Monday, September 20, 2021

Duff Review: John Bunkley "Sunshine and Chocolate"

The watercolor painting on the cover depicts Bunkley dancing face to face with a woman in a dress on the hood of a car.
Cover watercolor painting by John Bunkley
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Long-time ska fans will know John Bunkley as the lead singer from the fantastic late '80s/early '90s Detroit ska band Gangster Fun. Bunkley recorded two albums with that band--both essential first generation American ska records (Come See, Come Ska in 1989 and Time Flies When You're Gangster Fun in 1992; their ska "hits" were "Mario's Hideout," "I'd Buy a Gun," and "Fat Lady Skank")--and if you were into swing in the late '90s, he also was in The Atomic Fireballs (something I learned in Kenneth Partridge's Hell of a Hat: The Rise of '90s Ska and Swing). Bunkley is back in the ska fold with a magnificent new six-track EP of rocksteady songs "about people breaking up with me," as he commented during a recent show with Bim Skala Bim in Brooklyn. Co-produced and co-performed by Eric Mazurak (of The Tellways), Bunkley's Sunshine and Chocolate (Vinyl/digital, Paradise Valley Records, 2021) is a beautifully crafted collection of hook-packed love songs. And everything just works--the contrast of Bunkley's wonderfully gruff and expressive voice with the shimmering music; the many fantastic small details, like the deft touches of organ, percussion, and guitar licks, and how the back-up vocals (some by Rachel Stokes of The Tellways) provide just the right punctuation and bursts of emotion; and the confidently intentional and unfussy arrangements of each track.

In "Sunshine and Chocolate," love is chemical and triggers the pleasure zones in our brains that bring us immense joy and satisfaction. Bunkley sings: "You so, so high baby/That's how you make me feel/I know I'm not that crazy/I know this love is real/You know you've got me sweating/And working overtime/I'm spending all my spare change/My nickels and dimes/You're like sunshine and chocolate/Melting in my pocket..." Whereas, the super catchy "Addicted" posits that love is a drug to consume (and illicit at that): "This love has been tried and convicted/Arrest me, 'cause I so addicted/Don't want to be your defendant/I'm so addicted."

Sometimes, as in the upbeat "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," you have to work a long week for love (in a song that reminds me of XTC's "Earn Enough for Us" without the anxiety): "Monday, landlord says he needs the rent/Tuesday, work twelve hours, just have it spent/Wednesday, digging holes, long days in the ditch/Thursday, kisses from my love, now I feel rich!" Other times, you have to be optimistic and keep trying to find it; and occasionally you luck out, stumbling across it (as in "Once in a While I Find Love"): "The game begins when you throw the first pitch/And I'm begging you--please--with this/A prospector looks for gold until he's rich...I live my life on kisses and hugs/I'm high on this and you are my drug/I take my time with pushes and shoves/And once in a while, I find love." The EP closes with "Stars," a hopeful, but dark around the edges, lullaby of sorts for grown-ups: "And there are no monsters outside my door/'Cause the stars are shining on me."

Don't sleep on John Bunkley's Sunshine and Chocolate--it's one of the best records I've heard all year.

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Friday, September 17, 2021

Duff Gig Review: Bim Skala Bim featuring John Bunkley of Gangster Fun at Arrogant Swine, Brooklyn, NY (9/16/21)

(by Steve Shafer)

Last night, I was lucky to catch American ska trailblazers Bim Skala Bim in a rare NYC performance at Arrogant Swine in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The band is making its way down from Boston to the Supernova Ska Festival in Virginia this weekend--though without lead singer Dan Vitale, who, at the last minute, was unable to make the tour. Fortunately, John Bunkley of the late '80s/early '90s Detroit ska act Gangster Fun was able to sub on vocals (and he has an excellent new rocksteady EP titled Sunshine and Chocolate that I'll be reviewing shortly). Bim's fantastic set (which emphasized tracks from their first three albums, as well as their latest LP Sonic Tonic, which I reviewed here) included "Bangin'," "Digging a Hole," "Jah Laundromat," "Solitary Confinement," "Better Get Out," Marley's "Hypocrite," "Summer of Ska," "Go Back," "Lightning," a cover of Gangster Fun's 1989 breakout underground hit (from their debut LP Come See Come Ska) "Mario's Hideout," and much more. 

Below, you'll find videos I shot of the band playing "Lightning" and "Mario's Hideout." Bim and Bunkley play the Pie Shop in Washington, DC tonight (9/17) and Supernova on Saturday (9/18). 




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Monday, September 13, 2021

NYC Ska Calendar: This Week It's One-Two Punch of Ska with Bim's Boston Bluebeat vs. The Toasters' East Side Beat!

Let's just say that it's been a very long time since we've seen these two OG '80s American ska bands play NYC during the same week (plus old schoolers Beat Brigade!). So, if you're in the New York metro area, this is a good week to get out and see some great live ska music (and it's a bit of a consolation if you're not able to make it down to the Supernova Ska Festival). Details are below (and don't forget to bring proof of vaccination!)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Mephiskapheles, Bim Skala Bim, The Hempsteadys PLUS the NYC premiere of the New England Ska Summit documentary film
Arrogant Swine (they have AMAZING BBQ here)
173 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

6:00 pm: Doors open
7:00 pm: NYC premiere of the documentary New England Ska Summit
9:00 pm The Hempsteadys
10:00 pm Bim Skala Bim w/John Bunkley (of Gangster Fun)
11:20 pm Mephiskapheles
Tix: $25 in advance/$30 day of show
18+

Friday, September 17, 2021 @ 6:00 pm

The Toasters, Beat Brigade, The Rudie Crew, The Lousekateers, The Monkeychunks
Kingsland
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
Tix: $17.95
16+

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Friday, September 10, 2021

Duff Review: Kenneth Partridge "Hell of a Hat: The Rise of '90s Ska and Swing"

The book cover features various ska bands performing or posing for promotional photos.(Review by Steve Shafer)

[Full disclosure: I was interviewed for and am quoted in this book, since I was Moon Records' director of promotions, marketing, and production from 1991-1999.]

