An incredibly diverse genre with anti-racist roots, historically panned by snobby critic dicks
Irreverent or not, ska music has a rich and diverse lineage long ignored by the mainstream, according to music journalism veteran Aaron Carnes and his forthcoming book, In Defense of Ska.
Ska music, as Carnes notes in the opening chapter, originated in the ghettos of West Kingston, Jamaica in the 1960s before migrating to the United Kingdom during a period where England encouraged immigration from Caribbean islands to fill labor shortages in the decades following World War II. By the 1980s, American bands began adopting ska after being influenced by hugely successful UK bands like the Specials, English Beat, and Madness.
Carnes, a music editor at the alt-weekly Good Times in Santa Cruz, California, provides a brief overview of ska history and his own connection with the genre before discussing Operation Ivy, a band that only lasted two years and was still able to influence a generation of subsequent punk and ska bands.
The book is less a persuasive testament to the value of ska for the uneducated and more of a deep dive into the genre for the benefit of readers who probably already came to the table with an appreciation for horns, guitar upstrokes, and repetitions of the phrase “pick it up.” Carnes is a longtime acolyte in this realm, and he tells his own story of beginning as a roadie for ska-core pioneer Skankin’ Pickle before serving as a drummer in his own ska band, Flat Planet. He also weaves in the larger story of how Jamaican-born dance music mutated with American punk in the late 1980s to create a sound that invaded the American zeitgeist while simultaneously existing as a cultural laughingstock.
Carnes’ account tracks the evolution of American ska where every milestone defies the happy-go-lucky and wacky stereotype. Fishbone fused funk and British 2-tone ska, while Op Ivy leaned heavily on a crusty punk edge. Reel Big Fish brought dark lyrics juxtaposed with upbeat tempos, while Jeff Rosenstock continued that tradition as singer for the Arrogant Sons of Bitches, then in Bomb the Music Industry! before embarking on his more-recently celebrated solo career.
The book also covers how early American ska bands learned from punk’s DIY methods in the late 1980s, as well as the Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice movement, and the modern trend of successful musicians attempting to hide their past involvement in ska bands.
Boston, which never quite enjoyed the same level of ska enthusiasm as could be found in West Coast scenes, still produced successful ska bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Big D and the Kids Table. Aside from casual references, Boston bands are not covered in depth, although there is a chapter featuring Boston legends Bim Skala Bim about how they, along with Fishbone, found success supplying soundtracks to family entertainment.
“Have you ever heard a ska song on Animal Planet and wondered, Who’s this band and why do they sound so familiar? There’s a pretty good chance it’s Boston legends Bim Skala Bim,” Carnes writes.
Ska was pervasively successful on a mainstream level, but only for a limited time, before it became regarded as hacky and passe. By the end of the ’90s, ska was playing America’s Funniest Home Videos in and out of commercial breaks.
Finally, Carnes brings us to the present with a dispatch from Oaxaca in 2019 at a 10,000-person ska festival. Mustard Plug may have declared ska dead for their self-deprecating 2003 tour, but the genre is thriving in Mexico.
Carnes’ central thesis: ska serves as a large umbrella term for an incredibly diverse music style with a deep history in political and anti-racist activism that is poorly served by critics who shoehorn the genre into first, second, and third waves.
In Defense of Ska is available on Clash Books
Zack is a veteran reporter. He writes for DigBoston and VICE, and formerly reported for the Boston Courant and Bulletin Newspapers.