Sunday, May 20, 2018

Shots in the Dark: The Toasters' "Frankenska"

The Toasters' Frankenska (Unicorn Records, 1990)
with cover art by Steve Friel.
Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights so-called Third-Wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, or a fickle record-buying public, were lost in the fray.

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Toasters’ first live album Frankenska was recorded in the summer of 1989 during the band’s maiden (and mostly underwhelming) tour of the UK--and ended up documenting the brilliant core of the band that was forging on despite still reeling from the surprise departure of their frontmen the Unity 2 just months previously (trombonist Ann Hellandsjo and alto saxophonist Marcel Reginatto also left in their wake). Less than a year earlier, The Toasters had released their fantastic second album, Thrill Me Up, which had reached #54 on the CMJ college radio charts and was starting to generate lots of press and industry attention, and they were headlining sold out shows all over the country. Literally and figuratively, The Toasters were going places fast. So, the Unity 2's unexpected exit (they had been lured away by Warner Bros. to capitalize on the blink-and-you-missed-it hip-hop/reggae craze of 1989-1990) threatened to destroy all that The Toasters had accomplished up until that point. When we asked about this episode, Toasters’ founder, guitarist, and primary songwriter Rob “Bucket” Hingley told us that the Unity 2 had "cold-cocked" the rest of The Toasters and "disrupted the unit intensely."

Sean “Cavo” Dinsmore recently explained to The Duff Guide to Ska why he and Lionel “Nene” Bernard left The Toasters: “The simple answer is that we weren’t happy just being in a ska band anymore. We were much more into dancehall and hip hop by that time. We had already recorded “Shirlee” for a WB compilation (Funky Reggae Crew) as Unity 2 and had been offered record deals from both Island and WB. After we came off the last cross-country tour [with The Toasters], we played a sold-out show at The Ritz and there was an A and R guy there from Island. In the dressing room we were like, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘I love it, but I only want to sign you two, not the whole band.’ After everything else that had been happening, it seemed like a sign from God. Of course, we still wrestled with it for a while, but it was inevitable. It was bittersweet for sure...No regrets at all, except I wish we had done the last few gigs that were on the schedule. We kind of left them in a tight spot. But it was so difficult because they were so clearly upset by it. Lionel and I just thought the road would be a nightmare for all of us if we went. Buck was very pragmatic and just wanted their asses covered, fair enough. But we couldn’t.”
A June 6, 1988 feature on The Toasters in New York Magazine, while Thrill Me Up was being
recorded (note that they refer to it by its working title at the time, Franken-Ska).

Indeed, The Toasters’ decision to embark on a UK tour and appear at the second London International Ska Festival was a Hail Mary of sorts, to shake off the Unity 2’s body blow and keep the band’s momentum going during a transitional period when they could just have easily broken up.

During a respite on that 1989 UK tour, Bucket told George Marshall of Scotland’s indispensable Zoot skazine, “We’ve been playing venues in town where people don’t even know who we are. We get a lot of letters from Europe, but I suppose they are just isolated pockets of fans...The ska scene’s further developed and not so underground in the States. Ska’s happening in the U.S. and it’s not just talk. It’s bigger now that it was during 2 Tone. We played in front of 1,000 people in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco when we toured, and in New York we had 2,000 people in The Ritz [at a show that included The NY Citizens and Bim Skala Bim].” In a recent interview with The Duff Guide to Ska, Bucket added, “I was surprised how quickly the ska scene had deteriorated in the UK after the zenith of 2 Tone. Some of the audiences were light indeed, but then again most people had never heard of us and some wouldn't come and see us because we were ‘Yanks.’”

Notably, this tour and live album marked the first and temporary appearance of singer/toaster Coolie Ranx in The Toasters’ line-up (which at the time consisted of Jonathan McCain on drums, Greg Grinnell--who worked with the Unity 2 on their What Is It, Yo? debut album--on bass, John Dugan on tenor sax, Steve “Hex” LaForge on keys, Vince Fossitt of Buffalo, NY’s The Great Train Robbery on alto sax, and Buck on guitar and vocals). Bucket recently recounted how he originally encountered Coolie back in 1989: “Coolie was living in Brooklyn at that time. I had discovered him when we were auditioning singers, one of whom had been Andre from Mephiskapheles, by the way. A friend from S.O.B.’s passed me a copy of this 12” single “Roughneck,” which sounded to me like a much more energized version of Shinehead. So, I went out to Crown Heights and tracked him down, much to the amusement of the Yardie drug dealers who lived in his building. They were impressed by the wraparound shades, black bomber jacket, and Kangol...When I met Coolie, I had an all-black minivan with tinted windows. Whenever I showed up at Coolie’s place--which was actually in Bushwick now that I think about it--which was deep in the hood back in those days, the Jamaican Yardies were at first suspicious because they thought I was a Fed. After that, they took a shine to me, as there weren’t that many white folks in that neighbourhood at that pre-hipster epoch.”

