Reggae music does not begin and end with Bob Marley. Steel Pulse, one of Marley’s favorite reggae bands in the late 1970s, is living proof.
But the Marley name remains one of the group’s biggest obstacles, as it is for many contemporary reggae artists.
Case in point, Steel Pulse – one of the world’s most highly regarded roots-reggae bands – was invited four months ago to appear with another group on NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” The show’s producers didn’t want them to perform their own songs; they wanted them to do a medley of Marley hits.
“It’s that exposure or no exposure at all,” lead singer-guitarist David Hinds said recently, “and Mama didn’t raise a fool, so we went ahead and did it. We love Bob Marley, don’t get me wrong. I’d say we love him more than most people do, because we toured with him, we spoke to him on his death bed (in 1981). We’ve lived his music, everything else, but reggae music doesn’t just stop at Bob Marley.
“The actual reality of it is, Marley was fortunate to get his foot in the door and there’s been no stopping him or his family ever since. It’s a shame no one else has looked at other acts in that light, as if Marley was the only one capable of writing lyrics. There’s so many good lyric writers that have come through the reggae domain – Dennis Brown in his own kind of way, Jimmy Cliff with ‘Vietnam’ and ‘The Harder They Come.’ There’s other artists that aren’t commercially viable, some of the old-timers, not to mention Burning Spear, who played a big part in molding and inspiring Steel Pulse.”
There definitely is a market for reggae, Hinds said. He knows because attendance at Steel Pulse concerts hasn’t waned since the group formed 25 years ago in Birmingham, England. But he admits reggae hasn’t had much mainstream radio success lately.
“No matter how bad the sales are, and it’s shown throughout Billboard magazine,” Hinds said, “you find out that the attendance at the concerts always reflect something completely different.
“The unfortunate thing is, reggae has been through so many disguises to withstand the pressure of the industry and still maintain itself as reggae, like when it marries itself with hip-hop, in the case of Bob Marley’s music. Then you have acts like Maxi Priest who have gone very much pop to keep that kind of music alive; then you have bands like Inner Circle and the Wailing Souls who have kept their reggae rock-oriented.
“Reggae can never be accepted in its purest form. I kind of think there’s a hidden motive for that not happening.”
In Steel Pulse’s case, Hinds said, the group’s Rastafarian beliefs, its pleas for social reform and its resistance to big-label pressure to emulate the pop-reggae of artists like Eddy Grant may have hurt its commercial cause. But it hasn’t stopped the critical praise: Steel Pulse recently was nominated for yet another Grammy Award, for best reggae album, for its 1999 live album, “Living Legacy” (Wise Man Doctrine/Tuff Gong/Lightyear).
It’s up against Aswad’s “Roots Revival” (ARK 21), Beenie Man’s “The Doctor” (V.P.), Burning Spear’s “Calling Rastafari” (Heartbeat) and Third World’s “Generation Coming” (I-Man/Gator).
Recorded over three years, “Living Legacy” finds Steel Pulse at the top of its game with the likes of “Sound System,” “Reggae Fever,” “Ku Klux Klan” and the 14-minute “Medley Medley.”
How does a group keep it so together after 25 years?
“The secret is not so much the band, it’s the concept,” Hinds said. “It doesn’t matter who’s in the band; in fact, there’s been so many changes from day one till day now, what’s kept us together is the concept. There’s three general backbones to the band – myself; Selwyn Brown, keyboards and vocals, and Steve Nesbitt on drums.
“As of late, we’ve been introducing ourselves to a new audience, new as in going to new places, like in Africa. It has given the band a new lease on life, to be honest with you. We’ve been knocking around in the Western world through all that bureaucracy in the music business. Performing in Africa was more like a relaxing period for us. There was no industry to convince what we were about. It was just the hard-core fans living, eating, drinking, sleeping the music of Steel Pulse.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “It’s been such a long time. It’s either Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender’ or ‘Needles & Pins’ by the Searchers.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “It could’ve been a local band called Cock and the Woodpeckers or it could have been an official band, like Matumbi, very much a mentor of Steel Pulse. There was also a band in my college years called Holy Mackerel, a rock band; I remember that particularly because of the noise they were making at the time (in 1973) in a community like mine where rock wasn’t an element. It sounded like something thrown down the stairs.”
THE LAST CD I PURCHASED: “It was three, actually – Mariah Carey’s ‘No. 1’s,’ Carlos Santana’s ‘Supernatural’ and ‘I Am’ by Nas. But they were all stolen, along with about 24 other CDs. Someone broke into my house and took them. They helped themselves to my shit. They were all in a suitcase and it was quickly grabbed and they ran off with it. I’d rather them take my TV or some money than my music.”
BWF (before we forget): Enjoy the reggae sunsplash of Steel Pulse on the Web @ www.steel-pulse.com. … The Steel Pulse album discography – “Handsworth Revolution” (Mango, 1978); “Tribute to the Martyrs” (1979); “Reggae Fever (Caught You)” (1980); “True Democracy” (Elektra, 1982); “Earth Crisis” (1984); “Babylon On the Bandit” (1985); “Island Reggae Greats” (Mango, 1985); “State of … Emergency” (MCA, 1988); “Victims” (1991); “Rastafari Centennial: Live in Paris” (1992); “Smash Hits” (Elektra, 1993); “Vex” (MCA, 1994); “Rastanthology” (Wise Man Doctrine, 1996); “Rage & Fury” (Atlantic, 1997); “Sound System: The Island Anthology” (PolyGram, 1997); “Living Legacy” (Wise Man Doctrine/Tuff Gong/Lightyear, 1999).
More updates: Avalon, Tami Neilson, Beach Slang, BRKN Love, Mary J. Blige, Bing Crosby, Change, etc
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc