Released in 1981, New Age Steppers was On-U Sound`s first LP. It opens with Ari-Up`s eccentric reading of Junior Byles` absolute anthem, Fade Away. The Slits` front woman’s octave-leaping scream shame-ing pocket-lining fat cats – those who carry no love in their hearts. Dancing idiosyncratic – spaced-out, loose-limbed and jointed. Like Arthur Russell popping his funk. Delay applied to random rimshots and ricochets. Isolated piano keys illuminating the dark. Ari`s take on Big Sherman`s Love Forever is similarly off-key and wonky – and all the sweeter for it. The backing – by The Pop Group and Creation Rebel bashing together – supremely stoned and groovy. Lurching, clumsy, full of youthful confidence, and vari-speed breakdowns – reel-to-reels slammed in reverse – as Ms. Up`s ear-splitting siren delivers a lover`s rockers – by the disturbed for the disturbed.
The Slits` Animal Space is versioned – a clue to Adrian Sherwood’s uncredited role in the band’s early singles and seminal, essential debut album Cut. While his name appears on none of those records, I know Adrian was there – alongside Dennis Bovell – `cos he told me – and the track`s inclusion here seems conclusive proof. Ari gurgling – channeling ancient tribal throat singing – amidst phased impacts and angular axe work. The trebly guitar scurrying backward, perhaps afraid of the lion in the lyric.
The dub of Vivien Goldman`s Private Armies is another terrific track. Born out of PiL-financed sessions – with Keith Levene on bass, doing a damn fine impression of his former band-mate, Jah Wobble – it features Vicky Aspinall of The Slits` arch-rivals, The Raincoats. Her violin strings scratched and screeching, while Steve New “Shooz”`s kit crashes as if Bonham were breaking the levee. Both of them joined by a beatbox sent skittering through proto-industrial, proto-techno, patterns. Assorted instruments smashing the dread, gothic even, subterranean gloom. Hugely important, and “template-setting”, it remains one of THE crown jewels in On-U`s vast treasury.
Radial Drill is radical dancehall. Sci-Fi Devo-esque disco. Bouncing and bopping to ringing and squeaking, bicycle bells and alien insects. On State Assembly cymbals clatter – percussion reduced to fragmented flashes, intricate echoes – while sharp 6-string shapes carve out an experimental, psychedelic, rock n roll. Mark Stewart preaches Crazy Dreams And High Ideals – almost acapella – to the “ambient” tune of twisted, metallic, machined shards.
About as far from “new age” as you could possibly imagine, this is post-punk`s integration of reggae’s rhythms, dub`s magic and madness, distilled into its purest form – the very definition of its Babylon burning hybrid. Arty and angular. Angry and unaware of any rule book. Where steppers standards are warped and distorted, made a militant thud. It`s the music of a grey Thatcher’s Britain, painted by those waiting, ready, defiant, in her shadows. A skank removed from Jam-down`s tropical heat and rendered stark, urban, concrete.