The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra began in 2011.
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra in a nutshell…
Lee Thompson introduced an entire new generation to Ska music when Madness exploded from nowhere in 1979. Now, along with founder-member Mark Bedford, the two are moonlighting to introduce those authentic Ska and Reggae rhythms that burst out of Jamaica in the mid to late 1960’s to a whole new audience. They have an acclaimed first album under their belt, The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius which pays homage to great original artists from the Alpha School for boys and beyond. Hear hits by The Skatalites through to Desmond Dekker newly polished up by a skilful selection, an 11 man full brass, keys and guitars powerhouse of talent. They have also had three hot singles featuring unique collaborations with Bitty Mclean & Dawn Penn, as well as a winter warming festive tune. In just a short number of years the band have gathered quite a following at their tours, gigs and many top line festivals, regularly selling out Camden’s Jazz Cafe, and they are now deep into preparing their second album, working title “Bite The Bullet” featuring their first self penned tunes sitting comfortably alongside a new batch of upbeat ska cover choices from the classic era. The Ska is reloaded. Ready, Aim, Fire!
The full story of far…
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra began in 2011.
It’s often been said the band was an idea Madness Brass Section player Joe Auckland first encouraged Lee to think seriously about. An offer to play a ska all day event in Oxford eventually set the dabbling rehearsals and audition process a new deadline. In Hackney, at The Premises studios, in downtime Madness weren’t using there, Thommo took the space to form the largest crew of usual suspects he had yet pulled together for a project and started moulding them into a team. Then together they hand-picked old Jamaican numbers from ska compilation LP’s from the 60’s to try and emulate or find their own groove on, those vintage sounds.
Like all bands it came from “who do I know”. Mark Bedford was absent from Madness that year and the pair reunited together to try something fresh and fun. Long time collaborator acclaimed pianist Louis Vause (who has worked with Graham Coxon and the like) came in on Keyboards, and multi-instrumentalist Terry Edwards known to all three of these men joined predominately on saxophones, occasionally flute, or a rouge whistle. All three had previously been in BUtterfield 8 who were well versed in the Jazz approach together. Where as Thommo and Louis had been in Crunch! who’s self penned nutty pop tunes seemed currently on ice in 2011. Adding Hammond organ to the key sounds saw the return of one Seamus Behagan who had been in both those bands! and in 1985’s Madness line up too. A regular guitarist in Thommo’s other pub bands, Kevin Burdett, was the next obvious choice into the new orchestra mix. Rounded out with some members from the band Los Palmas 6 who had already helped other Thommo projects in the past too. Steve Turner, Steve White, and Steve Rooney made it a Steve heavy orchestra! Thus was formed a new super group of individuals already with a shorthand familiarity with each others playing styles. Young Jack Mitchel was newly added by recommendation on Trombone, and brother in law Darren Fordham, vocalist from indie band Reece, jumped up for a backing vocals MC type role that capped the band the largest Thommo had ever assembled. They rehearsed in The Premises and recorded basic demos there to allow more solo practice along to band recordings at home.
It wasn’t an overnight success story. Though as musicians and friends they gelled beautifully, and the music flowed from the start, the early live gigs were more light and shade affairs. A low key Brighton try out show shambolically involved passing sheet music around the stage, which they laughed off, they then launched publicly. Time slot troubles, many payment wrangles, luke warm crowds beset the first few gigs. From Oxford, to Clapham to the Isle of Wight scooter rally they proudly presented their chosen music anew, but tripped often instead on the business side of moving such a large band around, or the unknown factor of their chosen music not pulling the crowd onside as expectations differed. An Irish festival date, a free London outing, and a Halloween night in Newcastle (always a party town) kept the project moving towards positive recognition during that first year, as fans then helped build their web presence up and increase video views with comedic edited collaboration’s set to the bands music, spreading the word around. Playing for free at a London shopping centre with Suggs switching on Christmas lights, was a much needed money spinner but didn’t help credibility any, it was time to make a musical statement.
The band moved into 2012 determined to up their game by making an investment in the master plan of a début album.
“Mission Mary” was on and it would soon put them on the map.
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra – Recorded their first album in 2012
Their debut album The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatus, recorded at The Ironworks Studio in Brighton and co-produced by Mike Pelanconi aka Prince Fatty (A Tribe Called Quest, Kula Shaker, Hollie Cooke), is a tribute to the long-lasting legacy of the music that inspired them as teenagers. Mike Pelanconi’s production perfectly re-creates the live Caribbean vibe on tracks inspired by the likes of Desmond Dekker and John Holt, alongside impressive versions of King Curtis’ Soul Serenade and Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible theme.
