The Ska Episode With Author Marc Wasserman

by Corey O'Flanagan

What do you think of when you think of ska music? If you're like me, you've heard of it, know it's in the realm of reggae, but might not be 100% sure what the differences are and which bands are playing it! Well, if that's the case then this episode of the Songfacts Podcast is for you.

Today I speak with Marc Wasserman, a musician, fellow podcaster, and author of the book Skaboom! An American Ska And Reggae Oral History, a tremendously detailed account of ska through the words of the band members that lived it.


A Quick History Of Ska In America

Ska music starts in Jamaica. It's an interesting combination of local and indigenous Jamaican music - mento and the early forms of calypso.

They were able to pick up radio waves from New Orleans and the Florida panhandle, and there were a lot of Jamaicans who were merchant seamen traveling back and forth between Jamaica and the United States, and they would pick up early rock and roll and soul and R&B records and bring them back to Jamaica.

So what you have happening in the late '50s is this huge number of amazing musicians deciding to experiment by mixing their local Jamaican music with what they've heard from America, and that is ska. So ska is sort of a mutation, which is what is so interesting about it throughout its history. It has continued to mutate and it mixes well with other forms of music.

That's where it starts, and then Jamaica is sort of taken over by ska fever around the same time it gets its independence from England [1962], so ska music is associated with this idea of Jamaican independence. But there's a core group of musicians who are really into experimentation, and ska is a little bit too fast and the people wanted something a little slower to dance with their girlfriend or wife, so it gets slowed down into what we now know as rock steady, which is a much slower, much funkier, groovier version of ska. And then it takes even more and more iteration where it becomes reggae and it gets really slowed down and you start bringing in a political aspect. Jamaica is a complicated place culturally and socially, so these musicians are speaking and singing about what they see: poverty and injustice and things like that. So you have the rise of people like Bob Marley and the Wailers, who start as ska musicians but then follow all the way through as rock steady and then into reggae.

But that really is the history of it. What is interesting is that at the same time, lots of Jamaicans are immigrating to England, and they are bringing this music with them to England, and they are moving in next door to white British families. Slowly, ska and rock steady and reggae become the sort of Motown of England, and you get a mixing of white and black kids who all listen to ska and reggae, and that is sort of the underpinning of what you get from two-tone in the mid-to-late-'70s.

So there's huge immigration to England in the '50s and '60s and the children of those immigrants start their own bands like The Specials and The Selector and Madness that bring the element and influence of Jamaican music and culture to England, and then that music gets imported to the United States so kids like me who were kids of the late '70s and the early '80s go crazy with that sound, and that is really where an American version of ska music is born. It's based initially in that two-tone sound, but also kids like me who'd go back and discover the original ska, rock steady, and reggae. And then you have punk rock going on at the same time, so punk rock and metal and hip-hop all start to get mixed in into the '90s. So, that in a nutshell is how we have this very mutated sound of American ska music.


Gathering And Presenting The Stories

I'm a huge fan of musical oral histories. I've read a lot of them and I feel that it's in general better to hear somebody tell their story directly than it is to be filtered through someone else. Also, the publisher that I'm working with, DiWulf, put out a great oral history about a punk-rock club I spent a lot of time at called City Gardens. They warned me that an oral history is really, really hard to do,1 but the bands that I am focused on all existed before the internet, so there's very little about them that's available. I felt like in order to do them justice and to honor their stories it would be better if people heard those stories directly from them, and my job would be to weave together the narrative of all these different voices.

It was hard. It was a tremendous amount of work. It was like being a detective and tracking people down and convincing them to talk to me, going through all the transcriptions of those conversations, and then ultimately the hard work of putting together what is the best way of telling this band's story to do them justice.


Marc WassermanMarc Wasserman

Cyndi Lauper and Ska

People of a certain age may remember The Hooters, an interesting rock and roll band out of Philadelphia. They were the band that opened Live Aid. Nobody really knew who they were but they were huge in Philadelphia.

But they started as a ska and reggae band in Philadelphia. Nobody seems to know that2 - I did because I grew up in central New Jersey, which was midway between Philadelphia and New York, so I could get radio from both of those cities. The Hooters were played all the time on Philadelphia radio in the early '80s, and it was ska and reggae songs.

