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

Friday, May 29, 2009

Coventry Telegraph Publish Souvenir Supplement To Mark The Specials 30th Reunion Tour - Band Plans Additional UK/Europe and US Tours

To mark The Specials first show in Coventry in 30 years, The Coventry Telegraph newspaper asked Peter Chambers (noted Coventry music expert) to write a 12 page supplement about the band that the paper published on Friday May 15th (that's band drummer John Bradbury having a look at the insert).

The supplement is a fantastic historical overview of the band and their place in Coventry music history. It also includes a few news worthy items including Horace Panter saying the band is in the process of confirming additional UK and European dates this Fall and a trip to the US (which is being planned for 2010). In case you missed it, the supplement is now available as a download and is definitely a keepsake for any fans of the band.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Liberty Of Norton Folgate Hits #5 in UK Charts

The new Madness album 'The Liberty Of Norton Folgate' has hit #5 on the UK charts which is the highest chart release for a Madness album since '7' was released in 1981. To celebrate, Carl Smyth has recorded a video that provides an intimate overview of the LP, including a track-by-track review. It’s a great introduction to the album for those of you who have not heard it and great insight for those of you who have been playing it non-stop since it was released week ago.

To celebrate the return of Madness to the pop charts, below are tracks from the band's recent live appearance on 'Later With Jools Holland' which includes three tracks from the new record. Enjoy!

Recorded April 21, 2009

01 - Forever Young
02 - Dust Devil
03 - The Sun And The Rain
04 - Clerkenwell Polka
05 - Knocked 'Em In The Old Kent Road
06 - Embarrassment

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It Must Be Love - The Story Behind the Madness Cover of Labi Siffre's Pop Gem

Everyone thinks of Madness when you mention their 1981 pop hit 'It Must Be Love'. I've always loved the song, as it served as the soundtrack to my first high school romance. Indeed, the song remains one of the band's most popular with Madness fans and continues to be a mainstay of their live set list. But did you know that the song is a cover version of the original by Labi Siffre? Did you know that Siffre had a Top 15 hit with the song on the UK charts in 1971 (#14)? Have you ever heard the superb original version by Labi Siffre? Did you know that Madness did not want to record and release the song? If not, then read on.

First a quick bit of history. London-born Siffre has spent his career breaking down boundaries. The openly gay singer/songwriter has built a small cult following with works that deal squarely with homophobia and racism. In addition to his nine albums, the multi-talented Siffre has written three books of poetry and has also written for the stage. Musically, Siffre is known for his soulful, high-pitched voice and thought-provoking lyrics. His single "I Got The" from his 1975 album Remember My Song received a modicum of fame decades after its release when its funky piano hook was sampled in Eminem's 1999 debut smash single "My Name Is." In 1988, Siffre had a hit with his anti-apartheid anthem '(Something Inside) So Strong'. You can read more about Siffre at his Web site.

The story behind the Madness cover of 'It Must Be Love' is part of the history and lore of the band. Mike Barson was a big fan of the original and brought it to the band in a version that fit the pop reggae sound and sensibility of the band. The band performed it live at shows as part of their encore, but had no intention of recording the song. The BBC's Web site 'Sold On Song' picks up the story: It was at the end of 1981 that the 'Nutty Boys' released "It Must Be Love". At this time they had already notched up 9 hit singles, 2 of which had gone 'gold', plus they had released 3 albums. After such success with their own material it's understandable that originally the band wasn’t keen to release a cover of someone else's song. Writer Labi Siffre had previously released it as a single in 1971 and it appeared on his 'Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying' album. Keyboardist Mike Barson heard a copy and secretly thought it would be a good song for the group to play. He began playing it, the band joined in and it started to appear as an encore song.

Stiff Records label owner Dave Robinson heard the song and insisted the band record it but they weren’t interested. Then Robinson laid a bet with the band that they could have his record company if "It Must Be Love" wasn’t a top five hit and the band finally agreed. Fortunately for Robinson it reached #4 in the UK chart and was a hit in the USA. "Shadow On The House" was on the B side and it appeared on the #1 compilation album Complete Madness released in 1982. The band stamped their own distinctive sound all over the cover adding a reggae beat and extra instrumentation. Labi Siffre liked it so much he agreed to appear in the video. On Top of The Pops when Jimmy Saville introduced the video of the band playing their electrical instruments underwater, he advised against anyone copying them!

