Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Shots in the Dark: The Toasters' "New York Fever"

(Thanks to John V. for the cleaned up version of this cover.)
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. "New York Fever" will soon be reissued on vinyl by Megalith/Jump Up.

(by Steve Shafer)

The Band: While the essential and groundbreaking Skaboom (1987) served as The Toasters' pugnacious ska manifesto that laid the blueprint for the whole post-2 Tone era in the USA and far beyond (inspiring countless bands to form in its wake), the stellar Thrill Me Up (1988) positioned the band for greatness. Any of the album's crucial cuts, including  "Ska Killers," "Decision at Midnight,"  "Go Girl" (written by Sean "Cavo" Dinsmore about a pre-fame Madonna he knew when she was working and hanging out at places like Danceteria and Blanche's, The Toasters' headquarters in the East Village on Avenue A), "Frankenska," and the title track--plus you have to love The Toasters' breakneck ska version of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"--could easily have been modern rock radio hits in the tail-end of the genre-bending New Wave years had everything played out right.

In short, The Toasters were well-positioned to break out of the ska ghetto and take on the alternative music scene without compromising their ideals or sound (read a short profile of the band from the September 1989 issue of Spin here--and, while you are there, check out all those ads for blank cassettes!). The Toasters were at the top of their game--ask anyone who had seen them play out live circa Thrill Me Up (I happened to catch them at the long-gone Cajun food/surf-themed club Big Kahuna on Broadway just above Houston Street--and it simply was one of the all-time greatest shows I've ever experienced, ska or otherwise). So, the terrible timing of the Unity 2's departure (for their own deal with Warner Brothers to capitalize on the very short-lived hip-hop reggae fad of '89-'90; bassist and trumpeter Greg Grinnell was lured away by the Unity 2 for his songwriting and musical chops; and trombonist Anne Hellandsjo apparently took this opportunity to pull up her stakes and head back home to Sweden)--coupled with a series of distributor failures (that severely impacted the releases on Moon Records, by almost completely swallowing up entire pressing of albums like Ska Face: An All-American Ska Compilation and NYC Ska Live) and the shuttering of The Toasters label, Skaloid (its parent company Celluloid, which had gone belly up, had created the Skaloid imprint specifically for The Toasters and their Skaboom and Thrill Me Up releases--and The Toasters' arranged for Bim Skala Bim's Tuba City to see the light of day on Skaloid, too)--dealt The Toasters such a series of severe body blows that it took them years to fully regain their equilibrium.

Indeed, Bucket (AKA Robert Hingley, guitarist, songwriter, singer and founding member of the band) recalls that the Unity 2's sudden departure was like they had "cold-cocked" the rest of The Toasters (the only Thrill Me Up-era band members soldiering on were band co-founder Steve "Hex" LaForge on keys, John Dugan on sax, Jonathan McCain on drums, and, of course Bucket) "disrupted the unit intensely." The only thing that kept things from falling apart was The Toasters' already scheduled first European tour (with Vince Fossitt of The Great Train Robbery), which yielded the live Frankenska album, recorded in London on 6/12/89 and released on Unicorn Records in 1990. This forward momentum resulted in the scaling up of national touring back in the USA and the formulation of plans for a new studio record.

The Toasters' 1990 follow-up album, This Gun for Hire (with new Toasters Matt Malles on bass, Erik Storckman on t-bone, and Cashew Miles on vocals) was released on a resurrected Moon Records during a curious lull following the mid-to-late 80s NYC ska explosion (which seemed to culminate with the triumph/misfire of the NYC Ska Live show) and before the rise of the so-called third wave of ska (whose genesis was marked in NYC by the phenomenal Skalapalooza show at The Ritz --AKA Studio 54--in early 1993). In reaction to the music industry's wholesale shunning of ska (which gave Bucket the impetus to create Moon Records in the first place) and the frustratingly near breakout success of Thrill Me UpThis Gun for Hire was consciously fashioned to attract major label interest (CBS/SONY was sniffing around at the time) and a more mainstream pop audience. Indeed, I asked John Vacarro of Hoi Polloi Skazine, who has an extensive ska print archive, if he could dig up anything to confirm this, since I remembered reading about it all--and, lo and behold, he unearthed this piece on Bucket from the August 1993 issue of George Marshall's Skinhead Times.

