SKA TOONS –
Back in 1979/80 I used to go to the school youth club. When I say ‘Youth Club’, it was an awful musty dark cupboard off the hall in my middle school. That’s where we were allowed to play our records loud, dance, buy kets and pop from the tuck shop we ran. Every Friday we would take our records into school showing off what we had bought the week before. Chart music, the latest punk records and old records from the 60’s. At that time we were on the cusp of a mod revival and the vintage sounds were growing popular and trendy.
As a child from a family of much older siblings and parents I was a font of knowledge in all things 60s and had what my mates thought a great record collection. It was on one of these Fridays that I heard Ska for the first time. The song, ‘Too Much Too Young’ by The Specials. That was it I loved it, the beat the rhythm, lyrics and most of all the Jamaican sound. I felt as if this music had been written just for me. Looking back now the UK was in a dire state with an economic recession and high unemployment rate, but as a 13 year old teenager that went way over my head. I few days later watching The Old Grey Whistle Test and it happened without warning, I fell in love with Terry Hall (The Specials) and SKA music.
Ska music originated in Jamaica in the late 1950’s. It was born from the Jamaican ‘Sound Systems’ music from the ghettos. At a time of obvious class divide between uptown and downtown Jamaica, the Kingston DJs would load up a truck with a generator, turntables, and huge speakers and set up street parties. In the beginning, the DJs played American Rhythm and Blues music, but as time progressed and more local music was created, the sound migrated to a local flavour. The sound systems were big business, and represented one of the few sure ways to make money in the unstable economy of the area.
The promoter or DJ made his profit by charging admission and selling food and alcohol, often thousands of people were in attendance. By the mid 1950’s, sound systems were more popular at parties than live musicians, and by the second half of the decade, custom-built systems began to appear from the workshops of specialists such as Hedley Jones, who constructed wardrobe-sized speaker cabinets known as “House[s] of Joy”. It was also around this time that Jamaica’s first superstar DJ and MC, Count Machuki, rose to prominence. Competition between these sound systems was fierce, and eventually two DJs emerged as the stars of the scene. Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, and Duke Reid. Besides the DJ, who rapped over the music, there was also a selector, who selected the music/rhythm tracks. The popularity of a sound system was mainly contingent on one thing, having new music. In order to circumvent the release cycle of the American record labels, the two sound system superstars turned to record production. Initially, they produced only singles for their own sound systems, known as “Exclusives” or Dubplates – a limited run of one copy per song. What began as an attempt to replicate the American R&B sound using local musicians evolved into a uniquely Jamaican musical genre, that we call Ska. As this new musical form became more popular, both Dodd and Reid began to move more seriously into music production. Coxsone Dodd’s production studio became the famous Studio One, while Duke Reid founded Treasure Isle. Traditional Ska bands generally featured bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, horns with sax, trombone and trumpet being most common.
The ska craze spread to London in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and in the United Kingdom SKA soon came to be labelled bluebeat. This music would probably have remained a mere curiosity were it not for the efforts of a white Anglo-Jamaican of aristocratic lineage named Chris Blackwell. As a hobby-like business venture he had set up a small scale distribution network for ethnic records but he had a vision about the potential appeal of Jamaica’s answer to the blues. In 1962 Blackwell took his tiny Blue Mountain/Island label to England, purchased master tapes produced in Kingston and released them in Britain on Black Swan, Jump Up, Sue and the parent label Island. Initial artists included Jimmy Cliff, the Skatalites and Bob Marley. In England Blackwell struck up a synergism with the fashion conscious mod and skinhead teenage movements through his seminal Jamaican rock records. His big breakthrough came in 1964 when Millie Small, one of the artists he managed, had a huge U.S. hit with “My Boy Lollipop.” Back in Jamaica “stay and ketch it again” became the rallying cry of Sound System ska. Soon every “Rude Boy” (ghetto tough) and country orphan wanted to hear his own voice barrelling out of a bass speaker.
