Few and far between are the bands named for race horses, especially bands that have won Grammy awards and created political stirs with their music. But Steel Pulse has never run with the pack.
They’ve stood at the forefront of British reggae for more than a quarter of a century now, part of the generation that spawned Matumbi and Aswad. 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.
“There were a lot of pubs around Birmingham, so it was easy getting gigs,” recalls founding member David Hinds. “But getting paid what you wanted was something else. Our first gig was at a pub called the Crompton and we were paid £20 for about four hours. This happened for several weeks until we branched out.”
They won a reggae competition and soon found themselves playing in London as a support act, opening for “punk bands like Generation X at the Vortex, the Marquee, and Dingwalls. Then we went on and toured with the Stranglers, who were one of the biggest punk rock bands at the time.”
In its 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 “we opened for Burning Spear in October 1977 and there Island Records ‘discovered’ us.”
Their label debut was the decidedly political Handsworth Revolution, with “Ku Klux Klan,” that garnered them plenty of attention, not only for their musicianship, but also for their attitude. But they also made a splash onstage.
“Each of us decided to take on different theatrical costumes. One was dressed like a clergyman, one in a military outfit, someone else as a civil servant in a bowler hat,” Hinds says. “I dressed as someone from jail, sometimes with a ball and chain.”
Ultimate Collection (Hip-O, 2000)
Not a perfect best-of collection, by any means, but a still a fair way to encapsulate some two decades of Steel Pulse on a single disc. If you just want to dip you toes in the waters, this is the place to start.
Handsworth Revolution (Island, 1978)
The starting point, and still one of the very best reggae albums of the time, British or Jamaican. Angry, political but full of melodies. Some classic songs, with “Ku Klux Klan” still a standout.
Earth Crisis (Elektra/Asylum, 1984)
Embracing the ’80s without becoming too caught up in them, Steel Pulse kept powerful songs (such as the title cut) coming. Definitely more American, but creating a fusion with Jamaica many years before today’s dancehall stars caught onto the idea.
Vex (MCA, 1994)
A return to roots reggae, but colored by the sounds of dancehall. With this, the band showed that you can be true to yourself without losing a modern touch, achieving a masterful balance between then and now.
African Holocaust (RAS/Sanctuary, 2004)
Almost 30 years into their career, and still going stro