Friday, August 29, 2008

Shots in the Dark: Various Artists - NYC Ska Live

Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights third-wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, or a fickle record-buying public, were lost in the fray. The image to the right comes from the cassette, since the LP cover is kind of, well, not that compelling.

The Bands: If you were a ska fan in NYC in 1990, these were some of the best acts playing out on the scene--The Toasters, The Scofflaws, The NY Citizens, Bigger Thomas, Skinnerbox, Skadanks, and The Steadys.

The Sound: While the heavy 2-Tone/New Wave influence that had held the NYC ska scene in its grip in the mid-'80s--as captured by the NY Beat: Hit and Run comp (released in 1985)--is still very much in evidence, the NYC ska sound had evolved somewhat by 1990, incorporating broader elements of the Jamaican musical idiom (rocksteady, dancehall, etc.). However, the post 2 Tone sound was still dominant, though the bands are more comfortable with, and confident in, their particular brand of ska--with its switchblade sharp guitar slashes; prominent, pogo-ing bass lines; stabs of Hammond organ; and sax-heavy horn bursts. Like its hometown, the NYC ska sound bristled with rude, punky attitude--but it was real and smart and soulful at its very core.

The Release: Back in the day, I never truly appreciated this record (even though I was in the crowd that day at the Cat Club in March 1990, in my pre-Moon Records days)--NYC Ska Live is actually quite an excellent album, much better than I remembered. This recording captured the live show really well (there is a full, well-balanced mix of all the instruments and vocals; unfortunately a couple of the tracks are cut off rather sloppily, but that's really nitpicking) and the performances from all of the bands are spot-on.

When the needle hits the record, the album kicks off with the English Beat-influenced Bigger Thomas tracks (which you can really hear on the excellent "Ska in My Pocket"); the Skadanks (with Rocker-T at the mic) turn in two very different, but equally great, cuts with "Dancehall" (which, duh, is inna dancehall stylee) and the surprisingly Specials-like "Just Ska"; after hearing The Steady's two most excellent songs, "Just Reflections" and "All You Can Stand" (both of which epitomize the NYC ska sound at the time), you'll be left dumbstruck wondering why they weren't huge and what the hell happened to them (apparently, after they broke up, their bass player went on to play with downtown club mavens Deee-lite!).

Side two features tunes probably more familiar to anyone who followed the US ska scene in the mid-90s. Skinnerbox, with King Django on vocals (obviously not how he was billed back then), deliver the more rocksteady/reggae cuts "Promise" and "Move Like You're Gone"; The Scofflaws tear up the house with their raucous live versions of "Going Back to Kingston" and "Aliskaba" off their great debut album, when Mike Drance was still in the band; The NY Citizens take names and kick ass with their classic "National Front" ("You ain't nothing!") from their very much under-appreciated On the Move, LP; and The Toasters serve up one of their catchier, pop-ska tunes, "Don't Say Forever" (from This Gun for Hire) with Cashew Miles on vocals (anyone remember his on-stage back flips?). The album is capped off with all the bands joining in for a take on The Toasters' then signature show ending "Matt Davis" instrumental.

It's interesting to note that both The NYCs and Toasters get short shrift on NYC Ska Live, as they are the only bands on the album not to be represented by two tracks. A promised CD (I think I had tried to mail-order one, but was sent Let's Go Bowling's Music to Bowl By CD instead) was supposed to have featured The Citizens' "Sticky Situation" and Toasters' "Worry," but it never materialized. While the NYC Ska Live cassette lists these tracks, oddly, it doesn't include them. I would have gladly traded the "Matt Davis" track for these two cuts (particularly since the live version of "Sticky Situation" was always fantastic...).

The Ugly Reality: The NYC Ska Live concert was originally organized so that the bands could be filmed in action by director Joe Massot for New York City Ska Craze, a sequel to the 2 Tone era Dance Craze movie--and the show was taped live at the long-ago closed Cat Club (13th Street and Fourth Avenue) on March 26th, 1990. When I asked Bucket about what happened with the movie recently, he called it "a fiasco." The director pulled out of filming the show at the last moment--after Buck and Moon had gone to the trouble of putting together the bill and the expense of hiring Steve Remote and his sound truck to record the show. A Wikipedia entry for The Steadys states that Joe Massot bailed out after one of his cameramen was attacked by skinheads and equipment was destroyed while they were trying to film a NY Citizens show at CBGBs. I don't know about the validity of this claim--there was a heavy skinhead presence at most NYC ska shows during that time, and there was more often than not some violence and stupidity on display (for instance, during the early '90s some boneheads were always throwing type D batteries at The Toasters when they were on stage--I always wondered if they didn't like them that much, why did they spend money to see them?). However, I do know that NYC Ska Live would have sold incredibly well if the New York City Ska Craze film had ever been made...

