White Rabbit Records - Blog

2023/4 Albums Thing 358 - Steel Pulse “Handsworth Revolution”

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OK, let's get back to the alphabet... 

Back in the far off mists of time (October 2023) I was talking here about the question of “Which is the greatest British Reggae album ?” while writing about Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Dread, Beat An’ Blood”. I offered that “this record would hog quite a sizeable chunk of that discussion, and would have every chance of coming out on top of any list constructed from that discussion”. Well, another sizeable chunk of that discussion would be hogged by this album and it too would have every chance of coming out on top of any list constructed from that discussion. Steel Pulse’s “Handsworth Revolution” is utterly majestic.

I had a friend at school, Howard. Howard’s grandparents had come to the UK from Jamaica in the 50’s in the rush of people who came to the “mother country” when it called for people to re-build it after the second World War. By the time I’d met Howard he was already aware of what was going on in Jamaican music, the roots reggae revolution led by Bob Marley and it was Howard who introduced me to the likes of Prince Far I, Big Youth, Dillinger and others that kick started my love of reggae.

The UK in the 70’s was a tough place to be for a black kid. Racism and bigoted attitudes were the norm, the far right was on the move in the shape of the hateful National Front (sound familiar ?). This led to the rise of some radical and politicised UK reggae artists in the late 70’s, the likes of Matumbi, Misty In Roots, Linton Kwesi Johnson and, obviously, Birmingham’s Benjamin Zephaniah and the mighty Steel Pulse.

I probably first heard Steel Pulse on the John Peel Show, that late night beacon of all that was good in new music that you couldn’t hear on daytime radio (as Peel himself once said on his show “there are some daytime DJ’s in the next room, probably listening out for the records they’ll be playing in 6 months time” or something like that). They were around our age, from the same kind of places we lived in the same city. Their songs were firmly aimed at the black youth of the late 70’s, tackling the subjects that mattered to them. But us skinny white Punk Rockers lapped it up. Partly because they were from Birmingham and we were proud of them and I think because not only was this clearly rebel music of the kind being made by The Clash, the Pistols and The Jam but it was rebel music you could dance to !

“Handsworth Revolution” was released in March of 1978 and was produced by respected Jamaican engineer/producer Karl Pitterson who had worked with the holy trinity of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. 10 days after its release it had reached #9 in the UK Album chart. In June and July Steel Pulse went out on tour opening for Bob Marley & The Wailers about which singer David Hinds has said “To play as part of that package exposed Steel Pulse to audiences that literally were in awe of our message. Of course, being formally introduced through Bob Marley helped us tremendously. Playing for audiences, especially those in Paris who saw the force of Steel Pulse and the force of Bob Marley play on the same bill, enabled us to sell out shows every time since then”. The Youth Club at my school ran a bus trip to see that tour at Stafford Bingley Hall on June 22, 1978, the only UK date on the Kaya tour. I didn’t go…WHY ??? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since.

The core of Steel Pulse’s sound was David Hinds superb voice, the spidery guitar work of Basil Gabbidon and then there were Alphonso Martin and Michael Riley’s backing vocals (the two would don KKK hoods to perform “Ku Klux Klan” which was a most disturbing sight) plus their absolute authenticity. They are one of the few reggae acts from outside Jamaica that are taken seriously there.

I finally got to see them play live on the tour that supported their second album “Tribute To The Martyrs”. Me and my dear friend Mick found ourselves in the darkness of the Top Rank in Birmingham, surrounded by Rastas and breathing in the smoke of hundreds of spliffs that hung in the air. After the fourth support act had finished I was almost ready to go, I was reggae’d out, and then on came Steel Pulse and blew our minds, one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. This wasn’t just reggae music, this was truly magical, inspiring music being made right there in front of us. 

Steel Pulse are still releasing albums and touring 45 years later This album still gets a spin on a regular basis in our house…it should in yours too.

Handsworth Revolution - https://youtu.be/A3LFvaAD2-Y

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