Sunday, May 31, 2009

Will Ska Rise Again?

While cultural critic Gary Moskowitz makes some interesting and valid points in his "Why There Won't Be a Fourth Wave of Ska" blog posting (I've copied it below), I don't buy his argument--ska may never again come close to breaking into the mainstream pop culture as it did in the 90s, but it won't be for the reasons he states.

As Dave Wakeling points out, the political and economic climate in the US over the past several years does echo that of Thatcherite Britain, which would seem to create a favorable environment for ska bands that offer socially aware commentary--and helped propel many of the 2 Tone era acts onto the charts (but notice how he fails to mention any of the extraordinarily powerful protest songs by The Beat and The Specials, such as "Stand Down Margaret," "Get a Job," "Ghost Town," "Too Much Too Young," or "Nelson Mandela," by focusing almost exclusively on Madness' "party music" instead?).

Unfortunately, the great tradition of organized protest and resistance against injustice (very much alive in the UK in the late 70s--see the Rock Against Racism concerts or the CND) just isn't happening here (if we didn't rise up and storm the White House when the Bush Administration failed to stop 9/11 and then lied about Iraq's connection to it in order to launch a war; couldn't be bothered with tracking down and bringing Osama bin Laden to justice; broke domestic and international law by torturing POWs; engaged in massive, illegal spying on American citizens; corrupted the Justice Department for political gain, etc., etc.--what exactly will it take for us to band together as citizens and say we've had enough?). It's just not in the DNA of our technologically distracted and self-absorbed youth culture (nor was it part of mine, I'm sad to say, as many of us turned out to be Alex Keatons).

I love ska's rich history of decrying social and political injustice--much of which continues to this day--but I don't think that it's a prerequisite for the music's re-emergence from the underground, since there's not much of a public appetite for protest music (apart from Green Day's broadside against Bush's reign in American Idiot). Having said that, ska music certainly has the potential to be a vital part of pop culture in the US--and should continue its proud tradition of being a voice for the oppressed and forgotten.

No, what will keep the fourth wave from rising are obstacles more like the music press' and the music industry's viewpoint that ska--2 Tone, 3rd wave, whatever you call what is happening now--is simply a revival genre (no doubt some of this came about because all of the major 2 Tone acts covered many 60s ska hits in their day), rather than a style of music that has been continuously and organically evolving since its creation. As long as the revival label sticks, contemporary ska bands will always be considered to be musicians practicing a somewhat illegitimate or lesser art and dismissed as such. (It also doesn't help that The Specials are still cashing in on their wave of nostalgia instead of spearheading a new ska movement...) Punk managed to avoid being branded a revival, despite Green Day's massive debt to The Buzzcocks and Undertones and Rancid's obsessive Clash-love, by having the good fortune to have been repackaged in plaid in the 90s as grunge.

A much larger problem facing the ska scene (and bands in general) is how to make one's music and message heard above the extraordinary din of our decentralized, highly segmented pop culture media, with its infinite number of choices all vying for one's attention. Alternative commercial radio is dead (killed by internet radio, satellite radio, iTunes, iPods, Pandora, illegal file-sharing, podcasting, and the lowest common denominator pre-programmed blandness resulting from massive corporate ownership of the airwaves). Likewise, printed publications are wasting away (circulations and advertising revenue are way down--I've been horrified watching The New York Times shriveling before my eyes--as many people have turned to the web for free, instant information from a plethora of sources). There are very few mediums left that consistently reach a large audience (why else would No Doubt be appearing on the awful "American Idol" or hawking themselves on "The Today Show" along with the latest diet craze author?).

It all makes you wonder if the whole 2 Tone scene had taken place in a post-internet age, would anyone have noticed (or cared)?

+ + + +

A recent reunion performance in London by the 2-Tone ska band Madness made me think that the time is a ripe for a massive ska revival. Unfortunately, the chances of seeing one are unlikely.

