Friday, March 16, 2012

The Return Of Mephiskapheles?!

Don't call it a comeback! A few days ago, Brendog Tween, the original guitarist for Mephiskapheles, posted on his Facebook page that original members of the band were planning to play an "unplugged" show on April 10th from 7-9 PM at The Underground Lounge here in New York City. To say it has caused a stir is an understatement!  But to be perfectly clear, while this free show will feature many former members of the band, they are performing (for the first time in over a decade) acoustically, as "Doomsday! The Ultimate Mephiskapheles Unplugged Tribute."

The sound of Mephiskapheles was unprecedented -- even today there really is nothing that compares to their unique take on ska. Along with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mephiskapheles was the look and sound of 90's American ska. Eschewing the 2-Tone foundation of 80's ska, the original band line-up (Brendog Tween, Mikal Reich, Brian Martin, Alexander McCabe, Nubian Nightmare, Rick Sanford, Osho Endo, Dave Doris, Gina Latessa, Mike Berger and Vattel Cherry) took a devil worship concept and built it on top of traditional ska with liberal doses of punk, jazz, oi, alternative rock and metal. Visually the band's image and look were just as startling (it certainly didn't hurt that a few band members worked for a cutting edge New York ad agency), featuring a singer with the voice of a death metal screamer, trained jazz horn players and a motley crew of punk rockers who quickly took the 90's New York and American ska scenes by storm. (Read more about the band in an interview I did with Tween last year).

To learn more about the genesis of this "unplugged" show and any future plans the band has to play, jump over to the Duff Guide To Ska, where my fellow ska blogger Steve Shafer has posted an entertaining and informative interview with Tween about the reunion.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

NYC SKA Live Compilation Celebrates 22nd Anniversary!: American 'Dance Craze' Captures NYC Ska Circa 1990

Its hard to believe that the excellent, but sadly overlooked and long out-of-print NYC SKA LIVE compilation is 22 years old this month! The brainchild of The Toasters leader and Moon Records honcho Rob 'Bucket' Hingley the record was conceived as the American sequel to 'Dance Craze'. In fact, the show recorded at the Cat Club in New York City on March 26th, 1990 was supposed to be filmed by 'Dance Craze' director Joe Massot.

The dawn of 1990 saw the NYC ska scene at its peak. The Toasters had just released their third full length album 'This Gun For Hire' (and the first without co-front men Sean Dinsmore and Lionel Bernard who had left and signed a record deal as The Unity 2), and the New York Citizens had released their seminal 'Stranger Things Have Happened' EP.  The NYC SKA LIVE compilation and film was to be the icing on the cake capturing all the New York bands on the scene at the time -- The Toasters, The Scofflaws, The NY Citizens, Bigger Thomas, Skinnerbox, Skadanks and The Steadys.

What I remember about the whole experience was the tremendous amount of planning that went into the filming of the show and recording of the accompanying soundtrack. My Bigger Thomas band mates and I travelled from New Jersey to attended a meeting at Moon Records HQ in the East Village in New York, where the details about the filming of the show were discussed. We were also presented with waivers and release forms as well as contracts which we signed with a certain amount of excitement, Hingley explained that he and Massot had plans to distribute the film widely around the World and that with ska breaking out in the U.S., the finished movie was expected to be exhibited at film festivals and possibly have a theatrical release. We left the meeting expecting big things.

Sadly it didn't work out as planned. Unfortunately, due to reasons that were never fully explained to us, Massot pulled out of filming the show at the last moment, despite the fact that expensive lights, special room mics and a remote sound truck to record the show had all been procured. Nevertheless, Moon Records did mix and release the 14-track album later in 1990. Though the artwork for the record and cassette tape are pretty awful, the sounds captured on the vinyl and magnetic tape still sound pretty fresh (though my one complaint is the annoying crowd sounds that were dropped in during post-production).

