Ska and punk are tangled together like grapevines. While both genres originated elsewhere—punk in the U.S. and ska in Jamaica—they became thoroughly enmeshed in the U.K.’s music scene in the late ’70s and fueled each other’s growth. Yet while punk’s prominence in counterculture history is assured thanks to decades of hagiographic literature and documentaries, ska continues to get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment. When critics and music fans deign to give the two-tone devil its due, it’s usually to the first two waves of ska: the Jamaican originators of the sound (like Desmond Dekker, The Skatalites, and Toots And The Maytals), followed by the English groups that merged ska with punk (like The Specials, Madness, and The Selecter). The third wave—the hyperactive waters where The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, and The Aquabats surf and skim—is the one whose honor most often goes undefended. Until now.
In Aaron Carnes’ new book, In Defense Of Ska (Clash Books), the music journalist goes to bat for “the most maligned genre of music that everyone else hates with a passion.” Using a mixture of autobiographical essays, music history, and interviews with ska scene veterans and contemporary “ska-adjacent” musicians like Dan Deacon and Joyce Manor’s Barry Johnson, In Defense Of Ska makes a strong case for its subject’s vitality. More than just a defense of the genre’s musical qualities, Carnes’ book underlines just how important ska is to punk history—suggesting that any history of DIY music that ignores ska’s influence would be woefully incomplete.
Jer Hunter, a current member of the ska-punk band We Are The Union, who also runs the Skatune Network YouTube channel, has seen firsthand how simpatico the ska and punk communities can still be today. “I feel like a thing that people don’t realize is a lot of their favorite punk bands—a lot of them started out listening to ska music,” Hunter told The A.V. Club. “And then those bands blew up and they just pretended that ska was never in the equation, for one reason or another.”
It’s not only that the punk and ska scenes intermingle; the two also share some core values: a “fuck the squares” commitment to their sound and style (no matter how grating or unfashionable people outside the scene find them) and strong DIY ethics. Ska bands have been booking and promoting their own shows without outside help since the late 1970s two-tone era, running their own record labels and touring on the cheap. Asian Man Records head honcho Mike Park, for example, did both: His band, Skankin’ Pickle, helped create a circuit of house shows and all-ages gigs across the country in the early ’90s by using the Book Your Own Fucking Life directory created by Maximumrocknroll, a resource based off of a 1989 MRR article written by Kamala Lynn Parks, a regular at legendary all-ages venue 924 Gilman Street who developed her promoting connections by booking tours for ska-punk pioneers Operation Ivy.
While that commitment to being independent has long been a part of ska’s ideology—in its own way, ska is as anti-establishment as punk—it has also been a matter of necessity, given the genre’s lack of commercial and critical support. “I was in high school and I tried to play shows, and no one wanted to play with us or give us a chance ’cause we were a ska band,” Hunter says. “We had no option but to book ourselves, so we’d book all our shows and connected with other ska bands. Because of that, there’s this tight-knit community. Ska has not had the best reputation, but we have these DIY ethics because we don’t have any other choice. The only other choice is to just not exist.”
Another ingredient in the glue that has held the ska community together is the music’s energy and the showmanship of the bands. “They were some of the only shows I’d see growing up where people were dancing,” says singer-songwriter Tristan Jemsek, who played in ska bands in Phoenix, a hotbed of ska-turned-punkers, before fronting Dogbreth. “Ska crowds wore more colorful clothes and they were just silly—I think there’s some overlap between ska people and theater kids.”
Therein lies both ska’s enduring appeal and its biggest liability: It is fun music. Punk can be fun, too (Ramones, party of four, your table is ready), but it has a patina of aggression and rebellion around it. While ska has just as righteous a background with the revolutionary attitude of reggae and two-tone’s Rock Against Racism activism, the culture tends to associate the genre with checkered shoes and clown cars full of horn players. The scene’s foundational slang may sound tough, but no amount of saying “rude boy” or “heavy manners” will keep people from thinking ska is music for goofballs. As a culture, we tend to be skeptical of light-hearted things; we love to be entertained by people who act like their craft is slowly killing them. The combination of ska music’s effusive, nerdy joy and its goofy sense of humor can be off-putting to some people.
