The evolution of the Dub Pistols has been fascinating to watch since Barry Ashworth first bust out in 1996 as fully-formed party animals declaring ‘There’s Gonna Be A Riot’. While their live show continued to whip up unbridled mayhem and build a healthy worldwide following through relentless touring, the records took their own path, moving swiftly on from initial big beat whoopee into celebrations of two lifetimes of musical obsessions, the reggae-punk implications of the Dub Pistols moniker just the launch-pad.
Their fourth album, Rum & Coke, continues the journey, this time using grooves more as vehicles for a songwriting frenzy which has resulted in their most assured, mature and, yep, commercial album yet. With a startling array of guests, including cool ruler Gregory Isaacs, Beats International’s Lindy Layton, acid house pioneer Justin Robertson and Ashley Slater of Freak Power they’ve refined the multi-hued excursions of previous album Speakers And Tweeters and emerged as a cutting-edge modern pop group without losing the danger, humour and mania.
The Dub Pistols formed in the mid-90s out of the chaos and energy erupting from the Heavenly Social-spawned big beat scene. Barry Ashworth had been in indie-dance outfit Deja Vu, who scored with their cover of the Woodentops’ ‘Why Why Why’, while Jason was half of Wall Of Sound duo Ceasefire with noted reprobate Derek Dahlarge. The pair appreciated the vast musical earthquakes going back to the late 50s when ska was born, determined to mirror their wildly-diverse tastes in similar fashion to heroes like The Clash and Specials, who spectacularly broke out of punk’s confines to embrace other musical forms like reggae.
The first Dub Pistols singles appeared on Deconstruction offshoot Concrete, roof-raising outings like ‘…Riot’, ‘Cyclone’ and ‘Westway’. Soon their live shows were turning into much more than decks, DATs and the odd cheerleader. A full Dub Pistols live band booted off, swiftly blowing up in the US while back home in the UK they sometimes had trouble detaching themselves from the big beat aftermath. 1998’s debut album, ‘Point Blank’, helped, hoisting Barry and Jason into remix work which included Moby, Ian Brown and Crystal Method [most recently Lily Allen] plus video games and soundtrack work, including a track for Blade 2 with Busta Rhymes.
Second album, Six Million Ways To Live, stomped on any remaining big beat associations as former Specials singer Terry Hall repaid the endless homaging by appearing on the ‘Problem Is’ single, called “the best Specials ska single the Specials never wrote”. Terry all but joined the group, going on to appear on several tracks on Speakers And Tweeters, including his own ‘Gangsters’ and an audacious version of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’.
At the time the album was hailed as an ultimate consumation of the Dub Pistols’ multi-hued aural graffiti wall; a live timebomb. It also marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship with Sunday Best [“Signing with them was the best thing we’ve ever done,” grins Barry]. Job done, they then took a different tack to take their most chart-friendly album to date.
Despite more accessible song structures, the Dub Pistols haven’t strayed far from their original manifesto, the reggae influence particularly dominant on tracks like ‘Revitalize’ and harsh inner city missive ‘Peace Of Mind’, all considerably livened by MCs Rodney P and T.K. Lawrence. “We’ve always had that influence,” states Barry. “That’s why it’s the Dub Pistols. We’ve always leant towards that but then we just veer off into any direction we feel like. Most people like their bands to sit in one little pigeon hole and don’t let them go away from that. Because we’ve been doing it for ten years and we’re on our fourth album people have got used to the fact that we go in different directions.”
‘It’s just taking all our influences from all the different things we’ve ever been into. When we started it was more of a DJ project, just sort of dancefloor canon fodder. You do the songs using what you learn over a period of time. We are moving on. I know it’s a bit more commercial but I just think we’re just getting a bit cleverer with it. You can make the song then you can smash it apart afterwards for the dancefloor!”
Out of deference to the Specials’ upcoming burst of activity [the Dub Pistols are supporting at the Brixton Academy shows], two tracks recorded with Terry Hall have even been held over for the next album. [“Move aside and let ‘em do their thing rather than having them on the record.”] This leaves room for a stellar cast of guest singers. The group achieved a lifelong ambition by recording with Gregory Isaacs, finally achieved in the convoluted fashion often encountered when dealing with reggae legends. Barry groans, “It’s a long story. There’s ten years of trying desperately hard. The publisher and everyone was telling me to stay away from it but eventually we got him. We waited on this council estate in North London all day and all night. Eventually he turned up and done his thing. It was a fucking nightmare! He would only do one take. We just had to get the bits and build a song around what we got. But, for us, it was just getting hold of Gregory Isaacs. He’s a legend. I think we managed to turn the song into a good track.” Indeed; the sublime flow of ‘Six Months’ is a perfect tribute to the Cool Ruler.
Renowned trombonist Ashley Slater, of Freak Power fame alongside Norman Cook, sings on the album’s opening track and first single ‘Back To Daylight’, a richly-melodic summer strut riding a smile-inducing bassline. He also lends his tones to the album’s most adventurous track, ’Song For The Summer’, a smokey ballad which closes the album as a necessary calm after the various storms and skank attacks which have gone before.
Lindy Layton, another former Cook cohort hitting number one in 1990 with Beats International’s ‘Dub Be Good To Me’, makes a surprise return on a sublime reggae-bedrocked romp through Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King’s heavenly disco-boogie classic ‘I’m In Love’, which will fulfil a sure-fire destiny as the album’s second single. “It’s great because we’ve never had a girl singing on anything before with this kind of bloke mentality,” says Jason. Lindy’s also been adding a feminine touch at Dub Pistols gigs. “We’ve performed a couple of times with her,” says Barry. “As soon as you play ‘Dub Be Good To Me’ people just go fucking berserk. Then ‘Guns Of Brixton’ and a bit of Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King and it goes crazy!”
Maybe an even bigger shock is veteran acid house DJ-producer Justin Robertson unleashing a sturdy singing voice on the buoyant 80s-recalling pop of ‘Keep The Fire Burning’. “Justin was a real cool guy to work with,” says Barry. “The boy can sing! He’s also done a remix of the first single from the album which is just fucking mindblowing: a full on in-your-face club anthem. He’s really easy to work with: good songwriter, good voice with that New Order Manchester feel to it.”
“We got contributions from lots of great people” enthuses Jason, “and having just a bunch of people who’ve all been dedicated to what they’re doing for a long time. Gregory, Justin, Ashley, Lindy, us… . Everyone’s kind of paid their dues and ridden it and stayed with it. It’s just got a nice feel to it that way.”
Humour is a sometimes overlooked element with the Dub Pistols. This time there’s the Mexican hip-hop of ‘She Moves’ and some hilarious spoken sample-intros, like ‘Ganja’.
“It’s nice to actually have some songs but some of it is not to be taken too seriously, obviously because it is fun,” explains Jason. “We do like to have a laugh and songs like that let people know that we’re willing to take the piss out of ourselves a little bit. We are serious about the music and also seriously fucking nuts!”
Few bands can raise a roof or ignite a festival crowd with more rabble-rousing aplomb than this crew. Barry, who still DJs relentless with the Dub Pistols Soundsystem, predicts that the Specials shows will be, “some of the best nights of my life”. They then go on tour before facing a hectic string of festival dates, including Glastonbury, Bestival, Glade, Beautiful Day, Rock Ness and Bloom.
The Dub Pistols’ punky-reggae party rages on, now doing damage with one of the year’s most potent musical brews, firing sugar-coated bullets at any recession depression. Their time has surely come.
Kris Needs, March 2009
Kris Needs, March 2009