This story originally ran in the August 2012 issue of Modern Drummer.
He barely knew what to do with a reggae groove when he started his climb to the top of the pops with Steel Pulse. He must have been a fast learner, though, because it wouldn’t be long before the man known as Grizzly would become one of British reggae’s most identifiable figures.
Steve “Grizzly” Nisbett laid down the groove for the Grammy-winning British reggae powerhouse Steel Pulse from 1977 to 2001, when health issues forced him to leave the band. During his tenure, he helped make Steel Pulse one of the most popular reggae acts in history.
Nisbett was born in the tiny Caribbean nation of Nevis and moved to Birmingham, England, at the age of nine. As was common at the time, his parents had emigrated years before to seek work opportunities, and they sent for their children one by one as they found work and adequate housing in their adopted land. Less than thrilled by his new surroundings, Nisbett nonetheless tried to make the best of his living conditions. “It was very cold,” he told the British music journalist Andy Brouwer in 2004. “I cried. I arrived at the end of December and woke the next morning to find everything covered in white. I’d never experienced snow before in my life.”
Growing up, Nisbett preferred sports to academics and spent a good deal of time playing cricket at the youth club in the predominantly Caribbean neighborhood of Saltley, in Birmingham. It was there that he met the Dean brothers, who sang and played guitar. At first Steve was interested in playing guitar, but after deciding that he had no skill with stringed instruments, he settled with tapping the occasional tambourine and helped support his friends by providing a rehearsal space in his parents’ basement.
After the band’s original drummer quit a few days before the first scheduled gig, Nisbett was convinced to fill in, even though he’d never even sat behind a set of drums before. Resistant at first, he nonetheless was coaxed into playing a few small shows on borrowed drums—and found that he had a knack for keeping time. At the age of sixteen, after convincing his parents to buy him a kit, the young drummer worked to hone his chops and broaden his knowledge of music. “I was hanging around with a lot more black guys,” Nisbett told Brouwer, “so my tastes in music widened to include reggae, ska-beat, jazz, R&B, soul, Motown, and so on. I spent time on my own, rehearsing in my cellar, listening to records and trying to imitate them on my drums.”
After high school, Nisbett decided to try to make a career of performing and formed his first real working cover band, Penny Black. After a move to London in the early ’70s, he began playing with the group Rebel and with Jamaican singer Delroy Washington, among others. A few years later, Nisbett moved back to the English Midlands and played with a succession of bands that aimed to reproduce the popular Stax Records sound epitomized by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett.
Grizzly—a nickname bestowed upon Steve due to his large, bearlike appearance—met the members of Steel Pulse in 1976, and in early 1977 he played on the band’s first single, “Nyah Luv.” “I liked them the first time I heard them,” Nisbett told Brouwer, “not because they were a reggae band, but of all the bands around, they had a different sound. They were radical.”
Nisbett had played very little reggae prior to his first sessions with Steel Pulse, and he created his own style by passing popular reggae beats through the filter of his R&B and rock roots. Nisbett’s unique style helped to distinguish Steel Pulse from other British reggae bands of the time, as did the group’s lively stage show, provocative costumes, and close association with the burgeoning punk movement. Developing concurrently, British reggae and punk shared countercultural philosophies, making them natural counterparts. Consequently, during this period Steel Pulse found itself sharing stages with XTC, the Clash, Generation X, the Stranglers, the Sex Pistols, and other influential punk and new-wave bands.
In 1978 Steel Pulse signed with the influential Island label, later releasing albums on Elektra and MCA, including 1984’s highly regarded Earth Crisis and 1986’s Grammy-winning Babylon the Bandit. The perennially popular band toured nearly nonstop throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and Nisbett made an amicable exit in 2001. Steve devoted his time after leaving Steel Pulse to promoting original music in the Midlands and nurturing developing artists, largely through his label Grizzly Records, which he ran from his home base in Birmingham. Nisbett passed away on January 18, 2018.