Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Ska Odyssey

I can say with 100% absolute certainty that ska was part of my "mod growing process" when I hit the ground running in 1980. This was entirely thanks to seeing The Specials on "Saturday Night Live"! In fact I was somewhat aware at the time that ska had something to do with mod, but it would be a few more months before I'd read more and put the two firmly together. It also had a large part in creating a division in my "mod" days as well all the way up to the present day in a way. Despite a steady diet of The Specials, Madness, The (English) Beat and Bad Manners (I was never much on The Selecter, still ain't) throughout the early 80's I did not hear my first original ska records till after December, 30, 1984 when I met a wonderful skinhead girl at a Mod Nite in NYC, an event which was documented by her at the time and reproduced here:


She made me cassettes with original versions of tunes all of the 2-Tone bands had covered as well as a host of other classic ska/reggae/rocksteady tracks. I was on my way. At the same time in 1984 I met the first mods I'd ever encountered. They were all from Northern New Jersey or the NYC metro area drawn together by a love of music etc. Sadly by 1985 there were already little "factions", a "scene war" if you will with music being the root of the division. Utterly ridiculous when there were never more than 50 of us. I was firmly in what I'd like to think was a more progressive camp. Unfortunately this degenerated into a classic narrow "us vs. them" scenario. "Them" being a coterie of NYC mods who listened to pretty much nothing but ska (both original and mostly second wave bands), The Jam and pretty much acted like the music world existed from 1979 to 1982 (oddly being all but ignorant towards any '79 U.K. mod bands). They wore the "uniform": Fred Perry's, Dr. Martens, Harringtons, bomber jackets, monkey boots, porkpie hats (actually stingy brims but I'll save that rant for another post), braces, etc. "Us" being people who wore more post 1965 clothes like paisley shirts, Nehru jackets, patterned 60's style trousers, polka dot shirts, red jeans, tinted granny glasses, Beatle and Chelsea boots, etc. We listened to all of the above but also were spreading out a little further and enjoying new English bands like The Prisoners and The Times as well as American 60's garage, less well known UK bands like The Creation, The Birds, The Eyes or The Artwoods, British 60's r&b like Georgie Fame as well as "dangerous" sounds like The Pink Floyd, The Herd, etc. "We" had a variety of bands we followed.  Though the two "mod" bands (Mod Fun from Northern New Jersey) and The Secret Service (from Long Island, NY) were the only ones from our age group on the NYC "scene" there were a multitude of 60's type garage bands.  "They" had The Scene, an NYC mod band (not to be confused with the vasty superior UK mod band of the same moniker) and a handful of local ska bands. Though people came from a variety of areas out mutual stomping ground was NYC, fortunately there was never any real stomping, just silly arguments (usually in print in our own fanzines) and lots of scowling, sneering, dirty looks and the usual juvenile stand offishness.  "Their" headquarters was, for a while, a decadent multi floored ex-disco coke club called The Danceteria on West 37th Street, ours was a shithole on the edges of the garment district one block away from a hooker strip called The Dive on West 29th Street. It wasn't all black and white though, my friends and I freely mixed with punks we knew, teds, "garage" scene people and even normal folks who didn't dress a certain way but like us, were there for the music at 257 West 29th Street.  They pretty much stuck to "their" clubs and we stuck to "ours" after bands from both camps, Mod Fun and The Scene played a semi legendary "mod nite" at a run down basement called The Subway Club in Queens, NYC. Funnily enough both of our home bases shut down in 1986!

Mod Fun's (a band firmly in "our" camp) 1984 debut single "I Am With You" contained the line "I got some 2-Tone records sitting on my shelf, that's the sound for me".  By 1985/86 they were singing on stage "I got some 2-Tone records sitting in the trash and that's the place for them" after the black lash within the "mod scene" when it became the "psych mods" vs. the "ska mods".   It was pretty silly and petty but because of the open social hostility we faced from "them" it would be several years before I would ever wear DM's or a Fred Perry because it was too "ska mod".