While This Gun... certainly contains some very catchy, well-crafted ska songs ("One Track Mind," Don't Say Forever," "Worry," and "Lies"), the pop-ish arrangements and not-quite-muscular-enough production not only failed to seal a major label deal and draw the desired pop demographics and sales, but served to alienate a good portion of the ska faithful in the process. However, it did secure reliable, national distribution from RED (a subsidiary of Sony), which was a huge development--the record was in shops, with little fear that it all would end up as landfill in another distributor failure. (It also should be noted that This Gun... has the dubious honor of containing The Toasters' sole skacid romp "Roseanne," which, I'll be the first to admit, is almost redeemed by its killer horn riff.)

In early 1991, I caught The Toasters with The Busters at Sounds of Brazil (SOB's) in Manhattan and found the band to still be very much in a transitional phase (and nowhere near the brilliance of the Thrill Me Up line-up or even the very good version of The Toasters that I had seen at the Cat Club in 1990 for the recording of NYC Ska Live). I had dragged along a friend--who had last seen The Toasters at the Big Kahuna with me--and he left SOB's afterwards very much disappointed and disillusioned with the band. But, for as long as I've known him, Bucket has always seemed to thrive in the role as the down-but-not-out underdog (the man's got grit) and his stubbornly determined and singular vision for the band already had seen the group through a decade of triumphs and tribulations. This rough patch was temporary; he was in it for the long-haul and prepared to take it on the chin while rebuilding his band, brand, and label.

A little later in 1991, after I sent a letter to Bucket via the Moon Records Cooper Station P.O. Box suggesting that he put together an international ska festival at CBGBs (they were happening at London at the time) and declaring in a review I cobbled together for the California-based skazine "Roughneck Business" that The Scofflaws (!) were the best ska band in New York City (at the time, they were), he invited me to sign on with Moon Records as their unpaid promotions guy (full disclosure: I did receive Moon releases and merch, and could get on the guest list for any Toasters show) and handed me a one page promo contact list containing a dozen college radio stations and a few fanzines (towards the end of the 90s, I had built that list up to several thousand key promo contacts). Chris "Kid Coconuts" Acosta of the NY Citizens, who had helped Bucket run the label for several years, was moving on to other things--and I set up my operations at a small desk in my apartment's kitchen (and still had a day job to pay the rent; though this changed a few years later, when I started working as a salaried Moon employee). Since Buck and I would meet to talk about Moon business at The Toasters' NYC gigs, I also began to witness the latest incarnation of The Toasters coalesce into a powerhouse unit (the band that recorded New York Fever included Brian Sledge on trumpet; Matt Malles, ex-Second Step on bass; Fred Reiter on sax; Dave Barry, ex-Beat Brigade on keys--plus Eric Storkman, ex-Beat Brigade on t-bone; Mo Roberts and Ivan Katz on drums; and Cashew Miles and Pablo D on vocals--prior to this, Steve Hex, John Dugan, and Jonathan McCain had called it a day, though McCain would soon rejoin the band for the rest of the decade), many of whom would go on to record some of their most celebrated and best-selling records ever: Dub 56, Hard Band for Dead, and Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down.

Issued in 1992, New York Fever was the album where The Toasters seemed to cast off the albatross around their collective neck, regain their musical mojo, and set a redemptive course for extraordinary success for the remainder of the decade. Yet, had New York Fever failed to deliver and prove to the fans that the 90s version of The Toasters was a credible and viable musical enterprise, none of the aforementioned albums would have followed--and it could be argued that the ska boom of that decade in the USA might not have been nearly as powerful and momentous. Around the time of the recording and release of New York Fever, The Toasters were on an upward trajectory again that would provide them with two enormous opportunities for exposure at the national level: a taped performance at NYC's Palladium with The Scofflaws for the USA network's Up All Night 1992 "New Year's Eve Ska Party"--just about every ska kid in America saw this; and the first big national ska package tour of the 1990s, put together after the smashing success of the Skalapalooza show at The Ritz, the triumphant 1993 Skavoovee Tour with The Skatalites, The Selecter, The Special Beat, and The Toasters--that played every major market in the US, attracted huge crowds, and proved to promoters and booking agents that there was a healthy and burgeoning market for big ska tours across America. All of this and more would spur Billboard to take note and declare ska "the next big thing" in a January 1994 feature on the genre.

