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Basil Gabbidon - Interview

  by Adam Coxon

published: 25 / 10 / 2023

Basil Gabbidon - Interview

Basil Gabbidon was born in Jamaica and moved to Birmingham as a child. After hearing Bob Marley's 'Catch a Fire' album, he formed Steel Pulse with school friends who played roots Reggae inspired by the music from Jamaica. They had trouble getting gigs at Caribbean venues in Birmingham initially; their music was seen as too political and non-commercial. Their breakthrough came when they won a ‘battle of the bands’ competition that led to a record deal and their hit song 'Ku Klux Klan.' Steel Pulse became very popular after supporting Burning Spear and were leaders in the Rock Against Racism movement. However, the constant touring and workload took its toll on Basil, and he left Steel Pulse after their album 'True Democracy.' Basil continues to celebrate Reggae history and plays shows with The Gabbidon Band. He has also released a new roots Reggae album. PB: You’ve been quite busy recently, Basil. What have you been getting up to? BG: Well, we've been putting gigs together. We do a thing called The Trojan Experience, which celebrates the music of Trojan records. It’s something that's spilled over from the ‘History of Reggae’ show that we do, which we performed at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham many years ago. Last year we performed it at The Rep. The original show was a journey from Africa to the West Indies, America into Britain, into Birmingham. As you know, Birmingham is the UK’s centre of Reggae music – a plug for Birmingham there! For this one, I started off with Gospel/Spiritual in the American settings. Then we went into some Boogie, performing songs written by artists such as Fats Domino, Louis Jordan and various others of that ilk. A bit of Mento, to show the Reggae connection. Mento was a close kind of style to Reggae, in a way, like Calypso. Then you got the Boogie, which is where I think Ska came from. People like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and other Jamaican DJs used to play that type of RnB stuff. They then decided to do their own recordings. They got a guy called Hedley Jones to build them a recording studio. Hedley Jones built and wired up the studio, a very talented man. He also made one of the first electric guitars. Check him out. PB: It's incredible when you think you can pretty much trace all music to Africa, can't you? BG: Of course. I mean, you did have the influence of European music because Spirituals became Gospel. Then you had stuff like Quadrille, which is like a French square music. But the original groove, I think, within black music is from Africa, which influenced everything. PB: The Beatles. Everything! BG: Exactly. Especially the English Musicians who were looking to Americans like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Even if those guys didn't die rich, they still got the recognition afterwards. PB: Yeah, it's incredible. So, you were school friends with David Hinds? BG: Yeah, we were at school together and we went to art college together. PM: How did you get to Birmingham from Jamaica? BG: What's quite funny about that, in Jamaica, they would say that England is in the sky somewhere. I think what it meant was that you have to take a plane. So I was expecting England to be in the clouds. When you're 8 years old, you don't know what's going on. So, we came to England, I think I got here in something like September ‘64. I think it was just after Jamaican independence. PB: What was exciting you musically at that time? BG: Not very much, really. I wasn't hooked on anything, but in Jamaica, they used to have bars and they would have a jukebox, and I used to dance to the jukebox music in those days. I’d be about seven years old. So that was the closest I got to actually hearing music of any sort. Where I first heard heavy music, heavy bass stuff, was where I used to live, in a place called Richmond. Every weekend you’d hear this heavy bass sound. When I came to England, it was mainly Radio One. So that's the only link to music I had there. PB: Is it true that Bob Marley's “Catch a Fire” album was the real catalyst for you? BG: Yeah. Well even before that was a guy called Niney who did a track called ‘Blood and Fire’, which made me think: ‘oh, yeah, I like Reggae’. And the bass was very heavy. Check the track out, you'll see what I'm saying. It's very bass dominated especially when it was played on the sound system, it was amazing. But when I started to take Reggae really seriously was when ‘Catch A Fire’ came out. There was a guitar lead break in it, it blew my mind. I had never heard Reggae music like that before. I had a good friend at school, George Stewart, and he introduced me to people like the Isley Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, a band called War, another band called Mandrill. And these were, progressive bands, so it seemed like I always liked progressive music, even