Finger On The Pulse

Steel Pulse’s ex-percussionist and backing vocalist Mykaell Riley talks about the band’s 40-year-old album, Handsworth Revolution.  

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Birmingham band Steel Pulse’s debut album, Handsworth Revolution. To celebrate the birthday - and as part of BASS Festival 2018 - a public mural is this month being unveiled at Handsworth Wellbeing Centre. Former band member Mykaell Riley talks to What’s On about the critically acclaimed 1978 release, an album which had a major impact on the UK’s reggae music scene...

One of the most enduring images of the UK music scene in 1978 was the sight of a reggae band with frontmen clad in white hoods and robes, performing a song about racism entitled Ku Klux Klan.

The group was Steel Pulse. They came from Birmingham and later that year, the band’s debut album, Handsworth Revolution, would leave an indelible mark on the face of British reggae music.

The idea to wear Ku Klux Klan regalia on stage came from the band’s percussionist and backing vocalist, Mykaell Riley, who was well aware of the impact that the costumes would have at the time.

“We were trying to communicate, in the most succinct way possible, If you don’t understand the hoods, then the lyrics are a translation of that,” says Riley. “You bring the two together and that’s the history there that we’re trying to communicate, alive and kicking in Handsworth in Birmingham.

“In one simple act, one simple bit of white material, we were explaining decades of racial tension and racial abuse to our community. The hoods were a shorthand way of bringing all of that into one space.

“You couldn’t just rock up to Woolworths and say, ‘I’ve lost my hoods, mate, can you prepare three hoods, I’ve got a gig tonight’.

“Once you had the hoods on, you couldn’t see to play your guitar, so it turned into being myself and Alphonso [Martin], the other vocalist, wearing them. But even then we silenced many an audience just by putting on the hoods.” 

The back cover of Handsworth Revolution bears the words ‘Album dedicated to the people of Handsworth’, so it’s fitting that the 40th anniversary of the album’s iconic artwork will be commemorated in Handsworth by a celebratory public mural, unveiled as part of Birmingham’s month-long BASS 2018 Festival.

While the original visual idea for the sleeve emanated from the band, the album lists Andrew Aloof as illustrator, with credit for the design going to Bloomfield/Travis. Riley recalls the creative process that led to the final artwork.

“My vague memory is that it started with, ‘What are you trying to say?’ So we said, it’s about Handsworth. As we were discussing the whole concept, we told them it was about what was happening in Handsworth, and that we had a song called Handsworth Revolution.

“They said, ‘How do you depict that revolution? What is it and what does it look like visually?’ We discussed this with the marketing department and the album design department, David [Hinds] did some sketches and then it was translated by the art director.

“We were keen to project this dystopia that is Handsworth. It’s the idea that, on one hand, this is the reality - it’s blocks of flats, it’s broken-down buildings, it’s burnt-out cars - but you can escape. So there’s a guy that’s running away somewhere, and also there’s a ray of light coming down on the individuals -  these faceless but black individuals standing next to the car.”
Riley stresses that the band wanted to project a positive message on the cover: “The image is there to offer hope, to say that you can escape this. With the palm trees, based on the conversations we had with the guy who put it together, there was this idea that, back then, you aspired to get home. Home wasn’t the UK, home was Jamaica - and so we’ve got this dichotomy, which is, are we more Jamaican at that point, or are we more British?

“And the truth is, we’re both. It’s looking at the challenge of identity back then, which was deciding which of these dominated. And if one did, it was the reality on the ground. We have to survive Handsworth, and to do that as a community we need to somehow force a revolution, which means standing up and being counted. And if that means you leave, you leave.”
These days, Riley is a principal investigator of the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster, but his involvement with Steel Pulse up to and including that seminal first album remains an important part of his career.

Apart from the release of Handsworth Revolution, 1978 also saw Steel Pulse open for Bob Marley And The Wailers on their European tour and become a powerful voice in the Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper, calling for the reactivation of RAR, included Riley as one of its signatories.

“That was instigated by the originator of Rock Against Racism, Red Saunders. When Red called me, he said, ‘Look, what do you think about all this racism and fascism that’s taking off everywhere?’

“If you travel around Europe, it’s much, much more in your face than it is here. Looking back at where we were back then, and then jumping back to where we are now, what we’re looking for is some level of progress, but we’re moving back to that position so fast that it’s scary. So of course I have to stand up and support a viable movement that’s challenging fascism.”

And what about the UK’s impending departure from the EU?

“Brexit became a question of identity, and within that, what’s British, what’s English, what does it mean? I think for many in the community, they were seeking to create an identity that didn’t really exist - Britain has always been multicultural.” 

BASS Festival 2018 (1-31 October) features the unveiling of a public mural at Handsworth Wellbeing Centre on Saturday 13 October to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of Handsworth Revolution. For more information, visit