“The Truth is Hard to Find celebrates their unique but retrospective style with a passion for pop-reggae, an uplifting beat, chugging ska riff and beguiling two-tone vocal harmonies….”
Far from what the name suggests, and common generalisation of the genre, I found Northampton’s six-piece reggae/ska band, The Bighead, not in the slightest egotistical and very approachable! Thus, I’ll be spinning their tunes on Ska-ing West Country on Friday, and for the foreseeable future.
That said in this era where a plethora of bands like the Dualers and Death of Guitar Pop have breathed renewed energy and a fresh approach to the UK two-tone scene, which otherwise risked falling into a diehard cult of seniors on Lambrettas who spent their pension on a pair of cherry Doc Martins!
Though nothing with Bighead is as the frenzied ska blended with delinquent-filled punk of yore. They tend to flow maturely, with rocksteady and roots reggae, while attire the fashion akin to the two-tone era. I’ve no issue there, through the furious ska thrashings of The Specials, the downtempo Ghost Town is likely cited foremostly, and on the island of origination, the short rocksteady age between ska and reggae was undoubtedly the most creative musical period in Jamaican history.
Seems while previous decades hugged youth cultures which devoted to a sole variety of Jamaican music, newly formed bands, like Bighead in 2008 by Da Costa, follow a similar ethos as what we discussed when Trevor Evans’ Barbdwire came to Devizes Arts Festival. They select the benefits and choosiest elements of ska, rocksteady and all subgenres of reggae, and fuse them with sublime results.
There’s a plentiful gap to fill, and it’s all trilbies and shades for Bighead. Their May single, The Truth is Hard to Find celebrates their unique but retrospective style with a passion for pop-reggae, an uplifting beat, chugging ska riff and beguiling two-tone vocal harmonies, signifying an optimistic new era for the old genre. In contrast, the other two brilliant tunes Da Costa kindly emailed me, Step Up and Try Me Again, rely on roots reggae and doo-wop rocksteady respectively.
The Bighead are no strangers to the festival and club circuit, have headlined and supported original 2-Tone acts such as the Beat, The Selector, Bad Manners and a 2013 show with Madness. They’ve played over Europe and are regulars on the Berlin Reggae scene.
So, polish your boots, snap on your braces and follow Bighead; not that I should really be flattering a band who are already self-confessed big heads!
On first hearing Wonderland of Green, I was like, yeah, that’s as sweet as a sugarcane field. But it’s moreish; every listen it approves all elements, everything I love about reggae, and why I love it.
Fruits Records may be based in Switzerland, but their dedication to authentic Jamaican roots reggae is paramount. This latest release featuring the Silvertones is a prime example, a sublimely balanced one-drop riddim with all the hallmarks of reggae’s golden era; the roots sound of the seventies, Black Ark, the legendary studio of Lee “Scratch” Perry, and the Roots Radics rub-a-dub riddims of the early eighties. These traditional styles echo through this 7” EP; the heavy bass, the offbeat guitar riff, and the traditional female backing vocals as passed into mainstream by the Wailers’ I-Threes.
Yet it also pounds contemporary at you too, fresh sounding, with a version, Living In A Wonderland, toasted by Burro Banton, an incredibly gritty-voiced DJ popular in the late eighties and nineties dancehalls of Jamaica. Even the subject matter of Wonderland of Green is timeless, as it suggests, it’s earthy and ecological, a tenet inherent in Rastafarians long before it became trendy.
The band behind the riddim is the 18th Parallel. Produced, composed and arranged by Antonin Chatelain, Léo Marin and Mathias Liengme, and recorded at Geneva’s Bridge Studio by Liengme. There’s an instrumental on the flipside, and an extra killer dub mix by French wizard Westfinga, who retains the retrospective ethos using the traditional dub values set by King Tubby.
But what makes it so thoroughly beguiling is the vocals by The Silvertones. A legendary vocal harmony trio from the early ska era, originally, Keith Coley, and Gilmore Grant, with Delroy Denton joining early in their career. Delroy’s individual baritone and guitar skills saw him quickly become the frontman. Though he migrated to the States and was replaced by Joel “Kush” Brown.
Though the only remaining member is Keith, who takes lead, that’s just technicalities, as the modern line up rests with Norris Knight and Nathan Skyers on harmonies, both of whom have solo careers in their own right.
Recording at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, they interestingly triumphed in Jamaica with their debut single, a ska re-creation of Brook Benton’s “True Confession,” a track producer Duke Reid would also have the early Wailers record, but the Silvertones is indisputably more poignant. They also recorded under guises The Gold Tones, The Admirals, but most popularly as The Valentines, prevalent with the skinhead’s ska revival era was a tune called “Blam Blam Fever,” denouncing the rude boy’s gun culture.
Through the late sixties they enjoyed success recording for Reid’s Treasure Isle label and Clancy Eccles, as vocal harmonies became more significant during the rock steady era. Yet their dominant period was the early seventies when they stepped into the converted carport which was Black Ark.
The eccentric amplifier genius, Lee “Scratch” Perry is renowned for getting the best out of any artist, he shaped the way we view Bob Marley & The Wailers. With penchant for outlandish, heavyweight psychedelic sound testing, he was the experimentalist who would pave the way for dub pioneers like King Tubby.
Historically then, Wonderland of Green slips right in as if it’s been there all along, but prominent now with its environmental subject matter, it’s gorgeous. I look forward to blasting it on my Boot Boy Radio show this Friday, maybe blending versions together, even if they’re live from the Skinhead Reunion, and who’s punters would favour boss reggae!
Wonderland of Green is newly released this week, as download, or on regular black wax 7” vinyl and on a beautiful limited and numbered picture sleeve edition with opaque dark green vinyl; how apt!
Two things former humble truck driver Gerry Watkins is a natural at, plucking an ingenious idea and putting it into action, and putting on a gig to fund it. In 2017 Gerry raised four-grand to buy a double-decker bus, which he converted into a homeless shelter in Cirencester. Since he’s launched a similar plan in Swindon, and continues to raise funds for this amazing homeless project. The Big Yellow Bus project is innovative but simple, and Gerry works tirelessly to keep it running.
With live music teetering on return, it still maybe a while before some venues are ready to reopen, despite yesterday’s sudden given date of August 1st. The following weekend, 7&8th, sees a grand restart for The Big Yellow Bus, to get funds rolling once again. The Tavern Inn in Kembleplays host to this glorious two-day mini festival, which is free, with collection buckets for the Big Yellow Bus doing the rounds.
Music plans to kick off at 7pm on Friday 7th August with our good friends, Absolute Beginners. I know, like most, Cath, Gouldy and the gang will be itching to get back to live music. While there’s still a few gaps in the line-up to confirm, The Roughcut Rebels will be a welcomed act, introducing their new frontman, the one and only Finley Trusler; an awesome unification we look forward to hearing. Mick O Toole is also on Friday’s header.
Saturday 8th though is an all-dayer. Paul Cooper (Martin Mucklowe) from the twice BAFTA award-winning BBC tv series, This Country, will be opening up the event at midday. Shaun Peter Smith will be the Compère for the day, as Miss Lucy Luscious Lips, he’s certain to add a little bit of glamour and sparkle. There’s a number of faces I know to this busy line-up, and plenty new to me.
An interesting Opening at midday, Ascenda are a four-piece, playing smooth music with a rock edge and thoughtful, theatrical vocals. Their current collection of songs ‘Celeste,’ forms a love story that explores conflicts; solitude versus companionship, and spirituality versus practicality.
Cath, Gouldy and the gang return as The Day Breakers at 1pm, with their irresistible blend of Celtic and mod-rock covers, it’s guaranteed to go off! Swindon’s all-girl rock and pop covers band, Bimbo follow at 2pm. Dirty and filthy punk is promised to followed with The Useless Eaters, a band who accurately recreate the iconic sound of late 70’s British and American punk.
Cirencester’s masters of high-energy classic eighties rock covers, Loaded Dice are on at 4pm, followed by a mesh of Britpop, new wave and ska with SkA’D Hearts at 6pm. Era-spanning soul follows with Joli and The Souls, and rock restarts in style with Six Lives Left. Sticking with six as the magic number, the finale will be from Calne’s fantastic misfits of Britpop and new wave, Six O Clock Circus, who are always up for a party!
