Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Let's Go Bowling's "Music To Bowl By" Revisited


Editor's note: With the recent release of Let's Go Bowling's Music to Bowl By on vinyl--for the first time ever--through Mike Park's Asian Man Records, we thought it would be a good time to revisit this essential American ska album.

Despite issuing some incredible releases in the late '80s--most notably The NY Citizens' On the Move and Ska Face: An All-American Ska Compilation (The Toasters' Skaboom! and Thrill Me Up were actually issued through Celluloid/Skaloid, since Moon was hard-pressed for cash)--by the end of the decade, Moon Records was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. A series of indie distributor failures--Greenworld, Rough Trade, and New World--condemned almost 75% of Moon's pressed product to America's landfills (and then Celluloid/Skaloid went out of business right after the release of Thrill Me Up, without paying The Toasters any royalties on either album--and Skaboom! had sold around 12K copies by that point).

Rob "Bucket" Hingley (The Toasters' founder/guitarist/songwriter and Moon label head) spent much of 1990 rebuilding Moon Records, which was beginning to find its footing and some financial stability again through a newly-struck distribution deal with IRD (later Relativity). The Toasters' This Gun for Hire became the band's first release on Moon and one of its best-sellers up to that time (another release that year was Dance Hall Crashers' debut album with the yellow cover and black Charlie Brown zig-zag stripe on cassette and LP--the vinyl was pressed in the UK as a Moon Release by Revolver and imported to USA for sale). With some money in the bank and the means to reliably deliver product to the record shops, the label was (finally!) well-positioned to move forward and promote ska bands beyond New York City's limits.

Buck also was serving as Moon's A and R person while on repeated tours of the US with The Toasters, which is how he first encountered Let's Go Bowling (LGB) in the flesh in 1990 (along with DHC and Hepcat, who released their debut on Moon in '93). Buck recently recounted for The Duff Guide to Ska, "I had met LGB at the Country Club in Reseda where they blew me away with their tremendous live show--they were among the more instrumentally proficient bands on the scene at that time. But what impressed me the most was their blend of Latino stylings, as exemplified by the stand out track 'Esta Noche,' where everybody sang in Spanish." Buck and LGB hit it off and a simple, one-page licensing deal was soon signed for their debut album to be released on Moon.

Let's Go Bowling already had contributed a track to Moon's 1988 comp Ska Face ("Bitch") from their demo cassette and released their classic debut single "Rude 69" b/w "Dance Some More" on their own Spare Records that same year (here's the Zoot Skazine review of it from issue 14: ""Rude 69' is a pleasantly familiar jaunt through Potato 5 country, a chugging instrumental harking back to the good old days of Sixties ska. The flip side, 'Dance Some More,' is must faster (too fast?) and you'd really need to be on something to keep up with it"). They even played CBGB's in November 1989, with The Steadys, The Toasters, and Potato 5; I found out about the show a few days after it happened--urgh!

By the time Music to Bowl By was ready to be put into production in 1991, IRD had "advised" Moon that they wanted all new releases to be issued on compact disc, as vinyl was falling out of favor with music consumers at the time (Buck states that LGB was "gutted" that an LP wasn't pressed up), so this album became Moon's first release on CD (to be almost immediately followed by fantastic debut albums from The Scofflaws and King Apparatus, also on CD). [Cassettes were still viable in the early '90s; many of the promo copies that I sent out for review at that time were on tape.]

By all measures, Music to Bowl By is Third Wave classic. LGB's sound is a supercharged modern take on traditional ska, with elements of jazz, swing, Latin--even some classical music via Carl Stalling--in its DNA. The songs are all top-notch (especially "Pin Stripe Suit," "Rude 69," "Dance Some More," "L.G.B.," and the phenomenal "Esta Noche") and the performances are all-out stellar. The only flaw is the somewhat anemic original recording; it would have been great if the album had been remixed and remastered for this reissue.

Soon after its release in October of 1991, Music to Bowl By was one of Moon's hottest-selling albums and became enormously influential on the then still nascent national US ska scene (just think of the slew of American ska bands who cropped up in the mid-'90s and could trace their modern trad sound back to Let's Go Bowling...).

