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This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to ‘1980s Rebel Soul’ January 18, 2014

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A very welcome guest post from Sam (Come Here To Me! blog).

For the last few months I’ve really got into a sub-genre of music that has been loosely described as ‘rebel soul’. The term was used in in the title of Dexys Midnight Runners 1980 debut album ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’ and the 1985 song ‘Sunday (Rebel Soul)‘ by The Faith Brothers.

Well, what is it? I’ve come up with the hopefully comprehensive title of “1980s up-tempo brass-driven left-leaning Motown-influenced soul”. Mainly a British thing, a couple of Irish bands fit well into this genre as well.

Sandwiched between the decline of Two-Tone (c. 1981/82) and the birth of the UK Acid House rave scene (c. 1988/89), this politically-charged pop music was characterised by well-dressed, energetic young bands with a brass section who tackled social issues in their lyrics. It was described by one music journalist simply as the “fusion of blue-eyed soul music and radical politics”.

Groups in this genre include incarnations of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Jam, The Style Council, The Redskins, The Housemartins, The Faith Brothers, The Neurotics and Fire Next Time.

In an Irish context, I think Dublin bands The Blades (1981 onwards) and The Commotion could be included in this genre as well.

Other artists who arguably dabbled with this sound include:

– The Undertones with their classic 1981 single ‘It’s Going To Happen‘. This song was written by John O’Neill in response to the Hunger Strikes and he played the song wearing a black armband the day Bobby Sands died on Top of the Tops. Related interview and footage here)

– The Teardrop Explode’s 1981 album ‘Kilimanjaro’ and songs like ‘Reward‘.

– Elvis Costello’s 1983 album ‘Punch The Clock’ and songs like ‘The Invisible Man‘.

The sound of this genre is in my opinion characterised by:

– the first incarnation of Birmingham band Dexys Midnight Runners (1979-82), particularly their first album ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’ (1980) and singles like ‘Geno’ (1979) and ‘There There My Dear‘ (1980). Some people are still unaware that Dexy’s first single ‘Dance Stance‘ (aka ‘Burn It Down’) was lead singer’s Kevin Rowland’s response to the racist attitudes towards Ireland and the Irish in late Seventies Britain.

– the second incarnation of Dublin band The Blades (1981-86), their only studio album ‘The Last Man in Europe’ (1985) and singles like ‘Revelations of Heartbreak’ (1982), ‘The Last Man In Europe’ (1984) and ‘Downmarket’ (1985). Frontman Paul Cleary was an outspoken socialist who played countless benefit gigs for anti-apartheid and pro-choice campaigns. For more information on the left-wing politics of the band, check out an earlier piece of mine on the band or another article on one of Cleary’s best and most political songs ‘Dublin City Town’.


– the final incarnation of The Jam from Surrey, their sixth and final album ‘The Gift’ (1982) and songs from that album – ‘Ghosts’, ‘Precious’, and ‘Trans Global Express’.

– the career of The Redskins (1982-86) from York, their only studio album ‘Neither Washington Nor Moscow’ (1986) and singles like ‘Keep on Keepin’ On’ (1984) and ‘Bring It Down (This Insane Thing)’ (1985). Formed from the ashes of a punk band called No Swastikas, the vocialist/guitairst Chris Dean and bassist Martin Hewes were active members of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Most of their songs were political and the band played an incalculable number of benefits for striking miners, anti-apartheid groups and other progressive struggles during their short four year career.


– the career of Paul Weller’s The Style Council (1983-89) and songs like ‘Headstart For Happiness (1984), ‘Shout To The Top’ (1984) and ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ (1985). Weller was involved with both The Council Collective in December 1984 a band which raised funds for the striking coal miners and then in Red Wedge (1985-90) an umbrella organisation led by Weller, Billy Bragg and Jimmy Sommerville which aimed to raise awareness and funds through concerts to help prevent the Conservatives winning their third consecutive election victory at the 1987 election.

– the later part of the career of Hull’s The Housemartins (1983-88), specifically their second album ‘The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death’ (1987) and songs from that album ‘The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death’ and ‘Five Get Over Excited‘. The album title was a dig at the royal family. Lead singer Paul Heaton, who said only last year that “Every time I write a song, I approach it from a Marxist perspective”, has for over thirty years spoken out against racism, sexism and capitalism.

