Five years ago when we reissued the early African Head Charge albums, we put together a little online mixtape to celebrate the release, putting their early music in a wider context of influences, collaborators and intersecting sounds. This is an attempt to do the same for the equally crucial catalogue of revolutionary sounds laid down by the New Age Steppers between 1980 and 2012, and documented on our Stepping Into A New Age box set. In the tradition of many groups on On-U Sound, the line-up of the band was extremely fluid and more akin to a loose musical collective than the mythical last gang in town unit of the classic rock band. The mainstays were force of nature Ari Up, and Adrian Sherwood ever-present at the controls, but they pulled in numerous singers and players from the worlds of reggae and post-punk, covered an eclectic array of songs in their own inimitable style, and existed in parallel to several tangentially related bands. All of this is represented to some extent in this playlist, peppered throughout with some gems from the NAS discography itself.
Listen here. Track-by-track notes below.
We’ve also done a shorter ‘mixed’ version which you can check out over on our Soundcloud page.
New Age Steppers – Send For Me (from Avant Gardening, 2021)
A restored track from the New Age Steppers’ infamous and long-lost 1983 BBC Radio John Peel session, “Send For Me” is an ebullient and somewhat unlikely cover of an Atlantic Starr ‘quiet storm’ tune, featuring a beautifully spirited vocal performance from the much-missed Ari. It captures Up’s ear for a great song (regardless of genre) and producer Adrian Sherwood’s musicality at its most accessible. It was laid down at the legendary Channel One Studios in Kingston with Style Scott marshalling the rhythm section, and mixed back in London by Sherwood at Southern Studios, located in an unassuming looking semi-detached house in Wood Green, North London.
The tape for this particular session survives as it was earmarked for inclusion on the proposed Wild Paarty Sounds 2 compilation and was discovered, ‘baked’ (the process by which old reel-to-reel tapes are literally baked in an oven on a low heat to shed oxidisation) and digitally transferred thanks to the diligent work of On-U archivist Patrick Dokter. Original masters for the other tracks in the session “Not A Nobody”, “John Peel Session Pt 1 1983” and “The Riddle” have sadly been lost to the mists of time, both in the On-U vaults and those of the beeb.
The very lo-fi version of some tracks that can be heard on youtube suggest the other tracks are of more of an experimental nature with a connection to the early electro experiments that Sherwood was undertaking around this time with Steve Beresford.
The Slits – Vindictive (from first Slits John Peel Session, recorded 19 September 1977, first released on record as The Peel Sessions 12” in 1987)
From one Peel Session to another, this one recorded six years before the New Age Steppers one by the band that Ari Up is better known for. John Peel and his producer John Walters witnessed The Slits for the first time at infamous London punk club The Vortex on 15 August 1977. Walters commented: “They were the very essence of punk: banging and shouting, unhindered by any discernible musical ability. We thought the BBC should record them for posterity.” The subsequent session prompted some pretty diverse reactions, as recorded on the Peel Fandom Wiki site. Viv Albertine said, “It was absolutely raw, more raw than any boys’ band. I almost can’t believe we had that much energy,” whereas engineer Nick Gomm mainly remembered having to retune their guitars several times because the band had no idea how to do so, and the other engineer on that date, Bill Aitken, disdainfully commented: “a classic if you are into shit”!
To our ears this session is a stone cold classic, lightning truly captured in a bottle, and whilst The Slits went onto to make two incredible albums, this particular session documents a very raw and wild thrash sound that they would never return to on record. Peel himself (who sadly passed away in 2004) would go on to praise this session and their second, recorded in March 1978 as among his favourites: “The two sessions the Slits did during the punk era were just magical, I thought, just terrific.”
John Peel also deserves a shout out in the birth of On-U Sound, with Sherwood crediting Peel with playing Dub From Creation by Creation Rebel (originally issued on pre-On-U Sound label Hitrun) as giving the young producer the validation he needed at the time to press on.
