When the Toasters play, it’s difficult not to get up and dance.
And that’s precisely the point. Ska has always been about the party, a musical genre built on American soul and filtered through the Jamaican experience, and then filtered back through an English and American prism that has codified its stylistic elements into a fixed sound.
In the early days of what can be called second-wave ska or the first wave of the ska revival, the sound was rapid, thick with horns and a muscular, drum-bass-guitar rhythm section, while the look was dark suits, skinny ties and pork-pie hats. It was a working class sound redolent of pubs in English factory towns, the bands sometimes taking on the guise of the so-called hooligan soccer fans. It was good-time music, first and foremost—though with a political edge typified best by the Specials and Madness, the best of the ska revival bands.
The revival movement was relatively short-lived, with most of the bands moving in different musical directions, some edging closer to newer interpretations of American soul, funk, and disco, while others explored Jamaican dub or sought pop fame.
Later, a third wave rose and faded, typified by the California surf bands like Sublime, which married the big, thrashing party sound of the earlier revival bands to a surf-punk ethic, with some of the newer ska bands borrowing heavily from the hard-core scene and taking the ska sound in a different direction.
While always fun, these ska revivals have been rather limiting. Unlike the early Jamaica ska bands, which gave way to rock-steady and eventually reggae, American and British ska did not grow organically from the available musical ideas, but were careful recreations of a particular sound. Like the folk, blues, and rockabilly revivals of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ska revival resulted in a lot of fun but forgettable music, with a handful of truly great practitioners rising above the rest.
The Toasters formed toward the end of the first revival period in 1981 on the lower east side of Manhattan and have managed to outlast their peers and continue to pump out vibrant and danceable ska music. The band has released 12 albums, a score of singles and EPs, and has logged, by their own estimate, more than 4,000 concert appearances around the world. Last fall’s release of In Retrospect, a 21-cut “best of” compilation, offers ample evidence of the band’s thrilling musical attack.
The Toasters’ sound is aggressively working class, built on the big horns and brawny rhythms of the first ska revival. They sing of fighting and drinking and bad jobs and the limited prospects that the early ska bands—most recording on the Two-Tone label—also made their bread and butter. But in the midst of what might seem a depressing reality, the early ska bands exuded a joy that acts as the music’s ignition. It is an elation born of survival and an in-your-face response to the hard life—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”, the Toasters sing on the song of the same name, and you can’t help but walk a little straighter and dance a little faster in agreement.
On songs like “East Side Beat”, which opens the compilation, the band offers some tight horn playing—a sizzling solo breaks open the song just as the singer gets ready to “move right in” on the girl at the bar. It is a dizzying tour of pool halls and pubs, a sketch of life lived at the margins and of a straight society with no use for the singer and his “fellas”—all punctuated by the repeated shout of “oi!”
At its base, the song is a demand for something unavailable from the larger society, a demand for action and energy and real connection—a sentiment echoed in songs like “Talk Is Cheap” (“Talk to me about unity / That only works when the beers are free”), “Hard Band for Dead”, and “2-Tone Army” and throughout this fine 21-song disc.
“Havana (This Gun for Hire)” is a slinky, reggae blues that rides a horn line as it tells the story of a hired killer, while the explosive “Ska Killers”, with its vicious guitar line, is a boast, a don’t-mess-with-us ode to violence and dancing that must stand as the band’s theme song: “If you like to dance on weekends / And put a ratchet on that beat / I’ll show you a step / To enhance your rep / If you’re out on Orange Street / Ska Killers Toasters USA.”