Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Birth of the New York Ska Scene: Interview with Sid Reitzfeld of The A-Kings & Thick As Thieves

As part of my ongoing quest to document the origins of the NYC ska scene of the early and mid-80's, I am profiling key musicians and bands who played an important part in giving birth to one of the most vibrant ska scenes in the U.S. One of those musicians was Sid Reitzfeld who was a member of the 3-piece NYC ska band The A-Kings. With Reitzfeld on the bass, Andy Atlas on guitar and Anthony Johnson (who later played in 24-7 Spyz) on drums, The A-Kings fused reggae, ska and funk as evidenced by Reitzfeld's slap technique on '7259' featured on the 'NY Beat' compilation. Sadly, the recorded output of the band was limited to one demo tape they sold at shows.

By late 1986 and 1987 what is now considered the core of the old school New York ska scene had quickly coalesced. The A-Kings along with Urban Blight, The Boilers, The Toasters, Second Step 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. The A-Kings were a quintessential New York band, notable for their relative youth at the time (the members were all still in high school) and for the speed with which they went from forming the band, to playing shows around New York to opening shows for Fishbone and The Untouchables.

Reitzfeld later formed Thick As Thieves with members of different New York ska/reggae bands including The Boilers, The Second Step and The Toasters. Thick As Thieves built upon the A-Kings roots and blended different musical forms including funk, R&B, Latin and rock to create a unique sound. The band cut its teeth playing venues around New York City including CBGBs, Tramps, Wetlands, the original Ritz and toured the region. Album credits included 'Ska Face: An All American Ska Compilation' on Moon Records (1988). The band also had a cameo role in the 1989 major motion picture, 'New York Stories', directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

Below is the interview Reitzfeld did with me where he shared memories of his days as a part of the NYC ska scene and as the bass player for The A-Kings and Thick As Thieves. Enjoy!

What was it like growing up in New York City in the 70's and 80's?
It was f#&%ing cool. New York was a very different place back then. No chain stores. It was gritty, sometimes you felt as though the city was going to boil over, but you always felt like it was yours. It's funny- those old '70's movies that took place in NYC were one way people who didn't live here could see New York; and now they are the only way that people who grew up here can see it. I grew up on the upper west side and I can remember, as a kid, hearing the pimps and hookers screaming at each other on 89th street between Broadway and West End! I haven't lived there in more than twenty years but my guess is that ain't happening there now. The 80's were fun, there was a lot of new stuff coming out to listen to and discover. That was how you found music back then, it seemed more like you discovered it. I remember hearing the English Beat for the first time, and thinking: "what IS THAT!".... "Just Can't Stop It", perfect title. I think I wore out my vinyl and when I listen to those songs today, they still sound fresh.

When did you first get into music?
I got into music when I was very young. My mother always had it on when my brother and I were kids. My dad was the one who turned me on to the Clash, Elvis Costello, and X.

Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
Yes, well sort of, it was Deep Purple. I don't remember the name of the album but it was the one with “Woman From Tokyo” and I think “Smoke On The Water” on it as well.

When did you pick up the bass?
I was fourteen of fifteen. Maybe a little earlier? I remember long before that being a little kid going to block parties. There’d be a band playing and I wanted to know what that thing was that was rattling my insides. When I found out that ‘thing’ was something called “the Bass” I was done.

How did The A-Kings get started? Where did you meet your band mates?
I guess technically The A-Kings got started at a club called "RT Firefly" (if I remember correctly, RT Firefly was on Bleecker St. with a downstairs entrance just off Broadway) Andy and I saw a "City Beat" show and we said to each other (with no disrespect to the guys in “City Beat” ie: George Parker- drums, Jon Artz- bass, Gopal Varahdan {R.I.P 9/11} - guitar /vocals, Lance- keyboards) if these guys are doing this so can we. We got together, he put guitar parts to my bass lines and I put bass lines to his guitar parts. And we wrote songs. We'd play those riffs and Andy would come up with lyrics & melodies. He always had a strong, great voice; he's a very talented guy.

