Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Duff Review: The Scofflaws "The Scofflaws"

The band members are dressed in suits and the band's name is in the foreground.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

At some point in the latter half of 1990, the bottom fell out of the NYC ska scene. The packed March 26, 1990 "NYC Ska Craze" show at the now long-gone Cat Club on 13th Street and Fourth Avenue in Manhattan featured the best Gotham had to offer at that time—The Toasters, The Scofflaws, The NY Citizens, Bigger Thomas, Skinnerbox, Skadanks, and The Steadys—but instead of positioning NYC ska for success in new decade, it ended up being the last hurrah of the 1980s scene. The show yielded the excellent NYC Ska Live LP (read my review of it), but a planned Dance Craze-like film, which would have documented all of these New York bands for the world to watch and envy, fell through when the director Joe Massot pulled out at the last moment (Toasters/Moon Records main man Rob “Bucket” Hingley dubbed it "a fiasco"). In the months that followed, ska shows gradually became rare events and didn't draw like they had just a year before, and several of the groups big on the scene went dark (and others moved into other musical territory, like soul and funk). Some of this was due to demographics--many of the NYC ska groups in the '80s were made up of high school and college-age kids; by 1990, most were faced with navigating the stark adult world of 9 to 5 jobs and paying rent. But it was clear that it was in severe decline.

It didn't help that the band spearheading the NYC scene almost didn't survive 1989 and was still struggling to find its footing in 1990-1991. Even though The Toasters had managed to regroup and soldier on after the sudden, body-blow departure of the Unity 2 in the midst of promoting their superb second album Thrill Me Up (trombonist Ann Hellandsjo and alto saxophonist Marcel Reginatto also left in their wake), the band's future seemed tenuous. Since CBS/Sony had been courting The Toasters, they crafted a record full of pop-leaning ska songs—This Gun for Hire—that turned out to be "too commercial for the fans and not commercial enough for the majors," Bucket later admitted to George Marshall in Skinhead Times in August 1993. (CBS/Sony passed on the band and album.) More worrisome was the fact that this iteration of the band couldn't hold a candle to the Thrill Me Up-era band on stage. I saw The Toasters several times in 1990 and 1991 at CBGBs, The Cat Club, and SOB's, and while they put on a decent show, they just weren't the same and some of the new material strayed far from their patented "East Side Beat" sound. I always left a bit disappointed. The other dominant NYC ska/Moon Records act of that time was the NY Citizens, who released the excellent Stranger Things Have Happened EP on Moon in 1990, their terrific follow-up to their 1988 debut On the Move, but then seemed to go quiet for a few years.

The good news in the midst of all this was that after a series of near-disastrous independent distributor failures in the late '80s (that almost swallowed up entire pressing of Moon compilations like Ska Face: An All-American Ska Compilation and NYC Ska Live) and seeing Celluloid/Skaloid going under without paying any royalties for Thrill Me Up or Skaboom! (which had sold a very respectable 12K copies at that point), Bucket was more determined than ever to make Moon Records a viable indie label. And one that would not only represent the NYC ska scene, but the American one.

It’s worth noting/remembering that back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, recording, pressing, distributing, and promoting an independent album was an expensive and often daunting endeavor. It was the primary reason there were relatively few American ska releases in the 1980s. Without a label fronting the cash to print albums/singles/EPs that also had a connection to reliable and honest independent distributors who could actually get your release in the shops and then pay you for your product, you had very little chance of recouping any of your expenses (at the time, the major labels had control of their own distribution systems for their records and CDs which excluded independent releases). The Toasters’ first two albums had been licensed to Celluloid/Skaloid as a hedge against Moon’s ongoing cash flow and distribution problems, but they were still burned in the end when that label went bankrupt, with no royalties from either album ever making it into The Toasters’ pockets (and later in the ‘90s, the new owner of Celluloid flooded the market with bootleg copies of Thrill Me Up and the unauthorized Ska Killers on the Celluloid imprint Esperanto, which consisted of Skaboom! and Thrill Me Up).

