Friday, August 29, 2008

Shots in the Dark: Various Artists - NYC Ska Live

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. The image to the right comes from the cassette, since the LP cover is kind of, well, not that compelling.

The Bands: If you were a ska fan in NYC in 1990, these were some of the best acts playing out on the scene--The Toasters, The Scofflaws, The NY Citizens, Bigger Thomas, Skinnerbox, Skadanks, and The Steadys.

The Sound: While the heavy 2-Tone/New Wave influence that had held the NYC ska scene in its grip in the mid-'80s--as captured by the NY Beat: Hit and Run comp (released in 1985)--is still very much in evidence, the NYC ska sound had evolved somewhat by 1990, incorporating broader elements of the Jamaican musical idiom (rocksteady, dancehall, etc.). However, the post 2 Tone sound was still dominant, though the bands are more comfortable with, and confident in, their particular brand of ska--with its switchblade sharp guitar slashes; prominent, pogo-ing bass lines; stabs of Hammond organ; and sax-heavy horn bursts. Like its hometown, the NYC ska sound bristled with rude, punky attitude--but it was real and smart and soulful at its very core.

The Release: Back in the day, I never truly appreciated this record (even though I was in the crowd that day at the Cat Club in March 1990, in my pre-Moon Records days)--NYC Ska Live is actually quite an excellent album, much better than I remembered. This recording captured the live show really well (there is a full, well-balanced mix of all the instruments and vocals; unfortunately a couple of the tracks are cut off rather sloppily, but that's really nitpicking) and the performances from all of the bands are spot-on.

When the needle hits the record, the album kicks off with the English Beat-influenced Bigger Thomas tracks (which you can really hear on the excellent "Ska in My Pocket"); the Skadanks (with Rocker-T at the mic) turn in two very different, but equally great, cuts with "Dancehall" (which, duh, is inna dancehall stylee) and the surprisingly Specials-like "Just Ska"; after hearing The Steady's two most excellent songs, "Just Reflections" and "All You Can Stand" (both of which epitomize the NYC ska sound at the time), you'll be left dumbstruck wondering why they weren't huge and what the hell happened to them (apparently, after they broke up, their bass player went on to play with downtown club mavens Deee-lite!).

Side two features tunes probably more familiar to anyone who followed the US ska scene in the mid-90s. Skinnerbox, with King Django on vocals (obviously not how he was billed back then), deliver the more rocksteady/reggae cuts "Promise" and "Move Like You're Gone"; The Scofflaws tear up the house with their raucous live versions of "Going Back to Kingston" and "Aliskaba" off their great debut album, when Mike Drance was still in the band; The NY Citizens take names and kick ass with their classic "National Front" ("You ain't nothing!") from their very much under-appreciated On the Move, LP; and The Toasters serve up one of their catchier, pop-ska tunes, "Don't Say Forever" (from This Gun for Hire) with Cashew Miles on vocals (anyone remember his on-stage back flips?). The album is capped off with all the bands joining in for a take on The Toasters' then signature show ending "Matt Davis" instrumental.

It's interesting to note that both The NYCs and Toasters get short shrift on NYC Ska Live, as they are the only bands on the album not to be represented by two tracks. A promised CD (I think I had tried to mail-order one, but was sent Let's Go Bowling's Music to Bowl By CD instead) was supposed to have featured The Citizens' "Sticky Situation" and Toasters' "Worry," but it never materialized. While the NYC Ska Live cassette lists these tracks, oddly, it doesn't include them. I would have gladly traded the "Matt Davis" track for these two cuts (particularly since the live version of "Sticky Situation" was always fantastic...).