The Sound: Sonically and lyrically, New York Fever seemed to pick up where Thrill Me Up left off (almost as if This Gun for Hire had never happened). It was back to the patented Toasters NYC Ska sound of the first two albums, but now following Bucket's songwriting/vision all the way (the only two cuts here that Bucket didn't compose are a laid-back, jazzy arrangement of the blues standard "Night Train" (at the time, The Scofflaws were playing a raucous version of "Night Train" that name-checked many of their favorite Jamaican musicians, which can be found on their fantastic self-titled debut; it was kind bizarre to catch both bands covering the same tune in their live sets, like they were in direct competition--and maybe they were) and the terrific "B27" instrumental (first written from an old jazz riff and Herbie Mann's "Comin' Home Baby" by John Dugan and re-arranged here by Storckman), which, for years, served as the intro to "East Side Beat" in The Toasters' live set). While New York Fever was recorded in Brooklyn by Buck and Matt Malles, it was mixed in Berlin by Buck's mate Joe Jackson, with Mathias Schneeberger serving as engineer. Of note, Schneeberger had produced albums for German ska bands El Bosso und die Ping Pongs (Dr. Ring Ding's first band), Blechreiz, and Yebo, and connected with The Toasters through their German label, Pork Pie. In the studio, Schneeberger helped Joe Jackson give the band a supercharged and brilliantly vibrant sound that came very close to capturing how The Toasters sound live. (It was such a successful and fruitful pairing that Schneeberger went on to produce Dub 56Hard Band for Dead, and Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down.) And The Toasters served up some of their finest studio performances (the only odd note on the album is the rather straight-on, uncomplicated rock drumming on many of the album's songs).

The Cover: You can see NYC's extraordinary diversity simultaneously celebrated and parodied by cartoonist Bob Fingerman (who had previously illustrated the iconic NY BeatRecriminationsSkaboom, and Ska Face album covers for Moon and would go on to create the cover for Skarmageddon 2) in that great unifier/equalizer of peoples, the NYC subway. Nowhere else do the races and classes come together more frequently and intimately than in a subway car. The irony is that Fingerman's artwork trades in stereotypes: the fat, sweaty Hasidic Jew; the giant, Lurch-ish, gold-chain-sporting b-boy; the disgusting, Mad Magazine-like, melting, homeless alkie bum; and the emaciated, gay AIDS activist--all of which I thought were going to generate a bit of controversy, but no one noticed or cared. (There are lots of small details that I do love here--how the metal pole that subway riders hang on to bisects the cover; the arm with the needle full of H sticking out of it in the lower left-hand corner; the rude boy's most excellent creepers; and how Fingerman works the titles of the songs into the subway car ads.) Two things are completely accurate here: how filthy the trains could be, and the tendency for perverts, gropers, and flashers to prowl the trains. (The Pork Pie album takes a more literal and ludicrous approach to the record cover: New York Fever is represented as a dancing thermometer in front of the city skyline...) But the overall message seems to be that the city is a degenerate freakshow--with the notable exception of the "normal" rude boy and girl, who appear to be either above it all or so accustomed to the state of things that it doesn't even register. (One last note about the artwork: Fingerman only illustrated the cover; the rest of the album's design--essentially blood splatter, which I assume was representative of all the violence in the city at the time--was created by an unsung graphic designer at DiscMakers.)

The Release: Around the time New York Fever was released on both Moon Records in the U.S. and Pork Pie in Europe, Bucket, ever the student of history, asked me if it was better to witness the rise or fall of a civilization (I replied, "rise," as I preferred to see humanity on an upward trajectory, striving to be its best). However, it very much seemed like our once grand metropolis was on the way out; and to begin to understand this album, one needs to be aware of the environment that helped birth it.

