Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Birth of the 1980's NYC Ska Scene - Beat Brigade

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.

What was it like growing up in New York City in the early 80's and how did that influence you musically and artistically?
Growing up in NY during the 80's was a lot of fun! I saw a big change in music and the culture dramatically first hand. I was just finishing up with high school and just getting to college and experienced hanging out with different people who are into their own scenes, the metal heads, Punks, Rude Boys, new wavers and the early rappers/breakdancers... damn those were the good old days! So much of a music scene and so much freedom to express yourself. With all that cultural exposure I was absorbed into all of it musically! I'm the kind of guy who would one day listen to punk hardcore records and then be jamming reggae and metal the next day. I think it was a great time in music history to be growing up in. What was really great was the radio stations back then that played a variety of stuff that you would never get exposed to. Being a young musician it helped broaden me artistically, it was like a fresh new start in music and it created such a great scene, vibe and culture in NYC it was phenomenal. I really do miss that.

When did you make the conscious decision to become a musician? Were you a fan of ska and reggae growing up?
I think it's when I started to really play out, like really go out there and start gigging every week one way or another. I realized it's hard work and lots of sacrifice but with it comes plenty of rewards. It is one of those highs that you get from just being on stage, playing your own music and affecting the people out there. I think that answer sums it up for all musicians I was really influenced by The Clash that really got me into the whole blend of ska/reggae thing as well as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. From The Clash I started to explore that sound and started getting into the English Beat, Madness, Selecter and of course The Specials. I guess you could say The Clash got me going when I was younger, so I would guess yeah I was a big fan of ska and reggae growing up. I would listen to the Gil Bailey show every night and tape record all the great reggae stuff coming from that station! And being a bass player who wouldn't love reggae?

How did Beat Brigade get started? Where did you meet your band mates?
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.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? When and how did you hit on the original Beat Brigade sound?
The Band sounded more to me like Elvis Costello in the beginning. Kinda 60's blend of sound with hard driving clean guitars. I guess we were experimenting at first to try to catch what we are. But i think we finally created our sound when we started all writing together as a band and every one's main influences are ska and reggae so we kept that sound from there. The great thing is that we were not straight up ska but we incorporated ska and reggae, soul influences to the music.

What was the New York ska scene of the early and mid-80's like?
It was really an incredibly diverse scene that seemed to reflect the diversity of NYC itself. The NYC SKA scene was fantastic!!! I only wished it would still alive today! I really felt it was so unique and ultra cool! When we had our first show with the Toasters, Second Step, The Boilers, A-Kings would see these kids in the suits and girls in the plaid,checkered skirts, pork pie hats everywhere! I mean really, scooters would line up outside CBGB's and Blanches Bar on Avenue A! It was a sight to see! You felt a part of it , you feel you are part of the scene. It felt great! The NYC SKA scene had it's style for sure. It felt truly like a second coming of the ska scene after England. The kids were all really into it! Really fantastic!

Tell me about being part of the N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run compilation that Moon Records released in 1986. Did that help the band?
Being on NY BEAT was great! We really appreciated Robby "Bucket"Hingley for doing that. He was most instrumental figure in the NYC Ska scene and he really helped everyone who was involved with NYC SKA scene to be recognized locally, Nationally and eventually Worldwide. I remember having some people from England asking for more stuff from Beat Brigade!! If only we had the Internet back then eh?At that time before the release of that record I was the happiest rude boy out there! The release party rocked! I think it was a very successful record. I'm hoping it will be re-released.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable? Did the band tour at all outside NYC?
Well there was this one time my lead singer fell completely off the stage, that was funny. One of those America's funniest video moments! One time I was completely too high to go on before for a show, so we had to delay. I don't recall too much unusual stuff with the band, only unusual after parties which I can't share! Unfortunately the band never really toured anywhere. We were stuck around the metro area and Connecticut. I really wished we did tour back then though.

Why don't you think the band got signed to an independent or major label? You certainly had the live chops and the following to warrant it?
I really don't know why? I think at one point Robby wanted to sign us to Moon, but I'm not sure what happened. I wasn't involved with the deals and such but it would've been great. We created great music back then and I know it would've gone far by the right hands. I listen to these tracks today and I'm like blown away sometimes.

Tell me about recording the song 'Try & Try Again' for a Moon Records single. Did the band record songs for an album?
I think we tried to create a Beat Brigade Album but back then we had no funds to really do it. Robby approached us in doing a single and we had already written quite a few songs under our belts so we chose this one track. We recorded a bunch of songs and wanted to eventually do an album but it never happened. I know we still have some reels of music.

Why did the band break-up?
I think as time went on musical tastes changed, ego changed, and little personal things between each other. It kind of started when we had someone come in as a 8th member as a manager and tried to change the music and sound of the band. I would say that was beginning of the end. We had some money backing and we agreed to a contract with it And I think at that time we were desperate to get things going for the band. The Manager took full control and eventually didn't really know what we were really about. Changed our sound completely as well as changed some of our members mindset. Eventually we replaced our drummer ,which was a hard thing to do and it kinda dissolved for all of us from there whether we knew it or not. My Guitarist Jack left a few months after then we kept on for a bit till I left and the sole survivor was the lead singer Carmelo. It wasn't Beat Brigade anymore after that.I don't know how long it went for being Beat Brigade, but it was done when that manager stepped into the picture.

