Ska was born in Jamaica in the late 1950s, with its roots being in the popular Caribbean music of the day as well as American jazz and R&B. Gradually, ska slowed down and evolved into reggae, with both genres gradually spreading around the world. Now, a new compilation, Staring at the Rude Boys, presents a fascinating look at the British ska revival of 1979 through 1989.
With the iconic 2 Tone record label and its flagship band, the Specials, leading the way, ska became an integral part of the British music scene throughout the 1980s. Appropriately, the Staring at the Rude Boys opens with the Specials, as they add some Stonsey swagger to the ska mix on “Little Bitch”. From there, Staring at the Rude Boys works its way through another 68 songs, spread over three compact discs, showcasing the breadth and depth of the British ska scene.
In addition to the Specials, the leading lights of the British revival are represented by classic tunes like “Bed and Breakfast Man” (Madness), “Street Feeling” (The Selecter), “Whine & Grine/Stand Down Margaret” (The Beat, known in the US as the English Beat), and “Inner London Violence” (Bad Manners). These songs are all great, of course, but ska fans surely already have key albums and compilations by these bands.
It was essential that Staring at the Rude Boys acknowledge the big bands of the era, but the great service that Staring at the Rude Boys provides is to gather the one-hit wonders, obscurities, and oddities of the 1979-1989 era. It’s an enlightening and educational collection for sure, especially if a listener is only casually familiar with British ska but Staring at the Rude Boys is also a hell of a good time.
While most people have a solid idea of what ’80s ska sounds like – the jittery rhythm guitars, blaring horns, occasional organ blasts, sometimes exotic bits of percussion, and oh-so-British-accented vocals – Staring at the Rude Boys easily demonstrates that variety was possible within the genre’s parameters. “The Ballad of Robin Hood” by the wonderfully named Charlie Parkas has a country hoedown to feel to it. “Modern Love” by Indicators and “I Was Wrong” by the Rimshots are among tracks that show a technopop/new wave influence. Some of the slower tunes are practically reggae. While plenty of songs sound exactly the way you expect ska to sound, the bending and shaping of the genre keep things interesting throughout the collection.
Staring at the Rude Boys also provides a glimpse of some future stars. Graduate features Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith, future founders of Tears for Fears, noting that “Elvis Should Play Ska”. The musical/lyrical in-jokes make it clear that the Elvis who should play ska is Mr. Costello, not Mr. Presley. Meanwhile, The Akrylykz check in to present “Spyderman” with future Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift on vocals.
In addition to being a launching pad for bands, the British ska scene gave some of the genre’s original stars another moment in the spotlight, with Laurel Aitken (“Big Fat Man), Rico (“Sea Cruise”), and Desmond Dekker (“Rude Boy Train”) being comeback artists represented on Staring at the Rude Boys.
While the majority of tracks are sung by men, songs featuring women vocalists — including the Selecter’s Pauline Black on “Street Feeling”, Bodysnatchers’ Rhoda Dakar on “Let’s Do Rock Steady” and the members of Red Roll-On on “Pied Piper” – are highlights of Staring at the Rude Boys. Maybe a future Staring at the Rude Girls compilation will continue to explore the role of women in the scene.
While the booklet that accompanies Staring at the Rude Boys doesn’t include an essay that would tie these songs together, it does include extensive notes and picture sleeve illustrations for each song. Taken together, the song notes allow curious fans to piece the scene together for themselves to see how the British ska was an essential bridge from early Jamaican ska to the 1990s wave that brought No Doubt, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and countless other ska-influenced bands into the world.
Mostly though, this collection is fun, and I haven’t even mentioned the cover of Jimmy Webb’s all-time classic, “McArthur Park” (by the Burtons) that you didn’t know you needed to hear but do. If you’ve worn out multiple copies of The Specials and What Is Beat?, you are going to need to dive into Staring at the Rude Boys as quickly as possible.