‘Ska Boom!’ book highlights U.S. ska in between 2 Tone & 3rd wave – Q&A w/ author Marc Wasserman
Ska has been in the air lately. The great documentary Pick It Up! - Ska in the '90s came out in 2019, Aaron Carnes' great new book In Defense of Ska just came out earlier this month, and there's been a surge of fantastic new ska bands, and there's now another anticipated ska book on the horizon: Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History, due July 4 via DiWulf Publishing House (pre-order).
The book was written by Marc Wasserman, bassist of Bigger Thomas, the ska band who formed in the late '80s in New Brunswick, NJ and regularly gigged with bands like The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim, as well as non-ska acts like De La Soul, KRS-One, Burning Spear, Yellowman, and Vision, and were featured on the 1990 NYC Ska Live compilation alongside The Toasters, The Scofflaws, Skadanks, NY Citizens, and more. Marc has lived and breathed ska since discovering The Specials' debut album in 1979, making him a great skandidate (sorry) to put out a book on ska, but it's not just Marc doing the talking. Ska Boom! is an oral history, featuring members of The Specials, The Untouchables, The Slackers, Hepcat, Fishbone, The Uptones, The Toasters, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bim Skala Bim, Gangster Fun, The Suicide Machines, Mustard Plug, Let's Go Bowling, Mephiskapheles, and more, as well as a certain pop star with ska roots: Cyndi Lauper.
Something that's come up a lot in the recent discussion around ska is that the "wave" narrative is damaging to the genre, and not even that accurate, because it implies that ska comes and goes, when in reality, the genre is always there, always evolving, whether or not mainstream media is paying attention. The American ska craze (or, "third wave") didn't start in the '90s, and it didn't even start in 1989 when landmark ska-punk debut albums by Operation Ivy and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were both released. Ska started to hit in America not long after the 2 Tone movement took off in the UK in the late 1970s and early '80s, and the way Marc puts it, the first real American ska boom happened in 1985, with the release of the debut EP by The Toasters (on their own, soon-to-be legendary Moon Ska label), the debut EP by Fishbone (on Columbia), and the the debut album by The Untouchables (whose Clyde Grimes is pictured on the cover of Ska Boom!), Wild Child, which came out on Stiff Records. But even 1985 wasn't the start of American ska; it was the culmination of something that had been building since the beginning of that decade.
Ska Boom! largely focuses on the American ska scene in the years in between 2 Tone and the explosion of the third wave, with chapters on pioneering bands like The Untouchables, The Uptones, The Toasters, Bim Skala Bim, Let's Go Bowling, Gangster Fun, The Scofflaws, Mephiskapheles, The Boilers, and more, and ends with a chapter on 1993's Skavoovee tour, which featured the reunited Jamaican ska pioneers The Skatalites, 2 Tone faves The Selecter and The Special Beat (members of The Specials and The Beat), and NYC ska leaders The Toasters, and which was a major turning point in the popularization of American ska. The same way that Our Band Could Be Your Life helped correct the mainstream narrative on American punk, showcasing the way it thrived in the underground in between the CBGB era and the explosion of Nirvana, Ska Boom! does that for ska, highlighting the '80s ska bands that fueled the regional ska scenes that eventually birthed some of the biggest bands of the '90s.
"Without Bim Skala Bim there is no Mighty Mighty Bosstones," Marc writes in the book. "Without The Uptones there is no Rancid. Without The Untouchables there is no Reel Big Fish. Without Gangster Fun there is no Mustard Plug or Suicide Machines. Without The Toasters, The Boilers, Beat Brigade and Second Step there is no Bigger Thomas." And when you read the chapters on those bands, it really becomes clear how overwhelmingly accurate this claim is, and how all of the popular bands they inspired would agree.
You can pre-order the book from DiWulf Publishing now, and the first 500 pre-sale orders will receive a free 80-minute CD mix called Ska American Style courtesy of DJ Chuck Wren and Jump Up Records, "which digs deep into the obscure world of privately pressed records proving that American ska roots were firmly planted during the '80s alternative music underground." Marc also hosts the Ska Boom podcast (listen on Spotify or Apple Music), which has episodes that answer questions like "why isn't Fishbone in Ska Boom?", episodes about the influence of reggae on popular non-reggae artists, an interview with Lynval Golding of The Specials, an episode about how The Harder They Come helped bring reggae to America, an episode with fellow ska book author Aaron Carnes (In Defense of Ska), and much more.
