Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Vinyl/CD Lust: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra

Here's a story that should serve as a reminder as to why music fans should continue to patronize record stores in the internet age: you never know what treasures you might stumble upon...

A few weeks ago, I stopped by a Japanese used CD/bookstore in midtown to kill some time during my lunch hour (and basically get away from the crazies at work) and decided to check out their J-POP section (which is separate from their selection of US and European CDs), just in case they had anything by the few Japanese ska bands I've heard of. (You never know, right?) As I'm trying to figure out how things are alphabetized (the few section dividers that are in English don't follow any set pattern that I can discern--I am told later by one of the staff that it's organized according to the Japanese characters--d'oh!), I come across a cover that features its motley crew of band members as cartoons, with a speech bubble over one of the figures stating, "We don't know what ska is!" I take a closer look and it turns out to be the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra! And then I realize that there is a whole SECTION that contains most of their back catalogue--and all of the CDs are $5 to $10 (except for their newest one, Perfect Future, which is $30)!?! Holy High Priestess of Ska! I end up grabbing six CDs for $35 (Wild Peace, High Numbers, Stompin' on Downbeat Alley, Grand Prix, Tokyo Strut, and We Don't Know What Ska Is!), which would have ended up costing me a small freakin' fortune if I ordered them from Japan or here as an import.

Okay, I know that picking these CDs up in a used shop (even though they were new, still in their factory shrinkwrap with their OBI cards) isn't actually supporting the band (i.e.: they're probably not making royalties off my purchase, sadly) and that this business is not really the kind of independent record store that I'm urging us all to be patronizing...but you get my point, right?

So here's my plea: go to a store and a) actually buy music so that a band can try to make some bucks against all odds--and can afford to keep doing what we want them to do, and b) support independent retailers of music before they become completely extinct.

Best of all, when you go to a real live record shop, you can discover a CD or LP that you would never thought of searching for on the internet--and most of the people in indie shops know their music and can answer your questions and make great recommendations (unlike the drones at Best Buy, etc.).

More rants about the current state of the music industry to come...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mad About You/Boogie in My Bones

Laurel Aitken at his home in Leicester, 1980 (photo by Janette Beckman)
(Editor's note: Last night, I got together with a bunch of terrific ex-Moon Records employees--some of whom I haven't seen in about a decade--just to re-connect, catch up on each other's lives, and relive some of the glory and agony of working for that label. I'll probably have much more to write about in coming weeks about our Moon Records dayz, but our conversation turned to some of the first generation ska greats that have died, including the great Laurel "Godfather of Ska" Aitken, whom I worked with for a short time in the late 90s. When he died, I posted several entries on another blog I used to do and I thought that you might enjoy reading them...)


The longer you live, the more people die.

I always read the obituaries, not that I'm looking for anyone in particular. Oftentimes, it's fascinating to learn about someone who made extraordinary or quirky contributions to the world -- people that I didn't even know existed, but whose lives touched mine in some strange way, like the inventor of the Slinky. And then there is the pain of coming across someone who you thought would have defied the odds and outlive you, like the gutter poet Charles Bukowski...(RIP).

Sadly, I don't think that many newspaper obit editors will remember Laurel Aitken. I learned that this great singer/musician passed away on July 17, 2005 from a heart attack (after a long illness) at age 78. Laurel, known as the "godfather of ska," was the first artist to release material (one of the first ska releases ever) on Island Records back in 1959, a new label founded by Chris Blackwell (who would later release albums from such superstars as Bob Marley and U2). Some consider Laurel to be Jamaica's first recording star, with his string of hit singles in the 60s and 70s in both JA and the UK. The 2-Tone revival in 1979 saw a great resurgence in his popularity, and he played with the English Beat, toured with the mod band Secret Affair (and was backed by the reggae- loving punks The Ruts!). He later sang with the brilliant British ska band the Potato 5 in the 80s, and collaborated with Japan's Ska Flames, Germany's Busters, and America's Toasters during the 1990s. He even appeared with David Bowie in the mod film "Absolute Beginners."