The song was re-released in 1992 after a memorable get-together gig for the band. It has subsequently been used in a couple of TV ads. In 1998 Madness failed in a court case to stop a high street bank from using the song and changing the lyrics. More recently it was used to advertise a frozen food supermarket chain.

Here are videos of Siffre performing the song live in 1972 followed by the famous Madness video for the song:

The BBC site included short interview snippets with Mike Barson of Madness, Dave Robinson of Stiff Records and Labi Siffre about the story behind the Madness cover of 'It Must Be Love'. You can download and listen to the interviews below:

It Must Be Love Interviews

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Marco On The Bass Podcast Series: The Seeds Of The 3rd Wave Of American Ska

This week's podcasts spans the U.S. from sea to shining sea in search of more American ska from the 80's and very early 90's. This podcast includes very rare recordings from the early days of three bands that went on to make their larger mark on the U.S. music scene and who helped to take ska from the underground of the 80's into the mid 90's 3rd wave. First is No Doubt (who are once again embracing their ska roots on their new album and live show) with a song that has never appeared on any album. Next is The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who were originally The Bosstones back in the early 80's) who went on to help create the ska-core and ska-punk genre. Also included is a very rare track from The Toasters (credited with helping to popularize the third wave of ska in the U.S. with their constant touring and through their Moon Records label) when they were known as Not Bob Marley. In addition to those big names in Anerican ska, I've added in tracks from bands across the U.S. who enjoyed varying degrees of success including the vastly underrated Cryin Out Loud from Hoboken, NJ, Heavy Manners from Chicago and Let's Go Bowling from California.

Here are highlights about each of the band's in this weeks podcast:

No Doubt were formed in Anaheim, CA in 1986 and the song 'Up Yours' is one of the rarest recordings and has never been released by the band on any of their albums. This version of the song is taken from the band's very first television appearance on a cable access show in January 1990.

The Bosstones formed in 1983 in Boston when all its members were in high school. In 1987, the band made their recorded debut when they were featured on the 'Mash It Up' ska compilation with the song 'The Cave' which is one of my favorite songs by the band for the reason that it is more ska then ska-core. It sounds like Madness on speed.

Don Brody (1953-1997) was the gifted songwriter, singer and guitarist of the Hoboken, N.J.-based ska-influenced rock band Cryin Out Loud which achieved MTV airplay for the song 'Live It Up'. The song 'The Distance' was on the band's only EP 'Live It Up' and was also included in the New York Beat Hit & Run compilation of the New York ska scene.

Sometime during 1981 Rob Hingley forms the band Not Bob Marley with co-workers from the Forbidden Planet comic book store in New York's East Village. This band eventually is re-named The Toasters. Their first gig is at the A7 Club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with Bad Brains. The song 'No Respect' was one of their earliest recordings.

Heavy Manners were one of the earliest ska bands of the Chicago era. They played with an impressive array of national and international acts (The English Beat, The Clash, Third World, Jimmy Cliff, The Ramones, The Go Gos, Grace Jones, Peter Tosh), recorded tracks in the studio with Peter Tosh and released two records on Disturbing Records. The track 'Blue Beat' comes from their 1982 LP 'Politics & Pleasure'.

The St. Louis-based ska outfit The Urge was formed in 1987 by vocalist Steve Ewing and bassist Karl Grable, who together remained the nexus of the group throughout the many roster changes which followed. The original Urge lineup debuted in 1989 with the cassette-only Bust Me Dat Forty, followed a year later by the LP Puttin' the Backbone Back.

Crucial DBC were one of the many ska bands that emerged from the vibrant California ska scene in the late 1980's. The track 'Don't Run Away' was featured on the long out-of-print 'Ska Face' LP which was the first American ska comp distributed by Moon Records in 1988.

