A little intro. David Hillyard is well known to general readers of this blog. He’s a very long standing OG member of The Slackers, founded his own Rocksteady 7, played on the now classic Hepcat album Out of Nowhere and even before that he was playing in San Diego as a founding member of the Donkey Show. It’s an understatement to say he’s had a long music career let alone one devoted to the likes of Ska. He of course has a distinct and passionate perspective on music in general and pointed thoughts on the state of Ska in the U.S. having toured here for over 20 years.
So it was a couple of years ago he decided to write down those thoughts and publish them to his Myspace blog for the world to read. As that social network has fallen out of favor and the feeling that his discussion should be read by more people than might see it now I reached out to him with a question. Would he be interested in havcing those comments being republished on our blog? Did he want to change or update anything? Nope – still holds true.
You know it’s kinda funny really – one of my first interviews was with Dave around 96 I think for a San Diego zine called Hand Carved in which I remember distinctly asking about his Donkey Show stuff. I don’t remember much else but here we are now publishing his story of ska. Funny how things come around.
It’s long and we’ll publish it over many posts for a new crop of fans to get a chance to read it. After that – maybe, just maybe Mr. Hillyard will feel compelled to more writings and thoughts on the stare of the Ska union as he sees it. So here you go for your reading pleasure.
EDITORS NOTE: Nothing was changed except a little clean up on punctuation and such.
His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 1
Originally Published on February 8, 2008 by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog – Republished here with permission.
A lot of other people have written histories of American Ska. So why bother? Well, to start with they get it wrong. So I’m going to call it from my perspective. I’m not gonna bother with any sort of neutrality and just call it as I see it.
Ska is funny music, against all odds it has managed to survive and persevere. How the hell has this once obscure music from Jamaica managed to capture so many people’s imaginations and win over so many hearts?
In case you are reading this and have no idea what the hell “Ska” is or just associate it with a special mix of marching band horns, heavy metal, plaid suits, and shorts, let me set you straight.
Ska began in Jamaica sometime around 1959 and lasted in its classic form up until around 1967. It was the sound of Jamaican independence. It mixed together mento (calypso), jazz, Jamaican hand drumming, latin, gospel, and jump blues into a heady mix. The first thing most people notice about Ska is that the guitar plays rhythm, on the offbeat. I mostly pay attention though to the bass and drums. The weird thing about Ska is how it swings and doesn’t swing. It has a beautiful elasticity of time. If you don’t know what I’m talking about listen to Lloyd Knibb from the Skatalites play. If you don’t hear it then, well, I’m sorry.
Ska died out in 1966-67 and got replaced by rocksteady/reggae and a hundred other Jamaican styles. For a small island, it’s got a lot of music. Its constantly taking influences from all over the place, but somehow its own identity pulls through.
Yeah, stop me if you’ve heard this before. Or just skip to the American stuff. It starts in a couple of paragraphs.
So where was I? Oh yeah, Ska. It came back in the UK in the late 70s with 2 Tone. Bands like the Specials, Madness, Selecter, Bad Manners, the Beat etc. etc. Well actually you those are the important bands, the etc. is pretty much etc.
In some ways, the only thing that came back in the UK was the name, “Ska”. The bands were playing stuff that was influenced by the Sex Pistols and Ian Dury, punk and pub rock, plus all of the Jamaican music that had happened between 1967 and 1978. Ska was the name but it was only part of the musical picture. Uk drummers tended to play fewer rimshots and more open snare hits. Bass players would sneak in octaves from funk and disco, plod like punkers, or add bits of reggae. The Skank became more trembly and nasal. Whatever it was, although I like it a lot for the most part, it didn’t really swing in the same way as the 60s stuff. But hey, they sold a lot more records. At least for the 2-3 years they were popular before the trendy British moved on!
In the states, Ska had never gotten out of Jamaican immigrant communities. Reggae got picked up by every hippie and surfer who liked to smoke a joint but Ska, even when it was played was mostly unrecognized. “My Boy Lollipop” and “Ob-la-di-Ob-la-da” were just music. The Ska overtones went over most American listener’s heads.
So where does American Ska start? Does it come out of 2 Tone? Well yes and no. One of the first American bands to play Ska that I know of is the Blue Riddim Band from Kansas of all fucking places. Can you believe that? NOT from NYC or LA! They used to do a cover of the Ska version of Simmer Down. They were around in the late 70s and are remembered for being one of the first American bands not composed of Jamaicans to convincingly play reggae.
But they weren’t part of a movement. Maybe they were a pioneer of what was to become the “world beat” movement but they didn’t have that much impact on what was going to become the American “Ska” scene as far as I know. Their 1981 record was floating around bargain bins in California by the late 80s. Most of my friend’s response to the record was “who the fuck are these guys?” They were actually pretty good and should be better known than they are.
From what I can tell, a handful of Americans heard about “Ska” for the first time when the 2 Tone bands did their first tours in the wake of the success of 2 Tone in the UK. Apparently most of these tours were big disasters. Outside of a few pockets on the coasts and the odd college campus, the US didn’t get it.
Well…at least a few people did. Here and there the 2 Tone uniform began popping up. Someone was digging it. 2 Tone flavored anglophile bands began forming. But more on them later. Cause the English bands kept on coming over and growing in popularity.
That’s right, the Beat, Madness, and Bad Manners had not given up on the US of A. They kept plugging away and as 2 Tone faded to memory in the Uk, it began to gain some popularity in the states. Between 1982-1983, you had hits by Madness with “our house”, The Beat with “Save it for Later” and “I confess”, and Bad Manners with “that will do nicely son.” Of course, the irony was that by this time the 2 Tone bands were going for a slick watered down pop-rock sound that had only the vaguest of Jamaican references. Our House is trying to be the Beatles. I confess wouldn’t sound out of place on an ABC album. Save it for Later has the confident guitar strum of 80s rock. I guess Bad Manners had the most reggae/Ska influence at this time but they also had crossover dreams (check out their mid-80s lp Mental Notes for some pure dreck.). They toured the US several times and probably were the closest to keeping the energy of 2 Tone going far into the 80s.
So from the beginning American conceptions of “Ska” are far from the source. I’m not gonna say they are wrong cause all things change. But the fact is that most Americans thought of Ska as English first and Jamaican second. That it was some sort of mix of rock and reggae. And that it was a brief fad in the 80s and went out of style sometime right after the US festival.
So how the hell did it survive?
– end of chapter 1. Chapter 2 is soon come.