Originally we had George Parker as our drummer. (George from City Beat.) We played a party and one or two gigs with him before we got ‘our own drummer’; Anthony Johnson. Anthony was (and still is) a great drummer. We connected with Anthony through his sister. She and I went to the same high school and, I think, Andy knew her as well. Andy and I met on a bus going to a summer camp and, by coincidence, he was transferring, that coming September, to I.S.44 where I had been going to junior high school. We became best friends.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? Did you make a conscious decision to play ska and reggae influenced songs?
I would describe the early sound of the band as definitely Ska and Reggae influenced – it was as conscious / unconscious / subconscious as anything kids in high school do. That was the music we were listening to. For me; Marley, Steel Pulse, Desmond Decker, Madness, the English Beat, The Specials, Selector, Bad Manners, and on the punk side of things it really didn’t get any better than The Clash though Stiff Little Fingers was close.

Were you aware that there were other ska bands forming in NYC at the time? Had you seen or heard The Toasters, Second Step, Urban Blight, The Boilers? What was the time line from the formation of the band to first gig?
I had heard of the Toasters from, and met Rob (Hingley) through, Matt Davis. Yes, that Matt Davis. (and yes, Virginia, there really is a Matt Davis). I remember the line up with Vicki on bass, Gary on percussion, Steve on keyboards, and Rob as the single front guitar/ vocals. It doesn’t need to be said, but, they were very cool.

Urban Blight I had heard of through the ether, they were almost legendary in stature. If Rob has become the godfather of the NYC Ska scene, then the guys in “Urban Blight” were definitely “the big brothers of the NYC scene”…. the kind of big brothers you’d want to show up at the school yard if you were getting picked on. For me, as for most everyone else back then, it was mandatory to see them both whenever possible.

The Second Step started a little bit after The A-Kings. I remember talking to Andrew Lee and Ross (Zac) Morgan in our high school cafeteria, and Andrew saying something like: ‘what do you think of the name “The Second Step?” ‘ I don’t think it was too long after that conversation that we were going to their shows and playing with them. Their bass player at the time was Tom Manno. He was excellent.

The Boilers grew out of a band called The Unseen. We used to play with the Unseen a lot. They were great and I remember we used to have a lot of fun when we played together – from sound check through load out. I think the bands both liked and had a lot of respect for one and other. The Unseen were: John Mathiason, - vocals, Danny (Chein) Kwok - guitar, Johnnathan McCain – Drums, Eric Knight – Sax, Michael O’Neal - bass (a nasty futhermucker). I’m forgetting, but I think John Patterson and Victor Axelrod were in the Unseen as well- it’s been a long time - I apologize if I don’t have that right. The Boilers were (and still are) great. Jeff Baker and Olivier Rhee really did a lot to make the sound of that band.

As far as a time line, I honestly don’t remember how long it was from the time Andy and I got together to our first gig.. hmmm.. nope still don’t remember. But somehow I do remember the shirt I was wearing at that gig.

What was the New York ska scene of the mid-80's like? I always got the impression that it was very tight knit scene.
The ska scene in the mid 80’s was tight knit. I don’t know that we thought of it as a “scene” back then, it just was what we were doing. Thinking back to it, there was an almost tangible energy - whether you were playing or not. There was no texting, no IM so if you wanted to stay in touch and in the loop, you went out. Out to a show or a club; CBGB’s, Danceteria, The Mudd Club, SNAFU.

As cool as the gigs were, hanging at Blanche’s was just as cool. Blanche’s was a bar on Avenue A where a lot of the Ska bands hung. Almost any night, at any time you could find at least someone from one of the bands there. And after a gig that was the spot. I remember getting hammered one night with the singer from the “Waitresses” – not exactly stuff that Ska-lore is made up of, but a fun night. It’s now called Lucy’s, (Blanche’s bartender, Lucy, bought the place, I guess.) and they still have band photos from back in the day hanging above the bar.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live A-King shows that were particularly memorable? Did the band tour at all outside NYC?
The early A-Kings gigs were crazy. We played SNAFU a lot. We’d pack this place on 21st street and 6th av with high school kids. It seems weird to me now, but the drinking age, at that time, was 18 so we weren’t that far off. We were 16 or 17 years old (I guess that made Anthony 14 or 15 then) and that just seems young to be playing in a club in New York City. But really, the remarkable thing to me now is how unremarkable it was to us then.