“You walk into Mike’s studio and it’s like stepping back into the ‘60s. He collects all the retro stuff, all the two-inch analogue stuff but also he’s got a laptop down in transfer to bring it into the millennium. He was a joy to work with, and everyone put in their tuppeny worth in.” Lee Thompson
The album also benefits from the guidance of Dave Robinson, co-founder of Stiff Records (Madness, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury) and a man with a cast-iron connection to Lee Thompson and Madness. The man who signed the band to the legendary label in 1979 after famously auditioning them at his wedding. “I didn’t even know how to tune a saxophone then,” Lee laughs.
The lead single from the album is a clever and fitting cover of Dekker’s mighty, mystical Fu Man Chu, which is given a vocal transfusion from reggae hit-maker Bitty Mclean. It’s more fun than should be legal.
“It’s got that spring feel about it, that ‘up‘ thing,” says Lee, down-to-earth as ever. “I’m not trying to make it all polished.” Lee Thompson
The album features treasured tunes from Lee’s collection, inspired by the recordings of personal heroes from Desmond Dekker to Byron Lee — and who better to bring them to us than Thompson. Lee who wrote Madness’ début single The Prince, a tribute to the king of ska himself, Prince Buster.
The sessions were fast and friendly. “Some of the chaps have got proper jobs, of course, so I was trying to work the recording sessions so that they’d suit everyone. I think we recorded, mixed and had it in the bag over four or five weekends.” Lee Thompson
A massive crowd of over 40,000 saw them play at the sun ska festival in France, (Paul Tadman standing in on Bass, while Mark was out on Olympics duties), the reaction showed excitement was building for this forth coming album, as a few online previews were dished out on radio shows too around this time. The band sold out the Islington Assembly hall mid year, as one of just a few gigs, by year end they were getting great word of mouth praise out into the ska community via playing a Sunday set at Madness’s House Of Fun Weekender. This gave a lot of unsure on lookers and less travelled Madness fans a taste of what London and the south had been enjoying for over a year, this boosted the bands profile. An EP “You Lucky People” is now a sort after collectors item after selling out at the event. It contained two album tracks, a live Fordie fronted Jimmy Cliff cover, and an exclusive mix from three Dub works that producer Prince Fatty had produced as alternate mixes of the album sessions. The band were now a hot topic.
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra – Released their album into the charts in 2013 with Big Radio and TV appearances.
In their third year the band got really serious. Lee even left Madness for a six month sabbatical to finally deliver the goods this line up had the promise to give and had been hard at work making into a record. With a newly sourced drummer “Mez” slotting into the fold and a fresh Trombonist in T-Bone Bob joining the ranks, both replacing members who now lived overseas, not one, but two tours took place for The Ska Orchestra this year. The first linking Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol and Chelsea. Where as year end touring would cover Brighton, Bath, through to Leeds and Sheffield and many more. Their festival appearances ramped up too, becoming hits at The Secret Garden Party Festival, a Belgium Jazz fest, and a whole summer of crowd pleasing stage appearances, rounding the year off with a return to The House of fun, this time roping in Rhoda Dakkar as guest, and also appearing at Specialized: The Big One in aid of the teenage cancer charity, which begat a live album inclusion & DVD of the band performing.
That summer suited ska it seemed and was perfect timing for the release of their debut album. “Mission Mary” was launched with two shows at The Legendary Dublin Castle, on the same day, for press and for punters. The music sounded so sweet that playing it twice didn’t diminish a thing, there was a memorable Terry Edwards solo that stunned not just the crowd but the rest of the band playing, and a sense of achievement. The album gained a lot of radio play, notably with David Rodigan’s Radio One Extra show, who would put the Bitty Mclean track on his compilation later that year. A video of Fu Man Chu, got thousands of hits, and drew in more band interest with it’s mock gangster story and old school nutty charm, that had been missing from Madness as they lazily shunned videos these days. Here Dave Robinson was back behind the camera and Lee as ever playing up to it, as two characters, a popstar
lee down on his luck and a high rolling gangster version. Filmed in Mill hill studios and a local pool hall that was disrupted for the afternoon to the confused on looking of it’s regular members.