Very little is known about The Shy Five who were part of the formidable Boston ska scene that grew up around Bim Skala Bim and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I've always liked 'Stealaway' which is a great slinky and sexy reggae song that appeared on the Boston-based Bib Records comp 'Mashin Up The Nation'.

Let's Go Bowling got their start in 1986 in Fresno, CA. Since the band's inception in 1986, the band's traditional ska style, barbershop harmonies, instrumentals, and frantic live performances, helped set the standard for dress and culture for West Coast Ska, which in turn, set the groundwork for the launch of the Third Wave Movement in 1995. The song 'Take A Walk' comes from the 'Music To Bowl' LP from 1989.

Burma Jam hailed from Richmond, VA and were part of the explosion of ska bands in the American south including Fighting Gravity and Reggatta 69. The song 'Outrage' comes from their 1990 record 'Emergency Broadcast System'.

Here is the play list:

No Doubt- Up Yours (Anaheim, CA - 1990)
The Bosstones - The Cave (Boston - 1987)
Cryin Out Loud - The Distance (Hoboken, NJ - 1986)
Not Bob Marley - No Respect (New York - 1981)
Heavy Manners - Blue Beat (Chicago - 1982)
The Urge - Dark Age (St. Louis - 1989)
Crucial DBC - Don't Run Away (Santa Barbara, CA - 1988)
Shy Five - Stealaway (Boston - 1988)
Lets Go Bowling- Take A Walk (Fresno, CA - 1989)
Burma Jam - Outrage (Richmond, VA - 1990)

Marco On The Bass Podcast #11

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Betsy Weiss of The Boxboys -- From Lead Singer of L.A.'s First Genuinely Homegrown Ska Band to Heavy Metal Icon

Very little has been written about The Boxboys, yet they 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 1979 and 1980.

According to Kevin Long (lead singer of The Untouchables), The Boxboys were responsible for helping to launch the L.A. ska scene in 1980 at the O.N. Klub and were directly responsible for motivating Long and his band mates to start The Untouchables: The next influential step occurred when Howard Paar (who opened the O.N. Klub) booked on a regular basis the Boxboys, the first genuinely homegrown L.A. ska band. Though an all-white outfit, their brand of “Uptown Yankee Ska” provided a critical link between what Paar had put in place at the club from the outset and that of a younger and even more diverse crowd that followed.The Boxboys were the DIY bridge that spanned that vast and mythical chasm between dance floor and stage for L.A.’s first mod band, and later heir apparent to the Boxboys’ ON Klub reign, the Untouchables. The Boxboys influence on the Untouchables exceeded that of the far-removed English Two-Tone and mod sets the group admired; whereas the English bands gave shape to the dream, the Boxboys embodied it.

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 Tipper Gore. Their albums, held in Tipper 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.

So little information exists about the band that I had to rely on the few newspaper articles that have been collected by the California Mod Scene blog. An article from The Daily Titan college newspaper from November 1980 provides a good overview of Weiss's band mates and the band's early days during the emergence of reggae and ska in Los Angeles. The reporter also went to the O.N. Klub to catch the band: At the ON Klub Saturday the Boxboys were in top form, seemingly having as good a time on stage as the crowd was having on the dance floor. The Boxboys play ska, a fast a highly danceable music recently revived by the English Tu-Tone [sic] bands.The Boxboys discovered ska independently of that revival, according to guitarist Monroe Monroe. "About eight years ago I started buying a lot of reggae albums," Monroe said between sets. "Some of the anthologies started off with a few old ska tunes and I thought, 'Hey, this is great' ".He played some for the rest of the band. "We loved it, and started playing around and seeing what we could do with it," drummer Greg Sowders said. The band is adamant about not being a revival band, however."Ska is basically just the rhythmic format we use," said Monroe, who writes most of the group's material. "We are definitely an American band, and we write songs about our own experiences."Sanders [sic] agreed "We don't want to do something that's been done before. Why bother, especially since it was done so great the first time?"The Boxboys have been together for about 1-1/2 years. "Our main objectives in putting this band together were to have a good time ourselves, and to let the audience have a good time," Sowders said. That good time has built a fairly strong following for the Boxboys."I guess if we have a message it's that it's okay to go out and have some fun," Monroe added. "I guess people relate to us because we're just like them - regular people with regular jobs."