The Pop Group – Where There’s A Will There’s A Way (from a split 7” with The Slits, 1980)
The Pop Group emerged from a gang of West Country teenage music fans called The Bristol Funk Army who apparently would wear zoot suits and brothel creepers and listen to heavy ’70s funk. Meanwhile, vocalist/lyricist and Last Poets fan Mark Stewart was getting a serious political awakening, hellbent on documenting his research into consumerism, nuclear power and US foreign policy.
Recorded during the sessions for their second album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? with Dave Anderson (who had done time in counter-culture rock bands such as Hawkwind and Amon Düül II), “Where There’s A Will” is a tightly wound slice of anxious punk-funk, clearly demonstrating the influence they would have on the likes of Radio 4, The Rapture and other post-punk revivalists 20+ years later. “In The Beginning There Was Rhythm” by The Slits, produced by Dennis Bovell, appeared on the other side.
Adrian recalls how he met The Pop Group frontman: “I met Mark in the Revolver record shop in Bristol around 1975 or 76. I was 17 or 18 and he would have been 14 or 15 – a giant spotty schoolboy music fanatic. He would wait there for what he and his mates called the “van from Zion” which was what they called my reggae delivery vehicle carrying the new tunes every week.” Whilst Adrian got involved with releasing records via the pre-On-U Sound imprints Carib Gems, Hit Run and 4D Rhythms; Mark made a name for himself fronting the funk-driven agit prop blitzkrieg of The Pop Group. After contributing a memorable cameo to the first New Age Steppers album (on “Crazy Dreams and High Ideals”) he recruited members of Creation Rebel as the initial incarnation of the Maffia on his own Sherwood-produced solo debut, Learning To Cope With Cowardice. Mark and Adrian continue to be friends and musical collaborators.
Maximum Joy – Let It Take You There (from Station M.X.J.Y., 1982)
Maximum Joy were formed out of the ashes of The Pop Group and another Bristol-based post-punk band, Glaxo Babies. They continued those groups’ hybrid mix of diverse influences to produce a unique sound – funky but with raw serrated edges and political lyrics. They scored an underground hit with “Stretch”, worked with Nellee Hooper (pre-Soul II Soul) and Dennis Bovell (UK dub legend and one of the architects of lovers rock), and here recount their memories of working with Adrian:
Janine Rainforth (vocals/violin/clarinet): “The impact on me of encountering and working with Adrian was marked; his production skills are in a class of their own, he developed his own unique sound which had a clarity and edge to it that elevated music into a different realm, masterful. I would never turn down going to a Sherwood produced gig thereafter just to be transported by those sounds!”
Tony Wrafter (flute/saxophone/trumpet): “I was very fortunate to be invited to play saxophone for Adrian Sherwood. Pete Holdsworth approached me after a Maximum Joy gig in Brick Lane in 81, a benefit for East London Workers Against Racism, and introduced himself as the singer for On-U Sound band London Underground. He gave me the address of Berry Street Studios for the following day but he didn’t mention that there was another sax player on the session – one Deadly Headley from The Wailers! With Headley on alto sax and myself on tenor we were cut into the same groove. I joined the crew there and then and went on to witness many memorable events over the following years with some of the most interesting characters imaginable. In return for my dedication Adrian was more than happy to mix for Maximum Joy. I remember him ‘scratching’ by queuing up the 2 inch tape on the 24 channel tape-recorder head-block and then manually, with literally one hand on each spool – turning the tape spools back and forth, making a very unusual musical ‘scratching sound’. Years later when playing live sax over records in The Tunnel & Tube Clubs in Bristol with DJ Geoff Barrow (pre-Portishead), when he was still a B-Boy, he started scratching the vinyl and I thought ‘where have I heard that before!’ Adrian Sherwood was a real inspiration for me and many others who may or may not even know it! Gratitude & Blessings.”
Charlie Llewelyn (drums/percussion): “I remember Adrian’s intensity, which was interesting and inspiring to me. I loved how he worked with the sound and chopped tape to make something much more interesting out of what we as musicians provided. It seemed like he was making an Adrian Sherwood track rather than a Maximum Joy track, but I’ve no problem with that!”
