Saturday, July 20, 2013

Various Artists - The Ska EPs


Last week, a long-held dream of mine come true: I finally saw The Specials live. They played in Boston at the House of Blues, directly across from Fenway Park (the place used to be called the Avalon Ballroom; I saw the Cocteau Twins there years ago on that band's final tour). I learned through the grapevine months ago that they were coming to town (ever since the demise of the local arts paper, the Boston Phoenix, earlier this year, it's been hard to get dependable news about gigs coming through this way), and I've had my tickets for weeks, I was so jazzed to know they were en route.

I will never forget the first time I became aware of The Specials - it was the April 19, 1980 episode of NBC's Saturday Night Live, hosted by Strother Martin; one of the very last episodes to feature the majority of the original SNL cast, in their fifth and final season. As I've mentioned in an earlier post, SNL's fifth season, in terms of comedy, was pretty uneven. But the show's saving grace at the time, and perhaps the best reason to continue watching it that year, was the breadth and quality of the musical guests. Blondie, Chicago, Bowie, J. Geils, Gary Numan, The B-52's - all of them made iconic TV appearances that season. The Specials' appearance was no exception, although I didn't know what to expect until the host introduced them, and the band kicked into a white-hot version of "Gangsters":


With the first note, I practically LEAPT out of my seat and rushed the television, all but pressing my face against the screen so I wouldn't miss a note or a moment. Holy arm-waving shit! The movement - the energy - the music - just jumped out of the set at me! By the end of that first number, I'd already added The Specials to my list of favorite bands.

At that point in time, I would have done anything to have seen them live, and looked forward to their next US visits. But regretfully, The Specials fell apart little more than a year later, soon after the release of their greatest triumph, the timely and prophetic "Ghost Town" single in the summer of 1981. They joined my 'dream list' of bands that I would have loved to have seen in their heyday (a roster than included The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Police), ones whose time, I assumed, had passed for good, and would never again come to pass . . .

How wrong I was.

Since 1993, The Specials had a number of off-and-on half-assed reunions, groups billed as "The Specials" but including, at best, only a handful of original band members. But it wasn't until September 2008, at the Bestival on the Isle of Wight, that a majority of the original group played together again. Six of the founding seven members were present for that show, for legal reasons at the time billing themselves as "Terry Hall and Friends" (Jerry Dammers pointedly refused to be part of the reunion, claiming that he had been forced out of the band and calling the reformation a "takeover" of the group he was instrumental in forming - a stance and attitude he maintains to this day). The one-off gig was so well-received that by December 2008, the band announced a full-scale international "30th Anniversary" tour, which for the next two and a half years took them all over the globe, playing to wildly enthusiastic audiences. The Specials took a long break from their worldwide trek during 2011 and 2012 to play some gigs closer to home. But earlier this year they resumed their schedule with an extensive, full-fledged American tour.

Before the show, I was a little worried that my enthusiasm and anticipation for finally seeing my longtime musical heroes might be dampened during the actual show - after all, it HAD been thirty-plus years since the band's origins; they weren't spring chickens anymore. Also, I knew that Neville Staple, one of the lead vocalists and the driving force behind getting the group back together, had been forced to drop out of the group earlier this year due to illness.  So there was more than a little trepidation on my part regarding just how good The Specials were going to be that night . . .

My fears were completely unfounded - the band was absolutely fantastic that evening! Everything about that show was right - first of all, the place was packed to the rafters and to the back of the hall with rabid, long-time Specials fans like myself. While there were a goodly number of folks in their twenties and thirties there, the vast contingent of fans there were my age; like me, people who grew up with the band, and remember when their original songs and albums were released in real time.  But that didn't mean that us 'older folks' were just standing around during the show - people were hopping, jumping and skankin' to the beat of EVERY song, and I was skankin' along with them for the entire 90-minute-plus show. I fell in with a group of folks about my age, and together we all danced like fiends, and yelled like banshees, and sang along to the old favorites at the top of our lungs!

