The story of Brum's most influential reggae band - Steel Pulse
Posted on the 21st Apr 2014 in the category sport

Legendary Handsworth reggae band have confirmed they are performing at this year's Simmer Down festival in July. Their homecoming gig at Handsworth Park will be one of the highlights of the Summer as they have not played Handsworth in decades. Here is a feature I wrote for the last issue of Birmingham Review about the story of the band.


FOR countless reggae fans across the world Birmingham is synonymous with one band - and it is not UB40. 

Steel Pulse put Birmingham on the international reggae map in 1978 with their seminal album Handsworth Revolution.  Combining roots reggae with uncompromising lyrics the album encapsulated the frustration of a generation of British West Indians sick of being treated like shit by racists in authority. Within a few short years in the 1970s Steel Pulse went from playing Blues parties in Handsworth to dressing up as Ku Klux Klan members on BBC TV and supporting Bob Marley.

Handsworth political activist and 1974 Pan-African Congress veteran Howard Reid  explains why their message was so popular and important. He said: “The Handsworth Steel Pulse came out of in the mid-1970s was a radical and revolutionary place, the rest of the black communities in the UK took the lead from us, and we wouldn't back down.
“This was a time of police brutality and the SUS laws so when we went out to dances we were listening to revolutionary MPLA and Burning Spear songs so there was an anger there."

He added: “But the whole place was waiting for our version of Marley, a band singing about what was happening on the streets.

“And Handsworth Revolution put that frustration into lyrical form as well as including the back to Africa sentiments a lot of us were feeling. 

"People responded to it, the fact that this was years before the 1980s inner city riots shows Steel Pulse were sages, to think this message was latched onto across the world shows how universal the message was.”

Steel Pulse was formed by Handsworth Wood Boys School pupils David Hinds (vocals and guitar), Basil Gabbidon (lead guitar, vocals) and Ronald McQueen (bass) in 1975.

David said: “The initial inspiration that got me writing was the experiences that I was having as a youth. Then reading the grass roots magazines in the ghetto which were very political got me interested what was happening with the black man in America and I compared that to what was happening in England at the time, they were running parallel.

“Added to that was Bob Marley's music which was educating us from his Jamaican standpoint so I thought it was necessary for myself and the band as a collective to put together music to air our views from a British standpoint. And when it comes to awakening people to what is going around them then as a vehicle then reggae is the best music there is.”

Proud to brandish their Rastafarian beliefs the band even were turned away from black venues in Birmingham at the beginning but the Santa Rose talent show performance earned them a hardcore of support and word spread. Their first album explored black British injustice as well as African themes, they also latched onto the punk movement and began playing gigs up and down the country. 
Hinds added: “We had a lot of challenges, like trying to convince Caribbean contingents that were born in England or came from Jamaica that reggae music can be established here, and of course trying to get reggae music played on national radio was a challenge too.”

Someone who was getting national radio play at the time was Eric Clapton.  Steel Pulse quickly became aligned with the Rock Against Racism movement which was sparked after a racist rant by old Slowhand at the Odeon, Birmingham, when he drunkenly demanded “Keep Britain White”  and “get the wogs out” before urging his fans to vote for Enoch Powell. 

1978 was the breakthrough year for Steel Pulse, they were signed to Island Records, released Handsworth Revolution and played in front of 100,000 people with The Clash, Buzzcocks and X-Ray Specs at the first giant Rock Against Racism concert in London.  The band, which now included Steve “Grizzly” Nesbitt on drums and Selwyn Brown on keyboards, became the standard bearers for disaffected Black youth in Britain.

A BBC appearance cemented that reputation leaving an impression on a generation of youngsters who saw the band don Ku Klux Klan outfits on national television and dedicating it to the National Front. 
Hinds still remembers it well. 

He said: “We dressed up and saw ourselves as stage performers as well as musicians, choreographing and dressing for the song, for Ku Klux Klan we had members dressed in Klan outfits and would act out fights with each other to emphasis the struggle we were trying to express.” 

Their live reputation was enhanced when asked to open for Bob Marley's European tour attracting new fans from the continent. 

For the next few years Steel Pulse continued with their militant brand of reggae and broke America the key moment being a performance in Washington on the night of Bob Marley's funeral was beamed across the planet by satellite. 

