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.
"We hoped that new people would hear the more commercial music and then buy the albums and get exposed to the political messages," he explains. "But that never really happened the way we hoped. And the fans who had been with us from the beginning said, `Something is missing in the music. Something is wrong.' So finally I decided that we would make one more record in this style and see if it made a difference."
That album was Victims, which reached stores in 1991. Hinds and the rest of the band produced a slew of numbers that they felt were as agreeable as any they'd made. When MCA executives heard the results, however, they insisted on sending the musicians back into the studio to cut two radio-friendlier tracks with a pair of outside producers. "But when the album came out," Hinds recalls, "the songs that the radio stations played weren't the songs made by those producers. They were the Steel Pulse-produced songs. That, to me, was a milestone. It said to me that we would be most successful if we made the music the way we wanted to from the beginning."
Steel Pulse puts this theory to the test with Vex, released three years after Victims and two years after an in-concert disc, Rastafari Centennial (Live in Paris-Elyse Montmarte). In addition to "Back to My Roots," which draws overtly from the band's Seventies approach, Hinds contributes "Islands Unite," which suggests that Caribbean nations form an economic cooperative in order to lessen their vulnerability to superpowers like the United States; "Endangered Species," a composition that equates the crack epidemic with the destruction of the world's indigenous peoples; "X-Resurrection," a tough-nosed tribute to Malcolm X; and "Dirty H2O," a blistering reminder that racism continues to be as big a problem as it ever was. The first lines of "New World Order" sum up Hinds's state of mind: "I'm in an angry mood! Yeah!/Got an attitude! Oh, yeah!"
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To Hinds, themes like these are as much a part of reggae as a spliff after the set is over. "Reggae was very political, but much of that political basis got lost in trying to appeal to the most people," he says. "But it is the heart and soul of the music. The rastaman is a symbol for the downtrodden, and reggae is a uniting force that brings different people from different cultures together with a common purpose and common goals."
Dancehall, a musical hybrid that's currently the most listened-to brand of reggae outside Jamaica, eschews this tack. Likewise, Hinds eschews most dancehall--particularly the variety popularized by Shabba Ranks and other crossover types. "The music that you hear described as dancehall is not the traditional dancehall," he claims. "It has a hip-hop feel to it that is contrary to real dancehall music. It has been changed to appeal to Americans."
Of course, Hinds hasn't completely rejected this new trend, slicked up or otherwise; Vex's first cut, "Bootstraps," includes a guest appearance by dancehall star Tony Rebel. But if his purist claims sometimes smack of hyperbole, they also illustrate Steel Pulse's fairly impressive return to form. Or, as Hinds puts it, "We got lost over the years. But I think we have found ourselves again."
Steel Pulse, with Dag. 9 p.m. Friday, December 2, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $19.50, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.