The Raincoats – Fairytale In The Supermarket (from The Raincoats, 1979)
The Raincoats had some crossover with The Slits in the shape of drummer Palmolive who left The Slits early on to play drums on the self-titled debut album by The Raincoats. A key part of the disparate scene that coalesced around the Rough Trade shop in West London in the late 70s (and ended up as part of the roster when they launched a record label), The Raincoats epitomise some of the revolutionary aspects of the music made at the time: female non-musicians coming together in non-stereotypical band roles, radical lyrics, and suggestions in their music of the vast array of sounds being soaked up during that period, from scratchy punk 45s to speaker-quaking dub reggae imports to avant-garde improvised music. Vicky Aspinall of The Raincoats contributes violin to the debut New Age Steppers album, most notably on the track “Radial Drill”. A decade later, The Raincoats got fresh attention when Kurt Cobain of Nirvana declared them a huge influence on his own music, and instigated reissues of their albums for a new generation of fans.
Bim Sherman – Party Time (from Across The Red Sea, 1982)
Adrian Sherwood comments: “All great singers and vocalists have one thing in common – their voice stands out like a uniquely tuned instrument that only one person can play. Bim Sherman [was] a singer/songwriter with a truly golden tone. I have been throughout his whole career a huge fan. I first heard one of Bim’s songs while working in PAMA records Soundville Shop in Harlesden, London, in the mid 1970s … His was like a voice from the wilderness, the lyrics and fragile power ensured that in every subsequent batch of imports I was looking out for a new Sherman record. I wasn’t disappointed.”
In the mid 1970s he recorded a small body of classic roots tunes as a young struggling singer in Jamaica. He later moved to London after being persuaded to join 1979’s Roots Encounter tour alongside renowned toaster Prince Far I, Creation Rebel and Prince Hammer, where he met longtime admirer Adrian Sherwood and began his long relationship with On-U Sound.
The New Age Steppers recorded several Bim Sherman penned tunes on their first two albums, including “Love Forever”, “My Whole World” and “Got To Get Away”, before inviting him to join Ari on vocals for the more roots oriented third album Foundation Steppers.
Junior Byles – Fade Away (single, 1975)
A classic roots tune covered by the New Age Steppers on their side of the split single with London Underground that launched the On-U label, and also the first track on their debut album. Recorded at the legendary Channel One Studios (where Ari herself would kick off the recording of Foundation Steppers in 1982 with Style Scott). Junior Byles ‘ most common association was with producer (and later On-U Sound alumni as a recording artist) Lee “Scratch” Perry. Byles started his recording career as part of harmony trio The Versatiles and also worked as a firefighter in Jamaica in between recording several highly regarded singles such as “Black Crisis”, “Better Will Come?” and “Curley Locks”, as well as the much-loved Beat Down Babylon album with Perry at the controls.
New Age Steppers – State Assembly (from New Age Steppers, 1981)
From the outset On-U was doing anything but a straight take on dub reggae (much to the chagrin of purists such as David Rodigan) and were reflective of the milieu from which from which they emerged, a multi-racial squatland demographic of hustlers, musicians and mavericks from disparate scenes, reflected in the avant-garde sound collage of this track, which combines the drumming of Style Scott from the Roots Radics with a vortex of odd sounds that are very likely the work of Steve Beresford, sometime Slits keyboard player but more commonly found making all sorts of odd sounds with the London Improvisers Orchestra, Portsmouth Sinfonia (of which Brian Eno was also famously a member) and the 49 Americans.
The Slits – Man Next Door (single, 1980)
A version of the classic John Holt track also covered by the likes of Dennis Brown and Massive Attack, this was a one-off Slits single for the Y label run by Dick O’Dell, who also released records by The Pop Group and Maximum Joy. The track was also included on early Rough Trade compilation Wanna Buy A Bridge? alongside tracks by Delta 5, Swell Maps and Cabaret Voltaire. Confusingly, a different recording of the same song (produced by Dennis Bovell) was recorded and issued as a 12” in 1980, but this earlier version was recorded in December 1979.