The Specials played absolutely EVERYTHING I hoped they would play - most of their hits, including pretty much everything off their debut album (including "Nite Klub", "Do The Dog", "Monkey Man", "(Dawning Of A) New Era", etc.) and the majority of the second album More Specials ("Rat Race", "Enjoy Yourself", "Do Nothing", etc.). There were a few surprises thrown in - including a great version of "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" and, to my utter joy, "Stereotypes" AND "Stereotypes Part 2". And the group was as tight musically as they always were, and as sprightly as if it was 1979 all over again - not an iota of rust on those boys! As they played their final encore tunes, "Ghost Town" and "You're Wondering Now" (which, I might add, I correctly predicted to my companions before the show even started that these would be, in order, the last two songs played . . .), I knew that I had been lucky enough to be part of an epic experience - a few years later than I would have preferred, but epic nonetheless.

In their late 70's/early '80s heyday, The Specials were far from being a household name in the U.S. And despite their massive mainstream U.K. success, the passing of time has caused their music and achievements to fade into the background and out of the overall popular frame of reference in their home country. But the band's influence and importance remains strong in certain circles, both here, there and beyond. It is hard to imagine the emergence and continuing endurance of the worldwide Third Wave and ska-punk movements occurring without The Specials stepping up and spearheading the English ska revival of the '70s. The look the band and its followers and contemporaries (Madness, The Selecter, The Beat) co-opted and championed - the rude boy fashions of porkpie hats, Dr. Martens' boots, Ben Sherman shirts, and black-and-white checks - remains the signature look of ska around the world. Many a modern-day group has attempted by various means to tap into The Specials' leftover legacy, and harness the group's energy (and loyal following) to their own ends.

Beginning in 2008, a few artists took a shot at doing just that; a series of limited-edition bootleg EPs were released, featuring popular mainstream musicians covering classic ska tunes. All were released under mock 2-Tone EP covers paying homage to The Specials' iconic singles packaging of the late 70s/early 80s (shown above) which featured label logo Walt Jabsco and the signature black-and-white checkerboard theme. When I first heard about these discs, I snapped them up just as fast as I could get my hands on them. My reactions to three of them are provided below:

1.  Amy Winehouse - The Ska EP (2008):

Although she was raised listening to classic jazz vocalists like Frank Sinatra (who her debut album was named for), and modeled her later look and sound partially on that of classic '60s girl groups like the Ronettes, the late Amy Winehouse always claimed to be a huge ska fanatic. After she shot to fame in 2006 with the release of her second album, the worldwide smash Back To Black, covers of songs by Toots & The Maytals and The Specials became integral parts of her concert set. As her star rose higher and higher, she began including more and more of these tunes in her gigs; in fact, in 2008, she told Rolling Stone magazine that her next album was going to be heavily ska-influenced.

On June 29th, 2008, audiences were given essentially a sneak preview as to what this future Amy Winehouse ska album would sound like, when she performed an extended set at the Glastonbury Festival.  At that gig, she sang a number of Specials hits, including "Monkey Man" and "You're Wondering Now" [ed. note: apparently, she did a couple of these songs at the previous year's Glastonbury as well]. Shortly after that concert, she slipped into a London studio to commit those tunes and two others (another Specials "Hey Little Rich Girl" and a cover of Sam Cooke's "Cupid") to wax, which was released on a limited-edition bootleg before the summer was out.

I know that it's not considered proper to speak ill of the dead . . . but I've got to call it as I see it - for me, this EP is damn-near unlistenable. Winehouse rambles and slurs her way through the songs; you can't even say that she's off-key, because she never remains on any single key long enough for you to make any comparison. Her version of "Hey Little Rich Girl" is especially cringe-inducing - "sounds like complete shit" is too kind or mild a description for this horror. It's hard to believe that these are professionally produced versions - they sound like Winehouse woke up after an all-night schnapps bender and stumbled into the studio, bringing in with her a couple of ragtag street musicians she met along the way and another street person to run the tape. It's THAT bad, and it makes you wonder what was in her head (or, more likely, not) when she decided to foist these songs onto the public. After listening to them, I didn't feel sorry or embarrassed for Winehouse - I HATED her for butchering these classics. No wonder this was released as a bootleg - no reputable label would have touched these monstrosities with a ten-foot pole.