I'm really of two minds regarding Ken Partridge's Hell of a Hat: The Rise of '90s Ska and Swing (Hardcover, Penn State University Press, 2021). On one hand, it's a very good and engaging read, providing an excellent and oftentimes insightful overview of the bigger, mostly ska-punk, ska-pop, and swing bands that made it relatively big in the 1990s. In doing so, Hell of a Hat focuses on the rise and inevitable fall of acts that made it to major or major-label backed labels and flirted with or achieved stardom, such as the Bosstones, Sublime, No Doubt, Rancid, Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris, Goldfinger, Dance Hall Crashers, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Less Than Jake, Suicide Machines, Buck-O-Nine, MU330, Mustard Plug, Stubborn All-Stars, Hepcat, Pietasters, Slackers, Spring Heeled Jack, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Royal Crown Review, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. During that decade, I was so immersed in all things ska that I knew practically zilch about the swing scene beyond that when ska was declared dead in 1998, swing was the music industry's next shiny thing, and that one of the former members of The NY Citizens was in the local swing band Dem Brooklyn Bums (Chris "Kid Coconuts" Acosta told me about 'em). So, I learned a fair amount from this book--in particular, the Royal Crown Revue's story is pretty compelling, and I had no idea that Gangster Fun's John Bunkley was in Detroit swing band The Atomic Fireballs.

On the other hand, as someone who was directly involved in promoting the ska scene, it's a bit maddening to read a history of this era of American ska and find that Moon Records is depicted as a minor player, almost a footnote, really. The chapter on Moon starts 174 pages in and is done ten pages later, and much of it is devoted to certain bands bellyaching that the label didn't do enough to make them stars, even though nothing of the sort was ever proffered. Though, to be fair, he does mention Moon on page four and describes the label as "a major driver in the ’90s ska explosion." (And I have to admit to being disappointed that Partridge didn't include my tale of how The Slackers' manager at the time allegedly stole Moon's promo list from my apartment office and brought it to Epitaph, where she was made head of Hellcat; we realized the theft/betrayal had gone down when a Hellcat promo mailer was sent to one of our dummy addresses--a fake name, but using Moon's post office box!--that we used to check that our promo mailings went out.) Moon was an indie ska label with a punk rock attitude, just like Lookout or Dischord, and it sometimes managed to punch above its weight--but we never sold ourselves as anything otherwise. Having said that, Moon built the foundation for much of what transpired in ska during the '90s and helped promote/establish dozens of well-known acts when they were in their infancy. No one was championing ska music like Moon was--particularly in the first half of the '90s. I'd wager that if Moon hadn't been around, that decade's ska boom would never have happened. 

While there are several key traditional and modern ska bands mentioned in the periphery of Hell of a Hat (who did quite well for indie-label acts), the premise of the book seems to be that only the bands who made it to the cusp of fame or superstardom should make up the story of that era. It's a capitalist's version of the history of American ska, based on record sales and Billboard charts, and it's incomplete (particularly since the music industry really only knew how to market ska that was more punk or pop--and the more mainstream music audiences were only into those kinds of sounds, not 2 Tone-influenced or traditional ska).

Having said all that, if you're a ska-punk and/or ska-pop fan, you absolutely will enjoy Hell of a Hat--it covers that aspect of '90s ska very well and is a valuable addition to the growing library of books on American ska.

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If you're in the NYC area on Tuesday, September 28, there is a Hell of a Hat book launch party at Mama Tried in Brooklyn from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm with DJ Ryan Midnight playing '90s classics.

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Thursday, September 2, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Articles "Action Claw vs. Gorilla Grip"

The illustration features two robot-like creatures facing off; one has claws for hands, while the other has oversize gorilla paws.
(Review by Steve Shafer)

Detroit's mid-to-late '90s ska-jazz greats The Articles--who were often favorably compared to The Skatalites, Jump With Joey, and NY Ska Jazz Ensemble--released their debut album Flip F'Real in 1997 on Moon Ska, which was produced by Victor Rice and featured a mix of fantastic original instrumentals and covers of tunes by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Joe Henderson, Laurel Aitken, and The Skatalites. [Full disclosure: I had the great pleasure of working with The Articles when I was at Moon.] Tower Records Pulse! reviewer Norman Weinstein gave it four and a half stars and ranked it as the #1 reggae release of '97. While the band appeared on many comps (including Skarmageddon 3, Love and Affection, and the Bang movie soundtrack--all on Moon), they didn't get a chance to release a follow-up album before the bottom fell out on the US ska scene and Moon shuttered its doors at the end of that wild decade.

Unbeknownst to many, The Articles recorded their sophomore album in 2001 with Joe Ferry (he produced two mid-'90s albums for The Skatalites: Hi-Bop Ska and Greetings from Skamania), but the project was mysteriously shelved after completion. That is, until now. After 20 long years, The Articles have liberated their second album from the archives and unleashed the extraordinary Action Claw vs. Gorilla Grip (digital, self-released; limited-edition cassette, Jump Up Records, 2021) on an unsuspecting world. Action Claw vs. Gorilla Grip is full of superb originals and impeccable performances all around, though it's heavily tilted toward the jazz side of the ska-jazz equation (and may remind one of when Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra is in their big band/AM pop radio mode). Having said that, there are a good number of ska-ish songs, including the magnificent "Sophist" (which has a great liturgical-sounding organ intro), "Frantic," the slinky, reggae-ish "Jetta Girl,""Hand Me Down" (so cheery as it struts its stuff), "Hard To Get," and the wonderfully epic (and slightly menacing) "Slip'n'Slide." All in all, a wildly impressive album (which would be great to have on vinyl some day...).

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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Lee "Scratch" Perry RIP

Perry sits on a throne with a crown on his head and holds a globe and a scepter in his hands.
The Upsetter
As others have commented, Lee "Scratch" Perry was so full of life and boundless, crazy genius-level creativity and talent that it seemed like he would be walking this Earth forever. So his death on Sunday, August 29, 2021 at 85 feels like a sucker punch to the head (forgive us for taking you for granted, "Scratch").

His musical legacy as producer, songwriter, dub master, and performer is almost unparalleled in the history of reggae music. And the vast body of work he leaves in his wake--surely a daunting endeavor to consume in its entirety--is a magnificent gift that will keep on giving to anyone exploring or rediscovering his music for eons to come (the 1997 3xCD compilation Arkology, which collects the top cuts he recorded at his Black Ark studio, is an amazing place to start).

I'm certainly not alone in thinking that Perry's greatest productions were The Congos' Heart of the Congos ("Children Crying" is one of the most brilliant reggae cuts ever recorded) and Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon (ditto for the title track). I'm also partial to The Upsetters' Super Ape (1976), Perry's Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Corn Bread (1978), and his collaboration with Adrian Sherwood and the Dub Syndicate Time Boom X De Devil Dead (1987).

