Steel Pulse won't give up the fight

Thirty years after the British reggae band burst on the scene, the message it's peddling to our shores is still about about social change.

David Hinds 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Hinds 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Age and experience certainly haven't tempered David Hinds's calls for social change. During a performance earlier this month at the acclaimed inaugural Rothbury Festival in Michigan, Hinds, the leader of seminal British reggae legends Steel Pulse, managed to wish South African leader Nelson Mandela a happy 90th birthday; laud the civil rights efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; encourage festival-goers to join Rock Against Racism; and lead the crowd in chants of "Let's bring the troops back home." Not bad for an old rasta/hippie/punk. It was liberal social activism like that, along with an authentic roots-reggae sound, that catapulted the Birmingham-based Steel Pulse into the international limelight in the late 1970s with the release of their debut album Handsworth Revolution, one of the landmarks in the evolution of British reggae. Thirty years later, the 52-year-old Hinds is still urging audiences, just like reggae godfather Bob Marley once preached, to get up and stand up and don't give up the fight. And he finds the response is just as enthusiastic, despite the changing status of the issues he's singing about. "Whereas our interests 30 years ago were all about racial harmony, there have been a lot of other issues that have crept up - like global warming, nuclear disarmament, AIDS, pollution of our water and skies. But when you talk at the end of the day, racial harmony should still be on top of the list. It's the only way we can move forward and conquer those other things," Hinds told The Jerusalem Post from Richmond, Virginia, where Steel Pulse was in the middle of an American summer jaunt before heading to Europe and Israel. Steel Pulse's career arc is not that different from dozens of other bands to emerge out the working class of England in the late 1970s. Singer and guitarist Hinds, the son of West Indian immigrants, formed the band in 1975 in the poor Handsworth neighborhood of Birmingham with high school friends of similar backgrounds, Basil Gabbidon and Ronnie "Stepper" McQueen. Originally protest-minded Rastafarians based on the music of Marley and Burning Spear, the band aligned itself with the UK punk movement due to their mutual misfit status. According to Hinds, their "subversive" political stance dissuaded many mainstream venues from booking them, but with punk rock tearing down the old and making way for new avenues for music to be heard, there was a natural kinship between the two strains of music. It wouldn't be uncommon to find the Steel Pulse sharing a stage with punk rockers like The Clash, the Billy Idol-led Generation X and The Tom Robinson Band. "The bond was that we were all anti-establishment. Punks were always about supporting anything that was outside of the system, and one of those things was reggae. It's something they took upon themselves to have reggae bands as their opening acts," Hinds said in an accent that was one part West Indian and one part British. STEEL PULSE evidently returned the favor. When successful Scottish rockers Simple Minds were starting out, they opened for the reggae band at Steel Pulse's first show in Glasgow in early 1978, and frontman Jim Kerr credited the show as launching his band's career. "Not many reggae bands played in Glasgow back then, but we knew about Steel Pulse because [the BBC's] John Peel had been playing their Handsworth Revolution album. In fact, Steel Pulse were the first rastas we'd seen," Kerr told The Birmingham Mail. Although Hinds didn't recall that specific show, he said he was very pleased that Steel Pulse had been able to help bands get off the ground in the same way they were assisted by their punk brethren. By the early 1980s, Steel Pulse began branching out in search of more commercial acceptance, adding touches like like synthesizers and R&B and dancehall inflections. That approach led to a Grammy in 1986 for Babylon the Bandit, a slick effort that alienated many of their original fans. By the mid-1990s, the band, having gone through numerous personnel changes, reverted back to a tougher, rootsy sound drenched in activism. And despite dwindling album sales, they've remained a touring staple, due to their reputation as one of the most electrifying live reggae bands. In 1994, Steel Pulse made history when they performed at US president Bill Clinton's first inauguration ball, the first reggae band ever invited to the White House. "I felt very honored to be invited, but I think it was Al Gore's initiative, not Clinton's," said Hinds. "I feel that we were representing reggae throughout the world, and it was a big moment in our career." Hinds, the only original member left in the 11-piece touring band, said he's hoping for a repeat performance at the White House early next year to welcome Barack Obama, his preferred candidate for US president. And he hasn't been bashful during shows, on the band's Web site, or in interviews of making his preference known. "Ever since I saw Obama campaigning for John Kerry five years ago, I've been impressed with his speeches. There's a sincerity there. I'm interested in finding out what he's about, because politics has a way of being parlor tricks at the end of the day," he said. "I think that Obama can make a change from the administration that's pulling the wool over our eyes looking for weapons of mass destruction and the current wool issue, oil and gas prices." WHILE IT doesn't look like Hinds is going to shy away from political content in his music or stage patter in the near future, the 30-year mark since the band's recording debut has left him feeling uncharacteristically warm, fuzzy and sentimental. "I think I'm proudest that we've lasted this long, and that we were a reggae band that came out of England. There have been so many bands that have formed and played from those days that are no longer here today. That longevity, solidarity, sincerity - those are the things that keep you connected to an audience," he said. We've kept our fans for those reasons. For example, The Grateful Dead didn't need to make new albums - they had their fan base that wanted to see them play live. That's what keeps us going, the fan base, not record sales." The only problem with that philosophy, when you've been on the road for 30 years, is staying on the road. Having just arrived in Richmond from the West Coast, Hinds bemoaned the jet lag, saying it was leaving him feeling "demented." "The problem is that we circle the US until we're dizzy," he said, admitting that it's not always fun. The antidote, he finds, is performing in places the band has never been to before, like Israel. "I know we're going to be having fun there. I've only been to Israel in my dreams, and I'm planning to see some of the country and get grounded with the people," Hinds said. "I don't know that much about Israel, but I promise you that I will by the time I get there. I've been told it's a very special vibe." That vibe will only be enhanced by the music of Steel Pulse, when they perform at the Barbie Club in Tel Aviv on July 23rd and 24th.