Indeed, in the early 1990s there was an growing anxiety that NYC was sliding back toward the chaos, ruin, and municipal dysfunction of the 1970s (for a good taste of those times, good and bad, track down  "Blackout," "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning," "In the South Bronx of America," and "Subway Art"). Unemployment in New York was rising (by 1992, it was over 11%) and the nation was experiencing a recession; the crack epidemic (and its related increase in crime) was at its peak (it was so bad that it was a rare morning when I exited my apartment building and didn't find at least one car on my block with a side window smashed and something worth stealing gone--smart New Yorkers never left anything lying around in their car--you'd even leave the glovebox open and empty in the hope that the crackheads wouldn't think that you were worth their time); people continued to die from AIDS in record numbers (a way to successfully manage it as a chronic, instead of life-ending, disease had not yet been developed); an unusually high number of mentally ill homeless people roamed the streets (many of whom had been turned out from state mental institutions that had closed due to budget cuts or the policy of deinstitutionalization); and a number of particularly heinous crimes, including the brutal Central Park Jogger rape case in 1989 (though it turns out that the five "wilding" black teenagers who were convicted and jailed for this crime were innocent, railroaded by the cops, prosecutors, and tabloid press that demanded that someone pay for the terrible violation and near murder of this white, female banker); the copycat Zodiac killer was on the loose (and who ended up killing three people and injuring four until his capture in 1993); the Happy Land nightclub arson fire that killed 87 people in 1990; and the killing of Utah tourist and high school tennis star Brian Watkins, who was stabbed in the subway in 1990 while trying to defend his mother during a mugging, terrified the citizenry (of note, the murder rate in NYC in 1990 was 2,251--compared to 414 in 2012!). Things in Gotham were bad and appeared to be getting worse.

Yet, all of this was almost completely eclipsed by the ugly and abysmal relations between the races (all of which had been manipulated, exacerbated, and exploited by the provocateurs, race-baiters, right-wing tabloid press, and far too many politicians, all for their own ends). There had been some very disturbing and highly controversial incidents in the mid-80s (Bernhard Goetz's vigilante gunning down of four black teenagers who tried to mug him on the subway in 1984; and Tawana Brawley's 1987 hoax that she had been kidnapped by several white men, including a DA, gang-raped, and then left in the woods upstate, covered in dog feces with racial slurs written on her body) that seemed to ratchet up the fear and hatred to ever more dangerous levels and brought out the worst in us.

Some of the racial tension was due to Mayor Ed Koch's policies (cutting programs for the poor and closing down of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem; though he later implemented a 10-year, $5 billion program that created 150,000 units of low- and middle-income housing that rebuilt the South Bronx, and parts of Harlem, and Bed-Stuy); statements Koch made that busing and racial quotas had divided the races instead of fostering integration; and his very public, antagonistic relationship with 1988 presidential candidate Jessie Jackson (who called NYC "Hymietown" and associated with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who had referred to Judaism as a "gutter religion"; Koch responded that Jews would be "crazy" to vote for Jackson).

But what really threatened a full meltdown of the city was an unholy trinity of racially-motivated killings: Michael Griffith in 1986 (he was hit and killed by a car as he attempted to cross the Belt Parkway while fleeing a gang of white teenagers trying to attack him; his friend's car had broken down near Howard Beach and they encountered a group of white teenagers who nearly bumped them with their car as Griffith was crossing the street; racial slurs were exchanged and things escalated from there; Griffith's friend Timothy Grimes escaped and Cedric Sandiford was beaten with a bat--this incident spurred Fishbone to write "Slow Bus Movin' (Howard Beach Party)"); Yusef Hawkins in 1989 (he was beaten to death by a white mob in Bensonhurst that thought he was dating a white girl in the neighborhood, though he was actually there to look at a used car--not that it matters, he should have been able to see a white girl without being murdered), and Yankel Rosenbaum in 1991 (he was stabbed in Crown Heights by two black men during three days of anti-Semetic rioting following an accident involving the motorcade of the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect which killed seven year-old Kevin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants--this traffic accident unleashed long-standing resentments in the neighborhood, where many in that poor African-American community believed that their relatively new neighbors in the Orthodox Jewish community received preferential treatment from the city; New York's first black mayor, David Dinkins, appeared powerless--or in the eyes of his critics, too slow to react or, worse, unwilling--to end the rioting; as a result he lost his re-election bid to former U.S. Attorney, Rudy W. Giuliani, who promised to bring law and order back to the city).

Looking back, it seems like a miracle that NYC never experienced mass rioting like LA did following the Rodney King trial and acquittal of the cops who savagely beat him after a traffic stop. Around this time, my ex-work study boss from college, who knew that I lived in the Yorkville section of the dreadfully white and mostly wealthy Upper East Side--whose northern border of 96th Street immediately gave way to one of the poorest and non-white sections of the city--half-joked that it was going to be the first neighborhood to fall when the revolution came.

