Ska: An Oral History author Heather Augustyn
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A lot of people learned everything they know about ska from spending their youth listening to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtracks. However, the genre extends far beyond the scope of Goldfinger’s “Superman.” For more than five decades, ska has flourished in its own right, from the genre’s Jamaican beginnings to its stylistic transformations in England and the U.S. in the ’80s and ’90s.
Ska tells the story of oppression, but rather than narrating that story through the chaotic aggression of punk rock, ska does it more lightheartedly. Ska was meant as an escape from tyranny and an excuse to go out and dance. Author Heather Augustyn knows all about this, considering she’s just released a new book, Ska: An Oral History. She’ll be at Quimby’s July 9 reading from Ska, and in preparation, The A.V. Club talked to her about the genre’s beginnings, the curse of new wave, and the iconic movie scene that almost was.
The A.V. Club: A lot of people like punk and ska, and a lot of people like The Clash, who used a lot of reggae elements in their songs. Why didn’t ska catch on like punk or reggae?
Heather Augustyn: Ska in the U.S. didn’t really catch on in this way because there were separate groups of ska bands that formed according to region, and each was different from the next, and so fans may not have been so warm to a distant flavor. There was a West Coast group, who was more influenced by punk and hardcore and hard rock; there was an East Coast faction that was more traditional in nature; and then, in the Midwest it was more pop-influenced. Certainly these are [not] hard-fast rules, but because of the distances in the U.S., bands tended to stay regional, and if they traveled, they appeared on a bill with five other bands with 10 members each. That was a fun Saturday night, but didn’t become anyone’s favorite band that they had to rush out and buy the album the next day. So ska in the U.S. became more of a party phenomenon than [something of] real substance in those years.
AVC: So it was a lot like those huge matinee punk shows; there was no single band that really stood out, and they all kind of sound the same?
HA: Exactly, and anybody that’s around today was good. Hepcat’s still around. Deal’s Gone Bad is still around in Chicago; they’re outstanding, and they’ve been around forever. On the East Coast, you have The Toasters that still play. Lineups change; some from England are still kind of nostalgic acts in a way. They’re still putting out good stuff. But the bands that were strong then and able to stick it out today, that’s because they were quality bands.
AVC: There are a lot of phrases and images associated with ska. When did the black and white checkered pattern and terms like “rude boy” originate?
HA: Let’s start with the black and white check pattern. That was a 2 Tone-era design, and it came out of The Specials, specifically Jerry Dammers. He had a background in art and ... he was told by The Clash band manager to market the group. He came up with the black and white check pattern because it was something that he saw on scooters. Now it has more meaning because the bands are biracial, but that wasn’t the original intent. The original intent was that it was something that he saw tape that they used on scooters, which was part of the culture. He then designed Walt Jabsco, which was the name of that little guy that has the porkpie hat, and the tie and the suit. He designed that kind of after Peter Tosh on the cover of The Wailers’ albums—this is all in my book, too—but that’s where that design came from. So the black and white thing was literally by design, to help give an image to the music and the 2 Tone label. It went together very nicely with the name of the label, what that whole era of ska represented—biracial groups—but it really was just a design that he saw on scooters.
As far as rude boys, where that comes from, rude boys were gangsters in Jamaica in the 1950s and the 1960s, and they—the rude boy was kind of a badass, they were really bad. It wasn’t just like an attitude like it is now, or an attitude or something that gives ska its edge—these guys were bad. These were gangsters that killed people, that raped girls—break into their room and rape little girls—these guys were bad. So there’s a whole era of music in Jamaica. Trojan Records actually puts out a really good boxed set of rude boy songs, where we have Jamaican musicians singing about calming down, you know, “Stop your looting, stop your shooting.” And then there’s answers to those songs by musicians who were like trying to posture on saying, “Rude boys can’t fail.” And there’s kind of this whole dialogue going back and forth about the literal violence that was going on in those days. They would jump on trolleys and ride around. They always had ratchet knives with them, which is a certain kind of knife, like a switchblade. It was right after this era that the gun courts were established in Jamaica, specifically for gun crime, because gun crimes started to get so bad then.
