Sunday, October 13, 2019
I've just finished reading Ranking Roger's incredibly entertaining memoir "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life In The Beat" which he co-wrote with Daniel Rachel. Sadly the book was released after Roger passed away earlier this year at the age of 56. In all honesty, it took me a bit of time to finally pick up the book and read it. Roger's death really hit me hard and the book sat on my desk for some time before I was ready to give it a read. Once I felt ready to pick the book up, I'm so glad I did. The pages are infused with Roger's energy, vitality and personality which help soften the blow of his premature passing.
Roger's story is truly cinematic in scope and as I read I had to keep reminding myself that he was just a 16 year old Birmingham punk when he joined the band in 1979 and that just a few years later his band's songs were all over the radio and were on tour with the cream of the crop of 80's music including all the 2-Tone bands, The Clash, The Police, XTC, U2, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, REM and more.
What comes through loud and clear is how much music meant to Roger as both a fan and a singer. He was a true music fan and had incredibly eclectic taste that ran the gamut from punk to rock to reggae. In fact, the parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the stories and anecdotes he shared about songs, band's and musicians that influenced him. To that end, I've shared several examples of music that Roger calls out in the book.
Early in the book, Roger note's that the record that first inspired him to become an MC and take up toasting was African Dub All-Mighty Chapter 3 by Joe Gibbs and The Professionals -- a classic dub reggae album -- which was released in 1978 when Roger was 15 years old.
As a slightly obsessive fan of The Beat, I've always been on the lookout for rare or unreleased music by the band. Some songs -- like their cover of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and "It Makes Me Rock" have made their way online via bootlegs. That said, I was happily surprised to learn from the book that The Beat actually recorded two slices of catchy, 2-Tone era ska/reggae pop -- "The Okay Song" and "Mole In A Hole" with Lenny Henry (a comic and cast member of the UK kid's TV show TISWAS and late night TV show O.T.T) which were released in 1981. Turns out John Peel played the songs a few times on his show! Check out the "Okay Song" below.
One of the most interesting musical revelations in the book is that The Beat covered a version of The Grammacks 1974 French language cadence-lypso record "Soleil Trop Chaud" on the incredibly eclectic "Whappen" album released in 1981. Roger's parents were from the French-speaking island of St. Lucia, and though he did not speak French, he did his best to emulate St. Lucian patois on the track.
Roger writes about how The Beat and The Clash played many shows together and how he befriended Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. In September 1981, The Clash and The Beat played a legendary seven-night residency at the Theatre Mogador in Paris. This was the post-Sandinista!, pre-Combat Rock, version of the band – the one that was obsessed with dub reggae, funk, hip-hop and Latin America. Strummer and Jones admired Roger so much that they invited him to sit in with them each night to toast along on their versions of Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves" and Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time."
The friendships forged during these shows extended long after the tour ended. So when it came time for The Clash to record a new album in 1981-82, Jones contacted Ranking Roger and invited him to come toast on a few tracks. In case you didn't know, The Clash's iconic album "Combat Rock" was originally planned as a double album with the working title "Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg." Jones had mixed the first version by himself without input from his band mates. His mix featured Ranking Roger on a version of "Rock The Casbah" and "Red Angel Dragnet" that was never released. In my opinion, the song is far superior to the final album version produced by Glyn Johns. Though neither of Roger's contributions made the final version of "Combat Rock," it cemented a friendship between Jones and Roger who later joined Big Audio Dynamite.
Saturday, February 23, 2019
I’m writing an oral history about the birth of American ska and reggae called Ska Boom: An Oral History About The Birth of American Ska & Reggae that will be published by DiWulf Publishing later this year or in early 2020. I've created this podcast to document the book writing process and in this podcast I’m telling the story of the 1993 Skavoovee tour of the U.S. featuring the Skatalites, Special Beat, the Selecter and the Toasters which had much to do with expanding the popularity of ska across the U.S. The podcast includes interviews with vocalist Coolie Ranx of the Toasters/Pilfers, Randy "Now" Ellis of City Gardens fame, who was the Skavoovie tour manager and Special Beat keyboardist Sean Flowerdew.