Viv Albertine recalls: “It was the middle of the night when I got a call from Ari asking me to come to a studio across London to record a track. Adrian had managed to get some down-time and we only had a couple of hours. Tessa had hurt her hand so couldn’t play bass, Ari played it. The drummer was a Jamaican guy called Cecil, a mate of Adrian’s, I never knew his surname. Ari and Adrian changed the words around a little bit so that she sang “I play music late at night” instead of “He plays music late at night” as we all had a problem with neighbours who didn’t like us playing music all the time. We recorded the track in minutes and the next thing we knew it was out. Adrian didn’t even have time to mix it, this is his monitor mix from that night. “Man Next Door” was one of my favourite songs to play live, especially when we had the luxury of Adrian touring with us – he was like a band member, dubbing up the songs from the mixing desk.”
Rip Rig & Panic – Try Box Out Of This Box (from God, Virgin 1981)
One of a number of outfits that formed out of the dissolution of The Pop Group, Rip Rig & Panic featured that band’s Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith, teaming up with Mark Springer, Andi Oliver and a young Neneh Cherry, who had cut her performing teeth on backing vocals for The Slits. Named after an album by Roland Kirk, they pushed a freer and jazzier approach to their compositions, to the extent of roping in Neneh’s step-dad, the legendary Don Cherry for some recordings.
As well as sharing some occasional band members with the New Age Steppers (Bruce Smith and Neneh Cherry), tracks such as this demonstrate that the sometimes disconcerting blend of influences was evidence of something in the air in UK music at the time – a post-punk sound that pulled from dub, funk, free jazz, sound art, and other esoteric corners to try and forge something genuinely new and sonically thrilling. This track features the saxophone of Dave “Flash” Wright who has also graced many classic On-U sides with his playing.
Neneh Cherry – Dead Come Alive (from Science Fiction Dancehall Classics, 2015 – recorded 1984)
From the sleeve notes to the Trevor Jackson curated compilation on which this first appeared: The daughter of West African percussionist Amadu Jah and artist Moki Cherry, Neneh Cherry was brought up in Stockholm by her mother and stepfather, legendary US jazz firebrand Don Cherry. Moving to England in the early 80s, she sang backing vocals with the Slits and fronted anarchic Bristol group Rip, Rig & Panic.
Meeting Adrian Sherwood on a wild late 70s package tour which paired up Don Cherry, The Slits, Prince Hammer, and On-U group Creation Rebel, the teenage Neneh was enlisted to contribute vocals to the second New Age Steppers album Action Battlefield, with an unconventional cover of The Gaylads rock steady hit “My Love”.
In some ways predicting the electro-fied sound of Neneh’s worldwide pop success with the Raw Like Sushi album, “Dead Come Alive” stems from a mid-80s period when Adrian took a production hiatus from his beloved reggae, deeply upset by the murder of his friend Prince Far I (he would later rekindle the dub flame when the opportunity arose in 1986 to work with hero Lee “Scratch” Perry). Instead he explored the possibilities of new studio technology. Early samplers and drum machines were put through their paces on work for the Tommy Boy label and remixes for the likes of Depeche Mode.
The Vinyl Factory wrote: “Buried in an archive until it was recently unearthed for the Trevor Jackson On-U Sound compilation Science Fiction Dancehall Classics, this astonishing track is ostensibly an electro cut, featuring Neneh’s earliest rapping. But the beat is closer to dub techno, with its wobbling, unsettling machine creaks and bangs and unexpected dreamy chords. Neneh’s rhymes give the cut a necessary dose of edge.”