There are different theories about the origins of the word SKA. Ernest Ranglin claimed that the term was coined by musicians to refer to the “skat! skat! skat!” scratching guitar strum. Ranglin described the difference between R&B and ska beats is that the former goes “chink-ka” and the latter goes “ka-chink”. Another explanation is that at a recording session in 1959 produced by Coxsone Dodd, double bassist Cluett Johnson instructed guitarist Ranglin to “play like ska, ska, ska”, although Ranglin has denied this, stating “Clue couldn’t tell me what to play!” A further theory is that it derives from Johnson’s word skavoovie, with which he was known to greet his friends. Jackie Mittoo insisted that the musicians called the rhythm Staya Staya, and that it was Byron Lee who introduced the term ‘ska’. Derrick Morgan said: “Guitar and piano making a ska sound, like ‘ska, ska,’ that’s why we call it SKA. The sound of the guitar and the piano, that’s why we give it the name ska.”The first ska recordings were created at facilities such as Studio One and WIRL Records in Kingston, Jamaica with producers such as Dodd, Reid, Prince Buster, and Edward Seaga. The ska sound coincided with the celebratory feelings surrounding Jamaica’s independence from the UK in 1962, an event commemorated by songs such as Derrick Morgan’s “Forward March” and The Skatalites’ “Freedom Sound.” As music changed in the United States, so did ska. In 1965 and 1966, when American soul music became slower and smoother, ska changed its sound accordingly and evolved into rock steady. However, rock steady’s heyday was brief, peaking in 1967. By 1968, ska evolved again into reggae.
THE BIRTH OF TWO TONE
The Specials and the The 2 Tone genre, which began in the late 1970’s in the Coventry, England area, was a fusion of Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with punk rock’s more aggressive guitar chords and lyrics. Compared to 1960s ska, 2 Tone music had faster tempos, fuller instrumentation and a harder edge. The genre was named after 2 Tone Records, a record label founded by Jerry Dammers of The Specials. In many cases, the reworking of classic ska songs turned the originals into hits again in the United Kingdom. The 2 Tone movement promoted racial unity at a time when racial tensions were high in the UK. There were many Specials songs that raised awareness of the issues of racism, fighting and friendship issues. Riots in British cities were a feature during the summer that The Specials song “Ghost Town” was a hit, although this works most effective bands at bringing the 2 Tone genre into the mainstream. The music of this era resonated with white working class youth and West Indian immigrants who experienced the struggles addressed in the lyrics.
As Two Tone exploded in the UK charts. I was washed away with the amazing sound. I can honestly say this was the first time I heard music that I really felt emotional about. But it was more than that it was the fashion the attitude and something new for my generation. Maybe it was because I was a teenager who knows, but from that day to this I have never stopped loving Ska and the Jamaican sound.
To pick 5 tracks, oh my! What a hard task. All of them are personal favourites. So dust off your pork pie hat, smarten yourself up and get ready to SKANK!!!
THE SPECIALS – A MESSAGE TO YOU RUDY
The Specials, also known as The Special AKA, are an English 2 Tone and ska revival band formed in 1977 in Coventry. Their music combines a “Danceable ska and rock steady beat with punk’s energy and attitude”, and had a “More focused and informed political and social stance” than other ska groups. The band wore mod-style “1960’s period rude boy outfits (pork pie hats, tonic and mohair suits, and loafers). In 1980, the song “Too Much Too Young”, the lead track on their The Special AKA Live! EP, reached number one in the UK. In 1981, the unemployment-themed single “Ghost Town” also hit number one in the UK Singles Chart. After seven consecutive UK Top 10 singles between 1979 and 1981, several members of the group abruptly left to form the Fun Boy Three. Continuing on as “The Special AKA” (a name they used frequently on earlier Specials releases), a substantially revised Specials line-up issued new material through 1984, including the top 10 UK hit single “(Free) Nelson Mandela”. Afterwards, founder and songwriter Jerry Dammers dissolved the band and pursued political activism. The group reformed in 1993, and have continued to perform and record with varying line-ups (but without Dammers) “A Message to You, Rudy” is a 1967 rocksteady song by Dandy Livingstone. The song, originally entitled “Rudy, A Message to You” later achieved broader success when, in 1979, The Specials cover reached number 10 in the UK Singles Charts. Veteran trombone player Rico Rodriguez played on both Livingstone’s and The Specials’ versions
This was the performance that started my love of Ska. Terry Hall on the Old Grey Whistle Test. I actually believed I night marry him. The Specials are still going strong and pulling the crowds in, with added generations.
TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS – 54-46 WAS MY NUMBER
Toots and the Maytals, originally called The Maytals, are a Jamaican musical group and one of the best known ska and rock steady vocal groups. According to Allmusic, “The Maytals were key figures in reggae music”. Formed in the early 1960’s when ska was hot, the Maytals had a reputation for having strong, well-blended voices. Frontman Hibbert’s soulful style led him to be compared to Otis Redding. The Maytals first had chart success recording for producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd at Studio One. With musical backing from Dodd’s house band, The Skatalites, the Maytals’ close-harmony gospel singing ensured success, overshadowing Dodd’s other up-and-coming vocal group, The Wailers. After staying at Studio One for about two years, the group moved on to do sessions for Prince Buster before recording with Byron Lee in 1966. With Lee, the Maytals won the first-ever Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition with their original song “Bam Bam” (later covered in a Dancehall style by Sister Nancy, and also by Yellowman in 1982). However, the group’s musical career was interrupted in late 1966 when Hibbert was jailed for 18 months for drug possession. He stated that he was not arrested for ganja, but while bailing a friend. He also stated that he made up the number 54-46 when writing “54-46. Toots and the Maytals’ compositions would be given a second airing in 1978-80 during the reggae punk and ska revival period in the UK, when The Specials covered “Monkey Man” on their 1979 debut album and The Clash put out their recording of “Pressure Drop”. They were also included in the lyrics to Bob Marley & The Wailers song, “Punky Reggae Party” – “The Wailers will be there, The Damned, The Jam, The Clash, The Maytals will be there, Dr. Feelgood too”.Toots & the Maytals hold the current record of number one hits in Jamaica, with a total of thirty-one.
One of my favourite old school SKA tracks. Toots has the best SKA voice in my opinion and I love dancing to this, I was recently in Brixton and started dancing to this on the market, it just takes me.
THE WAILING WAILERS – SIMMER DOWN
Bob Marley and the Wailers were a Jamaican reggae and ska band created by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. The band formed when self-taught musician Hubert Winston McIntosh (Peter Tosh) met Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer), and Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley) in 1963. By late 1963 Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith had joined the Wailers. After Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left the band in 1974, Bob Marley began touring with new band members. His new backing band included brothers Carlton Barrett and Aston “Family Man” Barrett on drums and bass respectively, Junior Marvin and Al Anderson on lead guitar, Tyrone Downie and Earl “Wya” Lindo on keyboards, and Alvin “Seeco” Patterson on percussion. The “I Threes”, consisting of Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, and Marley’s wife, Rita, provided backing vocals. The line-up was known variously as the Teenagers, the Wailing Rude boys, the Wailing Wailers and finally the Wailers. The original line-up featured Junior Braithwaite on vocals, Bob Marley on guitar, Peter Tosh on keyboard, Neville Livingston (a.k.a. Bunny Wailer) on drums, and Cherry Smith and Beverley Kelso on backing vocals. By 1966 Braithwaite, Kelso and Smith had left the band, which then consisted of the trio Livingston, Marley and Tosh. Some of the Wailers’ most notable songs were recorded with Lee “Scratch” Perry and his studio band the Upsetters. In 1964, the Wailers topped the Jamaican charts with Simmer Down. An attempt at creating a full overview of all the music made by The Wailers prior to their signing to Island Records was made by the Roots Reggae Library.
“Simmer Down” was the first single released by The Wailers, accompanied by the ska supergroup, The Skatalites, and produced by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd in 1963. It was the number one hit in Jamaica in February, 1964. The song was directed to the “Rude Boys” of the ghettos of Jamaica at the time, sending them a message to cool down or “Simmer Down” with all the violence and crime going on in Kingston. The subject matter of “Simmer Down” made The Wailers stand out amongst their contemporaries. It was Bob Marley’s first hit and his career as a song writer and performer took off from there. Although “Simmer Down” was a hit, Peter Tosh, one of the three original Wailers, has said in an interview that he hated it. The song was later covered by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones for their EP Ska-Core, the Devil, and More, as well as by The Specials for their cover album Today’s Specials
I love the Wailers and their transition from SKA to reggae. This is a real old classic SKA sound with its robust horn section and clear message, maybe we don’t want to ‘Simmer Doon’!