With Amy's death in 2011, that purported third ska album of hers never came to pass - something that, after my decidedly negative reaction to her Ska EP, I was initially thankful for (the cancelled album, that is - not her death). However, I changed my opinion somewhat after hearing her reggae cover of Ruby & The Romantics' "Our Day Will Come" (released posthumously in November 2011 on Lioness: Hidden Treasures).


The song was actually pretty good, and to me showed how well Winehouse could interpret Jamaican music if she set her mind to it. Shoot - I would have paid good money to hear an album full of these types of songs from her (makes me wish I had back the money I paid for the EP . . .). Too bad she never had the full opportunity to prove just how adept she was with this genre.

2. Lily Allen - The Ska EP (2008):
 
Unlike Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen was into reggae/ska right out of the gate. She grew up with that music; The Clash's Joe Strummer was a close friend of her father and a frequent visitor to her home. During his visits, he brought along mixtapes of Jamaican and Brazilian music, which were played constantly from the time Lily was a toddler. And that early exposure apparently paid off; all of the songs on her international smash debut album Alright, Still show a heavy Jamaican influence.

Frankly, Allen's covers are the best of the three EPs featured in this post. The disc contains only two songs: a version of "Gangsters" recorded live with Specials Terry Hall and Lynval Golding at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival, and a studio version of "Blank Expression". Both songs are great; Allen obviously has a real love and feel for this music, and sings both with the regard and respect that they deserve, while still making the songs her own. I honestly can't say any more about this EP, other than, if you only pick one of these to download, THIS is the one you should choose.

3. No Doubt - The Ska EP (2010):
 
I've already said my piece here about how much I loathe this band. No Doubt had its origins in the California 'Third Wave' ska revival of the late 1980s. But in their quest for commercial success after signing with Interscope Records in 1990, they quickly cast aside any and all vestiges of that association, remaking themselves into an alt-rock radio-friendly band. After they became successful, No Doubt occasionally added ska covers to their live sets, as a "throwback" to "their roots". But to me, it always smacked of pandering, a calculated attempt to show their critics and fans how "cutting edge" and "indie" they really were. What utter rubbish.

No Doubt's versions of "Ghost Town" and "Racist Friend" (from The Special AKA's album In The Studio) were released as part of the bootleg series in 2009. They're serviceable enough, in that the band is playing mostly in time, and is hitting the proper notes and singing the words in the right order. But, similar to the way the band homogenized itself for commercial consumption, the songs here are similarly devoid of any character. Gwen Stefani & Co. just suck the life and feeling out of these hits, making them into something other than the cultural touchstones and trenchant social commentaries they were when The Specials first released them. I don't know what pisses me off more - Winehouse's under-the-influence Specials in-slurrrrr-pretations, or Stefani repeatedly exhorting the crowd to "Put your hands up in the air!" during their blaring arena-rock version of "Ghost Town". Either way, I can't recommend this disc either.

* * * * * * *

So, for better or for worse, that's my take on these three bootleg EPs. I know that a lot of my criticism may seem harsh. But I have long known and loved the original article, produced by The Specials, still one of my all-time favorite bands. So I think I have a right, and an expectation, to be a little critical. It is only by knowing the true meaning of quality - as in the quality music that The Specials released and continue to play - that you can honestly assess the nature of a similar product's worth.