some of the rock stuff. There was a band called Yes, they did a couple of nice tunes. One of my favourite bands in those days was Free. Really good band, lots of tasty guitar playing. So, it seemed like I was always into progressive music. Anything with a bit of a bite. I was never into pop stuff. Otherwise, I think I’d be a rich man by now! PB: So when you were first getting Steel Pulse together, I read that when you were trying to get gigs, that Caribbean venues in Birmingham wouldn't let you play there. BG: We played, but they didn’t like it. PB: Why was that? BG: We used to get what were called slates or white labels from Jamaica and we used to try and copy those kinds of beats, copying the rhythms. They weren't commercial, they were like just bass and drums, really, and the guy singing. We were really into the bassy kind of stuff, really rootsy. They used to tell us to come off stage and play some proper music. Some Dennis Brown or John Holt. We weren't interested in that to be honest. PB: I read that it was due to your Rastafarian beliefs. BG: No, not at that time. At that time, when we first started, we didn't really appreciate Rasta in the way that we did afterwards. PB: So no venues refused to have you there because of your beliefs? BG: No. PB: That's good. BG: But maybe on one hand…not directly, but maybe indirectly because of the music we played, which was chanting about Rasta. PB: Even Caribbean venues? BG: Yeah, because they were into the more commercial side of Reggae music. John Holt, Dennis Brown and that type I mean. Even Bob Marley wouldn't get a big hearing in the Caribbean clubs. PB: Right. So, they weren't as interested in the form. BG: It's more rootsy, more than the actual religion. PB: So they wouldn't like a Burning Spear show or anything? BG: Well, not at that time, maybe. He was probably more on the cusp more than it was a little bit commercial to an extent. PB: How important was Dennis Bovell in your career? BG: He was important in our second single. Our first single was called ‘Kibudu-Mansatta-Abuku’, which we recorded ourselves at a studio in Birmingham. That was on a label, I think it was called a ‘concrete label’ or something. But after that, we did a tune with Dennis Bovell called ‘Nyah Luv’, at a studio called Gooseberry. On the B side was a tune I wrote called ‘Bun dem’, but the ‘Nyah Luv’ track came out on Anchor Records. So that's how we really got going, if you like. We managed to get that deal after we entered a competition, a live band competition in Birmingham at a club called The Rialto, it was on Soho Road. We won, TJM got us to Bovell, and then we signed with Anchor Records and ‘Nyah Luv’ came out. PB: Was this at the same time that you were asked to be the backing group for Spear? BG: You've been doing your homework! PB: But did you decline that at first? BG: Exactly. They wanted us to back them. I think this came through TJM, I think they wanted us to be the backing band, but we didn't want to. David, in particular, insisted that we shouldn't do it. PB: Because you wanted to get your own thing up and running? BG: Yeah, we wanted to push our own thing. PB: I think that was a really great and brave move because Spear would have been really climbing at that time. Especially as that would have been around the time the ‘Marcus Garvey’ album had come out or just after. BG: It was at short notice as well, but Aswad backed them and then we did the support, which was fantastic. PB: Which worked better for you, I guess, because it's still your own thing. BG: Well, if we didn't get the support, I don't think we would have had the deal with Island Records. We used to take tapes to Island Records all the time for several weeks. Well, several months, but they were not interested until they saw us in the flesh. When we played, we were supporting Burning Spear, the crowd just went crazy. PB: Is this at The Rainbow? BG: Yeah, because we were all dressed in different, multicoloured outfits. I was dressed as the all-knowing witch doctor. David was a prisoner, Selwyn was a soldier, Ronnie was a desert Nomad. Mykaell the Preacher. Phonso was the BellBoy and Steve Nesbit was himself the drummer. The place went crazy before we had even played a note. Then somebody called Denise from Island Records was at the gig and wanted to sign us up just as we came off the stage. PB: That's incredible. From that moment, everything went massive for you guys and it never really came back down, did it? BG: It just took off with a top 10 album. But having said that, one of the things we did was to rehearse every day. We had our own rehearsal studio, which gave us the opportunity to rehearse every day. We knew it was something we needed to do and to do well. And it worked. PB: It's an incredible commitment, but it shows how much you wanted to succeed and wanted to work for it. You don't get anything if you don't work for it. BG: Absolutely, and people don't forgive you. You do a gig and it's not quite right, people don’t forget. If we