As Dave Wakeling points out, the political and economic climate in the US over the past several years does echo that of Thatcherite Britain, which would seem to create a favorable environment for ska bands that offer socially aware commentary--and helped propel many of the 2 Tone era acts onto the charts (but notice how he fails to mention any of the extraordinarily powerful protest songs by The Beat and The Specials, such as "Stand Down Margaret," "Get a Job," "Ghost Town," "Too Much Too Young," or "Nelson Mandela," by focusing almost exclusively on Madness' "party music" instead?).
Unfortunately, the great tradition of organized protest and resistance against injustice (very much alive in the UK in the late 70s--see the Rock Against Racism concerts or the CND) just isn't happening here (if we didn't rise up and storm the White House when the Bush Administration failed to stop 9/11 and then lied about Iraq's connection to it in order to launch a war; couldn't be bothered with tracking down and bringing Osama bin Laden to justice; broke domestic and international law by torturing POWs; engaged in massive, illegal spying on American citizens; corrupted the Justice Department for political gain, etc., etc.--what exactly will it take for us to band together as citizens and say we've had enough?). It's just not in the DNA of our technologically distracted and self-absorbed youth culture (nor was it part of mine, I'm sad to say, as many of us turned out to be Alex Keatons).
I love ska's rich history of decrying social and political injustice--much of which continues to this day--but I don't think that it's a prerequisite for the music's re-emergence from the underground, since there's not much of a public appetite for protest music (apart from Green Day's broadside against Bush's reign in American Idiot). Having said that, ska music certainly has the potential to be a vital part of pop culture in the US--and should continue its proud tradition of being a voice for the oppressed and forgotten.
No, what will keep the fourth wave from rising are obstacles more like the music press' and the music industry's viewpoint that ska--2 Tone, 3rd wave, whatever you call what is happening now--is simply a revival genre (no doubt some of this came about because all of the major 2 Tone acts covered many 60s ska hits in their day), rather than a style of music that has been continuously and organically evolving since its creation. As long as the revival label sticks, contemporary ska bands will always be considered to be musicians practicing a somewhat illegitimate or lesser art and dismissed as such. (It also doesn't help that The Specials are still cashing in on their wave of nostalgia instead of spearheading a new ska movement...) Punk managed to avoid being branded a revival, despite Green Day's massive debt to The Buzzcocks and Undertones and Rancid's obsessive Clash-love, by having the good fortune to have been repackaged in plaid in the 90s as grunge.
A much larger problem facing the ska scene (and bands in general) is how to make one's music and message heard above the extraordinary din of our decentralized, highly segmented pop culture media, with its infinite number of choices all vying for one's attention. Alternative commercial radio is dead (killed by internet radio, satellite radio, iTunes, iPods, Pandora, illegal file-sharing, podcasting, and the lowest common denominator pre-programmed blandness resulting from massive corporate ownership of the airwaves). Likewise, printed publications are wasting away (circulations and advertising revenue are way down--I've been horrified watching The New York Times shriveling before my eyes--as many people have turned to the web for free, instant information from a plethora of sources). There are very few mediums left that consistently reach a large audience (why else would No Doubt be appearing on the awful "American Idol" or hawking themselves on "The Today Show" along with the latest diet craze author?).
It all makes you wonder if the whole 2 Tone scene had taken place in a post-internet age, would anyone have noticed (or cared)?
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WHY THERE WON'T BE A FOURTH WAVE OF SKA
A recent reunion performance in London by the 2-Tone ska band Madness made me think that the time is a ripe for a massive ska revival. Unfortunately, the chances of seeing one are unlikely.
Ska music--the brassy, jazzy, up-tempo precursor to reggae--is a mixture of American rhythm & blues, Caribbean calypso and Jamaican folk music that evolved in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as Jamaica was gaining its independence from Britain. While celebratory and made for dancing, the music was inherently political. Studio One song titles like “I Want Justice,” “Forward March” and “Freedom Sounds” were typical. As ska music evolved into rock steady and then reggae, such identity politics became even more pronounced.
Fast-forward to the late 1970s and early 80s, when a steamy political climate brought about not only punk rock, but a multi-ethnic ska revival in Britain and America. The London-based band Madness was part of it, although their music was largely devoid of politics. Madness was basically a party band. They made music to drink to. “One Step Beyond”, one of their biggest hits (later featured on MTV), is basically a repetitious ska romp that revolves around one sax hook. It’s incredibly infectious, but doesn’t really go anywhere. In 1981 Rolling Stone described them as “little more than the Blues Brothers with English accents.” For better or worse, most ska bands that emerged during the “third wave” of ska in the 1990s followed Madness’ lead.
Things haven’t changed, if their recent performance of a few new songs at London’s HMV music store is any indication. Madness sounded good, and they were clearly enjoying themselves, but there wasn’t exactly a tidal wave of energy surging through the mostly over-40 crowd. The Specials, the 2-Tone label’s flagship band, recently played a couple of sold-out reunion shows in London, and The Beat (the name the English beat goes by Britain) has played shows recently as well. While all of these shows got some favourable press, I haven’t heard much buzz about them since. An upcoming “30 Years of 2 Tone” show in London on July 18th will surely do its best to rally the troops.
Ska has repeatedly risen to near-mass appeal and then fallen back into obscurity. It held on in Jamaica for about six years before the popularity of rock steady and reggae dwarfed it. The British 2-Tone movement lasted about five years. A few American bands pushed ska in the 1980s (The Toasters, Fishbone), and the American-focused third wave of the 1990s had largely faded by the end of the decade. Madness, like so many other bands, grew tired of ska and started writing more pop-influenced music. No Doubt, a popular third-wave band, did the same thing.
About a year ago, Dave Wakeling of the 2-Tone era band The English Beat told me to watch out for a fourth wave of ska in America and Britain. He described the music’s potential to be uplifting in times of crisis, explaining it “comes in a post-punk period, or a post-angst period, where people still might feel a sense of protest, but they're sick of feeling miserable about it. Like, we're still mad, but we want to party.”
It's a nice idea, but I don't see it happening. Despite big pockets of ska fans around the world, mass audiences don't seem to want it. It’s always been a niche music. Even a vast economic downturn won’t change that.
After Madness’ set, I couldn’t help but think about a couple of Skatalites shows I saw in the mid-'90s. Jamaica’s original “house band”, they were amazing even in old age. The songs weren’t jittery, trebly, high-voltage affairs. The music was seductive, sublime, jazzy, smooth and bass-heavy, with occasional moments of virtuosity in the horn solos. Decades of history, politics, melancholy and humour came through in every note. It's the sound that inspires devotion among ska's followers, and not an easy one to replicate.
~ GARY MOSKOWITZ