Music

The Ska Janitors

Backlash to the genre's third wave nearly destroyed ska. But not quite.

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"Ska band outnumbers audience" was one of The Onion's more inspired fake headlines. But Josh Jerge, backup vocalist and trumpet player for Bay Area traditional-ska upstarts the Soul Captives, ain't laughin'.

"There's really no money in this scene, man," he admits. "Especially up here. We've done two shows in SF now and made a total of $100. Divided by six."

Don't spend that $16.66 all in one place, Josh. But if he does, rest assured he won't blow it on No Doubt's The Singles 1992-2003. The Soul Captives -- along with a small and insular, yet hyperenthusiastic cabal of bands and aficionados revolving around online rabbit hole BayAreaSka.com -- aim to carry on the genre's rich roots in 1960s Jamaica. But for fickle mainstream bandwagon-leapers, the Soul Captives represent the local remnants of perhaps the single most annoying musical fad of the '90s, which is saying one hell of a lot.

Join us now for a whirlwind joyride in our Media Hype Time Machine, back to those halcyon days of the mid-'90s, when drooling doofus journalist types insisted that "electronica" would blow our minds and destroy Rock as We Knew It, with the Chemical Brothers and that rabid rainbow-haired asshole guy from the Prodigy held up as our new saviors. Our great nation reacted by raising its collective hands to its collective mouth and issuing hilarious fake-flatulence sounds.

We embraced ska instead. Upbeat, laid-back, danceable, poppy, and easily fused to the already-burgeoning Warped Tour punk nation. Perfect for MTV. For Bay Area peeps, it pleasantly channeled Operation Ivy. Cue hysteria. Already-established workhorses the Mighty Mighty Bosstones got a few novelty radio hits. Another huge success story, Reel Big Fish, hit the MTV jackpot with undoubtedly the most self-loathing radio hit in rock history, "Sell Out," in which the line The record company's gonna give me lots of money/And everything's gonna be alright was somehow transformed into both a catchy hook and a public self-crucifixion.

Meanwhile, soon-to-be-cultural-phenomenon No Doubt initially rode the ska wave, before turning frontwoman Gwen Stefani into the least attractive sex symbol ever, falling in with the hip-hop producers du jour, and finally booting ska out of the equation entirely.

Good idea. The ska backlash hit the zeitgeist like a shock-and-awe aerial assault. Devoted disciples who'd spent Tuesday night skankin' away in a porkpie hat and two-tone shoes woke up Wednesday morning and denied all of it. Newly minted fans abandoned Ska Nation as if it was Three Mile Island. Even your humble author, who'd fallen in with a college freshman dorm ska act cleverly named Skantily Plaid, promptly saw his labor of love disbanded and abruptly reformed as ... an emo band, its hypothetically spectacular ska reimagination of Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" cruelly abandoned and unrealized.

Ska is dead, a fully despised fad never to return. Except not everyone believes this: A few established bands actually survived the '90s binge and purge, and several new Bay Area acts have sprung up since. They might not be trendy anymore, but they just gotta dance.


Rob "Bucket" Hingley remembers. Oh, yes. For 25 years now the affable Englishman has fronted the Toasters, hugely respected NYC ska pioneers credited with spearheading the genre's "third wave" -- the first wave took over Jamaica in the '50s and '60s via grandfather types like the Skatalites, while the second, British wave -- Madness, the Specials, et al. -- took the world by storm in the late '70s and early '80s.

Bucket caught the Americanized third wave and, perhaps unknowingly, helped usher in the '90s boom. In 1983 he started Moon Ska, a sensation-causing indie label that powered beloved bands such as the Scofflaws, Let's Go Bowling, and of course, the Toasters. When the Ska Big Bang hit, Moon fought on the front lines, dodging major label buyout offers and valiantly fighting for the genre's integrity amid a sea of poseurs and bandwagoneers.

By 1999 the party was over, leaving Bucket a bit grouchy. In interviews he declared the late '90s "the worst business climate for ska music I've seen in, like, fifteen years." More memorably, he railed against the "whiny little bitches" who turned ska into "this great big shit pie."

Thankfully, as that shit pie is now smaller, the whiny bitches are now fewer.

"I think a lot of those people have gone," says Bucket, who's on the road yet again with the Toasters. "What I meant by that was, a lot of people I felt -- and quite rightly -- hadn't really done anything for ska music, just basically showing up at the last minute with their hand out. People basically signing a record deal and expecting UPS to be delivering bags full of money the next day."

Still, he admits these people gave ska a brief moment in the mainstream sun that still resonates positively; plenty of honest-to-God fans birthed in that brief era still remain. Not enough to save Moon Ska, however: The label finally puttered out in 2000 amid a series of distributor capitulations and publicly rancorous royalty debates, leaving only a Moon Ska Europe imprint, which Bucket has little involvement with.

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