Yeah, it’s all slightly out of our usual jurisdiction, but with a line up like this, all for such a great cause, and with limited events these lockdown days, this is highly recommended and worth the effort. Kemble Railway Station is right opposite The Tavern Inn so it’s easy to find.
Note, putting such an event on so early after lockdown will not be without expected guidelines, everyone must abide by. Gerry urges social distancing and that you respect those around you. “This is all done so you can enjoy yourself and have a great time watching and dancing to great live bands and performers, thank you for all your support and together we can have a great time.” I’m sure they will, Gerry. If anyone is heading off from Devizes, gimmie a lift, pal, because this sounds unmissable!
If last year’s fortieth anniversary of Two-Tone Records saw an upsurge of interest in this homegrown second-generation ska, it shows no sign of flawing anytime soon. Perhaps you could attribute parallels to the social and political climate of our era, or debate intransigent devotees are reliving their youth, but I’d argue it’s simply an irresistible sound.
One thing our eighties counterparts didn’t have to contend with was the Covid19 pandemic, and musicians of every genre are reflecting on it. Ska is of no exception, we’ve seen many contemporary performers releasing new material on the subject, but here we have a legend doing his thing, topically.
The Neville Staple Band releases this timely single, Lockdown. A dynamic modern-sounding reggae track, yet encompassing all the goodness of the Two-Tone era of yore. Understandable, original rude boy Neville Staple is conversant with this, a founder member and co-frontman of The Specials, Fun Boy Three and Special Beat. Those influences shine through here. There’s something very Fun Boy Three about this tune, with a slice of poetically-driven Linton Kwesi Johnson to its feel.
As true as the song suggests, in lockdown Dr Neville Staple has teamed up with wife Sugary Staple, to pump out this relevant single, commonly reflecting on the feeling of many concerning the virus and staying safe. “Sugary came up with the idea to write a song about the lockdown,” Neville explains, “which, at first, was a very fast-stomping ska track. We then realised that it was too fun and happy a tune for the theme. Most of us have been quite down about the whole virus thing, so we decided to take it on a more sweet but moody 2Tone reggae route, in a similar vein to ‘Ghost Town’, with some music we had worked on previously with Sledge [Steve Armstrong.]”
While I detect echoes of Ghost Town, this tune also breathes originality and present-day freshness, confirming progression of the genre rather than a frequently supposed nostalgia. Being a local site, some may recall his visit to Melksham’s ParkFest last year, where an unfortunately damp evening didn’t stop the revelling, and Neville stole the show with an assortment of Two-Tone classics. I was backstage with the wonderful support band Train to Skaville. A chance meeting with Neville, when he popped out of his tent for pizza, humourlessly failed to engage long enough to explain who I was, and ended with him pointing at his pizza-box and saying “yeah, I’m going off to eat this.” I should’ve known better than to harass a legend when their pizza is chilling in drizzle! I nodded my approval, knowing I’d have done the same thing.
Neville was awarded an honorary doctorate from Arden University last year. With a tour, and so many international shows and festivals postponed, the couple decided to do a lot of extra charity work as well as new song writing. DJ recordings for people sick in hospitals or in isolation, personally dedicated to them, was just the start. Sugary and Neville wanted to highlight the work of Zoe’s Place, a charity run for terminally ill babies and toddlers. As ambassadors for this charity, Sugary expressed, “charities like these really do suffer at a time like this, as the focus is on other things. But the work they do at Zoe’s Place is like one of a kind and so very special. They step in when families really do need the support, providing 24-hour high quality, one-to-one palliative, respite and end-of-life care for children aged 0-5 years. A heart-breaking time for anyone involved. We must not lose a charity like this – it is too important and so we will be supporting this, along with other charities we are patrons or ambassadors to, with this single.” And the duo dedicates this song to all those who have been affected by Covid-19.
Shared to our Boot Boy Radio DJs, you can expect we will be spinning in for the foreseeable future, but you can get it here:
If I penned an all-purpose article a week or so ago, about ska in South America being as prospering now as it once was in England, I follow it up with this grand example….
Argentina’s Dancing Mood trumpeter and producer Hugo Lobo made history this week, releasing “Fire Fire,” a skanking upbeat cover of a Wailers rarity, by calling in international troops. Throughout this prolific career, Hugo endeavours to encourage legendarily collaborations, exalting the international genre and keeping the flame of Ska and Rocksteady alive.
Dancing Mood staggeringly sold over 200,000 albums. Hugo Lobo presented his debut solo album ‘Ska is the Way’ in 2017. This renowned trumpeter not only performed and produced for many of the south American ska and reggae bands I mentioned in my previous piece, but transcends to international acclaim, working with Rico Rodriguez, Janet Kay, The Skatalites, Doreen Shaffer, and Dennis Bovell. With Jerry Dammers, Hugo paid tribute to Rico Rodriguez in 2015 at the London International Ska Festival.
In a transcendental meeting, three generations of ska artists from the corners of the planet combined to recreate this 1968 musical nugget from the Wailers’ homemade label “Wail’n Soul’m,” where Peter Tosh leads. Jamaican-born British rhythm guitarist and vocalist Lynval Golding, of the Specials and who later founded the Fun Boy Three with Terry Hall and Neville Staple, is central to the single, yet he always is central to something ska! Lynval appeared on Glasto’s Pyramid Stage with Terry Hall backing Lily Allen, and the Park Stage where Blur frontman Damon Albarn and beatboxer Shlomo knocked out Dandy Livingstone’s “Message to You Rudy,” a popular cover for the Specials.
With a generation-spanning résumé, Lynval Golding continues with current group, Pama International, undoubtedly the UK’s most celebrated contemporary ska outfit who we were the first new band in thirty years to sign to Trojan Records. Yet through this huge portfolio, Hugo Lobo proudly announces his presentation is Lynval Golding’s first solo material.
If that’s not enough to whet your appetite, Hugo also called upon the current bassist of The Skatalites, Val Douglas to add to the enthralling sound. Check the bass on Bob Marley’s “Wake Up and Live” if you want a shining example of Val’s talent. Though Val is a multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer and producer, working with just about any reggae legend you could name; Toots & The Maytals, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Ernest Ranglin, The Abyssinians, Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown, Ken Boothe, Lloyd Charmers, as well as contemporary ska artists the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble.
All this considered, it could go one of two ways, overloaded with ego and fighting for centre stage as would many legends of other genres, or simply a sublime sound. Bear in mind this is SKA, collaborations are more frequent and common than rock and pop, and unlike the often-pugnacious insolence of ska bands, there’s never anything narcissistic about legendary collaborations. Glad to announce it’s the latter of the two ways, this sound leads the way. It holds all the catchiness we expect from ska, it heralds tradition but sounds fresh and innovative; the hallmark of the scene I love.
Discovering a thriving ska scene in South America is like England in 1979……
Studio 1’s architect, composer and guitarist, Ernest Ranglin proclaimed while the US R&B’s shuffle offbeat being replicated by Jamaicans in their early recording studios went “chink-ka,” their own crafted pop, ska, went “ka-chink.” Theorised this simple flip of shuffle took place during Duke Reid’s Prince Buster recording session mid-1959, added with Buster’s desire to include traditional Jamaican drumming, created the defining ska sound.
Coinciding with the island’s celebration of independence in 1962, the explosion of ska was eminent and two years later the sound found its way out of Jamaica, when Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, Prince Buster, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Jimmy Cliff played the New York World’s Fair. But if Jamaica’s government revelled in the glory of the creation of a homegrown pop, behind the scenes, Kingston’s downtown was using it as signature to a culture of hooliganism, known as The Rude Boys, and thwarted it. Through curfew and a particularly sweltering summer of 67, horns were lessened, tempo was mellowed and reggae’s blueprint, rock steady, had formed.
Forward wind fifty-five years and Jamaican ska pioneer, Stranger Cole launched album “More Life,” yet it’s released by Liquidator Music, a label dedicated to the classic Jamaican rhythms, but based in Madrid. Perhaps in similar light to Buster’s innovation, Jamaica doesn’t revel in retrospection and strives to progress; the last place in the world you’re likely to hear ska these days, is in Jamaica itself. Modern dancehall trends can be attributed closer to the folk music of mento.
