Friday, March 27, 2009

The Toasters in Trouser Press!

This posting might just be for the ska geeks, fanboys, and obsessives out there, but for those of you who give a damn (and I know you're out there!), The Toasters have FINALLY been recognized in the "the bible of alternative rock," Trouser Press.

For the uninitiated, Trouser Press started in 1974 as kind of a rock music fanzine that really hit its stride in the 80s with its extraordinary coverage of the New Wave music scene. Then, beginning in 1983, they published several Trouser Press Record Guide books, the most essential of which was the Fourth Edition, which still offers the best coverage of New Wave music out there, and includes reviews of key 2 Tone-era albums (my dog-eared copy is one of my most prized music reference books). Currently, every review Trouser Press printed is housed on their website, and this vital archive of alternative music reviews continues to be augmented with new entries every few weeks.

The Toasters' overview in Trouser Press includes this assesment of Buck's and the band's accomplishments:
Bucket has endured just about every kind of trouble that can beset a working musician. He has been the Toasters' sole constant member; as of early 2009, nearly three dozen players have come and gone from the ranks. He has faced all the financial and legal challenges of running an independent label — including shutting it down and starting a new one. The ups and downs in ska's popularity haven't helped either. Through it all, though, Buck's generosity of spirit, his refusal to bow to adversity and his genuine love for ska have kept the Toasters going for an uninterrupted quarter-century, still releasing albums of new material and playing to enthusiastic audiences around the globe. For all the acclaim that fairly accrued to the 2 Tone bands, none of them can say the same.
The entry goes on to include spot-on reviews of all of The Toasters' key albums, from "Recriminations" to "One More Bullet"--and gives "New York Fever," a record that helped re-ignite version 4.0 of The Toasters during the early 90s, the long-overdue recognition it earned. (Just to give it some context, The Toasters seemed to struggle a bit to regain their equalibrium after the Unity 2 split for short-lived major label glory and the fantastic "Skaboom"/"Thrill Me Up"-era Toasters dissolved in '89/'90--and "New York Fever" was the broadside they unleashed to declare they were back in the fight.) The wham, bam, thank you ma'am hat trick of "New York Fever," "Ploughshares into Guns," and "History Book" still raises the hair on the back of my neck, and "Shebeen," even if you dock it a few points for swiping the War horn riff, remains one of the catchiest pop tunes ever to reference Prince Buster (take that Madness)!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Duff Guide to Ska on MySpace!

Shock, horror! The Duff Guide to Ska is slowly and painfully entering the 21st century, well behind most other folks in the industrialized world. We're now on MySpace at Please visit. Become my friend. E-mail me cool tips on how to spruce up the page. Anything. The page is kind of pathetic right now.

I'm supposed to be on vacation, but the day job responsibilities are too pressing (we have a big event coming up in April), so I haven't had much time to write and post here. (Though, I am really happy to have a job and a job that I really like.) My apologies to you the reader. I will try to make it up to you at some point...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dirty Revolution - It's Gonna Get Dirty...(EP)

Do the Dog Music

Wales-based Dirty Revolution offers up a good hybrid of rough and ready, guitar-based punky-reggae/ska similar to Citizen Fish, though this band sports alternating male and female vocalists (always welcome in ska--why aren't there more female-fronted ska bands?!--Reb Sutton has a terrific, powerful voice, reminding one of Rhoda Dakar). On this five-song CD EP (all tracks can be sampled on their MySpace page), Dirty Revolution also share many of the same concerns as Citizen Fish with their socially-conscious lyrics promoting peace, understanding, unity, and freedom (no complaints here).

"Dirty Revolution" is the band's fired-up manifesto: everything that is messed up in the world can only be solved by all of us getting our hands dirty, so to speak (Everybody knows the times are changing/Everybody sees the mess we're making/Everybody's in the fight we're facing/If it's set on fire only we can save us"). "I Love Reggae" recounts the tale of being tripped up by subcultural signifiers--trying to pick up a skinhead she assumes is anti-racist...("I said I love reggae/I said I love ska/He said he loved Screwdriver...You can call me naive/call me stupid/I can't believe people still listen to nazi music...Him and me wear the same clothes?"). Either way, an ironic lesson in judging a book by its cover, eh?

