Friday, May 28, 2010

New Kid British "Winner"

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of The Duff Guide to Ska that I am a big fan of Kid British (read this and this and you'll see why). So, I'm psyched to learn--courtesy of a tip from Sarah R., who was guiltily reading The Sun earlier today--that the band has a new World Cup Soccer-related Motown-meets-ska single "Winner," which will be released on June 28th.

Not that I am up on my footie, but the video features English World Cup soccer legend Sir Geoff Hurst and Manchester City player Nedum Onuoha, amongst others.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

NYC Gig Alert: Version City Party with Hub City Stompers, The Rudie Crew, The Moon Invaders, The Caroloregians, and Royal City Riot

Here's the skinny on the next big NYC ska show...

When: Saturday, June 5, 2010 (doors: 7:00 pm; show: 7:30 pm)
Where: Knitting Factory Brooklyn
How much: $10 in advance; $12 at the door

A Version City Party with...

Hub City Stompers
The Rudie Crew
The Moon Invaders
The Caroloregians
Royal City Riot

This promises to be an excellent show from start to finish, with three great local bands, plus two Belgian (!) vintage soul-ska-reggae acts, The Moon Invaders and The Caroloregians, who are touring the US (you can find releases from both bands through Jump Up Records).

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I thought it was grimly appropriate to use the VC Ivan O. Martin logo, considering what's going on in JA right now...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shots in the Dark: The Selecter's Celebrate the Bullet Revisited

To help prepare for my stint deejaying at the NY Beat 25th Anniversary party last month, I mail-ordered a copy of The Selecter's often overlooked and unfairly maligned Celebrate the Bullet (Captain Mod Records) on CD. Of course, I have vinyl and cassette copies of this album kicking around my collection, but I never happened to come across most of the extra tracks offered here (notably the single "The Whisper," two versions of "Train to Skaville," and "Last Tango in Dub," the b-side to the rare "Celebrate the Bullet" vinyl single--and the booklet includes good liner notes by George Marshall of "Zoot!," "Skinhead Times," and ST Publishing fame to put the album in perspective). Ever since it arrived, I've been playing the hell out of it, as it's been helping me get through some tough times.

At the time of Celebrate the Bullet's release in 1981, the high-pitched fever of 2 Tone had almost burned out (devoured from the outside by unrelenting hype and criticism in the press and from artistic and personal differences between The Selecter and Jerry Dammers within--which led The Selecter to leave 2 Tone, sign directly with Chrysalis, and create their own unnamed label in order to release their second album), and the socio-political mood in England was bleak: unemployment was high, welfare benefits were slashed, and Margaret Thatcher's conservative policies bluntly favored the rich and powerful at the expense and suffering of everyone else. In the midst of all this, The Specials' stunning swansong, the extraordinary Ghost Town EP, was like a bulletin from the front: the youth of the nation were purposeless and bored ("Friday Night, Saturday Morning"); social unrest was endemic ("Ghost Town"); and racial violence was all too common ("Why?"). So, it really should come as no surprise that Celebrate the Bullet, created in this kind of societal pressure cooker, would be a dark, bitter, difficult, and fiercely angry record, picking up where Ghost Town left off. There is no jubilantly upbeat "On My Radio," "Three Minute Hero," or "Too Much Pressure" here. The tenor of the times wouldn't allow it.

Without question, the songwriting, performances, and production on Celebrate the Bullet are all top-notch (and the band felt they had much to prove, as they were unhappy with their debut album, which they thought was rushed--indeed, it was only a matter of three months from their entering the studio until it hit the shops). From the second you put it on, Celebrate the Bullet is instantly recognizable as a Selecter album--though they explore the more mid-tempo ska and reggae-ish aspects of their sound here--which may have disappointed those expecting the same frenetic ska pace of their debut (plus their timing was off; by the time Celebrate the Bullet was released--ska was out, the New Romantics were in). Most notably, The Selecter's lyrics this time out are much more sophisticated, and vividly convey the apocalyptic fear and dread of that period, when the threat of nuclear annihilation (check out this lyric from "Their Dream Goes On": "Faces light up/glow in the daytime/they're all gone...") seemed more inevitable than ever with the election of cold warrior Ronald Reagan in the US, whose rhetoric and policies toward the USSR at the time only served to ramp up the friction between the superpowers. All in all, Britain--if not civilization itself--seemed to be teetering on the edge of the abyss, with everyone seemingly powerless to stop the plunge into darkness.