Friday, February 1, 2019
I'm busy working on "Ska Boom! An Oral History About The Birth Of American Ska & Reggae" and I'm about halfway through the book writing process. One year in, I've finished drafting the first 10 chapters and have 10 more to research and write. While I've posted updates to Facebook, I decided it would be more interesting to create a podcast that includes interview snippets and songs from some of the musicians and bands I've written about.
In the very first episode I've included anecdotes and stories from book chapters on The Shakers from Berkeley, CA who were the very first American reggae band that were signed to Elektra/Asylum Records by David Geffen; The Untouchables who helped popularize ska in Los Angeles and were later signed to Stiff Records in the U.K. and The Boxboys who can be called one of the very first American ska bands, forming at UCLA and building a ska at the renowned O.N. Klub in the late 70s and early 80s.
In the second episode, I reflect on the fact that it's been 37 years since The Specials have recorded new music with Terry Hall! The band release their new album "Encore" on Friday February 1st and I can't wait to hear it. If the two songs the band have released so far, "Vote For Me," and "Ten Commandments" are any indication, then we all have a lot to look forward to! To that end, I'm sharing a new podcast episode that's based on soundbites from interviews I've done for the book that focus on The Specials and the impact their first self-titled album released in 1979 had on young Americans who were later inspired to start or join American ska bands. In this episode I share clips of interviews with Howard Paar, a young Englishman who found himself in LA in 1979 and upon hearing the band's first single "Gangsters" decided to open what became the ON Klub that kicked-off a ska revolution in LA. Next focus of clips from musicians from the New York City ska scene - - Constant Bernard of Second Step, Jeff "King Django" Baker of The Boilers and later Skinnerbox and Brendan Tween of Mephiskapheles, who share the very diverse and yet similar ways that The Specials impacted them.
Sunday, September 2, 2018
One the chapters of my book is devoted to the Boxboys who deserve credit for being the very first Los Angeles-based ska band and for helping to kick-off the ska mod revival that took L.A. by storm in the early 80s. In fact, the band were ground zero for a number of third wave ska bands like No Doubt, Save Ferris and Reel Big Fish that exploded out of Orange County in the early and mid 90s.
However, there is more to The Boxboy's story than meets the eye. Amazingly, L.A.'s very first homegrown ska band was fronted for a time by Betsy Weiss who later went on to become Betsy Bitch the lead singer of 80's heavy metal band Bitch. Here in the U.S., Weiss and Bitch became forever linked with music censorship efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) lead by Al Gore's wife Tipper. Bitch became a target of the PMRC and Gore. Their albums, held in Gore’s hands, were shown on talk shows and televised congressional hearings. The media coverage did wonders for the band's profile and Gore and the PMRC are thanked in the liner note credits, because the band said the furor gave them some welcome free publicity. But before she became the poster child for censorship efforts against heavy metal and hip hop, Weiss helped to make ska the now sound in LA.
Just how much of an impact did Weiss and The Boxboys make on the L.A. music scene? An article from the July 25, 1980 edition of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reviewed the band's O.N. Klub show and mentioned Weiss and her singing voice: The band that night, the Boxboys, whipped the club into shape by means of a petite singer with a huge voice and a keyboardist who just wouldn't stand still. It got to be difficult at times to distinguish the band from the audience. The cocktail-napkin-sized dance floor was jammed with pork-pie-hattted, big box-coated guys and gals. The Boxboys even abandoned their perches to do the mean ska dance themselves.
Below are book interview excerpts from Weiss and the band's keyboardist Scott Sigman about her ska origins and later PMRC attention:
Betsy Weiss: The ska music and ska stage persona was so not me. I’m a rock and roller. My main influence in terms of getting into music as a singer and front person was Alice Cooper. I am all about being flamboyant and playing up my sexuality and image onstage. With all due respect to the Boxboys, they did nothing but encourage me to play-down those aspects. They dressed me up in a suit, tie, porkpie hat, hair in a bun, and taught me how to “skank”. While it was an “interesting” experience, my heart was not in it. I have fond memories of being a Boxboy. The guys were great, it got my feet wet in terms of stage experience and recording, and it was great to finally be a part of a functioning band. But I think I’m a better “bitch” than I was a “Boxboy!”