Buck gets the final word here on LGB's Music to Bowl By: "I am thrilled to finally see this album on wax and it's a tribute to the longevity of the band and the durability of the tunes that this particular release can still be viable 30 years on."

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

“Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll": The Toasters' "Chuck Berry"

Upon hearing the news that the King of Rock 'n' Roll Chuck Berry had passed away, I almost immediately thought of The Toasters' tribute to him on their 1996 album, Hard Band for Dead. "Chuck Berry" was a fantastic tribute to this extraordinary musician and an acknowledgement of his great influence on the development of ska (the music is a cool mash-up of jump blues, '50s Berry rock, and early 1960s JA ska), in addition to being another of Bucket's ska history tracks (see "Ska Killers" or the Duke Vin homage "Shebeen"). A read through of the lyrics is definitely worthwhile (I particularly love the nod to Laurel Aitken and how his move to the UK to influence the ska scene there is depicted):

"Forty years ago there was a Jumpin' Jazz Jamaica scene
They could hear these tunes drifting down from New Orleans
They put the two together in a thing they called Ska
And sent it off to England in the back of Laurel Aiken's car

It was 1964 and the rhythm just wouldn't stop
People banging on the door to hear "My Boy Lollipop"
Then the 70's came and with it the 2 Tone scene
People shakin' their heads at the rudies on the record machine

Now the 90's are here with the new bands bringin' it to you
Skins and rudies--and even some punk rock, too!
But the boys are still playing and the music is coming out live!
Down at your jukebox, dancing on a Saturday night!

In their eyes where does Chuck Berry fit?
Well he influences the Ska, that's the long and the short of it
He played his guitar and they heard it on the radio
And the rest is history, just as everybody knows

Forty years ago there was a Jumpin' Jazz Jamaica scene
You can check them rudies dancing at the record machine
The style is timeless, with the Perry and Doc Marten boots
You can keep dancing, just as long as you remember your roots
You can keep rocking, just as long as you remember your roots
You can keep dancing, just as long as you remember your roots"

In fact, this track was issued by Moon Records as a clear vinyl single in advance of the Hard Band for Dead album as part of its limited edition singles series and the song was actually slated to be The Toasters'/Moon Records' first music video. I had already started shooting Super-8 footage for the "Chuck Berry" video when Bucket rang me up to let me know that he had another track that the band had just recorded that might be even better to do--that, of course, was "2-Tone Army." (It's a bit blurry, but the 45 that you see playing on the old dansette at the beginning and end of the "2-Tone Army" video is the "Chuck Berry" b/w "Maxwell Smart" single.)



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This king is dead--long live the king! Rest in peace, Mr. Berry.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Rumored Record Store Day 2017 Ska and Reggae Releases

The beloved/despised Record Store Day will be upon us next month (April 22, 2017) and even though the official list of releases is not yet public, like all private-confidential-classified information, it has been leaked on the internet for all to see. Vinyl Factory (amongst others) has posted a list of anticipated releases and from it I've sorted the ska/reggae keepers from the dross (like--I kid you not--a 12" picture disc for Toto's "Africa" and Corey Feldman's "Go 4 It" swirl-colored vinyl single, featuring Snoop Dogg):

Creation RebelStarship Africa [LP] (limited to 1000, indie-retail exclusive) LP

Ken Boothe, Dillinger, Leroy Smart, Delroy WilsonWhite Man In Hammersmith Palais [7”] (wrapped in a two-sided replica promotional poster, limited to 1000, indie-retail exclusive) 7″

Mad Professor Meets Jah9Mad Professor Meets Jah9… In the Midst of the Storm [LP] (limited to 900, indie-retail exclusive) LP

Peter ToshLegalize It [LP] (POT-SCENTED! Jamaican Red/Yellow/Green-Striped Colored Remastered Vinyl, limited/numbered to 2500, indie-exclusive) LP

U-RoyDread In A Babylon [LP] (18” x 24” color poster, limited to 1000, indie-retail exclusive) LP

Various ArtistsRecutting The Crap Vol. 1 [LP] (Green or Black Vinyl, reinterpretations of The Clash ‘Cut The Crap,’ includes Joe Strummer interviews, download, indie-exclusive, limited to 1000) LP