A mass of radio interviews followed. Including sessions on BBC London on The Robert Elms show, Then a stunning performance of the single on Later with Jools Holland, capped the promotion nicely as Millions of viewers got a taste of the new ska sound.
The sun, Mojo and radio two playlists all bigged up the album and single. A respectable chart placing at 78 in the overall top 100, on its release, it was topping online independent reggae charts on pre-order as a hot release. This placed it as Lee’s most successful achievement outside of Madness and the album continues to sell well up to this day. Their appearance on Later got voted best of the episode, and later of the series by viewers poll, resulting in a year end appearance on Hootenanny of Thommo and Fordie with Dawn Penn for a performance of second single Bangarang. They had achieved their summer of ska and turned Mission Mary into a year long high.
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra – Played Glastonbury in 2014
Though the Bangarang single with Dawn Penn, seemed to move forever in delay, it arrived in a Taxi eventually as Lee performed another great nutty video as a Cabbie. The big achievement for 2015. Was a slot at The Glastonbury festival. This was streamed on BBC TV’s red button as a high definition broadcast. Despite being up against Dolly Parton! (And we are sure Lee might like to be up against her in a small lift!) The band pulled a large audience to the west holts stage in the afternoon and handled a few boobs in timing quite well in Dolly’s absence. The broadcast was widely watched, reaming on the I player for a while.
They played a few other festivals including The Wickerman in Scotland, that has lead to lyrics by Lee being penned for the follow up album. Heartlands festival, that received noise complaints! (Newly added guitarist Andy claimed responsibility, but it wasnt it was a speaker set up issue and the festivals fault.) Demand saw the year end gig at the Jazz Cafe sell out, even on the night fans were begging for tickets outside. A few more line up changes to the orchestras continued revolve happened, Terry Edwards being in so many bands means he’s been out for a while, and Steve Turner left to be replaced by Steve Hamilton (to keep the Steve level up to at least two!) Dingwalls was the first concert to feature Sumudu guesting in the Dawn Penn slot within live gigs, a sultry singer from the Jazz world most often named “Summer” when introduced on the mic. Her role would increase into more than just a one song guest spot, into a more regular addition as well as adding a female lilt in the studios backing vocals from this point onwards.
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra – Recorded their second album in 2015 & Released a Christmas Tune
In April 2015 the band pulled together ideas they had been working on for some time individually and rehearsed 13 (& 1/2) new songs which they debuted at a secret last minute gig at The Dublin Castle later that month, opened to fans on social media only.
New lyrics from Lee and music from veterans Mark Bedford, Seamus, and Louis mixed with tunes by Mez, Bob, Andy shows that new talent had been added to the band since that first LP and the old talent was ready to add new notches to their cannons of work. “Step it up Sister” penned by Mez, in a Prince Buster style, has been well received at The Garage & The Jazz Café showcases for new tunes in recent sell out gigs, and made it onto the radio in acoustic session performance. Where as Western Standard Time, a fresh pastiche of ska and Ennio Morricone soundtrack cowboy movies has instant crowd pleasing style. Wickerman has classic Thommo lyrics that always evoke mystery and menace and Mr Bedford’s instrumental contribution is the albums title track. Bite the Bullet.
There were a few new covers too, with a bond theme mirroring the inclusion of Mission Impossible theme tune on the first LP. A full set of album sessions followed. All these songs went down onto digital recordings in a London Studio in April. The second record was then mixed again by Prince Fatty down in Brighton. But further tunes were required into the pot so later sessions added Shaft, and more as the year end approached and Dave Robinson returned to check out the progress. The band recorded a new single release “It May Be Winter Outside, (But in my heart it’s Spring)” available Christmas Day to warm all hearts, with it’s soothing backing vocals from Summer (surely that means it’s only Autumn you cant play this track!)
Lee shot a New York video clip in promotion of the track and released it online during Advent.
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra – Are releasing their second album in 2016 & Lee is working on a Mock-Documentary film.
Working with Jeff Baynes of (Cardiac Arrest Madness video fame) Lee has prepared a video or two for the new album, whilst
working on a comedic bio-pic “Who Is Lee Thompson?” which hilariously sees Lee lip sync characters to famous voices while his
fellow Madness members tell tall tales, probably all true, about the mischievous Front Man of The Ska Orchestra, a preview edit
went down a storm at The House of Fun Weekender, work continues on the film, and album promotion materials…
And you dear listener can be a part of the continuing story of the band, as they head to Docklands in April to give
these new tunes an evening airing in another setting, tickets on sale soon for the next live outing, and be prepared
to pre order the second album soon. Keep watching this website for the news towards the middle of this year.