But the design was set, and to satisfy the musical taste of Windrush immigrants in England, Bluebeat, and later, Trojan Records set to cheaply import the sounds of home. It was a combination of their offspring taking their records to parties, and the affordable price tag which appealed to the white kids in Britain. Thus, the second wave of ska spawned in the UK. By the late seventies the formation of Two-Tone records in Coventry saw English youths mimicking the sound.
Similarly, though, this has become today somewhat of a cult. Given the task of producing a radio show last year, for ska-based internet station, Boot Boy Radio, while aware of American dominated “third gen ska,” that there were few contemporary bands here, such as the Dualers, and Madness and The Specials still appeased the diehard fans, I never fathomed the spread of ska worldwide. The fact Liquidator Music is Spanish, it is clear, ska has a profound effect internationally, and in no place more than Latin America. Yet while England’s second wave is largely attributed to the worldwide distribution of ska, and waves the Union Jack patriotically at it, the sound of ska music spread to Jamaica’s neighbours significantly prior.
Caribbean islands created their own pop music. Barbados had spouge, cited as “Bajan ska,” despite a completely different rhythm section more attributed to calypso. Columbia likewise saw a surge in cumbia during the early sixties, a genre derived from cumbé; “a dance of African origin.”
In South America though, ska was fused with their own sounds of samba, and particularly upcoming rock ‘n’ roll inspired genres such as “iê-iê-iê,” via Brazilian musical television show, Jovem Guarda. Os Aaalucinantes’ 1964 album Festa Do Bolinha predates England’s embrace of ska, the same year, in fact, as Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, et all playing the New York World’s Fair. At this point in time, through Bluebeat, English youth were only just discovering a love for Jamaican music, and Lee Gopthal wouldn’t found Trojan Records for another four years. This mesh of fusions gave birth to a creative period in Brazil, vocal harmony groups like Renato E Seus Blue Caps, and The Fevers followed suit, blending US bubble-gum pop with jazzy offbeat rhythms. It did not borrow from England’s mods; it followed a similar pattern.
Similarly, in Venezuela, Las Cuatro Monedas introduced ska and reggae as early as 1963, with their debut album, “Las Cuatro Monedas a Go Go.” Through maestro arranger and composer, Hugo Blanco they won the 1969 Song Festival in Barcelona, and continued until 1981, when over here The Specials were only just releasing “Ghost Town.” Desorden Público is Venezuela’s most renowned ska band, formed in the eighties. When frontman Horacio Blanco was still at school, he wrote “Paralytic Politicians,” an angry, anti-Hugo Chavez anthem which his fans still yell for. Although Chavez died in 2013, his protégé Nicolas Maduro has descended the country into political and economic crisis; one example where South American ska is equally, if not more, dogmatically defending justice as Two-Tone here in the UK.
Chile trended towards cumbia through tropical orchestra Sonora Palacios in the sixties, therefore ska didn’t fully surface until the third-gen bands of the nineties. Even today though, Latin enthused bands such as Cholomandinga and reggae is favoured through bands like Gondwana. The modern melting pot is universal and extensive though, I’ve got a lovely cover of Ghost Town by Argentine cumbia band Fantasma, who cite themselves as being the first to develop a cumbia rap. And when upcoming, all-female Mexican ska band, Girls Go Ska sent me some tunes to play, a cover of the Jam’s David Watts was one of them.
All’s fair in love and war; undoubtedly the Two-Tone era of England has had a profound effect on the worldwide contemporary ska scene, so did their revolutionary principles. Peru commonly cites its scene commenced in the mid-eighties, when punk and second-gen underground rock bands emerged in Lima. Edwin Zcuela’s band, Zcuela Crrada differed by having a saxophonist, and adopted a sound which bordered ska. Azincope and Refugio were quick to follow, not to the taste of the rock-based crowd who classed it commercialised pop. Psicosis came about in 88, the band to initiate the term “ska band” in Peru, taking steps to eradicate the preconception. They won a recording contract through a radio contest, the jury expressed concern; the band were radicals within a pseudo-movement with libertarian ideas, and so the band refused to record.
With influences from the Basque ska-punk band, Kortatu, Breakfast continued the rebellious nature with ska in Peru, but discarded their discography. It will take us into the nineties to start to find orchestral flairs, when Carnaval Patetico and Barrio Pamara emerged, bringing with them the country’s belated by comparison, second wave. Odd to see how punk gave ska a leg-up in this legacy, but the melting pot is bottomless.
Where some bands, such as Swiss Sir Jay & The Skatanauts, favour pouring jazz into their style, akin to how the Skatalites formed the backbone of Studio 1 through attending Kingston’s Alpha Cottage School, others, such as the States bands like The Dance Hall Crashers prefer to fuse punk influences, Big Reel Fish takes Americana to ska, and one has to agree the tension of teenage anguish felt by eighties skinheads equalled that of latter punk-rock.
The rulebook is borderless and limitless, to the point there is no longer a rulebook, through an online generation one can teeter on the edge of this rabbit hole, or go diving deeper. If I said previously, Two-Tone is a cult in England, in South America ska is thriving. Some subgenres bear little relevance to the sounds and ethos of original Jamaican ska. Other than the usage of horns to sperate them from punk or rockabilly, off-shoots of skacore and skabilly tangent along their own path. Oi bands prime example, where a largely neo-Nazi tenet cannot possibly relate to an afro-Caribbean origin.
Again, the folk of a nation mergers with the sound, and there can create an interesting blend, such as the Balkan states, where the Antwerp Gipsy Ska Orchestra and Dubioza Kolekiv carve their own influences into ska. Which, in turn, has spurred a folk-ska scene in Bristol and the Southwest, bands like The Carny Villains, Mr Tea & The Minions and Mad Apple Circus, who add swing to the combination, and folk-rock bands such as The Boot Hill Allstars, confident to meld ska into the dynamic festival circuit. South America typifies this too.
Modern murga, a widespread musical theatre performed in Montevideo, Uruguay and Argentina hugs ska through carnival. Argentina’s scene is as widespread and varied as the UK or USA, in fact it was former Boot Boy presenter, Mariano Goldenstein, frontman of The Sombrero Club who led me to the rabbit hole. If the name of this Argentinean band signifies Mexican, one should note, The Sombrero Club was a Jamaican nightclub on the famous ‘Four Roads’ intersection of Molynes and Waltham Park Roads in St. Andrew.
Journalist Mel Cooke recalls in a 2005 article for the Jamaica Gleaner, “although it carried a Mexican name, the senors and senoritas who stepped inside the Sombrero nightclub did it in true Jamaican style. It was an audience that demanded a certain quality of entertainment and, in the height of the band era the cream of the cream played there. “It was one of the premier dance halls for bands, live music,” says Jasper Adams, a regular at The Sombrero. “If you capture the image of the dance hall in London at the time, you get an idea of what it was like.”
After the demise of the Bournmouthe in East Kingston, in a bygone era, The Sombrero was the place to catch ska legends, Toots and the Maytals, Tommy McCook and the Supersonics and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. There could be no name more apt for Argentina’s Sombrero Club, for within a thriving scene which mimics England in the grip of Two-Tone, their proficient and authentic sound is akin to our Specials or Madness.
It is, however, through Marcos Mossi of the Buena Onda Reggae Club from Sao Paulo, perhaps a lesser known band outside Brazil, who have really spurred my interest in South American ska, through their sublime blend of mellowed jazz-ska and reggae, and through it I realise I’m still teetering on the edge of the rabbit hole. Aside the aforementioned bands, I’m only just discovering Brazil’s Firebug, Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Los Calzones Rotos, Los Auténticos Decadentes, Karamelo Santo, Cienfuegos, Satellite Kingston, Dancing Mood, Staya Staya, Los Intocables, and Ska Beat City, Cultura Profética from Puerto Rico and Peru’s Vieja Skina. Pondering if the list will ever end.
One thing this highlights, while ska is international now, with vibrant scenes from Montreal to Melbourne, Latin America holds the key to a spirit akin to how it was when I opened my Christmas present in 1980 to find Madness long player, Absolutely.
Tune into my show on http://www.bootboyradio.co.uk – Friday nights from 10pm till Midnight GMT, where we play an international selection of ska, reggae, rock steady, soul and funk, RnB, shuffle and jazz, anything related which takes my fancy, actually!