Various ArtistsSoul Jazz Records Presents: Studio One Hi-Fi [5×7”] (limited to 500, indie-retail exclusive) 7″

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I'm sure most of these releases are UK-only, though I do know that Crooked Beat Records in DC area is releasing the Clash tribute (the Scotch Bonnets contributed a track, "Are You Red...Y"). I have no idea what the deal is with the White Man In Hammersmith Palais single is, though I strongly suspect that it is actually a Clash re-issue, since those are the reggae singers referenced in the song.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Duff Guide to Ska NYC Winter/Spring 2017 Ska Calendar #45

Jackie Mittoo, The Keyboard King
Friday, March 17, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

St. Patrick's Day with The Pietasters

The Marlin Room @ Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY
$16/16+

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Saturday, March 18, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7 Plays the Tommy McCook Song Book

Hank's Saloon
46 Third Avenue (at Atlantic)
Brooklyn, NY
$8

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Saturday, March 18, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Roots Jamboree w/The Far East, Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan, Special Guest Willow Wilson, plus selections by JonnyGO Figure, Dub Star, and more!

Don Pedro
90 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Sunday, March 19, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

NYC Ska Orchestra, Brooklyn Attractors, Selector Agent Jay

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Friday, March 24, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hub City Stompers

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$13 in advance/$15 day of show
All ages

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Friday, March 24, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Fishbone

The Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
$25/16+

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Horace Andy w/the R.P.M. Band w/JonnyGO Figure and Autarchii Howklear plus music by King Lion, Black Roots, King Adies, Supa Sound

Milk River Restaurant
960 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10 before 8pm, $15 after/21+

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Friday, March 31, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

The Theatre at Madison Square Garden
4 Penn Plaza
New York, NY
Tickets: $35-$95

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Saturday, April 15, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

New Kingston, Rude Boy George

Highline Ballroom
431 West 16th Street
New York, NY
$15

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Friday, April 21, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

DJ Gorilla presents The Last Ska Dance w/Beat Brigade, The Shipwrecks, Boomshot, The Damn Long Hairs, Changala Changala, plus DJ Miss Hap!

Don Pedro
90 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Saturday, April 29, 2017 @ 5:30 pm - 9:30 pm

ReadJunk 20th Anniversary Party w/Rude Boy George (two sets) and DJ Duff

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Aves A and B)
New York, NY
No cover

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Saturday, April 29, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

The Ladrones Record Release Party

Tobacco Road
355 West 41st Street
New York, NY

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Friday, May 12, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

Mephiskapheles, NYC Ska Orchestra

The Bell House
149 7th Street
Brooklyn, NY
$15/21+

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Friday, May 19, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Askultura and The Ladrones

Tobacco Road
354 West 41st Street
New York, NY

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Thursday, May 25, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Monty Neysmith Montgomery of Symarip, The Bishops

Cape House
2 Knickerbocker Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15/21+

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Friday, June 9, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The Specials, The Far East

Brooklyn Steel
319 Frost Street
Brooklyn, NY
$50/16+

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Friday, June 23, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The Slackers

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
The Liberty Belle
299 South Street
New York, NY
$30/21+

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Suggs Interviewed in MOJO Magazine!

There's a fantastic four-page interview with Madness' Suggs by Ian Harrison in the March 2017 issue of MOJO Magazine with The Kinks' Ray Davies on the cover. The occasion is to help promote Madness' excellent 11th album, Can't Touch Us Now (which The Duff Guide to Ska has reviewed, if you didn't know), but the interview is quite wide-ranging, covering much of the band's--and Suggs'--career.

Here are some choice bits:

Ian Harrison: "Presently, there was Britpop, an arguably Madness-indebted notion."

Suggs: "I was a bit sort of jealous to be honest. 'Cos I remember being around in Camden Town and seeing Oasis and Blur and Menswear and fucking whoever, and thinking, 'Why aren't we in this frame?' Obviously forgetting that we weren't 19 anymore. But I remember Ian Dury being a bit malevolent about us, that we were nicking his shtick. What you should be is flattered."

