Steel Pulse returns after 15 year hiatus
Even if the members of Steel Pulse had called it quits after releasing their debut album, Handsworth Revolution, and its single, “Ku Klux Klan,” in 1978, they still would have earned their place as the most politically charged reggae band to emerge from England.
As the sons of working-class West Indian immigrants, the young Birmingham musicians were naturally drawn to the nascent Rock Against Racism movement of the late 1970s. Soon after forming, the band shared bills with The Clash, The Specials and other like-minded groups, while expanding its own Bob Marley-influenced sound to incorporate elements of jazz, Latin and punk music. Onstage, the band members crossed even more boundaries, stirring up controversy as they donned white hoods and robes to perform “Ku Klux Klan” in punk clubs and on BBC Television.
By the mid-’80s, the band’s resistance to record industry pressures had let up, and the success of more polished singles like “Steppin’ Out” (1984) prompted accusations of selling out. Steel Pulse wouldn’t return to its militant roots for more than a decade, with albums like Rage and Fury (1997) and African Holocaust (2004), after which they dropped out of sight for 15 years.
Against expectations, Steel Pulse has returned with a new album, Mass Manipulation, a 17-track condemnation of police brutality, human trafficking and other social injustices. Founding vocalist, guitarist and songwriter David Hinds—along with co-founding keyboardist and arranger Selwyn Brown—have delivered a lyrically uncompromising and musically engaging album that, once again, finds Steel Pulse addressing the ills of society.
In a recent interview, Hinds spoke about the band’s history and its return to the spotlight.
On the new album, you’ve combined really pleasant melodies and arrangements with politicized lyrics. It reminds me of how Bob Marley would lure listeners in. Would you say you’re using a similar strategy?
I’d say so. But the strategy is also different in that we tend to be more direct in what we’re saying, right? If you listen to Bob Marley’s lyrics, he never really mentions specific individuals or collectives. Whereas I’ll write about the Ku Klux Klan or the National Front. It’s like the iron fist in the velvet glove.
In light of the Klan’s current resurgence in the States, it strikes me as pretty risky that you used to wear their hoods onstage. Did it feel that way back then?
It didn’t feel that way until we arrived in the United States. We were playing a hotel ballroom in Boston … and a guy jumped onstage and attacked the percussion player who was wearing the costume. The cops jumped onstage, dropped him, and dragged him off. And then on our 1981 tour, we had this merchandise guy who’d follow us all over the United States. And I remember when we got to Birmingham, Ala., he was shitting himself and saying, “Are you sure you want to perform in this town?”
Why did the band take such a long hiatus?
I was going through some domestic issues at the time, and I just got up and left England and started hoboing—for want of a better phrase—around the world. And I did that for nine or 10 years, sometimes in the U.S., sometimes in the Caribbean, sometimes in Europe. And then we started playing some live shows to raise money for the album.
How would you say the music has changed with this album?
Back when we were doing albums like Babylon the Bandit, we leaned towards electronic drums and keyboards. This album is more organic. We don’t stack the horns a million times, like we’d normally do, to the point where they started to sound synthetic. I also think the vocal delivery on this album has more energy, and the lyrics are more focused.
At this point in your career, if you were in a situation where you had to cut either “Ku Klux Klan” or “Steppin’ Out” from your setlist, which would you choose?
I’d cut “Ku Klux Klan.”
Because “Steppin’ Out” is by far the more popular song. You’ve got to go through the hits, the ones where people go “wow” and they’re jumping around and enjoying themselves. With “Ku Klux Klan,” it depends on the mood, it depends on the politics, it depends on where we’re performing. I wouldn’t play it at a wedding, for example.
When you were 23 years old, would you have played it at a wedding?
Well, at 23 years old, we didn’t have 40 songs under our belt. So yeah, maybe I would have.