The Ugly Reality: The NYC Ska Live concert was originally organized so that the bands could be filmed in action by director Joe Massot for New York City Ska Craze, a sequel to the 2 Tone era Dance Craze movie--and the show was taped live at the long-ago closed Cat Club (13th Street and Fourth Avenue) on March 26th, 1990. When I asked Bucket about what happened with the movie recently, he called it "a fiasco." The director pulled out of filming the show at the last moment--after Buck and Moon had gone to the trouble of putting together the bill and the expense of hiring Steve Remote and his sound truck to record the show. A Wikipedia entry for The Steadys states that Joe Massot bailed out after one of his cameramen was attacked by skinheads and equipment was destroyed while they were trying to film a NY Citizens show at CBGBs. I don't know about the validity of this claim--there was a heavy skinhead presence at most NYC ska shows during that time, and there was more often than not some violence and stupidity on display (for instance, during the early '90s some boneheads were always throwing type D batteries at The Toasters when they were on stage--I always wondered if they didn't like them that much, why did they spend money to see them?). However, I do know that NYC Ska Live would have sold incredibly well if the New York City Ska Craze film had ever been made...

The Grade: A-

Monday, August 18, 2008

Skatalite Johnny Moore RIP

From the Associated Press:

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Johnny Moore, a trumpeter and founding member of the pioneering Jamaican ska and reggae band The Skatalites, died Saturday of cancer. He was 70.

Moore died at a friend's house after being released from the hospital following cancer treatment last week, music promoter Herbie Miller said.

Moore helped form the band in 1964 along with saxophonists Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso and trombonist Don Drummond.

During the first 14 months the band was together, it transformed jazz, movie themes and other genres of music with ska style. It broke up in the 1960s but regrouped in New York two decades later. Two of their albums, "Hip Bop Ska" and "Greetings from Skamania," were nominated for Grammy awards in the 1990s.

Their music continued to influence bands such as 311, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and No Doubt.

Moore lived in New York City for 14 years but returned to Jamaica in the early 1980s. He last toured abroad about eight years ago with reggae artist Bunny Wailer.

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This sad news comes just a few days after I received an e-mail from (Dr.) Dan Neely (ex-Skavoovie and the Epitones guitarist, ethnomusicologist, and music archivist) that Johnny Moore was very ill and that a friend of his was organizing a benefit show in his honor in JA (see poster above)...

Obviously, Johnny and his fellow Skatalites had an extraordinary impact on thousands of ska and reggae musicians worldwide--and brought great pleasure to countless music fans everywhere. Thank you for sharing your gift with us.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Shots in the Dark: Various Artists - Ska Face: An All-American Ska Compilation

Cover illustration by Bob Fingerman.
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. 

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Bands: A who's who of East Coast and West Coast ska bands, circa 1988, including The Toasters, The NY Citizens, The Scofflaws, Bim Skala Bim, Let's Go Bowling, The Donkey Show, The Boilers, Rhyth-o-matics, No Doubt, Crucial DBC, Skankhead (later to become Skankin' Pickle), Thick as Thieves, and the Exterminators.

The Sound: Just about evenly split between bands influenced by 2-Tone and Fishbone, and those following in the steps of the Skatalites and Prince Buster--all gloriously free of ska-punk and punk-ska (both of which were gestating in the studio at the time: the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Operation Ivy were to issue their admittedly brilliant debut albums in 1990).

The Release: Unleashed on the world from Moon Records in 1988 (though I didn't pick up my copy until early 1989), Ska Face was the first US ska comp to ever hit the record shelves. While the US 3rd wave ska scene was still in its rudimentary phase and was quite fragmented and disorganized, this album hinted at some of the amazing things that were to come to fruition by the mid-90s. For the first time, American ska fans had an inkling that something might be going out there beyond the city limits and their parochial ska scene (if there was one!); this was pre-internet/dark ages when ska news, other than word-of-mouth or show listings in your local alternative paper, was really hard to come by (in the late '80s and early '90s, I gleaned most of my ska news from George Marshall's great Zoot! skazine, which was published in England, for pete's sake!).