Scott Sigman: It was sort of funny when Betsy went on to start her heavy metal band Bitch and they end selling a million records when Tipper Gore holds up their record and says, “Look at these explicit lyrics.” I was like, “Why didn't we do that when she was in the band?”
Give Betsy's go as an LA rude girl a spin below on the band's "Separate Rooms" single from 1981!
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
I recently completed an interview with Daniel Marotta for the American ska oral history book! Dan was the guitarist for New York Citizens who were one of the most innovative American ska bands of the 80s and early 90s. They were active during a critical period of time right before the explosion of the American third wave of ska driven by No Doubt and Mighty Mighty Bosstones -- bands that both opened for the band during the height of their popularity! Dan shared how the NYCs developed their unique hybrid ska sound and how it influenced other bands:
"We went through a couple of phases. Getting a harder sound came out of the mere fact that our shows we're really slamming, and we thought we could step out of it a little bit and do something a little different. I mean, there were other bands that started doing some of what we were doing; No Doubt for instance. They opened for us in California. They didn't have a huge following at the time. But they struck me as a pretty good band. I’d like to think we were a huge influence on the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. We used to be very friendly with them. We hung out with them a lot. I remember some of the guys in the band saying that some of our songs, like “Plate O' Monsters,” were a blueprint for what they were doing."
Check out "Plate O' Monsters" from the NYCs "On The Move" album from 1988!
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
I had the honor of interviewing UB40 drummer Jimmy Brown for the American ska and reggae oral history. It's hard for me to describe just how important early UB40 albums like "Signing Off" and "Present Arms" were to me - and many other aspiring American ska and reggae musicians - as we were coming of age in the early 80s. They influenced me politically and musically and seeing the band live for the first time at Roseland Ballroom in New York (with opener Urban Blight!) in early 1984 was a memorable experience. Jimmy recalled what it was like to tour the U.S. in the early 80s:
"When we first toured the USA back in the early 1980's it was a bit of a revelation. We took the multi-racial aspects of our line-up for granted. We were at school together, we went to the same clubs together, wore the same fashions, bought the same music [mostly reggae and R&B], skin colour made no difference to us having grown up together. But when we came to the States it was a shock how segregated American society was. There was nowhere that really catered for us as a gang."
To that end, check out the video of "Dream A Lie" (one of my favorite songs by the band). As the story goes, the band made the video because they were receiving death threats from the National Front, one of whom wrote to them saying they were 'like the Black and White Minstrels'. This provocative video was their pointed response.
Monday, August 20, 2018
One of my goals in writing an oral history about American ska is to ensure that bands -- many of which you may have never heard of -- get the credit they deserve helping to popularize a uniquely American version of ska music. One of those bands is the Boxboys who were the first ska band from Los Angeles and likely one of the very first American ska bands. The chapter I'm writing on them will shed light on their story and the role they played in influencing other well known bands like the Untouchables and No Doubt (rumor has it that a 14 year old Gwen Stefani was at one the band's shows).
I've interviewed every member of the band and they've all shared amazing stories about the LA music scene of the late 70s and early 80s including this anecdote from bassist Ivan Wong that happened one night outside the iconic O.N. Klub in Silver Lake when I.R.S Records honcho Miles Copeland showed up while Wong, Boxboys drummer Greg Sowders and club founder Howard Paar where outside.
“Greg and I were standing outside the club one night – and this this is how big ska and the reputation of the O.N. had gotten – and Miles Copeland from I.R.S. Records came up to the door and I think the Go Go's were playing. Howard Paar -- the club founder -- was having a smoke and says, "Five dollars, Miles" and Miles goes, "I'm not paying five dollars" and Howard goes, "Come on, Miles. Five dollars." And Miles said, "I'm going in there and I'm going to sign this band and their gonna make a million dollars." And Howard goes, "Then it's gonna be $999, 995.” And Mile’s is looking at us like, “Oh you’re the Boxboys. You're those Boxboys guys.”
If you've never heard the band before, be sure to give their early single "Separate Rooms" featuring Betsy Weiss (who would later go on to front heavy metal band BITCH) on lead vocals a spin.