Ska music persists beyond its checkered past

Ska-boom fizzle: Are the Toasters one of the genre’s only survivors?

The Toasters challenge ska detractors’ predicted expiration date

who: The Toasters, with Common Foundation
where: Jack of the Wood
when: Tuesday, Oct. 23 (9 p.m., $8 advance, $10 day of show. jackofthewood.com)

Forever the domain of the new and now, pop fashions cycle like seasons. Yesterday’s Twist or Macarena is today’s Gangam Style. And for every Next Big Thing, there’s a chorus of detractors challenging, “Let’s see if anyone still cares in 10 years,” like the gray hairs who decades ago snubbed that passing teenage fad, rock ‘n’ roll.

At its peak in the early 1990s, ska music seemed as fleeting and frivolous as any pop trend could be. Riding the syncopated guitar scrape and bright splashes of brass that define the style, bands like No Doubt, Reel Big Fish and Smash Mouth took to the airwaves backed by major-label dollars and an easily digestible, upbeat sound. And as soon as its fuse was lit, the big ska-boom fizzled. No Doubt evolved into a polished dance-pop outfit; Smash Mouth turned into a cover band for Shrek.

In 1994, the Canadian punk band Propagandhi released its full-length debut, How To Clean Everything, and with it came the perennial anti-ska anthem, “Ska Sucks.” Sample lyrics: “Ska sucks/Ska revival isn’t cool, you stupid f—ks/ The bands are only in it for the bucks.”

As it tends to, the backlash missed the mark. Ska’s commercial bubble momentarily raised the profile of a style, the roots of which sprouted in early-‘60s Jamaica, as radio broadcasts from the American South brought the sounds of blues, R&B and early rock to the island shores. Ska fused American pop with an indigenous lilt, as pioneers like Desmond Dekker, The Skatalites and Derrick Morgan minted a regional style preceding reggae.

When it migrated to England in the late ’70s, it merged with the nascent punk movement. Here, the cooperation of Jamaican immigrants and their white English counterparts presented a symbol of “2-Tone” unity in a racially fraught climate, much the way mixed-race “salt-and-pepper” bands had in the American South. And, in the hands of The English Beat and Madness, the sound provided a novel angle on ‘80s pop. (Madness rode that angle to theme-party immortality with “Our House.”)

Ska arrived on American shores with Robert “Bucket” Hingley, who brought the sound with him when he moved from England to New York in 1980. With his “American 2-Tone band” The Toasters, Hingley hit the CBGB scene and planted the seed for ska’s third wave — and its commercial boom and bust.

“There is little doubt (perhaps I should say no doubt) that there was as an explosion in popularity in the ‘90s into the so-called mainstream,” Hingley writes in an email sent from a tour stop in China. “This is largely due to the amount of publicity being showered on a genre that, at that time, was enjoying its Warhol-ian 15 minutes in the limelight.”

Hingley, whose introduction to ska came in 1964 by way of Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” is often attributed with introducing ska to American audiences. When The Toasters’ formed in 1981, 2-Tone was at its peak in the UK. “At that time the American record companies didn't know what to do with it,” Hingley says. So, in between Toasters tours, he started his own. Moon Ska Records became the flagship of American ska, releasing records by bands like Bad Manners, The Pietasters, Mustard Plug and Dance Hall Crashers before folding in 2000.

But even as ska’s third wave crested and crashed, The Toasters soldiered on. The band now commands a cult following worldwide, and brings its shows as far abroad as Indonesia and Siberia. “Touring with The Toasters has become a travelogue,” Hingley says. “One of the best feelings is to show up in some far-flung land as the first ska band, and sometimes the first Western band of any type, and meet people and play for them."

Glancing at venue bookings over the past several months, one wonders if maybe The Toasters aren’t ska’s only survivors. On Oct. 11, 2-Tone legends The English Beat, back on a steady touring schedule, vistied The Orange Peel. Only a day before Hingley and his band headline at Jack of the Wood, the Peel will host Streetlight Manifesto, the New Jersey outfit born of the ashes of one of the genre’s most musically ambitious outfits: Catch-22.

“Ska music is not and has never been a temporary fad,” Hingley says. “I think that people can relate to it as a culturally valid musical genre that has proved resistant to the music industry's attempts to pigeonhole it.”

Bryan C. Reed is the online editor at Shuffle Magazine, and a regular contributor to MAGNET and Paste.

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