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From The Socialist newspaper, 14 November 2007

Review: Handsworth Revolution

Steel Pulse (1978)

Socialism 2007 will feature a session on the politics of reggae. To coincide with the event Dave Gorton reviews this important album and describes the political situation in the late seventies.

Handsworth in Birmingham, Brixton and Ladbroke Grove in London, St Paul's in Bristol; in the 1970s the youth black population felt under siege.

Forced into ghetto living conditions, hemmed in geographically and also politically by openly racist white politicians, media and the police force, music was one avenue in which grievances could be aired and a distinct identity formed.

It is important to understand what this oppression of black people, particularly the youth, entailed in 1970s inner-city Britain. Today, readers of the socialist will know that the British National Party (BNP) tries to hide its racist background, ideology and policies behind a gloss about protecting jobs and services for the so-called indigenous population. Racist political parties in the 1970s, particularly the National Front (from which the BNP was formed) were much less 'careful'.

Black youth were blamed for crime, vice and even disease by white politicians from the fascist parties and also the mainstream ones, seeking to outdo each other by calling for immigration controls and repatriation.

But it was the attitude and actions of the police force that really fuelled the siege mentality. In a 1979 survey of 120 young black males aged between 16 and 20 in Handsworth, 95% saw the police role as being to intimidate young blacks. 93% saw the police liaison function, upon which the police placed considerable emphasis, as designed to infiltrate the black community to obtain information to use against the black population.

77% claimed to have been stopped and searched by the police; 66% were subjected to verbal abuse while being searched or abuse was shouted at them from passing police cars; 25% claimed to have been pushed or assaulted when stopped.

In 1976, as a regular concert-goer in Birmingham, I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to see Bob Marley. The audience was primarily young and black, many dreadlocked and mostly from the Handsworth and Lozells districts.

Police racism

I watched in amazement as the Birmingham police turned out in huge numbers with more police dogs than I've ever seen in one place. For a concert of a white band, there would normally just be a couple of bobbies policing the queue.

The police at the Bob Marley gig turned what had been a joyful evening into a riot. I clearly witnessed the provocation and downright racist language of the police that night. The young black woman next to me, who can't have been much more than my own 16 years, suffered disgusting racist verbal abuse from a policewoman and she was shoved against a wall.

This wasn't the only controversial concert in Birmingham that year. I was there to see Eric Clapton stun the audience by coming out with an outrageous racist diatribe, saying 'Enoch Powell was right', calling for stricter immigration controls in 'our country' and for compulsory repatriation.

Into this maelstrom stepped Steel Pulse. Fired by the international success of Bob Marley, black youth in Britain were listening in increasing numbers to roots reggae, mostly from Jamaica.

The rebellious nature of the music along with lyrics that expressed the ideas of rebellion and solidarity made a mark amongst a generation of West Indians born in Britain. Here was music with a more distinct and relevant message than their parents' blander 'I love Jamaica' or songs about islands in the sun.

It wasn't long before black youths in Britain were forming their own reggae bands – Steel Pulse, Aswad, Black Slate and others. The music they played was street music, sometimes literally.

Many of these bands were banned by the elders in their own communities from playing church halls etc for fear that they would be turned into 'drug dens', ironically helping fuel the racism that surrounded areas like Handsworth.

Pioneers

But Steel Pulse became pioneers. They were the first black roots reggae group to positively embrace white audiences when they appeared on Rock Against Racism (which had been formed following Clapton's outburst in Birmingham) bills alongside white punk bands.

Steel Pulse released Handsworth Revolution in 1978 to great acclaim. Even the use of the word revolution was a challenge to authority and the current order of things.

Opening the album, the title track is an unashamedly fervent anthem about both the area itself and the need to fight racism and injustice.

"Doesn't justice stand for all mankind, we find society putting us down…" and "Handsworth means us the Black People"

before we get:

"We once beggars are now choosers
No intention to be losers
Striving forward with ambition
And if it takes ammunition
We rebel in Handsworth revolution"

There is no let-up in the second track Bad Man with its call for 'uprising' and the threat:

"So run and hide before I find you, Woe betide if I catch up on you,
If you still coming I box you down,
If you still coming I clart you down"

and a promise of revenge for 400 years of slavery.

With the backdrop of the racist white minority regimes then ruling in South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Soldiers continues the reference to slavery but with the bold:

"The Black Man is suffering now far more than when he was a slave"

and:

"Bodies in mutilated condition,
Faces scarred beyond recognition,
Is this what civilisation means to me?
Then without it I prefer to be"

The bubbly Sound Check and more 'Rastafarian' Prodigal Son only serve to prepare the way for the pièce de résistance, the single Ku Klux Klan. This amazingly got to number 12 in the charts with hardly any radio plays at all – banning it might have drawn even more attention to it so radio stations simply ignored it!

"Walking along just kicking stones
Minding my own business
I come face to face, with my foe
Disguised in violence from head to toe."

The title referred to the white supremacist organisation mostly prevalent in the southern United States but there was little doubt in Britain about who Steel Pulse were referring to – the National Front.

The song was a rallying call for youth in Britain to clear the racist scum from the streets, an appeal taken up by youth, workers and the trade union movement in the late 1970s. Everywhere the NF tried to march, protected by the police, they were faced with tens of thousands of counter demonstrators.

The high quality of the music on the album makes sure that after the high point of Ku Klux Klan, it doesn't peter out. Surprisingly the unusual use of a Latin-style acoustic guitar on Prediction works.

From the haunting opening bass riff on Handsworth Revolution, the music really is top drawer reggae on a par with anything being put out at the time in Jamaica itself.

Sadly, in my opinion, it was a standard Steel Pulse were never likely to match and Handsworth Revolution stands out as their defining moment despite many years in the business.

But what a moment! If you were a teenager in 1978, you will probably remember this album; if you weren't but enjoy your reggae, go out and get this and see what all the fuss was about.

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In The Socialist 14 November 2007:

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Review: Handsworth Revolution - Steel Pulse (1978)


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