There is nothing new about ska. It was fashionable in Britain in the mid-1960s when the lively precursor to reggae, imbued with the basic Jamaican beat, was popular with mods and skinheads.
Few genres, though, have gone through so many revivals.
Tempered with a punk-rock influence, it evolved into the two-tone movement in the late 1970s and early ’80s with racially mixed bands such as the Specials, Madness and English Beat. It was socio-political, fast, furious and danceable, and it eventually weaved its way into mainstream America.
It has fallen in and out of favor several times since. There rarely has been a middle ground: Music followers either love it or hate it.
Along comes Orange County, Calif., residents No Doubt and Goldfinger, and suddenly Spin and Alternative Press magazines tap ska as “the next music trend.”
Members of the Orange County groups Voodoo Glow Skulls and Reel Big Fish beg to differ. Ska never went away, and yes, this fad will die down, but ska will remain.
“Every few years you have a flavor-of-the-mouth thing,” Voodoo Glow Skulls lead singer Frank Casillas said recently. “A couple years ago, it was groups like Green Day and the Offspring. Everybody was trying to sound like them.
“We don’t consider ourselves a ska band. We’re a ska-influenced hard-core band, and I think a lot of the bands out there right now are using the word ‘ska’ to sell themselves as ska when they’re not even playing traditional ska. They come out of nowhere. I don’t want to call them one-hit wonders, but a lot of them haven’t paid their dues. They get signed to a major-label deal before they’ve even gone on their first tour.
“They’ll find out the hard way that you have to build up a fan base to establish longevity.”
Voodoo Glow Skulls would know. Along with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, they have been at the forefront of a manic, raplike ska movement since the early ’90s. One listen to their major-label debut album, “Baile de los Locos” (released May 6 on Epitaph), puts the exhilarating seven-member unit at the head of the class.
Reel Big Fish, meanwhile, may appear to be newcomers – the ska-pop group’s second full-length album, “Turn the Radio Off” (Mojo/Universal), was released in January and still is building up a full head of steam – but the seven-member group has been together several years.
The band even pokes fun at the way it climbed the ladder of success in the single, “Sell Out.” The accompanying video parodies Reel Big Fish’s rise to fame, from flipping fast-food burgers to getting groomed for a record deal.
“Critics don’t get the joke in the song, but it’s kind of on them, so it’s okay,” singer-trombone player Scott Klopfenstein said recently. “That’s our philosophy: If you don’t get the joke, then it’s probably about you. All those people who make fun of us, and there are some people who have said some not-so-nice things about us, those are the people we’re laughing at.”
Casillas bristles when critics view the Glow Skulls’ brand of hard-core ska-rock as nothing more than noise.
“A lot of people don’t realize that you have seven different elements playing at once and you have to have them all work out,” he said. “There isn’t one person doing all the work, all the writing, all the music. This is a true democratic effort.”
Klopfenstein said, critics aside, Reel Big Fish is buoyed by fan reaction with each passing concert date.
“This is like our third or fourth time we’re hitting some of these markets and the kids are still excited,” he said. “It’s kind of cool and refreshing to know that every time you play a place, they’re still into it. It’s a good feeling.”
Voodoo Glow Skulls lifted itself up from underground status to a big-label act. Casillas said he realizes they may have lost some diehard fans along the way, but he thinks the band’s knowledge of the business will help them in the long run.
“We’ve learned about doing things on our own,” he said. “We’ve done our own tours, and we even owned a record store for a while that we just recently closed and now we have our own studio. That helped us not only from a band point of view but also from the business aspect. We’ve accomplished a lot on our own just to get this far.
“The underground scene is definitely responsible for our success. I think the times have finally caught up with us; we didn’t catch up with the times. Now there are so many bands doing ska right now that I think it’s almost overkill.
“There are only a few groups around from the beginning, like ourselves and the Bosstones, who can stand the test of time.”
BWF (before we forget): Swim with Reel Big Fish on the Web @ www.mojorecords.com and the Voodoo Glow Skulls @ www.voodooglowskulls.com.
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