Broke my hibernation last night to trek across the downs and catch Swindon’s Skandals play the Lamb in Marlborough; well worth the effort……
“Some proper drum and bass,” yelled frontman of The Skandals, Mark Colton during the break of a Bad Manners’ Special Brew cover, “not like the shit the kids listen to today!” In essence there’s the summary of The Skandals’ ethos, yet with the catchiness of the simple offbeat of ska, you’ll commonly find every generation up dancing together. So, while the attitude is to appease the elder, skinhead, mods and scooterists, I think you’ll find generations too young to personally recall the days of yore a band like The Skandals arrest, still love it.
This was certainly true in Marlborough’s Lamb last night, as this Swindon ska cover band came to skank, with bells on. It was a squeeze in the crowd, with the aforementioned varied demographic, but none can resist the surge of retrospective ska. Limited to saxophonist Nina as the brass section, and without keyboards, this six-piece still manage to capture the spirit of the era and throw it back in your face loud and proud. I’d wager this comes from experience; the band boasting not just Nina, but both guitarists Jase and Mark, who previously played with Swindon’s legendary Skanxters, and in turn this event brings fond memories to my old watering hole, as those Skanxters skanked here during their nineties reign.
Though frontman Mark also heads a new wave punk cover band, The Rotten Aces, among other projects such as Thin Lizzy tribute, The Lizzy Legacy. This punker angle showed through the playlist, as adroit but only subtly ‘ska’d’ covers of “Echo Beach” and the Toy Doll’s bonkers arrangement of “Nellie the Elephant,” echoed between the more archetypal tunes of Madness, The Specials, Bad Manners, et all. I wanted to quiz Mark on what he favours, but when they stated they were taking a ten-minute break, it was far more punctual than most bands!
Pigeonholing I haven’t time for, and in a hedonistic moment it matters not. Example; they covered Rancid’s Time Bomb, pioneers of the ska-punk crossover that the international third-gen ska-heads thrive on. Yet the Skandals didn’t venture over this border, delivering predominantly eighties Two-Tone they were obviously inspired by, and giving the audience diminutive verbal notations as to why, amidst the usual banter. They were lively, fun and entertaining; everything a ska band should be, and would guarantee to liven up your venue or pub. Specials covers Rat Race, Rich Girl, Little Bitch and their version of Toot’s Monkey Man being the nimblest.
It may be a timeworn formula for a ska band to cover classics like Baggy Trousers, Lip Up Fatty and Mirror in the Bathroom, but like fish n chips, it’s cliché because it never fails to thrill an audience, and The Skandals do it superbly. Interestingly, they added northern soul anthem “Tainted Love,” reggae’s “Pressure Drop” and “Chase the Devil,” into the melting pot, and choosing “Food for Thought,” as their UB40 cover is a wise move; anything post-Red Red Wine and it’s a cover band covering a cover band!
While Devizes has a thriving music scene, other than sporadic gigs from the scooter club, the pub circuit lacks ska and reggae, and you all know how I feel about that. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad. It was a delight to pay a visit to Marlborough’s Lamb again, despite remining in Wadworthshire, it’s working formula stands the test of time. “We’re quite lucky in Marlborough,” a regular informed me, rattling off the Bear’s backroom, The Wellington and Royal Oak as fond live music venues, as well as the Lamb. Yes, I nodded my acknowledgment, but when ska comes to town that’s where you’ll find me! “Let me tell about Sally Brown……”
Put the kettle on; Balkan gypsy ska here in Bristol, Mutiny, the new album from Mr Tea & The Minions is a favourite for my best album of the year, with a top hat on.
Impressionable, I creaked the door on a near-expired student party, where a cocktail of Cinzano and shrooms polished off the amateur bassist, and he hung unconscious half off the edge of a sofa in his own puke. I witnessed scholar deprivation; comatose youth, crusty dreadlocks matted into a teetering Christmas tree, and a random arm draped over a guitar amp, howling feedback. I gulped, no partygoer standing, but an erratic noise of a “Red Roses For Me” cassette whirling. Sounds blessing such a character-building eye-opener makes you reconsider your loathing for a particular genre of music.
Until then, my presumption of folk music was pruned from an overwhelming desire to hold primary school sweetheart, Trudi’s hand, and the only foreseeable method to achieve it; to opt for country dancing. Ever frustrated to find myself partnered with dowdy Emma instead, I guess it rubbed a revulsion for frumpy folk music, with its delicate romances of falling autumn leaves and daisies dancing in a spring zephyr. It can be nauseating, symbolic of my failure to caress Trudi’s nail-bitten digits.
The epiphany dusted, I bought the Pouges long-player, shaking my preconception solo until crusties like The Levellers came onto the scene, boiling the realisation folk doesn’t have to be frumpy, in fact, it’s an epoch, a people’s music, and the roots of all that followed owe it. But if that era of recklessly launching yourself around, knocking down parent’s ornaments and calling it dancing has come of age, and if the Pouges are now acceptable, seasonally, (they stole the best Christmas song slot from a band in tartan trozzers and platform shoes after all,) I say unto thee, Mr Tea & the Minions; it’s my new favourite thing.
It’s not an awkward mesh of Despicable Me and the A-Team, rather a contemporary Bristol based, female-fronted six-piece ska-post-punk-folk Balkan-inspired riot, and their new album, Mutiny is beyond blooming gorgeous. Constructed out of lead vocalist and controller of “shaky things,” Elle Ashwell, drummer Fabian Huss, guitarists James Pemberton, James Tomlinson and James (Fold) Talbot on bass, with manager Lucy Razz on violin, they formed six years ago through James’ love of Balkan music. With the edges polished by collaborating with DJ Howla, and James’ professed love of tea, Mr Tea & The Minions was born, a name which they say was “a joke that was never meant to go so far.”
As Balkan, it’s fresh, electrifying and wonderfully danceable. Elle’s gritty shrill is apt and uplifting, the theme is often invitingly saucy, awakeningly tangible, sometimes metaphorically current affairs, but it hardly wanes in energy, and if it does you know it’s building to something. Mutiny is ten songs of splendour, drizzly evening enriching with a gypsy spin. It’s a warm musky pub of yore, where a furtive crusty band jams and you spill your cider on a scraggy dog. It also riffs like ska, boils like The Levellers and rinses fresher than Shane MacGowan on his best hair day.
The Eye of the Storm, like the title track, and Pandemonium are the Fruit Pastels, breezier tempo tunes like the beautifully crafted The Spider and The Fly stun you in anticipation of the melody, but no single tune stands alone, there’s a flow of prog-rock, and if it starts and ends with a little “meow,” it’s never completely nonsensical. Lyrics are sublimely executed, mostly evocative, but dashed with fun. There’s really nought bad I could say about this unique album, I’ll be dancing to it for the foreseeable future, maybe even look up Trudi on Facebook, she can’t still bite her nails.
Somebody local book these, pl-weaseeee; the Southgate or Barge would suit to a, pardon the pun, tea. Yet times are looking good for this madcap band, on the verge of another spectacular festival season and numerous gigs on tour, our closest to date is the Prince Albert Stroud Nov 22nd, Bocabar in Glastonbury on the 9th, or recommended homecoming at the Old Market Assembly, Bristol on 30th Nov. Failing this, try the Mutiny for size.
If Devizes’ thriving live music scene lacks one thing, in my humble opinion, it’s ska. I got to get over my grumpy, staying-in head-state for fear Celebrity X-Factor is the best mainstream telly can thrust upon me, drive to the Sham, if only for a pint. Ska will force my hand if nothing else will.
The Foresters Arms is a new one for me, but it’s immediately attractive, in a humble way. Functional, even for the eight-piece ska-cover maestros known as Train to Skaville. They fit comfortably; Devizes needs something like this, a reasonably sized pub-venue for a brass section to bounce, and a landlord wearing a Fred Perry and cherry Doc Martins. Proof was in the pudding; we are missing out.
It’s a welcoming and friendly community spirited pub, with ample space to skank rainy blues away. Amidst bustling crowd of young and old, male and female, black and white, there was a point when the landlord was up having a jig himself, for jolly example. And a band, if whose appeal seems to fizzle east of Bromham, are welcomed with open arms here. I can’t drum this point any further, Train to Skaville are brilliant.