I have mostly fond memories about the whole experience. Though we no longer had to deal with cameras in our faces on stage, there was still a very large crowd on hand (attracted by the chance to be in a movie). As the openers for the whole show, there was added pressure to come out blazing and we did our best performing 'Moving' and 'Ska In My Pocket', except our original guitar player Steve Parker had all sorts of technical problems with his amp and effects pedal during the recording. This required us to play the song 'Moving' twice. The technical problems continued during the second take, requiring Bucket to cut off the whole intro to the song from the actual finished recording. While we were disappointed that Joe Massot bailed, we were still excited as the new kids on the block (we had been together a mere 18 months at this point) to be included on the record (see picture above courtesy of Paul Gil of The New York Citizens: From left to right on stage Steve Parker (guitar), Roger Apollon (vocals), Jim Cooper (drums), Kevin Shields (trumpet), yours truly (bass).

Five years on from the release of the N.Y. Beat:Hit & Run compilation which captured the sound of mid-80's New York City ska, NYC SKA LIVE documents the evolution of the New York 80's ska scene 2-Tone sound to a post-2-Tone take with more of an emphasis on roots reggae, rocksteady and dancehall reggae. The Toasters and The New York Citizens remain holdovers from the mid-80's, but newer bands including my own, King Django's post-Boilers band Skinnerbox, The Steadys (who may be the best sounding band on the comp), Skadanks and Long Island's Scofflaws all offer their unique takes on American ska at the dawn of the 1990's.

Sadly NYC SKA LIVE remains out-of-print and its unlikely to be re-issued any time soon (though it is a personal goal of mine to do so!). However, all the tracks were recently uploaded via YouTube.  So, sit back, turn the volume on your computer way up and remember NYC SKA!

Here is the track listing:

Below is the track listing:

NYC Ska Craze Intro
Bigger Thomas - Moving
Bigger Thomas - Ska In My Pocket
Skadanks - Dancehall
Skadanks - Just Ska
The Steadys - Just Reflections
The Steadys - All You Can Stand
Skinnerbox - Promise
Skinnerbox - Move Like You Gone
The Scofflaws - Going Back To Kingston
The Scofflaws, - Aliskaba
NY Citizens - National Front
The Toasters - Don't Say Forever
NYC Ska Allstars - Matt Davis

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

French Crooner Serge Gainsbourg Was A Reggae Pioneer

When you think of France's national idol Serge Gainsbourg, it is very unlikely that you think of reggae. In fact, until very recently, I was not aware he had recorded a reggae album. But the man best known for his popular late 60's duet 'Je t'aime moi non plus' with Jane Birkin, was a reggae pioneer in the truest sense of the word.

In fact, Gainsbourg's 'Aux armes et cætera,' album is responsible for breaking reggae in France and throughout the French speaking world.  The album, which took less than a week to record, was released in April 1979 and was recorded in Jamaica with the cream of the crop of Jamaican musicians including Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and The I Threes.

While the album is an overlooked reggae gem (its definitely worth picking up if you have not heard it), what got the most attention was the title track, a sarcastic reggae version of the French national anthem La Marseillaise, causing Gainsbourg to receive death threats from many on the political right in France. In fact, the song was so controversial, that when Gainsbourg toured France with Sly & Robbie and the band that backed him on the album, the shows were plagued with bomb threats, cancellations and protests. Nevertheless, Gainsbourg's new album proved to be both critically and commercially successful. Indeed, it sold over 300,000 copies in the space of a few months and produced two hit singles, a new reggae version of "La javanaise" and "Aux armes et caetera".

