Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Steel Pulse

  • Handsworth Revolution [Mango, 1978] B
  • Tribute to the Martyrs [Mango, 1979] A-
  • Reggae Fever [Mango, 1980] A-
  • True Democracy [Elektra, 1982] B
  • Earth Crisis [Elektra, 1984] B+
  • Reggae Greats: Steel Pulse [Mango, 1984] A-
  • State of Emergency [MCA, 1988] C+
  • Ultimate Collection [Hip-O, 2001] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Handsworth Revolution [Mango, 1978]
A promising debut from the first (black) English reggae group, and I bet there'll be others. The ideology is Rastafarian, but its mood is less steamy--as cool-headed as herb permits, and righteously angry. Now let's hope the music, which is distinctive but not all the way there yet, catches up with the words. B

Tribute to the Martyrs [Mango, 1979]
I can't tell whether the relatively clearheaded politics of these English Jamaicans detract from their ejaculatory, off-center music or make it sound more avant-garde than it is. Both, probably. If their Steve Biko song isn't as affecting as Tom Paxton's, their George Jackson song beats Dylan's, and I can't imagine anyone else, not even Tom Robinson, making a hook out of "rock against racism." One of their secrets, as you might have guessed, is a terrific beat. Another is forthright singing of a sort that--and now I'm guessing--can only grow out of unshakable conviction. A-

Reggae Fever [Mango, 1980]
Geoffrey Chung's crystalline production, David Hinds's catchy melodies, and Selwyn Brown's straight-ahead vocals may offend those infatuated with reggae's steamy aura of ambiguity: once you get used to the abrasion of their English Jamaican, you notice that neither bass lines nor lead vocals have the tropical thickness of Jamaican Jamaican. Roots, culture, the presence of Jah--who can gainsay them? But over Rastafarianism's deep quietism I'll take the aggressive ideological edge of Hinds's politico-inspirational mode. Also the aggressive pop edge of his romantic mode. And attribute both to urban industrialism, thank you. A-

True Democracy [Elektra, 1982]
One reason I've liked them is that they've always steered clear of Rasta misogyny, but not now--would they call out a man who "says carnal love is a must"? Other reasons have included groove, politics, and hooks--groove alone won't do. Best politics: "A Who's Responsible?" and "Worth His Weight in Gold." Best hooks: "A Who's Responsible?" and "Worth His Weight in Gold." B

Earth Crisis [Elektra, 1984]
David Hinds has always signed his music by swinging the beat a little more than is normally advisable, and this time, subtly but tellingly, his jazzbo tendencies catch up with him. Where in the past he'd add a subliminal tension to the groove by extending syllables slightly, here his phrasing sometimes goes slack--at one point he even adds a "now" that would do Joe Piscopo proud to the line "As long as Babylon is my foe." So despite strong material, this lacks the requisite steely edge. And whether the confusion of "laboratory" with "lavatory" is simple ignorance or one of those deep Rasta puns, it sums up his wit and wisdom on "these times of science and technology" all too neatly. B+

Reggae Greats: Steel Pulse [Mango, 1984]
Lifting five cuts from the overrated Handsworth Revolution and only two from the underrated Reggae Fever, retrieving two detachable songs-as-songs from the basically conceptual Tribute to the Martyrs, and adding a great lost single, this is as economical an introduction as you could reasonably expect to the English reggae pioneers, who've never surpassed their early peak. You say it all seems a little too "rock-influenced" to you? You were expecting maybe Gregory Isaacs? English--they're English. A-

State of Emergency [MCA, 1988]
Imperialism, harassment, dead-end economy--haven't they ululated about these things firsthand within living memory? Damn right. You know their roots are shot when they aim their most heartfelt protests at disco bouncers and the perils of air travel. Inspirational Verse: "Hijacking I need some fun/You got me on the run." C+

Ultimate Collection [Hip-O, 2001]
The greatest English reggae band softened with the years, but not like UB40--though "Back to My Roots" worries about "commercial," David Hinds has always been pretty clear about life in the righteousness business, and could still invoke full indignation on 1994's "No Justice to Peace." Skank courtesy of keybman Selwyn Brown, who has metal and mettle in his muscle and bone. "Ku Klux Klan" is recommended to Ice-T fans. Also Ramones fans. A-

Further Notes:

Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies [1990s]