Ahead of the book's release, we caught up with Marc to discuss his own personal history with ska, what he hopes to achieve with this book, why he put Clyde Grimes of The Untouchables on the cover, under-appreciated bands from the 1980s American ska scene, Cyndi Lauper's ska connections, and more. Read on for our chat, and listen to this playlist Marc made of music featured in the book...
I know you talk about this in the beginning of the book, but what attracted you to ska in the first place, and what's kept you invested and dedicated after all these years?
Like a lot of people I’ve spoken to, I had a “lightning bolt moment” the first time I heard The Specials' very first album when it was released in 1979. A friend of mine played it for me, telling me, “You’ve got to hear this!” What I heard confused me at first. The sounds were alien. It was manic and gritty. The syncopated beat was different than anything I had heard, and the lyrics were almost indecipherable. I was used to AM pop radio and disco. But the punk energy of it was amazing, and the ska and reggae vibe and its message resonated with me immediately. It was like a switch was turned on inside my brain and I was immediately connected to something much larger. I suddenly felt like I was home. While the music was mesmerizing, the album art was just as powerful. A gang of seven men – five white and two Black – stared out at me with intent. They looked angry, as if daring anyone to take them on in a fight. And yet, there was an urgency to their message of unity and understanding that resonated with me. Songs by The Specials, as well as The Selecter, English Beat and Madness sounded joyous and angry; hopeless and idealistic; nostalgic and innovative. It was everything I was feeling as a teen searching for an identity, and it was a way for me to make sense of the fucked-up world around me. I’ve been a full-fledged convert to the Church of 2 Tone ever since.
A lot of your book focuses on the time in between 2 Tone and the explosion of the third wave. Lately, there's been a lot of talk within the ska community about how the "wave" narrative can be damaging, and isn't even all that accurate, because it implies that ska goes away and then comes back. Your book makes it clear that ska progressed throughout the 1980s before the third wave took off. What would you say is something that's overlooked about that period in between 2 Tone and the third wave that deserves more discussion within mainstream narratives about ska?
I asked Steve Shafer of the Duff Guide to Ska blog and the author of The Duff Guide to 2 Tone to write an essay that serves as the introduction to my book. There’s a very good reason I tapped Steve to do this. He had a front row seat to watch the birth of American ska in the '90s as the director of promotions, marketing, and production for Moon Ska Records.
Steve and I had several long conversations about when we thought American ska hit an important inflection point. We agreed that 1985 was a key year for American ska. As it turns out, three seminal American ska bands released albums that year – Fishbone’s self-titled EP on Columbia Records, The Untouchables' Wild Child LP for Stiff Records and The Toasters' self-titled EP on their own independent Moon Ska label. My book features comprehensive chapters on the origin stories of two of these three bands.
So why 1985? As Steve notes in his essay, none of these releases is purely a ska record, particularly when compared to the debut albums of all of the 2 Tone bands that influenced them. They often veer off into ska’s many musical tributaries. Through Fishbone, The Toasters, and The Untouchables, ska in the United States evolved—mutated, really--into something that both reclaimed the Jamaican genre’s Black American origins in jazz, R&B, and early rock ‘n’ roll, and drew considerable inspiration, not from ska’s 1960s practitioners, but Britain’s 2 Tone bands, and emerged as something fresh and new: a uniquely American version of ska.
It’s not hyperbole to state that in the latter half of the 1980s everyone in America who liked ska had these three albums in their collections. The fact that there were three incredible ska releases by American bands—two with major label promotion behind them and one the first domestic indie ska release ever to secure national distribution, was extraordinary and unprecedented.
Not only did these three American ska releases give the genre a much greater visibility within the music industry and sway numerous fans to their cause—these records fed the small but ravenous and integrated ska scenes in regions across the U.S., encouraging existing bands to keep on going and aspire to greatness, as well as inspiring countless new ones to spring up to join the fray; the idea being: if they can make it, so can we.
