Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hot (Ska) or Not (Ska)?

Back in the day, when there was an active ska bulletin board at, I always got a kick out of the postings by people wondering if such and such a band’s song was really ska, even if it wasn’t by a ska band (typical title: “Is Blur ska?”). So, in keeping with this once illustrious tradition, here are some genuine ska songs by decidedly non-ska bands (and I’m not including the more obvious groups like The Clash or Rancid that incorporated a lot of ska and reggae into their music):

1) Murphy’s Law, “Ska Song” (from Back with a Bong, 1989): Kind of a spazzy ska spoof at first (“Skankin’ to the rhythm/skankin’ to the beat/Skankin’ to the rhythm of the Murphy beat, oh yeah”), but then the Fishbone horn section comes in and it’s all of a sudden elevated to a new level of greatness. Definitely not what you expect from this fearsome NYC thrash/hardcore act, but this was at a time when the city's ska and hardcore scenes overlapped (before both were banned from CBGBs in 1990 due to violence at shows) and the late 80s ska scene was kickin’ with acts like The Toasters, Urban Blight, NY Citizens and Skinnerbox.

2) Blur, “Fade Away” (from The Great Escape, 1995): Very much in the vein of some of The Specials’ more biting—and seething—social commentaries (like “Blank Expression,” and “Friday Night, Saturday Morning”), this track chillingly portrays a bland, passionless couple going through the motions, never once seizing the day (“They stumbled into their lives/In a vague way became man and wife”). Plus, with its Dick Cuthell-sounding horn arrangements, you’d think it could have come off the “Ghost Town” EP (and is cheekily followed by the Fun Boy Three-sounding “TOPMAN,” which has the great lyric: “He’s Hugo and he’s Boss”).

3) The Fall, “Why Are People Grudgeful?” (from The Infotainment Scan, 1993): Whoever thought up having bitter ol’ curmudgeon Mark E. Smith half-singing, half-ranting his way through this Lee Perry cut truly earned their pay that day. It’s simply brilliant, both conceptually and in its execution.

4) Grand National, “Boner” (from Kicking the National Habit, 2004): Don’t really know what the song is about (though it ain’t about what’s in your pants, slick—it's got something to do with grinding bones), but this Skatalites-esque tune has a wicked edge. And you really want to dance to it.

5) Mekons, “Johnny Miner” (from So Good It Hurts, 1988): British post-punks explore the Caribbean on this album, though they end up sounding a bit like Sandanista-era Clash on this cover of a folk tune about the hard, crappy life of a coal miner: "You've battled with the sliding scale/Lungs turned black & faces pale/Now your body's up for sale/
Farewell Johnny Miner!" Billy Bragg is happy with this one.

6) Joe Jackson, "Pretty Boys" (from Beat Crazy, 1980): See my previous posts.

That's what I've got for now. Suggestions from the audience?


Jeremy Patton said...

Well now you have the modern bands like Lily Allen and Amy Whinehouse both shooting up the ska vein, though not being entirely ska based bands. Also Jamiroquai has a tune "Drifting Along" that is very ska/dub. The Dub Pistols also do some ska with Terry Hall joining in. Mr. Bungle had quite a few ska twinged tunes early in their career. The list goes on!

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks! Keep them coming.