September 1997
s m u g
by matt sager

Skanks for the Memories

I call them Skankadoodles. White kids, from age 9 through about 17, in porkpie hats, combat boots laced up to their knees, and flight jackets emblazoned with the logo from MoonSka or any of the other popular ska indie-labels. You seem them on the street, in record stores. You see them at shows where bands like Reel Big Fish or Goldfinger are playing, holding their noses up and saying stuff like "I knew these guys when they were playing in the parking lot at Ralph's Grocery. They've changed, man." They liked Operation Ivy, but hate them now that half of them are now in Rancid.


Bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, finally enjoying modern-rock airplay, take credit for starting the genre, speak as veterans of the scene. Lead Bosstone Dicky Barret recently told Rolling Stone that he "invented ska-punk." Of course, the Bosstones have only been in existence for about five years, and he is overlooking a cadre of bands, and an entire scene, that dominated the U.S. and Europe for much of the first half of the eighties. Bands like the Specials, Madness, the English Beat, and the Selector injected ska with a punk attitude and speed and the end result was bubblegum pop from hell, an irresistible sonic pleasure. The soundtrack to Grosse Point Blank, John Cusack's tribute to that period, consists almost entirely of that music - it also gives a nod to punk bands that were experimenting in ska as far back as the late 70's, bands like the Clash and the Jam.

Of course, ska's history runs much deeper than that. As with rock music, it was originally performed by black people. It started in Jamaica in the late fifties, before the discovery of ganja led to the invention of reggae music. It was considered very revolutionary and political, and was popular as hell. The first album Bob Marley & the Wailers released, entitled THE WAILING WAILERS, featured the band on the cover sporting short hair, tuxedos and sunglasses, and was pure ska pop. It was upbeat, catchy as hell and extremely danceable.

So what happened? How did we get here from there?


During Reggae's heydey, many of the ska greats continued the tradition, keeping ska alive in their live performances in Jamaica, and small clubs in the U.S. and Europe. Punk rockers in the 70's, like The Sex Pistols' John Lydon and Joe Strummer of the Clash, liked to say they hated rock music, so it became vogue to seek out other forms of music to listen to - they couldn't be caught listening to other punk bands, they were way too competitive and spiteful.

Reggae became the music of choice among punk-rock professionals; it was mellow, spiritual, and of course great music to smoke pounds of weed to. While the Sex Pistols were big fans, it was the Clash who took that first great step toward actually experimenting with the sound on their records. Soon the Jam were doing it too, and as they got deeper into the culture they discovered ska. It didn't take long to realize how amazing ska and punk sounded together, and by 1980, when the Clash released their double-album London Calling it dominated their sound.

It was officially a scene: bands like the Specials and Madness were popping up on labels like Two-Tone, skanking their hearts out. There were no racial barriers: ska represented peace, love and punk rock, and anyone could take part. Many of these bands, in fact, were bi-racial, often with white Brits and black Jamaicans sharing a stage. It didn't last, of course; we all know what the second half of the eighties sounded like. The same FM radio dial that was home to the Cutting Crew had no understanding of, or patience for, ska. The bands went their separate ways, or split up into side projects that went nowhere.

It's not news the late eighties were a rough period in music history. Skid Row and Warrant were the revolutionary new music of those years. Bands like Fishbone kept punk/ska alive, to all of the 12 people who bought their records. They were loved by frat boys, sold out live shows, and were a complete mystery to their labels, who had no idea how to market them.

The rest is history: Nirvana broke, followed by the Chili Peppers, followed by any band with a new sound, a hook, and some flannel shirts. This is not a bad thing; a lot of fabulous musicians and great new bands have exposure, major-label deals, and the industry is as healthy as it gets. The bands that started it are irrelevant and old, and their fans, well, they are in Reel Big Fish. They are in Buck-O-Nine, and attending skafests at their college campus. The scene is thriving, getting bigger by the day.

With grunge dead, and people sick to death of depressant suicide rock, the happy ska sound is taking over the airwaves. When the weather is warm, and people are out half naked enjoying themselves, the sound of a ska horn section is like a slice of heaven. Ska is the soundtrack to fun - and unlike the much-hyped electronic sound, ska is people playing music, not the sound of machines communicating. So strap on your Doc Martens, and dust off your porkpie hat. Like it or not, ska is going to be around for awhile longer. Like you really wanted to hear from Smashing Pumpkins again anyway.



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