If doing this ska show on Boot Boy Radio has taught me one thing, it’s that this division is far from an aging retrospective minority who can’t shake their Two-Tone youth culture, rather an international burgeoning scene where bands under a “Ska-Family” banner aspire to create new and original tangents. The foundation of which, though, is that classic period where the Windrush generation gifted us this offbeat sound for us to exploit to the max, and Train to Skaville embrace this. They are not out to be the next best thing, rather to supply an audience with the benchmarks they know and love, and to get them off their seats. They do this, with bells on.
Propping the foyer of the Foresters during the break, I laughed that although it was raining, it was nicer to be huddled inside, rather than the last time I caught this act, on a drizzly St George’s Playing Field supporting Neville Staple. Jules of the band remarked happily that they could play Specials covers too, which were crossed out of a setlist prior to Neville wanting to understandably do them. Train to Skaville did just that this time; Ghost Town, Rat Race, Gangsters, you name them, they covered them with unique panache, a cut above the average ska covers band. Alongside typical Madness and Bad Manners floor-fillers.
But it doesn’t stop there, their repertories know no bounds, as they break it down to reggae anthems, owning Bob Marely’s “Is This Love,” Marica Griffith’s “Feel Like Jumping,” and Tim’s heart-warming rendition of Ken Boothe’s “Everything I Own,” a tribute to his mum who he recently lost. There were tears, but veneration as the band played through. Our respect and condolences go out to Tim and his family.
I find though, even greater than knocking out known ska classics, or bouncing to boss reggae, when a ska band can produce ska versions of pop songs. Sometimes amusing, sometimes out of admiration of another genre, but for a ska-fan, often better than the original. Train to Skaville also have a line which branches out here, as a skanking Echo Beach rang out towards the end of the first half of the show.
A great night, great surroundings, and sure sign for me that Devizes needs to skank it up a bit!
Some years back I was told a ska band played the previous night in the village across the dual carriageway. Being an aficionado of the genre, I was disappointed to hear I’d missed it; good enough reason we now have Devizine so you need not be like me and can hear of events before they happen!
Informed the band was called Train to Skaville worsened matters; such a great name, taken from the 1967 single of Jamaica’s harmony group, The Ethiopians. The launchpad for a UK tour when it hit our charts, the song’s riff has been applied to many later songs, including Toots & The Maytal’s 54-46 and heralded the concept of the chugging train sound used in a plethora of later ska and reggae songs.
Despite ensuring I’d added all their local gigs to the event guide here since day dot, and befriended singer Jules Morton as part of the all-female fundraising supergroup, The Female of the Species, the must-see box on my perpetually cumulative to-do-list remained unticked, until last night. Unfortunate weather clouded sanguinity early on when I ventured over to Melksham for the opening of Party in the Park. An evening dubbed “Parkfest,” separated from the main event happening today, as what once may have been a welcoming gig, has spawned its own identity; the main event builds on universal pop appeal, Parkfest has a more matured feel.
It was in chatting with Bruce Burry, event coordinator at the Assembly Rooms, which revealed this forthcoming grand line-up of ska. I was taken aback, Party in the Park is Bruce’s baby, and boy, does he take care of it. Impressive and vast is the setup at King George V park, professional is the stage, sound and effects. I’d heard of it before, but when Bruce uttered the name Neville Staple, my heart whacked into hyperdrive. Some months on, I was kindly invited backstage, as the support, none other than my burning-box-to-be-ticked band, Train to Skaville, prepared and tuned. Attempting optimism, my mutterings that once they took the stage the drizzle would cease met with sullenness, but guys, I was right, wasn’t I?! Call me Michael Fish.
Naturally, headline act, the original rude-boy, formerly of The Specials and who later formed Fun Boy Three with Terry Hall and Lynval Golding, Neville Staple excelled with sleekness and anticipated competence. His combo group, The Neville Staple band has become the stuff of legend amidst the ska scene since 2004. Again, akin to our review of Trevor Evan’s Bardbwire at Devizes Arts Festival last month, Neville’s outfit merges two-tone and punky reggae back into its precursor ska, for this explosive melting pot, prevalently fermented the anniversary of Two-Tone Records, the Coventry record label which spurred a scene and both aforementioned artists played a pivotal role in.
However, this was not before Neville and friends ran through some Specials classics, and if classics are the given thing in this retrospective amalgamation, Train to Skaville knocked it out of King George Park, prior to this fabled performance. For the headline act was grand, this should be taken as red, and despite my pedestal I popped Train to Skaville onto, they surely flew above all expectations.
For blending 007 (Shanty Town) into The Tide is High, as a teaser, the burgeoning crowd began to yearn for their start time, as gratis was handed to DJ setup, Fun Boy Two, Train to Skaville stepped up to an audience clearly familiar with the panache of this local band.
Train to Skaville have been on the circuit for eight years, albeit it a number of roster variations through their time, partly the reason, Jules told me, for not putting down any original material. This if-it-ain’t-broke attitude fitting, for the majority of ska followers just want to hear the anthems. While this is done timelessly by many-a-cover-band, Train to Skaville sit atop this standard, their unique style, singer’s Tim Cross’s witty repartee and entire band’s expertise reeks of good-time ska and explodes with party atmosphere.
For what seems to be a rare thing, a ska band from the Trowbridge/Melksham area, they set the bar high, and through Israelites, Too Much Pressure, and Rancid’s Timebomb to name but a few, they launched back on stage, slowing for reggae and rock steady classics, Hurt so Good and Is This Love, and detonating the finale by slipping back into ska with Prince Buster’s Madness, followed by Madness, Selector and Bad Manners hits and a sublime versions of Tears of a Clown.
Yet this train doesn’t seem to call at Devizes, and if word of the group of friends from Devizes I was delighted to meet there, Vince Bell, Tamsin Quin and significant other halves, isn’t enough to convince you I don’t know what is! The last train pulled out of our town in 1966 and I can’t wait for the Devizes Parkway project to become a reality, the angle of this piece is simply that someone needs to book this lively band in our town, we can’t let the Sham take all the spotlight! They’ve rammed pubs, gigged The Cheese & Grain, supported Neville a couple of times previous, and become hot favourites westward, we just need to stop them buffering at Seend!
As for Party in the Park, the main event kicks off this afternoon, a more pop-feel, they’ve some awesome local legends, including Indecision, Kirsty Clinch, Burbank, Forklift Truck, along with a fire-show, unicorns, fairground and food and drink stalls, topped off with a Take That Tribute. You can get a ticket on the gate, this an affordable event and the pride of the Sham.
All Photos used with kind permission of Gail Foster
From a talk by CBE award-winning English foreign correspondent and BBC News world affairs editor, John Simpson, to the Sub-Organist at Durham Cathedral, Francesca Massey, the Devizes Arts Festival has kicked off this week, better than Tottenham. Their showcase, more varied than ever before, truly caters for all; you just need to either research, or hear me bashing on to find something suitable for you.
Personally, my time came Saturday, when the Corn Exchange was blessed with sweet, sweet reggae music! You know I love thee, local music scene, but my ongoing quest to encourage more reggae in these backwaters came to an apex last night.
Perhaps a hard sell in Devizes, yet a genre I’ll push until the wheels fall off. Yep, said wheels won’t last to shove Devizes into the streets of downtown Kingston Jamaica, but our great hall was lively and the modest audience appreciative of what Coventry based Barbdwire delivered.
Without doubt Barbdwire could produce a “beginners guide to reggae,” without watering down or succumbing to commercialisation. For all sub-genres were presented to us last night, with tremendous panache and sublime competence.
I often wonder how irritated Ziggy Marley gets when interviews adopt the cliché angle of his father, recollecting him once stating, “reggae is not a one-man-music, it’s a people music.” An apt quote for Barbdwire, the band a varied bunch. While originator and drummer, Trevor Evans, the former Specials roadie-once drummer, characteristically oozes a reggae archetypal, bassist Chelly’s persona rings out dub and the proficient trombonist has Two-Tone band written all over him, trumpeter John Pudge, clearly the youngest, doesn’t appear represent any reggae stereotype.
I snatched a quick tête-à-tête with John, attired in a T-shirt embossed with “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” I was keen on querying his t-shirt gainsays against his instrument choice, brass sections being generally considered ska-related. We discussed how Barbdwire play to the audience; their ability to pull any of reggae’s subgenres out of their hat makes the band flexible, supporting The Specials, as their next gig, or Holli Cook, as they did last week.