Weiss has rarely, if ever, spoken about her days in The Boxboys, so I was very excited when she agreed to an interview with me about her introduction to music and ska music in particular. She has led her band Bitch since leaving The Boxboys in the early 80's and she is one of the few women who have had success in the male dominated heavy metal scene. She shared how she joined The Boxboys, her memories of the LA ska scene, her contribution to the band's two recordings and what led her to leave the band to start Bitch.

Where did you grow up and when did you discover you could sing?

I lived the first ten years of my life on the coast of New Jersey on an island called Brigantine – just over the bridge from Atlantic City. I always had an ear for music and could always carry a tune, and I joined what was called “glee club” in High School (basically a class which had us singing in groups), and discovered I had good projection and good tone.

What was the first record that you ever bought? What was the first concert that you saw? What kind of impact did they have on you deciding to become a singer?
The first vinyl for me was all of the current Beatles albums. My first concert was The Who at The Forum in L.A. Those things, along with hanging with musicians (as a groupie at that point) inspired me to want to be around music, and moreover, gave me the confidence that I knew I could make it as a singer and front person.

What was the first band that you joined? What kind of music did the band play?
The first band for me was a garage band who didn’t even have a name. We played all original basic rock, and played parties and dances.

Did you listen to any ska or reggae music when you were growing up? What was your first introduction to ska and reggae music?
I had heard of reggae music and was familiar with artists such as Bob Marley, but was never a fan of it. I prefer my music a lot rockier. I never even heard of ska until The Boxboys introduced me to it and announced they wanted to change their musical genre from new wave to ska.

How did you meet the other members of The Boxboys? When did you join the band?
My mother worked in radio with Greg Sowder’s (The Boxboys’ drummer) father, and he mentioned to my mom that his son had a band and was looking for a female lead singer. We hooked up and when I auditioned, that’s when I met the rest of the band members. I believe this was approximately 1978-79.

How did you end up choosing to call the band The Boxboys?
They already had the name dialed-in when I joined. I wasn’t happy about being a Boxboy, I would’ve rather been a Boxperson

What was the LA music scene like in the early days of The Boxboys? Were there any other ska bands?
Mostly new wave and punk. There were virtually no ska bands at that time. That’s why they guys wanted to go in that direction because no one else was doing the same – especially female-fronted bands.

What was it like to play shows at the O.N. Klub? Do you have any particular memories of shows at the club?
Oh My God! – I completely forgot about playing that club. I would’ve never thought of it had you not mentioned it. I remember it was a really fun gig. Very respectably attended. We got a good response that night.

Can you share any unusual or memorable stories about any shows the band played?
We played with Teri Nunn and Berlin, due to the fact that we had the same management.

Tell me about recording the American Masquerade and Uptown Yankee Ska singles. Did you write any of the songs on the singles?
I contributed to those songs lyrically, however, they were mainly written by the band members. I remember we recorded at a studio in San Diego, I believe. We recorded both songs in one day – including mix-down, and we were there for many hours. And let me correct you – the description of our music was “Uptown Yankee Ska”. The single contained the songs ‘American Masquerade” and “Separate Rooms”

Why did you decide to leave The Boxboys?
That music and stage person 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.

You've gone on to become a iconic and well know lead singer in the heavy metal band Bitch. How do you look back on your days in The Boxboys?
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”….

The Boxboys only recorded two singles with Weiss on lead vocals and both are long out-of-print and nearly impossible to find. However the Tone And Wave blog was kind enough to share copies and they are below for your downloading pleasure. They are definitely worth a listen based on their historical importance to the growth of ska in LA and the U.S.