had done that Rainbow gig and we weren't quite right, we wouldn't have had the deal. But having said that, everybody played a part in the band. I instigated it. I taught the guys to play guitar and so on, because I could play a bit then. Selwyn came in and Mykaell Riley came up with the idea of the costumes, which he had, in a sense, copied from ‘Matumbi’ – he's a bit of a Preacher. Anyway, we decided that we may as well wear something different as well. So, we put a bit of a fun element into it with the costumes. They really worked. It was a great idea. PB: Why do you think the punk rockers found an affinity in Reggae music? BG: I think it was what we call sufferers music. They wanted to do away with all the rich rock band type of sounds and get real with the people so that they're part of the people, which is exactly what Rasta and Reggae is about. It's about talking about truth and rights and your everyday stories and living life. It's not about getting rich and driving a Rolls Royce. It was a real thing. And I think they could relate to that because that's what they were trying to say. They were rebelling. PB: The punk and the Reggae tied in and became synonymous with the Rock Against Racism movement festivals. You guys were the first Reggae act to do that in 1978, weren't you, with The Clash? BG: The Clash, Generation X as well. Johnny Rotten was a big fan, he used to walk around wearing our solid silver Steel Pulse badge, ‘YEH!’. We did all the right venues to be noticed by the NME and Sounds magazine and stuff like that because those papers were the ones. There was no internet then. You had to be at the venues where those writers would be. You had to do those kinds of venues and that's what the punks were doing. The punk thing took off as well. PB: One of the things that I think is so great about Steel Pulse is the fact that you were not only promoting the message of Reggae and the Rastafarian movement, but also promoting the Rock Against Racism movement, which would have been massively cutting edge culturally at that time. So, to put a focus on that through music was just incredible, wasn't it? BG: Yeah, it just all came together at the right time. I call us British Reggae. There is a difference, between British Reggae and Reggae from Jamaica. PB: You are a Jamaican though! I know that you were raised here for a lot of the time, but it's still roots music to me. BG: Well, that's what we were trying to emulate, what they were doing in Jamaica. What really turned it on for me, we used to go to the blues, and you’d hear the windows shaking and before you get inside, you'd be outside and you're hearing this kind of rumble. Half the time, you were hearing a different melody outside than was playing inside, because the building was creating its own reverberation. PB: I've got to talk to you about ‘True Democracy’. I was listening to it on the way down here. I think that was your last album with the band, actually. BG: Yeah, the fourth album. PB: But if you are going to go out, what an album to go out on. BG: You're a good man. That was a good album. That one and ‘Handsworth Revolution’ were my two favourites. PB: In the space of four years, you had released four albums, you had global success. It's fair to say that you were probably bigger in America than you were over here. BG: America and Jamaica, funnily enough, we’re really big in Jamaica, apparently. PB: You were always on TV shows in America. So, what was it that caused you to leave the band? BG: I knew you were going to ask me that! Well, I started the band, and I started it more or less from college. I left college at around 17 years old, maybe 16, maybe 18. So I was doing a lot of the building up and rehearsing and teaching them to play and putting the concept together. I even built my own guitar case. I remember running to the rehearsal – where we used to rehearse, David lived there – running to rehearsal with a heavy case. That's how keen I was, the case weighed a ton. You could say I was putting in a lot of the work. Afterwards, the others came in on it, David in particular. He then started to write the lyrics, etcetera, we were travelling to gigs here and there and so on for quite a few years, and I think it just took a toll. After we got signed up, we’d tour, when you come back, you record an album again. PBM: You'd switched to Elektra Records just around this time, hadn't you? BG: Yeah, for ‘True Democracy’, just after I left. It was a little bit too much for me. I just ran out of steam, to be honest, there was not much left in the tank, I was in a dark place. I did suggest to the “man dem” to take six months out, have a break and come back. But David and the rest of the band were not too keen on that. They wanted to soldier on. PB: I guess the feeling might have been that when you're on top, it's hard to kind of step back and take six months. BG: Possibly. But I was in a good frame of mind musically, and I thought, okay, if we have a break and come up with some new