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On-U Sound In The Area

Act New Age Steppers

A montage of New Age Steppers
A montage of New Age Steppers: (Top-left to bottom-right) George Oban, Ari Up, Steve Beresford, Mark Stewart (Photos: On.U Sound)

The On-U Sound 'super-group' that kick-started both album and single releases on the label: An overview by Steve Barker:

The eponymous album debut of the New Age Steppers (NAS) (ON-U LP 1) also provided On-U Sound’s first long player release in January of 1981. In the January of the previous year the band had versioned the Junior Byle’s classic "Fade Away" [Rhythm 1] for the label’s first 7" single (ON-U S 1(1)). Featured on the flip were London Underground with "Learn a Language". As a result NAS have always played a special part in the history of On-U Sound, not only for contributing its debuts in single and album formats, but also for the bringing together of a disparate collection of individuals for the sole purpose of making music - a rationale that On-U was to follow for the following two decades.

On-U's debut 7-inch single
On-U's debut 7" single

Reputedly, the driving force behind the formation of NAS was Arianna Foster a.k.a. Ari Up - the vocalist from the Slits, one of the original "girls with attitude" bands. The Slits, along with other UK outfits like the Clash and the Ruts, felt a close association with the rebel axis of reggae music. For the Slits this link was most creatively manifested in their work with Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell, a largely unrecognised genius in the area of UK reggae production. Along with Ari came Neneh Cherry, a few years short of her international stardom, step-daughter of jazz legend Don, and mashing up the leftfield indie-funk scene with Rip Rig and Panic. Also from that band were Bruce Smith and Sean "Hogg" Oliver, although drummer Bruce had earlier been a founder member of the controversial Pop Group, as had guitarist John Waddington and vocalist Mark Stewart who was later to produce some of the most radical and brutal music ever to be committed to vinyl in his first two solo albums for On-U.

Keith Levene from Public Image Limited was in the area - but not on the first album. Style Scott from Jamaica’s reigning rhythm machine the Roots Radics and George Oban from the UK’s top roots outfit Aswad supplied the drum and bass foundation and credibility for the enterprise. Whereas from the UK, Creation Rebel’s Charlie "Eskimo Fox" and "Crucial" Tony Phillips provided the link with Adrian Sherwood’s previous studio work. Viv Goldman and Vikki Aspinall were both recruited in from the collective that constituted the all-female Rough Trade band, The Raincoats and Steve Beresford was, well Steve Beresford, but perhaps best known for his Flying Lizards association. Technically able to play, inspire, provoke and create - here he was making one of his many appearances on early On-U Sound recordings.

Although I cannot personally testify to this, it is rumoured that in 1980/1981 NAS, together with producer Adrian Sherwood, took seventeen musicians to the BBC Studios in Maida Vale to record a session for the John Peel radio show. Given the penury in which most musicians lived at the time, seventeen lots of Musician's Union fees would no doubt come in handy! [***Ed.: It has recently been suggested by a well informed source that the "session" may, in fact, have been a pre-recorded "private tape" that was supplied by AMS to the show, featuring just 15 unnamed musicians and recorded in 1983...***]

The set of that first album opens with Ari Up's off-centre vocals on the NAS version of Junior Byles' "Fade Away", a tune which the singer had cut for Channel One's JoJo Hookim some five years earlier but which had already achieved the status of a reggae standard. "Crazy Dreams and High Ideals" [Rhythm 59] is one of those songs, which counted as favourite down at On-U and was versioned over time numerous times by others and its author Mark Stewart.

A version of "Animal Space" was originally released as a UK 7" single by the Slits on the Human label and can also be found on their album "Return Of The Giant Slits" on CBS. Bim Sherman’s "Love Forever" [Rhythm B13] is next for the Ari Up treatment with some great spooky on-key screams in the dub towards the track’s close. The set is rounded off by a dub version of Viv Goldman’s overtly political "Private Armies". Viv was better known as a music journalist, mainly for the New Musical Express (NME) music paper rather than a musician. Her only single was "Laundrette" on a Rough Trade 7", which had the vocal version of "Private Armies" as the flip.