There’s actually an incident that I talk about in my book, that Derrick Morgan shared with me, about a rude boy who threatened him and wanted him to write a song about him. It’s a really good story, it’s amazing. [There was] this gangster, and his name was Busby, and he was a rude boy. They had gangs; it was like the gangs of the neighborhoods with names like “The Vikings” or “Phoenix City,” you know, they had different names like that. When they would go to the dancehalls, they would “mash it up;” they would fight. They would mash it up with their ratchet knives.
The 2 Tone era in England picked up that cultural element of ska and made it into a novelty, kind of. Made it into something that we could identify with the music that gave ska a little bit of its punk edge. But it really was serious.
AVC: Moving on chronologically, Madness has the huge hit with “Our House,” but it’s from around the same time when new wave started. Was ska’s first chance at real, commercial success stifled by new wave?
HA: It was, it was. You’re right. The popularity of that song was later in the U.S. than it was in England, but in England in 1979 is really kind of the onset of the 2 Tone era; it’s really The Specials that ushered it in. They established the label. Madness did have one song on that label, but then they went their own direction; they had their own label, but a lot of the ska bands were really on that 2 Tone label. The English Beat broke off of it, but they were on it for a little while; The Selecter was on it. Bad Manners never was; they did their own thing. So 2 Tone was really the dominant label, and it was very, very strong for probably about two years, and then, you’re right.
They call it the “new romantics” instead of new wave. Well, they don’t call it new wave, but it was really the new romantics that was the subgenre that really killed ska. These were like the pretty-boy bands, like Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet, XTC. It’s funny because Dave Wakeling from The English Beat—which by the way, they were called The English Beat here; they were just called The Beat in England, there was already a Beat here in America—but [Wakeling] told me that here [ska musicians] were, dressing up in tonic suits and things like that. That was the style of the ska era, and all of a sudden the new romantics [came along]; they were wearing their moms’ clothes, [Wakeling] said, and riding around on yachts. It’s like, “Okay, this over now for us,” because this was the new fad, and, you know, even the people who were really strong ska fans in England are still hardcore ska fans. Music trends come and go very quickly in England, so ska was short-lived. These bands now have just celebrated their 30th anniversary, so they’re all still playing. Bad Manners still plays, Madness has “Mad Stock” every year. The fans at that have been so loud and stomping that Mad Stock registered on the Richter scale, so it’s still pretty strong. It’s just kind of a select group that’s very dedicated.
AVC: As you said, it’s very popular in England, but the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come turned many Americans on to ska for the first time; not a lot of people saw the movie, and ska is also kind of a cult thing. It’s this very small group of dedicated fans. Is that part of the problem? Was there an unwillingness to allow outsiders into the ska club?
HA: No, I think everybody wanted to see ska be successful, certainly the artists, because they really all wanted to make money. I mean, even the Jamaicans said very much so they never made the money that they deserved. The American bands, I mean, uh, the English bands—they definitely wanted to be big here in America, but they came here to play to big crowds and 50 people would show up. I think that everybody wanted ska to do well, but ... because it got so watered down in the ’90s, people really didn’t see the musical integrity. They didn’t see the substance to it, until you go back and visit the roots. When you go back and visit in Jamaica, then you understand the substance behind it. And, you know, it’s hard to think that there’s substance behind it when it’s become watered down to the point where it’s a 10-second jingle on a TV commercial or an intro song to a cartoon, which is what it’s become. But I think [if] people understood the quality of the music behind it and heard the really good stuff, there’d be more fans. Certainly I think a lot of the way we came, in America, to know ska prevents that from happening. I know for my generation, and I’m days away from 39 years old, we came to know ska through 2 Tone. I watched a show called The Young Ones on MTV, I watched a show called 120 Minutes, and all through high school that’s how we got our music. And that music was the British ska. It was only because I fell in love with that music that I was able to go back and say, “Where is this coming from?” Then I educated myself about the roots and I fell in love even deeper with that music, because that, to me, was more meaty. But if you just came in to it knowing the British bands and then fell in love with the American bands, then it just fizzled out—then you might not really be grounded in it. A lot of bands are kind of novelty acts, you know what I mean?
AVC: Even now, Reel Big Fish has pretty much just become a glorified cover band.