The city was seemingly on the brink and so were its people.

All of this heavily influenced Bucket--who, in the honorable tradition of ska musicians from the 1960s through 2 Tone, firmly believes that a crucial aspect of this genre of music is its powerful legacy of addressing socio-economic injustice ("Ska is definitely good-time music...but it's important to see that...the music is really working class-inspired and addresses real social issues like racism and unemployment...")--as he set about writing the lyrics to the songs that would form this album. So, while "New York Fever" and "Ploughshares into Guns" (and even more pointedly, "Ploughshares Version") reflected the city's host of troubles, its ills still managed to infect the personal lives of the people depicted on many other tracks (sick, dysfunctional societies breed sick dysfunctional people), including "Social Security" (more on this one below), "Too Much Happening" (being overwhelmed by life: "The fear of falling down is chasing me") and "Johnny, Forsake Her" (pernicious relationships: "She'll only bring you nights of pain")--while "History Book" traced some of the society-level problems back to the exploration and colonization of the New World.

A close reading of the lyrics reveals that New York Fever is an album concerned about money, class, power, and race. But in a much broader sense, it's about the price of life. How some lives are highly valued above others--as determined by class and race--and how many others are simply ignored and wasted. It reflects how our government and institutions are not functioning for the benefit of everyone (especially the disadvantaged/disenfranchised) and how they've been rigged to reward the selfishness and greed of rich and powerful over serving the greater good. It's a liberal, socialistic critique of how things are--and implicit in Buck's songs is how things should be.

The first three songs on New York Fever--the title track, "Ploughshares into Guns," and "History Book"--are some of the most powerful, relevant, and catchy Bucket has ever written. (The differently sequenced Pork Pie LP edition of this album has "History Book" followed by "Social Security" and then "Shebeen," making for a brilliant side A; the Moon version has "Too Hip To Be Cool"--which caustically predicts the rise of dreaded hipsterdom in NYC--and "Night Train" in their place.)

All of the insane crap that was going on in the city is expressed in the paranoid and manic "New York Fever," which depicts the singer as suffering from a somatic internalization of the city's dysfunction and pressures (and note in verse five how the kids aren't alright--Buck states that they need to take some responsibility for improving their own lives; their situation isn't entirely society's fault; free will comes into play):

I've got a problem that I cannot explain
A small metal slug tore a hole through my brain
I got heartburn, it's like a knife in the back
I like to ride the subway, but I might get pushed on the tracks

I got no money, I get so depressed
When a stranger steps up to me, puts a gun to my chest
I tell you doctor, am I going of my mind?
Is there anything for a pain of this kind?
New York Fever again

I've got a pounding on the back of my skull
I try to react, but my senses are dull
I hear voices I wish not to repeat
I'm too busy dodging bullets on the street

I've got to get out of this town
Something stinks, it's about to go down
Feeling sick, but I can't feel my pain
I've got the New York Fever, New York Fever again

It's quite outrageous and I cannot believe
Some kids can't read, but they're armed to the teeth
They keep complaining that they can't find no work
They don't go to school, they do drugs, act like jerks

I've got a pounding, a pounding on the back of my skull
I try to react, but my senses are dull
I hear voices I wish not to repeat
I'm too busy dodging bullets on the street
New York Fever...



Think of "New York Fever" as the ska take on similar territory covered on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message": "Broken glass everywhere/People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care/I can't take the smell, I can't take the noise/Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice/Rats in the front room, roaches in the back/Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat /I tried to get away, but I couldn't get far/Cause a man with a tow-truck repossessed my car/Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head/It's like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder/How I keep from going under ).

Not long after the release of this album, Buck did escape from New York, after having forgone his  apartments in Alphabet City and then in Chelsea that had also served as Moon Records' headquarters during the 1980s, for the suburban tranquility of Verona, NJ, where the label operated out of his basement (when not on tour, Bucket was packing up mail orders and responding to letters to the label himself). It was like "New York Fever" was his break-up song with the city he had adopted after coming here from the UK in 1980 to manage the Forbidden Planet comic book store on 13th Street and Broadway.

