Sunday, May 20, 2018

Shots in the Dark: The Toasters' "Frankenska"

The Toasters' Frankenska (Unicorn Records, 1990)
with cover art by Steve Friel.
Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights so-called 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 Toasters’ first live album Frankenska was recorded in the summer of 1989 during the band’s maiden (and mostly underwhelming) tour of the UK--and ended up documenting the brilliant core of the band that was forging on despite still reeling from the surprise departure of their frontmen the Unity 2 just months previously (trombonist Ann Hellandsjo and alto saxophonist Marcel Reginatto also left in their wake). Less than a year earlier, The Toasters had released their fantastic second album, Thrill Me Up, which had reached #54 on the CMJ college radio charts and was starting to generate lots of press and industry attention, and they were headlining sold out shows all over the country. Literally and figuratively, The Toasters were going places fast. So, the Unity 2's unexpected exit (they had been lured away by Warner Bros. to capitalize on the blink-and-you-missed-it hip-hop/reggae craze of 1989-1990) threatened to destroy all that The Toasters had accomplished up until that point. When we asked about this episode, Toasters’ founder, guitarist, and primary songwriter Rob “Bucket” Hingley told us that the Unity 2 had "cold-cocked" the rest of The Toasters and "disrupted the unit intensely."

Sean “Cavo” Dinsmore recently explained to The Duff Guide to Ska why he and Lionel “Nene” Bernard left The Toasters: “The simple answer is that we weren’t happy just being in a ska band anymore. We were much more into dancehall and hip hop by that time. We had already recorded “Shirlee” for a WB compilation (Funky Reggae Crew) as Unity 2 and had been offered record deals from both Island and WB. After we came off the last cross-country tour [with The Toasters], we played a sold-out show at The Ritz and there was an A and R guy there from Island. In the dressing room we were like, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘I love it, but I only want to sign you two, not the whole band.’ After everything else that had been happening, it seemed like a sign from God. Of course, we still wrestled with it for a while, but it was inevitable. It was bittersweet for sure...No regrets at all, except I wish we had done the last few gigs that were on the schedule. We kind of left them in a tight spot. But it was so difficult because they were so clearly upset by it. Lionel and I just thought the road would be a nightmare for all of us if we went. Buck was very pragmatic and just wanted their asses covered, fair enough. But we couldn’t.”
A June 6, 1988 feature on The Toasters in New York Magazine, while Thrill Me Up was being
recorded (note that they refer to it by its working title at the time, Franken-Ska).

Indeed, The Toasters’ decision to embark on a UK tour and appear at the second London International Ska Festival was a Hail Mary of sorts, to shake off the Unity 2’s body blow and keep the band’s momentum going during a transitional period when they could just have easily broken up.

During a respite on that 1989 UK tour, Bucket told George Marshall of Scotland’s indispensable Zoot skazine, “We’ve been playing venues in town where people don’t even know who we are. We get a lot of letters from Europe, but I suppose they are just isolated pockets of fans...The ska scene’s further developed and not so underground in the States. Ska’s happening in the U.S. and it’s not just talk. It’s bigger now that it was during 2 Tone. We played in front of 1,000 people in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco when we toured, and in New York we had 2,000 people in The Ritz [at a show that included The NY Citizens and Bim Skala Bim].” In a recent interview with The Duff Guide to Ska, Bucket added, “I was surprised how quickly the ska scene had deteriorated in the UK after the zenith of 2 Tone. Some of the audiences were light indeed, but then again most people had never heard of us and some wouldn't come and see us because we were ‘Yanks.’”

Notably, this tour and live album marked the first and temporary appearance of singer/toaster Coolie Ranx in The Toasters’ line-up (which at the time consisted of Jonathan McCain on drums, Greg Grinnell--who worked with the Unity 2 on their What Is It, Yo? debut album--on bass, John Dugan on tenor sax, Steve “Hex” LaForge on keys, Vince Fossitt of Buffalo, NY’s The Great Train Robbery on alto sax, and Buck on guitar and vocals). Bucket recently recounted how he originally encountered Coolie back in 1989: “Coolie was living in Brooklyn at that time. I had discovered him when we were auditioning singers, one of whom had been Andre from Mephiskapheles, by the way. A friend from S.O.B.’s passed me a copy of this 12” single “Roughneck,” which sounded to me like a much more energized version of Shinehead. So, I went out to Crown Heights and tracked him down, much to the amusement of the Yardie drug dealers who lived in his building. They were impressed by the wraparound shades, black bomber jacket, and Kangol...When I met Coolie, I had an all-black minivan with tinted windows. Whenever I showed up at Coolie’s place--which was actually in Bushwick now that I think about it--which was deep in the hood back in those days, the Jamaican Yardies were at first suspicious because they thought I was a Fed. After that, they took a shine to me, as there weren’t that many white folks in that neighbourhood at that pre-hipster epoch.”

The Toasters live in London on June 12, 1989:
Bucket, Coolie Ranx, and John Dugan (left to right).
“Before I decided to sign on with The Toasters, I was a dancehall artist,” Coolie told The Duff Guide to Ska. “I put out a few songs and had already traveled to the UK when I was introduced to The Toasters by Catherine Tobias. She was managing Shinehead at the time, but they parted company. At the time, my song "Roughneck" was playing on the urban music stations and she heard the similarities between Shinehead and myself. She sought me out and proposed management of me. She said The Toasters had lost their two frontmen and suggested I audition and do a small run with them to Europe for me to gain stage experience (she wasn't aware of my history of opening up for most of the reggae acts that came from Jamaica to do stage shows). I had just returned from England singing in Saxon Sound when all of this happened upon me.”