HA: Exactly. It’s all because, I mean, part of the music’s appeal is that it can be goofy, and it is fun—and the fun quality of that music was there since day one. I mean, it was trying to give people relief from their oppression, so that’s why it is upbeat in nature. But if you just become goofy, and then don’t have anything to back it up, then that’s just not going to appeal to anyone for very long.
AVC: You mentioned the American bands. Of all of those, it seemed like Fishbone was going to take over the world in the mid- to late-’80s. Flea thought that Fishbone was going to be bigger than the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What happened to Fishbone?
HA: Fishbone? They’re still around! I just saw them last year.
AVC: Right, there was a documentary done about them, Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone. But it seemed as if Fishbone was this band that should have been Chili Pepper-big, but now it’s playing to crowds of 10 or 20 people in parking lots.
HA: Well, I don’t know. I understand what you’re saying, but when I went it was a packed house, and they were pretty crazy. But I understand what you’re saying.
AVC: Maybe this is just one frame of reference, but in the documentary Fishbone is overseas and supposed to be this big international success, and it’s almost like Spinal Tap in the film.
HA: [Laughs.] I don’t know. Because, you know, I think they do have so much appeal, because their songs are ska mixed with so many other genres that should appeal to people. They’re powerful. They’re very powerful, and they’re very talented. I don’t know why one band makes it and another one doesn’t. I guess it would be something intangible, I mean something that’s not music-related—you know maybe marketing, maybe management—because to me ... they’re way more talented than Red Hot Chili Peppers.
AVC: Apparently, in the boom box scene in Say Anything John Cusack was actually playing “Bonin’ In The Boneyard.”
HA: [Laughs.] I think I’ll have to see that again!
AVC: Could that have been the big thing for ska if, instead of Peter Gabriel, he was playing Fishbone?
HA: [Laughs.] I don’t know if that would have worked well in the movie, but you might be onto something like in theory! I like that.
AVC: Ska did hit a commercial peak in the ’90s, when No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones all had hits on the radio. Do you think any of those bands could have made radio hits if they were just coming out today?
HA: I don’t know, because the musical culture right now is so different. But, you know, bands like those (and ska, in general), they have a really strong hook appeal. You can’t help but listen to a song and feel its hook. My kids are 9 and 6, and they go around the house humming [The Skatalites’] “Guns Of Navarone,” because it’s got hook appeal. So I think any—No Doubt, and all those bands—I think they still have strong hook appeal; I think they could still be popular today. It’s just that the musical climate is just so different right now. I’m not really good at talking about the music that’s popular today, because I just think they’re stupid.
AVC: It was the third wave that had all the success. Is there any animosity or jealousy from the first or second wave bands that eventually it’s just these young, high school kids that just start punk bands and throw horns into them?
HA: Sometimes, not really. The thing about ska music and ska musicians, that I’ve noticed, is that there’s kind of this brotherly and sisterly love, where everybody is definitely willing to try to help everybody out. That’s not to say that there aren’t, you know, a few folks that are tough. But with ska, there’s really a strange thing, because there’s a strong, strong sense of ownership. “This is my band; I was the first to do this. This is my song, my band.” Very strong. And with the fans equally, “My favorite band, I’ve got it tattooed on my arm; I was the first one to be at the show.” Then the flipside is that there is camaraderie. Between ska bands and ska fans, it’s so strong. That’s why everybody dances together at a show unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. It’s why the stage is shared with the audience. You go to a Toasters show, you go to a Specials show, and people are up on the stage, and the band lets them up there, and there’s no barrier between the stage and the audience. It’s definitely why five bands can be on a bill, and even now after there have been three heydays, there’s still a really strong sense of camaraderie, a kind of “We’re all in this together.” It has its popularity, but I think there’s this underlying feeling of that it never achieved the success that it should have.
AVC: Ska has had all of these bright spots and all of these opportunities to be this really successful genre, but it never pans out.
HA: Yeah, and I know some musicians prefer it that way. I think Bucket from The Toasters said he’s pretty happy where it is right now. I talked to him about that. He’s pretty happy with where it is right now because it’s kind of like, you know, when you make a stew and you throw in carrots and celery and potatoes and the broth and the meat and everything. You have got to let it simmer down until it gets into, you know, all the flavors are comingled and everything’s a really rich dish. I think now the bands that are left have made a really rich dish. Sometimes you have to go back into history to get them, you know, but there’s a lot of really good bands out right now that are pretty good.
