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Reggae Legends

Steel Pulse

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Steel Pulse
By Chris Nickson

Published September 9, 2005

Steel Pulse has stood at the forefront of British reggae for more than a quarter of a century. While their music has picked up influences of the times and their environment, they’ve remained resolutely true to their roots and their politics. After forming in the Handsworth suburb of Birmingham in 1975, they were eager to start playing out.

          They won a reggae competition and soon found themselves playing in London, opening for punk bands like Generation X and the Stranglers. In their early days Steel Pulse became heavily involved with the Rock Against Racism movement, and established themselves as one of the potent forces of British reggae. They’d released a couple of independent singles, but it wasn’t until they opened for Burning Spear in October 1977 that Island Records signed them.

          Their label debut was the decidedly political Handsworth Revolution, with “Ku Klux Klan,” which garnered them plenty of attention, not only for their musicianship, but also for their attitude. But they also made a splash onstage.

          Steel Pulse quickly achieved a very high profile, helped by a 1978 tour with their hero, Bob Marley, and they remained with Island for three albums, leaving when the label and band saw different directions ahead. They decided to go to the U.S. and during the 1980s they expanded their musical palette. They toured America behind the charting True Democracy, and continued to change with the times, releasing powerful albums like 1986’s Babylon The Bandit, which brought them a Grammy.

          Steel Pulse contributed a track to the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, and put their money where their mouth was by filing a class action suit against the New York City Taxi and Limousine Association, charging discrimination against blacks in general and Rastafarians in particular, a suit that traveled all the way to the Supreme Court.

          They also caught the ear of politicians, becoming the first reggae band to play at a Presidential Inaugural, when Bill Clinton invited them to entertain at his bash. Those who’d delighted in tearing the band down received a shock from 1994’s Vex, which was a return to roots reggae form, albeit with a few contemporary touches, and they followed that up with

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