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Suggs: "With Morrissey, Clive [Langer] was producing him, and he wanted someone to be a bit Cockney and talk about Piccadilly. I think he wanted to meet me and Cathal [Smyth, Madness co-vocalist], especially. So we went up to sing some backing tracks and had a very bizarre weekend at this residential studio. Someone said, 'Oh Morrissey wants to have a word,' so I knock on the door and there's this tap-tap-tap. I open the door and he's walking round with sunglasses and a blind stick. Did he explain himself? Of course not. Never dull with Morrissey!"

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Ian Harrison: "But you are, in the lineage of The Kinks, the Small Faces and Ian Dury, avatars of British pop exceptionalism..."

Suggs: "Yeah--'quintessentially.' I don't mind that we sound like we're from London. I like how the Buena Vista Social Club sound like they come form Havana or Bob Marley sounds like he's from Jamaica. I think the fact that it wasn't intelligentsia-ised resonates with the general public, too--you were either jumping up and down and getting into it or you weren't. I was thinking of the under-cultures--the skinheads, the Mods, and the suedeheads, the Northern soul thing... even John Peel said he'd never heard reggae before the mid-'70s; he just thought it was for yobbos having punch-ups in discos. I felt part of that firmament. It might have had huge social importance, but that wasn't the point."

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In this issue, there's also a great review by David Katz of the reissue of Keith Hudson's Pick A Dub.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Rhoda Dakar "The Lotek Four, Volume 1"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Rhoda Dakar The Lotek Four, Volume 1 (7" vinyl EP/CD EP, Pledge Music, 2016; available through Dakar's online shop): The latest release from Rhoda Dakar was inspired by a performance she gave with son Frenchie at his school of a version of Greenwich Village folk-rocker Fred Neil's 1967 anti-war/pro-environment/love song "Dolphins," with Frenchie on drums, his music teacher on piano, and Rhoda, of course, on vocals. (Apparently, Frenchie's first visit to a recording studio was with his mum when he was six months old, when Beth Orton and soul/jazz singer Terry Callier were recording "Dolphins" with Dr. Robert--of Blow Monkeys fame--producing; Dakar had appeared on several of Dr. Robert's solo albums in the '90s, around the same time Orton recorded "Dolphins" for her Best Bit EP.) That unadulterated joy of performing music for music's sake and pleasure of sharing both beloved old tracks, as well as amazing new ones, really comes through on The Lotek Four, Volume 1.

Fans expecting more tunes in the 2 Tone/Bodysnatchers mold should re-set their expectations (it has been decades since those heady days, right?). The EP is split between traditional ska/rocksteady tunes an side A (if you're using vinyl) and lush, moody, introspective '60s jazz on B (no doubt, due to the influence of her father, UK jazz musician André Dakar). All are stellar and performed expertly by Dakar and her wonderful collaborators: Louis Vause (piano) and Paul Tadman (bass) of Crunch aka the Nutty Boys and the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra; Lenny Bignell (guitar) of Pama International and The Sidewalk Doctors; Mark Claydon (drums) from The Get Up--Frenchie sits behind the kit for "Dolphins," natch; and Terry Edwards (sax, flugel horn) of The Higsons and Madness.

The EP opens with the gorgeous, but bittersweet ska track "Fill the Emptiness (Lovers)" (if you buy the CD version, contains an equally stunning jazz version, "Fill the Emptiness (Reefa)"), written by Dakar, Vause, and Tadman about being emotionally rescued, but at great cost: "Kind words only leave your lips/And then you wrap me 'round your finger/You, darling, you/Fill the emptiness/Deep down inside." The group then covers Madness' "Tears You Can't Hide"--a real gem written by Cathal Smyth from their 1985 Mad Not Mad album that has a '60s Motown feel to it--smoothing out the original's odd reggae rhythm and giving it a rocksteady sheen ("Carry the world on your back/Heavy weights tearing you apart/Feel in a rage, can't speak up for yourself/All you're trying to do, it's no good anyway/Now I see tears you can't hide").