While The Toasters’ This Gun for Hire may have been too much of an artistic shift from Thrill Me Up for the fans (I struggled to like it in 1990, but now think it’s a really great pop-leaning ska record), Bucket was able to secure distribution through IRD and the album sold 10k copies, earning the band and Moon Records a tidy profit. In turn, this allowed Bucket to start licensing albums from other ska acts (the deals back then were straightforward one-page agreements wonderfully free of legalese), since he had the capital to invest in pressing CDs (which was the format preferred by distributors and shops in the ‘90s) and could start growing the label’s roster in earnest.

In 1991, a rejuvenated Moon Records released two highly influential debut records that would help lay the groundwork for the 1990s ska boom and signaled the label's ambitious goal of establishing itself as the premier American independent ska label. Both bands had been perfecting their sound, songs, and live performances in the ‘80s (and were featured on Moon’s first-ever American ska comp Ska Face in 1988—read my review of it), and Bucket and The Toasters had been on many bills with each act. These albums, of course, were Let’s Go Bowling’s Music to Bowl By (read my review of it) and The Scofflaws’ The Scofflaws. Notably, they represented one of the directions that a segment of the US ska scene was taking beyond the new wave/2 Tone ska of the ‘80s—it was a new, distinctly American take on retro/1960s ska that incorporated a slightly off-kilter, modern outlook and an adventurous variety of influences. To give these groundbreaking albums context, the few 1991 ska releases similar in sound to Music to Bowl By and The Scofflaws were Jump With Joey’s Ska-Ba and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra’s World Famous and Live albums.

Huntington, LI’s Scofflaws started out in the early 1980s as The New Bohemians and mostly played a mix of '60s R&B and TV theme songs. But as the ‘80s progressed, they incorporated more and more ska into their set. In 1988, Geffen Records bought their name for Edie Brickell, who wanted the rights to call her band the New Bohemians (and had a big hit with “What I Am”). They rebranded themselves The Scofflaws and bought new instruments and gear with Geffen’s cash. Later that same year, they burst into the national ska consciousness with their raucous, celebratory, and anti-racist Rude boy anthem "Rudy's Back" on Moon’s Ska Face comp, which helped all the scattered ska fans on the fringes of the underground scene feel like we were part of something bigger and something great.

Rude boys! Are coming out tonight
They got the rhythm and they’re feeling alright
Hey, boy! Where have you been going?
I’ve got to water a little herb that I’ve been growing
Rude boys! Causing trouble downtown
The police don’t like them hanging around
Hey, now! I want to play my horn
Rocksteady, that’s why I was born

Some say that rudies have all gone away
But that’s just jive talk, I know they’re here to stay
Why do we do it, well it ain't for the dough
It’s cause we’re ska’d for life, man! Okay, boys, let’s go!

Rude boy! Collie in hand
He likes to party, likes to skank with the band
Rude girl! She’s all on the scene, yeah
She’s hanging out by the record machine
Skinhead! They like to stomp their boots
They dig that rhythm, ‘cause the rhythm’s got roots
DJ! Play it one more time
I don’t care if the lyrics don’t rhyme

Oh, dig that rhythm…I man got the beat…Can’t keep from dancing…
I got to move my feet…rocksteady, ska, blue beat, soul…
If you got the rhythm, you will never grow old!

Rude boy! Yeah, he’s misunderstood
The coolest guy in his neighborhood
Hey boy! Where have you been going?
Don’t you want a little herb that I’ve been growing?
Rude boys! They’re causing trouble downtown
The police don’t like them hanging around
Hey now, I want to play my horn
Rocksteady, that’s why I was born

It doesn’t matter if you’re black
It doesn’t matter if you’re white
‘Cause we’re The Scofflaws, rude boy
And we’re going to rocksteady tonight!