Ska music--the brassy, jazzy, up-tempo precursor to reggae--is a mixture of American rhythm & blues, Caribbean calypso and Jamaican folk music that evolved in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as Jamaica was gaining its independence from Britain. While celebratory and made for dancing, the music was inherently political. Studio One song titles like “I Want Justice,” “Forward March” and “Freedom Sounds” were typical. As ska music evolved into rock steady and then reggae, such identity politics became even more pronounced.

Fast-forward to the late 1970s and early 80s, when a steamy political climate brought about not only punk rock, but a multi-ethnic ska revival in Britain and America. The London-based band Madness was part of it, although their music was largely devoid of politics. Madness was basically a party band. They made music to drink to. “One Step Beyond”, one of their biggest hits (later featured on MTV), is basically a repetitious ska romp that revolves around one sax hook. It’s incredibly infectious, but doesn’t really go anywhere. In 1981 Rolling Stone described them as “little more than the Blues Brothers with English accents.” For better or worse, most ska bands that emerged during the “third wave” of ska in the 1990s followed Madness’ lead.

Things haven’t changed, if their recent performance of a few new songs at London’s HMV music store is any indication. Madness sounded good, and they were clearly enjoying themselves, but there wasn’t exactly a tidal wave of energy surging through the mostly over-40 crowd. The Specials, the 2-Tone label’s flagship band, recently played a couple of sold-out reunion shows in London, and The Beat (the name the English beat goes by Britain) has played shows recently as well. While all of these shows got some favourable press, I haven’t heard much buzz about them since. An upcoming “30 Years of 2 Tone” show in London on July 18th will surely do its best to rally the troops.

Ska has repeatedly risen to near-mass appeal and then fallen back into obscurity. It held on in Jamaica for about six years before the popularity of rock steady and reggae dwarfed it. The British 2-Tone movement lasted about five years. A few American bands pushed ska in the 1980s (The Toasters, Fishbone), and the American-focused third wave of the 1990s had largely faded by the end of the decade. Madness, like so many other bands, grew tired of ska and started writing more pop-influenced music. No Doubt, a popular third-wave band, did the same thing.

About a year ago, Dave Wakeling of the 2-Tone era band The English Beat told me to watch out for a fourth wave of ska in America and Britain. He described the music’s potential to be uplifting in times of crisis, explaining it “comes in a post-punk period, or a post-angst period, where people still might feel a sense of protest, but they're sick of feeling miserable about it. Like, we're still mad, but we want to party.”

It's a nice idea, but I don't see it happening. Despite big pockets of ska fans around the world, mass audiences don't seem to want it. It’s always been a niche music. Even a vast economic downturn won’t change that.

After Madness’ set, I couldn’t help but think about a couple of Skatalites shows I saw in the mid-'90s. Jamaica’s original “house band”, they were amazing even in old age. The songs weren’t jittery, trebly, high-voltage affairs. The music was seductive, sublime, jazzy, smooth and bass-heavy, with occasional moments of virtuosity in the horn solos. Decades of history, politics, melancholy and humour came through in every note. It's the sound that inspires devotion among ska's followers, and not an easy one to replicate.



Matt Wixson said...

The interesting thing about the 2-Tone movement is that the Specials, Madness, the Selecter, and the Beat were accepted as pop music. They're now icons of an underground music culture, but at the time they were just bands on the radio. I think a more appropriate contemporary comparison, for better or worse, is Lily Allen, who is a pop singer who happens to have a good handful of ska and reggae songs. She's even had members of the Specials perform with her band.

The ska scene as it is today is almost inherently underground for some reason, and if ska hits the mainstream again, it probably won't come from the subculture but from outside it. There's such a strong DIY mentality entrenched in ska bands these days - largely out of necessity, I would say - that it's practically impossible to make the transition to pop act from the scene. This is true from the larger survivors of the 90's explosion to the evolving ska-punk scene to larger more-Jamaican-faithful bands like the Slackers. The ska scene is like this no matter which sub-group you look at, so bands form and operate from the beginning as if that's the only way to be a ska band.