ideas, because I wanted to take it maybe a little bit more, into rocky, more guitars in the sound, and change it slightly. So, we've done that. Let's do this now if you know what I mean. Like, The Beatles: they did go in another direction. Still the same, but different. So that was the plan, but they didn't want to do that. So I had to come out because I couldn't stay. There was nothing left, nothing more to give, energy wise. So they carried on. That was the real reason. It wasn't necessarily because I’d fallen out with anyone, and it wasn't musical differences directly. There might have been a bit of an issue with the management. I had an issue with the road manager and that was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. When you’re in this kind of environment, you get people coming in who always seem to know better, and of course, you start to go somewhere else. Some people don't see what's coming. Some people see it. Sometimes you just think: ‘oh, gosh, I can't handle this’. PB: Huge respect to you for actually being able to put your hand up and know it's too much. It can't have been an easy decision to make at the time. BG: Oh, no, it wasn't. It really upset the bass player, Ronnie. I think he felt that it wouldn't be the same. He was the only one who came back with me to help me drop my equipment back at my house. I have not seen or spoken to Ronnie since that day. I don’t think he has forgiven me. He left shortly after, actually. I don't know why. PB: Now we're here at the Jam House in Birmingham, and this is the Gabbidon Band, and you're doing it on your own terms. BG: Well, yeah. I've got an album, which we do perform. We did it at The Robin the other day. It's still quite rootsy. What I did there, I don’t do that here, because it's that type of a club. What we do here is a celebration of those Reggae artists, like The Pioneers, John Holt, some Ska stuff, some early Bob Marley, some Third World, maybe a couple of mine. I saw Third World at the Odeon. When I first saw them, I was about 18. We were putting this band together and we went up to see them, and we nearly gave up! We said: ‘these guys are doing what we're trying to do’. They were being different, and we always tried to be different. I've got a lot of respect for Third World. And Bob Marley, obviously, because if it wasn't for that album (‘Catch A Fire’), I wouldn't be doing this. PB: Have you got any shows coming up where you're going to be playing your own set? BG: Not in the immediate future, but it goes down really well. If you're tight, people will like it. PB: What are your plans for the future, Basil? BG: I'm focusing on the history of Reggae. That goes down really well. You get a really big audience for that and it's really helping me to discover the history of the music. That's something we want to take into the theatres. But at the same time, I do want to promote my original stuff as much as possible, maybe even get some support with some of the bigger artists that do the festivals, etcetera. In the 70s, people were offering you things and new ideas and fresh sounds and stuff. These days, it's a little bit confined to what they play on the radio, what people dance to and stuff like that. It's not as open as it used to be, in my opinion. PB: One thing about Birmingham is that the Jamaican community here are incredible. They are so supportive. They're certainly always open to new sounds and new vibes and stuff like that. BG: You're right, because it is the centre of Reggae. There are bands even I haven’t heard about that were so brilliant back in our time, because in every other house there was a cellar with a band rehearsing in it. Bands like Black Symbol, Cornerstone, Eclipse, the list goes on. These are real quality bands. It's just that we probably had an international edge to us compared to them. They were very much rootsy. We had something else that made it more acceptable, I suppose. Now, we play here, but often I don't do the original stuff. I do it occasionally, but I would like to do more of it. At the end of the day, these people want to sell drinks and the name is going around. More and more people know that I'm out here, they know I'm doing stuff, so I'm getting more and more people interested in what I'm doing. There's a tune we're going to do near the end of the show called ‘Oh Jah Jah’, which is on the album, ‘Let’s Live’. The reason why I put ‘Oh Jah Jah’ in is because the other tunes need more instruments on the live show. I didn't want to just do them too basic. But when you hear the album, I'd love to know what you think of it. It's roots, basically. I went back to the 70s. Sounds great – well, I love that sound. And I love the album. I did it in the lockdown. I think I could have probably remixed it, but apart from that, I just love it. PB: Thank you.

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Basil Gabbidon - Interview

Basil Gabbidon - Interview

Basil Gabbidon - Interview

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