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Still Revolutionary After All These Years

Steel Pulse founder Basil Gabbidon talks about his legacy, 40 years on from Handsworth Revolution

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by Ancient Champion, for outsideleft.com
originally published: November, 2018
My greatest memories: There are so many of them but touring with Bob Marley and the Wailers was very special as well as playing on the Rock Against Racism circuit

Basil Gabbidon founded Steel Pulse in school with his friend, singer, David Hinds, bassist, Ronald McQueen, Basil's brother, Colin and percussionist Michael RIley in Handsworth in the UK. Forty years later, Steel Pulse remain the most important reggae band in British history.

They released their first single, Kibudu, Mansetta And Abuku, in 1975 and eventually signed with Chris Blackwell's Island records. 

1978 saw the release of their heralded debut LP, Handsworth Revolution.  The politically infused, melodic songs established Steel Pulse with a huge audience.

The Handsworth Revolution LP, with the hit singles Ku Klux Klan and Prodigal Son, overtly pushing back against the racism and social division of the time, remains one of the most significant recordings of the era, as essential as debuts from The Clash and the Sex Pistols.

Contemporaries such as Misty in Roots, with their message of inclusiveness, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Aswad bubbled up into the public consciousness, often supported by the John Peel Show. Ska and the Specials came along and took over. In those days there were politicized voices in British music. Music with a message pushing back against a tsunami of hate designed to demean and destroy the will of British working class people, courtesy of the central government of Maragret Thatcher as I recall.

Steel Pulse, it's even a cool and great name for a band... Always operated on a different level. Steel Pulse were musical revolutionaries in the UK. They played to huge audiences at the Rock against Racism concerts. And toured with Bob Marley and the Wailers. International commercial success followed. 

Now, on the 40th anniversary of the seminal Handsworth LP, we're lucky and privileged to talk with Steel Pulse founder, Basil Gabbidon about his life in music with Steel Pulse then, and with his Gabbidon Band now and what it's like to feel at the center of something so important as recording the Handsworth Revolution LP - it's no small, everyday thing.

OUTSIDELEFT: You were born in Jamaica, but basically lived in the UK forever. My father-in-law came to the UK from Barbados and he told me that the first thing he noticed when he arrived was how grey the clothes, and everybody and everywhere was... What are you first impressions...
BASIL GABBIDON:
When I arrived in the UK, I did not realise that I had actually landed in the UK as I had been told that it was a cold country. Of course, it was not the Caribbean but it was sunny and fresh.

OUTSIDELEFT: How do you feel about the current political situation, the Windrush scandal as its known.. as it relates to you, your contemporaries, your family, maybe? No accident? No accident maybe, but even so, seems like a bizarre way to conduct the business of government... Although it's fair I think to say, and maybe you too have friends that own small businesses, basically right now, there doesn't seem to be cabinet minister that a small business person could employ. I couldn't. They're inept. Anyway... My daughter was born abroad, we had trouble getting her into the country! I wonder about her future here, some ways down the line, but...
BASIL GABBIDON:
Ridiculous, typical capitalist country. They go everywhere, take from the so-called ‘under developed countries’, acquire their wealth but they do not want natives to come to their country and benefit from what they have taken. They do not want natives to partake in that ‘said wealth’.

OUTSIDELEFT: 1978 or 2018 which is the worse time to live in Britain?
BASIL GABBIDON:
The situation in the country was worse then. There was a lot of overt racism with people spitting in your face. The Irish were the underdogs then the blacks.

OUTSIDELEFT: You started getting into bands back at school, in Handsworth, in Birmingham. Where you from a musical family? What drew you into music? What records were you listening to?
BASIL GABBIDON
: My father was in theatre, he was a comedian. When I first came here, I was listening to ska music (my father’s) and artists like Basil Gabbidon. Then it was Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five who had a big influence on my music. I then heard a song by Nimey ‘Blood and Fire’ which, together with Bob Marley’s ‘Catch a Fire’ Album inspired me to put together a band.

OUTSIDELEFT: Early Steel Pulse... how did you all evolve into that? That direction, reggae was I suppose, relatively young at the time...
BASIL GABBIDON:
David and I went to the same secondary school, Handsworth Wood Boys School, and we had talked about setting up a band. But it was not until we were at Bournville Art College that we got more serious about it and started the band. I had taught David and Ronnie to play the guitar in my parents’ front room. My brother Colin joined us afterwards on drums.

OUTSIDELEFT: Could you feel a momentum around the band?
BASIL GABBIDON:
I could feel a development as we used to rehearse quite a lot. Nothing happens without a bit of luck. Be prepared and the luck will follow.

Steel Pulse in 1978 at the BBC

OUTSIDELEFT: When you were recording Handsworth Revolution, did you know, in the studio, could you feel it... You were creating an iconic record, one of the greatest LPs of all time, of any genre. Did it feel special so special at the time? I mean, did you know? The harmonies. The little subtle percussion parts, the guitars, the songs, oh man.
BASIL GABBIDON:
I had not imagined that it would get so big. We knew there was potential and that we had something to say. Island Records was a good record label and they had a good team. They pulled all the resources to make it a success. Radio (John Peel BBC Radio 1) and TV airplay also helped make it big. We were not presumptuous, we were quietly optimistic with an inner belief in ourselves.

OUTSIDELEFT: You worked on the iconic sleeve art too, right?
BASIL GABBIDON:
Yes, I initially designed the sleeve with David and then I painted the original. Island made a copy of it and then commissioned someone else to illustrate it.

OUTSIDELEFT: You were incredibly successful for a while, playing to 80,000 people at RAR events, playing at Reggae Sunsplash and other high profile events. What are some of your greatest memories from that time with the band?
BASIL GABBIDON:
My greatest memories: There are so many of them but touring with Bob Marley and the Wailers was very special as well as playing on the Rock Against Racism circuit.

OUTSIDELEFT: And the low points, and you eventually leaving?
BASIL GABBIDON:
I was exhausted physically and mentally. I wanted the band to take time out but some others did not want to do so. The creativity was stagnating.

OUTSIDELEFT: After Steel Pulse it took you a while to figure out what you wanted to do?
BASIL GABBIDON:
I took a break to regenerate the batteries. I had put music aside for a year or so to spend time with my family.

OUTSIDELEFT: What about playing live and recording now? Do you still enjoy that?
BASIL GABBIDON:
More so than ever.

OUTSIDELEFT: What is happening next?
BASIL GABBIDON:
Since leaving Steel Pulse, I have recorded 4 albums, 1 EP and have worked with other artists. I am currently putting the finishing touches to a single featuring my daughter. We just played at the Jam House, celebrating 40 years of Handsworth Revolution which I would like to take on the road.


Basil Gabbidon Band on Facebook

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Ancient Champion

Ancient Champion only ever communicates with us online so, so much we don't know. Proud Citizen of Nowhere is the response when we ask where you from? We do know the Ancient Champion is releasing a new single each month of 2018. Instrumental music characterised as easy listening for difficult people. And a collection of extremely short stories, Six Stories About Motoring Nowhere as part of the SideCartel's Sextet series. More info at AncientChampion.com

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