Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Ska
Why it’s daunting: Ska isn’t daunting so much as it’s something most sane and so-called cool people wouldn’t care to be associated with. Even during the ’90s, the height of the genre’s popularity in the U.S., ska carried associations of dorks in suspenders, ridiculous dancing (that would be skanking, which might be effectively translated as “spazzercise,” or “slam-dancing for pussies”), and bands made up of repressed high-school band geeks trying too hard to rock out. Move those stereotypes out of the way, though, and you’re left with a rich, vibrant, and fun-as-fuck style of music that’s inherently inclusive and unpretentious—and one populated by some of the finest songwriters and instrumentalists in pop history.
Possible gateway: Various artists, This Are Two Tone
Why: Some purists will call damnation down on the head of anyone suggesting that Two Tone ska is a better entry point into the genre as a whole than the music’s original Jamaican form. But honestly, Two Tone—the British ska-punk crossover of the late ’70s and early ’80s—boasts crisper production, more rock-oriented songs and arrangements, and lyrics that resonate a bit more outside of Kingston. That’s not to say Two Tone is better than the ’60s Jamaican stuff—only that it’s often easier for newbies to grasp This Are Two Tone’s punchy, adrenalized anthems. This 1983 compilation holds killer tracks by such legends as The Specials, Madness, and The English Beat, not to mention lesser-known but equally powerful groups like The Selecter and The Bodysnatchers. Conspicuously absent is the Two Tone-era group Bad Manners—but that’s easily corrected by supplementing This Are Two Tone with the soundtrack to Dance Craze, a document of the movement’s in-concert energy and sweaty joy. (Word to the nerdy: Technically, Two Tone is the name of the independent label that sprang up in 1979 to promote Britain’s nascent ska scene, a movement made up mostly of punk kids who grew up on the music of the nation’s Jamaican immigrants. But the term quickly came to include all British ska bands of the time, regardless of what label they were on.)
Next steps: Another reason why Two Tone makes a perfect intro to ska is this: As a whole, the movement is basically a primer on Jamaican ska. Almost all the Two Tone bands did great covers of ’60s ska, including Madness (whose eponymous song is a version of the Prince Buster classic) and The Specials, whose stellar, self-titled debut is almost entirely made up of ’60s Jamaican songs by originators like The Skatalites, Toots & The Maytals, and Prince Buster. For a true primer on ’60s ska, though, there are plenty of great compilations around—although they don’t get much better than the Trojan Ska Box Set. The set’s three discs beautifully capture the range and richness of ’60s Jamaican ska, a style that blends calypso, jazz, and R&B into a swinging, electrifying sound. Production values being what they were in Jamaica at the time, get ready for some lo-fi grit—not that it should hamper the enjoyment of legends like The Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Alton Ellis, The Paragons, The Ethiopians, and Lee “Scratch” Perry, many of whom moved on to the slower, silkier rocksteady sound in the late ’60s before following the reggae train into the ’70s. One ska essential that’s missing from the Trojan set, though, is the music of The Wailers, the stunningly soulful harmony group that featured a young, impeccably groomed, suited-and-tied Bob Marley.
Where not to start: While the late ’80s and ’90s birthed some of the best ska bands of all time—including The Toasters, The Pietasters, Let’s Go Bowling, and Rancid precursor Operation Ivy—the era’s so-called Third Wave is also the main reason many people can’t stand the genre. And understandably so: Everything from ska-funk to Christian ska to the stoner abomination known as Sublime sprang from the Third Wave. Granted, bands like The Slackers and the reggae-leaning Hepcat survived the ’90s and still thrive—and the relatively new outfit The Aggrolites is as good as the genre has ever produced. But considering the high signal-to-shit ratio, fishing for good ska made during the last 20 years should be the last concern of the budding ska geek. Now: Get ready to head to the dance floor and throw those knees and elbows around like you’re an epileptic marionette.