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Babylon Is Falling: David Hinds on the Early Years of Steel Pulse and His Youth in England

Steel Pulse is one of the most successful reggae bands–not just in the U.K. but in the world. Yet it wasn’t always easy for this group. Lead singer and founder David Hinds, the son of Jamaican immigrants, grew up in the rough Birmingham neighborhood of Handsworth in the 1970s during a socially and racially tense period in England.

 For our forthcoming program “Dread Inna Inglan: How the U.K. Took the Reggae,” producer Saxon Baird spoke with Hinds about his life as a black youth during this volatile period and how reggae and Rastafarianism played a role in the formation of his identity and music.

What was life like for you growing up in Birmingham?

It was a mixed vibe as far as having a Jamaican culture at home and then having to go out to school in a shirt and tie at “half-past the cow’s ass” type of environment. It was like I was trying to wear different heads and different times because the upbringing that we had didn’t originate out of Britain.

 There must have been a bit of an internal struggle as to what your place was in English society then?

Yes, very much so. It’s exactly what I was saying. Because I had to wear these two different sets of “heads,” you had to know when to switch it on and switch it off. There was always a measurement and a sense of not being welcomed. Although I was born in Britain as well as some of my siblings and my friends, we just did not feel British because there was this constant reminder somewhere along the line whether in newspapers or TV or socially with people out and about on the streets. Just by determining where the houses were that blacks were living in at the time versus the whites or the Asians, you sort of had an idea of the whole divide. It didn’t take very long for one to realize that there was some kind of thing happening because of the color of your skin.

On that note, what did you feel your identity was? If you didn’t feel English, then did you consider yourself Caribbean or African or something else? Or were you not able to reconcile that until you were older?

You know, the other day my mother was making fun of me about how when I was kid, I used to always think I was Jamaican even though I was born in England. To give you an example of what she meant, one of the first games I ever received when I was young was this game called “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” based on the television series from the ‘60s.  The secret agents on the television program used to have all these gadgets like special guns and a pen that you could talk into and speak with other secret agents. So I remember getting the toy versions of these gadgets as a kid. And they had a passport in the set that you had to fill in and when I filled it out, instead of writing my address which was Lindwood Road, Birmingham – Handsworth, I wrote Walkerswood, Jamaica and a certain district where my parents were from there. It was extremely hard for me. I was barely 10 years old and I wrote a Jamaican address in that passport.

Handsworth revolution

So clearly that internal struggle was already playing out at an early age.

Yes, and what didn’t help either was the complaints that my parents had. For example, my father would often come in from work and talk about how he was being treated poorly by other workers or foreman or the charge-hand. Most Jamaicans that came to the U.K. at that time were working in factories where they were doing some kind of metal work or some kind of welding which is what my father did.  And anyone who wasn’t in the factory environment, like the females, were subjected to working in places like hospitals.  Then anyone else, especially the men in the London area, would be working on the trains or ports or maybe bus conductors. So there was immediate type of work that needed filling. So my father would come home, and was always complaining about the type of racial tension he was experiencing at work.  I grew up being accustomed to that type of negativity. Unfortunately, that’s just how it was.

How did reggae and Rastafari play a role in your development as a person within these negative experiences in British society?

My father came over in 1954. After World War II, the first thing Britain did was go to all subjects of the countries they had colonized at the time and ask them to come over and do menial labor in the factories and on the train and things like that. So my father came over to do that and my mother came over a year later. You’d raise enough money working the job in England and then you send for each member of the family. This went on through the mid-’50s. The tendency was to send for the oldest male first, if he was age to work, so that he can make money and help out when it came to sending for the rest of the siblings and members of the family.

