwyn Brown and drummer Steve Nisbett) offers eleven original compositions--and eight of those are dominated by feverish words and heated rhetoric about various injustices afflicting society. The three other numbers ("In My Life," "Better Days" and "Whirlwind Romance") fit into the dancing/good-times mode and are, not coincidentally, the disc's weakest offerings. Clearly, Steel Pulse is a group that's at its best when its members are rallying listeners to action. "We still pay attention to modern sounds and modern styles, and there are some elements of that which we include in order to sound contemporary," Hinds concedes. "But we feel that we are getting back to the essence of what Steel Pulse has always been about."
Steel Pulse was born in the Handsworth section of Birmingham, England, by Hinds, Brown, Nisbett, Phonso Martin and Ronald McQueen (the latter pair have since left the group). The year was 1975, and the music starting to make an impact on European teens was punk. Reggae and punk rock produced during this era had little in common musically, but the anti-authoritarian nature of these seemingly disparate genres made them unexpectedly compatible. The Clash covered reggae landmarks such as Toots and the Maytals' "Pressure Drop," and many other punk acts incorporated deliberate reggae beats into their otherwise fast-and-hard repertoires. For its part, Steel Pulse gigged with Generation X (Billy Idol's first band, not the beaten-to-death label for disenfranchised youths) and actively participated in Rock Against Racism, an influential movement created to counter the increasing presence of skinheads in the British cultural underground.
By 1978, when Handsworth Revolution, its debut album on Island/ Mango, was released, Steel Pulse had evolved into a persuasive unit whose lyrics were every bit as incendiary as anything spewed by Joe Strummer. The music was true to the model established by Marley and the Wailers during their mid-period peak, but tighter, less apt to lope. Hinds and his fellows made strong, direct statements that proved compelling to the reggae faithful and novices alike. Tribute to the Martyrs and Reggae Fever, issued in 1979 and 1980, respectively, were, if anything, even better. The accents of Hinds and Brown may not have been as true to reggae's Jamaican roots as the ones exhibited by Kingston natives, but the core of their material was as authentic as it could be.
With its move to the Elektra label for 1982's True Democracy, Steel Pulse began to make compromises. Democracy, as well as 1984's Earth Crisis and 1986's Babylon the Bandit, had highlights but lacked much of the kick of the outfit's earlier efforts. Hinds admits that this descent continued with 1988's State of Emergency, Steel Pulse's first recording for MCA.
"We put out four or five albums that were meant to bring more people to reggae by altering what we did," he says. "But they left us feeling frustrated and dissatisfied. We knew we were drifting. At first we had played reggae music in the style of Bob Marley. We were supporters of Bob Marley--we even toured with him--and we agreed with his way of spreading the message of the music. But after he died, it seemed like the music industry thought that reggae had died with him. We thought that the only way we could survive and continue to pass along his wisdom would be to make our music sound more accessible in order to get it on American radio."
But U.S. radio programmers proved extremely resistant to reggae more genuine than, say, something by the Police. Hinds won't come right out and brand the industry racist--"That is not a question that you can answer quickly yes or quickly no," he insists--but the fact remained that even the most watered-down Steel Pulse songs were too extreme for most music directors. Worse, the changes in the music weren't broadening Steel Pulse's appeal.