"Failure to Communicate" features a great melodica line, while noting how far too many people talk at each other and, as a result, solve nothing ("Now everybody's talking and I think that what is missing/Is ability to listen to what is being said/Instead of blankly nodding your head/Ignoring what you hear 'cos you're waiting for your chance to speak"). "50p" is a funny, kind of sweet deflating of idiotic superstar posturing (a la 50 Cent and Britney), while the hard, angry reggae skank of "Police" (melodica here, too!) bemoans the fact that the coppers never seem to be around while things are going to hell, but "as soon as you deviate from the norm/then they'll come/then they'll swarm."

Dirty Revolution is certainly an up-and-coming band to keep tabs on--can't wait to see what they're going to bring to the barricades next time...

Grade: B/B+

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Duff Interview: Chris "The Kid" Acosta of The NY Citizens

(Editor's note: Chris "The Kid" Acosta of the late and great NY Citizens--he is pictured at the center of this promo shot, sitting on a table--was kind enough to submit to the following questions from The Duff Guide to Ska. If you are unfamiliar with the band, back in the late 80s and early 90s, the NYCs were amongst the top bands on the New York ska scene, along with The Toasters and The Scofflaws (when Mike Drance, now of The Bluebeats, was in the band). Be sure to click on and read their press kit, which is a blast, since you have to read between the lines to figure out that they are a ska band! A fairly comprehensive NY Citizens' discography can be found here).

The Duff Guide to Ska: Exactly when and how did The NY Citizens form (and how does Legal Gender fit into things)? What were the band's primary musical influences?

Chris Acosta: I met lead singer Robert Tierney in college [NY Tech], where we were both studying graphic design (which helped out since we both designed the NY Citizens' album covers, and I went on to design a few album covers for The Toasters and some Moon compilations as well). Rob already was in a band called Legal Gender and most of the original members of the NY Citizens where already in that band (drummer Mike Hicks, guitarist Dan Marotta, bassist Paul Gil). Dan Marotta was at Manhattan College and there is where we met soon-to-be keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik for the NY Citizens.

At that time, Legal Gender had a nice danceable "new-wavesque" sound (with punk and rock in the mix for sure) with some songs that definitely had a Jamaican influence, like "Key Largo." At that time, I was into ska and immediately liked the band and tried to help out with some gigs. Legal Gender later went on to record "Overcast," which aimed towards the direction of ska/mod influences and that is where you get to hear me play the coconuts for the very first time! (Rob thought it was great to imitate the horse galloping sound like in the Monty Python movie "The Holy Grail").

As we progressed more into ska type of material, we decided to change the name of the band to the NY Citizens. I suppose since we all came from different parts of the city and all had our own unique musical tastes (Dan loved metal, Paul like punk, Rob and I liked dance music and Jamaican stuff, etc.), it only made sense.

DGTS: With each release ("On the Move", "Stranger Things Have Happened," the "Brooklyn's on Fire" red vinyl single), The Citizens seemed to incorporate more musical genres into their sound than other NYC or American ska bands during the late 80s and early 90s (with the exception of say Fishbone or The Untouchables)--was this something that happened organically, was it just a New York City thing (the downtown scene at the time broke down all kinds of musical barriers), or a conscious decision to reach audiences beyond the ska kids?

The Kid: Like I said earlier, we were all individually into different musical genres. We all liked each other's musical tastes and it showed as we practiced new songs. I don't really think we ever said "we're going to be a ska band." Instead, we wrote songs that had that influence. I suppose in our earlier tracks you heard more ska, but as we continued to play, especially live, our repertoire incorporated more sounds.

It is true that growing up in NYC you are exposed to more sounds than you can even handle. Luckily, at that time, we had a lot of great music around us (New Wave was not completely done, hip-hop had groups like A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, and De La Soul; and some of my personal favorites sounds, dub and "deep-underground House," were at their height!).

DGTS: To me, The NY Citizens are one of the great lost American ska bands of the pre-internet age--there is very little information out there about the group. What are three things that everyone should know about the band?

The Kid: I can tell you that we definitely wanted people to dance to our music. It didn't matter so much which song genre it sounded like, as long as you could dance your ass off to it (we loved to see a mixed audience). Although our live shows captured that message best, perhaps listening to "The Truth About the NY Citizens" might give you an idea where we were coming from.

DGTS: I only saw the NYCs live a few times--and the band's performances were always amazing. Are there any recordings of shows that are kicking around in the Citizens' vaults, just waiting to be released?

The Kid: We probably do have some tracks that were recorded, however I'm not sure if they will ever be released.