On-U's debut LP
On-U's debut LP

The New Age Steppers' and On-U’s debut was also remarkable for another reason, entirely separate from musical context - it boasts art work, by the never-to-be-forgotten Bill Bell (?), which is clearly the daftest in the whole catalogue of the label. The album cover depicts a mock gyrating Elvis hula-hooping a car tyre round his knees and a jeep in his face, aside a giant footballing baby accomplishing a neat "dribble", all this is set in the context of an ever so tasteful red, white and black minimal Soviet neo-constructivist design!

Released in the summer of 1982 "Action Battlefield" (ON-U LP 3) was the NAS's second album for On-U Sound. They were to go on to produce one further set for On-U, 1983’s swansong "Foundation Steppers" (ON-U LP 21), by which time Bim Sherman had more fully entered the scene and was taking the lion’s share of the album’s vocal credits. In reggae terms it could have been presented as a showcase album in the sense that most of the tracks are vocals extended into a dub version - in Jamaica this would have been a thirteen or fourteen track album rather than seven, albeit lengthy, cuts - all a matter of value for money of course!

Ari Up takes the majority of the vocal duties and proceeds to warble and scream in her inimitable fashion through the set’s opener with a version of a tune that is now recognised as a classic - Bim Sherman’s "My Whole World" [Rhythm 2] originally cut by the singer in the seventies and re-versioned in the nineties for his wonderful "Miracle" album. "Observe Life" is a cover of a song penned by ex-Black Uhuru member Michael Rose whereas "Got to Get Away" [Rhythm 3] returns to the rock steady pen of Sherman.

The 'Action Battlefield' LP
The "Action Battlefield" LP

The strangest track on the album is undoubtedly the bizarrely constructed "My Love" [Rhythm 142] a take on a track written by one time Gaylad B.B. Seaton. The production may very well have been crafted for the young vocalist who takes the lead - Neneh Cherry, but what can only be described as a jolly, off-key doo wop is gratefully relieved by the gentle entry of the dub! "Problems" [Rhythm 129] is a Horace Andy oldie, first recorded for Leonard Chin and re-cut massive style later in his career and probably best known as a version from his legendary "In The Light" dub set. Here, a chugging, insistent treatment allows Sherwood (still with hair on the album cover!) some freedom on the desk as does the following track, the set’s only instrumental (except for an unidentified ethnic chant - North London?), "Nuclear Zulu" [Rhythm 7], which provides a template for some of the future experimentation that was to take place under the banner of African Head Charge.

A reggae classic "Guiding Star" [Rhythm 4] closes affairs, originally penned by Heptone, Leroy Sibbles. This standard provides one of the most enduring rhythm beds of the genre and is perhaps now best remembered via the late Augustus Pablo’s wonderful melodica version. Dub versions to "My Whole World", "Got To Get Away" and "Guiding Star" can all be found on the NAS / Creation Rebel album "Threat To Creation" (ON-U LP 7) as "Painstaker", "Final Frontier" and "Eugenic Device" respectively.

After many dormant years, filled only by a "Massive Hits" compilation (ON-U CD 10) and a limited edition single in Japan, the New Age Steppers, now largely comprising Ari Up, returned to On-U Sound in 2008 for an intended compilation appearance. Times have changed of course and so has the sound, but the 'band' that started it all lives on in our hearts, if not the charts.

2 Badcard
Adrian Sherwood
African Head Charge
Andy Fairley
Annie Anxiety / Little Annie
Audio Active
Barmy Army
Bim Sherman
Charlie "Eskimo Fox"
Creation Rebel
Deadly Headley
Doug Wimbish
Dub Syndicate
Gary Clail
Ghetto Priest
Harry Beckett
Jeb Loy Nichols
Jesse Rae
Judy Nylon
Junior Delgado / Jux
Keith LeBlanc
Lee "Scratch" Perry
Little Axe / Skip McDonald
Little Roy
London Underground
Mark Stewart / Maffia
Missing Brazilians
New Age Steppers
    . Biography
Noah House Of Dread
Revolutionary Dub Warriors
Samia Farah
Singers And Players
Strange Parcels
Tackhead / Fats Comet
The Circuit
Tribal Drift
Voice Of Authority

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