The Toasters live in London on June 12, 1989:
Bucket, Coolie Ranx, and John Dugan (left to right).
“Before I decided to sign on with The Toasters, I was a dancehall artist,” Coolie told The Duff Guide to Ska. “I put out a few songs and had already traveled to the UK when I was introduced to The Toasters by Catherine Tobias. She was managing Shinehead at the time, but they parted company. At the time, my song "Roughneck" was playing on the urban music stations and she heard the similarities between Shinehead and myself. She sought me out and proposed management of me. She said The Toasters had lost their two frontmen and suggested I audition and do a small run with them to Europe for me to gain stage experience (she wasn't aware of my history of opening up for most of the reggae acts that came from Jamaica to do stage shows). I had just returned from England singing in Saxon Sound when all of this happened upon me.”

Coolie continued, “At the time, I was a dancehall artist doing ska and had no intention of staying in the scene. It was meant to be as a one-off tour with them and I would resume my work in dancehall. It really was culture shock for me.” He would not resume his role as the official and wildly popular front man of The Toasters until a few years later (Cashew Miles and then Pablo Wright were the interim singers/toasters for the band who appeared on This Gun for Hire and New York Fever). “I had just returned from living in London from 1991-1993. I was walking in New York City when I ran into [Toasters drummer] Jonathan McCain’s girlfriend. She said he was back in The Toasters and they were playing that night. I went to check them out the show--this was in 1993. Buck spotted me in the audience with my friend Natty and from the stage he began shouting out to me and reminding me of past shows we did. After the show, he came over and said he wanted to catch up and have a drink later in the week. We met for a drink at Blanche's and there he proposed I rejoin the band.”

The London International Ska Fest II flyer that was included in
every album mail ordered from Unicorn at the time.
Both the second London International Ska Festival (held at The Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park, London on May 27-29, 1989 with Laurel Aitken, The Trojans, The Deltones, Potato 5, The Toasters, Skaos, Floyd Lloyd, Skaos, The Hotknives, The Busters, The Braces, The Ska-dows, Mr. Review, Les Frelons, Spy Club, Arthur Kay’s Originals, and The Skandal on the bill) and the Frankenska recording at the Town and Country II in Islington, London on June 12, 1989 had been organized by Unicorn Record’s label head Mark Johnson, while the other Toasters’ dates around the UK were booked by RPM, which was run by several ex-members of 2 Tone act The Bodysnatchers. While George Marshall opined in Zoot that The Toasters’ performance wasn’t their best at the London ska fest, there’s no question that the band had all cylinders firing for the Frankenska recording.

While the Frankenska set list is loaded with classic Toasters tunes from Recriminations through Thrill Me Up, it also featured a small preview of the band’s next album in the form of “One Track Mind” (this one’s better than the studio version). Coolie confidently takes the lead vocals on “Go Girl,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Thrill Me Up” (and delivers some amazing toasting on “Run Rudy Run”), as if he had been in the band forever instead of a few months. The versions of “Ska Killers,” “East Side Beat” (check out Greg Grinnell’s hilarious Beastie Boys-like rap--swapping out the one usually done by Cavo during an instrumental break in the song: “I live on the outskirts of a place--East Flatbush/Hot like Texas and twice as dangerous/Every second of my life was a thrill/For a walk on the wild side, there’s a place--Brownsville/It’s hard to chill when they turn up the heat/Come on boys, do the East Side Beat…”), and “Pool Shark” are positively scorching. Even The Toasters’ roadie for that tour Steven “Big Steve” Carroll is heard from--he shouts “Matt Davis, special agent” throughout the album opener. I was fortunate enough to catch The Toasters several times in NYC in 1988 and 1989--those gigs continue to be some of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever experienced--and despite the unfortunate departure of some of the crew, the remaining Toasters more than hold their own on Frankenska; this performance rates amongst the Thrill Me Up-era band’s best. George Marshall concurred in his review of Frankenska for Zoot: “Despite a below par performance at Ska Fest II, The Toasters did enough on their European tour to make this LP worthwhile. It benefits from concentrating on their earlier material like ‘Matt Davis,’ ‘East Side Beat,’ and ‘Weekend in L.A.,’ making it a fans’ album with all three sure to get you dancing away in the safety of your bedroom. There’s even a giveaway poster for freebie freaks.”

Also on the bill that evening with The Toasters at the Town and Country II were the Potato 5 and The Deltones. A recording of the Potato 5’s fantastic performance that night was released as Five Alive on Unicorn Records and captured incredible tracks like “Spit ‘n’ Polish” and “Stopped by a Cop” that the band didn’t have a chance to record in the studio before breaking up late in 1989, after a difficult US tour (with gigs that included Bim Skala Bim and The Donkey Show). Bucket recalled that “Potato 5 was an awesome band. They had recorded that classic album with Laurel Aitken and some of their tunes like “Western Special” were excellent. We got on well with them and they had a relaxed vibe. Deltones were a bit shambolic, but they had great singers (Dill) and those shows we played with them knocking around in South East London were a lot of fun.”

