Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hot (Ska) or Not (Ska)?

Back in the day, when there was an active ska bulletin board at About.com, 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?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

DJ Spooky: Creation Rebel

Trojan/Sanctuary
2007

Even if DJ Spooky’s most excellent romp through Trojan Record's vaults wasn’t so damn good, Creation Rebel would be notable just for the fact that it’s not a rehash of the same classic reggae and skinhead reggae tracks that seem to appear on reshuffled Trojan compilations every few years. (Seriously, how many times can “Young, Gifted and Black” appear and re-appear on their comps?) And unlike the recent Trojan compilations of cuts selected by DJ Spooky (DJ Spooky Presents - In Fine Style: 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records), Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (Johnny Greenwood is the Controller), and Super Furry Animals (Furry Selection: Luxury Cuts Of Trojan Chosen By A Super Furry Animal) which were interesting for what they revealed about their individual tastes, Creation Rebel features truly new material of sorts: DJ Spooky's top-shelf re-mixes and mash-ups (vocals from one song married to music from another) of songs by Lee “Scratch” Perry, Augustus Pablo, Bob Marley, Tapper Zukie, Wayne Smith, Dawn Penn, and more.

If you are a ska and reggae purist, this ain’t for you. Stop reading now. Scroll down to the next post. However, if you’re musically open-minded (and I’m not condemning you if you’re not), Creation Rebel is a compelling mix of roots reggae, dub, dee-jay/toasting, dancehall, and hip-hop (which, if you didn't know, was created by DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican who moved to the Bronx when he was 12 and built rap/hip-hop on such reggae traditions as toasting over a rhythm track blasting on a sound system), as processed through the mind (and computer) of the master turntablist. In many ways, this record perfectly illustrates the evolution of Jamaican music and culture—how it constantly “versions” itself (re-using rhythm tracks from popular songs behind new vocals, or remixing just the rhythm tracks to create a dub version), mining its incredibly rich musical past to create a new sound for the future.

While there is not a bum cut on Creation Rebel (of course, the source material is spectacular, but in a lesser DJ’s hands this album could have turned out very poorly), some cuts are truly inspired, such as the brilliant mash-up of Mutabaruka’s spoken word poem with a sample of the Lee Perry produced “I Killed the Barber” by Dr. Alimantado (which itself uses the rhythm of John Holt’s “Ali Baba”) on “Dis Poem Burns Babylon v2”; the re-mixing and roughing up of the instrumental track of "No, No, No" (where the bass is distorted to the point where it’s lost its tone and become a percussive instrument) under Dawn Penn’s silky vocals; and Augustus Pablo’s "Far East sound" classic “East of the River Nile” is partially transformed into a track you would expect to hear booming out of a hip-hopper’s Escalade. Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel” is given an upbeat percussive underpinning, while the Lee Perry/Tapper Zukie “Revolution Dub” has a chugging Eurotrash disco beat prodding you on to dance on the way to smash the barricades (sounds much better coming out of your speakers/earbuds than it does in print). And the choice sampling throughout this album (particularly on the awesomely dense title cut) will send you scrambling through your record collection to identify the original cuts.

The spirit—and in many cases the songs or productions—of Lee Perry flows throughout this record, which makes sense: both Scratch and DJ Spooky are sonic innovators—madly tinkering in the studio as they completely deconstruct and reassemble music in order to capture the version of a track they hear in their heads and lay it down on tape or a hard drive. Like many of Scratch's best creations, you need to approach Creation Rebel with a mind open to new possibilities. If you do, the rewards to the listener are great. (A)

* * * *

If you like this, check out:

Dr. Ring Ding and the Senior All-Stars: Diggin' Up Dirt
Dr. Ring Ding & H.P. Setter: Big T'ings
The Adjusters: Otis Redding Will Save America

Friday, March 21, 2008

Joe Jackson: Pretty Boys Part II

I remember back in 1985 when I first picked up The Toasters' Recriminations EP and NY Beat comp at Sounds on St. Marks--a fairly clueless suburban kid having had no prior exposure to the NYC ska scene--but being a huge fan of The Specials and The Beat, I fully expected these records to be quite similar to 2-Tone. When I listened to them, I liked them, but I just didn't get how the dots were connected between More Specials and Recriminations. The ska sound/paradigm had changed that drastically to my ears/mind.

But Joe Jackson's "Pretty Boys" is a major link that I was missing (along with cuts from other new wave bands that dabbled in ska/reggae) which helped shape the transition from 2-Tone to 3rd wave ska.

