Helpless Dancer

The Endless Note


Actually “I be 50” but that’s not the point, though it is hard to believe it is 30 years since I bought the UB40 debut album “Signing Off” which was released by Graduate Records on 29th August 1980 with a free three track 12″ single as an addition to the ten tracks on the album.

Most people will unfortunately remember the band for their series of reggae based cover versions recorded for Virgin Records which transformed them from being a “protest band” to a somewhat sanatised band for happy loving couples to play at dinner parties as a token gesture to being reggae loving hipsters.

“Signing Off” however deserves to be re-discovered as it is another great debut album.

Signing Off was a mix of reggae and dub material which was lyrically politically charged and socially conscious, while musically it was reverb-heavy, doom-laden yet mellifluous, best exemplified in the hits “King” and “Food For Thought” as well as the searing “Burden of Shame”.

The opening track on the album “Tyler” was written about a young black American Gary Tyler, who was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old white boy, at the age of 17. UB40 intended “Tyler” to be their first single in the States.

“King” was a song written about the late Martin Luther King, Jr., questioning the lost direction of the deceased leader’s followers and the state of mourning of a nation after his death.

Perhaps the biggest success of the album was the song “Food For Thought”, which was an attempt to publicize and condemn the Ethiopian famine in Africa, comparing it with the Western over-indulgent celebration of Christmas, a full five years before Band Aid brought the subject to widespread attention. Subsequently it was also a prominent feature of UB40’s 2005 Live 8 appearance in Hyde Park, London – 25 years after the song had been first released. Both “King” and “Food For Thought” were released together as a Double A-side, as their debut single in February 1980. It topped the Indie chart for three months, reached #4 in the UK charts, and went on to sell half a million copies.

The original vinyl album consisted of a ten-track LP plus a 3-track 12-inch record which included the tracks “Madam Medusa”, “Strange Fruit” and “Reefer Madness”.

“Madam Medusa” stands up alongside the likes of The Beat’s “Stand Down Margaret” and The Specials “Ghost Town” as social commentaries on the Thatcher years.

“Madam Medusa” – UB40

From the land of shadows
Comes a dreadful sight
Lady with the marble smile
Spirit of the night
See the scourge of innocence
Swinging in her hand
Hear the silent suffering
That echoes through the land

From the tombs of ignorance
Of hate and greed and lies
Through the smoke of sacrifice
Watch her figure rise
The sick the poor the old
Basking in her radiance
Men of blood and gold

In her bloody footsteps
Speculators prance
Men of dreams are praying
For that second chance
Round her vacant features
Gilded serpents dance
Her tree of evil knowledge
Sprouts a special branch

Madam Medusa
Madam Medusa
Madam Medusa

Knock her right down
And then she bounce right back
Knock her right down
And then she bounce right back
She gone off her head
We`ve got to shoot her dead
She gone off her head
We`ve got to shoot her dead
Run for your life before she eat you alive
Run for your life before she eat you alive
Move out of the way cos`s you`re blocking out the day
Move out of the way cos`s you`re blocking out the day

To buy the music of UB40 click HERE

Just today I was reading the current NME in which Paul Weller as quoted as saying “this generation needs to stand up and fight”………….step forward the new Billy Bragg

November 29, 2010 Posted by | Blast from The Past, Old Music, Reggae, Video | , , , , | Leave a comment

Tears For Levi Stubbs

Levi Stubbs, who died yesterday aged 72, was one of the most distinguished soul singers of his generation and, as lead singer with the Four Tops, a pioneer of the Motown sound that dominated the pop charts in the 1960s.

Between 1964 and 1968 the Tops enjoyed 12 Top 20 American hits, including I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honeybunch), It’s The Same Old Song and Bernadette. But perhaps the group’s – and Stubbs’s – finest moment was Reach Out I’ll Be There, a number one record in 1966 which characterised the Motown sound at its most sublime, with its galloping rhythm and symphonic orchestrations, and Stubbs’s soulful, beseeching baritone pitched somewhere between a cry for help and a prayer against the silken harmonies of the other Tops.

Like most of the group’s greatest hits, that song was written and produced by the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, the most consistently inventive and successful partnership at the Motown “factory”. H-D-H also produced five consecutive number ones for the Supremes, as well as hits for Martha and the Vandellas, the Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye.

For the Four Tops they produced songs that were perfectly measured to Stubbs’s declamatory, pleading style – love songs tinted with desperation and melodrama in which Stubbs was usually cast as a wounded lover, begging for release or redemption. “He would feel that type of thing, and he’d be able to sell it because he’s basically a dynamic singer anyway,” Eddie Holland once recalled. “He’s very forceful in his attitude. We knew that, so we wouldn’t give those songs to someone else to sing.”