And so, I’d say that these three bands helped create key American ska band templates that are still relevant. The ska-punk and ska-core scenes practically sprang from Fishbone; ska/soul bands followed in The Untouchables’ footsteps; and modern/post-2 Tone acts took their initial cues from The Toasters.
I’d also add that there were a number of key women musicians who made significant contributions to early American ska, whose stories are featured in the book, including Janet Small of The Shakers, Betsy Weiss and Lisa Bosch Mc Cormick of The Boxboys, Kate Fagan Burgun of Heavy Manners, Vicky Rose of The Toasters, Jackie Starr, Lauren Flesher Cortesi and Robin Ducot of Bim Skala Bim, Remi Sammy of Second Step and Anna Cekola of Kyber Rifles.
In your opinion, what are some of the most under-appreciated ska bands of that post-2 Tone, pre-third wave era?
I love the story of the Kyber Rifles from Fresno, CA who came together as teens in high school and singlehandedly help create a ska scene in Central California. They ended up playing with both Fishbone and The Untouchables and later morphed into Let’s Go Bowling, becoming one of the most successful bands on the Moon Ska Records label. Because of their musicianship and work ethic they were tapped to open influential tours by The Specials, The Selecter and Bad Manners in the early '90s that helped spread the gospel of ska and kick off the American ska boom of the mid to late '90s.
I also think that fans of American ska should know more about The Boilers who were one of the most innovative and influential bands to come out of the 1980s New York Ska scene. Though they burned brightly for only a short time and recorded just one full length album, Rockin Steady, on Ska Records in the UK, they were the starting point for a core group of musicians who have gone on to help define, create and perform some of the finest reggae and ska music in the U.S. Jeff Baker (King Django) went on to start Skinnerbox and Stubborn All-Stars before venturing out on his own as a solo artist and producer. Olivier Rhee (Mr. Rhee) has been a NYC reggae stalwart performing with the Cannabis Cup All-Stars as well as on his own, while Victor Axelrod became a founding member of Antibalas and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and along with drummer and artist Patrick Dougher has been a regular member of the Easy Star All-Stars.
You mention that you chose a photo of Clyde Grimes of The Untouchables for the cover because so many musicians you interviewed looked up to him. For those unfamiliar with The Untouchables, what was special about them? What made them so influential?
In my opinion, the picture of Clyde Grimes, the guitarist of The Untouchables, captures the energy and possibility that was such a huge part of the mid '80s American ska scene that's documented in the book. Personally, I think the picture of Clyde is among one of the most iconic American rock and roll photos of all time. And many of the people I interviewed for the book name checked Clyde and looked up to him.
The Untouchables were notable for their ferocious live show and for being approachable and their band name was a nod to the idea that they were just like their fans who packed clubs to see them. Greg Lee, vocalist of Hepcat, who reminisced to me about meeting Clyde for the first time while hanging out on Melrose Avenue told me, "Clyde Grimes was one of us."
And while the picture of Clyde has always been a potent symbol for all fans of American ska, it spoke deeply to many young men and women of color who rarely saw musicians who looked like them in popular culture or on MTV in the 80s. The photo of Clyde is also an important reminder that some of the original American ska bands and ska scenes of the '80s -- symbolized by the photo of Clyde -- were created and supported by multi-racial groups of young musicians and fans, who embraced the look, sound and ideals of 2 Tone. That was carried through by many of the bands who came after The Untouchables.
Clyde and The Untouchables were also ambassadors for American ska around the world. Clyde in particular had style for miles and could really shred on the guitar. Fishbone’s bassist Norwood Fisher told me, “There’s a little bit of Clyde Grimes in all of us in Fishbone.”
In your book, you have contributions from members of The Specials, The Untouchables, The Slackers, Hepcat, Fishbone, The Uptones, The Toasters, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bim Skala Bim, Gangster Fun, The Suicide Machines, Mustard Plug, Let's Go Bowling, Mephiskapheles, Cyndi Lauper. Were there any artists you tried to get in the book but couldn't?
