Who is the elder statesman for perfecting the definition of ska? It can’t be critics because we take ourselves too seriously. It can’t be musicians because… well, we just like thinking we’re better than them. You know who it would be? It would be some dude or chick on The Real World, an unassuming occupier of late-’90s reality TV, who’d been kicked and elbowed mercilessly at a House of Blues Reel Big Fish show in ’96 or so.
I mean, that’s what ska was. It was so natural as to intrinsically deflect criticism and analysis. And to any moribund scabs trying to say the music was too “white,” I’ll refer the godfathers of the style, Fishbone, at least within ska-punk. Like Bad Brains in hardcore, Fishbone was a band of brothas who just did it better than anyone else, and spawned a litany of wannabees, who, for some odd reason, typically weren’t black. But I’m afraid that’s a phenomenon I’m not currently equipped to explain.
What I do know is my bratty ’90s stuff I grew up on: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, Less than Jake, Mustard Plug, and, to a lessser extent, seeing as they didn’t include horns, Goldfinger and The Suicide Machines. Another thing I know is that ska is nowhere near as popular, or even acknowledged as a viable music, as it was back then. This is not without good reason, either, unfortunately, as with the exception the RBF’s Cheer up!, I haven’t heard anything from any of these bands I can even tolerate, let alone enjoy, since about before the 9/11 bombing. What’s more, Cheer up! is mostly pop-punk, with way less of the guitar “upbeat” stabs that typically epitomize the movement. Less than Jake is another band that took a similar path around the turn of the century: “Look What Happened” is basically a solid Green Day song, sung likewise in a really nasal yowl, nonetheless.
Unfortunately, like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less than Jake have tried to beat a dead horse, for lack of better terminology. They’ve gone into a studio, plugged in, and hacked out those upbeats, in certain sessions, that reek of formula so staunchly and repugnantly that it almost creates this unprecedently bewildering element of awfulness, like an Isaac Newton’s “equal and opposite reaction” to the glory days when this stuff was soundtracking record stores and reality shows across the land.
So, if ska is really dead (it hasn’t moved in 21 years so it’s certainly showing such signs), it would stand to reason that, in terms of every other style that’s still very well alive and breathing, these must all, in some way or another, be taken with a sort of proverbial “grain of salt,” a concession of the fact that their ceiling potential for inspiring, infusing and changing our lives is relatively lowered. This, I would have to sadly say, is a point with which I would agree. It would also stand to reason, hence, that ska is the best style of music ever — like a precious metal, a brief but singular and miraculous explosion of rhythm, melody, texture and brutally honest lyricism the pinnacle of which cannot even be described. It’s got all the earmarks, from the fact that the first major band was black (I’m expecting a check in the mail for that one) to its rooted history going way back to the gun-clobbered horrors of Jamaica from which its parent style, genre, reggae, springs. If you’re poor and in the ghetto, you rap, all the more conducive to ska being handled as this sort of mountain you hypothetically climb, an ideal, the spoils of those in a special position, humility obviated by the manifestation of urgency, vitality and spirit in the music itself. Ska vocals are sung fast, too, like the best raps. And I dunno what this means but I checked the total “Plays” on my iTunes interface of Reel Big Fish’s Why Do They Rock So Hard? back in 2011 or so and it was at 75. I’d only had iTunes on that computer for about a year, at that point, I think. I’d also just about exhausted its freshness on my iPod shuffle at work and the CD player in my car, but it was like I didn’t notice how often I’d put it on — it was like an unconscious, knee-jerk reaction toward procuring a security blanket, in a sense, that opening anthem “Somebody Hates Me” certainly bolstering the music’s applicability to my own life, it seemed.
There’s a lot I could say about exactly what made this music so fun and cool to me for so long — the honest, gut-check lyrics of Less than Jake’s Chris Demakes, the confrontational swagger of Goldfinger, the lion-sized heart of Detroit’s own Suicide Machines, and so on. I’m going to, though, in closing, highlight a song that’s perhaps not as popular as smash hits like “Royal Oil” and “The Impression That I Get.” Actually, it’s not even really a song that defines The Mighty Mighty Bosstones as a band or cultural entity, although they did in general seem to have a sort of “bro code” banning the mention of any romance interest. Reel Big Fish, on the other hand, amusingly, pretty much never shut up about girls, lest you start thinking it’s necessary to follow any topical mold within your chosen little stylistic arena.
Anyway, the song I’d like to demonstrate here is “All Things Considered,” track three on the band’s 2000 album Pay Attention. “All Things Considered” is a tune that centers on the topic of an old man. The old man has dementia — not the type that causes you to lose stuff or forget who people are, but rather, the type that causes you to compulsively lie. I had a friend with a grandfather stricken with the same condition and he would relate various obtuse stories like having met Tiger Woods, and such. In the Bosstones tune, the subject at hand has various fish tales, related in Dicky Barrett’s typical gruff, rhythmic rasp. He “also claims to train a kid named Cassius Clay / And cost Goldwater the election on election day”… “On Peyton Place played second base but he regrets / The stadium whas Shea the team the New York Mets”. In the chorus, though, the rhetoric takes an interesting and unexpected turn: Barrett suggests that instead of condemning the old man and trying to lambast his claims, we just sit back and accept them, and accept him for who he is. “All things considered”, barks Barrett, “He’s not bitter / He’s not mean / And he’s not done / All things considered / What he’s telling us / Isn’t hurting anyone”. It’s this kind of strident, innovatively charismatic placement of oneself in the shoes of another, indeed similar in this regard to “The Impression That I Get,” which handled the theme of vocalist conceding a lack of experience with altercation and hence being thankful and humble about this amnesty. As has been pretty prevalently related, Barrett holds a strong aversion to the enterprise of work: “Jump through the Hoops” is a burlesque on the doldrums of bartending and I seem to remember him being quoted one time as asking “How much would it suck to work a real job?” And I was just thinking about the topic of laziness not too long ago: it’s a myth. It’s a ploy for corporate or miserly employers to browbeat workers and stretch their tired tendons for every dirty scrap of labor they can get out of them. With Barrett, the hatred for work was an observation of the “opportunity cost,” to use an economics term: an observation of all the voluble messages he in such a condition might never get out of his system, might never get a platform for professing. Indeed, his band’s whole discography, at least through 2000, is just brimming with human interest anecdotes, and, before the proliferation of the Internet (whether or not it was his downfall being beside the point, in a sense), he was a significant American storyteller within the vital, ubiquitous platform of ska-punk. And maybe it’s true that “All Things Considered” is the kind of self-inflicted gut-check statement that’s supposed to help him safeguard against chastising from others, later in life, kind of like the sort of self-accountability Chris Demakes lusts after in “Krazy Glue”; “Is This Thing on?” and other tracks: “It seems I can’t explain it all… Tradition seems to stick to you / Just like krazy glue”. Either way, “All Things Considered” to me has this terrific sort of tinge of finality about it: it focuses on the subject of old age and even unfurls a conclusion on an adjacent subject that’s very unlikely to be improved upon. In the waning moments, the band alters the chord progression beautifully from 1-5-4 to 1-7-4 and Barrett unleashes the simple mantra, repeatedly, of “Every now and then we hear our song”. And it’s almost like, with this degraded era of music upon him, it wasn’t a matter of finally encountering what he wanted to say, but rather finally not being willing, or able, to wait one more minute to lay his musical and discursive masterpiece in our laps.