 But I'll let you all hear and judge for yourself. For your listening pleasure, here are The Ska EPs, limited-edition bootlegs released by Lily Allen, No Doubt and the late Amy Winehouse in 2008 and 2009 (the Winehouse one is an extremely limited edition EP, including not only the original four bootleg songs, but their live Glastonbury versions as well, and a tribute cover of one of her songs by The Selecter, done in 2011 mere hours after the report of her death). Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.   

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link ASAP:    

Amy Winehouse - The Ska EP: Send Email    

Lily Allen - The Ska EP: Send Email    

No Doubt - The Ska EP: Send Email

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bitty McLean - Here I Stand EP


I first heard the song "Here I Stand" during my first austral summer in New Zealand, sometime in early January 1994.  It was like it appeared out of nowhere - I'd never heard of this guy Bitty McLean or his music prior to that time; suddenly the song was everywhere, on every station in the country. 


While lightweight, it had a nice sort of old-school dancehall vibe to it, and that was enough to get me to purchase the single and find out more about this young singer.

Delroy McLean was born to West Indian immigrant parents in Birmingham, England in 1972.  During his youth, he was immersed in 60's-era rocksteady and reggae, the sounds of his parents' homeland, and soon became adept at emulating this sound in his own singing.  By the time he reached middle school in the mid-80s, he was fronting as vocalist for some of the major Birmingham sound systems [in the context of West Indian culture, a 'sound system' was a mobile group of engineers, DJs and toasters (MCs) who played popular music (at top volume) at street parties and dance halls - in Jamaica, sound systems were instrumental in the development of ska and reggae, and spurred the formation of local record production companies that ended up spreading this music throughout the world].  Nicknamed "Bitty" due to his young age and small stature, McLean and his singing gained a large local following.

After gaining his GCSE, McLean enrolled in a local Birmingham college, taking courses in sound engineering.  After graduation, he found employment with British roots reggae band UB40, initially as an engineer,
soon graduating to assistant producer roles, and even appearing as an occasional background singer on some of their songs (you can hear his vocals featured on the 1993 album Promises and Lies).

At the same time he was working with UB40, McLean was utilizing his studio access to work on his own music, behind the scenes and on the side of his day job.  In the spring of 1993, he inked a deal with small independent Brilliant Records, and in late July the label released his first single, "It Keeps Rainin' (Tears From My Eyes)", a cover of an old Fats Domino tune from the early 60s.  The song was a sensation in England, staying on the national charts for six months and peaking at #2.  The song was also popular in several other European and Commonwealth countries, topping the charts in Holland and New Zealand (which was strange, because I don't recall hearing it there at
all).  Brilliant released Bitty's first album, Just To Let You Know..., in the fall of 1993; his second single, "Pass It On", didn't do as well as his debut.  But it still made the British Top 40.

Virgin Records, never one to be caught flat-footed when there was a dollar to be made in music, quickly swooped in to acquire McLean's contract and recording rights from Brilliant, and by the beginning of 1994 had rereleased Just To Let You Know... under their own label.  Learning the lesson of the relative failure of Bitty's second single, Virgin put all of its marketing muscle and expertise behind the release of the third album single, "Here I Stand".  The effort paid off; "Here I Stand" was McLean's second big international hit, reaching the Top Ten in England and elsewhere, including New Zealand.  In the months that followed, Virgin culled two more British Top 40 singles off of this album: a reggae-fied cover of The Shirelles' "Dedicated To The One I Love", which made it to #6 that May, and "What Goes Around", which only reached #36 that August.

Bitty McLean's music was popular and enjoyable enough, but more than a bit derivative.  Unlike his former employers UB40 (who, to their credit, gave their former engineer their full support, and even toured with him for part of 1993), the vast majority of McLean's music avoided any controversial or political themes.  His tunes were mostly inoffensive 'lovers rock' - light, soulful, 'crooners' reggae - a style and stance that put him at odds with the prevailing trends in reggae at that time.  In addition, almost all of Bitty's hits were reggae covers of already-popular songs - along with the Fats Domino and Shirelles songs I mentioned earlier, "Here I Stand" was an old Justin Hines tune.  So while the general public at large was receptive to him, in the world of reggae purists, McLean was considered a sellout and a fraud.  However, as long as his records kept selling, this stance wouldn't be a problem for him.

