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Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History'

Marc Wasserman's 'Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History.'
Marc Wasserman's 'Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

September 09, 2021

The irony of Marc Wasserman's new oral history of ska and reggae in the United States is that if there was ever truly a "ska boom," it wasn't the period covered by Ska Boom!

As Wasserman notes, there was in fact a ska boom in the U.K. in the 1970s, when 2 Tone Records and artists like the Specials and the Selecter found popularity they never achieved on our side of the Pond. Then, there was what you might call a ska boom in the U.S. in the '90s, with bands like Fishbone and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones playing packed shows; No Doubt became the commercial colossus of that era, albeit by taking a decidedly pop turn.

In between, there were American bands that picked up the torch, inspiring the bigger bands of the '90s. To be brutally honest, these are not household names. Music fans might recognize bands like the Toasters and Bim Skala Bim, but it would be a cruel music trivia host indeed who'd pepper you with questions about Blue Riddim Band, Second Step, or Gangster Fun.

Wasserman has a personal connection to this era: he's a bassist who played in a band called Bigger Thomas, a Rutgers-born group who proudly describe themselves as "the first ska band from New Jersey." In recent years, he's become a blogger and podcaster chronicling this era of ska. It's fair to say that Ska Boom! achieves instant status as the Bible of American ska from the late '70s through the early '90s.

It's a Bible-sized book as well, and probably best read like you'd read the Bible: dipping into selected passages for information and inspiration, rather than trying to read it cover to cover. It's organized chronologically with a chapter devoted to each of 18 bands (plus a sort of bonus 19th chapter for the Skavoovie Tour of 1993); recollections of band members and scenesters fill each page in small print, stretching to narrow margins as though Wasserman couldn't bear to leave a single word out.

For the superfan, Ska Boom! will obviously be essential. For the more casual consumer, it's a reminder of how diverse the post-punk scene was. As artists took the energy of punk and applied it to more dynamic forms, record bins filled with everything from the ironic minimalism of Devo to the baroque ballads of the New Romantics. Within that movement, ska captured the attention of kids like Wasserman: drawn to the frisky energy, racial inclusiveness, and global-mindedness of the 2 Tone scene. The language of that scene — both musical and political — never quite translated to a U.S. audience, but the bands populating this history adopted ska for America, incorporating more rock and R&B into the percolating Jamaican genre that evolved along a separate path into reggae.

Even if you'd struggle with an Outburst card labeled "American ska and reggae bands of the '80s," Wasserman's book notes that they were right there alongside the artists whose names might roll more readily off your tongue. The Hooters were tapped to help shape the sound of Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual; while "Witness" is the only song on that album that sounds explicitly Jamaican-flavored, the musicians explain to Wasserman how the album's biggest hits, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Time After Time," grew out of ska rhythms. Once you hear it, you understand why that album still feels so distinctive.

The Untouchables showed up in Repo Man — but not as a ska band, as a scooter gang. (Martin Sheen, father of star Emilio Estevez, shut down the post-show party at his house when one of the Untouchables tried to jump from a landscaping rock into the pool...but missed the pool.) The Toasters, fronted by a British expat named Rob "Bucket" Hingley, shared a rehearsal space with Bad Brains and had a residency at CBGB — where they fit right in with their 2-Tone-style suits and skinny ties. Band members reminisce about the difficulties of booking a national tour when many talent buyers (especially in the "Little House on the Prairie" Midwest) hadn't even heard the word "ska."

Minneapolis, at least, wasn't so provincial: First Avenue hosted a stop on the Skavoovee Tour, which united the Toasters with a 2 Tone amalgam called the Special Beat (featuring Ranking Roger of the English Beat and Neville Staple of the Specials) and the Skatalites, one of the original ska bands from Jamaica in the '60s. (They backed Bob Marley on "Simmer Down.") At the tour's last stop, in Anaheim, their opener was a new band called No Doubt, which 2 Tone's Horace Panter remembers as "a nine-piece ska band."

Ska Boom! ends with that tour, which became a turning point for Third Wave ska; the crowds that turned out across the country finally put ska on the musical map as a potential moneymaker, and the compilation Skarmageddon showcased the range the genre had achieved over a decade-plus of American explorations. The 1993 2 Tone compilation A Checkered Past made that British scene accessible for the CD era.

"It's weird because it was all pre-internet, so there's not that much stuff about Skavoovee out there," says Stephen Shafer of Moon Records, "but it was really important in terms of the development of the development of the '90s ska scene and everything blowing up. It really made a lot of people pay attention, which eventually led to ska being the next big thing."

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