The lonely and detached nightclub narrator of "You Talking To Me?" (written by Dakar, Vause, and Tadman and sung in both English and French), whose credo is "an observer of souls," goes through the motions, but still hopes against all expectations to find real love: "The vicissitudes of urban life/Leave me cold, exhausted, tired of strife/The connect that makes it all worthwhile/Often absent, though I try to smile/The rough, the smooth, the twists, the turns/Oh the lessons we are here to learn/An epiphany, a flash of light/On occasions when we get it right." Before this recording, I wasn't familiar with Neil's (or Orton's cover of) "Dolphins," but am so glad that I am now. It's an extraordinary song of longing and sadness for what could be ("And sometimes I wonder/Do you ever think of me?") and Dakar's jazz version is beautifully haunting.

In sum, The Lotek Four, Volume 1 is a phenomenally good release, not to be missed. Here's hoping that the next batch from this lot comes very soon.

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Friday, February 24, 2017

The Duff Guide to Ska NYC Winter/Spring 2017 Ska Calendar #44

Photo by Jim Jocoy (Punks in car, San Francisco, late '70s)
Friday, February 24, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

The Skatalites, Organically Good Trio

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15/21+

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Saturday, February 25, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Big D and the Kids Table, Stray Bullets, Crazy and the Brains

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$13

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Saturday, February 25, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Lonely Atom Records Presents: A Record Release Party for "Radical Chemicals, Vol. 1" with Incircles, The Pandemics, American Pinup, plus Agent Jay on the decks!

Don Pedro
90 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Saturday, March 4, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Save Ferris, Baby Baby, Rude Boy George

The Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
$20/16+

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Monday, March 6, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

Version City Tour w/King Django, Rocker T, Brian Hill, John DeCarlo, Alex Brander

Tobacco Road
355 West 41st Street
New York, NY

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Friday, March 17, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

St. Patrick's Day with The Pietasters

The Marlin Room @ Webster Hall
125 East 11th Street
New York, NY
$16/16+

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Saturday, March 18, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7 Plays the Tommy McCook Song Book

Hank's Saloon
46 Third Avenue (at Atlantic)
Brooklyn, NY
$8

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Saturday, March 18, 2017 @ 8:00 pm


Roots Jamboree w/The Far East, Top Shotta Band featuring Screechy Dan, Special Guest Willow Wilson, plus selections by JonnyGO Figure, Dub Star, and more!

Don Pedro
90 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Friday, March 24, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hub City Stompers

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$13 in advance/$15 day of show
All ages

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Friday, March 24, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Fishbone

The Gramercy Theatre
127 East 23rd Street
New York, NY
$25/16+

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Horace Andy w/the R.P.M. Band w/JonnyGO Figure and Autarchii Howklear plus music by King Lion, Black Roots, King Adies, Supa Sound

Milk River Restaurant
960 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10 before 8pm, $15 after/21+

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Friday, March 31, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

The Theatre at Madison Square Garden
4 Penn Plaza
New York, NY
Tickets: $35-$95

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Friday, May 19, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

Askultura and The Ladrones

Tobacco Road
354 West 41st Street
New York, NY

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Saturday, April 29, 2017 @ 5:30 pm - 9:30 pm

ReadJunk 20th Anniversary Party w/Rude Boy George (two sets) and DJ Duff

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Aves A and B)
New York, NY
No cover

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Saturday, April 29, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

The Ladrones Record Release Party

Tobacco Road
355 West 41st Street
New York, NY

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Friday, June 9, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The Specials

Brooklyn Steel
319 Frost Street
Brooklyn, NY
$50/16+

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Friday, June 23, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The Slackers

Rocks Off Concert Cruise
The Liberty Belle
299 South Street
New York, NY
$30/21+

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: The Sentiments "Hi-Fi"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Sentiments Hi-Fi (digital album/CD, Simmerdown Productions/Bandcamp, 2016): This Portlandian ska supergroup of sorts (comprised of members of Easy Big Fella, Francesca, Engine 54, Crucial DBC, and Cornerstone) released their all out fantastic debut album just prior to the Christmas holidays. So, of course, it got lost in my end-of-year mad blur and I'm just now becoming clued in to what I've been missing (which is a lot)! The Sentiments play a sweet and pleasing blend of ska, soul, rocksteady, and reggae (paging all fans of The Pietasters!) Indeed, with lead singer Erin Wallace's wonderfully soulful alto voice, one could imagine that The Sentiments came into being when she took a wrong turn backstage and ended up on stage being backed by a ska band, rather than a soul one...

