Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ska: A Brief History

Jonathan Migneault

The iPod is a wonderful machine in its ability to revive old songs that you had completely forgotten. Last night, I experienced one such "revival" when the song "I Can't Wait" by third-wave ska band, Hepcat, popped into my random shuffle. The song brought back memories of a genre that gone through many ups and downs over the years. It seems that ska was virtually cleaned off pop culture's radar when the 90s ended. It's a shame because a lot of great music came out of the genre.

I think a little ska-revival, at least for a day, is in order. Too many people often have an averse reaction to ska because all they remember is The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' "The Impression That I Get" and how they wanted to stab themselves in the ears after its one-thousandth play on the radio. Fortunately, there is a lot more to ska than The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish.

In general, ska's history is split into three distinct waves.

The first wave was born and blossomed in Jamaica. Artists like The Skatalites and Prince Buster transformed the music they heard on American radio into their own unique style. Early ska combined elements of rhythm and blues, jazz, mento, calypso and African rhythms to create a sound that has come to define Jamaican music. Bob Marley and the Wailers adopted the sound and transformed it by slowing the tempo and adding more rhythm guitar into the mix. This, of course, resulted in reggae. The first wave was short-lived and made way for reggae's huge popularity in 1966. The Skatalites, arguably the first period's most important band, have since made several comebacks.

Ska's second wave is my favourite. Also called the Two Tone era, after the movement's most popular record label, ska's second wave melded the genre with England's punk rock aesthetic. The movement's most popular bands included The Selecter, The Beat, Madness and The Specials. Jerry Dammers, the latter band's keyboardist, founded 2 Tone Records. The label's name described the solidarity between black and white members of the working class during a time of high racial tension in England (history seems to be repeating itself). These ska-loving English minorities were part of a larger sub culture that called itself the rude boys. Ska music has many references to rude boys/girls and the name "Rudie." Two great examples are The Clash's "Rudie Can't Fail" and The Specials' "Rudi, A Message To You."

Ironically, second-wave ska's greatest moment, at least in the mainstream, was when the Clash released its masterpiece, London Calling. The double album had only three songs that could be called ska: the aforementioned "Rudie Can't Fail," "Wrong 'Em Boyo" and to a lesser extent, "The Guns of Brixton." Nevertheless, the album's Jamaican sounds, largely influenced by the band's bass player Paul Simonon, helped cement second-wave ska's sound.

The late 80s and early 90s saw ska's third wave quickly rise in popularity. Based largely in the United States, third-wave ska emphasized the second wave's punk aspects. Bands such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake broke into the American mainstream. Meanwhile, bands like Hepcat (who inspired this article) and The Slackers stuck more closely to their predecessors. These bands never gained the others' (short lived) popularity but managed to please the purists while they maintained a contemporary flair.

Below I've posted a small sampling of ska songs. They are each placed under their respective period. If you enjoy these you should go to your local record store and dig out a few ska albums. There are plenty of gems available (probably cheaply) in this mostly forgotten genre.



The Skatalites - James Bond Theme
The Skatalites - The Guns of Navarone
Prince Buster with Determinations - Dance Cleopatra (Live)


The Specials - Rudi, A Message to You
Madness - House of Fun
The Clash - Rudie Can't Fail
The Clash - Wrong 'Em Boyo


Planet Smashers - No Self Control
Leftover Crack - Gay Rude Boys Unite
Hepcat - I Can't Wait
The Slackers - Wasted Days
The Slackers - Wanted Dead or Alive

For the haters

Propagandhi - Ska Sucks

The Clash - London Calling
The Skatalites - Foundation Ska
Hepcat - Right on Time
The Specials - Specials
The Slackers - Peculiar

Comments on "Ska: A Brief History"


Blogger eat crow said ... (22/6/06 12:28 am) : 

Have you heard Future Pigeon?


Blogger Jonathan Migneault said ... (22/6/06 12:32 am) : 

I have now ;)

That's some great stuff!

Gotta love that classic ska sound.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (22/6/06 9:12 am) : 

I first heard the Skatalites several years ago while skiing at Jackson Hole. Started a whole new appreciation for ska. Thanks for the great post!


Anonymous FG said ... (22/6/06 9:28 am) : 

"I Can't Wait" is one of the criminally overlooked great songs of the 90s. Great post. Could have used some Desmond Dekker!


Blogger Christine said ... (22/6/06 12:25 pm) : 

For those digging this be sure to dig deep into the crates and find some Oceans 11 and Toasters ... it's a crime to post on Ska and not include the NYC Rude Boy Crew! Big Up to "Mocking Music" for the Ska-related post!


Blogger Jonathan Migneault said ... (22/6/06 12:37 pm) : 

Yeah I realized afterwards that I overlooked Desmond Dekker. Oh well, as the title says, it's a brief history of ska. Hopefully it will encourage a few people to explore the genre.

Of course, Dekker and The Toasters would be great places to start.


Blogger Rara Avis said ... (22/6/06 3:13 pm) : 

Cool post, duder.


Anonymous ryan said ... (22/6/06 3:46 pm) : 

nice post...of all those 3rd wave groups, the only ones i still listen to are Hepcat and The Slackers; the rest won't make it onto my ipod. anyone know if Hepcat is still around? i've got the follow up to Right On Time, but haven't heard from them since...guess they never recovered from losing one of their vocalists to that tv classic Becker...


Blogger Squashed said ... (22/6/06 3:58 pm) : 

all hail Skatalite. they are the greatest. :D


Anonymous rollins said ... (22/6/06 8:41 pm) : 

the mighty mighty bosstones saong is called "the impression that i get", not "never had to knock on wood".


Blogger Jonathan Migneault said ... (22/6/06 10:36 pm) : 

Thanks Rollins, I'll make the correction.

I guess it shows how much i like that song... hehe


Blogger Jonathan Migneault said ... (22/6/06 10:41 pm) : 


As far as I know Hepcat are defunct. It's a shame because they were esily one of the best "third-wave" bands.


Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (23/6/06 1:01 am) : 

Always been a big fan of "Ska Sucks", though not so much ska.

Great post.

Also, I'm working on my apathy...


Blogger music is art said ... (23/6/06 7:50 pm) : 

received a comment from you a long time ago... wanted to say hello & thankyou :) you really are a wonderful writer ~ i look forward to more!


Blogger Jonathan Migneault said ... (23/6/06 10:52 pm) : 

Heh... I guess all that money spent on journalism school actually payed off. Thanks for the compliment.


Blogger mersenne_twister said ... (24/6/06 8:32 am) : 

wow prince buster!

i also covered them here a few weeks ago, check it out
some more skatalites and prince buster songs

here's a quicker link to a prince buster & skatalites live from 1983..


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