Coolie continued, “At the time, I was a dancehall artist doing ska and had no intention of staying in the scene. It was meant to be as a one-off tour with them and I would resume my work in dancehall. It really was culture shock for me.” He would not resume his role as the official and wildly popular front man of The Toasters until a few years later (Cashew Miles and then Pablo Wright were the interim singers/toasters for the band who appeared on This Gun for Hire and New York Fever). “I had just returned from living in London from 1991-1993. I was walking in New York City when I ran into [Toasters drummer] Jonathan McCain’s girlfriend. She said he was back in The Toasters and they were playing that night. I went to check them out the show--this was in 1993. Buck spotted me in the audience with my friend Natty and from the stage he began shouting out to me and reminding me of past shows we did. After the show, he came over and said he wanted to catch up and have a drink later in the week. We met for a drink at Blanche's and there he proposed I rejoin the band.”

The London International Ska Fest II flyer that was included in
every album mail ordered from Unicorn at the time.
Both the second London International Ska Festival (held at The Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park, London on May 27-29, 1989 with Laurel Aitken, The Trojans, The Deltones, Potato 5, The Toasters, Skaos, Floyd Lloyd, Skaos, The Hotknives, The Busters, The Braces, The Ska-dows, Mr. Review, Les Frelons, Spy Club, Arthur Kay’s Originals, and The Skandal on the bill) and the Frankenska recording at the Town and Country II in Islington, London on June 12, 1989 had been organized by Unicorn Record’s label head Mark Johnson, while the other Toasters’ dates around the UK were booked by RPM, which was run by several ex-members of 2 Tone act The Bodysnatchers. While George Marshall opined in Zoot that The Toasters’ performance wasn’t their best at the London ska fest, there’s no question that the band had all cylinders firing for the Frankenska recording.

While the Frankenska set list is loaded with classic Toasters tunes from Recriminations through Thrill Me Up, it also featured a small preview of the band’s next album in the form of “One Track Mind” (this one’s better than the studio version). Coolie confidently takes the lead vocals on “Go Girl,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Thrill Me Up” (and delivers some amazing toasting on “Run Rudy Run”), as if he had been in the band forever instead of a few months. The versions of “Ska Killers,” “East Side Beat” (check out Greg Grinnell’s hilarious Beastie Boys-like rap--swapping out the one usually done by Cavo during an instrumental break in the song: “I live on the outskirts of a place--East Flatbush/Hot like Texas and twice as dangerous/Every second of my life was a thrill/For a walk on the wild side, there’s a place--Brownsville/It’s hard to chill when they turn up the heat/Come on boys, do the East Side Beat…”), and “Pool Shark” are positively scorching. Even The Toasters’ roadie for that tour Steven “Big Steve” Carroll is heard from--he shouts “Matt Davis, special agent” throughout the album opener. I was fortunate enough to catch The Toasters several times in NYC in 1988 and 1989--those gigs continue to be some of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever experienced--and despite the unfortunate departure of some of the crew, the remaining Toasters more than hold their own on Frankenska; this performance rates amongst the Thrill Me Up-era band’s best. George Marshall concurred in his review of Frankenska for Zoot: “Despite a below par performance at Ska Fest II, The Toasters did enough on their European tour to make this LP worthwhile. It benefits from concentrating on their earlier material like ‘Matt Davis,’ ‘East Side Beat,’ and ‘Weekend in L.A.,’ making it a fans’ album with all three sure to get you dancing away in the safety of your bedroom. There’s even a giveaway poster for freebie freaks.”

Also on the bill that evening with The Toasters at the Town and Country II were the Potato 5 and The Deltones. A recording of the Potato 5’s fantastic performance that night was released as Five Alive on Unicorn Records and captured incredible tracks like “Spit ‘n’ Polish” and “Stopped by a Cop” that the band didn’t have a chance to record in the studio before breaking up late in 1989, after a difficult US tour (with gigs that included Bim Skala Bim and The Donkey Show). Bucket recalled that “Potato 5 was an awesome band. They had recorded that classic album with Laurel Aitken and some of their tunes like “Western Special” were excellent. We got on well with them and they had a relaxed vibe. Deltones were a bit shambolic, but they had great singers (Dill) and those shows we played with them knocking around in South East London were a lot of fun.”

A large free poster inside every LP!
By taking a big risk on this tour, The Toasters’ fortune finally changed for the better, as the band’s absolutely terrific live show was recorded for posterity, the tour put them on the radar overseas (and led to regular gigs throughout Europe and beyond from that point on to the present day), and on their return to the States, they connected with a major league domestic booking agency (which allowed The Toasters to further develop the US ska touring circuit and support all of local ska scene across the country--and lay the groundwork that would kick-start the massive, mid-’90s US ska revival). “As it turned out, that gamble paid off handsomely, as it raised the profile of the band immensely and we were able to tour in Europe consistently after that smash debut,” Bucket assessed. “It was a hot band and we blew most of the European groups away. Upon our return to the USA, we were promptly signed to Falk and Morrow booking, which was a huge agency. That helped cement the US touring and, hey presto, we were now an international touring act.”

The only bum notes about this release are that The Toasters never received any royalties for Frankenska (or any other Unicorn release of theirs, including Pool Shark and the Naked City comp) and the album was never issued domestically in the US. In the early 1990s, Unicorn’s Mark Johnson reportedly fled the UK for Turkey (and later Thailand) to escape the tax man and, in the process, absconded with what he owed to all the label’s bands. But given The Toasters’ previous experiences with other imprints and distributors who ripped them off or went belly up throughout the 1980s, it came as no shock(er) at all.

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