I met Laurel on his tour of the U.S. in 1998. He had released a best-of CD on the label I worked for, and I was overseeing the publicity for his tour. Offstage, he was a quiet, kind, almost reserved fellow -- a kindly grandfather. But on-stage with a mic in his hand, he was a master entertainer, his voice sounding better than it had in his youth. He signed autographs at our record store in the Village, and was kind enough to pose for dozens of pictures with fans young enough to be his great-grandchildren (I have my photo with him in my family picture album, though I was young enough to be his grandson). Apart from managing the publicity team that was arranging for press, radio interviews, and in-store appearances during his tour, I also became his kept on swiping his signature pork pie hat (that topped off his two-tone suit, skinny tie, and shades). So, I'd head up to 99X, buy another hat and FedEx it to whatever club he was appearing at the next day. From then on, he always remembered me as the guy who bought his hats for him.

In 1999, when I started my own, ill-fated digital download label, 7 Wonders of the World Music, Laurel and I had many transatlantic phone calls, as I tried to persuade him to license some tracks to my label. Nothing ever came of it...Laurel wanted to release CDs and I was trying out what was a new model for distribution at the time...but he was always charming over the phone and I loved talking to him about things going on in the ska world.

I last saw Laurel on NYC's Central Park Summerstage in 1999 (and brought my toddler son to meet him backstage). He was simply incredible that day, and had the huge crowd on their feet, dancing for his entire set. No doubt, that's what's happening wherever he is now.

(A good deal of Laurel's music is still available from Grover Records in Germany -- I highly recommend "Rise and Fall," "Rudi Got Married," "The Long Hot Summer," and "The Pama Years".)

* * * *


Finally, a little recognition for the Godfather of Ska...the BBC (God bless the Beeb!) is running a short obit for Laurel, and he even has a blurb on MTV's website (scroll down). I'm still waiting for the New York Times to do their thing (they did one for Coxsone Dodd when he died last year...).

* * * *


A few more Laurel Aitken obituaries have appeared that flesh out his life a bit more. Check out the articles from the Jamaica Observer and the Telegraph. The piece in the Observer claims that he was bitter over not receiving much recognition in Jamaica for his pioneering musical legacy. This may be true, but it casts a pall over a man who really seemed to enjoy life and performing...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Vinyl Lust: Judge Sympathy-The Birth of Trojan

The obsessive collector in me is drooling over this new box set of 11 singles that is being issued in celebration of Trojan Records' 40th anniversary. The label was launched in 1967 as a subsidiary of Island Records specifically to release Duke Reid's productions in the UK (by the way, Trojan's name comes from the Trojan brand truck that was used by Duke Reid in Jamaica, which had Duke Reid--The Trojan King of Sounds painted on the sides). Indeed, since the Duke was one of the premier producers of the time, it follows that this box set documents some of the best rocksteady recordings ever to come out of JA--which up until now have been nearly impossible to find. Bust open the piggy bank for this one, kids.

The Judge Sympathy box set includes: "Judge Sympathy" by the Freedom Singers, "Never To Be Mine (O Solo Mio)" by Roland Alphonso & The Supersonics, "Folk Song" by Tony & Dennis, "Starry Night," "Comet Rocksteady (aka Tommy's Rocksteady)," "Zazuka," "Sir Don (aka Yeh! Yeh!)," and "Soul Rock" by Tommy McCook & The Supersonics, "It's Raining" and "The Sound Of Music" by the Three Tops, "Ain't That Loving You" and "Why Birds Follow Spring" by Alton Ellis, "I Want To Be Loved (I Need You)" and "Tulips From Heaven" by Boris Gardiner & The Diamonds, "This Is As Lovely Way To Spend An Evening," "Make Me Yours," "Leave It In The Hands Of Love (aka We Have Happiness)," and "Thing Of The Past" by Phyllis Dillon, "I'm A Loving Pauper" by Dobby Dobson, and "Dedicate My Song To You (aka Dedicated To You)" and "How Can I Unlove You (aka Things I Said To You)" by the Jamaicans.

Dub is a Weapon

If I wasn't heading off to Ohio this weekend for my grandmother's 100th birthday (!) party, I'd be catching Dub is a Weapon at Sullivan Hall with Meta & The Cornerstones and Selector Carter Van Pelt of WKCR. Here are the crucial details:

Friday, June 13, 2008 @ 11:00 pm
Sullivan Hall
214 Sullivan Street
New York, NY, USA (MAP)

The band is working on their next album over the summer, but if you haven't picked up a copy of their "Armed and Dangerous" EP (get it on vinyl from Jump Up Records), you're missing out on one of the best dub/reggae instrumental records of 2007 (I haven't seen many reviews of it on-line, so even though it's not a new record, I may write it up here...).