"Ploughshares into Guns'" title is an ironic reversal of the popular anti-war phrase from the Book of Isaiah: "...and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." It also refers to the fact that the Cold War had ended a few years earlier with the collapse of the Soviet Union and that reasonable people expected a "peace dividend," since the U.S. was the only remaining superpower in the world and was no longer engaged in a spectacularly expensive (and ginned up by President Reagan and his "Team B") arms race with the Russians. So, all that money for armaments should have been freed up for schools, roads, libraries, housing, health care, etc., right? Instead, it was used to protect our oil rich friends (and enrich a powerful and politically-connected corner of the marketplace).

The righteously angry "Ploughshares into Guns, one of Bucket's sharpest protest songs, was written in direct reaction to the first Gulf War in 1991 (remember that one, before our ginned up debacle in Iraq in the 2000s?), a massive international effort led by U.S. forces to oust Saddam Hussein's troops who had invaded oil-rich Kuwait. But it's also an indictment of the enormous political-military-industrial complex in the United States that siphons off desperately needed resources that should be directed to the education and care of its own citizens. The Toasters horn line in this song seems to channel Bucket's outrage and is particularly searing (since we're getting Biblical here, I imagine that this was how the horns that brought down the walls of Jericho would have sounded like...).

Well, they've taken all the money, turned the ploughshares into guns
Gone to an Eastern country, bombed them back to kingdom come
With a laser guided weapon, some million dollar bomb
It makes a poor man wonder, where is that coming from?

Lying politicians keep afloat this ship of fools
They've stolen all the money from the hospitals and schools
Don't worry about the hungry, don't worry about the sick
Just worry about the profits and a way to make them quick

Meanwhile in the city, the god of war looks down
The lack of education's gonna tear apart this town
The kids are getting restless, they're armed right to the teeth
The toll in lives is expensive, but the price of life is cheap



The deal is that unless you're rich, powerful, politically-connected or part of the wealth-generating war machine (which grinds up other people's kids, namely poor American youth, and targets non-white, non-Christian peoples), there's no reason to spend the nation's money on you.

Pablo D's chat version of "Ploughshares" is an indictment of the proliferation of guns in the projects and poorer quarters of the city (remember, this was recorded at the height of the crack epidemic):

Another murder pon da city corner
Who's the culprit?
Da nine millimeter

Da nine millimeter
It is a repeater
For turning a clip into most fire

Da nine millimeter
It is a danger
Said youth now wield in a manner to commit murder

Da nine millimeter
A blood red killer
Said little babies getting shot lookin' out da window
Another bystander gets caught up in the crossfire
What's the price I have to pay to live a little longer?



The implied answer is that one has to give up the freedom of venturing beyond one's apartment--and become even more isolated from the larger, American society, that oftentimes acts like it would prefer if all the poor, brown people would just go away, or kill off each other in a war of attrition waged in daily gunfights on the ghetto streets (but the gun manufacturers still reap their profits!). But it also reflects the city's/state's/nation's spending priorities. These lives don't warrant tax money spent on them for the opportunity to obtain a good education that could lead to a decent job; they're not worthy of access to decent medical care; and they don't deserve a safe place to live.

"History Book" begins innocently enough with Buck imagining himself as one of the early European explorers of the New World about to set off for an extraordinary adventure into either fame or oblivion, but the song soon transitions to illustrate the terrible and far-reaching results of the European exploration of the Americas: the genocide or enslavement of native peoples (considered to be less than human; savages); the wholesale theft of their riches, lands, and natural resources; and the establishment of the slave trade (non-white people bought and sold as property, and exploited in any manner the white man saw fit). The establishment of slavery in the "New World" eventually stunted and perverted the legal, economic, and social development of the United States (and has plagued it for its entire existence). Since it became the despicable "engine" of southern colonies'/states' economy, it led to the creation of enormous, almost fatal flaws in the U.S. Constitution (all landowning white men were equal under the law--though not non-white men or women of any race; two senators represent every state, regardless of the size of the population of said state, skewing some states' influence and giving the citizens of lesser-populated states more representation at the Federal level than more densely populated states); and it became one of the primary causes of the Civil War (the treasonous southern states seceded from the United States in order to protect slavery). Slavery's aftereffects were seen for decades (even to the present day) in the Jim Crow laws in the South and deeply-rooted racism/discrimination most everywhere else that often excluded most non-white people from a host of educational, vocational, economic, social, and political opportunities that their fellow white Americans enjoyed without question. (Note in the lyrics below how Pablo D offers a Howard Zinn-like counterpoint to the history recorded--and taught--by the dominant/white European explorers'/conquerers' side).