Uptown Yankee Ska 7" (1979-80)

A - American Masquerade
B - Come See About Me

Skaletones From The Closet 7" (1980)

A - Separate Rooms
B1 - Busy Boy
B2 - Go Go

The Boxboys - Uptown Yankee Ska/Skaletones From The Closet

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Marco On The Bass Live Video Series: Bigger Thomas Live @ The Sellersville Theatre 2/6/09

It was a crazy week on a number of levels and as a result I was unable to pull together the weekly podcast in time to post today. Rest assured that it will return again this time next week.

Instead with the limited time I had after a very busy Mother's Day, I've highlighted excerpts from a live performance of my band Bigger Thomas that was filmed at the Sellersville Theatre in Sellersville, Pennsylvania this past February. The show was shot with two cameras by Christaldi Productions and captures us on a very good night in front of a very energetic crowd.

Many thanks to the Sellersville Theatre for their cooperation in making the shoot go very smoothly and to Jim Christaldi and his team for filming the show. Jim was also kind enough to edit the recording and post a few clips on You Tube.

Below are clips of three songs that will be featured in our new album 'Pure' that is currently being mixed by King Django (The Boilers, Skinnerbox, Stubborn All-Stars). I hope you enjoy the sneak peek. The album should be available for sale online (iTunes, CD Baby, eMusic) as well as this site over the summer.

Crown Victoria:

I Can't Remember My Name:


Bigger Thomas are:
Roger Apollon Jr - Vocals
Roy Radics - Vocals
Spencer Katzman - Guitar
Rob George - Saxophone, Vocals
Chris Malone - Trombone, Vocals
John DiBianco - Drums
Marc Wasserman - Bass

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Roddy Byers About The Specials UK Tour

The Specials reunion tour has galvanized fans across the UK who have been raving about the band's live show. The Specials are held in very high esteem by their fans and many thought they would never see the band perform live again. Visit The Specials community board and you are bound to read posts from fans who have said that seeing the band again has been life changing and a few who have confessed to shedding tears while watching the band perform.

So what's it been like on the other side of the stage for the band members themselves? What kind of emotions have they been having while the tour has made its way around the UK? I was able to connect with Roddy Byers during the early days of the tour and he answered a few questions for me about what the first show was like and possible new songs that may be added to set list:

What was it like to play the first song at the first show in Newcastle?
I must admit I was nervous and that's unlike me. We all stood behind the curtain for what seemed a very long time. Then they opened and we were off into the intro of "Do The Dog". It was very emotional and the crowd were brilliant.

What has been your favorite song to perform
Favourite? Well i guess one of mine. I sing just one song in the Specials set and that's "Concrete Jungle".

Here is video of Roddy singing 'Concrete Jungle' in Manchester:

Has anything surprised you so far? Are you enjoying the tour?
So far its been wonderful ,everyone getting along and the gigs just keep getting better and better.

Any plans to work other songs into the set like 'Holiday Fortnight' or 'International Jet Set'?
We have been rehearsing in the sound checks "Guns of Navarone" but I cant see us doing "Jet Set". Terry would have to learn the words to "Holiday Fortnight" so that will have to wait until the next tour after the festivals. Maybe we will try it in Australia?

Byers has been a busy man of late. In addition to The Specials reunion tour he has also been putting the finishing touches on The Ska-Billy Rebels new album 'Blues Attack' which will be released soon. Below is video sampler of songs from the new album.

After finishing up the UK tour, the band has announced that they will be heading to Australia and Japan for shows in July and August. Let's hope they announce some U.S. dates soon.


SPLENDOUR IN THE GRASS- Byron Bay,Australia (July 25th)
ENMORE THEATRE- Sydney, Australia (July 28th)
PALACE THEATRE - Melbourne, Australia (July 30th)
STUDIO COAST- Tokyo, Japan - (August 6th)
SUMMERSONIC FESTIVAL 2009- Headline performances in Tokyo & Osaka, Japan (August 7th - 9th)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Marco On The Bass Podcast Series: More 80's American Ska

This week's podcast heads back across the Atlantic to highlight more ska bands that were part of the early, mid and late 80's explosion of American ska. In particular I wanted to focus on the diverse and thriving ska scene of the mid and late 80's that stretched across the northeast of the U.S. from Boston to Washington, DC. On any given weekend there were ska shows at clubs throughout these cities and my band played with many of the bands featured in this weeks podcast including Bim Skala Bim, Second Step, The Now, Public Service and 6 Feet Under. Each band had a unique and individual sound but we were all part of the growing collective of bands that helped to establish a scene in this part of the U.S. that still exists today.