I reviewed a fair number of Scratch's recent releases and reissues for this blog, which are linked below. While his output in his later years may not have matched the heights of the Black Ark years, it was still incredibly good and often extraordinary. All of these releases are worth checking out.

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Heavy Rain LP (2020)

Various Artists Black Ark Days: Play On Mr. Music LP (2020)

Max Romeo Revelation Time reissue (2020)

The Upsetters with Vin Gordon Musical Bones reissue (2020)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford LP (2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry with Peaking Lights and Ivan Lee Life of the Plants EP (2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: "Big Ben Rock" 7" (2019)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: The Black Album LP (2018)

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Game of the Throne EP (2018)

Lee "Scratch" Perry and Subatomic Sound System: Super Ape Returns to Conquer LP (2017)

Various Artists: Sound System Scratch: Lee Perry's Dub Plate Mixes 1973-1979 LP (2010)

If you need a refresher on Perry's life and musical career, make sure to read the excellent Perry obituaries in The Guardian by Peter Mason and New York Times by Jon Pareles.

Play on, Mr. Music!

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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

NYC Ska Calendar #4/Summer & Fall 2021

Vivien Goldman
Sunday, August 22, 2021 @ 4:00 pm & 7:00 pm (doors half an hour before each set)

Vivien Goldman w/Dunia & Aram, DJ Misbehaviour
IRL Gallery
80 Franklin Street
Brooklyn, NY
Tix: $15 in advance/$20 day of show

Friday, August 27, 2021 @ 7:00 pm-12:30 am

DJ Ryan Midnight Spins an All-Vinyl Ska Set
Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A & B)
New York, NY
No cover
21+

Saturday, August 28, 2021 @ 7:00 pm

Hub City Stompers, The Take, Murderer's Row, Violent Way
Kingsland
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15/All ages, 21 w/ID to drink
21+

Saturday, September 11, 2021 @ 7:00 pm

Sgt. Scag, Raise the Kicks, Eye Defy, Dubcorps
Bushwick Public House
1288 Myrtle Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
Tix: $10 in advance/$12 day of show
21+

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Bim Skala Bim PLUS the NJ premiere of the "New England Ska Summit documentary film
Randy Now's Man Cave
134 Farnsworth Avenue
Bordentown, NJ

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Bim Skala Bim & Mephiskapheles PLUS the NYC premiere of the "New England Ska Summit documentary film
Arrogant Swine
173 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

Friday, September 17, 2021 @ 6:00 pm

The Toasters, Beat Brigade, The Rudie Crew, The Lousekateers, The Monkeychunks
Kingsland
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$17.95/16+
16+

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Pietasters Booze Cruise
The Lucille--Rocks Off Concert Cruise
23rd Street and the FDR Drive
Manhattan, NY
$45/21+
Doors at 6:00 pm, boat departs at 7:00 pm

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Slackers and The Aggrolites
Irving Plaza
17 Irving Place
Manhattan, NY
$22.50/16+
Doors open at 7:00 pm

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Saturday, June 4, 2022

Madness and The English Beat
Manhattan Center--Hammerstein Ballroom
311 West 34th Street
Manhattan, NY
$55 and up
Doors at 8:00 pm

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Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Specials to Release "Protest Songs 1924-2012" on September 24, 2021

The CD cover is solid red with the band's name and album title printed over it.
The Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter, plus collaborators) have announced that they are releasing their follow-up to 2019's Encore (read my review) on September 24. The album is called Protest Songs 1924-2012 (Island Records/UMG) and, as its title indicates, it consists entirely of covers of powerful and still relevant folk, blues, spiritual, soul, rock, reggae, and new wave/post punk protest songs. Unless you're well-versed in this genre of music, particularly anti-war and civil rights songs, you may not recognize many of these amazing tracks apart from Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up," and Talking Heads' "Listening Wind" (for a great overview of this history of protest music, check out Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions Per Minute). 

The tracklist for Protest Songs 1924-2012 is as follows (with links to the original songwriter/performer's recording in parentheses):

1. "Freedom Highway" (The Staple Singers)
2. "Everybody Knows" (Leonard Cohen)
3. "I Don't Mind Failing In This World" (Malvina Reynolds)
4. "Black, Brown And White" (Big Bill Broonzy)
5. "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around" (The Freedom Singers)
6. "Fuck All The Perfect People" (Chip Taylor & the New Ukrainians)
7. "My Next Door Neighbour" (Jerry McCain)
8. "Trouble Every Day" (Frank Zappa with the Mothers of Invention)
9. "Listening Wind" (Talking Heads)
10. "Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes" (Rod McKuen)
11. "I Live in a City" (Malvina Reynolds)
12. "Get Up, Stand Up" (Bob Marley)

The Specials have a short snippet of their cover of The Staple Singers' "Freedom Highway" up on their Facebook page (and it sounds quite good). 

And you can pre-order the CD now from the Universal Music store (no word on when the LP can be ordered). 

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Duff Review: Danny Rebel & the KGB: "Toss It Up"

The cover painting features a large statue of a lion between two apartment buildings. Lasers shoot out from its eyes across a churning river toward the title of the album.
Limited edition LP/digital
Stomp Records
2021

(Review by Steve Shafer)

It might be a bit grandiose and/or passé to call Danny Rebel a Renaissance man, but he's such a gifted singer, songwriter, musician, performer, and painter (who the cap fit...). His latest album with the KGB, Toss It Up, doesn't disappoint. It features five new super-catchy, funky-reggae-rock (and rocking!) songs about love, lust, and lust for life, and a corresponding number of dubs--all of them spectacular--by Victor Rice.

Everything opens with the wickedly dangerous title track (what a heavy groove!) that's part throw down ("Been waiting here too long and I’m about to grab the mic/Got to lick the spoon clean always put up a fight"), part mission statement (you'll never make anything of your short time on Earth if you don't at least keep hammering away at whatever it is that you love doing).

Imma start this off with a blank fuckin’ canvas
Rip that shit toss it different colors by the masses
If you don’t do anything brother nothin’ will happen
Eat the paint daily to keep from being distracted


The plaintive but resolute "Move" is about being completely fine with leaving a bad relationship and all of its baggage behind ("Time to walk on from you/You’ve been a dark cloud on me"), and while "Ugly" is not a Fishbone cover, it concerns a similar hideousness/nastiness hidden from the world inside one's heart.