Here I stand on the deck of my ship on the Spanish main
I've got a charter in my cabin, signed and sealed by the King of Spain
That his standard be unfurled past the edge of the world
or I dare not go back again
History will be kind and bear me in mind
and remember my name

History book
History book
Let's take a look
At my history book

South Devon pirates, buccanneers on the Panama coast
With a cargo of potatoes and Indian princes
But what they want the most
Is to fill that hold with Spanish gold
And make proud their boast
That England will smile on their piracy while
They drink Elizabeth's toast

History book
History book
Let's take a look
At my history book

As a little youth, me used to walk to school
with my history book inna my book bag, Lord
What a mashin', what a crushin', what a killin' of an innocent mind!

History book
(So now we all gonna take a proper look)
History book
(and talk about the history you took)
Let's take a look
(About the half that has never been told)
At my history book
(About the gold and diamonds you stole)

Arab traders ply their weapons on the Africa shore
And hapless victims bound in chains on the galleon floor
That their blood may be spilled in the land of Brazil
And they'll see their homes forlorn
History will be cruel as it uses its tool
To shame the New World more

History book
(So now you're gonna talk this twist)
History book
(History teacher get dismissed)
Let's take a look
(Come talk your lies and your foolishness)
At my history book
(We want da truth and don't wanna see your lies)

My history book...



If you'd never had a chance to hear it before, you might guess that "Social Security" is about FDR's 1935 act implemented to ensure that America's elderly weren't condemned to live out their remaining years in terrible poverty (during the Great Depression, the poverty rate amongst senior citizens was as high as 50%). But it's actually one of Buck's cautionary songs (like "Decision at Midnight"). It's the lament of one of the damaged kids from "New York Fever" or "Plougshares into Guns" who wasted his youth and now as an adult is unable to achieve self-sufficiency; he's literally failed to create a safety net of his own making (career, family, home, etc.):

My girl says she's leaving because I haven't got a job
She got nothing for Christmas and I think she's feeling lost
She says I got no prospects, nothing that will last
I'm feeling pretty fragile, my heart is made of glass

Social security
Social security

I go looking for trouble, hanging out in bars
I end up seeing double, double, smashing up my car
It's not long before my friends are gone, I'm hanging in the street
Up is down and down is up, my circle is complete

Social security
Social security

Less the education, no examinations passed
Wasted all my school days smoking reefer in the back
Got no diploma in history or math
I end up with no future, just learning about the past



With its signature horn line brilliantly nicked from War's "Lowrider," "Shebeen" is another in a long line of Bucket's fantastic ska history tracks like "Ska Killers" ("It's the music of Jamaica and I don't mean Jamaica, Queens/and I heard it on an airwave coming up from New Orleans...") and "Chuck Berry" ("Forty years ago there was a jumping Jazz Jamaica scene/They could hear these tunes drifting down from New Orleans/Then they put the two together in a thing they called the ska/and sent it off to England in the back of Laurel Aitken's car"). On one hand, it's a tribute to Duke Vin, but it's also a celebration of the casual and commonplace mixing of races and cultures--all in the name of tracking down some fun (like Joe Strummer in "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais"). Yet, it should be noted that the shebeens, where the sons and daughters of Jamaican immigrants and sons and daughters of white, British working class families were mingling, drinking, and dancing to the latest and greatest ska and reggae songs, were illegal "clubs" trying to operate off the radar of the authorities/agents of the dominant white culture (as if there were no "legitimate" place where this type of social/cultural interaction could take place--even amongst society's least valued people--so it has to happen off the grid).

There used to be a shebeen
Next to the laundromat where I used to live
In London town, in London town
If you know what I mean

And there was an old man
Who used to big up the sounds
He kept those beats, he kept those beats
From when Prince Buster was around

And he said...