Chaka Khan – Some Love (from Chaka, 1978)
Chaka Khan formed her first group The Crystalettes at the tender age of 11 and adopted the stage name which she became famous for whilst a member of liberation and empowerment organisation the Black Panthers. First gaining recognition as vocalist and drummer for the band Rufus, this song is from her debut solo album which was a worldwide hit off the back of lead track “I’m Every Woman”. As well as her solo work she is known for her collaborations with other artists such as Stevie Wonder, Prince and Qunicy Jones.
The New Age Steppers versioned this track on third album Foundation Steppers, showing off the eclecticism of their influences, Ari well known for her ear for a great pop song as much as the dread vibes of the latest roots reggae 12”.
New Age Steppers – The Fury Of Ari (from Love Forever, 2012)
A track from the final New Age Steppers album, issued posthumously in 2012 following the untimely passing of Ari Up two years before. Like the preceding New Age Steppers album from 1983, it was started in Jamaica and completed in London, producer Adrian Sherwood wishing to complete the work they had started and to pay appropriate tribute to his longtime friend.
Of the album title, Sherwood comments: “We’d lost Bim [in 2000], and we always used to sign off Love Forever on our messages,” says Sherwood. “Not something soppy, but it would be like a powerful thing. Even if I sign an autograph sometimes I put on it ‘Love Forever,’ and it all comes down to that wonderful song by Bim Sherman, but it’s also enduring respect for each other. I’ve got a beautiful Slits poster from a gig we did in Japan, and right in the middle there’s a little drawing of Ari, and she’s put, ‘Ari Up, Love Forever,’ on it. Apparently she used to sign everything ‘Love Forever’ as well, so it just seemed like the right way to present these songs.”
Aswad – Ethiopian Rhapsody (from Aswad, 1976)
A player on many New Age Steppers tracks and many other On-U sides, bassist George Oban started out with UK reggae institution Aswad, who emerged from London’s Ladbroke Grove area in the mid-1970s. Oban was initially credited under the nickname ‘Ras’ in the group and this track from their debut album highlights his skilful deployment of subtle but melodic basslines that serve the track, breaking into a brief solo here as a counterpart to some uncharacteristic (for dub reggae) Spanish guitar.
Talking to Oli Warwick for the new reissues of the New Age Steppers catalogue, Oban recalled the intense environment of the early On-U Sound sessions: “We used to do two-day lock-ins in Berry Street, lay seven, eight rhythm tracks in one night and go to regroup at the pub on the corner. Adrian would just give us leeway to lay tracks and he’d experiment, sticking microphones in the loo because the loo had a high ceiling, so through the walls you’d get a wicked sound from in there. He’d have cables trailing all over the place. We all were learning on the hoof. [Adrian] was into Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and I was just into experimenting with amps and mic placements.”
Michael Rose – Observe Life (single, 1975)
Another reggae original covered by the New Age Steppers, Adrian Sherwood was responsible for licensing and issuing the original in the UK during his time co-running pre-On-U Sound import label Carib Gems with then business partner Chips Richards. The Ari Up voiced version appeared on the second NAS album Action Battlefield, but this original cut features backing from crack JA rhythm crew Skin, Flesh & Bones, led by Lloyd Parks. As well as his many solo recordings, Rose (sometimes known as Mykal Roze) is perhaps best known as vocalist for Black Uhuru during their 1977 to 1984 period of international success.
New Age Steppers – 5 Dog Race / Tribute (from Reggae Archive Vol 2, 1993)
An extended alternate mix of a track originally found on third New Age Steppers album Foundation Steppers, this version (which can be found on the sought after second volume of On-U’s Reggae Archive series) foregrounds the keyboards of co-writer Pete Stroud aka Doctor Pablo, a key figure in the early history of On-U Sound, Creation Rebel member, and perhaps most well known for his North Of The River Thames set with Dub Syndicate, an album of hauntological dub taking the mystical eastern melodica scales pioneered by Augustus Pablo and applying them to a unique mix of re-versioned cult themes and roots rockers. Towards the end of this take on “5 Dog Race” the saxophone of Lol Coxhill, a key figure in the UK jazz scene of the period and occasional New Age Stepper, can be heard in the mix.
