Friday, February 14, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Flashback: Various Artists "Mashin' Up the Nation"

Cover art by "Milk and Cheese's" Evan Dorkin.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Moon Records' Ska Face: An All American Ska Compilation was the very first US ska comp out of the gate in 1988 (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of it here), Razorbeat Records/Harvard Square Records' Mashin' Up the Nation was hot on its heels, coming out in '89, and just as vital and good. As with Ska Face, Mashin' Up the Nation served notice (to anyone paying attention) that the off-the-radar US ska scene was heating up and yielding some incredible acts--many of whom would go on to become major players in the mid-1990s ska boom.

Like The Toasters in NYC with Moon Records, Bim Skala Bim and their Razorbeat Records were helping to organize and promote the Boston ska scene, and during the mid-to-late '80s, both bands often worked collaboratively on projects in a socialist/"a rising tide lifts all boats" mindset (for example, when Celluloid Records created the Skaloid imprint specifically for The Toasters to release Thrill Me Up, Bucket also arranged for Bim's Tuba City to be issued simultaneously and he hooked them up with licensing and touring contacts in the UK). Both The Toasters and Bim were on a proverbial mission from god to spread the word about ska in America, and with limited resources and practically zero access to/interest from the music industry and press, it made supreme sense to join forces in solidarity and attempt to make as big an impact as possible.

As with many compilations, there are a few tracks on Mashin' Up the Nation that perhaps would be best lost to time, but the majority of songs here sound absolutely fantastic thirty odd years on--and a couple are now bona fide ska classics. Bim Skala Bim leads off the album with a brilliant live version of their you-gotta-persevere/it's-darkest-before-dawn "Diggin' a Hole" recorded live at CBGBs: "You're digging a hole so long, now it's so deep/Getting so dark here that nobody can see/This artificial light don't brighten our day/We're all the way down here with nothing to say/Got to keep it moving/It's gone too far." Bim's also featured on the lovely instrumental "Groucho (Dub)" with The Skatalites' Roland Alphonso--an outtake from their Tuba City album that was recorded in the tiny studio at Coxsone Dodd's Music City in the back of his old and long-shuttered record shop in Brooklyn.

The liner notes on the back cover of this LP state that the (pre-Mighty Mighty) Bosstones, "showed great promise with their early recording efforts and live shows...sadly they are no longer together." Obviously, we know this was just a hiatus for that band (who would reunite and release their breakthrough debut Devils Night Out in 1990), but their proto-skacore "Drums and Chickens" (AKA "Drunks and Children") is one of their catchiest songs and features their trademark warts-and-all honesty and emotional vulnerability: "Drinkin' just the other day/I said, 'I love you,' you turned away/Maybe the drinkin' made me cry/But I'm a happy, very happy, very happy guy/Drunks and children they tell you the truth/That's what I am, I'm drunken youth/And I'll be drinkin' 'til I die." While a lot of Bop (Harvey)'s music was too reggae-hippie-jam-bandy for me, the straight-up ska of "Bread and Circuses" may be their musically finest and most politically potent moment. It's about the Reagan administration's Cold War-era involvement in Nicaragua, where they were covertly and illegally funding/training the right-wing Contras who regularly committed horrific atrocities against civilians in their prolonged guerrilla war to overthrow the socialist, Cuban-backed Sandinista government ("Washington Bullets," indeed). All of this was revealed in the wake of a bizarre, clandestine scheme involving the sale of arms to Iran (which was at war with Iraq for most of the 1980s) that also included the release of American hostages in Lebanon, and some $18 million of Iran's $30 million payment was diverted by Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council to the Contras; this became known as the Iran-Contra scandal: "The secret war is only a sham/They swear it ain't another Vietnam/If nobody dies on the American side today/But the women and children who die/Are they too Red to get by?/The news is burgers and fries and it's genocide these days/It's bread and circuses time/Who's gonna pay for Ollie's crimes?/Freedom fighters only in name/The Contra's cause is killing in vain/The pressures increase as a few Sandinistas fall/If cover-up is only a crime/Did Colonel North work overtime?/I'm telling you, I think the President knew it all."

The NY Citizens' hard-charging, razor-sharp, Bodysnatchers-referencing "Rude Girls" was the first song the band issued after their terrific debut album On the Move (1988) and was a knock-out whenever they performed it live: "Rude girls/I get so planked when I see them in the subway station/Will she be free for some tea and a little conversation with me?...And when I see them in the street/With their Doc Martens on their feet/They're looking ruder than rude/My god, they're ruder than you!" At this point in time, Detroit's Gangster Fun had just seen their debut album Come See, Come Ska released in the UK by Roddy Moreno's Ska Records (which also released Mashin' Up the Nation as Ska-ville USA, Volume 4--and "Mario's Hideout" from that LP--about being snatched off the street by goons and taken to a mobster's headquarters--is a great example of their manic, slightly twisted, New Wave-y ska (think Fishbone's debut EP).

Let's Go Bowling, hailing from Fresno, CA, were represented by their own cheery, mostly instrumental theme song, "Let's Go Bowling" (from their 1988 cassette-only debut) that urges the listener over and over to head to the lanes for some wholesome fun (one can almost imagine this cut being the jingle from a 1960s TV ad for a local alley)! For this compilation, The Toasters reached into their vaults to fish out one of their first recordings "No Respect" (which was more than good enough to have been included on their debut Recriminations EP). It's from the early days when the band was a lean five-piece playing New Wave-influenced ska with some surf and rockabilly guitar mixed in, and because it was nowhere near representative of The Toasters' late '80s sound circa Thrill Me Up, Bucket must have jokingly credited the song to Not Bob Marley. Nonetheless, "No Respect" is great song, offering haunting social commentary on income inequality and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's cruel policies toward working class and down-on-their-luck Britons: "Well a rich man counts his time/While the poor man counts his money/Down on Leman Street the search for work goes on/For the poor man and his family/Life is a joke, no longer funny (ha ha ha ha)/When there is no respect, there is nothing to draw upon/There is only fear of unemployment/Bad times up ahead/It is cold in winter, it is cold in winter/When your queuing in the morning/Three hours just to sign your name/On the banks of the Thames, there is no self respect."

I've always really liked The Now's English Beat-sounding "Get Out," which shares a fair amount of DNA with "Best Friend" (whatever happened to this Washington, DC band?). This track, however, is about a romantic co-habitation situation gone real bad (and, no doubt, delivered tongue-in-cheek): "Now I don't know where things went wrong/But it doesn't make sense to try/To revive something that was obviously meant to die...You mean as much as lint lying in the pocket of my coat/You were once very pretty/Now you're just a big fat dope/Now, I don't mean to hurt your feelings or cause you pain/But this is the way it must be and I guess I have to say again and again/Leave town or I'll throw you out/There's nothing that I can't do/One of us has to go/And I've decided it's you..."

Mashin' Up the Nation is an essential document for anyone interested in the history and development of the US ska scene--and it's a damn fine record to boot.

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