Fascinating band. One of the main guys, Rob Hyman, his family went on vacation to Jamaica when he was a kid, and he became obsessed with Jamaican music. He made trips down there on his own once he got older and he really became a student of reggae. He and Eric Bazilian, his songwriting partner, were in a couple of sort of progressive rock bands, but they went to see The Police one night and then the next night went to see Madness, and they had this light-bulb moment where they were like, "This is the sound."

So, they made a calculated decision to play ska and reggae. They had this arc where they were really popular as a ska and reggae band and then they burned out, they needed to take a break. And it was at that point they were contacted by a friend who had just signed Cyndi Lauper to Columbia Records, and she needed people to help her write and record her first album.

She went to see them when they were a ska and reggae band, and loved them because she was into that - she loved two-tone, she loved reggae music, and there is a definite ska and reggae sound in the early demos they recorded. That did not end up being the way those songs came out, but the basis for a lot of what they did initially with her was rooted in having elements of a reggae guitar, a reggae bass, the rhythm sounds. Some of the drums sound very much of that era. If you listen to "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," you'll hear the organ playing an upbeat reggae bubble. If you listen to "Time After Time" that's a reggae bass line that was played on a synthesizer, but that is a straight-up reggae bass line, and that's what Cyndi asked for - she asked Rob and Eric to play it with a reggae vibe to it.

Rob Hyman says that his most treasured possession is a Skatalites record that he bought when he was in Jamaica when he was 14 or 15 years old. He said that would be the first thing he would save if his house was ever on fire.


Satanic Ska

Mephiskapheles is a portmanteau of ska and Mephistopheles... a really, really interesting band. This is where you start to see this really crazy experimentation. They came up with the concept of "Satanic ska." Now of course you remember bands like Mötley Crüe, and Alice Cooper used devil imagery. These guys loved that kind of music but they also loved ska, and they were like, "No one has done anything like this before, we're going to do that."

So they came up with this crazy name and they just came out of nowhere and bowled people over. They were this interesting mix of self-taught punk rockers with incredibly well-trained jazz musicians who had gone to music school. You had this really interesting conflict of punk rock meets the right way to play music, so you'd have these very crazy punk and rock sounds mixed with ska mixed with these amazing horns. The horn players were all jazz musicians.

You never knew what to expect when you would see Mephiskapheles. They came in at the right time when American audiences were open to ska but wanted to hear something different. They were really lucky - they were able to connect with this incredible rock producer named Bill Laswell, a really established rock and roll, hardcore metal producer. He mixes their first album, God Bless Satan, and it is a sound like no one has ever heard before. It's a really unusual record that still holds up to this day.

They self-financed a video for their song "Doomsday" shot at some club shows they did in New York, and they submitted it to MTV for inclusion on an alternative music show called 120 Minutes - this was long before we all listened to our own Spotify channels, so everybody got their music news from MTV or the radio.

At the same time that they submit this, The New York Times decides to write a huge story noting that ska is the new sound of New York, which was sort of true. It had been for a while but it took them a while to catch up. But they scored the perfect storm of MTV saying they'd play the video and this New York Times story that quotes members of Mephiskapheles. This is right around October of '95.

The fact that their self-financed, self-made video is getting played on MTV is pretty extraordinary. They are one of the earliest bands to mutate ska into metal. People who were into punk rock start to go see Mephiskapheles. They go on tour with GWAR and the Buzzcocks. For a time in the '90s people were really open to this interesting mix of rock and ska.


Ska on MTV

I interviewed the President of MTV and I asked him about that. I said, "How did Mephiskapheles sneak into airplay on MTV?" and he was like, "It happened occasionally, it happened."

The Bosstones got a decent amount of airplay on MTV. A band called Real Big Fish got a decent amount of airplay on MTV, and then Mephiskapheles occasionally would pop up there. In my book I looked at bands from the '80s who were really the pioneers and did a lot of the hard work of building an audience that these other bands were able to capitalize on 10 years later.


"Doomsday"

It's hard to say what the song is about other than it's part of the dark theatrical approach that Mephiskapheles took, and whether it's tongue-in-cheek or not is up to you the listener to decide. But I know them, and a lot of it was based on humor - it was "how far can we push the envelope within the realm of ska with the devil or dark imagery." To me, that's what makes them so fascinating.