DGTS:What are some of your favorite NY Citizens songs and why?

The Kid: I loved "Boxer Shorts" personally because it was a little "up-startish ska" at the time with the ska beat really, really fast and this really cool "heavy metal/dance beat dub" break part in the middle made it so much fun (especially live). I think that song opened the way for other bands to change the tempo on how to play in a "ska" band and not be afraid to incorporate other sounds (which we can still hear today).

DGTS: An old issue of George Marshall's great "Zoot" skazine noted that NYCs did at least one national US tour after "On the Move" was released. Where did you go and what were some the bands that you played with? Did you ever make it over to Europe?

The Kid: We went on three across the nation tours and countless gigging up and down the East Coast. We played in Boston (many times with the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones and the Allstonians); Trenton's City Gardens (opening up for the Ramones and once for Eek-A-Mouse); Chicago (at Medusa's etc.), California's Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach; the Whisky A-Go-Go in Hollywood; Gillman St. in Berkeley; Spanky's in Riverside; the Country Club in Reseda (No Doubt actually opened up for us!); Mudbugs in Tuzcon, AZ; St. Andrew's in Detroit; 9:30 Club in Washington, DC; and even up to Toronto for a ska festival with The Toasters and bunch of great ska bands at the time!

We also had the distinct pleasure of playing along with Mick Jones' Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D.), Ziggy Marley, They Might Be Giants, Fishbone, APB, Murphy's Law, War-Zone, The Skatalites, The Unity Two (former frontmen Sean and Lionel of The Toasters), and a whole bunch of really cool bands we met on our travels!

DGTS: What led to the Citizens breaking up in 1994?

The Kid: Believe it or not, while we were playing gigs and touring, most of us were still in college. By 1994, some of us were graduating/or had graduated and decided to go on to pursue other ambitions (Dan Marotta is now a lawyer, for example). Other members from the latter days of the NY Citizens did go on to form other bands, most notably Dem Brooklyn Bums Swing Band, where bass player Rob "Stinky" Cittadino became the front man on stand-up bass with Dave Mullen on saxophone (he currently has a dj/jazz band called Butta) and Rich Zuckor on drums.

DGTS: If the NYCs had reunited in say 1996 or '97 during the ska-boom in the US, you would have been huge...was there ever any talk about reunion gigs back then?

The Kid: I think you're right about us probably being successful. The sound that was coming from some of the bands in '96 and '97 was something we had already done years earlier, but by this time it wasn't the same. We loved this band and were happy to leave it peacefully...

DGTS: After the band broke up, you went on to produce the "Latin Ska" compilations for Moon. Did any of the other members of the Citizens turn up in other third wave ska bands (Robert Tierney was in the Atwood 9, right)?

The Kid: I did two compilations and even scouted out potential Latin ska bands from around the globe for the Moon Records label. I had a lot of fun putting together those compilations because to some Latin countries the whole third wave sound was new. Also my parents are Spanish and it gave me a sense of pride for the culture. Aside from Rob's Atwood 9, I don't think I really know of some of the other ex-members joining/forming ska bands (swing yes, ska I don't remember).

DGTS: Lastly, can you explain your "Kid Coconuts" nickname for readers who may not have had the chance to see The NY Citizens live?

The Kid: I first played the coconuts on Legal Gender's "Overcast." I then managed to somehow play the coconuts on almost ever song (not always successfully). I did lend out my "nuts" and played cameos with The Toasters from time to time. But it was mostly a novelty, something to make the audience get excited (they used to go crazy when my coconuts would bust out on stage!). Mostly though, I was a dance man and the NY Citizen sure made me dance!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Ska Splash: A Toasters Reunion (of sorts) and The Return of The Citizens!

What: Ska Splash
Where: Highline Ballroom, Chelsea/NYC
When: 2/22/09
Who: The Toasters, NY Ska Jazz Ensemble,
Westbound Train, Dave Hillyard & the Rocksteady 7,
Hub City Stompers, Across the Aisle

Sorry to report that this is not a proper show review--more like notes from the gig--as my night was split between catching the bands in action, downing some beers, and blabbing with various scenesters. So it goes.