Roots Radics – Dance Of The Vampires (from Scientist Rids The World Of The Evil Curse Of The Vampires, 1981)
There aren’t many figures in the history of On-U Sound that cast a longer shadow than Lincoln Valentine ‘Style’ Scott, an early collaborator on many different Adrian Sherwood-helmed sessions and eventually taking over the Dub Syndicate project and turning it into his own musical vehicle, in much the same way as African Head Charge came to be led by Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah. Scott initially made a name for himself as drummer for Jamaican rhythm crew the Roots Radics, the backbone of hundreds of JA records of the period. Their distinctive playing came to define the sound of the early pre-digital dancehall era on the island in the 1980s. He appeared on the first New Age Steppers album and kicked off the recording of third album Foundation Steppers by organising a session with Ari at Channel One Studios in Jamaica. This particular example of his rock solid backbeat is taken from the undead entry in the infamous series of themed dub albums that came out on Greensleeves in the early 80s, credited to Hopeton Overton Brown aka Scientist (something disputed on later editions which are credited instead to producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes).
Either way, the albums remain an entertaining listen and are perhaps best remembered for their striking sleeve art by Tony McDermott. For their own part, On-U poked gentle fun at the outlandish titles contained on the Scientist dub series on Dub Syndicate’s first album The Pounding System, which contains tracks such as “Crucial Tony Tries To Rescue The Space Invaders (With Only 10p)”!
New Age Steppers – Memories (from Foundation Steppers, 1983)
Bim Sherman went from inspiration and source of cover material on the first two New Age Steppers albums to co-vocalist on their third set, the more rootical Foundation Steppers, partly tracked in Jamaica before being overdubbed and mixed in London by Adrian Sherwood. Bim’s trademark honey-voiced natural melodicism contrasts well with Ari Up’s sometimes more acerbic style (although the breadth of her vocal range is often not given enough credit), and the combination of 80s synth sounds and Bonjo’s skillful percussion give this track an almost balearic feel, an evocative tune that could work equally well played out on a sunset Ibiza terrace as lovers rock sound system session.
B.B. Seaton – My Love (single, 1971)
Originally cut with his rocksteady vocal group The Gaylads as “Can’t Hide The Feeling”, this tune has become a much-loved staple of the B.B. Seaton songwriting canon. Seaton was the first reggae artist to be signed to Virgin Records’ Front Line imprint (alongside On-U alumni Prince Far I and many others), and recorded many solo sides as well as being part of groups such as the Astronauts, Conscious Minds, and The Messengers. He also produced the Gun Court Dub series of albums in the mid-1970s.
The New Age Steppers irreverent take on this tune can be found on second album Action Battlefield, Neneh Cherry takes up the story in her interview with Oli Warwick for the sleeve notes to the 2021 reissue: “[Ari] had a big old laundry bag full of cassettes, mostly of reggae music. Don Letts would come almost weekly with these mixtapes, fresh off different sound systems or of the latest seven-inches from Jamaica. Ari would sit with her locks out, on the couch, playing through her cassettes, just rocking back and forth listening to tunes literally all day. Quite often with just a little comb, combing in her scalp… Ari was going to Berry Street Studios one day to do some recording, I was just tagging along, and in the cab on the way she’s like, ‘you should sing on this tune with me.’
So as we literally got out of the cab to go in the studio she was showing me the harmony to the tune “My Love”. She was like, ‘you can do it,’ and I was like, ‘nah, I’m not sure that I can!’ But we did it. So that was actually the first time my voice was ever recorded.”
General Strike – Interplanetary Dub (from Danger In Paradise, 1984)
Steve Beresford was a member of the live line-up of The Slits, on keyboard duty, and was invited early on in the label’s history to become part of the revolving cast of On-U Sound singers and players, most notably in the New Age Steppers and his electronic experiments with Sherwood under the name of The Circuit (who’s track “Loudspeaker” is fondly regarded by fans of the Pay It All Back series). Like the aforementioned Lol Coxhill, he was a big figure in the improvised music scene in London and collaborated with writer David Toop (who he had previously played with in the Alterations) and David Cunningham of the Flying Lizards in the dub-oriented General Strike, found here perhaps playing oblique homage to Sun Ra in a very On-U-esque slice of delay-damaged funk.