Opening for Fishbone was great. And two gigs at CB’s stand out. They don’t stand out to me because of any ‘amazing story’ or anything, they just come to mind. One was the very first time we played CBGB’s – it was a Saturday night, we opened for the Toasters. I knew that was a good gig but I don’t think I really appreciated the fact that our first gig at CB’s was a Saturday and that we never had to play an audition night or anything like that. The other CB’s show comes to mind because; during our set I broke three strings.. As it happened, some time before that gig a bass (that I made) was stolen from a car. - I guess everyone has their own way to learn not to leave their shit in a car even if they’re “gonna be right back”... Anyway, I bought a new (1986) Guild Pilot and played the show without changing the strings that were on it in the store. And, as I said; I broke three of those stings. – I don’t even play with a pick. Relatively recently, (twenty-something years after that gig at cb’s) I ran into Frank Usamanont from the Beat Brigade at an English Beat show. He (re)introduced me to a friend of his. He said something like; ‘Paul, you remember Sid, he played in the A-Kings….’ And Paul said to me: ‘Hey, yeah- I saw one of your shows and you broke something like three or four bass strings!” – I guess that could make for a memorable show.

As far as ‘touring” we mostly played locally with ‘one offs’ at a college now and again.

Tell me about being part of the N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run compilation that Moon Records released in 1985-86. What is your song '7259' about?
When Rob said he was putting together a compilation record and asked if The A-Kings wanted to be on it I didn’t have a second thought, I wanted to do it. Here it is almost 25 years later. (Kinda blows my mind.) I just recently found a letter from Moon Records saying that the album had sold out a second pressing and each band could expect a check for fifty bucks. (Momas- DO let you babies grow up to be cowboys- maybe that way they can make a living.) Personally though, I’m glad to have been a part of that record, that time and that band. The memories and experiences from those days are worth more to me than any of the money we were ever going to see from that album. And in the end, I’m grateful to Rob for those days.

"7259" was my attendance number in high school. During my sophomore year the school switched their attendance system to some new thing called "a computer" and as a result everyone was assigned a number. In high school, and having a punk rock mentality, my name being replaced by a number felt more prison-like but the initial idea for the song was something more along the lines of a code name or ‘007 type’ spy theme.

Did the band record any songs for an album? Are there any unreleased A-King tracks?
We never recorded songs for an album, but someone sent me mp4s of our old demo tape. I wouldn’t mind it if those made it out to see the light of day.

Why did The A-Kings break up?
As for why/when the A-Kings broke up ultimately, I don't know. For me, the end wasn't pretty; from being replaced without knowing it to fistacuffs outside CBGB's. The details probably make for a good story but would not be appropriate to share in this forum, as there are three sides to every story; ‘yours, mine and the truth’. And besides that, there is no reason to rehash it. The important thing is that the band made some great music, had a lot of fun, and It's nice to be able to say we were there -'back in the day'. The other nice thing is that Andy and I have put the past behind us and we are now friends with all the BS water under the bridge.

How did Thick As Thieves get started?
I wasn’t done playin’ yet. I called up Danny (Chein) Kwok and said that I wasn’t in the A-Kings anymore and asked if he wanted to get together. It turned out to be good timing because Chein and Johnnathan McCain had been starting a band. John Mathiason, also of the Unseen, was in with them and now all we needed was a drummer. I don’t remember how we got to Ivan Katz (drummer for a lot of bands including The Toasters and The Easy Star All-Stars) but we did. At the time he was in school upstate. We formed “King Pin.”