Back in England after the riots and unrest in the early 1980s subsided British reggae fans wanted less militancy and began listening to Lovers Rock and happier reggae. The band moved record labels several times in the 80s always being under pressure to be more commercial and emulate crossover stars like Eddie Grant.  To an extent they did, they became the first and only British reggae band to win a Grammy award for Babylon the Bandit, their sixth studio album, released in 1986.  The decade ended with the band contributing to the soundtrack of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing in 1989.

The 1990s picked up where the 1980s success left off being nominated for further Grammys in 1991 and 1992. Hinds still had not lost his reactionary zeal hitting the headlines in the US for suing the New York Taxi Authority for discriminating against black people especially Rastafarians a theme he'd explored in the song Taxi Driver.  Then the Big Dog himself, Bill Clinton, requested Steel Pulse to perform at his 1993 Presidential Inauguration making them the first reggae band ever to be given the honour even been given a secret service detail during their Washington stay. 

Still UK reggae fans were sniffy about Steel Pulse, like a naive teenager on a date embarrassed to bump into their militant uncle, but with the advent of giant reggae festivals across the world they remained in demand across continents.
In the intervening years Hinds has stayed true to his message, members have left and new ones entered the fray including bassist Amlak Tafari.  They still have a punishing world touring schedule, October took them to Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and France where they have a huge following. 

Shunning the nostalgia tour scene the band continue to raise issues and write new music. Last Summer they released a Hinds penned song highlighting the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida which caused outrage and opened age old racial divisions in the US.

Amlak Tafari said: “Steel Pulse was set up to protest against injustice and that is why we released Put Your Hoodies On (4 Trayvon) because David is showing we still are fighting it to this day, here in England as well as America.”

He added: "Playing Simmer Down in Handsworth Park will be a big homecoming for the band and we can't wait to play a home gig at last.

"There are a lot of great things going on this Summer like Simmer Down and The Perry Barr Film and Music Festival which I am going to get involved in as well."


Why Richard Branson owes Birmingham an inter-galactic rocket
Posted on the 13th Apr 2014 in the category sport

The main reason I love being an international travel journalist is not the places I go but the people I meet.

It does me the world of good to meet people like Kieran Meeke, someone who has had a big influence on my life, as I need to be around success stories who have had amazing lives so I do not forget that I can have one too.

One great man I met last year was John Honeywell, I had heard about him through our mutual Saga friends and I'm sure he had heard about me. We had a great week sailing around Croatia. I loved listening to his anecdotes of his time at the Birmingham Mail in the 1970s, when the paper really mattered, and the strikes that defined an era. He was part of the bonkers BRMB radio set that forged new boundaries in radio. His tales of his time as a big dog of national journalism were also fascinating. If I could afford him as my personal sub-editor I would. 

Here he is writing about the Birmingham 1970s music scene and a unlikely link with Richard Branson's Inter-Galactic dreams. As an aside another journo legend I love - Ron Warrilow - when faced with a young buck saying: "Hi, I'm from Newsteam International" replied, "Oh right, Ron from Warrilow Intergalactic."

John is now a cruise write and spends his time sailing around the globe, you can find him at www.captaingreybeard.com or on Twitter @CaptGreyBeard. 



Sir Richard Branson is apparently searching for the boy he says inspired him to launch his commercial spaceflight business. He says a conversation with Shihan Musafer on BBC children's show Going Live, in 1988, led him to register the company name, Virgin Galactic.

Without wishing to stake a claim for the $250,000 VIP ticket which would put me alongside the 700 budding astronauts who have signed up, I would like to tell Sir Richard the origins of Virgin Galactic go back a lot further than he thinks.

In the early 1970s I was hired to work as a sub-editor on the Birmingham Evening Mail's special projects unit, producing ground-breaking colour supplements. Ambitious plans for a weekly magazine were scuppered by the print unions but one of the products which did get off the ground was a weekly pop supplement.

I managed to get a regular gig interviewing acts whose tours brought them to Birmingham Town Hall, the Odeon, Hippodrome and the legendary Barbarella's and Rum Runner. 

Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Slade's Noddy Holder, Johnny Mathis, Billy Joel, Chris de Burgh, the Three Degrees - you name them, I met them, talked to them, dined with them. 