The story continues…
LEE THOMPSON SKA ORCHESTRA BIOGRAPHY, JUNE 2016
Last time around, the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra treated us to a brilliant celebration of the chronicles of ska music, with the widely-admired The Benevolence Of Sister Mary Ignatius. Now, with Bite The Bullet, they’re helping to shape its future.
Bite The Bullet is the new, self-produced album from the exhilarating band curated by Lee, the much-loved Madness sax man and co-writer of such time-honoured Nutty Boy gems as ‘House Of Fun,’ ‘Embarrassment’ and ‘Lovestruck.’ The new set offers some more delicious updates on vintage tunes, delivered as only the orchestra can, but this time, the band workshop has also been a veritable cauldron of new songwriting activity.
Talk to Lee about his helmsmanship of this magnificently motley crew of seafarers and he’s always a picture of unassuming pride — but especially as he surveys what they’ve achieved together on Bite The Bullet. “This time round, it’s more the band’s own songs,” he says of an abum recorded at Fishmarket Studios in Neasden and then mixed at the Ironworks in Brighton by Mike Pelanconi, who co-produced its predecessor.
“Last time, it was doffing the cap to Sister Mary and the ska artists of the time,” he says of the 2013 album that doffed the cap to the woman who played such a vital role in the development of ska and reggae, as head of the Alpha Boys’ School in Kingston, Jamaica. “But now, I’ve said to the band, ‘I want a song off you each, I want them on my desk on Monday!’ And everyone, pretty much, got it done.”
Consequently, Bite The Bullet becomes a showcase for the Ska Orchestra’s collective and individual talents. Thompson’s Madness colleague since the late 1970s, Mark “Bedders” Bedford, came to the sessions with the title track composition; guitarist Andy Neal delivered ‘Feel A Little Better’ and ‘I Am King.’
Then there’s trombonist Bob Dowell, who contributed the “ spaghetti western” tune ‘Western Standard Time,’ drummer/percussionist Mez Clough, who put in ‘Step It Up Sister,’ and so it went on. Thompson himself is the lyricist on the album’s splendid finale ‘Wickerman,’ which features music by pianist Louis Vause.
“He just wrote this lyric about the Wickerman,” says Lee. “Who he is, I haven’t got a clue, but there’s a certain atmosphere about the song. I think the inspiration for that was when played the Wickerman Festival the year before.”
But it wouldn’t be Lee and co if there weren’t some unexpected surprises among the remakes, and on this occasion they stretch from The Beatles to Bond. Lennon & McCartney’s lesser-known A Hard Day’s Night gem ‘I’ll Be Back’ gets the treatment alongside John Barry’s 007 theme ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,’ repurposed by guitarist-pianist Kevin Burdett.
Among other treats, there’s also a take on the 1961 obscurity by the admirable Coasters, written by the brilliant Leiber & Stoller, ‘Hongry.’ Bite The Bullet also displays the talents of the orchestra’s vocal discovery Sumudu Jayatilaka, amid a team of all the talents that Thompson describes as “a joy” to work with.
Lee happily admits that it was the experience of creating The Benevolence Of Sister Mary Ignatius, and the warm reaction to it, that made him want to take his chances and, indeed, bite the bullet on a follow-up. “I wanted to take that gamble again,” he says. “I was absolutely chuffed with how the last one went down. It even got a bit of praise from the Madness boys!”
Switching back and forth between Madness and the Ska Orchestra not only gives Thompson great pleasure, it shows a versatility that we might even call ambidextrous. “With Madness, I’m behind a hat and glasses, I’ve got me sax, I’m climbing all over the place, I’m working that audience and the ship is nice and level,” he says.
“With the Ska Orchestra, it’s just smooth. I haven’t got to worry, I know I can do anything, click my fingers, point, take a solo. They all know there’s no set plan. It’s good in a different way.”
What joins the dots between the bands, and is now making the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra such immense fun on stage and on record, is Lee’s lifelong love of ska music. As Bite The Bullet takes its place in our hearts, the orchestra will perform it live at selected dates running through the year, and all will be well.
“I’ve got it naturally in me genes and me make-up, that off-beat,” says Lee. “Some players just cannot get that, but that’s always been my first love, I do love my reggae and ska. Where it is right now is fantastic. Where it leads to I don’t know. We’re just enjoying the moment.”