Friday, May 30, 2014

In Defense Of: Ska

This In Defense Of was contributed by Reid Attaway, guitarist for Murphy's Kids, occasional bassist for Eastern Standard Time, and utmost defender of the ska faith.

Disclaimer from the Author: As a native of Richmond, Virginia, I’ve spent most of my touring time in this half of the country, so my references will be largely from this side of the country, especially considering the niche nature of most third-wave ska. A handful of bands of note from west of the Mississippi that I didn’t get to in the article include MU330, Five Iron Frenzy, The Urge, I Voted For Kodos, and Mustard Plug.


Dicky Barrett is in a ska band, and he's cooler than you.
The year is 1997, and MTV is still playing music, having just delved into the juggernaut that Total Request Live would become and beginning the precipitous decline into the vast wasteland of reality TV we observe today. MTV VJs are wearing Hawaiian shirts and inviting bands like Reel Big Fish and The Stubborn All-Stars to perform live on air. No Doubt, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Goldfinger all have hits on the radio, and — generally speaking — it’s happy music…on the radio?!?!

By this point, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots’ angst-ridden, myopic teenage-insecurity-affirming grunge has been dominating our radios and (fortunately or not) our hearts for almost five years. What is this new style of music?  Rock bands with horns…like that band my dad likes, Chicago?

Carson Daly cheerily informs you that this new music is called “ska,” and if you fast-forward barely two years it will be totally extinct on the airwaves. Indeed, outside the heaviest of hitters — No Doubt, Sublime, and the Bosstones — ska bands were all but shelved into basement house shows, and virtually all mainstream references to ska and its culture are relegated to butt-of-joke status. Ska music was dead in the mainstream, and ska kids everywhere were either burning their Reel Big Fish shirts in favor of Korn and Limp Bizkit schwag, or lamenting the unceremonious departure of their beloved genre mashup from the mainstream. I’ll begrudgingly admit that I was one of the select few who both retained a love of ska and acquiesced to the angsty adolescent sounds of the rap-rock juggernaut.


What ska?  Whose ska?

As a style of music with its roots in late 50s Jamaican soul, a resurgence in mid-to-late 70s Britain, and a brief love affair with the punk rock community in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 80s, there may be no other style in the canon of American music that suffers an identity crisis of such magnitude.  A lover of ska and a self-proclaimed ska historian, I’ve spent the last fifteen years playing in Richmond, VA-based ska/punk band Murphy’s Kids, three-plus years in Washington, DC-based ska/jazz collective Eastern Standard Time, and listening to any and all music that is labeled as “ska.”  The fact that both of my bands are regularly referred to as “ska,” without qualifiers, is confounding even to me.

In defense of ska music, the first step must be identifying exactly what ska I’m referring to. The ska that specifically needs defending can most aptly be referred to as “third wave” or simply “ska/punk.”  A style of fusion that primarily adheres to two very divergent musical traditions (punk rock and Jamaican soul), the defining characteristics of the style are understandably amorphous. As a result, bands that are categorized as ska can sound incredibly different.  What loosely holds the third-wave style together is punk rock attitude and the incorporation of some degree of Jamaican rhythmic patterns.  At a very specific point in time — around 1995 to 1998 — bands like No Doubt, the Bosstones, and Sublime struck a very specific (yet widely divergent) balance between the punk and Caribbean elements with songwriting that appealed to a larger American audience.

Tim Armstrong, poetically turning his bike's front wheel.
In 1995, Rancid was catapulted from the Bay Area into the mainstream with three hit singles off their third full-length release ...And Out Come The Wolves. These songs were played on major radio and penetrated American pop culture so deeply that I can remember "Ruby Soho" and "Time Bomb" playing at my middle-school dances. It’s surprising to think that Reel Big Fish and the Bosstones were so unceremoniously swept under the rug, while Rancid, who don’t enjoy quite wide popularity or punk street-cred they used to, still didn’t suffer the same fate as the wave of ska-punk bands that followed them to the mainstream.