"Crossfader" is soulful and sincere love song that pledges love and fidelity, with some self-aggrandizing lyrics thrown in so she knows what she's got (and to warn off any contenders for the throne):

Musical sound’s called crossfader
My guitar is my Deathstar and I’m the lyrical Darth Vader
Riddim maker, KGB-wise
Watch the fire burning through my eyes
If one and one makes two, then I will never make you blue
And baby don’t you know that I will never turn my back on you
This old heart of mine, don’t need no riddim or no rhyme
Will be with you as long as I live, yeah I know I will never leave you alone
Even if you don’t answer your phone, I will be there


Released as a single earlier this year and employing a term for female genitalia that I've never encountered before, "Whispering Eye" is unapologetic in its direct and unadorned expression of lust ("We don’t need this love (I’ll save you the pain)...You don’t have to call (just call out my name)...All I really want is your whispering eye"). As one wry FB commenter replied to Danny about his new song at the time: "rent a room!"

Danny Rebel & the KGB's Toss It Up is on my list of top 2021 ska releases--and should be on yours, too. 

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Want more? Read my reviews of Danny Rebel & the KGB's Lovehaus, For Babylon's Head, and Spacebound.

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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Duff Review: Aggrobeat Single Reissues from Laurel Aitken, The Freedom Singers, The Gladiators, The Royals, Tiger, The Versatiles, and Winston Groovy

The paper label features the artist's name and the song's title.(Review by Steve Shafer)

Since 2020 and continuing through this year, Aggrobeat Records in the Netherlands has been reissuing a series of fantastic skinhead reggae vinyl singles both from and written/produced by the incomparable Laurel Aitken--all of which fans of this era of reggae music will desperately want safely nestled in their 45 box(es). (Disclaimer: The Aggrobeat shop is carrying copies of my book The Duff Guide to 2 Tone.) 

Laurel Aitken (who was then based in the UK) was particularly prolific from 1969 through 1971 (see the truly extraordinary 5xCD compilation Skinhead Train Pressure Drop/Cherry Red released in 2020 containing every Aitken cut and production he released in 1969 and 1970--138 songs in total!). During this time, Aitken issued dozen upon dozens of singles for Pama and its imprints Nu Beat/New Beat, as well as the Trojan subsidiary Doctor Bird (some of my faves from this period include his essential High Priest of Reggae LP and some of his greatest singles: "Heile Heile (The Lion)," "Fire in Mi Wire," "Skinhead Train," "Rise & Fall," "It's Too Late," and the sublime "Reggae Prayer,"--the perfect fusion of the sacred and the profane--which will be played, appropriately enough, when I slip this mortal coil decades from now).

Aggrobeat's reissue series features Aitken's 1969 blank label/promo single for Nu Beat "Benwood Dick" b/w "Apollo 12." The A side is a hilariously rude--but never explicit--cut about "a man with a long, long cukumaka stick" (though Pama got cold feet, benched this single, and instead issued the less overtly rude, but still slightly naughty, "Mr. Popcorn": "Some like it hot/I like it warm/That's why they call me Mr. Popcorn!"), while the flip is his moon stomping classic "Apollo 12" (one of several skinhead reggae sides inspired by the first lunar landing, including Derrick Morgan's "Moon Hop"), which sets another goal for humanity (which we haven't quite achieved): "Skinhead moon invasion/Leaving from shantytown, Brixton/It's not black/It's not white/It's what's right/Everything will be alright/If we just unite!" (Back in 2011, Jason Lawless (RIP) also licensed "Apollo 12" for his excellent Moondust series of singles, though the flip was "Moon Rock.")

Originally released as a blank label through the Trojan imprint Ackee in 1969, the Winston Groovy "Skinhead Wreck the Town" b/w Laurel Aitken's "Moon Rock" single features two great tracks written and produced by Aitken. Winston Groovy (whose most famous song is probably "Please Don't Make Me Cry," which was famously covered by UB40 on their first and best Labour of Love LP) decries skinhead thuggishness on this anti-rude boy violence cut that borrows a bit of Desmond Dekker's "007" (see the Trojan compilation Rudies All Round for more "rude boy records"). "Moon Rock" continues the late '60s pop-culture fascination with the moon landing with Aitken's offbeat imagining of what one would do with one ("When you smoke the moon rock/You say, "Sistah, I am your mister!...Why, what a ting, like this moon rock/Strong like a lion/Make you feel to go back/To Mt. Zion!"). Aitken's friend Rico Rodriguez contributes a lovely trombone solo, too.

The Versatiles "Pick My Pocket" b/w The Freedom Singers "Freedom" 45 was released in 1970 on Nu Beat and features more amazing Laurel Aitken compositions/productions. "Pick My Pocket" is a supremely catchy tune warning all who can hear about being taken in by a pretty girl whose sole intention was to rip him off (and the song briefly and deftly quotes Toots and the Maytals' "54-46 (Was My Number)"). The almost hypnotic "Freedom" is simultaneously about deliverance from slavery/Babylon and repatriation ("I wanna go back") to Zion.

Another "rude record" featuring Aitken compositions/productions, The Versatiles "Give It To Me" b/w Tiger & The Versatiles "Hot" issued on New Beat in 1971 is full of suggestive lyrics to titillate. "Give It To Me" is exactly what you think it's about ("You say you want it now/Well, I'm gonna push it up!"), while "Hot" is more boastful than bad: "My love is like quicksand/The more you're in it/The deeper you'll sink!" (Later that year, Tiger had a hit with the Aiken production "Guilty," which UB40 also covered on Labour of Love.)

The two non-Aitken produced singles in the Aggrobeat series (so far!) are The Gladiators' rocksteady tracks "Socking Good Time" b/w "I'll Take You To the Movies" issued by WIRL in 1968 with a blank label (the latter has some sweet harmonizing), and The Royals "Pick Out Me Eye" b/w "Think You Too Bad (AKA Mind Yourself)" released on Trojan in 1969 (the latter is a version of The Pioneers' "Jackpot," which, of course, was covered by The Beat).

Each limited-edition single was pressed on recycled vinyl at a green powered pressing plant (!) and includes terrific, lengthy, and incisive liner notes by Aggrobeat label-owner Paul Benschop. 

This is an incredible opportunity to obtain some high-quality vinyl reissues of some rare and wonderful skinhead reggae music. Don't let it pass you by.

