11 February 2010

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slots 111 & 112]

Nelson Mandela
b/w Break Down The Door!
The Special AKA
Written by Jerry Dammers
Produced by Elvis Costello
2 Tone CHS TT26
Released 17 April 1984

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the English music scene was bubbling not only with the punk movement. In what was to become a complimentary sound as many punk artists matured, the revival of Jamaican ska - the precursor to rocksteady and reggae - swept the UK. Coventry native Jerry Dammers was a leading promoter of ska, both as a businessman as well as a musician. Forming the record label 2 Tone, Dammers' multi-racial group The Specials stormed the charts with such hits as "Ghost Town" and "A Message To You, Rudy." Label mates The (English) Beat, The Selecter and Madness also made a significant mark on the genre.

But by 1984, Dammers appeared to be a spent force. Three key members of The Specials left the band and formed Fun Boy Three. Personal issues were plaguing Dammers as well. Recalling a lot of idle time spent in the studio, struggling to finish a new album with replacement musicians, he recalled: "Part of it was my fault; I was working ideas out in the studio. Then there were a lot of other problems - drink, drugs, mental illness, across the board! I was very down after the Fun Boy Three left."

But Dammers had a tune in his head that he needed to get out. "Rock music was dead," Dammers recalled, "It was all electro-pop, hip hop, jazz or Latin. And also, Joe Hagen had this African club at Gossip's. I was inspired by the spirit and positivity of that African music. I was trying to get in a few Latin rhythms, but also township jazz." Lyrically, Dammers thought the song had to be on the scale of "Ghost Town," whose theme had been UK-wide unemployment, with not-too-subtle finger-pointing at the Thatcher government.

Then Dammers attended a 65th birthday party at Alexandra Palace for a man he - and the vast majority of others in the room - had never met: Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who had been languishing in a Robben Island, South Africa prison for 21 years. "I'd never heard of him, to be honest," Dammers said. "Various bands sang about him, particularly Julian Bahula. And that's where I got the idea to put this message into this tune I had hanging around."

For "Nelson Mandela," producer Elvis Costello brought in backing singers Afrodiziak and their opening a capella refrain makes the record memorable from the get-go. Then a lazy horn chart becomes a dance hall frenzy, and lead vocalist Stan Campbell takes the reins, educating the masses on the ANC leader that no one had heard from in almost a generation.

Dammers liked that he had crafted "a very simple melody, three notes - C, A and E. That meant the public could sing it." It went to #9 on the UK charts. The song, banned in South Africa, would nevertheless be heard in townships all over South Africa. And it was the centerpiece of the Mandela 70th birthday show, televised in June 1988 and viewed by 600 million people.

Twenty years ago today, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. After being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he went on to become the elected President of South Africa, serving from 1994 to 1999. Currently 91 years old, Mandela is one of the most recognizable figures in the world.

WATCH "Nelson Mandela" by The Special AKA.

Sun City
Artists United Against Apartheid
Written by Steven Van Zandt
Produced by Steven Van Zandt and Arthur Baker
EMI Manhattan Records
Released 7 December 1985

Meanwhile, in the United States, "Little" Steven Van Zandt left the gig of a lifetime - voluntarily - in 1984 when he split from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. He then turned to more overtly political causes, mainly aiming at Reagan-era foreign policy issues.

A fancy resort in South Africa called Sun City had become a vacation haven for the internationally rich and famous, with notable entertainers (including Queen, Elton John, Ray Charles and Rod Stewart) being paid huge sums of money to perform before them. In response, Van Zandt organized Artists United Against Apartheid, whose members pledged not to play in South Africa while the apartheid regime was still in power.

The resulting musical project included the Van Zandt penned "Sun City," a militant stomp aggressively produced with Arthur Baker and performed by 49 notable musicians. Enjoy the intro by the great Miles Davis and then see how many stars you can spot in the video:

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