Speaking of not "getting" a sound or a record, my brother, who for years had been way more ahead of the musical curve than I was, couldn't wrap his head around Operation Ivy's Energy when I played it for him back in 1989. (It's interesting to note that that year marked the birth of not only ska-punk, but with the release of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Devil's Night Out, ska-core.) I thought Energy was an incredible, groundbreaking album (and was pleased that I had finally made this musical discovery that he had missed), but he was revelling in the hard rock kitsch of Kiss at the time and completely dismissed it.

This leads to another interesting aside (which I heard first hand from both parties). Tim Armstrong (aka Lint of OPIV) originally sent a demo of Energy to Bucket in the hopes that Moon Records would release it. Unfortunately, in the late 80s, Moon was struggling financially--Bucket told me that his bed was propped up on boxes of unsold Recriminations and NY Beat LPs (which is the reason why both Skaboom! and Thrill Me Up were first released on Celluloid Records imprints Moving Target and Skaloid)--so he didn't have the cash to press and distribute it (Bay Area punk label Lookout Records did). He also admitted that even if Moon had the money at the time, he probably wouldn't have released it. He just wasn't into the ska-punk sound...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mikey Dread, RIP

The great Jamaican DJ/producer Mikey Dread passed away over the weekend from a brain tumour. He was the host of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation's groundbreaking "Dread at the Controls" radio show in the mid to late 70s (notable for playing only music recorded by Jamaican artists--up till then, the JBC played mostly imports from the UK and US); produced The Clash's great "Bankrobber" single (as well as recordings for a host of reggae and dancehall artists); performed on and wrote songs for The Clash's wonderfully messy Sandinista triple LP; and released a string of his own critically-acclaimed albums.

Detailed biographical info may be found here (written by Jo-Ann Green for the All Music Guide), while his obituary from the Telegraph (UK) may be read here.

Check out The Clash's "Bankrobber" video with Mikey Dread at the Controls here.

He will be greatly missed.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Interview: Bucket of The Toasters

Much like The Ramones--an iconic band that soldiered on over the years despite numerous personnel changes--The Toasters have been keeping faith with ska music ever since 2-Tone flamed out in the early 80s. (For the uninitiated, background on The Toasters may be found here.) Since they have a new live album recorded in 2002 at CBGBs coming out on CBGBs Records, we though it might be a good time to check in with guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/ founding member Bucket, who was gracious enough to take the time to do the following e-mail interview...

Duff Guide to Ska: After 25+ years of leading The Toasters through numerous cycles of feast and famine, what keeps you going?

Bucket: My mortgage! Seriously, I am still having a lot of fun doing what I do. I have the good fortune to be surrounded by some very talented people and that helps greatly. Once you get bitten by the ska bug, it is definitely in you for life. The music and the genre have a lot to say socially and politically, and I am very proud to be a part of that continuum.

DGTS: Why did you move your base of operations to Spain, and what else are you doing apart from The Toasters and Megalith?

Bucket: Mostly personal reasons, but in part also a rejection of the politics. For me the city had lost its edge. NYC had ceased being a place which encouraged an indie music scene. This was in no way more greatly epitomized than by the closure of CBGBs, which for me said it all about the increasing cultural void. You have to be a millionaire to live in the East Village these days. Having moved to Spain, I have the double advantage of being able to focus more on developing European operations for the band and label, as well as broadening my kids' horizons. For example, they now all speak three languages.

Aside from the band and the label, I also started a consulting company (Cubo Consulting - shameless plug!), mainly helping bands and labels in the European theatre of operations with booking. Tour management and logistics, you name it. Right now, I am working for Meg & Dia for example. Other clients include bands like Easy Star Allstars and Skatalites and I have also organized European tours for the likes of The Pietasters, Westbound Train, Go Jimmy Go, etc.

DGTS: What do you have planned for The Toasters in 2008 and beyond?

Bucket: More gigging. It's impossible to make a living from selling recorded music these days. (It's all a conspiracy by the major labels to destroy the independents hahaha.) We have tours in America and Europe lined up through December 2008. We will also play in South America to support the release of the new record on Enemy One Records in Brazil.

DGTS: How is Megalith doing these days--and what is your strategy for navigating the ongoing implosion of the music industry? Can bands ever hope to make a living in the iPod age?

