Thursday, January 5, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Toasters "Skaboom!" Reissue

The "Skaboom" LP and cassette covers with the re-worked
original art by Bob Fingerman.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Toasters Skaboom! (blue heavyweight vinyl/cassette, Jump Up Records/Megalith Records, 2016 reissue; originally released in the USA in 1987 on Moving Target/Celluloid and in a slightly altered form in the UK on Unicorn as Pool Shark): While The Toasters' 1987 debut LP wasn't the first American ska album out of the gate (bands like Chicago's Heavy Manners, Berkeley's The Uptones, and Boston's Bim Skala Bim beat them to the punch), Skaboom! was arguably the most influential record in the development/history of American ska--not only on its many musical merits, but because The Toasters' efforts to promote it helped lay the DIY foundation for the massive ska revival that hit the USA less than a decade later.

By 1987, The Toasters' brand of ska had evolved from the quirky, heavily New Wave-influenced ska of 1985's Recriminations EP to the brash and gritty, New York-centric in your face/"I'm walking here!" modern ska of Skaboom! that became their enduring, signature sound. And the band had metastasized into a "Warriors"-size gang; the only holdovers from the Recriminations era were Robert "Bucket" Hingley on guitar (the British expat zealously determined to popularize ska in America), Steve "Hex" LaForge on keys, and Gary Eye on percussion--augmented by The Unity Two, Sean "Cavo" Dinsmore and Lionel "Nene" Bernard sharing vocals with Bucket, Brian Emerich on bass, Jonathan McCain on drums, Marcel Reginato on alto sax, John Dugan on tenor sax, Greg Grinnell on cornet, and Anne Hellandsjo on trombone. The Toasters' (in)famous residency at CBGBs (the hardcore scene spilled over into the ska scene and with it came a fair amount of violence that led Hilly Kristal to ban ska from CBs for a time) and their non-stop gigging at other renown NYC clubs like Danceteria helped whip the band into a formidable live act (amongst the best I've ever seen).

Not only did The Toasters have the live chops (and then some), they had the tunes, too--written by Bucket, Dinsmore, and LaForge. Skaboom! is a brilliant collection of songs from start to finish--"Talk is Cheap," "Pool Shark," "Weekend in LA," "Shocker," "East Side Beat," "ABCs," "Manipulator," "Mr. Trouble," "Now or Never," and more--most of which are still included in The Toasters' live set 30 years later (you can read our in-depth look at some of these tracks here). Indeed, hearing this album for the first time in 1987, I remember being struck how original and fully-formed it all was--Skaboom! wasn't a 2 Tone clone, but its very own amazing thing.

Since Bucket's still fledgling Moon Records wasn't in a position to press and distribute Skaboom! (which they had produced themselves--hence, the fairly rudimentary recording), they struck up a deal with the French/American NYC-based independent label Celluloid to have the album released on their rock/reggae imprint Moving Target (which had issued records from Sly and Robbie, Yellowman, Dennis Bovell, and The Fleshtones). As a result, Skaboom! was distributed far and wide across the USA (and Unicorn did a decent job with Pool Shark in England, with some copies making their way over to the continent via mail order), so The Toasters decided to go for broke, quit their day jobs, and devote themselves to the band full-time--embarking on their first national tour in support of the album (the "Toast on the Coast" tour, naturally).

In the late 80s, ska music pretty much was limited to parochial underground scenes in major cities like NYC, Boston, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, and LA, which were fairly isolated from each other in those pre-internet days (I had no idea that there were any other ska bands from California apart from Fishbone and The Untouchables until hearing Moon Records' Ska Face: An All American Ska Compilation in 1988). Notably, The Toasters' "Toast on the Coast" tour helped forge the first ska touring network (which many bands would later follow); started to connect all of the disjointed regional ska scenes; and inspired numerous ska bands to form in their wake (which would reach critical mass in the mid-to-late 1990s with the so-called Third Wave of ska).

American fans converted to ska through 2 Tone (which many people here discovered long after it was over in the UK) and/or Fishbone's EP and The UTs' Wild Child apparently were primed and ravenous for more new, homegrown ska music. As a result, Moving Target/Celluloid sold upwards of 25,000 copies of the Skaboom! LP, CD, and cassette (though royalties on Skaboom! were never paid to the band before Celluloid went bankrupt right after the release of Thrill Me Up on Celluloid's new ska imprint for The Toasters, Skaloid)--and the album made it to a very respectable #54 spot on the CMJ college radio charts. In addition, Skaboom!/Pool Shark was well-received by the post-2 Tone UK scene that had emerged in the mid-to-late 80s around such extraordinary acts as Laurel Aitken, Derrick Morgan, The Trojans, Potato 5, The Deltones, The Hotknives, The Loafers, Maroon Town, The Riffs, Bad Manners, Judge Dread, and others. Scotland's phenomenal Zoot skazine declared The Toasters' Skaboom! to be "the best thing to come out of America since sliced bread" (a compliment) and the band eventually made it over to tour the UK in 1989 (where they recorded the live album Frankenska for Unicorn).

Three decades later, it's easy to take Skaboom! for granted (particularly in light of all of the great Toasters records that followed it), but one cannot overstate the significance of this release. In many ways, Skaboom! was the catalyst for much, if not all, of what transpired in American ska for years to come. Without it, the burgeoning U.S. ska scene might have gone bust a decade sooner...

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To read more about The Toasters' history and their Thrill Me Up, This Gun for Hire, and New York Fever albums, click here.

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