Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Question of the Day - SKA - June 9, 2009



Chris Yamashiro asks:

Why didn't ska/reggae take off the way everyone thought it would? With the recent No Doubt and Mighty Mighty Bosstones reunions, do you think that third wave ska is going to go through a "revival" period? If trad (first wave) ska was basically an offshoot of reggae, two-tone (second wave) was the bastard child of the post-punk mod revival and trad ska, third wave ska was the son of punk and two tone, what will fourth wave be? If there were one ska act most deserving of a spot on the list in the rock on film syllabus, what would it be?

Hartmann responds:

The traditional Carribean rhythms are rooted in Calypso music. After World War II the island of Jamaica was exposed to Jazz and R&B through armed forces radio. In the late 50s the fusion of these genres blossomed into Ska. It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the offbeat. This music was the precursor to Rocksteady and Reggae. The style, universally popular in Jamaica, gained world wide popularity in the 60s with the rise of Bob Marley & The Wailers. Marley's rebellious lyrics were embraced by British and American music fans who were in a state of rebellion themselves. Many great artists embraced the style and often included original and cover Reggae songs in their repertoires. Many became hits in the U.S.A.

The second wave of Ska is known as the English 2 Tone movement. It began in the late 1970s in the areas in and around the city of Coventry in the U.K. The fusion of Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with punk rock's more aggressive guitar chords and lyrics had faster tempos, fuller instrumentation and a harder edge. The genre was named after 2 Tone Records, a label founded by Jerry Dammers of The Specials. In many cases, the reworking of classic ska songs turned the originals into hits again in the United Kingdom. The 2 Tone movement promoted racial unity at a time when racial tensions were high in the UK. Most of the 2 Tone bands had multiracial lineups, such as The Beat, The Specials, and The Selecter. Although only on the 2 Tone label for one single, Madness were one of the most effective bands at bringing the genre into the mainstream.

In the early 1980s, bands influenced by the 2 Tone Ska revival started forming in the U.S. and other countries. This revival included post-punk ska bands such as The Uptones in Northern California, Fishbone and The untouchables in Southern California, and The Toasters and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones on the East Coast. Many third wave ska bands played Ska Punk, which is characterized by brass instruments, a heavily-accented offbeat, and usually a much faster tempo. Some third wave bands played ska-core, which blends ska with hardcore punk. However, several third wave ska bands played in a more traditional 1960s-influenced style.

On the East Coast, the first well-known ska revival band was The Toasters, who played in a 2 Tone-influenced style and helped pave the way for the third wave ska movement. In 1981, The Uptones jump-started the Northern California ska scene when the band, consisting of Berkeley High School students, formed and went on to play sold-out shows throughout the San Francisco area. Their punk-influenced ska has been cited as inspiration by many California bands.

Orange County, California had one of the biggest and most influential third wave ska scenes, which originated in the early 1990s. For about a decade, Orange County was the starting point for many successful third wave ska bands. Some of these ska bands had a great deal of commercial success, albeit short-lived. The Hippos, Save Ferris, and Sugar Ray enjoyed some commercial success. Others local favorites like Common Sense and The Rebel Rockers failed to sell records despite strong followings among the California fans.

In the early 1990s, the Ska Parade radio show helped popularize the term third wave ska and promoted many Southern California ska-influenced bands, such as Sublime, No Doubt and Lets Go Bowling. In 1993, the ska-core band The Mighty Mighty Bosstones appeared in the film Clueless, with their first mainstream hit "Where'd You Go?" Around this time, many ska-influenced songs became hits on mainstream radio. In 1996, the band Less Than Jake started the record label Fueled By Ramen, which featured many lesser known third wave ska bands. By the late 1990s, mainstream interest in third wave ska bands waned as other music genres gained momentum.

Although the Reggae movement produced hit Reggae records from Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Johnny Nash, Eric Clapton, The Police, Sugar Ray and others, the genre never attained ubiquity as a force in pop music culture. The style had all the ingredients for long term commercial viability, but the untimely death of Bob Marley silenced its most powerful voice. Los Angeles favorite, Fishbone, had the music and an exciting live act, but failed to achieve hit status. No Reggae artist was able to sustain a string of hit records in the genre, except The Police. They achieved superstar notoriety, but lost their inertia in the wake of band leader Sting's pursuit of a solo career.

A fourth wave of Reggae could emerge behind the rise of a great star. This would require an artist, dedicated to the core Ska rhythms, with the ability to create original songs in the style. The inclusion of charisma and sex appeal would help such an act rally a universal audience. Careers are like fingerprints; from a distance they all look the same. Up close, they are all different. It is hard to say why Ska music, despite its credible history and danceable beat, has failed to produce and enduring superstar. If such a phenomenon were to arrive, the Reggae beat could gain a universal following and might just be the source of The Next Big Thing. A major motion picture, The Harder They Fall starring Jimmy Cliff was a commercial success and provides a raw insight into the evolution of the seminal Jamaican music scene of the 60s.

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