A funny thing happened to me last week. Like many music fans and especially music writers, I look forward to checking out new releases on Friday. So, last Friday I got to work and started browsing the new releases on Spotify. This included a new worship/hardcore album from Sleeping Giant front man Tommy Green going under the moniker HolyName. And Brooklyn rapper Skyzoo dropped his first album since 2021’s unbelievable All The Brilliant Things. Now, don’t let what I write next bear any weight on the quality of those two records. Both were a fantastic first listen, and I look forward to returning to them after Ska-Nuary is over. But as the workday wore on and I made my way through these albums, I noticed my mood started to turn a little dark. It felt as if a veil had been slowly lowered over my eyes.
Now, if you’re just joining in, I’ve been undergoing a listening experiment over the last few weeks. In order to combat the seasonal depression that often accompanies January (and the perpetual grey skies in Ohio), I’ve been listening primarily to ska. There’s just something so uplifting about the music, even if the topic matter delves into more difficult subjects like loneliness, alcoholism, and racism.
Noticing that the New Music Friday dive was not giving me the joy it normally does, I switched back to the Two Tone Ska playlist I’d been working through since the last Ska-Nuary check-in. After a few songs, I started feeling better. Now, I don’t know if the relentless deluge of horns and upstrokes have rewired my neural receptors and their response to music. I don’t know if my dopamine and serotonin release more regularly when encouraged to “pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.” Or maybe it was all one big coincidence. Either way, I could directly point to ska for lifting my mood.
I’m no stranger to albums that evoke melancholic reactions. My favorite and most listened-to albums from last year were billy woods’ Aethiopes and Church, which are dark, challenging, and could under no circumstances be classified as ‘joyful.’ But I get a great deal of joy from them.
I don’t know what happened, but I’m grateful that ska can still liven my spirits, even as the drudgery of winter wears on.
What I Spun This Week:
This week, I largely focused on early ska, with several new bands and a label who’re heavily influenced by those styles thrown in for good measure.
Ska Roots: The Skatalites
Ska’s first wave started in the 50’s and 60’s in Jamaica. Features upstroked guitars, horns and organ/keys, and a fast-paced beat. Ska pre-dates reggae and rocksteady, a fact that is too often lost on people. While reggae has many of the same elements as ska, it features a slower tempo, more syncopated drum rhythm, and the lyrical themes are often centered around social and political issues. With its lighthearted nature and pop tunes, early ska would fit right at home on many 50’s and 60’s Oldie radio stations.
The Skatalites are one of the most famous of this first wave originally playing between 1963 and 1965. They also backed other famous ska and reggae artists like Prince Buster and Bob Marley. The Skatalites eventually reformed in the 80’s and still play shows to this day.
2-Tone : The Specials
2-Tone was the second wave of Ska, which had now emigrated to the UK and specifically Coventry England. Named after 2-Tone Records, a label started by Jerry Dammers of the Specials. It also referred to the hope that Ska music could rise above racial tensions, and many of the bands featured both black and white members. 2-Tone music infused traditional Jamaican Ska with Punk and New Wave.
I was first turned onto 2-Tone from the move Shaun of the Dead. The movie opens with Simon Pegg having an awkward argument/conversation with his girlfriend in a pub while two friends watch on. And in the background playing is “Ghost Town” by The Specials. Although I didn’t pay much attention to it, the song must have wormed it’s way into my subconscious.
Ten years later, I attended Riot Fest in Chicago and got to see The Specials play live on the main stage. They following Jimmy Eat World, who I was more excited to see. But I realized while watching them that I knew “Ghost Town” and a few other songs. I really had no context for The Specials before seeing them live, but that remains one of the best shows of the weekend and of the subsequent two Riot Fests I attended.
The Specials were different than any other ska I was familiar with. For one, they were all dressed up to the nines. Suits, fedoras, and shiny shoes abounded. They were classy. I wasn’t familiar with rude boy dress style at the time and didn’t realize that this was a part of ska culture. Secondly, they were older (their first album came out in 1979), but they played with more energy than most of the bands on the bill that weekend. I would see this same kind of energy in another classic ska band, Fishbone, the following year. And thirdly, the kind of ska that the band was putting out wasn’t silly. They were serious about using their platform to address racism, classicism, and social justice. It would be another few years before I realized that fighting for racial justice was a hallmark of many ska bands, even the silly ones, and that there were several successful Ska Against Racism tours in the 90’s (that even included Five Iron Frenzy on the lineup). I was hoping to get to see The Specials live again and was absolutely gutted to hear one of their singers, Terry Hall, died suddenly in December last year. Rest in Peace.
This week I listened to my two The Specials records on vinyl, as well as the This Are Two Tone Compilation (which I have on cassette), which features other popular 2-Tone artists such as The Selecter, The English Beat, and Madness. If you are a fan of early punk or new wave music, or want to listen to a movement that made significant strides in mending racial relationships in the UK during the 70’s and 80’s, take a dive into the 2-Tone sound.
New-Tone: CatBite, Bad Operation, Bad Time Records
Finally, I spent some time listening to New Tone, bands more directly inspired by the Two-Tone sound than by the 3rd Wave Punk/Ska revival. I returned to Catbite, a band I had discovered on a best of 2021 ska list for their record Nice One. They definitely capture the essence of the Two-Tone sound while making it relevant for new listeners. Catbite led me to Bad Operation, another New-Tone band who put out a really rad self-titled album in 2020. And this led me to Bad Time Records, an independent ska label who also has Joystick! and JER on their roster, two bands I mentioned in a previous article. Bad Time might be the most important label in ska right now. Their roster is rock solid and includes new bands as well as classics like The Suicide Machines. If you were wondering, ska is alive and well, and Bad Time Records is the epicenter of another important revival.