So you might be wondering: what does this have to do with this music? During that time, people like my older brother would bring all the food they could fit into their suitcase (because Jamaicans were still missing their food back then) as well as the social commentary that was going on and also, the latest form of music that was going on in the island.  That’s how we got connected: the food, the music and the social commentary that was going on. They would also bring the latest dance that was going on with that type of music. If it was ska, for example, the type of dance at the time was the “wash-wash” which is almost like the twist. The way Jamaicans used to do it was that they would have a handkerchief and kneel and simulate like you were washing yourself to the music. That’s how it was back then, we emulated everything that was happening out of Jamaica through what was being brought over.

Wasiffa Sound System, Handsworth Park, 1970. Photo by Vanley Burke.

Wasiffa Sound System, Handsworth Park, 1970. Photo by Vanley Burke.

 Did you only hear reggae at home then? 

We heard it at home and every single environment or social gathering like a wedding or a christening or birthday party or anything where Jamaicans were gathering to celebrate something. We would hear the music at these events. Someone would bring their sound system with their amplifiers with speakers as big as wardrobes or closets into whatever hall or house that could accommodate that and play music all night long. People would be dancing and eating or drinking and that’s how it was.

How much did the music that you heard at these events play a role in the formation of your identity as a youth and the music you would eventually go on to create?

This is how bands like Steel Pulse evolved, in all honesty. You also had some bands, whose fathers were sound system operators, evolving out of that as well. If you check the history of bands like Capital Letters and Black Roots, you might come to find out that one of their fathers was a part of a sound system in England at the time. Those environments that we went to, whether a club owned by a Jamaican or another minority person, would play reggae music or during my brothers’ day, it would be ska or rocksteady. While for my father it would have likely been calypso or blue beat. It was all those environments that we were getting the political and social knowledge that we had. And that’s how Steel Pulse formed.  By attending these sort of functions where the music was played constantly with all the political attributes that were attached to it.

Is attending these events what really brought you to Rastafari as well?

Exactly.  We would go to hear the sound systems in these halls that were often rented. And the bands that were really making it known about Rastafari were the Abyssinians, Culture, the Gladiators and Burning Spear. Of course, there was Marley as well. But Burning Spear was the most predominant of them all when it came to the voice of Rastafari.

And as a formative youth experiencing all the things that we’ve talked about, I assume the message of Rastafari really resonated with your experience in England.

It did. One of the reasons why it resonated was that I had older brothers, especially one who used to always talk about what was going on in Jamaica as I mentioned before. At the time, people in Jamaica were a bit scared of these certain individuals who were walking around with their hair a bit long and looking kind of scary. These people were of course, the Rastafarians. At the time, though, they were called “blackheart men” or my brother used to call them the “professor men” because they were always talking and sounding very wise. The stories of the Rasta-men just simply amazed me. However, there was also negative publicity about them like they would bite the heads off of chickens and that they were called “blackheart men” because their hearts were black. So when Bunny Wailer came and sang “Blackheart Man” in 1976, he was echoing all the things that my brother was telling me in talking about this fear that people had of them but then that he [Bunny Wailer] grew up and became a Rasta-man himself. I totally identified with that song.

It’s interesting because some of the things I’ve read about this time period along with some of the people I’ve interviewed who were major players in this time, particularly in London, have told me that the themes of Rastafarianism along with the music didn’t really resonate with a large portion of the black British communities.

Okay, stick a pin right there and let me say this to you: life in London was very “get-up and move” and keep yourself commercial, keep yourself moving with what it takes to be living in the capital. We were coming from what we called the real ghetto: Handsworth. We had nothing to lose. I am not saying London didn’t have pockets of that but not all of London was like that. Where we came from, there was constant confrontation with the police, constant problems trying to get jobs because of who we were as a people. The city was not an easy city because of the racial tension between the police and us. So we felt the pinch more than, say, those who lived in London would feel it. There was a lot more outlets in London. They had subways and trains. There were a lot more clubs to go to, there were a lot more activities going on in general.  There was a lot more work because it was the capital. Which is part of the main reason why people went to the capital in the first place: for work.  But coming from the ghetto of Handsworth, which was 120 miles away but might as well been 1200 miles away, there was a different thing happening both socially and politically.

