Album of the issue: The Specials – Protest Songs 1924 – 2012 (Universal Music)
There would be a lot of good reasons NOT to make “Protest Songs 1924 – 2012” the “Album of the Issue” in this column. Surely one searches in vain for Ska, Reggae and Rocksteady on it. Surely not even own songs of the band are included. And surely: What is left of The Specials in terms of personnel at all? Yes, yes. Why did the 25-member Easy Skanking Committee nevertheless decide on this much-coveted honor? An attempt at justification: When The Specials release an album on which Terry Hall sings, it is per se relevant to the global ska community. Without the band from Coventry, which brought together political stance, partying and smart suits with the 2Tone label, there probably wouldn’t be all the bands that are being discussed here, and thus not the global ska community, and certainly not this column. If you still haven’t understood that The Specials are more than just a ska band, then let them complain. Point 2: That this is an intermediate project, the result of a nice occupation from Lockdown times, is obvious and well documented. The selection (and realization) of protest songs by Leonard Cohen, the Talking Heads, Bob Marley, The Mothers Of Invention, The Staple Singers and others is simply outstanding. It is quite an achievement to unite songs from different styles, times and sensitivities in such a way that a round work emerges from it. For the production, the fourth member Torp Larsen, organist and producer (as with the predecessor “Encore”) deserves a hearty pat on the back: reduced, to the point, and always in the service of the lyrics. Every syllable of Terry Hall and Lynval Golding is illuminated. And in the process, parallels to earlier self-penned songs by The Specials and their successors become apparent in rows. Don’t “Black, Brown, White” by Big Bill Broonzy and “I Live In A City” Malvina Reynolds have the same linguistic clarity as “Racist Friend” or “It Doesn’t Make It Alright”? And couldn’t “Listening Winds” (original: Talking Heads), with the rasta drumming of 92-year-old Tony from Brixton and the voice of 23-year-old Hannah Hu, have come from an album by Spacial A.K.A. or Fun Boy Three? What’s particularly fascinating about this song is that it’s imbued with the spirit of the Specials, even though Terry, Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Gentleman are barely audible, if at all. You have to be that cool to be able to take a step back like that. It fits well into the picture that Terry Hall said in an interview that he no longer sees The Specials as a band, but rather as an idea. Drummer Kenrick Rowe and guitarist Steve Craddock, who have been touring with The Specials for years, are increasingly contributing to that idea. The dysfunctional rascal band of the early years is becoming more and more a productive art enterprise. Whereby I won’t complain if on the next album with own songs Horace Panter again gets more to do and pulls us off the sofa with legendary reggae bass lines.
What the heck is behind the Death Of Guitar Pop phenomenon? I admit that I still don’t have a conclusive answer to that. Here’s an attempt at a summary: With their new, third album “Pukka Sounds”, the duo consisting of singer Silky and guitarist Top Kat managed to enter the UK charts at number 24. This is all the more impressive because “Pukka Sounds” was completely self-directed, DIY. It was financed by fans in a crowdfunding campaign that raised just under 25,000 pounds. That was enough dough to not only make the album beautiful, but also to bang out three videos in advance. These videos show the tension DOGP and their capable backing band are in. Video 1 was “DOGP Shuffle” with guest King Hammond, who used to be with the Bad Manners and is synonymous with a rumbly, stubborn sound of the 80s. Video 2 is “Back Of A Lorry,” in which Silky and Top Kat hang out at a festival and do windy deals from the tailgate of their van. Musically, it’s very straightforward, too. And then comes Video 3, “King Of America.” On it, Top Kat takes over the vocals and presents himself as an actor from the top shelf of British pop. Song and voice could also come from Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, Lightening Seeds or The Beautiful South. A fantastic production, immaculately sung. Top Kat obviously not only knows his way around 2-Tone, but is also knee-deep in British pop history. There are such aha effects several times on the album. Sometimes it is rumbled that every level drinker finds the beat. And then follow again passages of subtle pop and sometimes it goes into each other. Add to that a British humor in the lyrics, and the pop phenomenon is finished. Something like that. Maybe. Simply amazing.
In another way surprising is the second release landed here from the UK: “Sentences I’d Like To Hear The End Of” (Do The Dog Records) by The Bakesys. Hadn’t the band of “Ska-Librarian” Kevin Flowerdew presented the album “More Bakesys” only a few months ago? And didn’t the new single “Get Your Moon Boots On” arrive a few weeks later? Mr. Flowerdew’s next manic work phase has now produced another concept album. Sound snippets from 1960s Britain meet computer beats from the 1990s and raps about Yuri Gagarin, Christine Keeler and other celebrities of the time. The dystopian sound produced to go with it could easily be positioned on a mix tape with early records by Maroon Town, the Skints, or the later works of the Specials with Jerry Dammers. These are not bad references after all.
Do they celebrate Halloween in the Basque Country? It looks like it. After all, “Yuyu”, the fifth album by Akatz from Bilbao, was released precisely on October 30, 2021. And that this is no coincidence is made clear by the simultaneously released video for the single “Me Da Yuyu”. In addition to the band, a man with skull makeup, a gravedigger and an undead cavort there. The venues are a magnificent cemetery and a mortuary. A setting as if made for comforting creepiness and for frontman Dr. Baltz, who is known for enriching Akatz’s live shows with sometimes bizarre moments of theatricality. Akatz have been welcome guests at international festivals and street fairs for years, even if the subtleties of the lyrics escape most listeners outside of Spain. This is because the songs are still in Basque and Spanish. The influence of Jamaican hits from the 1960s is noticeable, but everything is self-written, and incidentally top recorded and produced. On “Yuyu” you hear a band that after almost 40 years in the business knows what it can … and wants. And they certainly want to get back on stage. Because that’s what the sound of Akatz is made for. A little additional info for the accountants among the ska fans: After two releases for Liquidator Music, “Yuyu” is now released on the currently very busy label Brixton Records.