But centre of attention last night in Devizes, this band were an epiphany for some residents and a universal accreditation for those reggae lovers. In our preview I said, “(Two-Tone) may have challenged punk with chicness akin to mod, but today, these subcultures are inconsequential, we can bundle it all into one retrospective burlesque, select whatever element of any we care to, and fuse them without pretence or offense; one reason why a group like Barb’d Wire is fresh and electrifying.”
Well, while reproducing their album Time Has Come’s originals did just that, their choice of covers was equally extensive. From ska favourites like Baba Brook’s version of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man and the Wailer’s debut hit Simmer Down, they also exposed the audience to roots, with Max Romeo’s Chase the Devil, Horace Andy’s Skylarking, renowned for his later work with Massive Attack, and even dub, akin to its master King Tubby.
There were versions of reggae classics, like Uptown Top Ranking, and all harmonised by the beautifully melodic and confident vocals of Cherelle Harding, a singer who could roll on a lovers tune with the finesse of Phillis Dillon to convert without haste to toast a stepper’s riddim, at one point verging on dancehall with a wonderfully luminous interpretation of Sister Nancy’s Bam-Bam.
Make no mistake, this diversity was not delivered reggae-lite, rather an expertise and rounded acknowledgement to the many faces of Jamaica’s music export, and delivered to us adhering to all the positivity and joyfulness the genre celebrates. As an apt example, they gathered outside to meet and greet, where they were applauded with respect vowed to add our town to their tour map; something I’ll hold against them, as this was an outstanding performance!
Long live the Devizes Arts Festival then, hopeful they’ll consider the evening a success and plan in, as they are already planning 2020, something else reggae-related. Following on, this week sees Strange Face at The Bear today (Sunday) where the Adventures with a Lost Nick Drake Recording takes place.
Monday and Christian Garrick & John Etheridge presents Strings on Fire at The Exchange. Tuesday is The Shakespeare Smackdown, and Wednesday String Sisters are at St Andrews Church.
An Audience with Bob Flowerdew at the Town Hall, also Wednesday, and Thursday, Atila Sings the Nat King Cole Story at the Town Hall. Oh, and next Saturday has a whole host of FREE fringe events across town. Check the website for booking details, but hurry, Friday’s Moscow Drug Club event is sold out. If cancelations occur find posts on the Arts Festival Facebook page, and I’ll promise to share them as soon as I spot them; have a great festival!
Never content with what contemporary music thrust down our throats, even as a youngster, the easiest and sneakiest place to hunt for origins was Dad’s record collection. It would be years before he discovered the shortfall of vinyl and confronted me. Sixties Merseybeat and blues-pop standard, I recall the intriguing moment I unearthed a shabby cover of a girl’s naked torso, “Tighten Up Vol 2” was inscribed on her abdomen in lipstick. So, when he did, I inquired why he bought this, Trojan Record. More concerned where his Pink Floyd gatefold had vanished to, he half-heartedly explained, “it was something different,” as if he didn’t wish to divulge too much, “and cheap.”
The estate of Bob Marley is still argued over, he never understood how to handle the royalties of rock star. Other than a BMW he had no extravagance, the house on Hope Road a gift from Blackwell, in which he lobbed a single mattress in the corner of a bedroom. What you see of the Jamaican music industry in the movie, “The Harder they Come,” is staunchly realistic; peanuts a too expensive commodity to compare to payments made to singers and musicians.
Poor wages triggered a prolific industry, hundreds of hopefuls jammed Orange Street awaiting to be ripped off. Trojan Records was founded the year after Bluebeat dissolved, 1968. The reasoning both English labels sourced Jamaican music was originally to supply the Windrush generation with the sounds of home, it is doubtful either realised the legacy they would leave. The underpaid nobodies singing on these records meant Bluebeat and Trojan could lower the price tag when compared to what upstarts like Bowie or Clapton would require, and price was everything for white British kids attempting to amass vinyl for house parties; as my father summed up.
Though the attraction may’ve been the price, the enticement of these records came when the needle hit the groove; these rhythms were insatiably beguiling and exotic. I felt that ambiance too, and fell head over heels. But my palette had been preconditioned without comprehending it. Slightly too young to have immersed in the youth cultures of the late seventies, the sound bequest our pop charts.
Whether it was Blondie or the Police, or Madness, The Beat, or Piranhas, the charts of pre electronica eighties was inspired by the two youth cultures of punk and skinhead, and until the day I discovered a Bluebeat 7” of Prince Buster’s Madness, exposing Suggs and his Nutty Boy’s embodiment, I had no idea. Jerry Dammers’ Two Tone Records only had six years, an insecure contract with a get-out clause after one single, saw the acts achieve acclaim and jump ship.
But if we celebrated Trojan’s fiftieth last year, we must do the same for Two-Tone’s fortieth, as it engraved its hometown, Coventry, as firmly on the ska map as Kingston. Within its short run Two Tone defined an era and reintroduced the roots of the dub reggae scene that punk spurred to white British youth; ska. The nonchalant rudimentary street-styled design of Two-Tone’s corporate identity is today considered standard ska practise; Dave Storey’s chequered monochrome background with Walt Jabsco, a character based upon a Peter Tosh image.
It may have challenged punk with chicness akin to mod, but today, these subcultures are inconsequential, we can bundle it all into one retrospective burlesque, select whatever element of any of them and fuse them without pretence or offense; one reason why a group like Barb’d Wire is fresh and electrifying.
Though hailing from Two Tone’s home, Coventry, drummer and vocalist, Trevor Evans, a.k.a. ET Rockers, having begun his sparkling career as roadie turned DJ for The Specials, and with a brass section arrangement by Jon Pudge, ska is only an element of Barb’d Wire’s sound. Guitarist Ryan Every, Fingers Aitken on bass, and Mark Bigz Smith commanding the keys, blend influences as far and wide as punk to orchestral and blues into a melting pot of reggae. Fronted by the spiralling, gospel-inspired vocals of Cherelle Harding, their unique sound drives a heavy dub bassline, while not divulging on its preconditioned instrumental ethos. What we’re left with is a genuinely contemporary reggae lattice landing the group as firm favourites on the dynamic Coventry scene and festival circuit such as Skamouth.
While tracks like Duppy Town and Et Rockers Up Town, on their 2017 debut album, Time Has Come, rely on dub, a stepper’s riddim thrives throughout, but incorporates aforementioned influences. The only recognisable cover, for example, is the classic Latino-inspired Rockfort Rock of which the Skatalites perfected a ska-rhumba amalgamation. Produced by Roger Lomas, who also handles Bad Manners and The Selecter, again, Barb’d Wire pride themselves with Two-Tone influences, yet unlike the standard ska cover band you’re likely to get on our local scene, who all have their place in maintaining a clandestine but welcomed scene here, Barb’d Wire will be a fresh and welcomed gig, when they arrive at Devizes Corn Exchange on Saturday 1st June as a feature of Devizes Arts Festival.
For me, and any reggae/ska/soul aficionado, this is simply unmissable, but for the Arts Festival it may be a risky move, breaking their typical booking in search for newer audiences. While organ recitals, poetry slams and theatre noir have their place, we owe it to ourselves to support this event in hope it will spur future events at the festival of an alternative and contemporary genre. That is why you’ll see our Devizine logo proudly on the posters for this particular appearance, as though we plan to bring you more in-depth previews and reviews of this year’s stunning line-up, I’m most excited about this one!
Designing the posters for the Devizes Scooter Club came to the peak of absurdity with this one for the latest event on the 30th March, and I feel I may need tone down the experimentation a tad. Still, I think it stands out from the run-the-mill event poster; in the words of Mike the Cool Person, “I never stand on convention, it never stood on me.”
But I cannot deny, with a bombardment of highly anticipated local gigs this coming month, I’m looking forward to this one perhaps, the most. We’ve seen a few Northern Soul and Motown nights of recent from the Scooter Club, and while my eclectic taste appreciates these along with the plethora of other gigs lined up on my calendar, you still can’t, in my opinion, beat a bit of ska.