First off, The Toasters put on a extraordinarily strong show, with Buck handling all of the vocals (I don't think I've ever seen him do that...there's always been either Vicky, the Unity 2, Cashew, Pablo, Coolie, Jack Ruby, Jason, and more over the past 25+ years to share in the vocal duties). They played most of the standard hits that you'd expect ("East Side Beat," "Shocker"), plus some of my favorite cuts that I haven't heard live in ages including "Go Girl" (with one of my favorite New York City-centric lines: Danceteria was where you could find her/and at CBGBs she could be seen/or at any club you've ever been...) and "History Book."

The real news of the night was the mini Dub 56-era Toasters reunion! Towards the end of The Toasters set, Ska Splash promoter (and ex-Skatalites manager) Shay Vishawadia literally shoved a "I'm just visiting" Coolie Ranx on stage to toast during one of the band's encores. "Rocksteady" Freddie Reiter (who played a terrific set earlier that night with his NYSJE) was already up there with several other brass players for the usual "Matt Davis" horn-a-thon. The crowd loved it, of course! (In the photo above, Coolie is center stage in bomber hat, Buck to the right, and "Rocksteady" Freddie is four horn players in from the left.)

That night we also experienced a "Life on Mars" flashback to 1989 or so with the appearance of two of The NY Citizens! Recently, I've been in touch with Chris "Kid Coconuts" (or "The Kid") Acosta about an interview he and Dan "D.C." Marotta are doing for The Duff Guide to Ska (which hopefully will be up soon...). In one our e-mails back and forth, I mentioned that Buck and The Toasters were playing a gig soon and that I was planning to go, blah, blah. Nevertheless, I was kind of shocked when I spotted both of them talking to Buck by the bar (he later gave them a shout-out from the stage and dedicated "History Book" to The NYCs). I've got to say that it was pretty cool to see some of the key players from the early NYC ska scene all in one place this many years out...

(In the photo below are "The Kid," Buck, and D.C. Marotta, left to right, after The Toasters set.)

All of the other bands on the bill that night--NYSJE, Westbound Train, Dave Hillyard, Hub City Stompers, and Across the Aisle--put in good to great performances (with HCS unleashing a palpable, menacing charge in the air during their set).

It may have seemed like a good idea beforehand, but this type of activity really should really be discouraged. During Westbound Train's set, singer and trombonist Obi Fernandez stopped the show so some some guy could come on stage, grab the mic, and ask his lady friend to be his wife. Thing was that the dude was stone cold drunk and could barely spit out his proposal, let alone stand vertical. Thankfully, she said yes, and the world started spinning again. The whole travesty was no doubt videotaped--but should never be viewed by the grandkids or the bride-to-be's parents.

I do wonder if it has made it to You Tube yet...

Thanks to Buck, Shay, and Jeremy for their hospitality. Congrats (twice!) and godspeed to Brett and his wife.

Jer, we'll hang out more the next time you are in the NYC.

Pix by me.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Duff Review: Nick Welsh- The Soho Sessions

Moon Ska World

In a genre that is typically populated by eight or nine member bands (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, singer, and horn section), it's still a relatively brave soul who bucks the prevailing conventions by performing his or her ska tunes accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar. Chris Murray (AKA Venice Shoreline Chris and previous front man for King Apparatus) was one of the first to successfully go this lo-fi, Woody Guthrie "have guitar, will travel" route back in 1996 with the excellent, vintage ska-sounding Four-Track Adventures of Venice Shoreline Chris.

While Chris Murray specifically wrote his ska tunes for the acoustic guitar, Nick Welsh, on The Soho Sessions, takes some of the best tracks from his career as a member of (and powerhouse songwriter behind) Bad Manners, Buster's All Stars, The Selecter, Big 5, and his current group Skaville UK--and distills these fully-realized productions down to their melodic essence. The results of this re-interpretation of his songbook--and this album is arguably his greatest hits collection--are uniformly good to great. Nick writes extraordinarily catchy ska melodies that stay with you for ages, but what is surprising here is how some of the stripped down acoustic versions of these tunes sometimes surpass the originals (see "Thank God I'm Not Like You" from Skaville UK's 1973 with its amazing cello riff).

I'm not sure if a familiarity with Nick's back catalogue is a prerequisite to fully appreciating The Soho Sessions (if you don't already own some of the albums mentioned below, you really should go out and buy them now), but it certainly can't hurt, and it's fascinating to compare the original recordings with the revamps to see what Nick deemed worth keeping and what he discarded.