The Boxboys

Oftentimes there was a crossover between bands like Mötley Crüe and The Untouchables and there was another ska band that predated them called The Boxboys. The Boxboys actually played shows with Mötley Crüe because they were the only ska band in LA. To their credit, booking people in LA were not hung up on "this can only be a hard-rock bill." They would actually put a ska band and a heavy metal band together so you'd sometimes have these neck-snapping shows where you'd be like, "What did I just see!?"

I will never turn my back on ska!

A running joke on the TV series Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Detective Peralta (Andy Samberg)'s devotion to ska in the '90s when it was trendy. In one episode, we learn that he had a ska band in high school called Skalvester Skallone, with the song "Stop Or My Mom Will Ska." In a flashback sequence, he tells a reporter, "Ska defines who I am as a person, and I will never turn my back on ska!" before letting out a "Hup!" and doing some serious skanking.

How The Ska And Mod Scenes Aligned

LA is in some ways an unlikely place for a mod scene. By "mod," I'm referring to like The Who. Kids who followed The Who in the '60s in England were called mods based on the way they dressed and their culture of scooters and using amphetamines. If you've ever seen the movie Quadrophenia you'll know what I'm talking about. That movie is about a big gang of kids who are mods who love Northern soul and power pop and things like that from the '60s and their whole life was really about going out and partying and riding their scooters and so on.

So, Quadrophenia becomes this thing in the US in the late '70s - it's like a midnight movie thing. It has a real effect on people in LA and you suddenly start to see kids dressing like the people from the movie. It really grabs a hold of people.

At the same time, you have this guy named Howard Paar, an Englishman, who comes over to LA ostensibly for a vacation but stays and never leaves. And while he's here, he's into punk, he's into ska, he's into reggae, and he decides he wants to open a club that only plays ska music, and he meets this guy who owns this space in Silver Lake, which at the time was sort of a rough-and-ready neighborhood - now it's probably one of the most desirable places to live in LA. He opens this hole-in-the-wall club called the On Klub and decides he's only going to book ska, soul and reggae music, and one of the first bands he books is The Untouchables.

Now, this is happening at the same time Quadrophenia is causing all this mod and scooter-riding craze, so you have this perfect storm of kids into mod and The Untouchables, who mixed their influences of ska and The Who. So there's this interesting rock-ska sound, and they're a very diverse band - they're a mix of black and white kids - and this is unprecedented for LA. Like most cities in the US in the late '70s it was pretty segregated, so it was notable that you'd have a band with five black guys and two white guys. And this seems to bring together a whole scene around them that starts with the On Klub and then just starts to spread out to other clubs in LA. The Untouchables tied The Doors for playing the Roxy the most times, which is mind-blowing, but that's how big their following was - they would often play the Roxy two or three times a month and sell it out.

So, there was this real youth culture around The Untouchables and that spread slowly out of LA and into Orange County. You would see people like Gwen Stefani and her brother Eric Stefani from No Doubt at Untouchables shows. Members of Fishbone were at Untouchables shows. The influence of The Untouchables, while they might not be well known to many, it's pretty extraordinary socially, politically but also musically that they influenced all these other future musicians to start ska-inspired, ska/mod-inspired bands.


Movies And Youth Culture

Pre-internet, movies were just such an important part of the culture and particularly youth culture. I remember trying to get in to see Quadrophenia, I was too young, and I tried to muster my way in, and I got blocked by the usher. They were like, "No way are you getting into this movie."

No internet meant you actually had to make an effort to go out and learn about stuff. You had to go to the record store, you actually had to listen carefully to the radio to what you liked and then go to a record store. You had to read liner notes in order to educate yourself.

You find a lot of Gen-Xers like me who have stayed very true to whatever music it was that you grew up with, whether it was ska, heavy metal, punk. You get imprinted at that age because you did the hard work of learning as much as you could about whatever passionate feeling you had about that particular genre of music.

"I Spy For The FBI" by The Untouchables

In England, they had their version of Motown, which is called Northern soul. For whatever reason, geographically the northern part of England really loves American soul music, and oftentimes what would happen is black musicians from the US who were having trouble breaking here would relocate to England and suddenly have a career. They would record and have hits in England, so you'd have this sort of underground soul scene.

One of those songs that were really popular in England was called "I Spy For The FBI." Huge in England, probably not well-known here. A guy named Jamo Thomas wrote that song. So when The Untouchables broke out of LA they were signed to Stiff Records, which was a very famous punk-rock label in England in the '70s and '80s. Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Madness were with Stiff Records, and they helped make Stiff Records really popular. When Madness left, the label felt like they had to find a replacement, and there were The Untouchables.