The Sentiments' Hi-Fi is an album stacked up with great songs (that seem so cinematic--some appropriate for films noir, others in the classic "let's put on a show" type musical vein, if the American song book had been written in ska 'n' soul) full of genuine emotion (the highs and lows of love) and razor sharp performances (by Mike Anderly on trombone, Sir Ryan William Bley on bass, Newel Briggs on guitar, Mike Birenbaum on piano, organ, and vocals, Tadd Enright on tenor sax and guitar, Matt Griffin on drums, Paul Howard on barit sax, Christian Lyons on trumpet, and Erin Wallace on vocals). The defiantly jaunty ska/soul of "Moving On" is all about being way past the pain of a break-up and eager for freedom again ("So, take all the time that you need/To try and get yourself straight/I'm out the door before/Before it gets too late"). Even the fast rhythm of the song sounds like the thump, thump, thump of the highway joints under the tires as you head out of town. If you're a citizen of a certain political persuasion during these dark, nonsensical times, the Doreen Shaffer with The Skatalites-like "This House" offers shelter, relief, and the chance to recharge your batteries of resistance (maybe an alternate reading could be that it's neutral ground, a place where we can all come together and figure out our way back to common ground?): "This house will be filled with love/This house can be an escape/This house will be filled with love/So come in/Sit down, and know it's okay...'Cause outside there's so much trouble/And outside there's heartache and pain/And inside there'll be no more struggle/'Cause inside this house we all share the same name..."

"You Don't Know" is a raucous showstopper--a fantastic duet between Wallace and keyboardist Mike (Mikey Sha Sha of Easy Big Fella) Birenbaum--about how hard each of them has it in life, but also that they need to get dressed up, go out and lose this stress with some fun. You'll swear "Why Did I Stay" was a Motown-era hit, but it's a heartbreaking original full of regret about two people who brought out the worst in each other ("You make me a liar/I make you a thief"). "Go On"--a ska pop hit if I've ever heard one--gives him enough rope to hang himself ("Go on/And tell me how you'll find another/Go on/And tell me I'm not your favorite lover/Go on/And tell me how we were only meant to be friends/Go on/Let me tell you how it ends..."). Nice little Bob Marley nod in there, too. The swing ska of "Every Time" is another terrific duet between Wallace and Birenbaum with a very Toasters-like horn line. The last two tracks have a decidedly '70s bent to them--"I Don't Want to Fight" has a bit of country and Latino pop in there, while The Sentiments' cover of Ashford and Simpson's 1968 song for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell "You're All I Need to Get By" is an amazingly inspired choice.

So, now I just need to figure out if The Sentiments' Hi-Fi should go on my best of list for 2016 or 2017...

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: King Kong 4 "You Like Awake"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

King Kong 4 You Lie Awake (digital single, self-released/Bandcamp, 2017): If you mention that Mitch "King Kong" Girio was a key member of early '90s Canadian ska act King Apparatus (which, of course, featured Chris Murray), most ska fans would know the reference, but some might not be aware that he's been the go-to songwriter and producer for a slew of mostly Canadian bands including The Planet Smashers, The Kingpins, One Night Band, Prince Perry, and more. His most recent work has been in service of Susan Cadogan (check out our review of her incredible Take Me Back EP; Girio co-wrote all the tunes, as well as performed, recorded, and produced them), but now he's just released a great digital single for his own Toronto-based group, King Kong 4 (which includes Brendan Bauer on bass, Andrew McMullen on drums, Ronald Poon on Hammond organ, King Kong Girio on vocals and guitar).