Bucket: Megalith is building slowly but surely. Our aim was to grow the label organically. Running a record label is difficult in the face of limited CD sales and the chronic underfunding that perennially plagues the indie scenario. Digital distro is slowly picking up, but it is nowhere near replacing the lost sales of physical product. Unfortunately, putting product into record stores is increasingly the preserve of the major labels, as no-one else can really afford to join that playing field. The market forces you to be creative and so the model that Megalith is pursuing is now more of a joint venture with artists that includes live concerts as a vital component. For me, that was always the most fun part of the business anyway and without that idiom it's very hard to promote artists as there is such a tremendous glut of bands these days competing for an ever decreasing share of the pie. I get hundreds of MySpace links every week from bands looking for deals, gigs or just plain advice. The glass ceiling has been lowered with deleterious effect to the aspirations of start-up bands.

DGTS: I've rediscovered my love of vinyl--what releases are planned for Drastic Plastic this year?

Bucket: Yes, the vinyl revival is quite a phenomenon. I think that it is in large part collector driven, but people like the tangibility of the product. Plus you can't download it for free! Drastic Plastic is in the negotiating phase to license quite a bit of punk and glam 70's product. The two releases so far are from The Briggs and The Toasters.

DGTS: As the band continues to tour all over the world, which local/regional ska scenes appear to be thriving?

Bucket: It's always interesting to see that the epicentre of regional support shifts from place to place. Right now there are emerging hotspots in Eastern Europe and South America, but also the scene in the USA has become more defined with grassroots outfits in most major cities. I would cite groups like Phillyska and CTska as being perfect examples of how such operations help the ska scene tremendously.

DGTS: In general, how would you assess the state of the US ska scene, 10 years after the dramatic rise and fall of ska in the late 90s?

Bucket: Well, it's certainly different, but in large part the faces are the same in the sense that the scene has shed the band-wagon jumpers and now is once again comprised of hardcore fans, and that's a good thing. Say what you want about the 90s ska explosion (or implosion more like), but it had the effect of introducing ska music to the nation and now there are more people than ever who are familiar with the genre. On the other hand, I think that we are in a rebuilding phase and I would point to the development of some excellent new bands like Westbound Train, the Aggrolites and even Big D as an indicator of where we are heading. There are new bands and new scenes sprouting all over the country, so in my view the curve is now upwards.

DGTS: I read a bit on the Toasters/Megalith forum about your tour through what used to be Yugoslavia republic before the war--it sounded kind of harrowing. What was it like to be a band treading though a world still very much affected by war, widespread genocide, and a history of ethnic hatred spanning several centuries?

Bucket: It's no picnic over there for sure. But I would point out that in the 80s it was still a political statement for The Toasters to take the stage with a mixed race band in some parts of the USA, so we are talking about a global issue there. Seeing the reality of Kosovo was an eye opener and it is true to say that they are still locked in a holy war there with roots in the 16th century. That is all about to kick off again with the unilateral declaration of independence of that province from Serbia. We had to alter our tour routing for May to avoid that road through Mitrovica. Unfortunate, because it has been very emotionally uplifitng to have been able to take the music to places like Mostar (Bosnia) and Dubrovnik - where we played in a bombed out hospital.

DGTS: On a much lighter topic, which ska and non-ska bands are you listening to right now?

Bucket: Red Soul Community from Granada, Spain. Raimundo Amador--great flamenco guitarist from a gypsy family.

DGTS: When do The Toasters hit the US again--including NYC?

Bucket: We won't be back in the states until Hallowe'en, as the upcoming calendar is all European through October. Having said that, we are just coming off a big run primarily in the western states and Hawaii (thanks for the poke recipe, Shon!).

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Joe Jackson: "Pretty Boys" (from Beat Crazy)

Someone gave me a portable turntable for Christmas to play all of the ska and new wave albums that have been taking up space in my apartment for years (my high school/college-era turntable gave up the ghost a while back—and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but vinyl is making a welcome comeback, and I've been buying releases in this format again). So one recent Saturday afternoon, I broke out a bunch a LPs and decided to play the soundtrack to the movie Times Square that I picked up on eBay, which came out when I was around 12 or 13. It features a slew of great punk and new wave groups like the Ramones, XTC, the Pretenders, Gary Numan, Talking Heads, the Ruts, and Roxy Music, among others. Never saw the movie, but the Ramones’ track, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” was popular at the time because of the flick and was played about eight times (along with the B-52’s’ “Rock Lobster”) at the first dance I ever attended at this all-girls school (I was at a boys middle school at the time, so this event was momentous). I never got a girl’s phone number that night, but I found the Ramones (this is way pre-internet, people—you sometimes had to leave your room to be exposed to new things).