New Age Steppers – Animal Space (from New Age Steppers, 1981)
There were occasionally blurred lines between the two groups fronted by Ari Up, The Slits and the New Age Steppers. Adrian Sherwood was on the front desk working a live dub mix at many of The Slits shows, produced their cover version of John Holt’s “Man Next Door”, included earlier in this playlist, and other members of the Slits such as guitarist Viv Albertine contributed to the New Age Steppers. This particular track in fact appears in slightly different forms on both the debut NAS album and the Slits under-rated second album Return Of The Giant Slits. The combination of the loose jamming instrumentation and buried vocals occasionally emerging from the murk lend the track a beautifully intimate feel, like hearing an amazing band playing hypnotic music through the wall at a party.
Horace Andy – My Guiding Star (from Sings For You And Yours, 1978)
A legendary voice in reggae music, both for his work with producers such as Coxsone Dodd, Bunny Lee and Phil Pratt in 1970s Jamaica, and his long-running association with the band Massive Attack (starting on their debut album Blue Lines and continuing up to this day). “Sleepy”, as he’s affectionately known, remains in fine voice five decades into his remarkable career, and has shared stages with Adrian Sherwood on numerous occasions. If someone could get them in a studio one day then they could really work some magic! The New Age Steppers closed their second album Action Battlefield with a great version of this song.
Creation Rebel & New Age Steppers – Chemical Specialist (from Threat To Creation, 1981)
Although jointly credited to two key early On-U groups, the Threat To Creation album was more of an experimental take on the already skewed concept of a dub set by producer Adrian Sherwood, taking existing backing tracks from his own tape archive and driving them through the desk with judicious use of echo, distortion and filtering, dropping instruments in and out to give a head-clearing sense of space. One of a number of works-for-hire that On-U leased out to the Cherry Red label in order to keep the label afloat, the album is a prime example of pushing the potential of primitive studio outboard gear to achieve remarkable results. On the recent LP reissue, Pitchfork wrote: “The way Sherwood chopped up, processed, and reassembled Creation Rebel and New Age Steppers’ rhythmic components hints at the more extreme cut-and-paste techniques that dance music and hip-hop would acquire after samplers came on the market a few years later. It’s a sublime listening experience and a profound statement about the power of experimentation, and over twenty years after the fact it still sounds shockingly new.”
Mark Stewart + Maffia – High Ideals & Crazy Dub (from The Lost Tapes, 2019)
The Pop Group and The Slits formed a strong alliance during their existence, operating almost as brother/sister bands during one point with a shared member in Bruce Smith, playing live on many of the same bills, and the aforementioned split single. It seemed a natural progression of that relationship for vocalist Mark to contribute to the debut Steppers album with the coruscating “Crazy Dreams And High Ideals”, a track he also re-versioned on his first solo album Learning To Cope With Cowardice (co-produced with Sherwood at the controls). This heavily distorted dub take appeared on the companion outtakes album to the 2019 reissue.
Vivien Goldman – Private Armies (from Dirty Washing, 1981)
Predominantly known as a writer and music journalist, Vivien Goldman championed punk and reggae equally in the late-70s British music press. She was invited to record the track “Launderette” by John Lydon and Keith Levene of Public Image Limited during downtime for the Flowers Of Romance recording sessions, backed with the Sherwood-produced “Private Armies” and “P.A. Dub”. This latter version also appeared on the debut album by New Age Steppers, confusingly as just “Private Armies”! Goldman later contributed vocals to the Paris-based duo Chantage and now resides in New York City where she is a lecturer, broadcaster and continues to write, dubbed the ‘punk professor’ at institutions such as New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. A compilation of her early-80s recordings, Resolutionary, was released by Staubgold in 2016.