King Kong 4's sound is a cross between the late '70s New Wave angry young man songwriters Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson (both of whom recorded ska/reggae tracks early on in their careers) and the 2 Tone of The Specials, but this kind of sells Girio's songwriting short--he's got his own thing going and can compose hooks like mad. "Breaking My Heart" is about love from a distance--the singer with a crush on a girl in the audience who he can't quite compel to dance to his band's music, which would be kind of like them being together (but she's with her "dead weight of a boyfriend"): "So get your ass onto the floor, girl/You better shake those hips/So what you think we play this shit for?/Can’t you read my lips?/It’s time to make a move, so act now/You can do the Twist /Just a little bit of dancing/Then you can’t be wrong /Just a little bit of dancing/Dancing all night long." "Annabelle" might be about a girl losing herself on an LSD trip ("Your world has come undone/Quickly dissolving on your tongue") or to growing paranoia/mental illness ("With no one to absolve you/Because the problem still revolves around the fear/That’s floating in the atmosphere/That’s coming oh so near"). Whatever the issue is, she's worried about being forgotten: "When half the world is slumbering/You lie awake half-wondering/Who will leave something here for Annabelle?" Both songs have an undercurrent of longing and melancholy, but the music is wonderfully catchy and upbeat.

Don't let this terrific release from King Kong 4 pass you by!

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Shots in the Dark: The Offs' "First Record"

Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights third-wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, a fickle record-buying public, or other, unforeseen disasters, were lost in the fray. 

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Band: The Offs were formed in San Francisco in the late '70s by openly gay Don Vinil (vocals) and Billy Hawk (guitar) with Chris Olsen and then Bob Steeler on drums--and a shifting set of bass players (including Fast Floyd, Olga de Volga, Denny Boredom, and Eric Peterson) and horns (Bob Roberts, Roland Young, and Richard Edson). While they were very much a part of that SF's nascent first wave punk scene that spawned Crime, Nuns, The Avengers, Pink Section, Tuxedomoon, Vktms, Mutants, Lewd, The Dils, The Zeros, and more (the Dead Kennedy's first show was with The Offs at Mabuhay Gardens in 1978), there was ska and reggae in The Offs' wild mix from the start (according to a 1978 interview in Slash magazine, guitarist Billy Hawk was the one in the band who loved his reggae). The Offs' 1978 debut single featured a great punky cover of The Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad" (think of how The Clash covered "Police and Thieves")--though their follow-up single in the same year, "Everyone's a Bigot," was much more representative of what would become their almost unclassifiable post-punky, no wave, ska/reggae sound.

By 1980, The Offs were living part of the year in Manhattan on Prince Street (while maintaining their home base in SF) and had been quickly embraced by the downtown/underground Manhattan music and art scene (that brought together musicians and artists of every color and from every scene), where The Offs regularly performed at the Mudd Club, Danceteria, and Max's Kansas City, which released their third single, "You Fascinate Me" b/w "My World," also in 1980 (the former a loungy-jazz punk cut, the latter straight up ska). At some point in 1983, The Offs had their debut album in the can for San Francisco-based CD Presents (the CD standing for Civil Defense, not compact disc; the label was also home for The Avengers, D.O.A. and Billy Bragg in the US), but singer Don Vinil overdosed on heroin in NYC--prior to the record's release in 1984--and The Offs were no more.

The Sound: Think of Sandinista-era Clash plus the angular post-punk funk of Gang of Four, all heavily influenced by the early 80s NYC no wave/art jazz scene (see James Chance and the Contortions). The Offs are challenging and certainly not for anyone put off by transgressions of musical boundaries and genre conventions--but they had punk attitude to spare and a sound that was rebel music/ska 'n' reggae to its core.

The Release: I picked up The Offs' First Record (which has only ever been available on vinyl) in the late '80s at Bleecker Bob's based almost solely on the fact that it was in the ska section; there just weren't that many ska releases available at the time. Of course, it also helped that the back photo of the album clearly identified it as a ska record and NYC downtown artist Jean Michel Basquiat had illustrated the cover in his punky/primitive graffiti style. Even though The Offs' music exists in an uneasy, often dissonant intersection between funky post-punk, no wave jazz, and ska/reggae--and was like nothing else I was listening to at the time--I was hooked from first play and 30 years later find that First Record still holds up.

