Perfect Sound Forever

Ska's Third Wave

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

Waiting for another wave
by Victoria Large
(September 2006)

In an interview with The Boston Phoenix in 2002, former Mighty Mighty Bosstones guitarist Nate Albert mused, "Have you noticed that on every comedy show, or every commercial that's supposed to be funny, the soundtrack is ska-core?... I was watching America's Funniest Home Videos, and it's like the whole soundtrack is ska-core. And I'm thinking, 'Is this what we gave to the world?'" By the time of the interview, the popularity of the Third Wave Ska Revival, which had briefly dominated the alternative music scene in the 1990's, had begun to wane. Still, Albert needn't have worried the movement was worth a great deal more than its co-opting by Corporate America suggests. The best music Third Wave Ska had to offer was refreshingly energetic, eccentric and just damn good.

Ska itself first emerged in Jamaica in the 1960's with artists such as Desmond Dekker and The Skatalites, later becoming a precursor to reggae. The upbeat, horn-driven music was revived years after its initial flowering in a most unexpected fashion. The late 1970's and early '80's saw ska become a prevalent form of pop music in the UK with British bands like Madness, The Specials, and The English Beat. Perhaps most influentially, The Clash, one of punk rock's seminal "big three" (along with The Ramones and The Sex Pistols), dove into ska with tracks like "Wrong 'Em Boyo" from 1979's immortal London Calling. The groundwork was set, even if the UK's Ska Revival (later known as the Second Wave) was short-lived as many of the bands dissolved shortly after getting chart recognition.

By the early 1990's, the American rock bands that picked up the ska influence were misfits amidst death rattles of moribund hair metal bands and jolts of screeching Seattle grunge guitar feedback. On the East Coast, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had been building a hometown following with "ska-core," their unorthodox melding of ska with metal and hardcore, though they didn't seem poised to take the nation by storm. California ska-punks Operation Ivy had released one of the genre's masterpieces, 1989's youthfully urgent and aptly titled Energy, only to disband for fear of compromising their ideals with a major-label contract. Poppier California ska revivalists No Doubt released their self-titled debut album with a major, Interscope Records, only to meet with apathetic sales and be unceremoniously dumped by the label. It seemed the movement would remain relatively underground.

But then something funny happened. "Alternative" radio and Gen X youth culture had exploded onto the scene, and with the dust still settling in the wake of Nirvana's stormy and all-too-brief career, punk and ska revivalists came tumbling through the doors that the grunge-era bands had so ferociously kicked open. Berkeley pop punkers Green Day who had recorded a cheekily unhurried cover of Operation Ivy's anthem "Knowledge" a few years prior went multi-platinum with their 1994 brat touchstone Dookie, and ska-infused artists quickly entered the arena as well. Rancid, another Cali punk band, this one featuring ex-Operation Ivy members Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman (given to wearing their love for The Clash on their safety-pinned sleeves) released their breakthrough album ...And Out Come the Wolves in 1995. The singles "Ruby Soho" and "Timebomb" hit it big and put the band and their style on the map. No Doubt's 1995 album Tragic Kingdom straddled a number of genres, but their hit single "Spiderwebs" effectively launched ska into the Top 40 stratosphere and spawned a rash of "Gwenabes," teen and 'tween girls bent on imitating lead singer Gwen Stefani (whose infatuation with bindi dots launched a brief trend). Ska-core innovators The Bosstones meanwhile made a cameo in the 1995 teen movie sensation Clueless before finally earning a crossover smash with the single "The Impression That I Get" (from 1997's Let's Face It). They subsequently gigged on MTV, SNL, and even Sesame Street (doing swinging number with The Count). 1996 saw Sublime, a band of eclectic influences including marked ska and reggae leanings, score a bittersweet hit with their self-titled third album, released a few short months after lead singer Bradley Nowell's death from a heroin overdose.

The surging popularity of ska helped to put the summer skate and music festival The Warped Tour on a great many more radars, reignited interest in forerunners like Madness (Bosstones frontman Dicky Barrett penned the liner notes to the 1997 compilation Total Madness), and moved merchandize such as bumper stickers bearing the phrase, "Ska'd for Life." The trend also helped deserving bands like The Aquabats, who dressed as superheroes and performed playful songs about action figures and mad scientists to gain recognition.

It seemed sudden and a bit odd, but there were a few obvious reasons for the ska explosion: the music had been simmering underground for some time, and much of it was quite good. But, more than that, it was a means for American rock music, and rock music fans, to break free. Rock had grown to be defined as the music of angst before the revival hit (and would once again with the demoralizing ascendance of rap-metal bands like Limp Bizkit), but ska was party music. Some of the genre's best albums, Energy and Let's Face It among them, are imbued with a strong social conscience with songs that take on racism, sexism, and violence. But what was really crucial was that at the same time, you could also dance to these bands (dancing was, in fact, the sole duty of eighth Bosstone Ben Carr).

The music and the dancing was also cool by virtue of having been so wildly, defiantly uncool for much of the decade. Media darling Stefani, dubbed "a dorky mall dolly" by Spin magazine, happily copped to her love of Madonna and The Sound of Music while The Aquabats opined on the virtues of kung fu grip. The Third Wave Ska scene overflowed with a palpable goodwill and never took itself too seriously, which was a major part of its appeal, and also a part of what made its decline in favor of the thumping, testosterone-overloaded arena rock of the late 1990's all the more unwelcome for those of us who dug a band with a slide trombone.

Of course, after the first few Third Wave bands broke, the market was flooded with flavorless imitators. The music gained an unwelcome ubiquity including as a soundtrack to the TV commercials and cheesy comedy clip-show that Albert referenced. What had felt new was old again. As the twenty-first century dawned; radio, fans, and the bands themselves began to move on. Rancid's self-titled 2000 album was all hard-edged punk rock stripped of the ska influences of their previous efforts. The Bosstones were dropped by their major label, and went on hiatus after releasing A Jackknife to a Swan on the indie label Side One Dummy in 2002. No Doubt disbanded and singer Stefani began building a career as a full-on pop diva, and even The Aquabats pared down their line-up and focused more strongly on jangly, Devo-injected power pop.

For now, ska has mostly been sidelined, but pop music never stops changing, and never stops recycling itself. After all, few expected that we would once again be hearing so many synthesizers on modern rock radio five years ago. It's likely only a matter of time before ska resurfaces in the mainstream hopefully in a new, not derivative incarnation quite possibly when we need it the most.

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