– the career of Dublin band The Commotion (1984-86) and songs like ‘Inspiration’ and ‘Your Love Has Changed My Mind‘. The band produced a Red and Black poster with the silhouette of Jim Larkin to advertise gigs and played a lot of benefit gigs including for Militant (pre Socialist Party) and the anti-Apartheid movement.

– the career of The Faith Brothers (1985-87) from Fulham Court, South West London and songs like ‘The Sleepwalker’, The Country of the Blind’ and ‘The Thrill Of The Kill. Fronted by songwriter Billy Franks and his lifelong friend Lee Hirons, the Faith Brothers were one of the most hotly-tipped bands of 1985.

Looking like a long-haired version of The Redskins (red harringtons and all), their brand of “blue-eyed soul attracted comparisons with The Style Council and the Spencer Davis Group while their socialist views linked them in the media with the likes of Billy Bragg and the Redskins.” They supported The Boomtown Rats on a 1985 British tour. At a gig supporting The Alarm in the TV Club, Dublin in May 1985 – Bono saw the band and was impressed to the point of asking them to open for U2 in The Milton Keynes Bowl the following month. Turning down the chance to be the “token unknown act” at Live Aid, further issues with the record company developed and they broke up in 1987 after releasing two strong albums and five singles.


In regard to their Falkands inspired anti-War ballad ‘Easter Parade‘ (1985), music journalist Tony Fletcher said the “best compliment I can pay is to suggest that you play it alongside two renowned and relevant contemporaries, ‘Shipbuilding’ by Elvis Costello and ‘Between The Wars’ by Billy Bragg, and see if you don’t agree that it deserves equal ranking.”

– the second incarnation of Harlow band The (Newtown) Neurotics and their albums ‘Repercussions’ (1986) and ‘Is Your Washroom Breeding Bolsheviks?’ (1988). Starting life out as as a punk band in the late 1970s, the band developed their songwriting well beyond punk parameters and in 1985 introduced a brass section and abbreviated their name to The Neurotics. The following year they released their single ‘Living With Unemployment‘ single, a re-working of The Members ‘Solitary Confinement’ which well deservedly made N.M.E. ‘Single Of The Week’. It contains the classic verse:

’round our way, we ain’t got a lot
And after two years on the dole, I felt I’d been left to rot
But now I’ve joined the Army and, believe it or not
I’m going to Northern Ireland and, I’m going to get shot!

Lead singer and guitarist Steve Drewett was (and is) an outspoken socialist (‘Kick Out the Tories‘, ‘Fighting Times‘ and ‘The Winds of Change‘) and today plays with an anarcho-syndicalist sticker on his guitar.

– the third album ‘Love’ (1987) from Aztec Camera from East Kilbride, Scotland and singles like ‘Somewhere in My Heart’ (1987). Lead singer Roddy Frame said in a 1984 interview “I am a born Socialist simply because I know what is right and wrong. Politics is not like supporting Celtic or Rangers. There is only ONE right side, and that is socialism.” Their third album ‘Love’ was a commercial success but divided many fans with accusations of sell out as the band moved to include “radio-friendly hooks and glossy production values”. The B-side to 1988 single ‘How Men Are’ was a simple piano and vocal version cover of The Red Flag.

– the career of Leicester band Fire Next Time (1986-88), their one album ‘North to South’ (1988) and songs ‘Saint Mary’s Steps (Up Tempo Version)’ and ‘We’ve Lost Too Much’. If you decide to only check out one band from this list, I think you should make it ‘Fire Next Time’. I came across one of their songs by accident last year on YouTube, was blown away and immediately downloaded their absolutely fantastic album ‘North to South’ (1988). Download it here, now! It reminded me of The Redskins and The Blades with a hint of The Waterboys and a big dash of Springsteen. One only had to look at their back cover of their first single to see their commitment to left-wing politics. The lead singer James Maddock and drummer Lee Humber were members of the SWP.

What interested me as much as the music when finding the band was that the fact that there was literally only a handful of references to the band anywhere online. As such, I did my best to collate all this information available and set up a Wikipedia article for the group. I also bought their LP and a couple of singles off Ebay. Their lead singer James Maddock (who wrote all their songs) later formed a band called ‘Wood’ who gained critical success with their 1999 album ‘Songs from Stamford Hill’ and has gone onto have a successful solo career since his permanent relocation to New York City in 2003. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to contact James through Facebook and we were able to have a chat.