Other Dub is a Weapon dates this summer include:

Friday, June 20, 2008 9:00 pm
Club Helsinki
284 Main Street
Great Barrington, MA, USA (MAP)

Saturday, June 28, 2008 10:00 pm
Electric Company
700 Varick Street
Utica, NY, USA (MAP)

Saturday, July 19, 2008 10:30 pm
8 x 10
8-10 E. Cross Street
Baltimore, MD, USA (MAP)

Friday, July 25, 2008 10:00 pm
World Cafe Live
3025 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA, USA (MAP)

Saturday, July 26, 2008 5:00 pm
Camp Creek 2008
Indian Lookout Country Club
Mariaville, NY, USA (MAP)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Jerry on The Prince

Check out this interesting post by Jerry Dammers regarding The Voice of the People.

Also, who knew that Prince Buster had a MySpace page? (Beware, there is a fake one out there, too.)

In honor of Prince Buster's recent 70th birthday on May, 28, 1938, I'm going to be posting an overview of what's now available from his back catalogue (much more than you could find a decade ago); what's rare and worth tracking down; and maybe even some news about his upcoming new album...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Chris Murray Combo Record Release Party in LA

If you are in the LA area tonight, make sure to head over to the Bluebeat Lounge (at the Knitting Factory) for the record release party for the Chris Murray Combo's Why So Rude CD (which is available through his label, Unstrictly Roots).

The Duff Guide to Ska will post a review once we get our hands on a copy and have some time to listen to it. I've been a pretty big fan of Chris Murray's for years (I was the one who really pushed Buck to release The 4-Track Adventures of Venice Shoreline Chris on Moon Records; Bucket wasn't so sure about the lo-fi, one-man band thing, but the quality of the songwriting and the performances convinced him--though I had a bit of egg on my face when Chris snuck on "Cooper Station Blues" on the album just before it went to the pressing plant without any of our knowledge; fortunately, Bucket has a good sense of humor).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Off Topic: Save Pluto

Over the weekend, a good friend invited me to tag along to see Save Pluto, a fantastic power-pop band from Staten Island that happened to be playing in my neighborhood. They describe their sound as a mix of Fountains of Wayne, Matthew Sweet, and Cheap Trick--but at their show, I was pleasantly surprised to also hear the Undertones, the Jam, Plimsouls, Buzzcocks, even Sugar lurking in their guitars and voices.

The gig was in the basement of this sports bar a block south of where that construction crane collapsed (it was kind of surreal: First Avenue was closed to traffic, fire trucks and firemen were everywhere--I guess in case of further disaster while they dismantled the crane and checked out the damaged building). Save Pluto's set was blisteringly good: the band was incredibly tight; the performances were frenzied, yet pitch-perfect; the songs were crammed with juicy hooks and soaring harmonies, and (perhaps best of all) they looked like they were having one hell of good time on stage (something you definitely can't say about a lot of bands--including the speed metal band that followed them). Lead singer Shawn Moynihan has a wicked ear-to-ear smile that puts The Joker to shame that he kept sporting throughout the set. Good times, my friends.

I bought a copy of their CD, Age of Lowered Expectations, after their show and have been listening to it practically non-stop ever since (and even when I'm disconnected from my iPod, some of the songs continue to run through my head...thanks, guys). One of the tracks that seems to resonate with me right now is "Red Letter Day." Much like the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," it's about finding oneself agonizingly adrift in middle-age and wondering how to go about setting things right again. Lyrics like this speak volumes to me (cause I'm old like them, dammit):

Days of catching subway trains
Weeks of hearing myself complain
Endless years of feeling uninspired

There must be something more that I can do
to change my point of view
So I can make the best of my time

I want to feel it like I did back then
I want to live it like I know I can
Oooo, I need a red letter day...

The words make it sound like a bleak song, but the music is actually doggedly triumphant--gonna kick this thing in the ass somehow, soon.

So go to their MySpace page, check out some of their tunes, and go buy their album from CDBaby. Hear me, now?