Unfortunately, McLean's commercial success vanished just as quickly as it came to him.  His second album, Natural High, was released in early 1995 but did not chart.  Most of the singles released off of this album reached the extreme lower end of the British Top 60.  Within 24 months of his greatest successes, Bitty was a has-been in the industry.  He quietly returned to his engineering and production duties, working mostly with his old friends UB40.

However, in the past ten years McLean has made a comeback of sorts, releasing a couple of albums of rocksteady covers (2003's Soul To Soul and 2005's On Bond Street KGN, JA) and two studio albums with Sly & Robbie in Jamaica, 2007's Made In Jamaica and 2009's Movin' On.  With his recent work and his tours with Sly & Robbie, his reputation has improved somewhat in hardcore reggae circles.  His latest stuff hasn't reached the commercial heights of his early '90s material, but he seems contented now with improved critical acclaim.

That isn't to say that his early stuff was without quality.  Here, for you consideration, is Bitty McLean's Here I Stand EP, released in England in January 1994 on Virgin Records.  This disc features the original song, a seven-minute dub version, and a "60's version" (basically, McLean singing the same song over a simulated "dusty LP" crackle), along with the non-album single "Don't Be Confused".  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link ASAP:

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

An appeal on behalf of Chris Sheehan


A few weeks ago, while I was on my way to New York City one morning for a weekend of fun, my phone buzzed, indicating receipt of a new email message.  I took a quick glance at it to see who it was, and practically ran off the road when I saw the addressee - none other that Mr. Chris Sheehan himself.

For longtime readers of this blog, you'll know that Chris Sheehan was the driving force/sole member of The Starlings, a "group" that released a couple of fine albums in the early '90s, 1993's Valid and 1994's Too Many Dogs - both of which I wrote about at length here back in 2010.  Before his work with The Starlings, Sheehan was a longtime member of the legendary and popular New Zealand group The Dance Exponents (joining the band when he was only eighteen).

After being unceremoniously kicked off of Dave Stewart's Anxious Records in the mid-90s in the contentious wake of the commercial failure of his first album and his spleen-venting, label-attacking second album, I wrote that Sheehan's personal commercial viability had ended, and since that time he had been "working on fringes of the music industry" as a musician-for-hire, playing with such as The Sisters of Mercy and The Mutton Birds.  I was pretty sure that what I wrote regarding Sheehan's career was pretty accurate (I do try to put in some research into the things I write!).  Still, as excited as I was to receive the first note from an artist I'd actually posted about, I was a little nervous about reading his message - I thought he might be a bit P.O.ed with my characterization of him.  I pulled over at the first rest stop I came to and, with some trepidation, opened my email to read his message.

Well, my fears were completely unfounded; as it turned out, his email couldn't have been more pleasant.  Here's what he wrote:
Hey, great stuff.  I sneaked off and released 2 albums as Chris Starling: Planet Painkiller in about 2000 [ed: actually, 1999], and Sounds Like Chris Starling in 2002.  P.P. was on my own label and sounds like as well but it came out thru Pop Child in Europe.  Haven't squeaked a note since the last record and have lived abroad for more than 10 years.

Thanks for writing about the records
Chris
Relieved, I wrote him back immediately:
Dear Mr. Sheehan -

I saw that I received an email about an hour ago, and when I looked at who it was from, I practically fell out of the car!  Wow - Chris Sheehan himself!  I'm very excited and honored to hear from you!

I'm glad you had the opportunity to read my screed regarding your first album - as I said, I LOVED pretty much every song on it . . .  (BTW - over the years since I wrote this, I've sometimes imagined that you read the part about Too Many Dogs being a "Fuck You" masterpiece at the label and laughing your head off…!)