Despite the controversy, Gainsbourg kept touring and stood up to an audience full of angry French paratroopers at a show in Strasbourg:
Encouraged by this success, Gainsbourg embarked upon an extensive French tour, the most memorable night of which was a concert in Strasbourg. Gainsbourg was heckled by a parachute regiment who attempted to boo the singer off the stage when he launched into his new reggae version of "La Marseillaise". Never for a moment losing his cool, Gainsbourg dropped the reggae beat and sang a classic version of the French national anthem. (The singer always claimed he had never intended to shock or offend anybody with his reggae adaptation and he was deeply hurt by the vitriolic attacks which followed the release of "Aux armes et caetera").
However, in true Gainsbourg style, the controversy was manipulated to work to his advantage, and the album eventually became one of his fastest sellers. Aux Armes Et Caetera sold more than 600,000 copies in France and is considered to be one of the earliest albums to have brought reggae to the mainstream.

Have a listen to a sample of tracks from the album including 'Aux Armes Et Caetera,' 'Des Laids, Des Laids' and a kicking live version of 'Les locataires' from the 1980 tour.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Pogues Go Ska!: Celtic Punk Band Display Their Love For Ska & Reggae

With St. Patrick's Day creeping up on the calendar, I could not wait to share a few rare ska and reggae songs that The Pogues are famous for playing as part of their varied live and recorded sets over the years.

There is a strong musical, cultural and social connection between Jamaica and Ireland.  The connection is even closer than that, as England shipped many Irish political prisoners to the West Indies to work as indentured servants in the last 1600's.  As their terms of servitude finished, many of these Irish workers stayed in Barbados and Jamaica, infusing the local culture and music with their own traditions.  The legacy of the Irish is still seen in Jamaican towns and neighborhoods with Irish names, such as Dublin Castle, Irish Pen, Irish town, Sligoville, Kildare, Leinster Road and Belfast. The Irish connection in Jamaica goes beyond the names of places. Similarities can be found in a shared history of colonial domination and the achievement of independence in the same century.

From a ska perspective, I've always thought there were parallels between The Pogues and The Specials, both musically and politically speaking.  Where The Specials played ska shot through with punk, The Pogues (in the early days at least) played Irish folk shot through with punk. At the very least, the two bands have shown their mutual appreciation for one another by performing covers of the others most well know songs.

So, without further ado, I bring you the best of The Pogues performing ska and reggae!

The Pogues with Lynval Golding Live at the Town & Country in London on St. Patrick's Day, 1988.

Members of The Specials including Roddy Byers and Lynval Golding returned the favor by recording The Pogues 'Dirty Old Town' on their mid 90's cover album 'Today's Specials.'

The Pogues also performed Culture's reggae classic 'I'm Alone In The Wilderness' taken from the band's "Just Look Them Straight in the Eye" Box-Set.

The Pogues have also been know to perform a 2-Tone ska version of their anti-Thatcher song 'Murder':

Finally, check out The Pogues forray into dub reggae (which is quite excellent!) on their own 'Young Ned Of The Hill':

If you like what you hear and want to own a few of these rare classics on vinyl in time for St. Pat's, then head over to the Jump Up Records website and grab a copy of 'The Celtic Ska EP' which is one of many places you can purchase the record.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bigger Thomas - Lost 1992 Cassette 'M'boy Y'know' Tells The Story Of Band Break-Up & Re-Birth

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of the rare cassette-only recording of 'M'boy Y'now' by Bigger Thomas.  The year 1992 was an interesting one for Bigger Thomas and for ska music in the U.S. In many ways, it was the changing of the guard, as bands that had helped generate the initial burst of interest in the genre in the 80's broke up or began to give way to newer bands who fueled the mid-90's American ska renaissance.  Other established bands started to see the ska tag as a dirty word.  They mixed funk and 'world beat' into their sounds.  Others experimented mixing punk with horns giving birth to ska punk.  Other bands gave up completely or turned to Grunge and heavy rock.