Here are highlights about each of the band's in this weeks podcast:

Bim Skala Bim from Boston were one of the most popular and talented U.S. ska bands to emerge in the 80's. Razorbeat Records released 'Mash It Up', a compilation of Boston ska bands which included the hard-to-find relic 'Veil of Sadness' that is unavailable elsewhere.

Second Step were part of the core of ska band's that coalesced around CBGB's in NYCs East Village in the Mid 80's that included The Toasters, The NY Citizens, The Boilers and Urban Blight. Their original line-up was among the best live ska bands I ever saw and the song 'Two Men In Suits' was a highlight of their live set.

My band Bigger Thomas was the first ska band from New Jersey and we played shows across Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. with most of the bands included in this podcast. The song 'Caught' was recorded for our second demo tape that we sold at shows in 1988-89.

The Now were a great mod-ska band that hailed from the nation's capital. We played a number of shows with them at Trenton NJ's legendary club City Gardens. The song 'Get Out Now' featured on the compilation 'Mashin Up The Nation - The Best of American Ska'.

Public Service was formed in 1983 at Penn State University and were single handedly responsible for developing a ska scene in the City of Brotherly Love. The funky ska song 'Bad Thing' was penned during this early phase of the group's career and remained a part of their repertoire for many years.

One of my favorite band's from the northeast US scene was 6 Feet Under who were from Connecticut and brought a decidedly punky ska vibe to very witty and humorous songs including 'Hormonal Inspiration'.

One of the first ska albums I picked up in the mid-80's was 'Come See, Come Ska' on Ska Records by Gangster Fun from Detroit. The band started in 1986 as a joke band but quickly became one of most popular and iconic US ska bands of the 80's and 90's and helped to build a thriving mid-western ska scene that is now centered in Chicago. The song 'Red Light' is a change of pace from the band's usual hyperactive 2-Tone style.

The Boxboys were LA's first homegrown ska band and built the bridge that spanned the vast and mythical chasm between dance floor and stage for L.A.’s first mod band, The Untouchables. According to Kevin Long of The Untouchables, The Boxboys influence on the Untouchables exceeded that of the far-removed English Two-Tone and mod sets the group admired; whereas the English bands gave shape to the dream, The Boxboys embodied it. The song 'Separate Rooms' is featured in the almost impossible to find 45" 'Skaletones In The Closet' from 1980.

The Nails were another American band who dabbled in 2-Tone sounding ska at the same time the real thing was happening across the pond. The band was originally called The Ravers and got their start in Boulder, Colorado. Like a million bands before them, they left for the bright lights of New York City where they became The Nails. Here they became a staple of the downtown New York music scene of the late 70's/early 80's and ska was a big part of their early set. The band released their third single, "Transcontinental Ska" backed by "Young And Wild" in 1980.

The Crazy 8's from Portland, Oregon were one of the most hard-working and energetic American ska groups in the '80s; however, they broke up a few years before record labels probably would've finally seen their commercial potential. The song 'Find Myself A Sunny Spot' is from a live recording from 1988 that the band recorded during a day of shows on 8/8/88.

Here is the play list:

Bim Skala Bim - Veil Of Sadness (Boston - 1985)
Second Step - Two Men In Suits (New York - 1986)
Bigger Thomas - Caught (New Jersey - 1988)
The Now - Get Out (Washington, DC - 1988)
Public Service - Bad Thing (Philadelphia - 1986)
6 Feet Under - Hormonal Inspiration (Connecticut - 1988)
Gangster Fun - Red Light (Detroit - 1987)
The Boxboys - Separate Rooms (Los Angeles - 1980)
The Nails - Young and Wild (New York - 1980)
Crazy 8's - Find Myself A Sunny Spot (Portland, OR - 1988 )

Marco On The Bass Podcast #10