Sunday, November 22, 2020

Duff Guide to Ska Bullet Points: The Uptones "Get Out of My Way" and Various Artists "415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace"

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)
The cover illustration features stylishly dressed young men and women dancing.

  • Inspired to form after catching an English Beat show in San Francisco in 1981 (the same Beat tour that compelled a certain Rob Hingley to assemble The Toasters on the other side of the continent), The Uptones--comprised of a bunch of high school friends from Berkeley--became one of the biggest and most influential live bands on the Bay Area punk and new wave scene (see the 415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace review below). The Uptones' reel-to-reel studio recordings from sessions in 1982 and 1983, and an EP issued on 415 Records in 1985, were played regularly on local commercial radio, and they opened for touring acts like Madness, the Go-Go's, X, Oingo Boingo, UB40, Billy Idol, Fishbone, The Untouchables, and--in full circle--The Beat. The excellent new Uptones' CD Get Out of My Way: The Early Recordings (CD, Liberation Hall Records, 2020) gathers all of their existing recordings from the first half of the '80s, the aforementioned studio tapes recorded while they were still in high school, plus their K.U.S.A. EP, fully documenting the heyday of these first wave American ska pioneers. (The only other album that captures the band from this period, and awesome tracks like "Radiation Boy," "Big Time," and "Outback," is the terrific The Uptones Live!! 924 Gilman, recorded at the second of two reunion shows there in 1989 with Operation Ivy--Tim Armstrong was one of their biggest fans--and released in 1995.)

    The first half of Get Out of My Way reveals that, despite their youth, The Uptones were a surprisingly good and accomplished act pretty much from the get-go. They wrote their own 2 Tone-influenced ska tracks like "Get Outta My Way" (a pointed message to the poseurs and conformists taking up space on the dance floor: "Who do you think you are, some kind of a cop?/Why did you come at all unless you plan to dance til you drop?") and "Out to Sea" (an anti-war/military-industrial complex song written at a time when Reagan was greatly increasing Cold War military spending and involving the USA in conflicts in Lebanon, Grenada, and Central America; the band is from the hotbed of liberalism, after all), and the ska-rock "K.U.S.A." (which pushes back against the media's outsized influence on our lives). But there's also reggae with "Your Hit Parade" (a broadside against the music industry) and Northern Soul with "Searching for Some Soul" (which swipes a bit from The Jam's "Start" and more from The Beatles' Rubber Soul) in mix. The K.U.S.A. EP is a more polished and mature affair, with soul, funk, rock, and new wave influences significantly more prominent in this great set of songs. The only downside is that there's not much space allotted for ska. Both Marc Wasserman's Ska Boom! An American Ska and Reggae Oral History and Aaron Carnes' In Defense of Ska forthcoming books spill a fair amount of ink on The Uptones (Wasserman devotes a whole chapter to them). So, it's a bit of fortuitous timing to have Get Out of My Way available to listen to while you read about the crucial role The Uptones played in the early development of ska on the West Coast.
  • The album cover features a white brick wall with the spray-painted image of a policeman holding up his arm and blowing a whistle.
      415 Records was a San Francisco-based indie label that was founded in 1978 in support of the local punk and new wave scene, and went on to partner with Columbia Records in the early '80s for higher-profile releases by Romeo Void, Translator, Wire Train, and Red Rockers. (415 is both San Francisco's area code, as well as the California penal code section for "disturbing the peace.") The fantastic new compilation 415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace (CD, Liberation Hall Records, 2020) collects 21 key releases from many of the more underground groups on the label--most of which have been out-of-print for decades--while offering the listener access to a segment of the vibrant and eclectic late '70s/early '80s SF underground music scene that rivaled anything going on in New York or LA at the time. Tracks from The Offs and The Uptones will be of most interest to Duff Guide to Ska readers. The Off's "Everyone's a Bigot"--from the debut 415 single in '78--is a dark punky, funky ska cut that bluntly and provocatively highlights how hatred and discrimination are endemic in all human beings (read my review of The Offs' wild First Record), while The Uptones' ska-rock anthem "K.U.S.A." expresses dread over how mass media has the extraordinary power to shape people's thoughts and behavior to sometimes nefarious ends. Other outstanding (non-ska) tracks here come from Pearl Harbor and The Explosions (the poppy new wave "Drivin'"), VKTMS (the sharp, melodic punk blow-off "No Long Good-byes"), Pop-O-Pies ("The Catholics Are Attacking"--not sure if this one's satire, but it's definitely catchy!), The Units (synth-punk gems "High Pressure Days" and "Warm Moving Bodies"), The Readymades (the swaggering punk tribute to the label/scene, "415 Music"--"What are we?/White boys making white noise!"), and Monkey Rhythm (the post-punky "This Must Be the Place"). If you were a non-mainstream teen during this era and pine for those incredible, but long-gone left-of-the-dial sounds, this compilation is for you.

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