It was kind of incredible - this American band from LA gets signed to this label in England, and Stiff Records brings them over to England to make them stars thinking they are going to replace Madness in terms of record sales and airplay. They record this album, Wild Child. They deliver it and the label doesn't feel like it's got the hit that it needs, so they say, "We'd like you to cover this song 'I Spy For The FBI' and we want to have Jerry Dammers of The Specials produce it.

So it's kinda cool is that there is this full circle of The Untouchables being inspired by The Specials, and then going over to England to record and then get hooked up with Jerry Dammers who produces this song with the hope that it'll be a big hit. Unfortunately, it wasn't, but what I love about that story is that an American ska band goes to England and gets asked to record an American soul song of a guy who went to England to be more successful, and then it's all produced by Jerry Dammers, who everyone who is into two-tone ska really admired. Being the first American band to work with Jerry Dammers is a pretty big deal.


Marc performing with Bigger ThomasMarc performing with Bigger Thomas

The Uptones

They all met at Berkeley High School and they were all in various age ranges from freshman to senior, so like 14 to 18. Berkeley public schools had made an investment in music education very early on, so if you wanted to learn an instrument in Berkeley there was no impediment to that. It didn't matter if you couldn't afford your instrument, they would provide an instrument.

For a while, Berkeley was sort of the feeder system for American jazz musicians because they spent so much time and energy on educating all these really talented people. So what you have in The Uptones is this mix of people into punk rock but also incredibly well-trained musicians who are all taken with what they're hearing, which is two-tone, The Specials, Selector, Madness. They go see The English Beat, and they decide they want to be a ska band. They are allowed to play their first show on the last day of school, so you have like 4,000 kids streaming out of Berkeley High on the last day of school in 1982 and these kids are playing, so they had an immediately built-in audience and they catapulted from that and became incredibly popular.

The first song they ever wrote and recorded, "Get Out Of My Way," ends up getting played on the radio in Berkeley and San Francisco and then the whole Bay Area when these kids are still in high school. They become this phenomenon in the Bay Area, and listening to this band are people who end up starting Operation Ivy and Rancid and Green Day.

It's unfortunate that The Uptones burned out. It's hard to be a rock star when you're in high school. Some of them were like 15 and 16 years old and their parents were like, "You're not going on tour, I'm sorry, it's not going to happen." So they were sort of a West Coast phenomenon.

What I think is a testament to them and the influence they had is that Tim Armstrong of Rancid is a huge fan and ended up covering "Get Out Of My Way" on either the first or second Rancid album. Then he asked a couple members of the band to write some songs with him, so there are a couple of songs he wrote with members of The Uptones. And then, Rancid has a huge hit with a song called "Time Bomb." It was a big breakout hit in the mid-'90s and features the original keyboard player from The Uptones that gets to play that really memorable organ part that is sort of like the middle eight of that song. There is this full circle of one band influencing another and then bringing the members of that influential band into the fold for a while.

Everyone knows about American ska from the '90s, but what I really want is to make sure that people are educated about the fact that it didn't start in the '90s. It's not like Operation Ivy and Rancid and Real Big Fish came out of nowhere - they didn't. They were influenced by all the bands that I write about in the book and the musicians who put their heart and soul and passion into what they were doing when very few people knew what ska music was here.


The Future Of Ska

It seems to be having a resurgence right now. Ska music has never gone away, it's always been there from the '80s on, so just because you don't read about it in the mainstream media or hear about it on the radio doesn't mean it's not there. What has happened is that a couple of bands who are again mutating and mixing and bringing in other aspects of what is going in society right now have started to get some attention, which I think is great, which means that if there is interest again, then we have the opportunity to educate people not only about the bands that are happening right now but also about the history.

I like to support the argument that ska is not going anywhere and it will continue to mutate. If kids are still into it then there are infinite variations you can do with ska music - you can mix it with just about any kind of music and create something new. You won't be the first person to have done that but if you can figure out a way to make it sound good then I guarantee you that there will be an audience there.

July 21, 2021

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Here's ordering info for Skaboom!

And here's our interview with Dave Wakeling of The English Beat

Footnotes:

  • 1] This is true. A lesson we learned in our Muscle Shoals oral history. (back)
  • 2] This is also true. We interviewed head Hooters Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian and neither mentioned their ska/reggae roots. (back)

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