That said, the underground has a lot to offer in terms of political and social commentary. The "party" songs that got bands huge 12 years ago (and admittedly exposed me to the genre) are still what many people think of when they hear the word ska, but there's very few bands writing songs like that anymore. There's a ton of activism in ska-punk music, with up-and-coming bands like Bomb The Music Industry! singing easily about the issues of today, and even old mainstays like Mustard Plug writing thoughtful political songs. In the UK, two of the bigger ska-punk bands, Sonic Boom Six and The King Blues, are chock full of protest songs. And of course the Slackers have many protest lyrics that wouldn't sound out of place in Tin Pan Alley in the 60's. This kind of sentiment in music isn't popular at all, regardless of genre, though. So this lyrical content certainly doesn't help ska overcome it's entrenchment in the underground.

Adam Coozer said...

The prob with Moskowitz' article is that he doesn't explain why ska won't rise again. Not that I disagree with him, but he didn't explain his point.

David T said...

I wouldn't say ska is dead, but there definitely doesn't seem to be any buzz around it right now. I look nearly anywhere on the internet and there's very little enthusiasm for ska.

That... or ska fans are just very quiet people :)

dan said...

Ok, but... whats the deal with his "mainstream dreaming..."? I think what I love about this scene is exactly its underground and DIY credentials. Am I thinking "Oh, why dont more people listen to ska nowdays?" or "when will the time come for ska to be on MTV again??"
Not really, not me...

Steve from Moon said...


Thanks so much for your comments. They are completely on the money--particularly your point that if ska does happen to become popular again, it will be done by a pop group working ska into its sound (does Kid British fall into this category?), and not come from the scene itself. (And to be honest, the bands that largely benefited from the mid 90s ska boom were pop groups that were marketed by the major labels as ska--Smashmouth, No Doubt, etc.; the majors were really just exploiting all the music press buzz about the indie ska scene, which really was pretty hot at the time.)

I'm not really up on the ska-punk scene, but I will definitely check out Sonic Boom Six and some of the other bands you mentioned. Thanks for the tip...


Steve from Moon said...


Yeah, it does seem like his thesis isn't totally fleshed out (which made it easy to pick apart!).

Sometimes it's good to have an editor intercept your work before it's published, eh? (This from a blogger like me! The nerve!)


Steve from Moon said...


The ska scene has survived worse times than least we have the internet to connect with other fans around the globe.


Steve from Moon said...


I think Moskowitz's piece is in response to The Specials' and Madness' return to the spotlight in the UK, so he's wondering if this marks some sort of resurgence in the ska scene or major pop cultural shift (it obviously doesn't).

Personally, I would like to see a couple of ska bands hit it big on their own terms (like the 2 Tone groups did in their time). The Toasters were almost able to do something like this with Mercury Records back in the mid 90s, but the final offer from Mercury gave them far too much control over Moon (which was part of the deal), so Buck walked away from the whole thing.

Right now it's freakin hard to make a living as a musician, so the ska scene could use a bit of a boost, but not the crazed, parasitic attention it received from the music industry during the 90s...



Jeremy Patton said...

I think what is not allowing the ska scene to rise any higher than it is, is the lack of money going towards the bands. I speak from first hand experience. People just aren't paying for music anymore. And unfortunately, people that "support" the scene so much are still ripping it off every single day. When No Doubt's first album came out, ska wasn't huge and they were only known and popular in California, yet they still managed to sell 30,000 copies before they broke out of California. Most ska bands today are thrilled to be selling 1-3,000 in the course of 1-5 years! That's horrible numbers. Even though the digital sales outlets are picking up, we are being hurt by illegal downloads tremendously.