New Age Steppers – Nuclear Zulu (from Action Battlefield, 1981)
A killer dub rendition of the same rhythm ridden to devastating effect by Bim Sherman on “Reaching The Badman” from the first Singers & Players LP War Of Words, which was coincidentally first issued by cult NYC based downtown label 99 Records, who also put out the Dirty Washing EP by Vivien Goldman, not to mention classic work by Liquid Liquid, ESG, Bush Tetras AND On-U adjacent acts such as the Congos and Maximum Joy. This take is augmented by Ari seemingly speaking in tongues into an echo chamber and all sorts of delightful fader flips, reverbed out snare hits and decaying puddles of delay.
Etta James – Stormy Weather (from At Last!, 1961)
A 1933 torch song by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler that has entered the “Great American Songbook” lexicon, it’s been covered by artists such as Lena Horner, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and more. Clearly a favourite of Adrian Sherwood, he revisited it again in full on crash-and-slash turntablist sound collage mode for a 1986 12” by Fats Comet (aka Tackhead in their more dancefloor focussed guise), reaching it’s most gloriously destroyed form on b-side version “Dub Storm”. The Steppers rendition appears on Foundation Steppers and is fondly recalled by Sherwood as “one of those off-key ones” which nevertheless retains its own rough charm. For this mixtape we’ve picked a lush string swept r&b take by the indomitable Etta James.
New Age Steppers – Love Forever (from New Age Steppers, 1981)
In terms of all the songs by other writers that the NAS crew reinterpreted, this epic take on Bim Sherman’s “Love Forever” from the debut Steppers album is arguably their crowning achievement, concocting a uniquely UK blend of heady reggae influence and post-punk sensibility, a lovers rock lament transported to the grimy rooms of early 80s London squatland. For all Sherwood’s ability to push sonic parameters and mash things up, and Ari’s sometimes confrontational mic stylings, the most remarkable thing about this version is the restraint shown – the backing track breathes with a beautiful amount of space for bass, drums and effects to play off against one another, while Ari floats over the whole thing with a voice of pure blissed out wonder. Even the ricochetting scream towards the end is more Janet Kay than Siouxsie Sioux.
Shara Nelson & The Circuit – Aiming At Your Heart Pt.2 (single, 1983)
An enormously talented singer and songwriter, Shara Nelson’s voice came to define a whole epoch in British music in the 1990s. This track was her first recording, cut when Shara was still a teenager, and began a sporadic 20 year relationship with On-U Sound that took in contributions to records by Voice Of Authority, Missing Brazilians, Singers & Players, Voice Of Authority and the belated launch of Adrian Sherwood’s own solo career in 2003. Credited jointly to Shara and Steve Beresford’s project The Circuit, it was the only official release in On-U’s ‘Mixout Entertainment Plates’ series, designed to explore “innovative dance music”. “Aiming At Your Heart” hasn’t seen the light of day since it’s first limited vinyl release, and with it’s combination of minimal breakbeat backing and soaring vocal pre-dates the singers more famous later work with Massive Attack on their Blue Lines album, co-writing and singing the classic “Unfinished Symphony”.
Shara continues to make music and is currently working on a new solo album. The only other release in the Mixout series was a test pressing by Akabu & The Circuit, later re-recorded for Tommy Boy Records.
Atlantic Starr – Send For Me (from Radiant, 1980)
We end where we began, the ‘quiet storm’ originally turned into a Two Tone esque dance chant by the Steppers for their 1983 John Peel Session. A slick nightclub act from White Plains, New York who scored a number of 80s hits with their sultry blend of soul, disco and pop, a precursor to the ubiquitous chart dominance later in the decade by the likes of Luther Vandross and Alexander O’Neal. It’s an intriguing compare-and-contrast to play the two takes side-by-side, so we recommend you go back to the start of this playlist and start again!
Stepping Into A New Age 1980 – 2012 reissues by New Age Steppers are out now.