Friday, September 1, 2017

Duff Review: Reissues of Buster's All Stars "Skinhead Luv-a-fair"/Bad Manners "Return of the Ugly"

Skinhead Luv-a-fair LP
Blue Beat Records, 1989; Black Butcher Classics, 2014 (reissue)

Return of the Ugly LP
Blue Beat Records, 1989; Black Butcher Classics, 2017 (reissue)

Both records are available in the USA through Jump Up Records.

(Review by Steve Shafer)

According to George Marshall's unauthorized 1993 biography of the band (legally contested and, I believe, forcibly withdrawn), while on tour in the USA in 1985 after parting ways with Magnet Records (leaving in their wake a good run of terrific hit singles--"Lip Up Fatty," "Special Brew," "Lorraine," "Can Can," "Walking in the Sunshine"--and several fairly successful albums, including Ska'n'B and Loonee Tunes, all of which contained both truly great and disappointingly meh material), Bad Manners snagged a deal with CBS/Portrait, which led to the recording of the mostly dreadful Mental Notes. Despite the enormous amount of cash lavished on the album, the lackluster songs and mismatched pop production geared specifically for American radio (look no further than their cover of Todd Rundgren's "Bang the Drum All Day") doomed Mental Notes to the discount bins to be purchased by the clueless fan.

Marshall (of Zoot! Skazine renown) recounted that it eventually became apparent to Bad Manners that they were being used as a tax write-off for CBS (against the earnings of the label's profitable releases) when they were playing a show with Fishbone in Los Angeles in 1986 and Buster Bloodvessel (AKA Doug Trendle) called Portrait's LA office to inquire/complain about the non-existent tour support. To his horror, he discovered that no one there had even heard of Bad Manners, let alone knew they were signed to CBS/Portrait! Reportedly, on the way back to the UK, Buster stopped at Portrait's headquarters in New York and "tore up" their contract. But since this dramatic (and no doubt satisfying) act didn't actually dissolve their legal obligations, Bad Manners had several years to wait out the remainder of their contract before they could release another album.

While running down the clock with their label, Bad Manners continued to gig in the UK and even formed a side project with some of the Bad Manners crew (Buster, Martin Stewart, Louis "Alphonso" Cook, and Winston Bazoomies) and other London-based ska musicians (notably a former schoolmate of Buster's from Woodberry Down, Nick Welsh, and members of The Forest Hillbillies and Welsh's King Hammond band) called Buster's All Stars, in order to play smaller venues (without decreasing the guarantees that Bad Manners could demand) and keep the opportunities to perform coming. Eventually, the Buster's All Stars personnel became the new iteration of Bad Manners, recording the limited edition Eat the Beat LP--issued on Buster's own newly created/licensed Blue Beat imprint in 1988--which contained a slew of covers, as well as some fantastic new songs (mostly provided by Welsh) that would form the core of Bad Manners' triumphant Return of the Ugly album (while several other cuts reemerged on Buster's All Stars' Skinhead Luv-a-fair).

For all intents and purposes, Buster's All Stars' Skinhead Luv-a-fair is a Bad Manners album and quite a good one at that. Released the same year as Return of the Ugly (1989), it allowed Buster and company to simultaneously promote/sell two releases to the ska public, as well as beef up Blue Beat's catalogue (other key Blue Beat releases in 1989 were King Hammond's Revolution '70, reviewed by us hereNapoleon Solo's Shot; and the Live in London--The London International Ska Festival comp, also reviewed by us here--all of which are completely worth tracking down if you don't already own them). Skinhead Luv-a-fair is a mix of amped-up, crowd-pleasing covers (including Prince Buster's "Big Five," Symarip's "Skinhead Girl," and a rollicking version of Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk") and striking Trendle/Welsh originals ("Viva La Ska Revolution" and the King Hammond-sounding "Rocksteady Breakfast" in particular are top-notch; bizarrely, the awesome "Skinhead Love Affair" wasn't included on the album, but only appeared on the Skank Licensed to Ska comp and the b side of a Bad Manners/Buster's All Stars Christmas single!). If this had been the only album that Buster's All Stars/Bad Manners had put out that year, it would have been hailed as their comeback. But that accolade would be associated with their other effort that year--and deservedly so.

