How ska paved the way for punk… and took over the world along the way
Done properly, ska-punk can drive positive rebellion and serve as a fierce, righteous example to young and old.October 6, 2021
“We’re the Interrupters! We’re from Los Angeles, California!” the young guitarist announces over a fanfare, as the camera pulls back and reveals a four-piece band, plus a singer, and a crush of throbbing humanity in a tiny space. “And this first song is a protest song, but it’s also a unity song. Because there’s no room for any racism. There’s no room for any sexism. There’s no room for any homophobia. There’s no room for any bigotry, period. So let’s start tonight with a moment of unity. Everybody, put your hands in the air. We’re gonna clap together. Ready?”
What’s your plan for tomorrow?
Are you a leader or will you follow?
Are you a fighter or will you cower?
It’s our time to take back the power
And in four minutes, the Interrupters reestablish a long-known truth: Ska, especially when mixed with punk rock, is a great source of power and inspiration. It’s the voice of oppressed people everywhere. It’s a rallying cry that has a great, danceable beat. It takes your cries of rage and converts them to shouts of joy.
It began as Jamaica’s original indigenous pop music in the late 1950s, born of accidental inspiration leading to an exciting new rhythm. When that rhythm slowed down, reggae was born. In the late ‘70s, punk-inspired musicians in the U.K.—both Black and white—looked back to the original ska era as musical fuel for a new sound fusing the two styles, 2 Tone.
A few years later, American hardcore and punk musicians seeking ways to inject some roots and swing into an increasingly white punk sound led to a ska-punk sound that eventually went commercial in the ‘90s, as such outfits as No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones followed Green Day and Rancid into the charts. (Rancid, themselves, also drew from ska’s ever-flowing well.) The Interrupters are merely the most recent manifestation of this tradition, asserting their primacy as they play huge American sheds, warming up the Hella Mega tour with Green Day, Fall Out Boy and Weezer.
Welcome to Alternative Press’ brief guide to ska’s history. Please enjoy our custom Spotify playlist, Alternative Press Presents Ska Essentials, as you read.
Jamaican Origins: “Madness? I call it gladness!”
“I’m about to explain/That someone is using his brain.” The singer flashes defiant over a herky-jerky rhythm, born of 1950s New Orleans rhythm and blues. It could almost be Fats Domino, if it weren’t for the fact that this music is tense, displaying none of his easygoing gate. The year is 1963, the singer is Cecil Bustamente Campbell—better known as Prince Buster, one of the fathers of ska—and the tune is the much-covered “Madness,” which later named one of 2 Tone’s most beloved groups.
Jamaica acquired a thirst for New Orleans R&B in its 1950s heyday, as its citizenry began acquiring portable radios in the wake of World War II. U.S. “clear-channel” stations of 50,000 blasted the rolling rhythms of the Crescent City across the island. Crafty entrepreneurs built enormous sound systems, with powerful amplifiers and huge speaker banks that pounded bass frequencies into dancers’ solar plexuses.
Sound system operators such as Buster, Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd and Duke Reid, running short on proper hits from Domino, Lloyd Price, Huey “Piano” Smith and other Louisiana R&B masters, needed to generate their own homegrown versions of the sound. Local musicians inadvertently accented the off-beats—one and two and three and four—rather than the two and four. Driven home by upstroked guitars, this came to be called “ska,” in emulation of those guitar accents, according to the original ska era’s greatest session guitarist, Ernest Ranglin, of the almighty Skatalites.
Prince Buster took to performing himself, creating some of ska’s best-known standards: “Madness,” “One Step Beyond” and “Al Capone.” Other future reggae stars ascended in the ska era, including Toots And The Maytals, the original Wailers (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston) and Jimmy Cliff. Imported to England, it became so popular that the BBC filmed a 40-minute documentary in 1964 at a Kingston dance. This Is Ska depicts ecstatic audiences dancing to Byron Lee And The Dragonaires as they backed Buster, Cliff and the Maytals in live performance.
This same package, with Eric “Monty” Morris substituting for the Maytals, played the New York World’s Fair this same year. At roughly the same moment, Millie Small had the first international ska hit with her harmonica-rocking remake of Barbie Gaye’s 1956 record “My Boy Lollipop.” But as Black American music transitioned into soul music, Jamaican music followed, slowing into its rocksteady phase, then cementing into what we now know as reggae. But ska was far from dead.
2 Tone: Rudie Meets Punk Rockers Uptown
Punk rock was just the air freshener the stale ‘70s needed. Problem was, it was hardly funky. Rock ‘n’ roll had always drawn from Black music—Elvis adding twang and a shot of speed to rhythm and blues, the Rolling Stones pouring rocket fuel down the throats of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, etc. Johnny Ramone actually huffed that he wanted to “remove any blues” from the Ramones’ version of rock ‘n’ roll.
Thankfully, English punks grew up with Trojan Records’ hardcore reggae hits pouring from their transistor radios. Thus, it was natural that reggae became the Black rebel music of the U.K. punk scene. Johnny Rotten gave it his tacit endorsement on London’s Capital Radio, and the Clash filled out their first LP with a six-minute, pogo-rockin’ reinterpretation of Junior Murvin’s “Police And Thieves.” But in 1978, Joe Strummer and crew reached back past reggae to its dawn, with a B-side cover of Toots And The Maytals’ immortal “Pressure Drop” that welded Mick Jones’ iron-fisted power chords to a sped-up ska rhythm.