If you go back and talk with the older reggae acts like Johnny Osbourne or Mykel Rose and ask them what town they felt would really give them a warm reception while touring in England to a point where they could think they were in Jamaica, they would probably say Handsworth, Birmingham. Speak to those guys and see what town they felt was more roots and really appreciating them as an artist. In Birmingham, we lived every word that these guys were saying.  That’s why it was so difficult for us to deal with the different types of things that the system was throwing at us in an attempt to keep us in line with mainstream Britain. It was a lot more difficult to brainwash us because of the predicament we were living in a town like Birmingham. As a matter of fact, when the riots took place in Britain, the place they expected to start the riots amongst all the towns across the country was Handsworth. Didn’t happen. It happened in a town that everyone least expected which is Bristol. Which is well known as a slave port but it’s really got a soft touch when comparing it to places like Brixton in London or where I was coming from. Yet, it was the place that started the first set of riots [in 1980]. So no disrespect to anyone, but they were likely coming from a different place. And when your back is against the wall, you are going to be lashing out like nobody’s business.

Handsworth after 1985 Riots

Handsworth after 1985 Riots-  Photo from the Birmingham Mail

Let’s talk about the early days of Steel Pulse for a bit. Was it tough to find places to play in Birmingham? There are stories of you guys being unable to play certain venues because of your Rastafarian beliefs. 

This is true and this is exactly what I am saying to you. London had a lot more outlets and a lot more going on as far as how people were doing things.  They were more business-orientated. There was a lot more opportunity to make things. In Birmingham, this was not the case.  So we were limited to blues dances, bars and pubs. We were limited to small clubs owned either on a back street or, if on a main road, where the club owner would always be fearing that his place was going to be closed down because someone might light up a spliff. As a result, there were very few outlets we had to perform in Birmingham at the time. There was only two places at the time that you could guarantee to get a show at. There was the Georgian that was also known as the Ridgeway, and then there was the Santa Rosa.  Those were the two main places. There was also FCF but that wasn’t a real club because they had a dress code where you couldn’t go in there wearing a hat or wearing jeans or sneakers. We didn’t even give that club a look because of the dress code.

So we had to go to other towns that had their little pockets of clubs. They would be a little club in Leicester or the Havana in Darby, Venns Steet up in Leeds, Huddlesfield. There was another club up in Dudley. These were the clubs we had to go into and do our little reggae. And even still, it was a fight because when people heard the name Steel Pulse, they often thought we were a calypso band.  There was always this kind of oppositions and confrontation that was happening at the time and we had to just persevere to get into different clubs across the country. But we got through! [Laughs]

 

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Steel Pulse in 1982. Photo by Andy Brouwer

 One of your early singles, “Ku Klux Klan,” was about a racist organization that was not in the U.K. but the U.S. I find that fascinating because you were, even in the mid-’70s, making the connections musically that the black experience of slavery and being forced into a diaspora was felt across the globe. Was there a specific experience or moment when you realized that shining a light on this history, through your music, was to become a sort of mission of yours?

Put it this way: I don’t think Moses had any idea he’d be leading 600,000 people out of Egypt. All of a sudden, Moses developed into the person right to do the job. Well, that’s how I felt. There’s a lot of things I saw as a kid which a lot of people would just take it in stride but I took it literally. One of the first things that hit me as a child growing up was the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  And then the assassination of Malcolm X and then Martin Luther King Jr. Didn’t know about Medgar Evers at the time until I got a bit older but that happened then as well. Then there was Bobby Kennedy. And all that was planted in my head was, America: This is a country where they kill people. That was in my head at a very early age. By the time I got to be about 14, the community that I had was very much in tune with the political things going on in the world in regards to black people.  They used to issue a grassroots paper telling me about what was going on in various parts of the world involving black people. In that paper, one of the people I read about was George Jackson and Angela Davis. This is how we got informed about what was going on. America fascinated me at a very early age, maybe way back as seven. I distinctly remember one Friday night watching the TV and every few seconds they were showing this man’s head whip back and forth [JFK] being hit by the bullet. I can see it even today.  It was implanted in my head. I was fascinated with America. And as I said, George Jackson rang a lot of alarm bells for me.