That sense of humor can also, at times, get in the way of the message when ska bands have tried to tackle heavier themes. It’s a balancing act that Fishbone’s Kendall Jones laments at one point in Carnes’ book: “We tried to make it funny so people would listen. It was wrong. You try it that way, and it just cheapens everything you’re trying to say.”
For Jeff Rosenstock—a solo artist who recently released an all-ska re-recording of his 2020 album No Dream called Ska Dream and a member of the late, great ska-punk collective Bomb The Music Industry!, which also launched the career of singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson—that contrast between happy music and harsh lyrics is one of the things that drew him to ska. “A lot of the records have this dynamic where it can be off-the-wall, super fast one second and then it can be heart-wrenching at the next turn,” he told The A.V. Club.
“Like Hello Rockview by Less Than Jake where the song at the end, ‘Al’s War,’ just crushes you. And having it come right after a song like ‘Richard Allen George… No, It’s Just Cheez’ makes it feel really emotionally resonant. It presents a full scope of human emotion,” Rosenstock says. “If you’re making music where it feels like you’re trying to deliberately say something serious, I think you lose the other side of that coin and it doesn’t hit as hard. That dynamic in energy and emotion—that’s something that’s pretty underappreciated in ska music, because for a lot of people it’s tough to look past the fedoras.”
One of the most intriguing parts of In Defense Of Ska is how it chronicles how the extensive network created by Bay Area punk and ska bands led to a brief explosion in ska’s mainstream popularity in the ’90s. Today’s underground ska scene may mirror those of the past in terms of values. Rosenstock’s Bomb The Music Industry! (which also numbered singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson among its members) was so committed to the DIY spirit that they gave their music away for free and offered to spray-paint their name on shirts at gigs in lieu of selling pricy merch. But the odds of the genre creating another mass commercial crossover like it did 25 years ago are in the “you’ll be hit by a meteor first” range. When ska hit its commercial zenith in the mid-’90s, it benefited from the major label gold rush on all things alternative when grunge hit it big and Green Day and The Offspring were making pop-punk go multi-platinum. It’s hard to imagine a similar “sign anything that moves and throw them against the wall to see what sticks” craze sweeping the music industry in the algorithmic age.
If a cultural reappraisal of ska seems unlikely, consider the changing fortunes of its long-suffering partner in easy punchlines: emo. Emo and ska have quite a bit in common: They both traffic in unrestrained emotional states that cut against the grain of Being Cool; they both have tight-knit and self-sufficient communities; they both fed off the energy of punk and grew into their own thing; and they both share an obsession with breaking down their scene histories into waves and arguing over the taxonomy of who’s in which. What sets the two apart is that emo, over the last decade, has finally earned some respect from the critical establishment. Emo bands get Best New Music accolades on Pitchfork; elder emo statesman groups like Indian Summer are getting the deluxe Numero Group reissue treatment. The dead horse of Dashboard Confessional jokes has found a new life as a blue ribbon show pony. Maybe, in this post-genre poptimist era, the canon is ready to free up some space for manic horn charts and black coats, white shoes, black hats, Cadillacs.
But then again, who gives a shit about the canon if the kids love it? In Jer Hunter’s eyes, hangups about ska is an older generation’s problem. “A lot of people made it a personality trait to be too cool for ska,” Hunter says. “The kids and people in their twenties now who are starting to get into music, they don’t really understand why people hated ska in the first place. I was getting on TikTok and posting my videos and all these kids would find my page, and they’re like, ‘This music is incredible! I love it so much. What is this?’ It’s a clean slate for them.” For that new generation of rude girls and ska-curious punks, Aaron Carnes’ In Defense Of Ska will serve as a checkered guide to help them navigate over half a century’s worth of skankin’ and maybe even get them ready to join (or start!) their local scene.