This will reflect well against the forthcoming Scooter Rally, as while a weekend-long event will provide scope for the club to parade all relevant genres, there’s a truckload of ska to be heard. Orange Street headlining will be one to watch, while Swindon’s The Tribe mesh ska with hip hop beats, and other local outfit The Erin Bardwell Collective will simmer in some rock steady. Essex’s finest, The Start are not averse to playing ska, and I’m sure, given the nature of the event that the Day Breakers will blast a two-tone classic or three. Of course, Bad Manners tribute Special Brew take as red.
Confident in the statement international third-gen ska is regenerating the old Two-Tone scene here in England, is evident in the success of groups like the Dualers. Call it cliché, say yeah, diehard skins don’t know when to give it up, but there’s something in that joyous offbeat which makes you want to jump and skank.
So put your braces together, your boots on your feet, and allow me to introduce this prodigious booking, Dorset’s eight-piece ska band, The Decatonics. It promises to be a blinding night at the Devizes Conservative Club. The band, formed in 2012 have indeed supported the aforementioned Dualers, along with The Skatelites, The Neville Staple Band and Bad Manners.
An established 8-piece female-fronted ska band, The Decatonics are constructed of bassist Rowan, two Steves, one on keys and the other on drums, an energetic backline and powerful horn section of Mike on tenor sax, Harry on trumpet and alto sax, and Ian on trombone. They’re fronted by two adept vocalists who compliment one another; Shaun, also on lead guitar and Sally, who I’ve been chatting with. I started by asking her how long they’d been together and if the members were the same original line-up.
“The bass and I, and the lead brass, are original, with our drummer being with us for five years,” she explained, “but as with any large band, changes are inevitable along the way.”
“Is it all covers, or have you any original songs recorded?” I asked Sally.
“We do just cover songs,” she sustained, “but try and give our own little flair, and being female-fronted we get to play a more diverse set than your standard ska covers band.” No issue there, in retrospective glory, cover songs make the night at the Scooter Club. Not forgoing, Sally mentioned that since 2017, The Decatonics have been part of a Specialised Project, recording tracks for a CD. I saw my opening, boasted of my newfound show on Boot Boy Radio and blagged two tunes to play on the show next week!
The first song a Trojan hit in the UK, Bob & Marica’s up-tempo Pied Piper, proves their ability to sprinkle a joyous contemporary ska riff to a boss reggae classic, but the second hoists up that skill, with a concentrated ska adaption of the Jam’s Standards.
The Decatonics draw influences from both original Jamaican ska, bluebeat, and its new-wave Two-Tone, but also from successors rock steady and reggae. They even accommodate soul in the melting pot, bringing a vibrant live show which has built up a great reputation with the entire mod/scooter scene rather than just ska aficionados. Do not expect third generation punk experimentation, but a suitable English ska sound popularised by Madness and The Beat.
With a strong following through regular pub and club gigs, and festivals such as the Big One Weekender Festival, Dorset Volksfest, The Dorset Steam Fair and Teddy Rocks under their belt, I’m certain they’ll transport their astounding party atmosphere to our already lively Devizes Scooter Club nights.
Tickets are a tenner, by messaging the Devizes Scooter Club Facebook page, from Vinyl Realm, Jefferson’s Café, or from the Devizes Cons Club direct. As usual there will be a raffle, and I believe it’s me warming up the crowd on the wheels of steel, like a musical fluffer; but don’t let that put you off! The club ascertain everyone is welcome, not just members. Think of this as an opportunity to taste what you might bear witness to at the forthcoming Rally in July, oh and to have a good knees-up too!
If last weekend in Devizes belonged to rockers, as the Sports Club shook by the awesome Saddleback Festival, it was small mercies for the Mods this Saturday as Devizes Scooter Club hosted a more moderately proportioned charity BBQ day, which wasn’t without equal summer fun and frolics.
The corner of Hillworth Road and Long Street became a haven for scooter enthusiasts, who’d travelled from far and wide, and local lovers of soul, reggae and ska who gathered outside the Conservative Club to raise some funds for the Devizes and District Opportunity Centre.
How much was raised at this tender morning moment (at the time of writing this on Sunday) is unconfirmed, majority of organisers I’d wager are taking a fully-earned rest, if not nursing a sore head!
I’ll let you know the grand total as soon as I get some feedback, but cake stall helper Paula told me she’d sold twice as many as last year’s family fun day, as husband Andy, whose task it was to man the barbeque looked vacantly into space through sheer tiredness. “I reckon he’ll be flipping burgers in his sleep,” I imagined.
The bar and garden packed out by lunchtime, extending to the car park, which converted into a showroom of lamberttas and vespas, with an added parts stall. As enthusiasts admired each other’s “hairdryers,” their families enjoyed the plethora of side stalls, the hall of bouncy things (castle and a Gladiators-styled battle arena) and the quality music.
Contrary to their name, Swindon’s Daybreakers turned up early afternoon. Thank heavens I figured, lesson learned that day; a cider breakfast does no good when attempting to operate a mixer. Thanks to Tony who danced around me doing all the technical wizardry and gave our musical show a voice.
By 2pm The Daybreakers were off, with no one willing to stop them they revved through a glut of benchmark early 80s pop, the likes of the Specials and Dexy, to sublime renditions of crusty rock, such as the Levellers. Wherever Cath, Gouldy and gang land there’s guaranteed to be a blinding show and today was no exception.
An awesome team effort blessed the event with an uncompromising community spirit. From face-painted kids guessing names of teddies, shooting footballs and munching cake, to adults estimating the weight of a ham, shooting down beers and munching burgers, a village fete atmosphere ensued with a retrospective, hedonistic angle, as opposed to being all vicars and teacakes on the lawn.
By late afternoon Chippenham duo, Blondie & Ska had pitched inside and began their dazzling show; a precise Blondie tribute meshed with other two-tone classics in a style as if Debbie Harry would’ve covered them. They made a fantastic sound for just a duo and relished every minute despite fatigue setting in with the punters, who tended to loiter outside to begin with.
With most exhausted from the day’s affairs already, it took a while for the show to push the audience into gear, hangers-on remained in the shadows of the garden to begin with, or those with families retired home with worn-out youngsters. I thought it a shame the club could’ve shown how we welcome acts as good as Blondie & Ska, but the thought abruptly ceased as the evening took hold and sweltering members graced that dance floor.
I offered a rock steady break for the band, but dancers yearned for some Northern Soul, so that’s what I did. Then Blondie & Ska continued and took us to into to the close. If you need more of these guys, or if you missed this thoroughly enjoyable show, I strongly advise you check out future gigs on their website. Closest to us, is The Wroughton Club on August 11th, The Royal Oak Corsham the day after, and the Gladstone Road Club in Chippenham on October 27th.
As for the Daybreakers, well they’re never to be missed. Catch them again for an afternoon in Devizes, when they’ll be at Vinyl Realm on August 4th, and check their Facebook page for an extensive gig guide.
Back to the BBQ Day though, it was in observing the quantity of people gathered, and their enjoyment of the day which gave me both enormous optimism for a very successful Scooter Rally next summer, and a pride in our small town’s Scooter Club, where everyone contributed a gallant effort to ensure a grand day out was had by all, most laboured until they dropped, notwithstanding, some money was raised for our preschool for children with disabilities and learning difficulties. So full steam ahead for the Scooter Club now, as tickets for a brilliant sounding, soultastic Motown-eske band, All That Soul, are now on sale at the Cons Club, Jeffersons and Vinyl Realm.
Being one of our first pieces it has to be said, not only is it of far better quality than the type of rubbish I’m now putting out, but it had an inspiring theme! The reason I bring it up, because the local, all-girl supergroup The Female of the Species, which was its subject, are at it again, and tickets for their gig at the Melksham Assembly Rooms are now on sale.
Tackily pasted from last year’s event, I wrote: “Nicky Davis from People Like Us and The Reason, Glastonbury’s Julia Greenland from Soulville Express & Delta Swing, Frome’s Claire Perry from Big Mamma & The Misfitz, solo artist Charmaigne Andrews from Melksham, and Julie Moreton from Trowbridge’s Train to Skaville and Jules & The Odd Men, form the supergroup for Live on the Night, at the Melksham Assembly Rooms on Saturday 30th September.” So, other then being pushed back a day, I asked Nicky if anything else has changed?