The Grade: A-


Marco On The Bass said...

Thanks for posting this! I often forget about this recording. I have a lot of fond and unfound memories of the recording of this show. We were the openers for the whole show and our guitar player Steve had all sorts of technical problems with his amp which required us to play the song "Moving" twice. The problems continued requiring Bucket to cut off the whole intro to the song from the actual recording. While we were disappointed that Joe Massot bailed, it was still great as the new kids on the block (we were 6 months old at this point) to be a part of the NYCSKA scene. Many of the people who played at the show are still good friends. As a footnote we are celebrating our 20 anniversary this weekend(9/6/08)in New Brunswick with all the original members of the band.

Thanks again for posting this.

Marc from Bigger Thomas

Steve from Moon said...


Thanks for your comments--and congrats on 20 years of Bigger Thomas (does this include your time as The Panic?)!!!

What's weird is that the NYC ska scene seemed to lose a little steam after the NYC Ska Live show, until the massive Skalaplooza show at The Ritz (aka Studio 54) in 1992 with Bad Manners, Skatalites, Toasters, Scofflaws, Skunks, and Ruder Than You--which sort of caught everyone by surprise in terms of how many people showed up (I think it was close to being sold out)...


Steve from Moon

Anonymous said...


I got to NYC in '91 and started hitting shows at Wetlands and New Music Cafe, but Skalaplooza was the biggest gathering of ska fans I had ever seen. That was an awesome show. It was probably the 3nd or 4th time I had seen Bad Manners, always at smaller venues and they really seemed to light up with that huge audience.


Steve from Moon said...


Thanks for your comments. The Wetlands and New Music Cafe shows were good at the time, but the great success of Skalapalooza really made a lot of people in the music industry take notice of the underground ska scene. Doors that had been shut tight to ska bands cracked open and these opportunities helped Moon and its bands to jumpstart the U.S. third wave ska scene into the powerhouse it became from '94 to about '98.

After the show, I remember walking out into the audience from backstage and not quite believing that it had all taken place--it was incredible...and all of the bands were terrific that night.

Good times.

Steve from Moon

Jeremy Patton said...

Hey Steve,
I have the entire uncut audio from this show! If all these bands would sign off on the tunes we could totally release this on Megalith Records! on CD finally and probably a double cd at that! But I'm sure a few of the bands would want too much money for that...

Steve from Moon said...


Thanks for your feedback! It would be terrific if this album could be expanded and released on CD (and vinyl!). But, I agree that it might be difficult to get everyone on board. Then again, would it hurt to put some feelers out to see if the bands are interested?

Just a thought...

Take care!

Steve from Moon

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I was just a teen in the CT suburbs when this was recorded, and didn't even listen to it until I started combing through my brother's vinyl around 1992 after I had accepted ska into my heart. Those Bigger Thomas tracks found their way onto many of my mix tapes through the 90s; that Richie Havenesque guitar solo at the end of "Moving" still gives me chills justing thinking about it.

I experienced the third wave in its tiny eddies, in places like Ithaca, NY and New London, CT, not the big city. Although I remember seeing my brother play at a Ska festival in Port Chester NY in August of 95. Lots of New England bands were there. Do festivals like that even happen anymore?

It was such a great movement; a way for many musical misfits to connect before the Internet (not counting And that power of those first chugging chords. I've never gone to any indie rock show, etc., that had such power and joy as the first five minutes of a live ska show.

Thanks for letting me get nostalgic...

Steve from Moon said...

MoonSka Fan:

Thanks for your feedback (ska fans really are 'musical misfits' aren't we?) I'm glad you enjoyed the post. What band was your brother in back in the mid-90s? Every so often there are ska fests--Chuck Wren of Jump Up is holding one in early October in Chicago (go to for details) and in the past year there have been fests in Nevada and Tennessee. There is a 3 Floors of Ska show coming up in November at the Knitting Factory in NYC, too.


Steve from Moon

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Kames Jelly said...

just won a copy of this from ebay. im so excited, ive been trying to get my hands on a copy of this for a couple years since Marc first told me about it.