During 1991 and 1992, my Bigger Thomas band mates and I faced our own musical crisis.  While we were dedicated to the ska sound we had embraced years before, it was personal differences that plagued us.  After three years of relentless touring, opening for a variety of established bands and building a fan base around the Northeastern U.S., we were at the point where we needed to make some difficult decisions. Namely, did we put our personal and budding professional lives on hold to play music full-time or continue to hold day jobs and play every Thursday through Sunday?  That question bedeviled us and, ultimately split us in two, with one faction led by our singer Roger Apollon and sax player Steve Meicke wishing to go all in, and the other including myself and original guitarist Steve Parker wanting to maintain the status quo.  After a bittersweet series of successful shows opening for The Selecter and Special Beat during the summer of 1991 we split acrimoniously.

As 1992 dawned, two bands emerged from the ashes of the original version of the band -- Bigger Thomas (myself, Parker and horn players Sean Moore and Kevin Shields) and Native Son (featuring Apollon, Meicke and whole new group of musicians).   In this pre-Ineternet and social media era, we battled one another for the affections of booking agents, clubs and fans the old fashioned way, via show flyers, mailers and new music. It wasn't pretty.

In the year before the band break-up, we had written many new songs that were planned for a follow-up to our first self-titled 'Red Album' which had been released in 1989.  As we enjoyed more success via that album and our live shows during 1989 and 1990, we had started to generate interest from a variety of record labels, both small and large.  The split complicated that process and killed any hope we had for a deal, but with a half-dozen road tested songs, Parker and I (the authors of most of these new compositions) were introduced to music biz veteran Jimmy Allington (drummer for Nona Hendryx's art rock band Zero Cool) who owned a small recording studio.

Check out Allington on drums and vocals with early 80's New York City new wave band China Shop:

Have a listen to Allington on drums on Larry Young's 1976 psychedelic funk release 'Spaceball' that was released on Arista Records

Allington liked our sound and after agreeing to produce a demo for us, also offered to sing on the tracks.  Where we were mostly self taught, indie musicians, Allington was a professional who knew his way around a recording studio.  After a few recording sessions with him where he played piano, programmed the drums and percussion sounds and sang all the lead vocals, we had a demo and a new band.  He also took our idea for recording a reggae/pop version of The Archies 'Sugar Sugar' (which Parker's father had played on as a studio musician in the late 60's) from concept to fruition. The results were 'm'boy y'know' and the genesis of Bigger Thomas 2.0 with Allington on lead vocals and piano was off and running.

We debuted the new version of Bigger Thomas with Allington on lead vocals at City Gradens in Trenton, New Jersey in early 1992.  Our ex-band mates had been busy too and debuted their new band around the same time.  And so, in the matter of a few short months, what had been one band was now two, playing similar sounding music.  It was a very tense time and the few encounters we had with one another went badly.

Slowly, over time, the new band with Allington and John DiBianco on drums came together as a live unit and we focused on trying to regain our footing.  We moved off east coast club scene to focus on bar shows around New Jersey where we could earn money playing three sets a night.  While we had lost any momentum we might have from a year earlier, we were becoming better musicians and making a little bit of money.

When Native Son broke-up in late 1992, we felt vindicated, but I always lamented what could have been musically, if we had been able to work out our differences.  What would the songs and album have sounded like with the original core of musicians?  By 1994,  on my urging, Roger Apollon made a surprise guest appearance with us at a show at the Court Tavern and then re-joined the band.  For a time we had both Allington and Apollon sharing front man duties.  We focused exclusively on building our set and playing out live, and as the band grew and changed (Allington left the band by 1997-98 and we absorbed many of the members of Native Son) we embarked on our wilderness years of playing 3-sets a night as a bar band.  It wasn't until the early 2000's when we finally recorded and released 'Resisting Success' in 2004 that we picked up where we had left off in 1991, with a focus on being part of the ska scene again.

Have a listen to the track "It's Been Done' from 'm'boy y'know' and feel free to download the album from the link below. Thanks to Tone & Wave for sharing the link of music I had lost along the way.

It's Been Done

Bigger Thomas - m'boy y'know

01 I Can't Remember My Name
02 (That's Not What I) Mento
03 It's Been Done
04 I Live at Home
05 King for a Day
06 Sugar Sugar