And then you have some other music styles that died and never came back. Disco, for instance. As White America recovered from substance abuse in the 80s, they woke up to what they were listening to. Embarrassed as all get-out, disco was buried very, very deep and only resurfaces as jokes or for kitsch value. Another good example is Glam, a very, very bad idea that never caught on. But Ska. Look at it. It was big in Jamaica for like 3 months and died. It got big in England for like 2 years and died. America, it got really big a couple years ago and it's yet to be put out of its misery, but it'll go the way of the dodo soon enough, believe you me. What we have here is a music that dies and gets reborn every 15 years or so. And it isn't brought back as a joke... No. People take ska seriously in all of its waves. So what's going on? Noah Wildman, staunch ska supporter through thick and thin, would insist that ska never died: It's always been in a constant process of evolution. Bullshit. Just because a handful of people were playing or listening to ska in 1976 doesn't mean the music was alive then. Like any specialized music, there will always be people listening to ska. Or skiffle, or Indian raga, or Leonard Cohen. Ska has definitely gone through periods of mania and depression.
So here's what I think. Ska is too quirky and too much a novelty to have the lasting power of other genres. You listen to ska for the first time. You think Wow, this is cute and fun! You play it for your friends to see their baffled expressions. You listen to it for awhile, and then two years later... BAM! You're sick of it. It's annoying. The honeymoon is over. In other words, Ska is just a silly novelty that can only last a few years at a time. It's like polka or bagpipe music or Wang Chung. Even the Jamaicans knew this. That's why ska only lasted a couple years there AND NEVER CAME BACK. Jamaica is probably the only country in the world that doesn't have a ska scene right now. Because they created the music and they'd just as soon forget it.
I am going to prophesize the future for you: We will all get sick of ska. It will die and be forgotten. 15 years from now, some popular band from some other country will "rediscover ska." People will say," Wowie, that sounds weird and fun!!" and everyone will get back into it. Until they get intestinal cramps from it again. And the cycle will continue. That is, unless we end the cycle here and now. There are two ways we can do this. One, we can embrace the incorporation of ska into the main-stream. Allow the bands to flock to majors. Enjoy hearing ska advertise cars and fast food. Love each and every crappy ska band that comes out of Utah (the Seattle of ska). Don't turn back from the over-saturation of the market. Create a global awareness of ska, so that soon it will be an acceptable broad genre of music, like rock n' roll or country or r&b.
The second way is a lot less painful. We must kill ska. Destroy it, drive a stake through it, and nail the coffin shut. Stop supporting your crappy local bands. Make them feel stupid for playing ska. Make people feel stupid for listening to ska. Make ska into a joke, like disco. Only squares listen to ska. Look at rudely-dressed kids like they're from another planet. Trip them in the halls. Steal their girlfriends. Exert enough peer pressure and alienation to get the message across that ska is unhip, and will not be tolerated by the "in" crowd. The cycle must end, people. Ska was not meant to be. Please, let's either accept it into the mainstream or kill it off now and forever. Ska in 1999 is not dead -- it's on life-support. And it's really, really pathetic.
So why did it work in the 1970's U.K. and not in the 1990's U.S.? Because, and here's the key, the Specials didn't appropriate the music of, say, the Sex Pistols. They appropriated the attitude. The sneer, the sarcasm, the snide remark went into their music, not the "3 chords and leave it alone" musicianship. Sure they shook up the sound, but their roots were still grounded in the music of ska, not punk. They were covering "Monkey Man" after all, not "God Save the Queen".
There's also that bit about history. Punk and ska were feeding off each other in the '70's, two sides of the same coin almost. But today, punk is as much history as first wave ska was back then. Without getting into that whole "Punk is Dead" argument, the punk of the '90's is not the groundbreaking, influential, pertinent form of music it was in the '70's. And especially not in America, the country that has gotten it's entire mainstream archetypes by ripping off other cultures ("Rudeboys" anyone? Gangstas?). As much as I may like Green Day or Rancid, they succeeded in the mainstream because they were more pop than punk - they weren't advocating slashing society to the ground, just poking it with sticks a little.
But, you say, what about Operation Ivy? Yes, what about that much-beloved God of the ska-punk community, that 80's anomaly that fused the two forms, slapped some Unity lyrics over them, and formed a movement? Simple. It ain't ska-punk, it's punk-ska. The difference is subtle, but it's there. It's more than just the upbeat - it has to do with the influences. For a better understanding, let's do a side by side comparison:
X - You know what instrument you're playing
X - Fast, straight ahead noise
X - Yelling
Meaningful lyrics full of spite
Top notch musicianship
X - Meaningful, but not spiteful, lyrics
There you have it, 3 to 1. While "Sound System" may be a great punk-ska tune, it doesn't make Operation Ivy a ska band.
So what's the moral of this story? Ska-punk sucks. It's not a viable musical form anymore than funk is. The pieces of the puzzle just don't fit that way. Better to play good punk with ska overtones for flavor, than play ska dragged through the mud with bad punk musicianship. Are you listening Slow Gherkin?
But what happened to the real ska? A little bit of that died too, with the deaths of Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, and Judge Dread. As a modern music, ska has been around for a ridiculously long time, and its become easy to take for granted the continuing presence of its pioneers. An interview with Judge Dread may run in the same magazine as an interview with the Adjusters, and the fan reads the one after the other, without the living history of it all being fully noticed. If this year brought home anything, it was that time moves on, and that those musicians who were at the start and are still here today are more than just musicians - they are living connections to the past, a past that we, the fans, the new musicians, the ska lovers, will not always have access to and should not take for granted.
1998 was disillusioning for a lot of people. It's got to be hard to be a promoter and find your shows getting smaller and smaller; to be a label and find the orders trickle in instead of gush; and to still see Gwen Stefani in every People magazine fashion spread. As 1997 ended and 1998 began, it became apparent that Reagan's "trickle-down theory" wasn't going to work with ska either. Save Ferris got snapped up in the post No Doubt/RBF frenzy, while trailblazing bands like Bim Skala Bim continued to languish in relative obscurity. This was obviously not ska coming into its own, but exploitation at the highest level. I wrote in another zine about seeing RBF open for Bim at Coney Island High, a pretty small club in NYC. The place was packed to near-suffocation for RBF, but as soon as they finished their set, the place cleared. It went from not having room to walk three steps, to having extra room to dance. From that point on, you could count the days until ska's downfall.
The nice thing about this was that the real fans and labels came together to protect what was theirs. 1998 saw the 2nd Annual New England Ska Fest, the Ska Against Racism Tour, and the Independents Day Tour. It saw the growth of the zine Ska-tastrophe to a magazine, and the launch of Rude International, another ska magazine proper. And most importantly, it saw the continuing growth and development of new bands having their own conversation with the music. Old warhorses like the Busters kept releasing quality music, while newer bands like the Adjusters polished their sound and helped keep the quality of ska up. Sure there was a lot of crap pumped onto the market in '98, but there were also more bands getting better. It's these bands that insure that ska will keep on to see fifth and sixth waves, no matter what Interscope or Mojo might say. In the words of the Independents Day Tour, "Ska is Dead. Long Live Ska."
I want to read more!