We would, no shit, load up a Yugo with the four of us, 3 guitars, an amp (or two?) and a 4-trac. We’d drive up to SUNY Binghamton for the weekend to play and record with Ivan. That didn’t last too long, thanks to no one’s fault. It was time to get a drummer closer to home. We got Erik Stams. We all know how important bass and drums are to each other (right?) so I hope you don’t mind if I say his name again: Erik Stams. Great drummer, line up complete. We were King Pin until after we got cast in New York Stories, that was when we found out there were about a million bands named “King Pin” so the search for a new name began. John Mathiason suggested “Thick As Thieves” and we all said Yeah! We stayed that way for a while, then as we started gigging more we started having some scheduling problems. Johnnathan McCain was still playing drums with the Toasters and it was getting harder to book shows for Thick As Thieves without conflicts. Jonnathan left and we got Cameron Greider, a very talented guitarist (and percussionist) (PM Dawn, Sean Lennon, Chris Cornell and more..) and continued on that way with Etienne Lytle (Second Step, PM Dawn, Freddy Jackson, Chris Whitley, and more) joining on keyboards till the end of the band.

Describe the sound of the band and tell me how the band ended up in the movie 'New York Stories'? What was it like to be in a movie?
Thick As Thieves drew the majority of our influences from Ska and Reggae but we were open to other popular music. We incorporated many different styles including Funk, Latin, and Rock. Depending on the song, you could hear any one or all of those influences mixed in, to a greater or lesser extent.

Being in “New York Stories” was a trip. I don’t remember how the casting company found us – I think they got to us through Johnny (Maithason) and if I remember correctly, they first came to a rehearsal and then came back to videotape us. It was one of those “wouldn’t it be cool if…” things that you just assume will never happen. When we found out that we got the part in the movie, I was almost as surprised as I was psyched.

They shot our scene in Central Park; in the underpass by the Bethesda Fountain. It was cool hanging around on and off set, there were a lot of little kids running around in crazy costumes- that added a bit of a goofy aspect to it but still, how cool is it to be on a stage having Francis Ford Coppola telling you what to do? Surreal.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The A-Kings/Thick As Thieves and the NYC ska scene of the 80's?
My lasting memories are all good ones. Everything from sleeping in a van trying to figure out the best way to use my leather jacket as both a blanket and a pillow to the nights at Blanche’s, to having the opportunity to open for one of my all time favorite bands. Playing gigs in the best clubs New York City had to offer. People dream of doing that and we did it. Every one of us back then did it. My (porkpie) hat is off to those of you guys who are still doing it.

These days Reitzfeld, who attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston and is an acomplished bass player, is co-owner of a bar called Dusk Lounge in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. He has graciously volunteered his bar to serve as the location for the upcoming 'NY Beat' reunion on April 10th to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of the compilation that put the New York ska scene on the map.

Reitzfeld was kind enough to share two songs from The A-Kings demo including 'Beckoning' and 'Drummer Boy'. The download link is below:

The A-Kings - Demo


Anonymous said...


kola said...

Wicked. Thanks Sid and Thanks Marco for making us remember this incredible time of our youth-

kola said...

Wicked. Thanks Sid and Thanks Marco for making us remember this incredible time of our youth-

John Patterson said...

I'll never forget a show the A-Kings played at the NYU Loeb student center. One of my favorite memories from those years. Great interview!

Anonymous said...

I have great memories of helping book gigs for Thick as Thieves at the SUNY Binghamton Pub (Pub Activities Board). You guys were a great band and always a blast to hang out with after the shows.


Anonymous said...

I just remembered, I still have a Thieves t-shirt circa 1990.


MicroChip said...

The funniest is seeing that band photo, I think we had that hanging on the wall for 2 years, and the demo tape too. Knowing Andrew he has that tape, plus a live feed from the soundboard.

Rick D.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. A great bass player, human, friend, bartender and story teller.
Thanks for the props Squid.


Steve from Moon said...

Sid, you stud--look at the pompadour!

Michelle Ska said...

Wow. Quite a thorough history. A great read. Thanks for the story!