Return of the Ugly just might be the best album Bad Manners ever made. Every song is a winner and there's a cohesiveness in their spaghetti Western reggae theme ("Buffalo Ska" and "Bonanza Ska"!) and sound (dig all the judicious use of violin and harmonica!) that eluded practically all of their other records. Nick Welsh is the gunslinging hero here, writing "Skaville UK" (also released as a 12" single), "Since You've Gone Away," "Memory Train" (a personal favorite of mine), as well as collaborating with Buster on "Rosemary" and "Return of the Ugly" (borrowing the title of the lead track off of Lee Perry and The Upsetters' Clint Eastwood). Recognizing Laurel Aitken's considerable songwriting prowess, Bad Manners covered two (!) of the "Godfather of Ska's" then recent songs--"Sally Brown" and "Hey Little Girl." According to Mark Brennan's liner notes for the 2013 Pressure Drop reissue of Return of the Ugly on CD, Aitken himself played keys on "Hey Little Girl" for this recording! (I have to note how wild it was that so many versions of Aitken's "Sally Brown" were circulating in the late '80s--first there was the original Laurel Aitken/Potato 5 song released in 1987 on the Floyd Lloyd and The Potato 5 Meet Laurel Aitken LP and "Sahara" single (both on Gaz's Rockin' Records); Laurel recorded another version with the Pressure Tenants for the 1989 "Sally Brown" 12" (Unicorn Records); and it was released again on Aitken's mind-blowingly good Ringo the Gringo LP in 1990 (Unicorn Records)). The last cut on Return of the Ugly is something of an oddity, since it's actually a skacid cut (yes, in the UK in the late '80s this was a thing) from a 12" produced by Longsy D that Buster appeared on--yet somehow this trad ska/house beats mash-up works quite well here.

In 1988, I had no idea Bad Manners were still around until I picked up the first Skankin' 'Round the World comp licensed from Unicorn in the USA by Skaloid--The Toasters' ska imprint through Celluloid that released their Thrill Me Up album and Bim Skala Bim's Tuba City (and was slated to issue something from The Potato 5, but Celluloid soon went belly up and the Spuds called it quits after their difficult 1989 US tour, so that never transpired). Strangely, Bad Manners' contribution to Skankin' 'Round the World was Buster's All Stars' "Baby Elephant Walk" instrumental (with no vocals from Buster!). At the now long gone Bleecker Bob's in Greenwich Village, I later came across Return of the Ugly, which was one of many late '80s UK/Euro ska imports that I bought or mail-ordered through Unicorn Records to feed my increasing appetite for all things ska. During the summer (or early fall) of 1989, Bad Manners played Wetlands in NYC with The Donkey Show and my memories of that show--I'm embarrassed to say--are clouded by excessive drink that night, but what I do remember was pretty fantastic (like the incredibly rousing, sing-along rendition of "Sally Brown").

By 1990, Buster's robust touring schedule had kept him from tending business at Blue Beat's home office and their aggressive issuing of so many admittedly great (but not best-selling) records in 1989 left the label's finances in dire straights, so it was shuttered. But an even bigger blow was delivered as the result of the 1991 reformation of The Selecter. Neol Davies and Pauline Black borrowed Martin Stewart and Nick Welsh for The Selecter's first batch of live dates--and this soon became a permanent arrangement, leaving Buster without two of his key performers and his main songwriter/collaborator. According to an interview I did with Welsh in 2010, Buster hasn't spoken to him since.

Despite the acrimonious end of the late '80s incarnation of Bad Manners/Busters' All Stars, the two albums they produced are some of the finest of that era--and amongst the best that Bad Manners ever released.

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