Sunday, August 22, 2010

Surfing With Steel Pulse

In 1979, with punk and Margaret Thatcher looming over the nation, the British reggae band Steel Pulse pulled off something unexpected:  an exuberant ode to suffering in the face of tyranny.

"Babylon Makes the Rules" must be the bounciest song to contain the sentiment, "You've brought fire on my head and now you must pay."  (Don't mind if I do!)  "Babylon" is a call and response between David Hinds and his bandmates.  Hinds is great, but his backup singers and their Pips-ish cheer sell the song.  Resisting Babylon is gonna be tough, they seem to say, but what we really want to do is SING!  And oh yes, have you tried the Jah herb?

The words of "Babylon" are uncompromising; plenty of reggae's Babylon songs advocate passive protest, but Steel Pulse don't mess around:

And now I say we must create a scene
(WAR, WAR, create a scene!)
We must recapture our culture by any means
(Recapture our culture!  Recapture our culture!)

 They sound like the Moral Majority, with their belief that direct political action can take back The Culture.  (Not so much with their communal pot smoking.)  Even so, the song swings wildly back and forth between force and resignation.  No matter how fired up Hinds and his mates sound during the verses, they always return to the more subdued, minor-key chorus:
Babylon makes the rules
Babylon makes the rules
Babylon makes the rules
Babylon makes the rules
Where my people suffer ...

The only attempt at resolution comes at the end, when Hinds starts singing "Jah love... will carry I home."  Well, sure, but that still doesn't tell us how to deal with Babylon in the meantime.  Do we put up with Thatcher until we can vote her out, or do we order her to Stand Down?  The sound of "Babylon Makes the Rules" offers an even better option:  SING!  Preferably with one another.

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