"Return of the Ugly" (from Bad Manners' rollicking stompfest of the same name--one of my favorite ska albums ever--which re-launched a post-2 Tone era Buster & Co. into the 90s and beyond) kicks off the album and is perhaps the one song here that is most faithful to its original, losing none of its energy and aggressiveness (plus you can actually understand the lyrics, which wasn't the case with Buster singing: "Like a scratched 45 on an old dansette/this gonna be the best one yet!"). The glorious "Symphony of Love" (from The Selecter's Unplugged with the Rude Boy Generation) is a newly discovered gem for this reviewer. The light, almost satirical tone of Buster's All Stars' "Skinhead Love Affair" (from Skinhead Luv-A-ffair, naturally) is replaced here with sincerity and regret, making it more of a semi-pathetic scene from a misspent youth: "She said: 'Skinhead, can't you see/It's over, it's over'" (the subtle bass guitar overdub during the chorus is a nice touch).

"Memory Train" (also from Bad Manners' Return of the Ugly) now has more bite and anger in its emotional starkness--he can't live with or without her in the present, so it's time to escape to happier times in his head. Even "Since You've Gone Away" (also from Return of the Ugly) is more achingly despondent than the original. It seems in this setting, Nick's happy love songs (like "Stay with Me Baby," with its great, creepy mellotron organ, and originally from his extraordinary skinhead reggae alter-ego King Hammond and the Blow Your Mind album; and Bad Manners' "Rosemary") are slinkier, sexier, and more seductive, while the broken-hearted tracks are bleaker and cut deeper than ever.

"Bad Man" (from Skaville UK's second album, Decadent) is transformed into a rave-up cousin of T Rex.'s glam smash 'Bang a Gong." "Outrageous" (from In Yer Face by Big 5) ditches its rock 'n' roll grandiosity for a more direct plea for peace, love, and understanding. "Non Shrewd" (from Buster's All Stars' Skinhead Luv-A-ffair), which had a Western/Mexican tilt to it, is re-versioned with melodica and dubby effects. The album is capped with a fine new country-ish anti-violence/drug track, "Johny, Don't Take Your Gun to Town."

If the original recordings of Nick's songs are the soundtrack to one's brilliant Saturday night on the town, then The Soho Sessions is the perfect Sunday morning ska record to listen to while nursing your wounds. Highly recommended! (Plus, you have to love any album that credits the busses that delivered the artist to the recording studio!)

Grade: A

(Note: some of the Return of the Ugly and Skinhead Luv-A-ffair tracks first appeared on the Bad Manners fan club-only Eat the Beat LP in 1988, which has been re-released on CD by several labels; however, Eat the Beat is generally not considered to be a proper album in its own right.)

You're Wondering Now: Jerry Dammers vs. The Specials

Here's a bit of an enigmatic article from The Independent (UK) that tries to suss out the reasons behind Jerry Dammers' absence from The Specials' 30th anniversary tour: "Ska Wars: Why Isn't Jerry Dammers Playing on The Specials' Sell-Out Reunion Tour Next Month?"

Reading between the lines, it seems like Jerry doesn't want the tour to be a nostalgic, note-by-note faithful re-creation of The Specials circa 1979--he, I think rather admirably, wants something else in the mix (new songs, updated interpretations of the classics, etc.). After all, we've had various combinations of The Specials and other 2 Tone-era groups touring the land since the mid 90s (Special Beat, anyone?) playing all the old hits. Also,it seems like Jerry and Terry still haven't worked out their differences since 1981...

The money quotes:
As an avowed radical he [Dammers] is disturbed by what he sees as the "extremely conservative" musical approach of his peers and alarmed by their plans to dress in tonic suits made by a company that boasts of the exclusively British origin of its garments. "Is that what The Specials was about? I don't know," he asks rhetorically. They may have had a big skinhead following, but The Specials were a great symbol of racial harmony, and after the first break-up Dammers went on to compose the anti-Apartheid anthem "Free Nelson Mandela".
Before he finishes talking, Dammers asks me to switch the voice recorder back on to say he still hasn't given up hope of participating in the reunion, even at this late hour. He seems pained that he and Hall have grown so far apart. "Obviously I made loads of mistakes in The Specials. I'm not trying to take all the credit. But Roger Daltrey stuck with Pete Townshend through his development as a human being and I think Terry [Hall] owes me that, given it was my songs that brought him to the attention of the public in the first place."

The other six Specials, he believes, will read this piece. "They will either react against it, or stop and think about what I'm trying to say," he says. "I never give up. Maybe they will have a change of attitude."