I shouldn't have to tell you that Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman of Rancid cut their ska-punk teeth in the legendary Bay Area outfit Operation Ivy, or that Op Ivy's 1989 LP Energy is arguably the greatest ska-punk record of all time.  If I do, then good God, you — go get Energy right now and listen to it, front-to-back.  This article will be here when you return.  As we’re concerned primarily with the 90s ska boom and what it meant for ska's legacy, I don't have time to teach you the basics.  Energy.  Listen to it.  Live it.

Riding in on punk credibility and solid songwriting, the ska-influenced punk of Rancid’s breakout album paved the way for this sound to resonate with a wider audience.  It was only after Rancid’s unprecedented success with such a gritty brand of ska-influenced music that No Doubt and the Bosstones could collectively send ten singles up the pop charts.  In 1997, third-wave ska was the next big thing, and below the surface of Gwen Stefani’s lightly feminist vibes and punk rock veneer was a pop songwriting both polished and inspired.
The Bosstones deftly handled the intensity of punk rock and featured a bellowing, gravelly hardcore lead vocalist, scoring two successful Top 40 radio hits from 1997’s Let’s Face It (#1 with “The Impression That I Get” and #7 with “The Rascal King”).  That said, that album is amazing all the way through. It’s both true to their form and palatable to a mass audience.  Pay Attention: we’re talking about a ska band steeped in (and retaining!) Boston’s rich hardcore tradition writing songs with mass appeal and lasting impact. But they are the outlier, and I absolve them of all responsibility for ska’s implosion due to their unprecedented level of musical (and personal) badassery.  While it should be less of a surprise that No Doubt was able to bring funky ska-infused pop rock to the masses, or that Sublime’s trad-reggae sampling and hip-hop sensibilities continue to sell to this day, something like the success of Let’s Face It is a huge anomaly.

By the 1990s, Fishbone had been melding crazy ska and funk grooves with punk, metal, and lyrical bomb blasts reminiscent of Parliament Funkadelic since 1979.  Many Southern California ska-punk giants credit Fishbone with being the forefathers of the style, due to their general credo that their music be eclectic and unapologetic. Detroit hoisted up The Suicide Machines, who put their blisteringly uptempo, tight, crusty punk alongside feelgood ska grooves played so fast that dancing in any manner besides full-on circle-pit just wasn’t going to cut it.  Less Than Jake brought tight, memorable melodic content and lyrics that would resonate with any bored kid in any town atop a mighty steed of power-chord driven pop punk. A song like "Scott Farcas Takes It On the Chin" mixes super-catchy vocals with an absolutely buoyant major-key guitar, bass, and horn attack.  The lyrics are sung with an intensity that exudes sincerety, but are just vague enough to resonate powerfully to the suburban outcast ("And how this town, it keeps you pinned down") while ultimately addressing the short-lived nature of underground music scenes — e.g., the exact content of this article I'm writing right now.  BOOM.  Topical

NYC/Philly band Pilfers combined reggae and hard rock with Patois-laden MC skills and a dual songwriting and frontman attack that appealed to both the basement punk and the dancehall rumpshaker. The guy’s name is Coolie Ranx, and he yells “ELEVATION” at the show and you know just what he means.  California spawned so many of the greats — No Doubt, Rancid, Goldfinger, Sublime, Voodoo Glow Skulls, The Hippos, Rx Bandits — but none rose so high or felt the burn as bad as Reel Big Fish. And for what? They had the most articulated image?  It felt to me like Reel Big Fish took the most direct beating as the archetype for bad ska fads. I’ll have you know that I just ordered Turn The Radio Off on vinyl. It was released a month ago by Enjoy the Ride Records, and I bet they sold a shitload of them. Oh what, you only remember RBF as the band with Hawaiian shirts and the fry costume in their music video? ABOUT A SONG THAT FORETOLD SKA’S DEMISE DUE TO THE CORRUPTING NATURE OF THE MUSIC INDUSTRY?!?!?!

On the more traditional side of things, NYC outfit The Slackers were brand new at this point, but laid down two albums with some of the best written songs in the entire collective history of ska music (1960-Present) before 1998.  The Slackers took to recreating the sounds and grooves of the original Caribbean songsters and beat makers, but pushed their reggae, rocksteady, and ska vibes as a vehicle for some great, authentically New York songwriting. The Pietasters might be the most rounded band in the style, pulling off ska, reggae, rocksteady, and rock and roll while never straying too far from their punky soul center. The Pietasters are a band that enjoyed the boom in the 90s and continues to gig regularly, because their live show is a fucking riot. Their last full-length release (2007’s Don't Wanna Know) is still great.

As a style of music becomes more popular, the business of it pushes forward those artists and songs that sound most like the successes of yesteryear. This industry tendency has fostered the explosions, oversaturation, and subsequent busts of the grunge, rap/metal, and boyband trends, among others, but none of these styles has experienced a backlash so intense that it literally erased the music from the mainstream.

The only thing that definitely ties the sound of these bands together are their use of Caribbean rhythmic elements, and most of these acts only employ those elements sparingly.  For The Slackers and The Toasters to be placed in the same school of thought and show lineup as a Less Than Jake or a Sublime would absolutely confuse a casual listener. It confuses me, and I’ve devoted a substantial portion of my life to writing both ska-punk and traditional Caribbean music.  A big problem that that casual listener will find, then, is that bands as diverse as Reel Big Fish, Fishbone, Mustard Plug, Dance Hall Crashers, Spring Heeled Jack — I can do this all day — were geared toward different genres (punk, hardcore, metal, jazz, funk — Christ, in the case of NYC’s Mephiskapheles, Satanism!) but their entire musical existence was distilled down to three letters because of just one of their influences: SKA.

Inside of the ska bubble, the very identity crisis that made it hard for labels to find the next huge ska band was helping to move the style back to the margins of American music culture.  Not only were the industry execs and mainstream radio listeners turned-off by the second round of ska-punk, but traditional-leaning bands like The Slackers and The Toasters were pissed that they were being lumped in with the third-wave bands.  They saw the cheeky, youthful third-wave bands with their adherence to punk rock ideals and pop-punk songwriting as breaking down the legitimacy that more traditional bands had built up in Caribbean scenes; the huge pop reception and subsequent drop of ska-punk was trivializing the more “grown-up” sound of musicians who were trying to advance new songs in the old style.

Why Ska Matters to Me

Though I loved some of the more mainstream bands and their records, this wasn't my baptism in ska.  As an eighth grader in suburban Richmond, VA, I distinctly remember waking up one Sunday morning particularly uninterested in preparing for church with my parents and brother.  Once there, I’d be happy to sit in a sleepy daze for the forty-five minutes preceding snack time, but until I got out of bed that morning, the only thing I could think of was the unbridled celebration of all things sweaty and punk rock that I had experienced in a church basement the night before watching a dauntingly wide variety of bands.

(Sidenote: any old-school RVA punk rockers reading this will probably get a kick out of this link I found researching this period in RVA music history.)

My friends and I frequented St. Edward’s Episcopal School’s shows, showing up some nights with no idea if there was even a show going on. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a Smashing Pumpkins-style grunge rock band with a terrible name (7:30 Shower Band, an ode to their drummer’s clocklike hygienic tendencies) to share a bill with crass punk acts like Shmegma or Inquisition (whose members went on to form RVA stalwarts Ann Beretta, Strike Anywhere, and River City High) or the weirdly gratifying Indypendent, whose punk/rap-rock tendencies were far in advance of the Family Values tour (the Korn-sponsored circus of JNCOs and flowless rappers over the least imaginative attributes of early 2000s hardcore music).

If there's fifty people outside, we got room for fifty more.
This particular show was different for me. I had been drawn to this scene because I identified with the energy and intensity of the heavily punk-influenced bands I saw there.  But what had my mind reeling after a nights’ sleep was the feeling I got from watching and participating in The Unity Project’s show. Here was a band that was playing punk rock and hardcore, but they had a horn section and undeniably dancy sections in their songs.  They had a mixed-race lineup, and the onstage banter covered topics like scene unity and inclusivity.  Everyone pogo’d together when prompted, and if the singer saw a dancer fall down to the tile floor, he’d jump down (mic cable wrapped around his throat) and help them up off the floor himself while continuing to rock. It was that inclusivity of the venue and community that brought me there, but what made me a devoted fan of the ska music, was the inclusive nature of the music itself.

As American kids with second-generation punk and third-generation Jamaican music as our building blocks, creating a platinum-selling album seemed to be a pipe-dream, even for the most idealistic of garage skankers. From my perspective, most of us were happy to be able to play small clubs and independent labels because it meant our music felt real.  Admittedly, once it got big, the inclusive nature of the music felt lost. Don’t get me wrong — I truly enjoy all the releases by the Bosstones, Goldfinger, even Sublime — but the stuff that is still in my rotation these days are the bands that I felt were mine. The bands that were too punk, too old school, too metal, or just plain too weird for the mainstream (and happy to be that way), and bands like this continued to proliferate and release great music well into the 2000’s. On the punky end, you've got The Fad*, Stuck Lucky, Voodoo Glow Skulls, The Flaming Tsunamis, and The Suicide Machines. On the traditional side, you've got The Aggrolites and The Snails. You want some significantly more far-out stuff, you've got bands that mingle in progressive and worldbeat tendencies like Rx Bandits and Among Criminals.

This stuff mattered, because once we were viewing our idols on MTV, they and the music they were creating became ironically less accessible to us. I could no longer see the path from my parent’s garage to what one would call “making it”.  All of a sudden, this style of music that was heralded by punkers and marching band kids was a popular thing?  It was too cool to be cool.  It wasn’t punk anymore, and it really hadn’t ever been that ska anyway…ska had nowhere it could exist, no realm in our hearts that could be called “home."  Why is it that there has been such an acerbic backlash to such a short-lived trend? Why has ska been forced into such a shameful place in Americans’ collective unconscious?  The thought of Reel Big Fish playing after dark at Bonnaroo or Coachella is outlandish, even revolting to most of the (relatively small number of) folks who remember who that band is. 

Why Ska Should Matter to You

This is where I hope this hits home, because — outside of my relationship to ska, which makes writing this a labor of love — there’s an important message here about how industry homogenization ruins new, integrative styles of music.  In the late 1990s, industry forces outside the ska scene were building a bubble that literally had to pop, by forcing a diverse range of fusion bands into a single mold.  When a cultural phenomenon enjoys wider success (exponentially increasing numbers of people consuming it) it’s likely to experience greater homogenization at the hands of the moneymakers and industry gatekeepers.  That is to say, as a style of music becomes more popular, the business of it pushes forward those artists and songs that sound most like the successes of yesteryear.  This industry tendency has fostered the explosions, oversaturation, and subsequent busts of the grunge, rap/metal, and boyband trends, among others, but none of these styles has experienced a backlash so intense that it literally erased the music from the mainstream.

When the fans, labels, and promoters went looking for more ska bands to feed the movement, what they found sounded nothing like the radio hits they were looking for, because of ska’s diversity.  Hell, the Bosstones made them a mint, but if you even reach further back in their catalogue, you find a sound far too hardcore for the radio.  You’ll find updated examples of all but one of these industry-hijacked styles on the radio today, including throwback hits and newcomers. I challenge you to find me a major market radio station that isn’t independent or college-affiliated that plays any third-wave ska music that’s not “Spiderwebs.”  For what it’s worth, “Spiderwebs” is the shit — let’s not be ridiculous here — but it's also not really ska in-and-of-itself.

I don’t think that it’s a tragedy that ska isn’t mainstream anymore; it’s back in the basement bar and the mid-level club, and I prefer it to experience it that way.  And while I think ska doesn’t get the credit or popularity that it should have in American culture at large, I’m saying there’s something inherently dangerous in the homogenizing tendency of the business of music.  It’s only possible for American ska bands to enjoy the success we do today because the Internet has made it easier for the true believers on the production side (Asbestos Records, Community Records, Underground Communique Records, Enjoy The Ride Records, etc.) to connect with the music lovers who aren’t moved by trends and labels, but are instead tuned to the sounds that resonate in their hearts, minds, and butts (Let us not forget the power of shaking one’s tail feathers!).

If selling units and becoming megastars are the focus the music will suffer (and it did!). We’re lucky that there wasn’t a solid blueprint for a “successful” ska-punk band, or we’d have been up to our necks in shitty music that was being played by pros and hired guns who don’t hold it in their hearts (look what happened to radio rock between ‘95 and ‘04: 1995 Stone Temple Pilots vs. 2004 Nickelback: Nickelback is certifiably bland and terrible where STP is at LEAST creative, and if you didn’t check the STP song I linked, get it together, that shit is BADASS).  I would love for the guys in The Slackers, The Pietasters, The Aggrolites, The Fad, The Flaming Tsunamis, and Stuck Lucky to get the recognition they deserve for the truly innovative and inspiring music they create, but not if it means they have to rein it in any way.

