In the mid-’70s, this young British sextet from Birmingham — inspired into existence by Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire — found an affinity with the righteous rebellion of white new wavers and built its early reputation largely by touring punk venues (as documented on live anthology records from Manchester’s Electric Circus and London’s Hope and Anchor). Steel Pulse’s crossover appeal derives in large part from its young, modern thoughtfulness, but even more so from the group’s incredible strength as one of the world’s very best self-contained reggae units.
Steel Pulse’s virtues include a gorgeous, multi-textured musical palette (especially on the first album and much of Caught You), intelligent lyrics (most notably on Handsworth Revolution, but also on Tribute to the Martyrs), a wondrous, sinuously propulsive beat and sweet lead vocals by Selwyn “Bumbo” Brown, who also has a nice quasi-scat style. Criticisms: the music, while always ear-enriching and heartfelt, lacks consistently memorable tunes. An increasing tendency towards preachy, trite lyrics on Caught You (retitled Reggae Fever in America) is a disappointment, since songwriting guitarist David Hinds has already shown he can do better.
If Caught You is Steel Pulse at its most pop-oriented, True Democracy has the band reaching for the most common denominator. Steel Pulse’s best falls between the two extremes. Which brings us to Earth Crisis, where tasty use of synth and sharp production make it their finest, most consistent album since Tribute to the Martyrs. As for the documentary festival album, Reggae Sunsplash ’81, Steel Pulse has an entire side, but never quite shakes a frustrating stiffness and artificiality. Pass it up. Reggae Greats is a compilation.
With the release of Babylon the Bandit, however, it was clear that the band’s professed ideals were no longer jibing with their attempts to crack the (American) market. Protest lyrics swathed in slick, upwardly mobile production were pretty hard to take seriously, and the LP sank like a stone.
The group then left Elektra and, three years later, returned on MCA with State of Emergency. Although still fairly hi-tech, the LP isn’t as aggressively slick as its predecessor, and is saved by the determined performances of uneven songs. The fiery energy that marked the group’s early work still manages to come through.