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Friday, August 6, 2021

Duff Review: Jerry Dammers "At the Home Organ: Demos 1980-82 (Ghost Town & Theme from The Boiler)"

(Review by Steve Shafer)
The single's cardboard sleeve features Walt Jabsco, a stylized illustration of a rude boy (based on Peter Tosh) in a suit and pork pie hat; the paper label is worn and mildewy, and features the song title and artist.

Issued in the UK as part of the second 2021 Record Store Day drop (cue the evergreen complaints about RSD), Jerry Dammers' At the Home Organ: Demos 1980-82 (10" vinyl single, 2 Tone/Chrysalis, 2021) is as advertised--these are his DIY instrumental demos of The Specials' "Ghost Town" and Rhoda Dakar with The Special AKA's "Theme from The Boiler" performed on his "home entertainment type organ." These recordings, mastered from their cassette originals (and which feature pretty good audio fidelity), are really for Specials completists, as there's nothing immediately revelatory here. Having said that, there's something wonderfully intimate and thrilling about hearing Dammers' playing this early, more muzak-y version of his masterpiece "Ghost Town" (think "Stereotype, Part 2"--yet it's also B-horror movie-sounding) that doesn't yet include the bright, major key "Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?" bridge. We weren't ever meant to hear this--but it's fascinating to compare it to the studio recording and note how producer John Collins helped shape the extraordinary final product. And this demo of "The Theme from The Boiler" with John Shipley (The Swinging Cats, The Special AKA) on guitar is unexpectedly fleshed out and pretty fantastic. Since the bloodcurdling "The Boiler" was only meant to be heard once, this 45 is rarely pulled out to play. Which is a shame, as I've always thought that the studio version of "The Theme from The Boiler" is a superb and jittery dance floor-filling cut that should be spun frequently. Hopefully, this demo's inclusion will bring some renewed attention to this gem.

The paper label for At the Home Organ doesn't feature Walt Jabsco (the cardboard sleeve does), though it's designed to look worn and slightly mildewy, as if these faux demo-only singles were recently rescued from a forgotten box in a damp cupboard--a nice touch. As a Specials/2 Tone fan, I'm quite happy to have Dammers' At the Home Organ in my collection. Get 'em while you can.

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Friday, July 9, 2021

Duff Review: Jeremy Collingwood "Earthquake on Orange Street: Buster's Jamaican Singles Story"

The cover features Prince Buster and some of the graphics from his paper labels, including Soulsville Center.(Review by Steve Shafer)

Even though there have been some excellent to superb Prince Buster compilations released over the years (see the Gaz Mayall-selected King of Ska; the Islam Records release Hush Up!; the expanded Sequel Records edition of FABulous Greatest Hits; the Rock A Shaka comps Voice of the People, Dance Cleopatra, Let's Go to the Dance, and Roll On Charles Street (read my review); and most recently, the incredible Africa - Islam - Revolution (read my review)), they're only scratching the surface of Buster's extraordinary output in his career as producer, performer, and label head. From 1961 to 1977, he released (by my imperfect count) over 440 singles in Jamaica (not including reissues) on his various imprints--Buster Wild Bells, Voice of the People, Prince Buster, Soulsville Center, Islam, and Olive Blossom, plus there were a good number of blank paper label releases. The vast majority of these tracks also were licensed and issued on 45s in the UK on Melodisc Records' imprints Blue Beat and FAB, and fueled his great popularity there with the mods. Since the JA music industry was 45-driven, Buster never compiled and issued his work and productions on LP himself--though he repressed the eight albums that Blue Beat/FAB originally released in England (I Feel the Spirit, National Ska: Pain in my Belly, Fly Flying Ska, What a Hard Man Fe Dead, Jamaica's Pride, Prince Buster On Tour, She was a Rough Rider, and FABulous Greatest Hits).

While reissues of reissues of Buster's Blue Beat/FAB LPs are relatively easy to find (I've collected them all over the years), the majority of his singles have not been re-released and the original pressings--and even some re-pressings--that you can sometimes find in the wild can be very pricey. Of course, Discogs is a vital resource for sorting through Buster's catalogue, but it can be a bit unwieldy if one isn't solely looking at individual releases. Even though significant parts of Buster's story have been documented (mostly in liner notes for some of the aforementioned compilations, though Lloyd Bradley's book This is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music and Laurence Cane-Honeysett's feature "The King of Ska and More" in Record Collector issue 459 are terrific, invaluable exceptions), his extensive biography remains to be written (and I'm still waiting for an exhaustive Prince Buster box set to be issued!).

Thankfully, another vital aspect of Buster's story has been meticulously assembled by UK sound system operator Jeremy Collingwood (Lick It Back) in his Earthquake on Orange Street: Buster's Jamaican Singles Story (which was released a few years ago, but I recently obtained a copy through Copasetic Mailorder in Germany). As its title suggests, this book provides a comprehensive listing of all of Prince Buster's JA releases on all of this imprints from 1961 to 1977, including both JA and UK catalogue numbers (just to make things complicated, the Blue Beat and FAB singles rarely mirrored the JA ones), and a "Blank Checker" guide that will help you identify which tracks are lurking on those blank paper label releases. To introduce each year's batch of 45s, Collingwood provides excellent overviews of which imprints were in use, notes key/popular singles (and gives them some helpful context), highlights newsworthy Buster events, and even indicates the location Buster was operating out of, since his shop moved several times over the years, starting at 49 Charles Street and ending at 127 Orange Street. In addition, there are eleven glorious pages of full color scans of various original paper labels (ragged from age and use, but still magnificent) from all of Buster's imprints, as well as a few more pages with scans of unused and recycled paper labels. 

Earthquake on Orange Street: Buster's Jamaican Singles Story is an invaluable resource for Prince Buster fanatics/collectors and anyone researching and writing about the great man--but even more casual fans of 1960s JA ska will find much to like/love and learn about in this book and should definitely track down a copy while they're still to be had.

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Monday, July 5, 2021

Duff Review: Bim Skala Bim "Sonic Tonic"

The album cover is a collage of pictures of the band members, plus other fellow ska musicians like Laurel Aitken and Bucket of The Toasters.