Side one of Ska Face is terrific the whole way through, from The Toasters' catchily aggressive manifesto "Ska Killers" (with one of my favorite wry lyrics for clueless Americans: "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..."); Bim Skala Bim's hard-driving "Shoes"--which is about being away and finding you've been replaced ("I've been gone two days/And I find a strange pair of shoes/Under my bed"); the Rhyth-o-Matics' wonderfully percussive and horn-charged "Skatalation"; The Scofflaws' first recording of "Rudy's Back" (I made a point of catching them live after first hearing this cut--which is a bit less polished than the version that ended up on their debut record, but perfectly captured the incredible enthusiasm and energy of their shows at the time); the happily stoned laid-back skank of The Donkey Show's "Feeling Nice"; to Let's Go Bowling's great, revved-up, pissed-at-my-girlfriend rant, "Bitch." Side two is a little bit more hit or miss, but standout tracks include The NY Citizens' frenetic "D.A.N.C.E." (from their superb On the Move LP); The Boilers' great trad intstrumental "Bal' Man Jump" (this from Jeff Baker's pre-Skinnerbox band, which released a full-length LP on Oi/Ska Records in the UK, also in 1988); No Doubt's twitchily paranoid "Everything's Wrong" (yes, Virginia, they really started out as a pretty good ska band before going for pop!); and Skankhead's loopy "Circus Skank." (For the record, Bim Skala Bim's label Razorbeat released the second US ska comp, Mashin' Up the Nation, in 1989.)

The Ugly Reality: Not many copies of this LP made it into the hands of ska fans (as few and far between as we were), as one of Moon's main distributors at the time went belly up, swallowing a good deal of Ska Face's pressing with it (and since Moon, run out of Buck's apartment in Chelsea, completely lacked the funds to re-press it, there were no more copies to be had). It may not strike you as such two decades on, but if you were lucky enough to pick up a copy back in the late 80s, this record was manna from heaven...

(For you nitpickers: Ska Face was later released on CD in the UK by Skank in the mid-90s as Skaville USA, Volume 3. But good luck finding a copy of the LP nowadays...)

The Grade: A-

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shots in the Dark: Easy Big Fella - Tasty Bits & Spicy Flicks

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.

The Band: Seattle's Easy Big Fella

The Sound: EBF's heavy horn and keyboard sound was rooted in the 60s ska of The Skatalites (placing them in the same spectrum of traditional 3rd wave ska bands as The Scofflaws, Skavoovie and the Epitones, Dr. Ring Ding and the Senior All-Stars, and The Skalars), but filtered through the eternal sunshine vibe of 1970s AM pop radio and the earnest kitch of Lawrence Welk--think Roland Alphonso and Jackie Mitoo meet the Carpenters and Neil Diamond--check out "It's Friday" or "Gettin' the Mail" and you'll see what I mean.

The Release: One of the most brilliant aspects of this record--apart from the great songwriting and terrific performances--is how Easy Big Fella deliver this ying and yang mix of alternately campy and despondent songs completely straight, with no knowing winks or bitterness, just happy, extremely catchy, upbeat ska tunes. Most of the cuts on Tasty Bits are concerned with enduring the day-to-day grind of soul-numbing jobs just to get by (from "Solace": "Bringing home the bread/Gotta give eight so I can live again") or finding a bit of joy/luck in riding the "Seven" bus to work every day ("On the bus/weirdos entertaining us/Old bag ladies make a fuss/The world is passing by/I don't mind 'cause I don't drive"). No outlandish wishes or dreams here--just celebrating the end of the week with a song as catchy as Todd Rundgren's "Bang the Drum All Day" ("I've put in my day, so give me the night/The weekend's arrived. And we have survived./So raise a pint of stout/And give a Friday shout!/It's Friday! It's Friday!/It's good for you!/and it's good for me"!) or a mail room guy falling for one of the secretaries ("The pay is jack/The boss is a hack/The office life ain't so grand/But what could be better than a night on the town/With the Queen of administrative land?/All I want is a mail truck just built for two/All I want is to just go postal with you"). In essence, adult life kind of sucks, so you've got to find, celebrate, and enjoy the little things in order to keep hauling yourself out of bed in the morning. Not bad advice and Easy Big Fella makes it sound so good here...