"Ska-mods" and "psych-mods" at a Mod Nite, The Subway Club, Queens, NY July 1985

In the end by the late 80's most of "us" were not in the least bit remotely mod (save me and maybe half a dozen die hards, three of whom in 1989 formed The Insomniacs, who are still out there) and "them" had all moved onto other things. Then "it" started happening again in '87-'88. There was a third wave of ska bands, mostly American, all third rate if you ask me (it's my soapbox so I get to say what I feel), with them came not many "ska mods" but half assed skinheads, or as we called them "ska kids": braces, baggy trousers, bomber jackets, DM's, flat caps. By this time I'd already discovered the essential "Club '67 Ska" LP and the two volumes of "Intensified" as well as a host of other things (like the tasty Prince Buster LP reissues), having foolishly (temporarily) disdained the second wave of ska because of the previously mentioned element I was equally appalled by the third wave and in my elitist snobbery was driven even deeper into 60's ska/rocksteady which was fortunately easily available. Socially I was briefly drawn into that circle by some mutual acquaintances who introduced me to a very lively and peaceful mob of skinheads (also on the fringes of this scene were a few ex-"ska mods" from '84-'86 who were now "scooterists", basically people who were too scruffy to be mods or too wimpy to be bikers).  Though we may not have agreed on a lot musically we all drank rather heavily so various NYC Lower East Side watering holes became our H.Q's in the late 80's. There was Nightbirds aka Jailbirds because of the large number of high school girls (aka jail bait) who'd somehow wander in AND be served resulting in a mass of drunken 17-18 year old girls.  There was Sophies , a former old man bar which was run by an old Polish lady. She later banned my bald brethren after a brief but rather bloody (literally. no one was killed but there were some severe beatings and a few stabbings) Nazi Skinhead vs. S.H.A.R.P. (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) civil war ("no skinnyheads" she'd yell when skinheads would enter, a few years later in the early 90's oddly the place was overrun by ex-pat Polish right wing neo-fascists after the fall of communism).  Then there was Mona's, which had the best jukebox NYC has ever seen and the best draft beer selection of the three.  And what was the music of choice in all three of these bar's jukeboxes?  Original 60's ska/reggae.  No Specials, no Madness, no Toasters and no Potato 5.

These days, like "Northern soul", I prefer ska/reggae in liberal doses, not pounded into my brain for an entire evening and certainly not by 3rd, 4th and even 5th generation bands.  I still like Madness more than The Specials (though I like The Specials too), but maybe that's because I like Kilburn and the Highroads and these days I'm torn between smoother produced "rocksteady" stuff or kitchen sink produced old Blue Beat records.


Swiss Adam said...

Great clip of the Specials and a good read. It's interesting that something I think of as being so English was causing inter-scene splits in New York.

C said...

Great! You've certainly captured that whole 'them' and 'us' thing that I can also identify with - for me it was within the punk ranks, but I'm sure was similar. Differences in taste in clothes/music might have seemed so small and subtle to an unknowing onlooker but if you were part of it then it was all-important, wasn't it? (Had a friend who made the heinous error one night of wearing Jam shoes with bondage trousers...he was quickly pulled up on that one!) Seems petty in retrospect but not at the time. Does it still go on? Or are there no more real 'scenes' as such...? (Now I do sound old...)

diskojoe said...

My favorite posts of yours are when you mix in the story of your past life with the music. I think your posts about the Style Council were classic in that regard.

Supermod said...

Oh man, so much in this post! Our name for the types of people you wrote about has always been "sk'mods."

Ska was a part of my early days too, only because a friend said Madness was a Mod band and I believed him. When I saw the Specials in their suits on the cover of their LP, I thought they were Mod too. I didn't even know it was called 'ska' music until later that year.

I got really turned off to ska in my senior year of high school after seeing The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and seeing their college frat crowd. Next day at school, I started selling all my ska pins. I came back into the fold after seeing Hepcat live again!

Bill, you mentioned the 'uniform'… my goal is to break that up! I would have definitely been part of your 'Us' crowd.

Also, you brought up The Scene? Whatever happened to those guys? I still have 2 of their 45s I ordered back in high school! One of them is 'High Numbers'. I loved it back then… these days, it's kinda too loud for me.

Wilthomer said...

Carlos, I think The Scene (NY) split up in maybe '87 or so? They had a really good track called "Walking" on an NYC Moon record ska comp. I used to run into their lead singer Barton Campbell all the time in the late 90's in NYC when Brit pop caused a huge "mod" resurgence there. He and I would often, over way too many beers, lament over the fact that we'd been such a bunch of silly, narrow, petty, little arrogant bastards!

Monkey said...

Great read. I think those two camps still exist now as then. So much so that being firmly in the "us" camp, it took me well over 20 years to listen to ANY (original) ska or reggae.