. . . Well, this is all very, very cool!   Thanks tons for contacting me.  I look forward to hearing from you again soon.  Until then, 

Best wishes always - 
And of course, I couldn't resist asking him:
. . . I hope that my assessment of your life and situation with Dave Stewart's label at that time was accurate.  Please know that everything I wrote was from the heart, and not a slam on you at all; the label screwed you on that first album, which should have been HUGE . . .
Chris's immediate and succinct response was perfect:
Don't worry, you were right!
Since that first exchange, Chris and I have written back and forth a couple of times, and we've 'friended' one another on Facebook.  In his notes and in the few posts he's made to his Facebook page, he's seemed relatively happy and settled with his wife in his current life - at least as far as I could tell.  I was sort of sad to hear that he had been out of music for the past decade, and in one of my notes to him, I wrote the following:
I hope that, when the yen strikes you, you get back to making more music - I have a feeling that there's still plenty within you, and lots more you want to say . . .
I didn't think much of it when he didn't respond to that.  Yesterday morning, I found out why.

Just before heading off to work, I made a quick check of my Facebook page, and found a new post by Chris, for a site called Fundrazr.com, a crowd funding site where people and organizations can raise money for charitable, entrepreneurial, political and personal causes and projects (it appears to be a pretty successful fundraising application; since its founding in 2009, the site has raised more than $20 million for its users). 

The title of Chris's appeal jolted me: "1 Last Album Despite Incurable Cancer".

Here's the narrative he wrote to explain the motivation behind his Fundrazr drive:
I can't justify any of my limited income to be spent on my own non-profit activities. Stage 4 metastatic nodular melanoma. Clinical trials and palliative treatment only. Wife terminally ill. Dozens of rescue animals. I don't own a computer anymore and would like a good laptop and software to see what comes out. I will not divert money from my family for selfish artistic urges. Maybe someone who enjoyed a Starlings record at sometime is flush. The closest I've been is flushed. Anyway if no one helps I'm off the hook so nothing to lose. Ta Chris.
For the second time in less than a month, Chris Sheehan had jolted me again.  Now I know why he was so reticent to discuss a return to recording.  If you check the link to Chris's Fundrazr.com account here, you will see photos posted of the surgery that he has already undergone in an attempt to combat this disease.  It's sad enough that he's going through what he's going through; the fact that his wife is also terminal just compounds the tragedy.

Folks, I don't want to be melodramatic about this - but this is real, and no B.S.; Chris Sheehan is seriously ill.  There's no easy way to put this . . . but there's no getting over what he has.  But during the time he has left, he just wants to have one last opportunity to make available to the world just a small amount of the music he has left within him; a final testament and legacy for his friends, family and fans to remember him by. 

I've never felt the need to include dramatic appeals of this type on my blog before.  I have no lofty goals, aims or aspirations for this site beyond making some good music available to like-minded readers, and making a few friends from amongst you along the way.  And it's rare that I serve up anything high-minded or profoundly philosophical in my writing - I usually just pen silly, lightweight stories that tangentially relate to songs and albums I have enjoyed throughout my life.  But if there was ever a time for me to set all of that aside for a moment, and use this blog as a pulpit to hopefully help out a really good guy like Chris Sheehan, who could really use a hand at this time, NOW is the time for me to do so.

So please, if you can, check out Chris Sheehan's Fundrazr site.  If you're willing and able, please contribute what you can to his appeal.  And also, if you can, leave him a note - he's always happy and appreciative to hear from his fans.  If you haven't heard any of his music, click on this link for my Starlings posting from three years ago, and contact me for a link to the album - I think you'll enjoy it as much as I do.

I'd also appreciate it if some of my fellow music bloggers could pick up Chris's link as well - the more people know of this, the more success he'll be in meeting his 5,000 Euro goal.

Thanks -

All the best to you all from Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole