[5 October 2009]
For a moment it still seems like 1996 on Leonard Street in front of the grungy Knitting Factory club in New York City. Legions of teenaged ska kids loiter in front of the TriBeCa institution, dressed in their two-tone uniforms of stylish rebellion: black-and-white checkered ties, pork pie hats, and suspenders dotted with pins declaring their allegiance to mid-‘90s bands like the Slackers and Reel Big Fish. They’re here for Three Floors of Ska, a semi-annual event that attracts a 600-strong crowd primarily from the suburbs in Long Island and New Jersey, featuring ten bands and DJs playing the Knitting Factory’s three stages.
As young fans smoke cigarettes and boast about skipping classes to make the early 6:00 PM start time, tonight’s headliners unload their equipment from matching Ford vans. These veterans of the scene—the Washington, D.C.-based ska-jazz band Eastern Standard Time and ska-punk favorites Mustard Plug, from Grand Rapids, Michigan—have done this hundreds of times before. Once again, there won’t be time for a sound check. Once again, it won’t really matter.
Three Floors of Ska is the brainchild of two middle-aged Brits: Rob “Bucket” Hingley, of the inexhaustible ska band the Toasters, and Knitting Factory president and manager Shay Vishawadia. Members of an illustrious ska nobility, these two friends have tirelessly spread the gospel of ska throughout its rollercoaster of popularity, which peaked in the mid-‘90s with the rise of bands like No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. By 2000, the ska boom had gone bust—skewered by critics as an empty fad devoid of musical relevance.
But ska never died… it merely sank back underground to the grimy clubs from whence it sprang, while the genre’s biggest stars took time to rest, regroup, and strategize their comebacks.
No Doubt launched its first tour in five years this summer, kicking it off with a live performance on The Today Show. Giddy fans practically drowned out Gwen Stefani’s vocals on their biggest hit, “Don’t Speak”, as they screamed the lyrics, gleefully capturing the moment on their camera phones. Stefani has traded in the designer duds of her solo career for the classic ‘60s skinhead look favored by many a ska fan: bleach-splattered Levis rolled up at the ankles, suspenders, and a fitted Fred Perry polo—signaling a return to her roots.
No Doubt on The Today Show
And ska’s roots run deep. Vishawadia, 46, who once managed two legendary Jamaican ska acts of the ‘60s—the Skatalites and Laurel Aitken—is world-weary after a lifetime in the music business.
“I’ve been around ska for 20 years,” says Vishawadia, the dark circles below his brown eyes betraying countless late nights. “I have thousands of stories. I’m the one who put Rolland Alfonso [original saxophonist of the Skatalites] onto the gurney before he died. I’m the one who took Tommy McCook [saxophonist of the Skatalites] to the airport from Boulder, Colorado. That was the last time Tommy ever set foot on a stage. I carried Lester Sterling [one of the last surviving members of the Skatalites] into the hospital as he was having a heart attack.”
The Knitting Factory became the most ska-friendly venue in lower Manhattan after the Wetlands shut down in 2001, followed by the seminal CBGB club in 2006. But like its brethren, the club isn’t immune to the rapid gentrification of the TriBeCa neighborhood, which has been slowly pushing artists and musicians out in order to make room for more upscale residents.
In July, the Knitting Factory shut its factory doors for good, but the club recently reopened on September 9 at a new, smaller location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Vishawadia promises to keep ska alive at the new venue by hosting monthly ska parties, called Skasplash, together with his old friend, Bucket. The inaugural Skasplash was held on 3 October, featuring concerts by East Coast ska bands Hub City Stompers and Void Union.
Back on the sidewalk, the bouncers, who have worked the door of “The Knit” for years, trade insults about the yuppie locals whose penchant for condos and wine bars have priced the club out of the neighborhood. “I hate this passive-aggressive shit,” says Justin, a short, stocky skinhead covered in tattoos. “These people that come up to me off the street and ask, ‘Isn’t this club closing soon?’ instead of just complaining to my face.” He pauses and shouts, “Who was here first!?”
* * *
Ska music—born in Jamaica, raised in England, and transplanted to America—has a long, storied history. A weird amalgamation of American R&B, traditional Jamaican mento, Trinidadian calypso, and big-band swing, ska is characterized by its emphasis on the upbeat rather than the downbeat accented in jazz and rock n’ roll. Early ska was played fast, and featured a horn section that carried the melody (vocalists found it difficult to sing “the ska” due to its speed). With a distinctly happy sound somewhat similar to the polka, ska is, first and foremost, dance music.
In the early ‘60s, Jamaicans had a lot to celebrate. The country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1962 after over 300 years of colonial rule, and indigenous ska music provided the perfect soundtrack to this jubilant time. New studios sprung up in Jamaica’s capital of Kingston to record the new music craze, and Studio One, started by producer Clement Dodd, reigned supreme. Studio One was to Jamaica what Motown was to the United States, and Dodd was its Barry Gordy, cranking out hit after hit, mostly thanks to his incredibly tight house band known as the Skatalites. Between 1964-1965, the band recorded hundreds of releases (the exact number is not known due to poor record-keeping), several of which have become ska standards, such as “Man on the Street” and “Guns of Navarone”.
Ska was king, but some musicians were already experimenting with a new, slower sound: rock steady, the precursor to reggae. Easier to sing and dance to, rock steady gained immense popularity among Jamaica’s first youth subculture: the rude boys. Dressed sharp in three-button tonic suits (favored by British mods), pork pie hats, and black sunglasses, they ruled the street corners of Kingston’s notorious ghettos such as Trenchtown and Riverton City. Their slick, urban look would come to epitomize the ska style still celebrated today.
Meanwhile, the large Jamaican population in England (around 200,000 in 1964) began importing ska records from their homeland, as well as starting record labels of their own. The mods—a popular youth subculture dedicated to American soul music, Vespa scooters, and beat bands like the Small Faces and the Who—appreciated the look of the rude boys, and they added Jamaican ska and rock steady albums to their collections. Singers Laurel Aitken and Desmond Dekker, both Jamaican immigrants, became British stars who topped the UK Charts. Dekker achieved worldwide fame after his 1968 hit “Israelites” broke into the top ten in the US. Even the Beatles would try their hand at replicating ska music in their 1968 track, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, inspired by Dekker.
By the early ‘70s, however, ska had retreated back to the underground, where it remained safely in the hands of Jamaicans and true fans like the mods and skinheads. It was revived again in the mid-‘70s by British punks such as the Clash, who covered reggae hits like Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”.
This second wave of ska, or 2 tone as it was to be known, was born out of the union of punk rock and ska, a style best represented by the band the Specials. Founded in the bleak, industrial city of Coventry, England by keyboardist Jerry Dammers in 1979, the Specials featured both Jamaican and British musicians playing a mix of classic ska covers and original songs. Dammers defined 2 tone this way in an interview at the time: “We’ve got two cultures in this country now, so the obvious thing is to go back to the roots of reggae and the roots of rock, and try to form a new dance music.”
Characterized by their working-class roots, rude boy style, and racially integrated lineups, 2 tone bands like the Specials, the Beat, and the Selector (led by black female vocalist Pauline Black) didn’t shy away from politically charged songs. “Ghost Town”, the Specials’ 1981 number one hit, commented on the disaffected youth in Margaret Thatcher’s England with lyrics like “This town, is coming like a ghost town / Why must the youth fight against themselves? / Government leaving the youth on the shelf… / The people getting angry”. Dammers, committed to fighting racism in England, started a record label he named 2 Tone in honor of racial unity between black and white. The iconic logo, a black-and-white image of a rude boy modeled on a photo of Peter Tosh from seminal Jamaican band the Wailers, reflected his message. Despite its mainstream success, 2 tone, much like punk, fell quickly from favor. The Specials broke up in 1981 and Dammers’ label collapsed in 1986. Ska music once again submerged below the surface, where it remained until its second revival a decade later—this time on the other side of the Atlantic.
In the early ’90s, a world away from slums of Trenchtown and the belching smokestacks of Coventry, a new ska music scene was developing in an unlikely place: Orange Country, California. A beacon of suburban American affluence, sunny Orange County was teeming with palm trees, swimming pools, shopping malls, and wholesome family entertainment epitomized by a 160-acre theme park in the town of Anaheim known as Disneyland.
Into this idyll entered two brothers who called themselves Tazy Phillipz and Albino Brown (their real names are unknown), students at University of California Irvine and serious ska fans. The brothers decided to produce a two-part radio documentary for the UC station KBIC called Ska Parade in 1989, featuring live performances by ska’s biggest acts, which at that point weren’t very big. The show, on which they coined the term “third wave ska,” was so popular that KBIC gave them their own weekly program to showcase local and national bands. More playful and poppy than its previous incarnations, third wave ska was the perfect antidote to the despair of grunge that dominated the airwaves in the early ‘90s. Ska found a new audience—fast.
“Being the third generation, being a combination of all these different types of music, I naturally called it third wave ska,” says Phillipz. “I pretty much met everybody. Our show included the last-ever interview with Operation Ivy [the extremely influential punk band whose members went on to form Rancid]. And it had a young band from Anaheim called No Doubt on it.”
In fact, No Doubt would appear on Ska Parade 16 times between 1989 and 1995, and their first massive single, “Just a Girl,” premiered on Ska Parade six months before it broke into the Billboard charts. Their 1996 album Tragic Kingdom (a pun on Disney’s “Magic Kingdom” in the band’s hometown) would go on to sell 16 million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest albums of all time. Ska was bigger than ever, and record companies were ready to capitalize on this radio-friendly sound.
Sublime at KUCI Ska Parade
True impresarios, the Ska Parade brothers produced a compilation of live performances from their show called Step on It: The Best of The Ska Parade Radio Show. Phillipz, who was interning at LA’s biggest radio station, KROQ, passed the CD on to the programming director, who liked a track called “Date Rape” by the little-known ska-punk/reggae band Sublime. “Date Rape” soon became a most-requested track on the station, and Sublime quickly attracted the attention of the major labels.
“The whole time I was at KROQ, I was totally pushing the ska thing,” said Phillipz. “I knew that was where the music was going to go.”
Record companies scrambled to sign ska bands, but there was one label that had been dedicated to the genre since its formation in 1986: Moon-Ska Records. Launched by Rob “Bucket” Hingley as a means to promote his band, the Toasters, Moon-Ska had a number of both West and East Coast ska bands on its roster.
Stephen Shafer worked in the promotions department at Moon-Ska during its heyday, and now writes a blog called “Duff Guide to Ska”. In the early ‘90s, he maintained a full-time job while promoting the label on the weekends. “Things were really lean back then,” he says. “In the course of eight to nine years, things went from obscurity to pretty big. In the early ‘90s, the US ska scene was parochial and disjointed. The ska fans in New York City had very little idea what was going on in Southern California, and vice versa—there was almost no interaction between the regional scenes in that pre-Internet age.” Moon-Ska Records and the constantly-touring Toasters connected fans across the country, according to Shafer, laying the groundwork that would lead to the ska boom later on.
Moon-Ska put out hundreds of releases before it folded in 2000, including albums by Jamaican ska legend Laurel Aitken, the newly-reformed Skatalites, British 2 tone stars Bad Manners, the ska-punk band Mustard Plug, and traditional ska outfits Let’s Go Bowling, the Pietasters, and Hepcat. But during the mid-‘90s, the label was under immense pressure to meet consumers’ demand for ska, and quality control sometimes floundered.
“We had a lot of competition,” recalls Shafer. “Labels were springing up left and right. There were tons of bands that were cropping up or emerging from obscurity…There were several releases that were put out maybe more for political reasons, or just shouldn’t have been put out.”
Chris Murray, former frontman of Toronto’s biggest ska band, King Apparatus, and current vocalist/guitarist in his own Chris Murray Trio, now runs a weekly ska party called the Bluebeat Lounge at Knitting Factory’s LA location. He remembers the sudden explosion of ska into the mainstream. “When King Apparatus started, I was probably only aware of a dozen ska bands in North America period,” he says. “By the mid-‘90s, there were hundreds. I think at a certain point there became a glut of substandard ska where there had been before a smaller pool of seasoned bands.”
Ultimately, there was a backlash. Popular music critics at magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone, who had done so much to make ska the “it” thing, turned their backs on the music they had championed. Suddenly, it was very uncool to like ska. David Kirchgessner, leader of ska-punk veterans Mustard Plug, (they will be celebrating their 18th anniversary in November), blames a fickle media for ska’s mere fifteen minutes of fame. “The radio and press at the time really latched onto it really hard and really fast as kind of this new, novelty thing,” said Kirchgessner. “Then, at a certain point, I think when something gets too popular, people just instinctively kinda reject it. The media kinda looks for something new. Something else to build up and push down.”
Nowadays, the American ska scene resembles its down-to-earth, pre-‘90s self. “Things seem to be actually turning around,” said James McDonald, drummer and founder of D.C.’s Eastern Standard Time, who are marking 14 years together this September. “There is a definite upswing in attendance at ska shows. It’s no longer uncool. It’s more like a neutral thing.”
No Doubt’s decision to return to the stage has been sort of a covert signal to other ska bands that it’s finally safe to come out of hiding. The Specials have reunited this year for a highly anticipated 30th anniversary tour, and their sister 2 tone band the Beat (a.k.a. The English Beat) is back on the road this summer with Reel Big Fish and Hepcat.
The ska boom in the ‘90s was one of the last big commercially-supported music trends before the decentralization of the media spurred on by Internet; it made No Doubt one of the biggest-selling bands of all time. No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” (albeit a romantic ballad devoid of Jamaican rhythms) remained number one on Billboard’s Top 100 Airplay chart for 16 weeks in the winter 1996-97, a feat that seems almost impossible today. And even if you hated that song, you knew it—it permeated mass consciousness like few songs can today, in the age of MySpace music and satellite radio.
“There are few bands that can carry a stadium tour nowadays,” says Shafer. “The only ones who can broke into the mainstream media in the pre-Napster days, when commercial radio and MTV determined who was popular. It’s so hard to do now. We’re all so distracted and overloaded with information. We have so many things to distract us or entertain us. I think it’s hard to break through all the noise and flashing lights.”
For people hungry to unite once again in a massive cultural moment, ska music is like comfort food from a nostalgic time—a throwback in the age of a splintering, highly personalized media that can cater to increasingly specific tastes. Yet again, ska music rests on the periphery of popularity, but this time the rules of the game have changed. It’s unlikely that ska will ever rise again to the glorious heights of its third-wave incarnation. But ska, rooted deep in a world culture that transcends national borders, race, and gender, marches on regardless. No doubt.