The English songwriter Billy Bragg would pay tribute to the emotional force of Stubbs’s voice in his 1986 song Levi Stubbs’ Tears: “She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case/When the world falls apart some things stay in place/Levi Stubbs’ tears… ”

Levi Stubbs was born in Detroit on June 6 1936 into a family with a strong musical tradition. The soul singer Jackie Wilson was a cousin, and his brother Joe Stubbs sang with the Detroit R&B group the Falcons.

Stubbs’s singing career began in 1954, when he started performing with three other high-school students, Lawrence Payton, Abdul “Duke” Fakir and Renaldo “Obie” Benson, as the Four Aims. Two years later the group signed to Chess records, changing their name to the Four Tops, supposedly to avoid confusion with another popular vocal group, the Ames Brothers.

Drawing on a repertoire comprised mostly of showtunes and standards, and singing in a close-harmony jazz style, the Tops performed in supper-clubs and lounges, and made records for Red Top, Riverside and Columbia, with no great success.

They had recently completed a tour with Billy Eckstine when, in 1961, they were approached by a young entrepreneur named Berry Gordy. An erstwhile boxer, Ford production-line worker and songwriter, Gordy had recently founded his own record label, Motown, gathering around him a crop of fresh young local talent that included Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells and the Temptations.

By comparison, the Four Tops were seasoned veterans, but Gordy was determined to bring them to the label. “Smooth, classy and polished, they were big stuff,” Gordy remembered. “I wanted them bad. I could see how loyal they were to each other, and I knew they would be the same to me and Motown.”

The Tops were initially sceptical, particularly when they learned of Gordy’s policy of not allowing his putative signings to take contracts away from the office and study them at their leisure. They persuaded Gordy to make an exception in their case.

It was two years before they came back, explaining that while the contract was satisfactory they had doubts that a small, black-owned label like Motown would be able to survive.

Their first Motown recording, a vocal jazz album, Breakin’ Through, on a dedicated label, Jazz Workshop, disappeared without trace, and for a while the group marked time providing backing vocals for other Motown acts, including the Supremes.

It was not until they were teamed with Holland, Dozier and Holland that they abandoned their jazz stylings, adopting the Motown “house style”. Their first H-D-H production, Baby I Need Your Loving, in 1964, reached number 11 in the American charts, and they enjoyed their first number one, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), the following year. The group would become particularly popular in Britain, where for a while they enjoyed the distinction of being Motown’s biggest-selling act.

Like Eddie Kendricks with the Temptations, and Diana Ross with the Supremes, Stubbs might easily have elected to leave the group and pursue a solo career. But he remained loyal to his friends, arguing that the group could never break up – “We’d be lost, babye_SLps lost without each other turning up for a game of cards or a sing-through.” The group would retain the same personnel until 1990, with the death of Lawrence Payton.

In 1967 Holland, Dozier and Holland fell out with Berry Gordy over profit-sharing and royalties, leading to an acrimonious lawsuit and their departure from the company. Deprived of their reliable supply-line of hits, the Four Tops’ fortunes suffered, and in 1972 they too left Motown following a contractual dispute.

Over the following years, recording for ABC and Casablanca, they enjoyed hits with Keeper of The Castle, Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got) and When She Was My Girl, all of which displayed the group’s customary polish without ever reaching the heights of their Motown work. A glowing exception was the duet which Stubbs recorded with Aretha Franklin, I Want To Make It Up To You, in 1982 for her album Jump To It – a smouldering call-and-response in which Stubbs’s voice had never sounded richer, smoother or more seductive.

In 1983 the Four Tops returned to Motown, where they were briefly reunited with Holland, Dozier and Holland for one side of a come-back album, Back Where We Belong, and where they shared the stage with a host of Motown artists for a refulgently sentimental television special celebrating the label’s 25th anniversary, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which drew an audience of 47 million viewers. But the homecoming was shortlived, and they moved on to Arista, for which they recorded the grating novelty song Loco In Acapulco, which gave the group their last British Top 10 hit, in 1988.

Their recording career effectively over, the Four Tops continued to tour and perform, often in conjunction with another group of Motown veterans, the Temptations, the shows culminating in a “battle of the bands” in which the two groups would trade their greatest hits. Ill health finally led to Stubbs retiring from the group in 2000.

Levi Stubbs is survived by his wife, Clineice, whom he married in 1960, and five children.


October 19, 2008 Posted by | Old Music, Video | , , | Leave a comment


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