Without the sales, there is no money to promote and advertise. Also, there are no where near as many fans that promote the music for free either these days. I can probably count on my two hands how many not for profit people there are blogging and podcasting ska, in the mid 90s, everyone and their brother had some generic ska site where they just told everyone about their favorite bands. Where are the ska fan sites now?

Also, as much as ska people talk about UNITY, they sure do segregate and form little cliques within the scene. There is too much ego and elitism in a genre that can barely hold a match to any other musical style in terms of number of listeners and performers. I think a lot of the "fans" drove away a lot of the "potential fans" by just being down right "rude" with their ska history knowledge and what type of sub-ska style this band is and this band isn't. I saw it all over the message boards about 6 years ago and before. So many people held ska music to tightly and protected it from "noobs" coming in on their favorite genre, because of that so many were driven away and now it is taking 10 times as much effort to win them back. Without the casual listener dropping 10$ for a ska cd, there just aren't enough hardcore fans dishing out their hard earned money any more.

We need to take the Nintendo approach to ska music, they recognize the hardcore gamer that is always going to buy games, but what they have focused on, is the "casual" gamer, or the people that USED to play games, but stopped for some reason or another. They are driving their efforts into attracting those people into the game world, which is what we need to do for ska.
Introduce more NEW people to ska and win back the old people that USED to listen to ska. How exactly we do that, I as of yet don't know.... :)

David T said...

My take on it is that people just need to be introduced to ska. If they listen to it many will be drawn in.

What I think happened in the 90s is that for a period of time your average middle and high school kids knew what ska was, had an introduction to it, and many listened.

It is true that many stopped listening when it stopped being played on the air waves etc, but at least they had the introduction.

I think I fit Jeremy's category perfectly as someone who had listened to ska in high school, but hadn't really listened to it much since until I started playing around with pandora, myspace, etc and discovered some bands I hadn't heard before and listened to newer material from bands I did know.

Now I've probably gone from the "casual fan" tag to the "hardcore fan" tag.

What do you guys think?

Steve from Moon said...


Thanks--yes, the lack of money in the ska scene is really what is going to keep the ska scene from ever rising again.

A lot of "fans" aren't willing to buy CDs or LPs or even downloads, because there is always some "fan" who will upload the music to a file sharing site and a long line of more "fans" more than happy to download the music for free with nary a thought for how their actions financially hurt the musicians (and sometimes the record labels) that they are literally stealing from (and these "fans" have a million self-serving excuses to justify themselves, none of which hold water on a legal or ethical basis).

I've written extensively about the evils of illegal music file sharing, but know that I'm one of the few voices crying out in the wilderness...

The whole thing is quite bleak, really.


Steve from Moon said...


Thanks for your comments. We all need to go out and convert some people to ska!


Steve from Moon said...


To state the obvious: you need to come up with the new economic model for how ska bands and ska labels are able to make some decent, steady income off of the music--despite being constantly bled by the file sharing out there.

Don't know what it is...but if I think of something, I'll drop you a line.


Blogowitz said...

Love the debate here. Thanks to the Duff Guide for reposting. Fair enough that some folks think points weren't totally flushed out, but know that the piece was indeed edited and cut down for a blog format. I agree with the comment that one of the great things about ska is its DIY roots. That's one of the main things I've always liked about it. I also think this piece was largely inspired by resurgance efforts I was seeing in London and the UK at that time, so that commenter was spot on. What are some bands that are trying new things with the form?

Blogowitz said...

oh and apologies for the late add here; didn't catch this article until just today

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Blogowitz! (I assume you are the author of the piece?)

Some bands to check out that are doing new things with ska include Kid British, RiceRokit, Babyhead, Resolution 242, and Tin Roots are a few off the top of my head. And in general, there are many great acts now active on the underground ska scene like The Caroloregians, King Hammond, The Beatdown, Jimmy the Squirrel, The Bullets, King Django, The Forthrights, Babylove and the van Dangos, The Amphetameanies, and dozens upon dozens more...