Reggae band Steel Pulse is celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.
The celebrated British reggae band plan to mark the occasion with a new album and a DVD documentary, due for release before the end of the year. But before that, the Prodigal Son hitmakers will grace the stage at this year’s London International Ska Festival.
Launched in 1988, the festival is famed for celebrating all things ska, from its roots in mento and calypso, through its Jamaican originators, and onto rocksteady, reggae, dub, 2 Tone and beyond. The 2015 event will see Steel Pulse – comprised of original members David Hinds and Selwyn Brown, along with a host of long-serving musicians – join forces with the likes of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Derrick Harriott, who will also perform at the four-day festival.
Having had little connection with their British fanbase over the past few years, the Birmingham-born band is excited to return to the UK stage.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of feedback we’re gonna get, especially not having had an album out in the UK in so long,” says singer and guitarist Hinds, who was taking care of the band’s interview duties that day.
But ask him if he thinks UK reggae fans still feel passionate about Steel Pulse after so many years, the musician, who spends much of his time in the US and the Caribbean says: “I have no idea! All I do know is that when I’m in Birmingham, there will be one or two people who recognize me on the street. But then, I don’t think I’ve changed that much over the past 35 years – maybe that’s why!”
Rising to prominence in the ‘80s with their politically-driven messages, delivered from a uniquely British perspective, the band found favor with audiences far and wide.
“I would say that, as British artists, our lyrical content had far more universal appeal than a lot of the Jamaican reggae of that time,” Hinds reasons. “We didn’t corner ourselves by speaking about a Jamaican experience. Songs like Rock Against Racism and Ku Klux Klan; even though the Ku Klux Klan was an American movement, we related it to what we were experiencing in Britain at the time. We talked about police brutality on songs like Blues Dance Raid; I think our music was a lot more politically motivated than a lot of Jamaican reggae.”
Hinds feels that the social and political messages of the band’s music is what aided their success in America in the ‘80s, and helped them connect with music-lovers who didn’t necessarily consider themselves reggae fans.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘We don’t like reggae but you guys are alright.’ I know why they say that, it’s because we come from a more urban standpoint, rather than the rural background that much of Jamaica’s reggae was created from.
“Even [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell once said that he didn’t think the reggae that was coming out of England would break through in the US. But he was so wrong. He was trying to break Jamaican reggae in the US with artists like Bob Marley and Third World and Inner Circle, not realizing that one concrete jungle can relate to another concrete jungle. With America being an urban built country with high-rises, ghettos and police harassment – where it was often a white cop against a black youth – when we made music about those things, people in the US could relate to it. As a result, we broke America a lot quicker than Marley did. We didn’t break as big as he did, but we certainly broke through a lot quicker.”
Considering how today’s British reggae scene compares to that of their ‘80s heyday, Hinds admits he’s not well-versed with the UK’s current musical output.
“In all honesty, I’ve been off the scene so I’m not sure. But I would imagine it’s not like how it was back in the day, when there was us and guys like Aswad and Misty in Roots. Back then, Rastafari was the order of the day because we were championing a back to Africa movement, whilst also dealing with issues like unemployment, police harassment and racism.
“I can’t imagine the youths today making music about those things. But I don’t know.”
Still very much a part of the current reggae scene, the band is currently working on a new album.
“We’ve been working on it for some time, but we’ve been touring in between because albums aren’t selling like they used to,” Hinds explains. “So most of our money is earned by going on the road. Hopefully a new album will be out before the year is out.
“It’s also the 40th anniversary since Steel Pulse came into being. We struck our first chord on stage in 1975, so there’s a DVD documentary that’s due to come out this year to mark the anniversary.”