Ska has always done very well by itself in the underground, where it continues to flourish, and writers like Vic Ruggeiro, Chris Murray, and Jesse Wagner are producing traditional-style ska that will be deemed great for years to come, if only by the smaller crowds in 2014.  The Flaming Tsunamis are releasing a brand new ska/punk/metal album on Community Records this June that I promise will MELT YOUR GODDAMN FACE OFF. Murphy’s Kids will be releasing a concept album that covers a super-wide breadth of both traditional and more progressive flavors of ska and punk.  Survay Says! and The Snails both put out albums on Asbestos Records that ska-punkers and traditionalists alike will be spinning for years to come (I know I will... both of those bands rule, and they sound almost nothing alike). Rest assured that if ska does experience another boom, this time there will be an incredible backlog of awesome music that was produced in the period after the giant bust. It’s a bummer that more people don’t recognize its merits due to its mishandling by mainstream culture and the music industry.  It’s a drag: but this is why one writes a defense, yeah?

In a country where I could turn on the modern rock or Top 40 station and be subjected to a new Nickelback or Backstreet Boys (Backstreet’s back…alright…I guess?) at any moment, I’m happy that my favorite style of music (be it fast and punky or slow and steady) isn’t blazing up the charts, because it belongs to people like me, the showgoers, the independent labels and promoters that push music because they love it, not because it has market potential or popularity.



— Reid Attaway 

*Editor's Note: Square Zeros interviewed Jimmy Doyle from The Fad in a post published April 18, 2014, that you can listen to here.

Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Jon Mann, In Defense Of: Hair Metal

Alex Wolfgang von Frankenstein, In Defense Of: Post-Danzig Misfits (1995-2001)

13 comments:

  1. Mustard Plug is from Michigan, and therefore East of the Mississippi.

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  2. I'd just like to note that mustard plug is from Michigan, east of the Mississippi

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  3. Thanks, man. This was heartening and gratifying to read.

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  4. Thank you for this clear, concise overview, I have been listening to most of these band for over 15 years (I'm 45) I have seen many of these bands live over the years, RBF, Goldfinger, LTJ etc and my son just turned 15 and took him to an RBF concert and he instantly is a convert. This music becomes part of you, the gift of this music is know that it is still fucking cooler than any crap on the radio. I would prefer the Ska doesn't ever go mainstream again. It is the best kept secret genre out there and only the few who appreciate it know it is not a fad. Oh and don't forget the Planet Smashers...

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  5. So this article was great. It's not often you can see other people explain how truly unique and special ska is. You rule.

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  6. I grew up in the 90's and early 00's and this was my staple. Every band and more British one's we're all I listened to in dirty little underground holes. I recently went to see RBF in Madrid in one of the worst places I'd visited in the city and it was amazing. For me Ska will never die. My girlfriend is a teacher and her performance evening this year a group of boys did Take On Me with full brass section. The king is NOT dead, long live the king!

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  7. Great read, loved the article and the playlist. Lots of great insight, even for something as vast and vague as ska.

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  8. Turn The Radio Off was the first Album I ever bought with my own money in '99. I was 7 years old. Awesome read.

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  9. Very cool to read. It was a band not listed here (Streetlight Manifesto) that got me into the genre and seriously it's one of the most unique and boundless music styles there is. Don't think I'll ever stop loving ska, course, doesn't hurt that I play trombone, does it? Haha.

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  10. This helps put a lot of things in perspective. Plus lots of new bands to listen to! Really cool article man.

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  11. Great article reminds me of when I got into ska.

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  12. I was the trombone player for The Unity Project and I remember those shows at St Ed's... We had a ton of fun there and it feels amazing to know that we had an even remotely profound effect on the kids that came to see us.
    We were all students at Shenandoah University and the band fizzled out eventually. I have no idea if anyone even has any of the recordings we did, and I regret that every time I think about it cuz my kids would love to hear it.
    Thanks for the post, Reid... you made my day.

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