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."
Given Hingley's familiarity with Bertolt Brecht, a Marxist theorist and playwright known for his collaborations with composer Kurt Weill, it's no surprise that he wishes third-wavers would dip more frequently into the political side of ska. He acknowledges, though, that "living in the United States in 1998 under favorable economic conditions is not the same as living in England in the late Seventies, with the racism of Margaret Thatcher and the National Front. Those highly politicized English kids are not the same audience as modern American kids." Even so, he was proud to participate in the Ska Against Racism tour earlier this year (see New Times, April 9, 1998). "We were trying to put a little politics back into the music," he says. "Our message was well received by the kids, and of course, the media completely ignored it."
The Toasters are too modest to take credit for influencing ska's belated success in America. "I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished," Hingley grants. "But what I'm not satisfied with is the way ska music has developed today -- like a Frankenstein monster, with people jumping on the bandwagon and calling themselves ska. I'm not naming names, but some bands call themselves ska when they really aren't ska. But bands like Reel Big Fish and No Doubt have really worked hard to be where they are. The fact that I'm thankful for the way they have introduced ska-influenced music to a wide range of people is more material than whether I agree with or like their music or not."
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Likewise, Sledge says he harbors no bitterness toward ska-bands-come-lately that have experienced a greater degree of commercial success than the Toasters have. "More power to them. I don't knock people for the type of music they play. From my point of view, I love what I do. I mean, everyone likes to get paid, and I'd love to write some music and have it make a million dollars so I could buy a nice big house and a fancy car. But for me, I just enjoy the music and being up onstage. To have someone you've never met before say, 'Man, you're the best horn player I've ever heard' -- it makes you feel good. It's a special kind of power."
Although Hingley has benefited from America's infatuation with all things ska, he won't be sad to see it lessen. "Now that people like us, who've supported ska from the start, have had a chance to organize ourselves and get some capital behind our labels, I'm looking forward to when this whole ska craze dies down," he says. "I think there are two reasons why ska didn't go as big as it should have, even though it showed signs of it when it took on the forms of skacore and ska-punk. It wasn't introduced enough into other styles of music; it really only reached the MTV skating crowd. Also, not enough people know about its roots. That's very important for helping to keep a [style of] music alive.
"A lot of young kids today will hear ska music, but it won't be what they hear on MTV," he continues. "They'll know skacore, ska-punk, and maybe a little two-tone, but it will be something new to them that they won't understand, and because they don't have information about its history, they won't appreciate it. That's why you won't get the same crowd for the Skatalites that you will for the Toasters. If you don't take the time to find out where a type of music is from, you won't be able to find out where it's going. You won't be able to follow its trail. My message to the kids who are listening to ska music today is to take the time to learn about its musical roots. You don't have to win a Nobel Prize in the history of it, but check out some of the older stuff in the same style."
The Toasters perform with Skoidats, Slow Gherkin, and Edna's Goldfish Friday, November 20, at Salvation, 1771 West Ave, Miami Beach; 305-532-4035. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.