AVC: Even after those hits, a lot of the bands from the third wave, like Goldfinger and The Aquabats, just stopped playing ska altogether. At that time, when it failed to pan out a third time, was there an embarrassment of being seen as a ska band?
HA: Well, probably, because there were so many crappy bands out there that tainted it for everyone. There were a lot of really crappy bands!
AVC: In the mid-’90s, it seemed like all of the skate punk bands had at least one stab at a ska song on their albums.
HA: I know. And everyone that was “punk” was trying one ska song here and there, and Sublime tried their hand at it a couple times.
AVC: NOFX did, and it didn’t turn out all that well.
HA: Yeah, you know, it’s because it’s a novelty. It’s fun. But now I think we’re in a really good place where we’re left with good ska, you know, like [Blooimington’s] Green Room Rockers—awesome. Some of the bands that are around right now, they’re really kind of delving back into the roots, and it’s not pop-ska anymore. It’s more soulful. So they’re kind of returning to some of the rocksteady roots, and that’s, I think, a lot more substance.
AVC: No Doubt is now touring again and making another album, and there are also a lot of relatively newer ska bands, like Streetlight Manifesto, that are starting to gain this cultish popularity. But most of ska’s hardcore fans are turning 30 and 40. A lot of them aren’t really going to shows anymore, but there’s nonetheless this push for more of it. Is there a fourth wave coming?
HA: You know, I don’t think it will ever be extinct, that’s for sure. I mean, but, a lot of us older fans—and we still do go to shows, it just hurts harder when we fall now—I think that people are really turning back to history for inspiration, and I think that those fans that do that are going to be the most successful. Bands like No Doubt, I don’t know if they’re really going to try their hand at ska anymore. They’re probably going in a whole different direction, because it’s not marketable. No Doubt, if they want to sell tickets, they really shouldn’t be playing ska. I’m sure their promoters would tell them that. I think that the era of pop-ska is gone. What’s next, I have no idea.
AVC: So many ska bands have these awful, awful puns in their names. You’ve written this book, so what is the worst ska pun you heard in a name?
HA: [Laughs.] I’ll tell you, my favorite is Mephiskapheles. I love Mephiskapheles. That one is awesome. You know what another good one is is? TooT’N’Skamen, instead of Tutankhamun—you know, King Tut. They have a logo—it’s a band that plays now, but they’re a bunch of old guys in England—and it’s Toot, N with the apostrophes around it, Ska men. And they’re logo icon thing is a pharaoh that, instead of the stripes around the headdress, has checks. It’s very cool. That one’s pretty funny. I was just thinking about that today; it’s pretty funny, if I should market myself as a “ska-lor.” That was a band, too: The Scholars. I always sign my correspondence “Your fellow skamrade.” There are just so many, it’s ridiculous. It’s so fun.
AVC: In the spirit of aforementioned Fishbone superfan John Cusack, what are the five ska records to start with that everyone could enjoy, even if they aren’t big ska fans?
HA: The first one I would do is The Skatalites’ Anthology. I think that’s a really good one. Anything really by The Skatalites. Hang on, let my pull up my iTunes library. That’s a hard question, I’ll make sure I get it right. It’s important; I want to give people good advice. And this is hard since I like the Jamaican era. I want to give a good sampling. That one was good for that era, and then I would do The Specials’ The Singles Collection. That’s a good one. My favorite is I Just Can’t Stop It, by The English Beat. I would do The Toasters’ Skaboom. I would recommend Derrick Morgan Sings Ska Rocksteady. I’m kind of biased, but my next book I’m working on right now is a biography of Don Drummond, so I would get Don Drummond Memorial Album. Those would be the five, because there are three in there from the Jamaican era, two from the British era, and one from the U.S. era. Also, I don’t like to call them “waves.” That’s just me. I know the term, but it just kind of implies that there’s been—
AVC: A lull.
HA: A lull! And I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I guess there has, but I just like to identify it by the country.