Anyway, this soundtrack has some nostalgic value to me, so I’m looking at the album’s gatefold sleeve and the needle hits Joe Jackson’s “Pretty Boys,” a tune I'd somehow missed growing up, but one that was immediately familiar, as it is almost a blueprint for the sound of the early to mid-80s New York City ska scene (along with Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives")—a potent mix of new wave and 2-Tone, notable for its prominent, fluid basslines; nervous, choppy guitar; and (an almost) complete lack of horns.

You can hear “Pretty Boys’” impact most clearly on The Toasters’ excellent 1985 Recriminations EP (the most new wavey release in their catalogue), which makes sense, since Joe Jackson produced it and even performs the melodica solo on “Run Rudy Run.” (Speaking of “Run Rudy Run,” compare it to the Ruts’ “Love in Vain” and tell me that Bucket didn’t nick a thing or two on the way out of the store.) You can also hear this new wave/ska mash-up influence on a whole slew of NYC ska bands on the 1985 NY Beat compilation (see The Daybreakers’ “Preying Man,” Urban Blight's “Escape from Reality,” Cryin’ Out Loud's “The Distance,” and Floor Kiss' “Why is the Boat So Small?”). Listening to it today, you’d think that a slew of the bands off this comp aren’t really ska at all (there are even tracks from an oi and a mod band)—just ska influenced. All in all, it's really a record that captures a very specific place in time—especially since the new wave tendencies in American ska would soon be shed as the scene evolved (for proof, check out these 1988/1989 releases: the NY Citizens' On the Move, The Toasters' Thrill Me Up, Bim Skala Bim's Tuba City, and the great US ska comp, Ska Face).

I find this whole business kind of fascinating, particularly since The Specials and English Beat made such huge inroads into the American new wave/college rock scene (both bands received regular airplay on WLIR, the NYC-area “modern rock” radio station), but their influence is not as immediately evident on New York or US ska bands at that time (think Fishbone’s debut EP and The Untouchables’ Wild Child, both of which were released the same year as Recriminations and NY Beat). Bands on the nascent US ska scene didn’t merely ape the 2-Tone era ska sound; they were inspired as hell by it, taking it and creating something of their own out of it.

* * * *

“Pretty Boys,” which is Joe Jackson’s mad rant against the pop music industry’s (and life’s) bias towards looks over talent, includes these great lyrics:

I wanna see a human being on my TV set
Want some action for the fat and thin man
They’re getting closer, but they ain’t got robots yet
Just a hero with a smile like a tin man—no brains and no heart!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Junior Murvin: Muggers in the Streets

Greensleeves (www.greensleeves.net)
(orginal release: 1984; reissue: 2008)

While not as infused with apocalyptic dread as Police and Thieves, Junior Murvin’s Muggers in the Streets is an overlooked minor gem of roots reggae (somewhat unfashionable in Jamaica in 1984, when dancehall was ruling the sound systems and airwaves). Here he’s ably backed by the Roots Radics Band and expertly produced by Henry “Junjo” Lawes (considered to be the creator of dancehall and one of the genre's most successful producers). Murvin’s achingly sweet falsetto sounds terrific on this set of mostly winning tunes, including “Jahovah’s Children,” “Strikes and Demonstrations” (this album’s “Police and Thieves” and its standout track), and “I’ll Follow You” (not Jah or Jesus, but a woman). The weakest track here is the remake of “Police and Thieves,” the title song “Muggers in the Street.” It pales—both lyrically and production-wise—in comparison with the classic, Lee Perry produced original. A very bad move—there’s no reason to mess with perfection.

It’s almost as if Armageddon’s failure to transpire in the year the two sevens clashed doused some of the fire in reggae’s belly (though, lord knows that there was wasn’t any less injustice and evil in the world in 1984). Instead of running riots in the ghettos of London and Kingston, Murvin worries about being robbed in the street—listeners are urged to “Stop the Crime” and to “Think Twice” to avoid landing in jail. Not bad advice, but not exactly the fire and brimstone of most reggae classics. When not dodging thugs, there is time for “Jamaican Girls” and “Champagne and Wine” (“I’ve got the money/you’ve got the time/C’mon let’s drink champagne and wine”)—enjoyable enough tunes, we all need some happiness in the face of day-to-day adversity, right?

All the above quibbling aside, Muggers in the Streets is a really good listen. If you’re a fan of Junior Murvin or roots reggae, you won’t be disappointed. (B+)