I first experienced The Scofflaws live at The Pyramid Club in Manhattan’s Alphabet City in May of 1989 with The NY Citizens (my friend and I were the only non-skinheads in the sweaty back room) and it remains one of the best live shows I’ve seen (both bands were on fire!), and took every opportunity possible to see The Scofflaws perform (their musicianship was off the charts and more than evident in all their solos—and they were always dressed to the nines in their two tone suits, skinny ties, pork pie hats, and shades—Victor Rice even wore a fez when he played the upright bass!). In October 1991, just before The Scofflaws was released, I reviewed one of their shows for the Bakersfield, California-based skazine Roughneck Business:

“New York City offers few bargains, but catching NYC’s finest ska band—The Scofflaws—for a mere four bones makes me realize why I pay almost half my wages in rent…When The Scofflaws opened for Bad Manners last year, Buster proclaimed them NYC’s best band. I’d take it further; The Scofflaws great original songs and their brilliantly tight live performances would give The Skatalites a run for their money any day—they’re that good. As The Scofflaws performed such soon-to-be classics as “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “William Shatner,” and (what I think is called) “The Beer Song” [most likely “I Can’t Decide,” which was released years later on Record of Convictions], the skin/rudie crowd that filled the floor was packed for non-stop skanking and shuffling…Moon Records will soon be releasing The Scofflaws’ debut album—it should be one of the best ska records to flow out of the ska pipeline.”

Jump Up Records’ 2021 release of The Scofflaws marks the first time this album has been released on vinyl. Moon Records originally issued it on CD and cassette (when I first started doing promotions for Moon in late '91—that review above had caught Bucket’s attention—I was sending out review copies on cassette) and it’s a nice touch that the LP’s back sleeve prominently acknowledges that the album first came out on Moon.

Most of the originals on The Scofflaws were co-written by Richard “Sammy” Brooks and Mike Drance, who had a Lennon & McCartney-like push/pull between them that made everything work so magnificently (Victor Rice and Drance also contributed their own instrumentals to the album). Brooks’ knowing campiness/wackiness (he’s Macca in this equation) was balanced by Drance’s artistic aspirations and efforts at authenticity ("one foot in the door, the other one in the gutter,” as The Replacements so aptly put it).

The album opens with Drance’s moody instrumental “Daniel Ortega” (a nod to the leftist Sandinista who helped lead the Nicaraguan Revolution that overthrew the US-backed Somoza dictatorship and became leader of that country from 1979-1990; The Clash wrote “Washington Bullets” partly about this revolution and named their 1980 triple-album in support of it), followed by a more polished re-recording of “Rudy’s Back” (I prefer the rawer one on Ska Face, but maybe that’s because it’s the first Scofflaws song I heard and fell for). “Ali-Ska-Ba,” which the band always played at breakneck speed live—practically daring the dancing crowds to keep up, is a slightly Middle Eastern sounding romp, while “Going Back to Kingston” was a sincere (though winkingly awkward and intentionally white-boy cliched) expression of longing to return to/be accepted by the land of ska’s origins (“I’m going back to Kingston/Just like Haile Selassie…I’m goin’ up on the mountain with that Rasta voodoo man…and when I get there man, every ‘ting will be irie”). Rice’s “Guru” is a fantastically mysterious, slow-burning track centered around his bass line.

Like “Rudy’s Back,” “Paul Getty” is another take on the rude boy record, though this one is about the experience of being a down-and-out, outcast ska fan struggling to get by in a typically square American suburb:

My name ain’t Paul Getty
And I’m living on spaghetti
Potatoes, rice and beans
I’m a rudie, not a skin
I like Ital, I drink gin
I live my life to extremes

I got everything I need
A black suit and a bag of weed
I got a pork pie hat
A smile like a Cheshire cat
My landlord wants to evict me
He wants the judge to convict me
Just because I live my life
The way I do

It’s a total culture shock
I’m the only rude boy on the block
Got any ganja, Rasta man?
My boss said, “take a sabbatical”
He said, “boy, you’re just too radical”
Now I gotta go out and find another job, again!