The album “Easy Star Presents Jonquan And Associates” exudes a proper oldschool vibe. Jonquan is the singer of the reggae band Buddha Council from Virginia Beach on the US East Coast. This album is his lockdown project. Without the usual schedule, he took the time last year to build his own riddims for the first time. Instead of recycling them with his own band, Jonquan came up with the audacious idea of offering them to different vocalists around the New York scene and beyond. Word quickly spread that Jonquan had an amazing knack for the mid-70s reggae sound. So Danny Rebel, Screechy Dan, Sammy Dead and a few others were quickly on board. And when the recordings had been mixed in Victor Rice’s studio in Sao Paulo, even Easy Star Records got excited about the project. The first single was this summer’s “Accidental Badman” by veteran Carlton Livingston, who you might know from his 1984 hit “100 Weight of Collie Weed” and who has also had hits with Shabba Ranks and Bobby Digital. A really cool project!
Very dear to me would be here now a detailed review of the new work of the Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra. The third album of the intangible big band from the West Coast was released in mid-November 2021, but unfortunately could not be heard completely before the deadline. Known are only the two singles “Malcolm X” and “Ska Ba”. Two classic covers of The Skatalites refreshed in big band style. First question: do these terrific, recordings need a refresh? Not necessarily. On the other hand, you can’t argue against top-notch tunes of this class played to the point. Trumpeter and bandleader Eitan Avineri and his guys deliver unbeatable quality again. By the way: If you take it exactly, “Malcolm X” by the Skatalites was already a cover. In the original it is called “The Sidewinder” and was written by the American trumpeter Lee Morgan.
There’s reason to celebrate again, namely another phenomenal release from Dutch-German co-op Tommy Tornado & The Clerks. The Amsterdam-based saxophonist and his Cologne-based banking band have already been showered with love here for their album “Back On Track” (2019). And there’s more of it now, as the EP “Sunny Side Up” (itself) is a delight from the first second to the last. On the first track “Jucka Jucka” the drums are tuned with dub effects throughout, the breaks are daring, the brass section elegant, the vibe reminiscent of the late 70s but then again timeless. You definitely want to listen to this through really fat sound system speakers. On track 2 “Soulbrothers” is more in the Harry Mudie space. Early seventies, a bit more naive, beautiful improvisation by Tommy (always anyway), somewhere also a flute in the movement. It follows with “La Garde Noire” still a real rocker, and the conclusion is the title track “Sunny Side Up”, the jazziest piece, with fluffy swing. The only catch … the fun eventually comes to an end.
Berlin-based label Smith & Miller Records recently launched a split-single series called “We Can Do The Ska.” The concept: two non-ska bands each re-record a ska version of one of their songs. Currently, part 2 is out, featuring two punk bands. Church Of Confidence (Berlin) come with a new version of “Lowlife” (2013), Chicken Reloaded from Biel in Switzerland pimp their “Combatzone: Playground” with horns. Limited to 500 copies, hand-numbered. I admit, before putting on the single, there was some skepticism here about the concept from a ska fan’s point of view. After all, isn’t it kind of like when German radio hosts say, “Rapping, we can do that too.” And out comes the German version of “Rappers’ Delight” with Frank Laufenberg, Manfred Sexauer and Thomas Gottschalk? But with that I do Church Of Confidence, Chicken Reloaded and Smith & Miller Records an injustice. You can feel the love that is in the project. From the new arrangements to the cover, which Chris “Prüfer” Proofley (singer, shouter of the ska band Blechreiz) created.
There is more news from the local ska scene. The Busters are reporting back after a difficult time. First Dr. Ring Ding left as one of two frontmen and as songwriter. Then percussionist Jesse died suddenly at the end of 2020. If the new single/video “Tanzen” is any indication, the signs are now pointing to a fresh start. Instead of English, as usual, German is sung, by the now sole singer Joe Ibrahim. The sound is a mixture of heavy rock and disco, with horns and sometimes very discreet offbeat. “Dancing” is probably more likely to hit indie disco than sound systems. But it’s impressive how The Busters manage to stay fresh again. Joe, as a representative of the new generation, certainly has a big part in that.
Anything but “heavy” is the sound that Japanese organist and composer Hakase-Sun strives for and puts into practice. He has been releasing easy listening ska and reggae albums since the 1990s. By now there must be about 15 longplayers. For many years, people in Europe didn’t notice any of this. But with the rise of streaming services, it’s gradually becoming easier to fill in gaps in our knowledge of Japanese lounge ska. The album “Let It Shine! Let It Shine! Let It Shine!” doesn’t seem as if they want to present a unified work here, but rather something out of time and wildly thrown together. And this quite consciously and with a lot of charm. Sometimes the drums are like in the opener “Please Mr. Sunshine” 80s-electronic with steel drums, sometimes you feel like in “Poco A Poco” with the 60s-home organ impression in the elevator in a Tarantino film, shortly before it comes to the bloody showdown. And sometimes it just sets a big band sound like on “Ska Glorioso.” I think the ska world could use more of quirky guys like Hakase-Sun.