It may have been down to the untimely death of John Bradbury at the end of last year but the first ska based album I picked out of my now fully catalogued vinyl collection was the Specials’ debut and eponymous album. It still sounds as good as it did in 1979 when it was released, combining a rock steady beat with lyrics that had something to say and delivered with as much, if not more, energy than many a punk band at the time.
Listening to the lyrics is like stepping back in time to an era when race relations were spiky to say the least and there was always an undercurrent of menace if you wandered down the street. The National Front, punks and natty dreads were a threat to the unwary. Fortunately, times have changed somewhat, a small part in that played by multi-cultural bands like the Specials. But some of the lyrics hold true today – Monkey Man, that homage to the night cub bouncer, Nite Klub where the beer tastes like piss and the paean to the cap, Too Much Too Young. A great album.
The Selecter were, to me, the rootsier of the new wave British ska bands, with a much more stripped down sound which brought together the best elements of punk and reggae. Their music was underpinned by very heavy bass lines interspersed, often very briefly, by guitar and brass with Pauline Black’s vocals adding the top line. The opening track, Three Minute Hero, Missing Words and Too Much Pressure all stand the test of time.
Birmingham based The Beat had a more commercial ska sound and I was pleasantly surprised to unearth their debut album, I Just Can’t Stop It, released in 1980 on Go Feet records. They are not misnamed and their infectious rhythms served up at pace are infectious. It was great to revisit Mirror in the Bathroom and Stand Down Margaret which the band segue into from the ska classic Whine and Grine. The anti-Thatcher song was a staple sound-track to many a meeting of the left I attended. Alas, La Thatch took almost another decade before she got the message – so much for the power of music. On re-listening there is a sharper political and social edge to the album than I recalled but the reworking of Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used To Losing You sounds as much of a mistake as it did then.
But the jewel in my ska collection is the piece of vinyl contained in a bright yellow cover – Prince Buster – FABulous Greatest Hits on Melodisc Records. As Madness acknowledged in their track, The Prince, he was the daddy to whom all the British ska revivalists owed their love for the genre. A pioneer of the infectious beat that was known then as Blue Beat and later became ska, Prince Buster Campbell gained international prominence in 1964 with Al Capone and rather than Bob Marley can justifiably be thought of as Jamiaca’s first superstar.
His music is infectious, much of it up-tempo, but there is a high degree of experimentation in the mix. On Freezing Up Orange Street, organ and saxophone play off one another and in Texas Hold-up a demented horn section plays over a shuffled syncopated beat. To modern ears, Prince Buster is far from politically correct, his views on race and sex would upset the bien-pensant. But he is a creature of his time, put down some stunning tracks and influenced one of the more creative and interesting sub-genres of the post-punk British music scene.