Pick up and dance
Come on rude boy do some drop legs with me
If you can, if you can
Take up a chant
We can do it now, man to man

There used to be a shebeen
Next to the laundromat where I used to live
In London town, in London town
If you know what I mean

And there was an old man
Who used to big up the sounds
He kept those beats, he kept those beats
From when Prince Buster was around



The Ugly Reality: Since New York Fever was released in the downtime between the 1980s post-2 Tone underground ska craze and the rise of the so-called third wave, many of the kids who were in high school and college in the first half of 1990s didn't really seem to catch on to The Toasters until the scene was in full gear, around the release of Dub 56 (1994)--which remains the fan favorite to this day. And the albums that followed DubHard Band for Dead (1996), and Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down (1997)--all of which were released on Moon Ska Records and licensed to sister labels in Europe, Japan, and South America--were almost equally popular in the Toasters' catalogue. But it's vital to remember that New York Fever was the album that spawned those iconic records--and, in many ways, is as equally as brilliant and worthy of recognition and acclaim.

The Final Track: Over 20 years later, New York Fever remains one of my favorite Toasters albums--largely due to its outstanding songwriting and stellar performances, but also because this was the record where the retrofitted Toasters clawed their way back from the missteps and misfortune of the early 90s to achieve greatness once again. Maybe you had to have been one of the die-hard Toasters fans from the 80s who endured the band's early 90s lean years to truly appreciate the significance of this album? All I know is that from my perspective back in the day, it was incredibly satisfying to see them back on top of the scene with a vengeance.

+++++

This post was updated/corrected on 6/13/13. Thanks for the info, Buck!


7 comments:

Jon said...

Wow Steve, this was awesome! Thanks so much for writing so an in-depth piece. The online ska community needs more essays like this (perhaps if I find the motivation I'll try something similar)

Oh, and don't be hard on "Roseanne", it's one of the most memorable Toasters tracks ever recorded, even my friends who have long since left the scene behind can immediately call it to mind!

John Dugan said...

Steve, maybe the best article on the early/middle period of the band. You're one of the few people who understood how the leaving of the Unity Two at that moment put us in such a distress over our direction (made even worse when they lured Greg Grinell away to help with their song writing). Greg was very important to the sound of the band in writing and playing bass & trumpet. You also didn't mention Steve LaForge who along with Bucket was the main driving force in the early Toasters not only musically but in business and the personality of the group. He was a great counterbalance for Rob which made the band much stronger. ....and you failed to mention me since I was the one who constantly was pushing to "Americanize" the ska sound making it harder, faster, and more aggressive then what had happened before. One of those ideas was the big sounding "power in the pocket" horn section featuring the tenor sax & t-bone combination. As for "Night Train" I was the one who brought it into the band when Erick joined and I wrote the "East Side Beat" intro (lifted from an old jazz riff and Herbie Mann's "Comin' Home Baby"), Erick rearranged it for more of a t-bone solo for "New York Fever". The best rendition of this might be the live version on "This Gun For Hire". Steve's exit along with mine after "This Gun" probably contributed to the uncertainty in the band around '91/'92 but Bucket with his absolute determination and grit moved on and by the time "New York Fever" came out they were at the top of their game again!!!

Steve from Moon said...

@Jon V.: Thanks! You write such good reviews--get going again! I love reading your work!

Steve from Moon said...

@ John Dugan: Thanks so much for filling in some of the blanks here. I had become an active fan of The Toasters around 1988, but, as you know, in those pre-internet times it was so hard to get information about bands. For example, the only way that I knew that the Unity Two had broken away from the band was that I had been invited to some sort of event where they were playing--and I knew that The Toasters had a gig at the same time/night (plus the "Shirley" video might have been getting some air time on Ralph McDaniels' Video Music Box show).

I REALLY appreciate your comments on Greg Grinell's, Steve LaForge's, Erik Storkman's, and your own contributions to the sound and direction of The Toasters. As you know, I came to Moon in 1991, so only really knew the "New York Fever" band and the various iterations that followed.

I may do a "Thrill Me Up" write-up at some point in the near future and would definitely appreciate talking to/interviewing you about that version of The Toasters and everything that went in to creating that amazing album.

Adam L said...

Excellent, excellent piece. Love how this review is a story of transition within the Toasters' career as well as a story of transition within NYC. This could be a book!

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Adam!

M Yasser said...

New York Fever is the first Toasters' album I own, really wonderful music and really big step from their previous albums which define Toasters' music on their next albums from then on. And to add as sidenote, I feel that the song "Plougshares Into Guns" is lyrically similar in theme with Bim Skala Bim's song "Not In Anger", I think both were written around same time and critical about Gulf War and how about American government more care about weapons than their own citizen, even both has the word kingdome come in the lyrics!