Then one day I was reading about the Ku Klux Klan. They had a leader named David Duke and he was supposed to be coming to the United Kingdom to influenced leaders of the National Front, a racist political party, and help them on how to control and contain the blacks that were living in England. And that’s how I got that specific song going, by imaging all of that happening. I was always in tune with what was going on the United States and the history of it and by watching movies of these guys running around wearing white cloaks and everything else.

Steel pulse

Photo By Andy Brouwer

That is particularly interesting to me because when you listen to reggae that was coming out of Jamaica at the time, it rarely covers things going on in the U.S. or the U.K. and mainly sticks to Jamaica or very loosely, Africa. And so I always found that interesting in regards not only to that song in particular, but Steel Pulse in general, which continued to cover such topics and the history of the black diaspora.

That’s interesting to me because when we interviewed Chris Blackwell for our forthcoming Steel Pulse documentary, one of the things the filmmakers asked him was about the band. See, by the time we got to our third album, Island Records had dropped us [in 1980]. They didn’t think we were happening as a band.  At the time, he was focused on groups like Third World and of course, Bob Marley and the Wailers.  He was trying to break Burning Spear as well. So in the interview, Chris Blackwell said that he thought he had a better chance being successful as a label by trying to break Jamaican music into the United States.

When we got to the United States, though, it was a different ball game. One of the reasons is that there weren’t a lot of Americans who knew that there were blacks in England who were as conscious as we were about what was happening in the United States. So Chris Blackwell, in our interview with him, admitted that he didn’t think the United States would have wanted to connect with what we were doing as Steel Pulse. Even though, we were coming from the same type of urban, concrete jungle background that Americans could really relate about.

And within two years of going to the United States for the first time, I was told that Steel Pulse was being played on WBLS in Philadelphia which Marley couldn’t get on all of his life. Here I was within two years of landing and our songs were being played on this radio station! I think that really had to do with us coming from a similar, urban background.

 Jah punk

Moving back to the U.K., I want to reconcile something: there is a narrative that in the ‘70s, U.K. reggae and the punk movement had a lot of crossover and collaboration with events like Rock Against Racism. However, you don’t seem to particularly be in support of this narrative from what I’ve read. Can you touch on the solidarity, if any, between punks and reggae during this period?

I am supportive of parts of the narrative because it did actually happen. But it didn’t happen in the sense of people sitting down and figuring out what we were going to do. Rather, what did happen was that black music, particularly reggae music, was having a hard time being advertised and publicized in the United Kingdom. Obviously, there were great acts coming out of Jamaica at the time like Alton Ellis, Nicky Thomas and Ken Boothe. They were the “in” thing. Still, the problem was that we couldn’t get a lot of reggae played on the radio and it wasn’t getting the credit it deserved. Publicity for reggae was still just subjected to the black community. It wasn’t a national thing until Ken Boothe had a number-one hit for a couple minutes ["Everything I Own" in 1974] but even after that it was gone again. To be constantly there, on the charts and the radio, and having reggae and the band be a household name, that wasn’t happening.

Now the punks at the time were being recognized as rebels fighting out against society. If England said they wanted red, they would say no, we want the opposite color. And if the system wanted black, the punks would chose white. So the punks were just totally against the system. One thing the system said it didn’t want to do was to promote black music, so the punks said, “you know what? We’re going to promote black radio!  Say you don’t like reggae on the radio? Well, we’re going to like reggae!” That’s how the punks got amalgamated with Rastafarianism and reggae musicians. Punks supported anything the system was against. The fact that the system didn’t play any reggae music led the punks to say, “we’re going to be the leading act because we’re the ‘in’ thing right now and we’re going to having reggae bands opening for us at these venues.” And that’s how we got our feet in the door.

