July 4, 2010
#26: Punk Ska
I often find myself, in conversation, bemoaning the portion of Detroit’s storied history in which I was born and raised. Born almost twenty years too late to witness Motown first hand, even the MC5 and the Stooges were long gone before my time, having disbanded seven and five years before my birthday, respectively.
Sports were a joke, after 1984, for what seemed like ever. Even when Detroit sports teams go all the way, it’s a sporadic great season from the Pistons (basketball moves too fast for me), or the Red Wings (when I first moved to New York, my first boss there called hockey a “white boy” sport). The Tigers have largely been a laughing stock for almost thirty years (setting the record for most losses in a single season by an American League team in 2003), the Lions have not won a championship (and only a handful of games, it seems) since 1957. Don Was, who was born and raised in Detroit, made his mark as a musician with Was (Not Was) in New York, and as a producer (Bonnie Raitt, Barenaked Ladies, Rolling Stones) in L.A. Sadly, by the time the White Stripes, Dirtbombs and their ilk had made the term “garage rock” a household name, I had gone west to college.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in this column that the Insane Clown Posse-the self-described (and aptly so) most hated band in the world, were the first group to make me feel like it was cool to be from Detroit. These guys had a national following, and yet they consistently did things to make Detroit feel special. At least one single a year (and the entire first Forgotten Freshness CD) was exclusively available in Detroit. Every Halloween was spent in the Motor City, with what they called the Hallowicked show. Gwar opened the Hallowicked show I saw, and it was, hands down, one of the most fun shows I’ve ever attended. I feel bad, admitting even I can’t stomach ICP records anymore, after spilling so much love on them for their Detroit-centric attitude in the 1990s.
A somewhat less embarrassing scene, though, made some of us proud to be from Detroit around the same time. Though not by any means rooted in Motown, any touring band in ska‘s third wave would have to admit that Detroit was a crucial stop for any band with horns, up tempo punk songs, and an emphasis on the off beat.
Unlike the swing revival – the story of which is told mostly about a handful of bands who perfected a look and a particular antiquated sound (then took that sound straight to the major labels) – third wave, or punk, ska was a movement that was primarily hashed out in basements and small clubs for years before the biggest and brightest stars of the movement (specifically, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Suicide Machines) made the leap from unknown to household name status.
Take Mustard Plug‘s story, for example. At the time of the Grand Rapids, MI band’s 1991 inception, there were less than twenty active ska bands in America. The second wave (2 Tone) had died off in the early 80s, with the commercialization and collapse of Madness, The Specials, and their ilk. 2 Tone had largely been lumped in among New Wave, and almost completely forgotten. The Plug hadn’t forgotten, however, and by 1995, there were more than five hundred active ska bands in the United States alone.
Mustard Plug, though not a Detroit band (Grand Rapids is about three hours Northwest, if you drive fast [and if you're from Michigan, you do]), is the perfect exemplary band in discussing Detroit ska. The band, led by singer David Kirchgessner and guitarist/singer Colin Clive, were inadvertent trendsetters in punk ska. Their first demo’s title (Skapocalypse Now) opened the door for countless horrible ska puns in band names and album titles. Three examples, all of them real, two of them awful. First, there really was a band, at one point, called the Texas ChainSKA Massacre. Second, the label Moon Ska Records really did release a compilation called Skankaholics Unanimous. Third, there was a ska show at my college radio station, 89.1 FM WIDR Kalamazoo (the Source for Radio Evolution), called the “Skank What Yo’ Mama Gave Ya Show.” That last one is funny. The other two, and pretty much every other ska pun in the 1990s, are not.
Mustard Plug also, to the best of my knowledge, set the tone (ha) that required every ska band have at least one song ABOUT ska. Their most obvious example opens their debut full length, Big Daddy Multitude. Entitled, “Skankin’ By Numbers,” the lyrics are more or less a mission statement: “Phonys like to slam to the beat of ska / We’re not against that, but for us there’s more / To dance with us you needn’t act like a jerk / Skankin’s meant for fun, not for getting hurt!” The song goes on to remind the listener to respect his roots, giving shouts to The Specials and (English) Beat, among others. Before long, every ska band had at least one song about ska, to the point where it was hard to tell them apart.
The scene in Detroit revolved mostly around two clubs, conveniently located next door to each other. The Pharaoh’s Golden Cup was an all-ages coffee house, the Mosquito Club was its’ 18+ counterpart. Carpooling to Pharaoh’s most Friday or Saturday nights (usually both) meant that, for five bucks each, we would catch eight ska bands in exchange. Over the course of two months, even if you went down there both weekend nights each week, you probably wouldn’t see the same band twice. Countless local bands with names like the Secret Service, Bourgeois Filth and Flippin’ Opie mingled among bands with gimmicks, like the devoutly Christian Insyderz and the entirely goofy Mailbox Bandits. Each night was usually headlined by a bigger touring band, like Chicago’s MIB’s (who dressed all in black and sang songs about being secret agents, years before the movie Men In Black), Detroit’s own Parka Kings, who often capped their shows with an awesome (and apt) cover of House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and Telegraph, seemingly a little brother band to the Suicide Machines (they shared a drummer for a while), who specialized in being total assholes.
When you’re of a certain age and amongst a movement, it can be hard to notice that there’s a movement going on. Indeed, it did not occur to me that I was taking part in a ska revival until I came home from college some weekend a few years later, and there were no shows to go to. Where most people raised in this era might remember the term “sellout” being hurled at the first grunge bands to get big, I remember ska in 1995 being the fiercely guarded commodity. When the Bosstones (who had been signed to Mercury since 1993) hit #1 with their single, “The Impression That I Get,” right around the same time that Suicide Machines signed to Hollywood Records and released their major label debut, Destruction by Definition, lots of people I knew turned their backs on both bands (even though that Bosstones’ single, in particular, was just about the best thing they ever did). Suddenly, this music didn’t belong to a select elite anymore. Bands like Reel Big Fish-who arguably hadn’t done their time in the trenches in a way like, say Less Than Jake, have-came out of nowhere and had huge hit singles. By the time I came home from my first year of college, summer 1998, the only ska shows you could really see were in big professional theaters and the Warped Tour.
Nearly all of the bands of the era have disbanded (indeed, Mustard Plug is the only band I mentioned here who didn’t even go on hiatus in the lean years), and what was once a vibrant, free flowing scene has now largely been forgotten. I typed “punk ska” in a Wikipedia search and got only a handful of paragraphs that described the sound of the genre and named a few of the biggest bands. There are very few players on that scene still making music. Some of the members of Telegraph (who tried to go pop when ska started to die, then gave up) have gone on to form some kind of grindcore band, but I can’t find anything else on them than that.
It’s hard to believe that something that mattered so much to so many people is all but forgotten today. Maybe that’s one of the downsides of being part of a “scene:” when mass interest starts to fade, demand for what you’re loved for does, too. Still, for a few years there, a lot of us were Skankin’ by Numbers, and it made living in Detroit fun, if not necessarily cool.
by Brook Pridemore