The advent of American ska in the early and mid 80's owes much of its early growth to two bands -- The Untouchables in Los Angeles and The Toasters in New York. While its true that 2-Tone influenced ska bands had started sprouting up all across the U.S. in the very early 80's, it wasn't yet the broad musical movement that would emerge in the late 80's and early 90's. While reggae had established small footholds in the U.S. in the late 70's with The Fabulous Titans in San Francisco, Blue Riddim Band in Lawrence, Kansas and The Terrorists in New York, ska was non-existant.
While I have previously written about the ska scene that developed in Los Angeles around The Untouchables and The Boxboys, I now plan to turn my focus to the scene and bands that captured my attention as a young ska fan and which later helped to nurture my own band in its early days. I attended a number of ska shows around New York City at the height of its popularity in 1986 and 1987 and I was often at Sunday ska matinees at CBGB's where many of the band's that were part of the scene played regularly. Those shows are among the best I have ever seen or been a part of. It was at one of these shows that I was inspired to start my own band back across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
A bit of history is necessary before I start profiling the bands individually. The New York City ska scene owes its birth to Englishman Rob 'Bucket' Hingley who had originally arrived in New York to temporarily manage sci-fi comic book shop, Forbidden Planet. According to a well written history of ska in the U.S., It wasn't till 1981 that Hingley realized that he was going to be in New York for more than a short stay, so he began putting a band together. The first line up of the Toasters was made up of his fellow co-workers at Forbidden Planet. By 1983, The Toasters were ready to gig. Before settling on that name, the band went by several names including 'The Bouncers' and 'Not Bob Marley'.
When Hingley first arrived in New York City there was no ska music at all. He was flabbergasted when a mere 100 or so people showed up for The Beat in 1982 at Roseland (a large concert hall.) That put him on a "mission from God," so to speak. The 2-Tone scene in the UK had peaked, but it was amazing to him that a really great band like The Beat couldn't draw a crowd in New York City. And he saw Madness at another venue (The World) a year after that, and there was nobody there, either.
Bit by bit, The Toasters started to build a ska scene in New York, At the very early shows, the audience was just people from the neighborhood who came out to shows. As the Toasters played more and more gigs, first at the notorious AZ club, then at CBGB's, they found like minded people in New York who were really into ska music that had no idea that there was anything going on until somebody told them about The Toasters. The Toasters released the 'Recriminations' EP in 1985, with Joe Jackson helming the production and even playing melodica on the track, 'Run Rudy Run'. That record quickly set off a chain reaction and suddenly the city was awash in ska bands and all ages ska shows.
By late 1985 and early 1986 what is now considered the core of the old school New York ska scene had quickly coalesced around The Toasters. One of those bands was the Beat Brigade, who in the matter of a few months were playing shows all over New York City. The band along with Urban Blight, The Boilers, Second Step, A-Kings and N.Y Citizens helped to create one of the most vibrant, creative and important ska scenes in the U.S. which in turn helped to galvanize scenes across the country.
Beat Brigade were always one of my favorite live bands. They were a quintessential New York band with a mix of band members from all parts of the city and who reflected the fast growing and diverse audience of black, white, Asian and Hispanic kids who were drawn to the all ages ska shows and who embraced the mix of 2-Tone ska, soul and reggae that the band performed. What I remember about them is that they looked great and sounded even better. Oh and they seemed to attract a lot of girls to their shows!
While the band performed regularly around New York, their recorded output was limited to the track 'Armageddon Beat' on the NY Beat: Hit & Run ska compilation that Hingley and his Moon Records imprint released in 1986 and a single 'Try & Try Again' which was a split single on Moon Records with The Toasters 'Talk Is Cheap' on the A side. Sadly the band broke up before they were able to realize their full potential and there is very little information about the band's history online. I hope to change that.
I recently connected with Beat Brigade bassist Frank Usamanont who was kind enough to answer questions about the band and his memories of the New York Ska scene of the 1980's. Usamanont and his bandmates were also kind enough to share pictures and gig posters with me.
I came in a few months later while they were still forming. They were holding auditions for a while, I'm not sure if they gigged yet or not but I answered an ad from the Village Voice and came in to an audition and they liked my look and playing style so that's how I got my start with them. At that point in time there were no horn players just a 4 piece. They had mentioned The Beat and The Clash as influences on their ad so I gave it a shot. I should mention the band mates here: Carmelo Dibartolo - Guitars/lead vocal, Jack Kuszewski (Hoppenstand) -Guitars, Andy Frolov - Drums and Nelson Rivera- Sax.
Usamanont and his bandmates were also kind enough to share a number of unreleased tracks that the band recorded for an album that was never released. They are available below as part of a podcast. These songs were recorded by the original core of the band. For more information about the band you can visit the band MySpace web site.
Here is the track list:
1. Another Cause