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New Age Steppers
Stepping Into A New Age 1980–2012 Julian Marszalek , April 13th, 2021 08:57

A boxset documenting the rise of punk-reggae supergroup New Age Steppers proves a valuable history lesson for Julian Marszalek

There was always so much more to the legacy of punk than the orthodoxy that followed in its wake. Indeed, the seeds were sown right from the early days thanks to the punk’s interface with the reggae that soundtracked the early club nights as well as the covers that followed. Even Bob Marley gave his seal of approval.

But while the less inspired purveyors that followed stuck to rigid formulas, the influence of reggae was keenly felt in the wave that immediately followed punk’s brief but seismic blast. Formed by The Slits’ Ari Up and reggae fan and producer Adrian Sherwood, New Age Steppers were a collective of sorts that included contributions from members of Aswad, The Pop Group, The Raincoats, and others who swan-dived into deep bass work-outs and dub-inflected dread to soundtrack the increasingly heavy times in which they were recorded in.

This comprehensive boxset sees New Age Steppers’ first three albums – New Age Steppers (1980), Action Battlefield (1981) and Foundation Steppers (1983) – on vinyl for the first time since their release, as well as 2012’s posthumous Love Forever and a collection of outtakes and rarities in the shape of Avant Gardening. Presented together, they tell an intriguing story of musical development as well as the launch of the celebrated On-U Sound record label.

The eponymous debut finds the collective at its most adventurous. Blending cover versions such as Junior Byles’ ‘Fade Away’ with righteous originals, this is a sonic feast that tests speakers and bowels in equal measure. Crucially, it brings to together the spirituality of Rastafari with political awareness, most notably on the spaced-out neo-dub of ‘Crazy Dreams And High Ideals’ wherein The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart intones, “We refuse to be the stepping stone / That paves the way for the small minority.” But it’s the aural delivery that truly lingers as dub techniques are deployed and twisted to create a new, domestic vernacular of the form.

From here on in, the albums become more song-based though no less arresting. Action Battlefield’s reliance on covers doesn’t count against it, not least as the playing and production are absolutely on point. Ari Up’s vocals on ‘My Whole World’ are some of the best she ever committed to posterity, while a pre-fame Neneh Cherry makes her presence felt on a sweet reading of BB Seaton’s ‘My Love’. The absence of Ari Up on Foundation Steppers is more than made up for thanks to Bim Sherman’s honeyed contributions though, as evidenced by the likes of ‘5 Dog Race’, Sherwood’s taste for studio chicanery was still firmly in evidence.

Completed before Ari Up’s passing in 2010, Love Forever paints from a wider palette with ‘My Nerves’ harking back to her days with The Slits, and ‘Wounded Animals’ gurgles and squelches in all the right places.

An alternate history lesson, to be sure, this is music that not only survives the ravages of time, it’s still maintains a relevance that damns the here and now.