IT’S EASY TO forget, amongst the tinny beats, horrid haircuts, man makeup and spandex dance moves that the early ‘80s was a vivid time for post-punk and – more specifically – groups that were soaking up the influence of dub and reggae. Oh, and doing something innovative with it.
I’m talking about bands like The Specials, but also producer/mix master Adrian Sherwood, his On-U Sound label, and the collective talent that made nearly everything it released worth checking out.
One such group was the New Age Steppers, whose music was, in many ways a logical extension of The Slits, an extraordinary punk/dub fusion featuring vocalist Ari Up, who, surprise-surprise, turned out also to be a key member of the New Age Steppers. Other members of the revolving lineup over its three albums included Bim Sherman (later of Tackhead), Mark Stewart (formerly of The Pop Group) and a nascent Neneh Cherry, who was big in her own right for about ten minutes later that beleaguered decade.
New Age Steppers were one of the more sonically experimental of the On-U Sound groups, but also, in their way, true to the dub sounds of Jamaica. Dormant for many, many years, Sherwood and Ari Up began working up songs for what became Love Forever just before she was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. Sadly, she died in 2010. It’s hard to imagine that this album could be as vital as those early sides, because they were packed full with the kind of spit and passion and energy that comes with youth. But the first time I heard this record, I didn’t know whether it comprised unreleased early recordings or recent ones, and I wasn’t convinced of the latter until track 5, ‘Musical Terrorist’, simply because the terminology of the lyrics wouldn’t have been in use back in the early ‘80s.
Certainly, all of Sherwood’s sonic characteristics are here: the way he stereo-pans certain sounds, echoes others, and generally proves his masterful ways with a mixing desk. On ‘Love Me Nights’, for instance, the manipulation of bass notes is exquisite, and his work enhances the work her beyond measure.
Ari Up has the same outrageous spirit that made The Slits so likeable, and other bit players (apparently including Skip McDonald of Little Axe, Ghetto Priest and Adamski) do their bit to make it a palatable and entertaining offering, whether it’s cranking along on dancehall beats or something more roots-oriented.
There are weak spots, however, and it would be remiss to gloss over them. Some songs are pallid compared to others, and I’m guessing that they weren’t quite finished with Ari Up died. The aforementioned ‘Musical Terrorists’ is a rather clichéd idea, and a few others sound like they could have done with some fleshing out.
It would be harsh to expect this reunion to have the surprise factor or freshness of those early albums, and it doesn’t. But while it’s only sporadically great, Love Forever can at least claim moments of glory. GARY STEEL
Music = 3.5/5
Sound = 4/5