In a good week I would spend several nights at those venues reviewing concerts for the paper. In even better weeks, record labels would transport me to London for visits to the Top of the Pops studio or to gigs such as Bruce Springsteen's UK debut at Hammersmith Odeon.

I was also the grateful recipient of hundreds of vinyl albums and singles. More than I could accommodate in my modest semi in Sutton Coldfield. Despite the fact that most of them were defaced with stickers reading "Review Copy - Not for Sale" I found a market for them at the Virgin Record store in Corporation Street, round the corner from the Mail's palatial offices in Colmore Circus.

Now this was long before the days of Virgin Megastores. The shop was a single unit in a Victorian mansion block on the edge of the city centre. It was handy for Aston University and frequented by long-hared beardies (like me and, come to think of it, Branson) who would spend hours poring over the racks of 12-inch vinyl in glossy gatefold sleeves .

Manager Tim would hand over up to £1 for the more interesting albums - singles were a no-no - a little sideline which became invaluable to me when Post and Mail journalists went on an extended strike in 1974.

But I digress. Tim also had his own sideline, organising coach trips to take his regular customers to festivals such as the nascent events at Glastonbury and Reading, and to gigs in London, Manchester and elsewhere. 

He wanted to form a company in order to keep the revenue separate from the shop's takings from record sales, and filled in the paperwork to register it with Companies House.

Sadly, the name he chose - Intergalactic Travel - was rejected by the short-sighted civil servants who had power over these things. The company name, they insisted, could not possibly make such an outlandish claim. The coaches running from the Midlands would be lucky to make it safely down the M5, they argued, let alone achieve escape velocity.

Sadly, I can't remember what name, if any, was finally accepted. In 1976 I made my own escape from Birmingham and no doubt the Corporation Street Virgin Record shop was eventually replaced with a mighty megastore in the New Street shopping arcade.

But it does at least show that Virgin (Inter)Galactic Travel was - almost - in existence before 1988. Sir Richard can probably count himself fortunate that he did not come across similarly intransigent officials when he came to register the name.

They could, with some justification, have rejected it on the basis that the project has yet to prove it can launch an astronaut into space.


Alderman Don Brown - Perry Barr is coming like a ghost town
Posted on the 6th Apr 2014 in the category sport

DON Brown first set eyes on Perry Barr in 1958 after emigrating from the West Indies.

In the last half a century he has seen the fortunes of his adopted home rise, fall, rise and now fall again.

Don’s seen it all; the eight lane carriage way, complete with giant flyover and underpass, split Perry Barr in half, the university being built and the promised paradises of tower blocks erected and then demolished.

He’s seen the speedway close and then return, Lynton Square built in the 1960s and then torn down in the 1980s to make way for One Stop Shopping Centre.

He has also seen recession hit the area three times in the last 30 years and lost count of the companies and factories that went by the wayside.

Don first got into politics after joining the Transport Union in 1968 and ended up being a councillor for 20 years, but called it a day in 2012. His old friend Bill Morris rose up the union ranks to become a lord but Don was always happy just working for the people of Perry Barr.

Now, aged 81, he passes his days, eating the finest Caribbean food in the city every evening as landlord of the Crown and Cushion, which has also been knocked down and rebuilt since he first came to Perry Barr.

He said: “I really fear for Perry Barr now with the university abandoning the place. ”

Birmingham City University, formerly the University of Central England, formerly Perry Barr Polly

is moving teaching from Perry Barr into Eastside where they got a nice sweetener from Birmingham City Council.

He said: “Successive Governments and Birmingham City Council have let this place down and everywhere you look there is land where some grand scheme was promised and then shelved.”

Across Perry Bar there are acres of empty land where housing, factories and public buildings once stood and which replacements were never built.

Pointing across Birchfield Road from the pub Don said: “That’s where our brand new landmark library and adult education centre should be, the historic Birchfield Library was even demolished for it.

“But it was never built. The weeds on the land are now eight foot tall, the project was cancelled by the last Tory council so they could give money to facilities that their rich voters in Sutton Coldfield used.”

Now Labour are back in they have decided to shelve the project and sell the land for development.

He added: “Then there is the site of the former tower blocks and flats where families were forced to leave their homes to make way for new affordable housing. That never happened either because the Government cancelled the scheme.

