The original members of British reggae band Steel Pulse – David Hinds, Ronald “Stepper” McQueen, Basil Gabbidon and Selwyn Brown – all hailed from the Birmingham Ghettoes of Handsworth, England. Their families were immigrants from the West Indies.
Growing up in poverty, they were victimised by racist attitudes that kept them from being accepted in the highly stratified British society. They found some solace and considerable cultural pride in the island music they grew up with, including calypso, mento, ska, bluebeat, and eventually reggae during their boyhood in the 60s.
One of the biggest influences back then was Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), considered the father of the Rastafari music movement in Britain, from whom they heard the radical messages and philosophies that later shaped their own music.
As teens, such music attuned them to the many socio-political problems faced by their people in England and abroad while simultaneously buoying their spirits.
The band first came together in early 1975 at the suggestion of McQueen, their bassist. None of them really knew how to play, but their sincere desire drove them to practice extensively, so they taught each other the basics.
Even then, they were driven to create something enjoyable yet socially conscious. A little later they recruited drummer Steve “Grizzly” Nisbett, Phonso Martin on percussion, and vocalist Michael Riley.
Finding gigs was difficult. The owners of British black clubs found reggae music and Rastafarians with their radical anti-authoritarian ideas and penchant for smoking ganja, subversive and inflammatory and would not let the band perform. The band did not really get their break until the birth of the punk movement.
The punk and new wave bands loved Steel Pulse and the group opened for such acts as The Clash, Generation X, The Stranglers, XTC and The Police. The latter two bands had a great influence on Steel Pulse and taught them to articulate their music, making it precise and professional.
One of Bob Marley‘s favourite bands, Steel Pulse became one of reggae’s most successful bands in the late 70s and early 80s.
During performances, the band would wear wild, highly symbolic clothing to show their defiance. McQueen would wear tails and a bowler to symbolise British bureaucracy; Riley dressed as a vicar while Martin dressed as an 18th-century footman. Such statements endeared them to the punks.
Steel Pulse first signed with Island Records and recorded their first three albums, all of which were produced and engineered by Jamaican-born Karl Pitterson.
After releasing their debut album, Handsworth Revolution (1978) and its successors, Tribute to the Martyrs and True Democracy (both for Elektra) in the early 80s, with their innovative blend of straight-ahead reggae, flamenco and Euro-pop containing potent pleas for social reform, critics and fans alike hailed them as Marley’s successors.
By 1980, against the advice of Island Records execs, Steel Pulse decided to head for the US. The band was surprised to find that they had somehow already developed a large, devoted following in the States.
Soon Steel Pulse began trying in earnest to bring reggae music to an international audience, but thanks largely to Marley’s message of love, audiences began preferring a less militant reggae and again, Steel Pulse found themselves without a real niche until 1981 when they headlined ‘Reggae Sunsplash’ in Montego Bay.
A successful live album from Elektra came from that concert and the band once again enjoyed a high profile.
In 1982, Elektra released their True Democracy album in the US where it garnered considerable acclaim (it had flopped in England two years before).
Two years later, they released Earth Crisis, an album containing a more progressive sound.
The album was produced by Jimmy Haynes and two original members, Gabbidon and McQueen, had been replaced.
They have since had several different guitarists, including Carlton Bryan. Alvin Ewen became their new bass player.
Unfortunately, Haynes’ obsession with studio perfection led to the slightly disappointing Babylon The Bandit. Despite losing some of the older fans, it did win Steel Pulse a Grammy in 1986. It did poorly on the charts though and Elektra terminated their contract.
Two years later, they signed to MCA and came out with a blatant commercial effort, State of Emergency. The album bombed.
They made another attempt at mainstream success in 1991 with Victims and again sales did poorly. A new live album from a Paris performance, Rastafari Centennial: Live in Paris – Elysee, Montmarte, was a turning point for Steel Pulse.
The fans’ positive response to the band’s older material helped remind them of their original vision and set them back on course.
They recorded Vex in 1994, and true to their determination to get more in touch with their roots, recorded it in Jamaica.
Further albums came in 1997 (Rage & Fury) and 2004 (African Holocaust). The band continue to record and perform live.
Steve “Grizzly” Nisbett