Roughly at this time, Clash manager Bernie Rhodes took on a mixed-race band from the West Midlands called the Coventry Automatics. Sending them on the road with his star clients, the band rolled back into Coventry from tour with a head full of ideas and inspiration. Soon, the renamed Specials were decrying Rhodes’ business practices over a reworking of Prince Buster’s 1964 “Al Capone” called “Gangsters,” released on keyboardist Jerry Dammers’ 2 Tone label.
One month later, 2 Tone Records released “The Prince,” an ode to Prince Buster by London’s Madness, an all-white crew with similar ideas. Soon, 2 Tone became the name of this movement of sprawling bands shooting ska full of punk aggression, within a monochromatic aesthetic—Black and white musicians, black-and-white checkerboard graphics, natty black-and-white suits patterned after the dapper rude boys that were ska and bluebeat’s original audience.
The Specials, Madness, the Selecter and Birmingham’s the (English) Beat’s positivism was infectious and more accessible to average British youth than punk. 2 Tone also effectively deterred the National Front’s bitter racism. The sight of halls rammed to the rafters with Black and white youth dancing to the Specials as they decried “Doesn’t Make It Alright” was glorious.
Third-wave Ska: Rudie Invades The USA
America had been resistant to ska’s contagious rhythms. Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” owned U.S. Top 40 radio for part of 1964, but that was it. The Specials invaded our shores twice, even destroying Saturday Night Live with wired, explosive performances of “Gangsters” (Neville Staple brandishing a toy machine gun) and “Too Much Too Young.” Madness trekked over soon after. But the appeal was strictly underground.
Third-wave ska asserted itself in American environs from 1981 onward: The Toasters in New York City, the Untouchables and Fishbone in Los Angeles, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in Boston. At roughly the same mid-’80s moment Subhumans singer Dick Lucas formed the U.K.’s ska-tinged Citizen Fish, and a group of hardcore-loving teens from Berkeley called Operation Ivy mixed ska rhythms into their thrash bombs.
They became a sensation at 924 Gilman Street, then the world over. They paved ska punk’s path for the next 30 years, as similar-minded bands erupted across the ‘90s’ face like especially virulent acne: Berkeley’s Dance Hall Crashers, Solvang’s Mad Caddies, Gainesville’s Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish from Orange County, Detroit’s Suicide Machines. Then Op Ivy’s Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman formed the Clash-esque Rancid, becoming huge after Green Day finally knocked the door separating punk from the Top 40 off its hinges. Soon they detonated the power-chord ska of “Time Bomb” all over MTV, hourly.
“Time Bomb” had the same commercially liberating effect for ska-inspired punk bands as Green Day’s “Basket Case” had for melodic punk bands. Next thing you know, Los Angeles grunge also-rans Electric Love Hogs gave themselves a spiky-hair-and-bondage-pants makeover, renamed themselves Goldfinger and blew MTV to bits with the pogo-ska hit “Here In Your Bedroom.” Anaheim’s No Doubt channeled the end of Debbie Harry-esque singer Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal’s relationship into a potent song cycle called Tragic Kingdom that’s sold 16 million copies to date.
But Long Beach’s Sublime’s sold 17 million of their self-titled LP, released one month after leader Bradley Nowell’s death by overdose, thanks to such massive radio smashes as “Santeria” and “What I Got.” And after dancing their way across America’s punk clubs for 15 years, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones went mega with blast-chord anthem “The Impression That I Get,” which surely gets played at sporting events to this day about as often as “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “Rock And Roll Pt. 2.” Ska-punk had gone outernational, with the type of commercial momentum that sustained it well into the new century.
21st Century Ska: Rudie Can’t Fail
Ska has largely been absent from the charts in the millennium, yet appears as strong as ever. Many of the leading lights of third wave ska and ska-punk remain active to this day, including Rancid, Fishbone, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish. Amy Winehouse recorded standards by Toots And The Maytals, the Specials and the Skatalites for The Ska EP in 2008, while rival Lily Allen teamed with various permutations of the Specials at various high-profile U.K. gigs, until their classic lineup (minus Dammers) reconstituted for the group’s 30th anniversary.
A version of the band still tours and records to this day. Then in 2012, ska/reggae legend Jimmy Cliff released Rebirth, his first LP in eight years. Produced by Armstrong, it pushed Cliff back even beyond his The Harder They Come days, to his ‘60s stylings. He even pulled a very 1964 ska performance of Rancid’s “Ruby Soho” out of the veteran.
Armstrong has also been involved with this century’s finest ska-punk band, the Interrupters, producing their records and releasing them via his Hellcat Records imprint. (He also absorbed them into the membership of his side-project, Tim Timebomb and Friends.) Comprising the Bivona brothers—Kevin, Justin and Jesse—and charismatic spitfire vocalist Aimee Allen (aka Aimee Interrupter), the Los Angeles four-piece are the embodiment of the rebel spirit of both ska in its prime and the Clash. They’ve managed radio hits in “She’s Kerosene” and “Gave You Everything,” owing as much to their knack for huge chorus hooks as to their mix of chainsaw guitar and propulsive Jamaican rhythms.
They are the most rousing, sky-punching live outfit currently working the world’s clubs and halls and anthems such as “Take Back The Power” broadcast strong messages of liberty and unity. Such is the power of ska done right, especially when merged with old-school punk rock. If anyone can inspire positive rebellion and serve as a fierce, righteous example to young and old, it’s the Interrupters. When firing on all cylinders, they’re a band to believe in.