Toasters of the Town

In the beginning, there was No Doubt. Or maybe it was Sublime. And didn't I hear something about the Mighty Mighty Bosstones putting out an album before 1997's Let's Face It?

Thus runs the garbled ska gospel according to many of the new fans attracted by the genre's most recent boom. You can hardly blame them for their lack of knowledge about ska's background because most of them are only twelve years old. But even the youngest of these boosters will benefit from knowing the Toasters, the still-spry grandfathers of American ska. The band's members -- guitarist/vocalist Robert "Bucket" Hingley, trumpeter Brian Sledge, vocalist Jack Ruby, Jr., bassist Matt Malles, drummer John McCain, trombonist Rick Faulkner, saxophonist Fred Reiter, and keyboardist Dave Waldo -- have been giving the kiddies something to skank about for fifteen years, and they give no indication that they'll be cutting down their 200-shows-per-year touring schedule anytime soon. Nonetheless, Hingley, the group's co-founder, wouldn't mind if listeners dug a little deeper into ska's roots.

"People tend to emphasize the party aspect of ska, not the political aspect," he says. "They forget that the music rose out of the Trench Town ghetto when Jamaica got rid of 200 years of English colonial rule. Now it's associated with white frat boys."

"Bob Marley started out playing ska," adds Sledge. "Reggae music is just ska music played much slower. The beats, guitar licks, and rhythms behind it are generally the same." Indeed, the rudiments of ska link the music's three distinct periods: the first wave, which came to life in Jamaica during the late Fifties; the second wave, spurred by late-Seventies English combos that revived ska under the two-tone banner; and today's third wave, a movement broad enough to encompass the punky sound of Rancid and the swing-ska flavor associated with the Dance Hall Crashers.

Hingley doesn't turn up his nose at the latest generation to discover ska, in part because he, too, came to the music long after its birth. His conversion experience occurred in 1980, shortly after he moved from England to New York, where he managed Forbidden Planet, a comic-book/sci-fi store. "I went to see the English Beat in the Roseland Ballroom and only 150 people were there," he remembers. "But for me, it was like the scene in the Blues Brothers where they get hit by the bolt of lightning."

Before long, Hingley had decided that his particular "mission from God" required him to introduce the United States to ska. To that end, he created the Toasters in 1983, and when he discovered that no domestic record labels were interested in signing his band, he started Moon Ska Records, the first American label to exclusively feature ska outfits. The imprint didn't entirely shield the Toasters from financial troubles; over the years the players have weathered threats of bankruptcy and collected more than their share of battle stories. ("Once, we had a bus break down at Checkpoint Charlie," Hingley says, referring to the former East German border crossing, "and we had to get out and push it with all the Germans pointing their guns at us.") But they've recently seen their profiles rise above cult level status. For instance, their latest album, 1997's Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down, cracked the MTV lineup, the CMJ Top 25 radio list, and the Billboard reggae chart.

These accomplishments attracted the attention of numerous record-industry heavyweights, but the Toasters had no trouble rejecting their entreaties; Hingley says they "never wanted to lose control of things and give the baby over to less-caring foster parents." He adds, "We were in a sort of anomalous position. We have done quite well for ourselves, but if we went to a major label, we'd have to run five times as fast."

Besides, Sledge notes, the band is doing just fine on its own. "When I started out with the Toasters seven years ago, we were playing to crowds of three or four hundred people," he says. "Now it's for three or four thousand people. The people at the shows used to be between eighteen and twenty-four years old, and the majority of them were rude boys, mod boys, and mod girls dressed in black suits, white shirts, and black ties. But once ska made the MTV playlist and started filtering into other forms, like skacore, ska-punk, and ska-jazz, other kids who might not have bothered to listen to it started to check it out. Now the majority of kids at our shows are between twelve and eighteen years old and are dressed in skateboard gear with flared bell-bottom jeans and wallet chains."

The musicians have no problem relating to such throngs. In fact, they instruct security guards at concerts to step aside to allow a constant stream of attendees to dance with them in front of the footlights. Although their laissez-faire attitude has resulted in a few dental emergencies due to collisions with overzealous skankers, they wouldn't have it any other way. "Ska is inclusionary. It's not a musical form like classic rock, where you have something like a sheet of glass between you and the audience," Hingley explains. "Brecht talked of this sort of alienation: the audience watching a spectacle and not participating in it. So we're the anti-Brechts, I suppose."

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