Reggae did end up appealing to the punks seemingly though because a lot of reggae elements ended up on those early punk records coming out of the U.K. at the time.

It did. However, in retrospect, you found out that while whites were appreciating black music coming out of the U.K. at the time, it wasn’t reciprocal in the British black communities. Even to this day, the black communities will never really respond to punk music or have been able to name the punk rockers like I can. They weren’t part of that culture and didn’t want to be a part of that culture. It was too hard establishing their own music, let alone getting involved in someone else’s music. The black communities didn’t recognize that punk played a very significant role in establishing reggae music in the United Kingdom. They’ll never see that. They would have to be in the thick of things and in the mix of things like ourselves [Steel Pulse] who were going out into the venues and participating to see how far the progression has gone and to realize the input that punk had.

Do you feel like reggae had an impact at all on the white working class in England?

Yes, it definitely did. However, before the punks came along there was the mods and rockers. The rockers had their motorcycles and their hair cut like the teddy boys similar to Elvis Presley. Then there were the mods who were always sporting slick suits. Both of these entities were into liking reggae from when they sort of evolved out of being skinheads. That was the big thing at the time for skinheads, mods and rockers. It was all about liking “ethnic music.” And that was our music [reggae] or rocksteady in the earlier years. Those working-class whites, those who were into the likes of Desmond Dekker and the whole rude boy scene, were outcasts in British society as well. So they gravitated towards to the music from the Jamaican communities that also appeared to be out-casted.

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 And in the British black communities, do you feel like your music and its themes resonated with them as well?

Let’s start with Bob Marley and the Wailers. I witnessed as a kid growing up the power he had in his songs and how advanced they were lyrically and musically than what was happening in Jamaica at the time. However, you find out that at that time, Jamaica did not take their heart totally to Bob Marley and the Wailers. Acts like Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, they garnered a quicker response from the Jamaican community. They didn’t see the potential that Marley’s music had until he died. Then the world turned around and said, “Jamaica! Do you realize what you got here?” If you look through the history of Jamaican music and Bob Marley, you’ll see that he had some thugs around him that were going into radio stations with baseball bats threatening them so they would play his records. That tells you right there and then, that Bob Marley was not immediately received and accepted in his own environment.

Steel Pulse? Similar kind of thing going on. Because we weren’t going out there trying to sound like a Jamaican reggae band and our subject matter wasn’t leaning towards what was happening directly in the community, we were acknowledged but not totally embraced. Now, if you go back and talk to people who can remember the band in the black communities, they will likely say, “Yeah, wow. That band was something else.” See, they’ve grown to realize that we weren’t just doing it for fun and games. We were serious business. And some of them have probably come to realize that the band was really ahead of its time. The bands that they were in support of back then haven’t had the acclaim that we do now across the world. This is why I’ve made the comparison between Marley and Steel Pulse.

Do you think that your music resonates now in the U.K within these communities and even among newer artists in the U.K.?

I think it has. The internet is a wonderful thing because it’s helped everybody that has missed the boat and they can now go back and see at least what the boat looked like [Laughs]. People in the U.K. can look into the archives that we’ve left there like “Handsworth Revolution” and “True Democracy” and it helps them to realize that we might have something worth seeing when we come back to town. In all honesty, just like Marley, who did so many tours in so many different countries, and yet he played so little in Jamaica. Steel Pulse has the exact same experience. Ever since Island Records dropped us in 1980 and we went out into the world, we’ve probably performed in England…[pauses] well, if someone told me that we’ve performed in England 10 times in the last 20 years, I’d say, “Really? I think that’s quite a lot!” We’re hardly there.