What have you been doing musically since Beat Brigade?
During my last leg with Beat Brigade I was playing bass for my brothers new band at that time called Freeky Stylee doing hard blues and funk, it eventually turned into Funkface and still going strong today after all these years. Little after during the 90's I was asked to fill in and tour with Murphy's Law and went on to play many shows with them all over and toured Europe. It was a great experience! Since then kept going and played with numerous people and sit in recording sessions with people and gigging as much as i can. Currently still playing in Funkface and also our side band Macky Riverside doing soul covers and funk. Hopefully will tour sometime soon and get another album out.

What are your lasting memories of performing with Beat Brigade and the impact of the NYC ska scene of the 80's?
I just feel blessed that I was able to be there living during a great time in music history. I do miss the guys being together on stage and skanking to the music wearing our outfits , having the look and having loads of fun and laughs...! It was a great time in my life and would not trade it for anything. If I had to do it all over again I would,this time get us on a record deal and get the music out there to the masses. I hope that we were at least successful on having an impact to the Ska Scene! It was hard to tell back then when there is not much ways to find out like what we have today.But to the masses that we played to I think we did our job and did it well enough! I know our name was being talked around and passed on so that made me satisfied. I was glad to be a part of it and hopefully someday someway it can start over again for this generation like the way it was.

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
2. All Of This Is You
3. Bittersweet
4. Has The Fire Died
5. All The Lights Have Gone Out


Anonymous said...

Marco, Excellent post. I organized a show for the beat brigade at my college back in 91. I think they were in their later phase, their sound was salsa by then.

One of my all time favs was Second Step, can you do a piece on them, and maybe a podcast?


Marco On The Bass said...

Hi Andrew. Thanks for the comment. I'm planning to profile all of the original NYC ska bands including Second Step who were also a favorite of mine.

Dave Barry said...

Very nice-
My experience with the Beat Brigade started just as the "8th Member" manager guy showed up.
That WAS a drag, Frank. I came in to play keyboards on the big money session at the Record Plant (Hit Factory?) as a return favor for Nelson Rivera filling in on sax at a Second Step show. I stuck around for a while and I woulda stayed too, but Frank hit it on the head there, when the manager is writing songs and insisting that you play them, it's time to step... Otherwise- If you were to assign a 2Tone counterpart to each of the NYC Bands, I always considered the Beat Brigade to be the English Beat of the bunch. There was more of an all-Island feel to the tunes, not just the ska. I wouldn't go so far as to say beat brigade turned Salsa in '91, we just started to incorporate the sounds of some different neighborhoods by then.
And yes, Second Step was dope as hell too-
don't even get me started....


Anonymous said...


I am almost certain you played keys at the Beat Brigade show I did in Binghamton. I think two of the 2nd Step horn guys also showed up to play with the Brigade, (we did a bunch of Step shows at Binghamton). You guys opened for the Toasters. Somewhere I have tape of the show made off the sound board (recorded with band permission). I haven't listened to it in years. Great show.


Dave Barry said...

You are 100% correct Andrew-
I actually played with both bands for that show, which, if memory serves, was the pinnacle of all "college gigs"; well produced, really nice folks that treated the band like kings.... Thanks very much for that by the way.
By 1991, I had left Second Step, and hooked back up with Carmelo, the lead singer of Beat Brigade, for a Beat Brigade Mach II situation. We did very well very quickly for some reason. Like I said previously; we started adding different elements (Kid Creole, Tower of Power and yes, I DID go thru a heavy Tito Puente phase) by then and became a pretty fierce unit with some great players rolling thru.

Anonymous said...

Very cool to finally read some history on this band. Their single "Try and try again" is still one of my favorites from the 80s. I'll be looking forward to the upcoming profiles and hope you plan on featuring the Boilers. Please consider doing something on the Unity Two - the Toasters' "Thrill me up" album was one of their best (imo) because of Unity Two's involvement and it would be nice to know what happened to them after they went solo. It was interesting to read in People magazine that Matt Dillon was directing their video "Shirley." Lastly, I've always wondered why so many US ska band released albums on the UK SKA label. It was such a drag to pay import prices for domestic bands (Bim, Boilers, NY Citizens, Comps, etc). Anyways, thanks for digging up all the mostly forgotten history on US Ska.

Marco On The Bass said...

Thanks for comment Aaron. I connected with Olivier Rhee, the singer from The Boilers last night and I'll be interviewing him about the band next. I like the idea of a Unity 2 profile. Sean Dinsmore went to my high school and I have been in touch with him too.

If you live in the NYC area keep your eyes open for a Beat Brigade reunion show.

Jordan rivera said...

I know this post is old but I have never seen it before. It's pretty cool to read about the band my father was a founding member of when he was my age, so I wanted to thank you for the post and a link to the pod casts. My father the sax player (Nelson Rivera) still breaks out the horn down here in Orlando and is actually going to be playing with the band for the first time again since they broke up. He will be using the same tenor, his yanagisawa T800, that he shook CBGBs and other places around NYC with. I had no idea that they were such a huge influence concerning the ska scene in the 80s. My favorite song of theirs is the original recording of "Has the Fire Died", but my opinion may be somewhat biased considering my dad wrote the sax lines. I have been looking for the original recordings of these songs and have finally got a hold of them thanks again. I know this post is old, but if anyone happens upon it before the show, check out Beat Brigade play live with more of its founding members than ever before.