THE SELECTOR – ON MY RADIO
The Selector is a 2 Tone ska revival band from Coventry, England, formed in mid 1979. They featured a racially diverse line-up as well as a female front woman, Pauline Black. Their lyrics featured themes connected to politics. Reinforcing the songs of Neol Davies were the voice and rude girl style of Pauline Black and the rhythms of Desmond Brown on the Hammond organ. The band’s name is based on the term “Selector”, which is a Jamaican word for disc jockey. The band was one of the most successful ska bands of the 2 Tone era, notching up a handful of hit singles in the British charts. “The Selector”, was the B-side of the Special AKA’s hit single, “Gangsters” the first 2 Tone Records single. It was released in March 1979, reaching 6 in the UK Charts.
This was my first SKA record purchase and I had a total girl crush on Pauline Black. She was cool, immaculately dressed, pretty and boy could she sing and dance. Later in life I realised what an amazing achievement for her, not only to make it in a very male dominant world but also the fact that she was mixed race. Since reading her autobiography and following her on twitter she has become a lifelong hero of mine. My friend bought a scooter and it was black and white. He asked us what he should call her. I replied “It’s a girl then”? “Yes”, he replied “All my scooters are girls”. “Well it’s got to be Pauline then hasn’t it”. I tweeted her a photo and she was over the moon. She just seems such a nice person. At a time in my teens trying to find an identity, Pauline was someone to look up to. I’ve never been a girly pink glitter kinda girl and her androgynous style of dress I have always found spot on. I just think she’s great. So ‘On My Radio’, was 50p from Woolworths and I’m sure I must have worn a hole in it, my Mam certainly knew this track well.
THE SKATALITES – GUNS OF NAVARONE
The founders of the Skatalites were Tommy McCook (died 1998), Rolando Alphonso (died 1998), Lloyd Brevett (died 2012), Lloyd Knibb (died 2011), Don Drummond (died 1969), Jah Jerry Haynes (died 2007), Jackie Mittoo (died 1990), Johnny Moore (died 2008) and Jackie Opel (died 1970). These ten musicians started to play together from 1955, when Kingston’s recording studios started to develop. Tommy McCook was the first member of the band to record, though not for commercial release, he played with Don Hitchman’s Group in 1953. Archie Lindo. The Skatalites played initially between 1963 and 1965, and recorded many of their best known songs in the period, including “Guns of Navarone.” In spring 1964, The Skatalites recorded their first LP Ska Authentic at Studio One in Kingston and toured Jamaica as the creators of ska. Their producers were Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster, Vincent “King” Edwards, Justin “Phillip” Yap, Leslie Kong, Lindon Pottinger, Sonia Pottinger and Vincent “Randy” Chin. The Skatalites led sessions with top artists and worked with young talents such as Delroy Wilson, Desmond Dekker, The Wailers, Lee Perry, etc. They also played on records by Prince Buster and backed many other Jamaican artists who recorded during that period. They reformed in 1983 and have played together ever since.
The Skatalites were the founders of SKA and the ‘Guns Of Navarone’ is the best selling ska single of all time. It has been described as a masterpiece of the ska genre with its feeling of optimism with a “Jubilant harmonic horn chorus”. The vocalist is Roland Alphonso, with Lee “Scratch” Perry who provided various shouts on the track. The rhythm section of drummer Lloyd Knibb and bassist, Lloyd Brevett provided sharp rim shots and a “Thumping bass”. Originally released in 1965 under Alphonso’s name, it was re-released in the UK in 1967 making number 36 in the UK charts staying for 6 weeks on the chart. It was their only hit in the UK. This is a truly amazing SKA track and to me epitomises the downtown Jamaica sound and I’ve saved the best until last, enjoy.
Check out the original rude boy DJ Dennis Alcapone wearing Clarks Wallabees (Ed: why I oughtta …).