The album kicks off with a second stab at the "Taxi Driver"-like "You Fascinate Me" (about watching young hustlers: "I said all you kids/Out on the streets/Hunting around now/Trying to make ends meet/Hanging out on corners/Outside of bars/Cruising Johns drive by in their cars/I said, you fascinate me/I don't know why/You living your life, honey/It's live or die...You bringing me down")--which had evolved from its earlier incarnation into a funky ska-like track with a fantastically ragged "oh, oh, oh" line in its chorus and a sweet guitar flourish at the end of the song that resolves all of the previous musical off-kilterness and lyrical ugliness. The fantastic keep-a-lid-on-it "Cool Down" is a Augustus Pablo/Far East sounding reggae track that wouldn't be out of place on a punk re-imagining of "West Side Story" ("When he was young/It was so much fun/No cares in the world/Nothing tied him down/Today, he keeps it straight/For the fun that is done/For tomorrow he's a poor man/So, tell me, what's the poor man done?"). The tightly wound-up punk-no wave-funk of "True Story" (with drummer Steeler on vocals) is all bitter with betrayal ("Told me a true story/Said it was fiction/The girl you seem so sad about/I know that you're the one/You changed most of the names and places/But still the innocent have faces/Do I see through you and him/Just like a pair of aces/What are you expecting?/A true story?"). Side one concludes with the jazzy ska of "Why Boy," which is their "Friday Night/Saturday Morning," about a kind of aimless night on the town for a misunderstood youth just looking for something approximating fun ("People wanna know/Where you come and go/They don't understand/'Cause it's not their way/'Say, 'why boy?'/You go down to the park/As the night begins/You got money in your hand/You're looking for the man...Some strangers from the suburb/Wanna push your around/They don't understand/'Cause it's not their way/You better fight back boy...You go to the club/To see the band/The people there seem to understand/Tonight...").

The Offs' mash-up of musical styles and subcultures (note the hip hop/graffiti reference in the lyrics) is at its most Sandinista-like on the first track of side B with "Body Hesitation," a more reggae-ish "Magnificent Seven," if you will, written and sung by their saxophonist Roland Young ("This ain't no/Misguided energy/It ain't no/Running wild style/This ain't no/Lack of thinking/For our society/It is a sinking..."). The horrific misogyny/gender politics of The Heptones' sweet-sounding "I've Got The Handle" ("I've got the handle, baby/You've got the blade/So, don't try to fight me, girl/'Cause you'll need first aid, yeah") is blunted a bit when The Offs shift the song into a broadside against then President Reagan: "Ronald Reagan is Babylon/Babylon must fall/You must find the resistance to kill 'em/Fight 'em back, to resist him!" The tension of the funky James Brown-ish workout "One More Shot" (of booze, that is, and he'll be ready) is almost unbearable. Everything finishes with The Offs' incredible ska cover of Mary Wells' 1960 R and B cut "Bye Bye Baby" ("You know, you took my love/Threw it away/You gonna want/My love someday/Well, a bye bye baby"), which is somehow the appropriate bookend to the twisted opener "You Fascinate Me."

(Fun fact: Character actor/downtown musician Richard Edson--who was Sonic Youth's first drummer and also a member of Konk--played trumpet on this album; you'd probably recognize him as the parking garage attendant from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," as well as from "Desperately Seeking Susan," "Stranger Than Paradise," "Do the Right Thing," "Platoon," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Dirty Dancing," and many other movies and TV shows.)

The Ugly Reality: Back in the late '80s, I always wondered why The Offs simply seemed to have vanished, since I never read about them anywhere or ever came across more of their music (it was like that in the pre-internet days; some questions would just never be answered). Don Vinil's 1983 death from drug overdose years certainly explains why. I would have loved the chance to see The Offs live and how they might have been embraced (or not) by the growing NYC ska scene in the mid-to-late '80s and in which direction their next album might have gone.

It's a sad but true story that drugs have killed off many a brilliant band. And The Offs' tale is yet another one.

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Despite being reissued a few years ago, The Offs' First Record remains pretty rare and expensive, so you might be stuck buying a digital copy on iTunes or listening to it on YouTube. There's also a 1997 German compilation of The Offs' singles and compilation tracks called Californian Skapunk Pioneers out there (I happened to have bought a copy of it in 2000 at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square) and a much cheaper and easier to find live recording of the band, Live At The Mabuhay Gardens Nov 7 1980.

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