 (Review by Steve Shafer)

Bim Skala Bim's new record Sonic Tonic (Vinyl LP/digital, Jump Up Records/Specialized Records, 2021)--their 10th studio album since 1986 (!)--promises the listener an aural cure for whatever ails 'em and then delivers a collection of fantastic, upbeat songs (done in Bim's signature style: post-2 Tone ska influenced by '60s rock and '70s roots reggae) that'll put a smile on your mug, make you want to move and groove, and lend you some relief from your troubles for a spell (indeed, Bim has donated this album to Specialized Records and some of the proceeds will go to support mental health orgs in the UK). Sonic Tonic is full of exceptionally crafted and catchy songs about longing to revisit past experiences and get a charge from their emotional punch; the "soft power" of food to bring us together; the thrill of being young and rebellious; and making sure to take the time to enjoy life (it passes by quickly) and tend to your own mental/emotional health. As someone who's been following Bim Skala Bim since the late '80s (Tuba City was my intro to the band and I first saw them at NYC's Ritz in support of that terrific album on a bill with The Toasters and NY Citizens), it's particularly striking and satisfying to realize how consistently good they've been all these years (read my review of their previous album Chet's Last Call). Sonic Tonic is among Bim's finest and definitely one of the best ska albums you'll hear all year.

While the feelings expressed in album opener "Go Back" are universal--the desire to relive specific moments in our lives that were particularly pleasurable, satisfying, or momentous--I suspect its relevance and unsettling sting are stronger for the tail-end Boomers and Gen Xers who are grappling with aging bodies, lives that haven't turn out the way we'd hoped/planned (and have worn us down), the loss of family and friends, and knowing that their expiration date is closer in the rearview mirror than one would like. ("Go Back's" thematic twin is "Too Sentimental"; the singer has a hoard of images and sounds on magnetic tape in storage that remind him of what is lost and can't ever be reclaimed.) Having said all that, it's still a joyful song, since the memories are so good:

Well, I met a girl from the Ocean State
With ocean eyes, didn't hesitate
The way she smiles
The sun it shines
Forget about the rest of time
'Cause it goes so fast
Making your head spin
Remembering every place we've been

I wanna go back now
I wanna feel something, somehow
C'mon and take be back now


"Cuz a You" is about a different kind of longing, the wanderlust that drives the road warrior musician ever forward to the next destination on their itinerary:

Sinking in a couch
And felt those ants in my pants
It's true
Keep it moving

Every day moving on
Any old way
Moving on
We don't stay


Up all night and half the day
When you get me I'll be ready to go


While "Lightning" tells a tale of running moonshine, it's really about being young and daring and getting off on the thrill of driving fast and evading the law (and the music and tempo make it feel like our tires are barely gripping the road as we careen at hair-raising speeds along twisty back roads):

When they put the lightning in the jar
And it's ready for delivery
Put the bottle in the box in the back of my car
Drive it away, yeah

Let me know when you get it right
It's a fine night for delivery
I can keep it to the right in the bright moonlight
Hauling it away and

Staying off the interstate
Getting late and dark
Heart is at a higher rate
Feeling great, acting straight

No, it ain't too hard to mix it up
Do it in the back yard
Do it in the graveyard
Do it in the school yard
I don't care
I just get it there

Up to date and in your face
That's the way they are
Shoot me with your radar gun
"Thank you, son
Let's have some fun"

Staying off the interstate
It's getting late and dark
Heart pumping at a higher rate
Starting to hallucinate

Sailing through the knotty pines
Moony white and pale
Way too fast to read the signs

Drive across the county line...

The answer/cure to some of this unease, restlessness, dissatisfaction, and tension is offered in the superb track "Letting Go (The Loon)" (and its version "It's a Mix of Things (The Tinkerman)"), which serves as the thesis of the album and features guest vocals from King Hammond. For some Native American tribes in the Northwest, the loon is symbolic of harmony, generosity, and peace, and this song suggests one way to achieve it is to get together with a friend, share a bottle, talk through things/embrace those feelings, and then consciously free yourself of them.

Brain is getting thirsty
Mouth is kinda dry
I don't need no glasses
Pass the bottle, give me a try...

...Give me sense and balance
Go with what you know
Here's to getting to it
Here's to letting go

The follow-up to this advice is found in Bim's cover of Bob Marley's "Easy Skanking" (from 1978's Kaya, an album full of songs about love and love of herb) that the band contributed to Specialized Records' 2016 One Heart compilation:

Excuse me while I light my spliff
Good God, I gotta' take a lift
From reality I just can't drift
That's why I am staying with this riff
Take it easy, easy skanking
Got to take it easy, easy skanking


"Gumbo" is a fantastic, New Orleans jazz-infused, anti-racist ska track that posits that the simple act of people of all races and backgrounds coming together to share food and companionship can help allay the fears and anxieties over difference and otherness: "No us and them/Just me and you/and some tasty stew."

The final track on the album is the stellar instrumental "Last Boat to Monkville"--Madness' "Night Boat to Cairo" meets a Thelonious Monk riff--that starts off in familiar 2 Tone territory and then takes you on an unexpectedly marvelous trip (and that's Chris Rhodes of Spring Heeled Jack, The Bossones, and Toasters on those great t-bone solos). Play this one and watch the dance floor fill instantly!

For all the hype of "ska is back" lately, Bim Skala Bim's Sonic Tonic is yet more proof to add to an already stratospheric pile of evidence that it never left. It's still being practiced by one of the foremost pioneers of American ska and they're even better than ever.

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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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Saturday, June 26, 2021

Duff Book Review: Lee Morris "2 Tone: Before, During & After"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

After several decades marred by a dearth of tomes about 2 Tone apart from George Marshall's foundational and wonderfully opinionated The Two Tone Story (1990) and an extraordinary chapter about 2 Tone in Dick Hebdige's Cut 'n' Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (1987), we're finally in a golden age of plenty. The spigot began to open in the late 2000s, with autobiographies from Horace Panter and Pauline Black, plus Paul Williams' superb biography of The Specials, You're Wondering Now. And more recently, we've seen coverage of 2 Tone in Heather Augustyn's terrific surveys of the genre, Ska: An Oral History and Ska: The Music of Liberation; amazing autobiographies from Ranking Roger (read my review) and Madness (read my review); and the best oral history of 2 Tone one could hope for in Daniel Rachel's Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge. (Oh, and I published The Duff Guide to 2 Tone in 2020, as well!) 