[Around this time, I remember going to an anti-nuke event at a church and actually being able to touch a ceramic roof tile from Hiroshima that had become so hot in that atomic blast that it had formed bubbles on its surface--which were frozen in time after it cooled. I also saw photos of people who had horrific radiation burns that kept me up late at night for years. It may seem far-fetched now, but back then a lot of us really did worry about dying in a nuclear holocaust; and we were under no illusions that "duck and cover" was going to save our asses.]

While "Celebrate the Bullet" is not about assassination specifically, the single was released around the same time that John Hinckley, Jr. shot President Reagan (and John Lennon had been assassinated only a few months earlier in New York City), so the BBC banned the song and it disappeared without charting. If the managers at the BBC had actually listened to the lyrics, they would have discovered that Pauline Black urges those burning to avenge a killing not to do so: "Put your finger on the trigger/But you don't have to pull it/'Cos you know it won't bring them/Back to you." Spin the globe right now, put your finger on a random spot, and these lyrics will be relevant to that location, considering all the civil wars, ethnic cleansing, sectarian strife, terrorism, and wars between nations currently raging out there. (And despite it being almost 30 years later, so much of what is covered on this album is so depressingly familiar.) The music itself is very similiar in tone and texture to The Selecter's debut instrumental single--though "Celebrate" includes some incredibly dramatic and evocative guitar flourishes. This track should have been huge.

"Deepwater" has strange resonance right now with the sci-fi-sounding Deepwater Horizon environmental mega-disaster and the terrible fact that an extraordinary number of Americans' homes are "underwater"--they owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth: "Deepwater, deepwater/I'm in trouble and I'm up to my neck again/Deepwater, deepwater, I'm out of money and it's banked by the fat-fish/Opening and closing their mouths/But there's no sound in my ears/I never wanted to be in deepwater again."

Throughout the 80s (and 90s), the thought and threat of a "Bombscare" was completely unfamiliar to most Americans (even though the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 should have forced some major changes in how we approached terrorist threats, domestic and foreign). The British, and Europeans in general, were sadly used to bombings perpetrated by homegrown terrorist groups. In the years since 9/11, I've been suprised that there haven't been more Times Square-type attempts (but I'm mighty happy that many have been foiled or fizzled!). But The Selecter are dead-on about their purpose: the palpable paranoia, fear, and distrust that they foster: "An unattended bag/in the corridor/Looking innocent/but we're all unsure."

Yet, The Selecter are not just concerned with decrying on the problems of the world. On Celebrate the Bullet, the relationships depicted between friends and lovers are marred by deep dysfunction--damaged by apathy and miscommunication ("Who Likes Facing Situations"); insecurity, loneliness, and anger ("Red Reflections"); character assassination ("Tell Me What's Wrong"); and alienation ("Washed Up and Left for Dead"). It was if the toxic relationships between nations and destructive policies of one's own government had trickled down to poison and corrode the bonds between everyday people.

"Selling Out Your Future," my favorite song on the album, vividly portrays the Cold War paranoia/siege mentality of the time. Pauline Black sings about people surrendering to their fears and trying to withdraw from the world and reality ("Drew the curtains/shut the lights/slept alone on the floor/But you couldn't stop the draft/creeping underneath the front door"). In exchange for this (false) security, they have failed to speak and stand up for their rights and for what's right ("You were taking your time/They were buying your mind/You had nothing to say/nothing to say/So nothing's said/Selling out your future...") and are now boxed into militarism, war, and mass destruction ("Switching on the colour vision/smiling faces lie to you/Faded voices crying Fall into line/then fall-out come tomorrow").

Despite being a seemingly upbeat tune, Celebrate the Bullet ends with "Bristol and Miami," which refers to race riots in both cities brought about by police state-like abuses (Sus laws in Bristol) and brutality (the beating death of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of five white police officers in Miami): "Bristol and Miami/where's it gonna be tomorrow/Anytime or anywhere/it's only time we borrow." The organized oppression of disenfranchised people is terribly universal, but so will be the furious payback. That violence is always lurking just beneath everyday life, just waiting to be set off.

Ska and reggae have a long and commendable history of speaking out against social injustice, which The Selecter uphold brilliantly on Celebrate the Bullet. It's just a damn shame that more people didn't tune in to receive the music and the message.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ska Baggage

My wife's keen eye caught this brief and weird ska reference when watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother (the write-up is from the AV Club):

The cold open introduces the gag: People's emotional baggage appears as luggage they're carrying around printed with their issues (Works In Porn, Still Thinks The Ska Band Is Going To Make It, Elvis Is Alive, Cubs Fan).
The video clip can be found here; the ska "baggage" can be spotted at around the 3:19 mark.

A cheap shot, but I still appreciate the mention.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Spring Heeled Jack Live Video

Thanks to Mike D. of The Establishment for this short Spring Heeled Jack video teaser from one of their recent reunion shows at Toad's Place in New Haven...