While they didn’t have brass sections, related left-wing bands from that period playing jangle pop/new wave/post punk include Gang of Four (1977-83), The Three Johns (1981-90), Latin Quarter (1983-99), Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (1984-89) and Easterhouse (1985-89).

There were also a number of non-political soul/RnB bands like The Q-Tips (1979-81), The Bureau (1981), The Blue Ox Babes (1981-88), JoBoxers (1982-85) and Big Sound Authority (1983-86).

Fitting better into the collective memory of 1980s music, sophisti-pop bands with left-wing politics include Scritti Politti (1980s), Heaven 17 (1980s), Human League (1980s), The Blow Monkeys (1981-90), The Kane Gang (1982-91), The Communards (1985-88), Deacon Blue (1985-90) and Hue and Cry (1987 onwards).

If I’ve left out any 80s Soul Rebels, please let me know!

Comments»

1. ejh - January 18, 2014

The Redskins were not very good.

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2. WorldbyStorm - January 18, 2014

Kick over the statues is a classic, Keep on Keepin’ On and Lean on Me are good songs and though they could be a bit preachy and clunky on the album there was something very likeable about them. A friend of mine was at a gig of theirs in Dublin where various contingents squared off against each others. Anyone else there?

Great post Sam, some great sounds in that broad area of music.

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3. EamonnCork - January 18, 2014

I’ve always thought efforts to claim It’s Going To Happen as a H-Block song are thoroughly unconvincing. Listen to the lyrics for God’s sake. It smacks a bit of John O’Neill attempting to score points for political seriousness after the event.
I loved the House Martins but there’s a very good article by Simon Reynolds, collected in Bring The Noise, about why he found the Redskins unappealing. I think their problem was that they invoked the spirit of Motown without realising that the most important thing about the music was how entertaining it was. And a couple of the bands here did labour a bit, like the Andrews-Whelan midfield pairing for Ireland you couldn’t fault their passion and commitment but there were times when you’d have given a lot for a bit of inspiration.
However I do have a weakness for all this stuff, especially on the lighter end of the spectrum as I’m basically a dilettante who likes to imagine himself in a dinner jacket.
I suppose these are the less rebellious cousins of the family, but rather good all the same. Maybe they leaned slightly more towards jazz than soul in some cases but I do think they’re part of a, Simon Reynolds word alert, continuum with the other bands.

and

and

Rebel Mod.

Rebel WorldMusic.

A band who were politically committed and did the jazz/soul thing and I think helped Weller think of the Style Council. He did his first stage appearances after The Jam with them.

And great to see Fire Next Time, I’ve been trying to find a song of theirs called Beneath The Hammers for yonks.
Interesting period of time, the much derided eighties, lots of groups trying to engage with jazz, soul and, though that’s probably another post, country and coming up with an interesting hybrid. Which does contrast with the later, and I won’t crib about it again, Brit Pop then which led to all that NME approved Indie which was interested only in older guitar rock.

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Sam - January 18, 2014

Thanks for the reply EamonnCork.

I love that Big Sound Authority track. Name checked them, Latin Quarter and The Bureau at the end of the piece. ‘Modern Times’ by Latin Quarter is a brilliant album. The Bureau’s single ‘Only For Sheep’ is decent as well. My ma told me she saw them at Slane (?) and at the Sportsman Inn.

Never heard of Matt Bianco, Animal Nightlife or Each and Everyone (if I’m being honest) so looking forward to checking them out now.

I do have a soft spot for Secret Affair. Plus The Chords and The Lambrettas actually. Never really rated Purple Hearts or The Merton Parkas. I reckon you could do a whole separate piece on 80s Mod Revival bands. The Donkeys, The Teenbeats, Back to Zero, The Jolt, The Truth etc. etc.

Forgot about that The Alsatians track. Thanks for reminding me about it!

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EamonnCork - January 18, 2014

Great choice overall Sam. Didn’t mean to come across as in any way dissing your taste. It’s just the Faith Brothers actually who are a band I remember always listening to and thinking, ‘this is going to get really good soon,’ but it never seemed to. Again, a bit like watching Ireland.
The Big Sound Authority song is wonderful. I know nothing about them and have never heard anything else about them but for almost 30 years that’s one of my favourite songs, one of those which I find myself singing, particularly the sublime 30 seconds or so at the start.
Matt Bianco, I must warn you, veer very close to the wine bar jazz side of things in general, so you could be sucked into the terrible world of Curiosity Killed the Cat and Blue Rondo A La Turk, but that one song is so sublimely wonderful it justifies their entire existence. That and the fact that their biggest hit worked wonders for me as a fun way to get kids out of the scratcher in the morning.

