Andrew Cowen talks to Steel Pulse's David Hinds about reggae's protest roots...
While UB40 may be the commercial trailblazers of Birmingham's reggae scene, the heart and soul of the music belongs to Steel Pulse.
Long before the Campbell brothers and mates issued their classic debut album, David Hinds led Steel Pulse to the fringes of stardom with music that remains some of the most committed - and entertaining --pressed to vinyl.
Before the 1976 punk revolution, reggae was a Jamaican import, selling mainly to Caribbean ex-pats and a handful of skinheads and working class white kids. With the arrival of the Clash and Johnny Rotten eulogising the likes of Burning Spear and Culture, the music rapidly grew in stature.
Reggae DJs like Don Letts and Barry "Scratchy" Myers were regularly to be found spinning reggae singles between the bands at punk clubs and the influence of dub on the first generation of post-punk bands was immense.
Yet homespun reggae bands were still an exception rather than the rule. London's Ladbroke Grove had Aswad, a fiery authentic outfit led by former child actor Brinsley Forde. Birmingham had Steel Pulse.
Hugely political and outspoken, Steel Pulse built a reputation for mesmerising live performances, their full band sound as authentic as anything coming out of Jamaica.
Rather than sing about traditional Rasta issues, they turned the spotlight on problems in the UK. Forging an alliance with the massively influential Rock Against Racism organisation, they helped turn the tide against the growing right wing menace of the mid to late 1970s.
Steel Pulse's debut album Handsworth Revolution, issued on Island Records in 1978, was a stone classic. The title track and Ku Klux Klan, both minor hit singles, gave a poetic insight into the reality of living in strife-torn inner city Britain. Steel Pulse were singing about Handsworth, but the themes were universal.
Police harassment, unemployment, riots and racism were a way of life at the time and music, as always, a short cut out of the ghetto.
Although the original Steel Pulse line-up may have splintered, David Hinds still leads the group from Handsworth. Still committed to his community, he also spreads the reggae gospel across the globe. When I spoke to him, he'd just returned from a Japanese tour and was about to start rehearsals for a headline slot at next weekend's ArtsFest where a stage has been devoted to the city's reggae heritage.
Had Steel Pulse moved away, there would be a conquering heroes' welcome waiting for them. The fact that they, like UB40, remain living and working in the city, is all the more remarkable.
"We're here until the taxman gets us," joked Hinds.
The band have a new album released today. Global Warning, recorded in Birmingham, continues the trend of marrying acute lyrics to an irrestistible groove. It's an album of protest songs, but an album you can dance to. It's also as good as anything from their 25 year back catalogue.
Hinds is naturally pleased with the album. "We're still getting the message out," he said.
The whole pop culture landscape has changed since the late 1970s when Margaret Thatcher was both Prime Minister and number one hate figure for the disenfranchised youth.
These days, bands and artists are far less likely to make a stand, particularly at the crucial grass roots level.
The recent Live8 gig is a case in point. After much hype and posturing the day turned out to be pretty much what many predicted: a jolly afternoon in the sun watching selfaggrandising millionaires push their back catalogues to the couldn't-really-care generation. Practically nothing changed and Africa is still in turmoil.
Hinds has mixed feelings about the event. "Broadly speaking I was in favour of it," he told me. "But, as usual, reggae didn't get a look-in. Roots reggae music has always been at the forefront of social change and Live8 was an insult really, a slap in the face."
Hinds believes that excluding reggae from the Hyde Park stage sends out a negative message and positivity has always been the driving force behind Steel Pulse.
He looks at the latest dancehall and ragga sounds which mark the current point of reggae's evolution and dismisses most of it as "easy listening".
"It's not the real essence of my music," says Hinds. "Where are the political instances?" he asks.
"Real reggae would address these issues and make the world a better place."
* Steel Pulse play in Centenary Square as part of the Reggae Rockz program for ArtsFest. The gig is free.