“And there was supposed to be a brand new college on Aldridge Road but that is not happening either and the giant IMI site is still empty too, despite promises the wholesale markets would be moved there.”

As well as acres of barren land there are two huge sites which thrived but will soon stand largely empty; Tucker Fasteners and the BCU campus.

The former councillor said: “Tucker Fasteners has closed – I remember when the factories of Perry Barr used to employ tens of thousands of people and now I despair thinking how few jobs there are around here.

“The university’s decision to leave is scandalous. The local economy is going to be hit hard when the students and employees leave.”

After decades of trying to fight Perry Barr, Lozells and Handsworth’s corner great grandfather Don believes it is someone else’s turn.

He added: “One of the reasons I gave up being a councillor was because I was sick of the way my area was been treated by local and national government. It’s time for a new generation to take over the fight.”

Despite his public service Don is battling to get compensation for letting the great unwashed use his pub's toilet for a tinkle despite not buying a drop of beer.

“There is not a public toilet from Lozells down to One Stop so what am I supposed to do? I've said no in the past and they go and do their business on the central reservation, I cannot have that in Perry Barr.

“The council offered me a pittance, it would cost them £19,000 to build a public toilet in Perry Barr but they will not even offer me enough money for my cleaning bills, but I suppose they know I love this area and will pay out of my pocket to ensure people are not using the surrounding streets I fought years for to be clean as a toilet.”

However, one thing has cheered Don up, the prospect of the Perry Barr Film and Music Festival.

He said: “It seemed a hair-brained idea at first but when you think the Royale Suite was the first ever Odeon in the world and all the music heritage we have it could work, it would be nice to have Perry Barr mentioned in a positive light once again."


I'm sick to death of the Villa and switching to the Blues
Posted on the 1st Apr 2014 in the category sport

I'm sick to death of the Villa and the crap Premier League so am switching to the Blues.

The time has come to turn my coat, as the old saying goes – if you can’t beat them, join them.
And as Villa have played or beaten Blues in years, I have decided to switch sides.

I know it will take a lot of self discipline on my part. I know I will have to fit in with my new tribe so, over the
last week, I have changed a few things in my life.

I’ve already been down Northfield market and bought a fake Burberry cap and coat as I’ve been told it is a must-have in the south of the city. With an old pair of scuffed kickers, I should blend in perfectly with the rest of the fans when I go down the match. I bought myself my first Blues top as well this week and it fits perfectly when I wear my grey polo neck jumper underneath it.

I’ve had to splash out a bit on jewellery as well. I had a look through Exchange and Mart and bought a great
metal chain complete with a chunky Blues badge pennant. The fella I bought it from in Sheldon was great. It appears he had to sell ‘his pride and joy’ because he needed money for dog food for his pack of Alsatians.
He even gave me a tin of Brasso to polish the pennant with. Hopefully it will bring my BCFC ring up a treat.

I’ve also instructed my barber not to cut the back of my hair for a while so, in a couple of months, I will able to sport a nice new ponytail out the back of my ‘I was there for the Leyland Daf in 91’ cap.

After fiddling with my mobile, I’ve changed my ringtone to Eiffel 65’s ‘I’m Blue diddy da diddy da’ but my new missus, Kylie from Stechford, has made me promise every time she phones it will play Keep Right On.I might propose to her during half time of the next derby, that would make her and the kids over the moon.

I’ve genned up on all my Blues history so I can impress with my knowledge. I'll say: “I used to stand on the Stilton when Taity ‘Rave On’ and bubbling John Gayle ruled the world,” I will tell all my new mates.

And I have learnt a few choice phrases to scare unsuspecting Villa fans if any cross my path.

“I used to train with Robert McCracken,” is one and “I’m an original Zulu, I used to do the doors uptown,” is another. I’ve also got a part time job working in a scrapyard in Bordesley Green so I can show off my new tattoos – one is ‘Karen Brady for Page 3’ and the other is ‘Trevor Francis Broke my Heart’.

Well, as you can see, I’ve taken my new allegiance seriously. I just hope it doesn’t all seem a bit daft by midday.

A version of this article appeared in the Great Barr Observer on April 1, 2005 and led to three death threats.


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