To this crowded bookshelf, the discerning 2 Tone fan absolutely should add Lee Morris' book 2 Tone: Before, During & After (Paperback, Media House Books, 2020). Morris provides a comprehensive overview of every band that released music on the 2 Tone label (including the lesser-known, non-ska acts that were signed on the tail end of 2 Tone's existence, like Friday Club, The Higsons, and The Apollinaires), from their origins in the '70s up till the present day--and includes biographical sketches of all band members and key collaborators. (Plus there's a chapter on 2 Tone related bands, and if you ever make the pilgrimage to Coventry, info on the 2 Tone Trail.) Morris' book is crammed with details (and some welcome commentary) that help flesh out the entire 2 Tone story--and American fans, most of whom didn't have easy access to the British music publications breathlessly covering 2 Tone's rapid rise and prolonged flame out, will find it especially enlightening. I was particularly grateful for Morris' chapter on The Special AKA, since I knew too little of this band's history other than it's Phoenix-like rise from the post-Ghost Town ashes of The Specials; and that Jerry Dammers' perfectionism in crafting the magnificent In the Studio cost an ungodly sum, took forever to complete, and was so miserable an experience that Rhoda Dakar to this day has never listened to it.

2 Tone: Before, During & After is an essential and handy reference guide to the label--one that you'll be thumbing through for years to come (I certainly will be).

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Friday, June 25, 2021

NYC Ska Calendar #3/Summer & Fall 2021

The amazing Rico Rodriguez
Saturday, June 26, 2021--4:00 pm

Stop the Presses
Queens Night Market @ NY Hall of Science
47-01 111th Street
Corona, NY
FREE

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Mighty Ramon, The Bluebeats, The Naughty Cubists
American Legion Huntington Post 360
1 Mill Dam Road
Huntington, NY
$15
Doors at 5:00 pm

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan, Escarioka, Axolotl, Jonny Go Figure, DJ Rata
687 Park Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$12 in advance/$15 day of show
Time: 1:00 pm - 11:00 pm

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Skappository + others TBA
Finley's
43 Green Street
Huntington, NY
Free/All ages
Doors at 7:00 pm

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Skatalites Band
Market Hotel
1140 Myrtle Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$20/All ages
Doors: 7:00 pm

Friday, July 23, 2021

Skappository, Mikey ERG Band, The Pandemics
Mr. Beery's
4019 Hempstead Turnpike
Bethpage, NY
$10/21+
Doors: 8:00 pm

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Ladrones, Beat Brigade, Invading Species, Eye Defy
Bushwick Public House
1288 Myrtle Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10 in advance/$12 day of show
Doors at 7:00 pm

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Ska Punk Bash w/The Scofflaws, Jones Crusher, The Knottie Boys, Bad Mary, Skappository, plus DJ Treblemakazz
Bartini Bar
124 North Carll Ave
Babylon, NY
$15 day of show/$10 in advance/21+

Friday, August 6, 2021

Skappository, Pin Cushion, Powerviolets, Brian Kish's Lounge Pants, Graztopia, Celebrity Wife Swap
One Ey Jacks
380 North Wantagh Avenue
Bethpage, NY
$10/21+
Doors: 8:00 pm

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Hub City Stompers, The Take, Murderer's Row, Violent Way
Kingsland
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15/All ages, 21 w/ID to drink
Doors at 7:00 pm

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Bim Skala Bim PLUS the NJ premiere of the "New England Ska Summit documentary film
Randy Now's Man Cave
134 Farnsworth Avenue
Bordentown, NJ

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Bim Skala Bim PLUS the NYC premiere of the "New England Ska Summit documentary film
Arrogant Swine
173 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Toasters
Kingsland
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$17.95/16+
Doors open at 6:00 pm

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Pietasters Booze Cruise
The Lucille--Rocks Off Concert Cruise
23rd Street and the FDR Drive
Manhattan, NY
$45/21+
Doors at 6:00 pm, boat departs at 7:00 pm

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Slackers and The Aggrolites
Irving Plaza
17 Irving Place
Manhattan, NY
$22.50/16+
Doors open at 7:00 pm

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Saturday, June 4, 2022

Madness and The English Beat
Manhattan Center--Hammerstein Ballroom
311 West 34th Street
Manhattan, NY
$55 and up
Doors at 8:00 pm

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Friday, June 18, 2021

NYC Ska Calendar #2/Summer & Fall 2021

The Scofflaws backstage at Wetlands (early '90s)
Saturday, June 19, 2021

Barbicide (6pm), Homebodies, plus DJs Selector Peralta, DJ Shabbakano, Comandr3 Selecta
Arrogant Swine
173 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
FREE
All Ages
Early show: 3:00 pm
"NO Racism - NO Sexism - NO Bullshit"

Saturday, June 26, 2021--4:00 pm

Stop the Presses
Queens Night Market @ NY Hall of Science
47-01 111th Street
Corona, NY
FREE

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Mighty Ramon, The Bluebeats, The Naughty Cubists
American Legion Huntington Post 360
1 Mill Dam Road
Huntington, NY
$15
Doors at 5:00 pm

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Ska Punk Bash w/The Scofflaws, Jones Crusher, The Knottie Boys, Bad Mary, Skappository, plus DJ Treblemakazz
Bartini Bar
124 North Carll Ave
Babylon, NY
$15 day of show/$10 in advance

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Hub City Stompers, The Take, Murderer's Row, Violent Way
Kingsland
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15/All ages, 21 w/ID to drink
Doors at 7:00 pm

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Bim Skala Bim PLUS the NJ premiere of the "New England Ska Summit documentary film
Randy Now's Man Cave
134 Farnsworth Avenue
Bordentown, NJ

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Toasters
Kingsland
269 Norman Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$17.95/16+
Doors open at 6:00 pm

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Pietasters Booze Cruise
The Lucille--Rocks Off Concert Cruise
23rd Street and the FDR Drive
Manhattan, NY
$45/21+
Doors at 6:00 pm, boat departs at 7:00 pm

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Slackers and The Aggrolites
Irving Plaza
17 Irving Place
Manhattan, NY
$22.50/16+
Doors open at 7:00 pm

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Saturday, June 4, 2022

Madness and The English Beat
Manhattan Center--Hammerstein Ballroom
311 West 34th Street
Manhattan, NY
$55 and up
Doors at 8:00 pm

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Thursday, June 10, 2021

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Bobby Ramone "Rocket to Kingston"

The cover image features a part of the cover of The Ramones' "Rocket to Russia," but with Bob Marley's face on one of The Ramones' bodies. (Review by Steve Shafer)