I’m going to go down to the unemployment office
I gotta stake my claim
Gonna go there on Monday
Gonna sign my name

The Paul Getty referred to here was the extremely wealthy founder of the Getty Oil Company, who was named the world’s richest private citizen in 1966 by the Guinness Book of World Records. In contrast, during the 1990s Brooks paid his bills by driving a school bus in the Long Island suburbs.

There are a fair number of covers on the album (they’re in good company, The Skatalites covered many pop standards!), but they make them their own and, boy, what great and sophisticated selections they made from the classic jazz repertoire and American songbook. The Scofflaws do Art Blakely ("Moanin'"), Henry Mancini ("A Shot in the Dark"—also famously covered by The Skatalites), Elmer Bernstein ("The Man with the Golden Arm"—which has some real menace and bite in the bottom end—the movie is about heroin addiction, after all), George Gershwin (a sublime version of "An American in Paris”)—and they even make Danny Elfman fit in quite well with this esteemed bunch (with a manic take on “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”).

James “Red” Holloway’s phenomenal 1959 R&B sax stomper “A La Carte” (where he shouts out odd items to eat off the menu during the musical pauses: “Grasshopper toes…liver-flavored ice cream…and baboon eyeballs…Hmm, somebody give me the baking soda quick!”) is given an amazing reading by The Scofflaws (and is a perennial fan favorite live)—but they substitute types of sushi (“Tamago!…Uni!”) and Japanese atomic age movie monsters (“Godzilla!...Rodan!”) for Holloway’s gross-out choices. And even though Earl Bostic’s “Night Train” is well-trod territory (weirdly, The Toasters were playing a version around the same time and included it on their 1992 New York Fever album), The Scofflaws’ take is just brilliant and includes an unexpectedly wonderful tribute to their (and what should be your) musical heroes in the opening bars: “Ken Boothe…Desmond Dekker…Prince Buster…Toots Hibbert…Lee “Scratch” Perry…Don Drummond…Coxsone Dodd…Sir Lord Comic…You are the greatest!”

No offense to later iterations of the band, but this version of The Scofflaws really was the best. In addition to Brooks on tenor sax and vocals and Drance on bari sax and vocals (he also went on to form the awesome rocksteady-centric Bluebeats in ’94), the group included Paul Gebhardt on alto sax, Victor Rice on bass, Kerry Lafferty on piano, Brian Lavan on guitar, Tony Mason on drums, and Buford O’Sullivan on t-bone. Much of this extraordinary talent performed with numerous NYC-area groups later in the ‘90s and beyond, including NY Ska Jazz Ensemble, The Toasters, Stubborn Allstars, Version City Allstars, Crazy Baldhead, Easy Star Allstars, Brooklyn Attractors, and many more.

I’m forever thankful that I was able to see them perform numerous times and that everything in this small corner of the universe aligned so they could record what has become a true classic of ‘90s American ska. If you’re old now and loved The Scofflaws back then, it’s time to pick up this beautiful heavyweight LP—and if you haven’t heard this album before, what are you waiting for?! I’ve just spilled about three-thousand words raving about it!

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Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the post. I was at a lot of these shows and remember the excitement of discovering The Scofflaws disc when it came out, and loved reading about that time.

I do believe there are some errors your Rudy's Back lyrics, and posted a corrected version below. Listen again and see if you agree.

Rude boys! Are coming out tonight
They got the rhythm and they’re feeling alright
Hey, boy! Where have you been going?
I’ve got to water a little herb that I’ve been growing
Rude boys! Causing trouble downtown
The police don’t like them hanging around
Hey, now! I want to play my horn
Rocksteady, that’s why I was born

Some say that rudies have all gone away
But that’s just jive talk, I know they’re here to stay
Why do we do it well it ain't for the dough
It’s cause we’re ska’d for life, man! Okay, boys, let’s go!

Steve from Moon said...


Thank you for these corrected lyrics! I think you're right and will fix them in the post.