Mike and his crew shot the Friday night SHJ show with four cameras and he is now editing all the footage--though there are no plans to release the final product (yet). Stay tuned...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Duff Review: King Django Avenue A EP

Stubborn Records
10" EP

If you were to accuse any ska musician of having made a deal with the devil--his/her soul in exchange for the unflagging gift of ace songwriting and performing--King Django would certainly be on the short list. He's been on the ska scene since 1985--over a quarter of a century, yo!--and his four-track Avenue A EP is yet another superb entry in his already amazing and prodigious canon.

The title track is a breezily nostalgic ska tune that has Django pining for the early days of the NYC scene, when a major rude boy hangout--right near Blanche's bar--was the stretch of Avenue A ("black, white, and Asian skinheads out in the streets") at the edge of Alphabet City that ran alongside the then notorious drug market and homeless encampment known as Tompkins Square Park: "Prince Buster was blaring from the boombox on the roof of the car/Bob Marley, The Clash, The Jam, and The Specials/Only cross Avenue B just to cop some 'D'--that's "Downtown"/only enter the park if you had to pee/That's when it was really/Back when it was really/Back then it was really going down." It was kind of dirty and sometimes definitely dangerous--but the funky, pre-gentrification/Guiliani, anything-goes East Village of the 80s was inexpensive, diverse, and full of artists, musicians, and all kinds of freaks. It was the perfect place to spawn and nurture the ska subculture. The loss of this tight-knit scene, his youth, and a city that is no longer recognizable is palpable on the gorgeously bittersweet cover of The Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By" (key lyric: "I sit and watch the children play/Doin' things I used to do/They think are new").

On the flip side, you'll find a spirited cover of Floyd Dixon's jump blues tune "Hey, Bartender" (you might also be familiar with Laurel Aitken's cover of this track from The Blue Beat Years album), which lightens the mood. "Trying to Be Something" has a mean, strutting reggae groove that matches the defiant tone of the lyrics ("I don't want to plot/and I don't want to scheme/and I don't want to plan/said I only want to dream/I don't want to calculate my every movement...")--Django "doesn't want to work that hard," as wisdom through experience tells him that he has to be who he is; there is no other choice. And for that, we should be very grateful.

Time to buy or bust out the turntable for this one, kids.

The Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spring Heeled Jack Reunion Shows This Weekend

Not that the die-hard Spring Heeled Jack fans need any reminders (Across the Aisle singer and SHJ fanatic Megg Howe just texted me a little while ago to ask if I was going to either show). They are playing two all ages shows this weekend at Toad's Place in New Haven, CT: Friday, May 7 at 8:00 pm and Saturday, May 8 at 8:00 pm. There are some good openers too, including Tip the Van on Friday night and The Pietasters (!) on Saturday. Here's hoping that these gigs inspire SHJ to come down and visit NYC soon...


Check out the press preview coverage here (Moon gets some love!) and here (more love!).

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Update #2:

There is a review of the Friday night SHJ show in the Hartford Courant.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Duff Review: Babyhead "Jungle Law (Radio Edit)" b/w "Jungle Lore (Lupo's Dub Mix)"

Rockers Revolt Records

Bristol, UK's Babyhead combines big band vintage ska and old school dub with a modern hip-hop sensibility for a heavy, potent sound full of dread--think The Streets meet Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. This single, from their forthcoming album Heavy Weather (release date September 10, 2010 on Rockers Revolt Records), features "Jungle Law," a sinister, swaggering, and seductive tune (great bass and horn riffs here) that delineates the rules for surviving the mean streets in nothing but the bluntest terms: "Here is the law of the jungle/that's as old and as true as the sky/He that keep it shall prosper so/he that break it must die/As the streets that crisscross the city/the law runs forward and back/The strength of the pack is the wolf now/the wolf is the strength of the pack." What's particularly striking about this cut is that its sound manages to be both full and expansive, while being minimal and sparse and still able to land a powerful punch (like The Specials' "Ghost Town"). Lure Mad Professor into the studio with the master tapes and you can imagine what the superb versioning of this track-- "Jungle Lore (Lupo's Dub Mix)"--might sound like.

This is ska for the 21st century--completely cognizant of its roots and history, yet re-defined and re-imagined with contemporary and relevant attitudes and sounds. Babyhead's "Jungle Law" single is essential ska music for our future times--get it now!

[Both the limited edition 7" vinyl single and digital download of "Jungle Law" b/w "Jungle Lore (Lupo's Dub Mix)" will be released on June 1, 2010.]

The Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Duff Review: Mark Foggo - MAD

V2 Records

Mark Foggo is one of the few, wonderfully obstinate batch of musicians--alongside Bucket of The Toasters, Nick Welsh (King Hammond, Skaville UK, Bad Manners, Selecter), King Django, and others--who have been consistently producing high-quality ska since the post-2 Tone days of the mid-80s. Like many acts with origins in that era, Mark Foggo's ska sound has always been flexible enough to incorporate a wildly eclectic mix of influences--new wave, punk, 50s rock, and rockabilly--reminding one of the kind of offbeat acts that used to be featured on Stiff Records. (Come to think of it, Stiff acts Madness + The Untouchables + Ian Dury = Mark Foggo! Of course, he covered "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick" on his marvelous 1992 Couldn't Play Ska album.) No matter how you define or dissect his music, there is no doubt that he is an extraordinarily talented and versatile songwriter and musician.

Mark Foggo's eighth studio album, MAD, is stellar from start to finish--and crammed with instantly memorable, aggressively fast, minor-key tunes that create an unusual amount of claustrophobic tension for a ska record. His rhythm section is atomic-clock precise; the guitar and keyboard lines are gleefully frenetic; the horns deliver their goods like Muhammad Ali (landing their musical "blows" before your brain can process that they hit you); and his melodies are remarkably catchy. (The band seems to be always operating at maximum efficiency, so much so that you can practically hear the sweat dripping off the musicians.) All of this is topped off by the uninhibited, larger-than-life, and always entertaining antics of Mark Foggo himself.

The oftentimes surreal, comically absurd, and definitely twisted world of Mark Foggo is full of characters trying to make sense of senseless situations; survive in a system that, one way or another, appears to be dead-set on doing them in; or just flying their freak flags high and proud. MAD kicks off with "The Day I Met Muhammad Ali," written from the point of view of someone unwisely stepping into the ring to be pummeled (to death?) by Muhammad Ali in his prime ("With the help of rubber ropes/well, I'm running rings/I just hope if keep moving/he can hit other things/For sure, I've never seen anyone this tall/and I'm damn right certain I was never this small...") and uses one of Ali's signature taglines in the chorus. "Caravans" is a panoramic, Jam-like screed against RVs clogging up the roadways and gas stations in Europe ("See the snails with shells on their backs/running too fast with overloaded roof-racks"), while "Bang Me Head" is a terrifically upbeat tune about accepting that sometimes you just can't change the status quo ("Bang me head against an old brick wall, but it don't do nothing..."). "Rotten to the Core" is straight-on "Rumble in Brighton"-type rockabilly, delivering a warning to get out of town or suffer a beat down.

"Cybergirl" is about, well, um, looking at pictures of naked women on the web ("I could see her/She looked so good I could almost feel her!")--and its companion piece, "Sugarlover" has the singer on the prowl for "a girl with money/I'm looking round for a gal with looks." They're both done tongue-in-cheeky, but lust and greed motivate a good portion of the world's population, right? "Jump That Gate" is a loping reggae skank that in its verses has the singer pledging to amend his bad ways contrasting with the (Greek) chorus insisting that "nothing you can do can ever change any part of it."

The power-pop/new wave-ish "Watch the Clock" is a bitter clockwatcher's hymn: "I go to work and I waste my time/I pay my wages and they rob me blind." "Punch" is aggro-ska that demands "if he gets up again, then you've got to knock him down!" "Rollin' and Ridin" (a reference to the original slang for rock'n'roll, if you get my drift) incorporates a great turn-on-a-dime shift between minor-key verses and major key choruses (that feature an earthy, kick-ass Bill Haley/Chuck Berry sax riff). Mark Foggo does his best Johnny Rotten on "EU"--wondering where his "punk rock subsidy" is (apparently there is one for every other trade group), and the album is (sweetly) capped off with him trying to put into words how it feels when a lover is absent on the calypso-tinged "What It Feels Like" ("It's like when someone hits you low/It's like the music's running slow/It's like a secret you don't know/That's what it's like").

MAD is already on The Duff Guide to Ska's "Top Ten Ska Albums of 2010"--and is absolutely one of the best written, performed, and sounding ska records we've heard in a long, long time. Buy MAD now!

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A+

[After this review was posted, one of The Duff Guide to Ska readers pointed out that five of the songs on MAD ("Sugarlover," "Rollin' and Riding," "Cybergirl," "Punch," and "Rotten to the Core") had previously appeared on the album "Skake the Baby" (2000) by one of Mark Foggo's side projects, The Babyshakers. The versions of these tracks included on MAD appear to be new recordings of these tracks.]

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Check out The Duff Guide to Ska interview with Mark Foggo here.