“Claire (Big Mama) no longer performs with the Misfitz,” noted Nicky, “instead she’s now with ‘Big Mama’s Banned.” Jules added, “The girls are delighted to announce that joining us as part of our band line up this year, on sax, is my fellow ‘Train to Skaville’ band-mate, the awesome Miss Karen Potter.” So other than this it’s much the same and on target to rock the Melksham Assembly Rooms on Saturday the 29th September.
This year’s event is subtitled “Raising Money Through Music,” and is in aid of Young Melksham, a registered charity which “work as a community to provide all children and young people with opportunities to thrive, develop and participate.” Young Melksham really makes a huge difference to the lives of youth in our area, by hosting more events than I can list here, including The Melksham Young People’s Awards.
They make trips to shows locally, hold a variety of regular weeknight “youth club styled” workshops and events from their Canberra Club, from cookery to sports. They even run a shuttlebus to get kids there safely. The policy of Young Melksham is: “advancing in life and helping children and young people by developing their skills, capacities and capabilities to enable them to participate in society as independent, mature and responsible individuals; advancing education, providing recreational and leisure time activities in the interest of social welfare designed to improve their conditions of life.” They even have fully-trained counsellor and listening support workers when youth need a friendly face and a listening ear.
Supporting the supergroup this year will be young songstress with that oh so soulful voice, Laura Jayne Burt, Melksham’s guitar/soloist Sarah Deer and batting for the boys, Bath’s acoustic duo Ben & Tim. This is one unmissable annual extravaganza which takes the best elements of all these local groups and combines them into a blend of reggae and ska, soul and Motown, blues and rock. It can only guarantee too ooze with local talent and blow the roof of the Assembly Rooms, for just a tenner a ticket, with ALL proceeds going to this fantastic charity-based community project…..and it’s full of gorgeous ladies; what’s not to like?!
Trains have an emblematic relationship with reggae and its predecessor ska.
The chugging offbeat imitating a steam engine has been a running theme throughout its history. From choo-choo vocals of the Ethiopian’s classic “Train to Skaville,” to Keith & Tex’s rock steady anthem, “Stop that Train,” and The Wailer’s song of the same title, reggae is awash with train themes; it’s only apt there’s such thing as “Great Western Reggae,” and a substantial scene in the historic railway town of Swindon.
Pop-a-Top Records is Swindon’s label dedicated to its reggae homebrew. It’s headed by the ex-Skanxter, Erin Bardwell and his Collective who’ve just released “Great Western Reggae Soundclash,”a double-album which serves as a prodigious sampler for Pop-a-Top’s Great Western Reggae style.
In those ravey daze, the Skanxters were a local archaic blessing, harking to an era when life was less Altern 8 and more, well, Specials. I fondly recall heady nights following the Skanxters, at the Queen’s Tap, The Vic, and the Lamb in Marlborough, and remember the disheartening revelation a gig at Level III in 98 would be their last. I reminisce how, during their comical, “I’ll never know (who nicked my bike),” lead singer Andy Paton would ask the dodgiest looking audience member, “Oi, was it you?” and how once I was selected for the honour!
Imagine my delight at catching up with Erin, who played keyboards in the band and hasn’t stopped since. “Not all the artists (on Pop-a-Top) are from Swindon,” Erin explained, “but most are, or have links to it.” With countless projects under his belt, such as dub production duo Subject A’s “Sleepwalkers” release with ex-Skanxter bass player Dean Sartain, and nostalgic two-tone reunion gigs for the Skanxters, Erin is exceptionally prolific.
Though meticulous effort has been refined into “Great Western Reggae Soundclash,” and while not astoundingly lyrical, despite the opening track “Rock Steady Rub,” with vocals parallel to Johnny Cash popping into Studio One, GWR concentrates more-so on keyboards akin to Jackie Mitto.
The Collective glide steadily through a plethora of traditional rock steady, which while wouldn’t sound out of place on a Trojan “Tighten Up” compilation, also has a sprinkle of reflections on Swindon. Again, in the aforementioned running train theme, the tongue-in-cheek “Night Bus to Highworth,” and a nod to Edith New, the Swindonian suffragette first to campaign in an aggressive manner.
Fans of Jamaican music in Britain tend to separate into two trends, echoing dub and skinhead ska; the transitional stage is often overlooked. When really, developed through hard times in 1960s Kingston, where curfews set by the government to curb “rude boy” culture, it consequently mellowed the mood for the following era, and was Jamaica’s most creative period musically.
To hark back to this rock steady/boss reggae period is tried and tested in this album, a rarity left to groups like New York’s Frightnrs, who in turn add a little New Yorker panache to their sound. The Eric Bardwell Collective do similar, plus, while fundamentally inspired by rock steady they’re not afraid to explore techniques usually saved for ska or reggae, from chugging choo-choo vocals to nyabinghi drums and one drops, the tune “Why Why,” being a grand example of this, and along with both male and female vocals, the latter supplied by Dominican-born Sandra Bell, it makes the sound wholly unique and excitingly refreshing.
With rich history including backing reggae star Dennis Bovell, and a trip to Jamaica in 2003, to record at Byron Lee’s legendary Dynamic Sounds with Studio One engineer Sylvan Morris, Erin Bardwell has the contacts to add a plethora of talent to feature within the Collective. On this release you’ll find Selecter Guitarist Neol Davies, drummer Matty Bane of the Neville Staple Band, Pat Powell of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra alongside Swindon’s finest line-up, such as, among others, horns from the SN Dubstation.
There’s much here to impress and delight the reggae enthusiasts, my personal favourite being “Change,” where the Byron Lee influences shine, reminding of the frequently sampled piano riff of “My Conversation,” by the Uniques. Although there’s equally as much inspiration external to reggae, at times the soundscape took me to contemplate early Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett days, and a sprinkling of Sgt Pepper towards the album’s close. So, I figure there’s as much here to enjoy for the occasional reggae listener.
There’s an album launch at the Thomas Hughes Memorial Hall in Uffington on December 1st, the Erin Bardwell Collective are also live at The Castle in Swindon on Friday 8th and Zed Alley in Bristol 15th December. If that’s too close to the big C, I’d highly recommend you keep warm and treat yourself to an early yule pressie; grab yourself a CD or download of this outstanding local riddim redeemer here at Bandcamp.
Deadlier than the male, The Female of the Species is an amalgamation of female musicians from various local bands who team up to host charity gigs; what’s not to like?
Nicky Davis from Warminster based People Like Us and The Reason, Glastonbury’s Julia Greenland from Soulville Express & Delta Swing, Frome’s Claire Perry from Big Mamma & The Misfitz, solo artist Charmaigne Andrews from Melksham, and Julie Moreton from Trowbridge’s Train to Skaville and Jules & The Odd Men, form the supergroup again for “Live on the Night,” at the Melksham Assembly Rooms on Saturday 30th September.
Seriously not to be missed; Beginning by showcasing two young performers; James Dempsey and Laura Jane Burt, giving them stage time and experience. The show then continues with People Like Us. The finale, Female of the Species sure to be the icing on the cake. Blending their influences in a mash-up of reggae and ska, soul and Motown, blues and rock, how on Earth do they govern what genre is coming next?
I thought I’d hassle Jules of Train to Skaville for an answer. “Each of the girls chooses three or four songs from their band’s set list,” explained the self-confessed rude-girl, “and then we add in the stuff we sing together.”
The Female of the Species first formed for a one-off gig at the Civic Hall, Trowbridge in 2014 for the Hope Centre in Southwick, a charity for adults with learning difficulties, “but it was so successful,” Jules continued, “we had no choice but to do it all again….and again.”
This news nugget keeps getting better though, as this year they’re fund-raising for the Wiltshire Air Ambulance. The previous appearance at the Assembly Hall in Melksham, back in 2015 raised £2,920 in aid of WILTSHIRE M.I.N.D Mental Health Charity. The founding gig at The Hope Nature Centre in Southwick in 2014 I previously mentioned, raised an amazing £3,395.
While the next Train to Skaville is boarding from the White Swan, Trowbridge, Big Mama and the Misfitz only coming as close to us as The Fox and Hounds in Colerne on 4th November and the next People Like Us gig being a longer bus journey to Bath, at the Westgate on 22nd, here’s something in easy reach and all for the greatest cause. Tickets at just a tenner can be snatched from the Assembly Rooms or online here.