The Lambrettas were brilliant (Doesn’t this sound an awful lot like the Blades).

In general I preferred the clothes of the Mod revival to the music. My favourite song of the MR is this, though in the pernickety category mongering fashion of the times it perhaps belonged more to the Psychedelic Revival.

More posts please. And your own site is brilliant. Fair play.

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WorldbyStorm - January 18, 2014

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Matt Bianco to be honest. I’ve got the album on vinyl and there’s some great tunes but their grubby little hearts had the controls set directly towards the commercial end of the spectrum – can’t blame them there, but….so I’m interested in and would echo your caveats EC.

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WorldbyStorm - January 18, 2014

Just on Latin Quarter, a fair bit slower than the rest, and a good band with moments of greatness. But man, they could be depressing.Or truthful. Perhaps that was why they were depressing.

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WorldbyStorm - January 18, 2014

And the Prisoners. Definitely more psychedelic but… still an element of the soul sound.

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Dr.Nightdub - January 18, 2014

Sam, your ma was right, The Bureau supported Thin Lizzy at the first-ever Slane (1981, I think). U2 were on the undercard as well.

I’m nearly sure I saw Latin Quarter in the old Cathedral Club (former synod hall of Christchurch) before it got turned into Dublinia.

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WorldbyStorm - January 18, 2014

What were they like?

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Dr.Nightdub - January 19, 2014

WbS, I’m a bit Grampa Simpson-ish about the details but the gig doesn’t stand out as one of those wow occasions. Google reminds me that they had a couple of other singles that weren’t bad – No Rope As Long As Time, America for Beginners. Definitely on the mellower end of the reggae-blue-eyed soul-world music spectrum as opposed to the shoutier end.

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WorldbyStorm - January 19, 2014

I can imagine it wouldn’t be ‘wow’! They were always slow burners. I’ve the album, got it probably around then second hand in Freebird and always loved it but agree entirely. Very mellow. Some hard hitting stuff though. No Rope As Long as Time is amazing.

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4. EamonnCork - January 18, 2014

Oh, and the very good single from the Dexys offshoot about the Craig-Bentley murder case and execution.

And we shouldn’t forget the finest Irish example, apart from the Blades of course, of the genre.

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5. EamonnCork - January 18, 2014

And if we’re talking about brass, might as well mention this perennial favourite by a band which included former members of the most overtly political post-punk band, along with the Gang of Four, The Pop Group.

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6. Dr.Nightdub - January 18, 2014

Cracking post by Sam and some great additions from Eamonn. I hope that’s the set-list for the next CHTM event – hint hint!

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7. Sam - January 18, 2014

A few others.

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – Lost Weekend (1985). Cole was involved with Red Wedge.

JoBoxers – Johnny Friendly (1983). Tight bassline and almost rapped vocals.

The Kane Gang – The Closest Thing To Heaven (1984). Dated and very 1980s pop but an alright tune.

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8. Mick - January 18, 2014

EamonnCork, Papa’s got a brand new pigbag is a great track and while your talking about brass. From 1967 Bar-Keys Nucklehead that was a b side of the single Soul Finger.

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9. Brian Hanley - January 18, 2014

Great post Sam.
I think John O’Neill claims he wanted ‘It’s gonna happen’ to be about H-Block, and to reference hunger strikers of the past, but the rest of the lads weren’t into it and they wrote the main verses, which have nothing to do with anything really.
I think sometimes the best political music is when the musicians themselves come to it organically, rather than start a band as a political project. If you look at Paul Weller for instance, he was a Tory in 1977 (no matter what he claims now) and was pretty apolitical/cynical up to 1979 (not saying that some of The Jam’s music up to then wasn’t great – it was) – on Setting Sons there’s some really sharply observed stuff, Sound Affects is more political (that brass section appears on Boy About Town), then The Gift as you say more left-wing still. But the point is, if the songs were shit would anyone care?
By 1984-85 Weller was calling for Tories to be shot (in the pages of Smash Hits no less) and I think The Style Council were bringing out some really good stuff by then too.
Yes, Tracy Thorn of ETBTG sang on the first Style Council album and there was some other collaborations as well.