Nearly everyone I contacted expressed interest and excitement about talking to me. I made it clear that the book was an oral history and that it would be the band members themselves and not me who would be telling their own stories and I think that was very appealing to many people. An oral history really lent itself to documenting this period of time that happened before the advent of the Internet and smart phones with cameras, so it remains somewhat mysterious and unknown. To that end, I was flabbergasted that both Jerry Dammers of The Specials and Joe Jackson agreed to speak to me about the key roles they both played in helping to produce music for The Untouchables and The Toasters. I did reach out to Gwen Stefani and Tony Kanal of No Doubt and while they both expressed support for the project, we weren’t able to connect. That’s too bad, because Gwen was spotted at ska shows all over LA in the early 80s. I would have loved to hear more from her about how that influenced her and No Doubt.
It might be a surprise to some people that Cyndi Lauper had connections to ska. Anything interesting you can share about those connections, and/or about speaking with her for the book?
Cyndi’s connection to American ska came through her collaboration with Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of The Hooters from Philadelphia, who played a prominent role in helping to write and record her first album “She’s So Unusual.” What many people don’t know is that before they became a mainstream 80s rock band and opened the Live Aid show in Philadelphia, The Hooters started out as a full-fledged ska and reggae band and Cyndi really liked their sound. When Rob and Eric first started working with Cyndi on her album, she was open to having ska and reggae influences on the songs, and there are early demos of songs like “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Time After Time” that are much more reggae and ska influenced then the final versions that ended up on her album.
What do you hope your book will bring to the discussion of ska's history / what do you hope people take away from it?
My love for 2 Tone and American ska has consumed much of my adult life and I’m grateful for the opportunity to help tell the story of the origins of American ska. It’s an honor, and I feel compelled to honor the task by making sure that the stories of the band’s, musicians, DJs, promoters, artists, and fans who helped create a thriving and influential subculture are told in the words and memories of those who lived it. This music, this scene that had a huge impact on me and made me who I am today, also helped transform American music in so many ways.
And so, my book is meant for two purposes: to express and celebrate a lifelong love affair I’ve had with ska music and to preserve a part of its history for music lovers who have experienced the joy I have known so well. I want to give back to the music that gave so much to me when I needed it the most.
Obviously, you were there in real time for the music and eras discussed in your book, but what's one surprising thing you learned while conducting interviews for the book?
I was struck by how many people I spoke to said that seeing The Specials perform on Saturday Night Live on April 19, 1980 was a life changing event. I think it’s hard to convey how much of a game changer that performance had on young musicians who saw it. The raw energy was off the charts and many of us who witnessed it in real time wanted to re-create what we had seen. Less than one month later, on May 17, 1980, Howard Paar opened the first ska club – the O.N. Klub – in the Silver Lake section of LA. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ska is having such a moment lately. Why do you think it's all happening now?
It’s really interesting that ska seems to be having a moment right now and the fact that my book and Aaron Carnes' book In Defense of Ska are coming out during this moment is completely coincidental, but certainly doesn’t hurt! I’d venture to say that there is a crop of new, younger, bands led by The Interrupters, Jeff Rosenstock, We Are The Union and Bad Operation who acknowledge they play ska music but also present and market themselves in ways that appeal to a younger audience of Millennials and Zoomers. At the same time, legacy 2 Tone bands like The Specials, The Selecter, and Madness are still active and keeping older fans engaged while American 3rd wave bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Slackers, Mustard Plug and The Suicide Machines have never stopped being active and touring which keeps the music relevant for their fans. It seems what’s happening might be an overlapping of different elements of ska culture both on and offline that may be contributing to this sense that ska is having a moment, but that fact is that it’s never gone away. It just keeps mutating and re-generating and people keep arguing about what is and isn’t ska. As long as those debates and discussions in large and growing Facebook ska groups keep happening and they keep bringing new fans in, ska and the ska sub-culture will be just fine.
Three all-time favorite ska bands?
There are so many bands I love and whose music means the world to me, but if I had to narrow it down, I’d say that my three favorite ska bands are The Specials, The English Beat and The Selecter. I got imprinted by 2 Tone as a teen and I still live it and love it 40 years later.
Pre-order Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History here.