The Plague of Ska

As quality-of-life issues go, American ska ranks up there with the big boys; gang graffiti, cigar smoke, unleashed dogs. The day-to-day existence of millions of people has been made a shade harder since its arrival. Trying to rank this hazard requires the precision of an insurance-industry actuarial table. One exposure to Skankin' Pickle, for example, is equivalent to a mild case of colonitis. Thirty seconds of any Voodoo Glow Skulls song puts the same amount of stress on your heart as two packs of cigarettes. Goldfinger and Bim Skala Bim and—yes, Orange County, you need to hear this—early No Doubt have all contributed to a public hazard as insidious as smog and as pernicious as chlamydia.

Here's the real problem: when an English Beat song comes on KROQ's Flashback Lunch, my first reflex is to nudge the car I'm driving into the oncoming lane. It's not a rational thought. It is third-wave American ska superimposing itself over second-wave British ska. This is Victor's Justice, and although it is a cyclical force in all pop culture (rock defeats blues, gangsta rap defeats regular rap, crap defeats gangsta rap, etc.), its effect in this instance is particularly senseless. The English Beat were good. The world is a much better place for their having existed.

Could they have imagined, way back in the Birmingham, U.K., of 1978, the horror of their successors? The story of ska's second wave seems touchingly courteous, almost naive. When the Beat and the Specials discovered that both had been merging Jamaican rocksteady with U.K. punk at the exact same time—like Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison simultaneously inventing the light bulb—the bands forged a tight bond. Did they even pause to consider a rivalry? Although the Beat's famously precise lineup (vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, with the rhythm section of Andy Cox and David Steel, later of Fine Young Cannibals, and the late addition of 50-year-old first-wave ska saxist Saxa) frequently slipped into pokey and maudlin material, their best songs have aged well. As concerned citizens against Thatcherism and apartheid, their general decency has also endured. One would imagine they are the kind of people who would be mortified overhearing the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in public.

But decency and talent only go so far in this hemisphere. America forced the Beat to become the English Beat, and made them spend stateside tours as most favored bridesmaids, opening for the Police, the Pretenders and Talking Heads without ever headlining on their own. The band that conquered English radio (the Beat produced six hit singles for the U.K., one more than Michael Jackson's Thriller) never cracked the U.S. charts. Wakeling has politely pointed the finger at IRS Records marketing, and one is inclined to believe him, at least on the grounds that he seems like a genuinely good person.

There is, however, a small matter of culpability. It is the English Beat (among a few others) that provided the historical bridge from the innovation of Prince Buster to the depravity of Reel Big Fish. That is a serious crime. It would not be rash to hold the band partially responsible for a generation of confused, crisply dressed young men, for the thousands of man-hours spent devising exponentially stupider and stupider plays on the word “ska.” So. When the Beat play the OC this Friday, will they, at long last, denounce their progeny?


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