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10. Brian Hanley - January 18, 2014

The most Northern Soul influenced Style Council track, (though originally a Jam demo) is A Solid Bond In Your Heart.

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11. Brian Hanley - January 18, 2014

Direct Motown connection- Jimmy Ruffin of What Becomes of the Broken hearted appears on this benefit for the miners Soul Deep:

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12. Brian Hanley - January 18, 2014

Redskins had their moments – you already have Bring It Down but Plateful of Hateful rips off some of Shaft if I’m not mistaken

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13. Brian Hanley - January 18, 2014

Last but not least- you have to credit Hue and Cry for a chorus that goes ‘I’m gonna withdraw my labour of love, gonna strike for the right to get into your cold heart…ain’t gonna work for you no more!’
They don’t write them like that anymore.

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EamonnCork - January 19, 2014

‘I’m gonna arrange a meeting with the company appointed works committee of your heart, bearing in mind that I need to be flexible about love given that class warfare is a thing of the past, baby,’ doesn’t really have the same ring to it.

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14. Brian Hanley - January 18, 2014

Definitely the last…nobody will want to be reminded of this but Simply Red were considered left-wing around the time of ‘Moneys too tight to mention’ and that worked out really well, didn’t it?

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15. Mick - January 19, 2014

Fair play Sam you have some cool music choices from the late 1970s and 1980s. Here are two of my favorite tracks from the 1980s.Armageddon Days Are Here (Again) By The The from their album Mind Bomb http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lel0PzhU6Pk.

Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon

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16. Mick - January 19, 2014

Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon.

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17. Sam - January 19, 2014

Keep the links and suggestions coming!

In terms of brass, we can’t forget The Clash and their great b-side ‘City of the Dead’ from 1977. Irish saxophonist John Earle played on it. Wiki tells me he also played the double-tracked baritone saxophone on the track “The Right Profile” (from London Calling)

I also LOVE the 12 inch ‘club’ remix of the Shillelagh Sisters’ “Give Me My Freedom” from 1984. Patricia “Trisha” O’Flynn played sax on it. Singer Jacquie O’Sullivan, also 2nd generation Irish, later fronted Bananarama. (Song has a weird ending unfortunately)

Different vibe but I’ve always loved The Waterboys. Anthony Thistlethwaite played sax on a lot of their stuff.

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18. Mick - January 19, 2014

Hazel O’Connor singing Will You? (from the movie Breaking Glass with some great sax, from around 1981. This I think was her only good song.

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19. Simon - January 21, 2014

Wow. Brilliant post. And so much of this is exactly what I was listening to in the 80s, and still love now. I would add The Proclaimers to this list, definitely political,definitely soulful. Housemartins too. Big Sound Authority had quite a large political streak to them. They started out on Weller’s Respond label and the only track released on there, History Of The World is pretty left wing. Tony Burke was from Mod band The Directions of Three Bands Tonight fame.

Excellent post.

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20. Simon - January 21, 2014

I would also suggest that with hindsight, not only was Van The Man an influence, but Springsteen too. The soulful tough poet thing.

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21. Sam - January 23, 2014
22. Sam - January 23, 2014

Two bands that I neglected to mention in the original post but really should be included.

The Burial (1981-89) from Norton, North Yorkshire. Anti-racist skinhead band with northern soul and ska influences. Released ‘A Day On The Town’ in 1989.

Skin-Deep (1985-88) from Doncaster. Another anti-racist skinhead band. Released ‘More Than Skin-Deep’ in 1988.

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23. John Byrne - January 25, 2014

Delighted to see The Commotion mentioned here. Although we weren’t political in terms of lyrics – my songwriting influences were always more pro-Tin Pan Alley than anti-tin-pot dictators – we were collectively to the left of the Labour Party while the Larkin posters and choice of anarchist red and black colouring were deliberate political references. There was one Commotion song – This is How it Was – that bucked the trend as it was about my experiences in the workplace before I became unemployed/a full-time musician. Another song, Candide, was about naiveté in the music business. The rest of our sets down the years centered on smooching and heartache – the really important stuff. After all, nothing else matters when you’re in love and everything’s crap when you’ve been dumped.

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WorldbyStorm - January 26, 2014

Quite a bit of truth in that John!

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24. This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… Latin Quarter | The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 25, 2015

[…] that’s another day’s work. Sam here in his guest post covered an enormous number of them. And mentioned by Sam was Latin Quarter. Their album, Modern Times, thirty years old this year, is […]

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