Hat tip to my friend and former Moon Records colleague Ray Manuud for turning me on to Bobby Ramone's Rocket to Kingston (Digital/LP, Guerilla Asso, 2021), which is a brilliant, fun, and extremely well-done mash-up of Bob Marley's vocals from many of his hits with the spot-on '60s pop/'70s NYC punk-type sounds of dah bruddahs from Queens, The Ramones. In other words, it's as if Legend mated with Rocket to Russia and this is the beautiful result (and these types of rebel music have always been simpatico). Top tracks are "I Don't Wanna Stand Up," "Stirring in My Room," "Jamming Affairs," "Three Little Surfin' Birds," "Kaya Bop," "Is This Love Kills?," and "Bye Bye Redemption." What's particularly amazing is how the geniuses behind Bobby Ramone work in snippets of Ramones songs all over the place--like how the opening of "Glad to See You Cry" sounds like "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," "Stirring in My Room" has bits of "Rockaway Beach" in it, and some of the chord progressions from "Teenage Lobotomy" are in "I Don't Wanna Stand Up." If there's a heaven above, where musicians who have passed hang out and jam together, maybe this is what you'd hear coming out of some rehearsal room in the afterlife.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Duff Review: RSD Drop #1/Two of Two Releases from Jump Up Records: Skanking Lizard "Original Chicago Reggae, 1978-1996"

The cover features illustrations of lizards of various sizes running in a circle.(Review by Steve Shafer)

In the fall of 1985, I was a freshman at a small, liberal arts college about an hour south of Cleveland, in a town surrounded by cornfields in all directions. I ended up there because just about everyone I was related to on both sides of my family had attended that school (some also went on to teach there) and I was at a point in my life when I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, it was simply the path of least resistance. Fortunately, I became good friends with some kids from Rochester and Cleveland who were into many of the same new wave, punk, and post punk bands as I was, like The Cure, Yaz, Cocteau Twins, Simple Minds (Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call through Sparkle in the Rain), Killing Joke, Roxy Music, Bauhaus, Husker Dü, and Black Flag--and everyone seemed to have a copy of Bob Marley's Legend.

One warm Saturday in October, there was a music festival in a field just outside of town that was sponsored by one of the hippie pseudo-frat/off-campus houses as part of their pledge week. Since one of our friends was pledging, a bunch of us tagged along and the beer truck kept us entertained while we endured a series of endlessly noodly Grateful Dead-inspired bands (one of my friends decided to trip on 'shrooms and when I asked him how he was doing, he replied that everything was "spherical"; I mention this, as there's more on mushrooms below). Then, seemingly out of nowhere--and we really were in the middle of nowhere--a reggae band from Cleveland called First Light started playing. And they were really good, performing a mix of their own originals and covers. I was so thrilled by their set that I practically bum rushed the stage at the end of their set to tell them how much I enjoyed their show and to buy a shirt. They told me about their new 12" EP Musical Uprising, which I ended up buying on a trip up to Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights (their abridged version of NYC's West Village)--I still have it (check out "Musical Uprising" and "Holdback Syndrome"/"Movin' On"). And my friend C.H.U.D. (a cruel nickname given to him by some football players in our dorm that he wore like a badge of honor) and I wanted more, so we caught First Light again at Peabody's Down Under in The Flats in Cleveland later that semester. 

In high school, I had seen Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, and UB40 (multiple times) at the Pier 84 concerts in Manhattan on the Hudson River. But I was hearing fantastic, original, American reggae in the middle of a cornfield in conservative, white bread (and very white) OHIO. My belabored point here is that the first generation of American reggae bands sometimes sprouted in unlikely places far from the Coasts, like Cleveland, Chicago, and Kansas City. If you were paying attention, you could find them (just like the first US ska bands that cropped up in the wake of 2 Tone). Inspired by The Harder They Come film and soundtrack, Bob Marley's Catch a Fire and subsequent LPs and US tours (First Light's Carlos Jones saw Marley in Cleveland in '78), United Artist Records' Anthology of Reggae Collectors Series, and whatever Trojan and Virgin Front Line UK imports they could get their hands on, a slew of American reggae acts formed in the mid-to-late '70s, including Berkeley's The Shakers, Kansas City's Blue Riddim Band, NYC's Terrorists, and Chicago's Skanking Lizard

As part of their series of releases devoted to Chicago-area ska and reggae pioneers (Heavy Manners, Rude Guest), Jump Up Records has issued a fine new compilation of rare and unreleased recordings from Chicago's first live reggae act Skanking Lizard--who opened for Toots and the Maytals, Mighty Diamonds, Steel Pulse, and The B-52's back in the day--titled Original Chicago Reggae, 1978-1996. Up until now, Skanking Lizard's sole release was their excellent 1983 "Jesse James" b/w "Mushroom" single on their own Reptile Records (which made it into the top 40 in JA). Side A is not a Laurel Aitken cover, but the band's original tune on the same topic, while the flip is a great version of Johnny Osbourne's slightly odd anti-psychedelics/pro-ganja cut ("The only thing the dawtas asking for all night/Was a stalk of mushroom--what is that, my gosh/Don’t want no mushroom to go to my head/Gimme the good sinsemilla instead/Don’t pee in my garden/'Cause mushroom will grow/Don’t pee in my garden/I don’t want your mushroom to grow/Sensimilla--that's I want to grow!"). The other two tracks to see light of day on the comp are from singer Alan "Blood" Lery's 1984 solo EP Heart Full of Soul (which hit it big on the Canadian charts): Lery's great original "It Happened" and a terrific cover of The Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul." Of note, the instrumental tracks were produced by Jimmy Becker (of Blue Riddim Band, who had been in the earliest version of Skanking Lizard) and recorded in JA at Channel One with local musicians including Ansell Collins, Carlton "Santa" Davis, Noel "Scully" Sims, as well as Blue Riddim Band's guitarist Howard Yukon--and Lery added his vocals in a studio in Chicago. 

The unreleased Skanking Lizard tracks on the album were recorded at various points throughout the '80s and include good covers of Mighty Diamonds' "I Don't Mind" and Keith and Tex's perennial "Tonight"; the interesting Lery-penned cuts "Strange Cargo" (I think it's about coming across a drug smuggler's errant load, but it feels like Cold War dread: "A strange cargo fell out of the sky last night/Don't worry child, no reason for you to cry") and "Wear a Smile" (which encourages the listener to enjoy life while you can, as tears won't get you into heaven); and fun versions of Beat and Selecter classics ("Tears of a Clown" and "Too Much Pressure").

Skanking Lizard's Original Chicago Reggae, 1978-1996 will be prized by fans who caught the band in the '70s and '80s--and is essential for anyone interested in nascent days of the American reggae scene.

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