The Ugly Reality: Tasty Bits was released on Moon Ska Records in 1999, just as the last nails in the coffin of 3rd wave ska were driven in by Billboard, Alternative Press, and the music industry in general (they helped build the next-big-thing hype for ska for their own purposes--pseudo ska acts--and felt completely justified in tearing it down--for SWING of all things, dammit!--guffawing as they wrote the scene's obit and eulogy). CDs by the thousands were starting to turn up at the Moon warehouse, as record chains, indie stores, and distributors purged their stacks and inventories of anything ska (who can blame them, it was seen as a has-been scene whose CD sales never lived up to all the hype). For a record about enduring crap jobs in order to live a little of one's own life (presumably to be in a band), it's timing would prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy--they weren't going to be able to quit their day jobs to become full-time ska stars.

The Grade: B+/A-

Thursday, August 7, 2008

I'm Livin' in the Eighties

I've seen Horace Panter's Ska'd for Life in a few bookstores, but never picked it up--figured it might not be worth my time (such a cheesy, tired pun of a title). However, this review on the PopMatters website (you might be interested to know that they sometimes review ska and reggae) has changed my mind.

I always love a good rock star autobiography (see Andy Summers' surprisingly well-written and compelling One Train Later).

* * * * * * * * * *

Speaking of The Police, my brother's wife is a huge fan (she's seen them several times on their farewell tour--and is going to their last show ever at MSG). She happened to be in town from the Bay Area and wanted to catch them at Jones Beach--so I tagged along (I'll admit to being a big fan back when I was in high school--but I never got around to seeing them during the Ghost in the Machine or Synchronicity tours). I was very much prepared to scoff at Sting (I always thought he was so obnoxiously full of himself--talented, yes, but a bit of a bastard). I'm pleasantly surprised to report that they were really good--and were working hard to put on a terrific show (this was no phoned in victory lap by aging superstars). Sting even looked like he was having the time of his life on stage. And they didn't just play their hits, we heard album cuts like Voices Inside My Head, Demolition Man, Can't Stand Losing You, When the World is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around, and Next to You.
The only clunker in their set was their reworking of Don't Stand So Close to Me (the terrible version they recorded in 1986). It took all of the menace out of the song. (The other downer was that you couldn't buy a beer--a freakin' beer on the beach at a concert!--unless you were a member of the venue's VIP Club! What the hell is going on out there on Long Island? I guess that's why so many joints were lit up all around us during the set and there were so many tailgaters in the parking lot...)

Back to The Specials for a moment--the giant video screen over the stage displayed their Ghost Town video before The Police came onstage. Nice choice.

Missed much of Elvis Costello's opening act, though we heard him singing Alison with Sting and then saw him perform Nick Lowe's What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?, which sounded wonderfully and fiercely bitter. Though it just didn't seem like the right venue for him--giant, open air amphitheatre on the beach--his intensity, intelligence and anger comes across better in a dark, claustrophobic space...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Do the Ska!

Now for a mildly indulgent parental son, who is very much interested in what I'm doing with this here blog, created a cool Duff Guide to Ska logo all on his own as a gift to me (note the melodica at the top center of the logo--a great detail--we have one that I sometimes play while he plucks away at his bass guitar). I also like the large anime eyes, the Bart Simpson spikey hair, and the ever-present Homer Simpson five o'clock shadow. The kid don't miss a thing!

Right now, he's not a big fan of ska or reggae, but give it time, my friends. While letting him develop his own musical tastes (Green Day, Beatles), I've been insidiously introducing him to all sorts of New Wave and punk bands like the Ramones, Blonde, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, Elvis Costello, etc. And while I'm not pushing the ska, the other day while we were over at his uncle's house watching the "2-Tone Army" video that I made over a decade ago (which his uncle appears in), my son started singing along to the tune's chorus--and he could be heard singing it to himself later that night.

Let the indoctrination begin...