When reggae and punk butted natty dreads against spikes in England in the 1970s, the relationship ranged from contentious to passionate. In the middle of it all was Steel Pulse, the Birmingham group formed in 1975. While most punks spewed a splintered rage, Steel Pulse had activism at its center. Bands like The Clash and even The Sex Pistols cherished dub reggae's rhythms and production, but Steel Pulse was concentrating on "roots, rock, reggae," that worldly-conscious music of protest. Over the last three decades, such a focus has allowed them to thrive while other reggae artists suffer from stylistic dilution via pop and hip hop. They understood the original message then as they do now.
But being a British reggae group subservient to social claims had its pitfalls. Many British reggae outfits were seen as less-than-true purveyors of a spiritual music, but Steel Pulse became one of the only true British outfits well-respected in Jamaica. They were also banned for their Rastafarian beliefs while on tour abroad, even if the subject of their music was always pointed social criticism, not simplistic head-bobbing odes to ganja.
They fought back, of course, putting their money where their microphones were: In 1992, they sued the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission for a million dollars, alleging taxi drivers discriminated against blacks and Rastafarians. A year later, they played Bill Clinton's first inauguration party. Their American popularity had exploded.
Steel Pulse's mid-tempo throb, punctuated by pockets of echo and low-end reverb, remains a mainstay of what people expect from reggae. It's not overthought, slicked in heavy production for radio, or mired with foreboding undertones for effect. Their message of hope heartbeats throughout their music. After all, speaking truth to power still sounds like a pretty good idea, three decades after Steel Pulse started doing it amid spitting, cantankerous wankers.
Steel Pulse plays Lincoln Theatre Wednesday, Aug. 22. The show starts at 9:30 p.m. and costs $22-$25.