A large free poster inside every LP!
By taking a big risk on this tour, The Toasters’ fortune finally changed for the better, as the band’s absolutely terrific live show was recorded for posterity, the tour put them on the radar overseas (and led to regular gigs throughout Europe and beyond from that point on to the present day), and on their return to the States, they connected with a major league domestic booking agency (which allowed The Toasters to further develop the US ska touring circuit and support all of local ska scene across the country--and lay the groundwork that would kick-start the massive, mid-’90s US ska revival). “As it turned out, that gamble paid off handsomely, as it raised the profile of the band immensely and we were able to tour in Europe consistently after that smash debut,” Bucket assessed. “It was a hot band and we blew most of the European groups away. Upon our return to the USA, we were promptly signed to Falk and Morrow booking, which was a huge agency. That helped cement the US touring and, hey presto, we were now an international touring act.”

The only bum notes about this release are that The Toasters never received any royalties for Frankenska (or any other Unicorn release of theirs, including Pool Shark and the Naked City comp) and the album was never issued domestically in the US. In the early 1990s, Unicorn’s Mark Johnson reportedly fled the UK for Turkey (and later Thailand) to escape the tax man and, in the process, absconded with what he owed to all the label’s bands. But given The Toasters’ previous experiences with other imprints and distributors who ripped them off or went belly up throughout the 1980s, it came as no shock(er) at all.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Duff Review: DJ Spooky "Phantom Dancehall" (2018 RSD Release)

VP Records
Clear red vinyl LP
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I was really intrigued by this 2018 Record Store Day release after having reviewed (and loving!) DJ Spooky's Creation Rebel--his stellar 2008 CD of re-mixes and mash-ups of classic tracks from Trojan's vaults by Lee “Scratch” Perry, Augustus Pablo, Bob Marley, Tapper Zukie, Wayne Smith, Dawn Penn, and more (read The Duff Guide to Ska Review of Creation Rebel; by the way, this absolutely deserves to be issued on vinyl someday). This time out, DJ Spooky (AKA Paul Miller) is working with material from VP Records and legendary UK label Greensleeves (now owned by VP), and with collaborator Apple Juice Kid (Stephen Levitin) has created an album of both original electro-dancehall (see their epic "Enter the Arena"!) as well as early '80s-sounding dancehall tracks that build upon snippets or larger elements of productions by Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Linval Thompson, Lloyd “Prince Jammy” James, and others to form something radically new (and oftentimes spectacular).

The cuts on side A skew toward modern dancehall, including "Hot Gal," which samples Busy Signal's "Da Style Deh"--there's a telephone busy signal sound in the mix, naturally; "Why I Come" makes good use of Lady Saw's "Walk Out" for a full-on club track; and Miller's and Levity's terrific "Dash It in the Mirror" might remind one of a stripped down Massive Attack-like take on dancehall. I'll cop to being partial to the early dancehall-ish tracks on the remainder of the album, such as the wonderfully heavy "No Return," which versions the Ranking Joe and Jah Screw written/produced "Country Gal Dub" from 1981's King Tubby Meets Roots Radics' Dangerous Dub; the menacing, yet fantastically majestic "Phantom in The Dancehall" (which I think incorporates Eek-A-Mouse's "Sensee Party" as part of its foundation); the mellow keyboard line from Eek-A-Mouse's "Ganja Smuggling" floats over a busy rhythm track on "Showtime (Dynamite Selection)"; and "Music of the Time" utilizes Prince Jammy's "Auto Rhythm" from Computerized Dub and is just this shy of being a digital ska cut. The album finishes with the magnificent "Jah Dub," whose distinctive and dramatic piano riff comes from Black Uhuru's cover of Bob Marley's "Natural Mystic." At first, many of the tracks on Phantom Dancehall might seem pretty uncomplicated, but this is a very smart, inventive, and well-crafted album that gains strength and depth with repeated listens. (And you can definitely dance to it!)

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Duff Review: Prince Fatty w/Omar and Fatlip "Sunshine" b/w "Sunshine Dub" (RSD 2018 Release)

Evergreen Recordings
Vinyl 7" single
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This is a fantastic and instantly recognizable Prince Fatty roots reggae take on Roy Ayers perfect 1976 jazz-funk-soul creation "Everybody Loves The Sunshine" (if this song doesn't completely epitomize the sound of American black music the 1970s, what does?). For this Record Store Day release, Prince Fatty enlisted the UK neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook on vocals and Fatlip from The Pharcyde rapping in the breaks ("Teach the children/celebrate diversity/Like The Beatles/They say, 'Let it be'"), as well some of the great usual suspects in Fatty's musical orbit, including Horseman (drums), Mafia (bass), Bubblers (keys), and Kashta Tafari (guitar). The results, of course, are top-notch--and you probably wouldn't be surprised if I told you that this makes for an ideal summer reggae track. This is coming to a sound-system near you.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Duff Review: Various Artists "Drink the Ska"

Jump Up Records/Ska Brewing
LP
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The loose concept for this unofficial 2018 RSD compilation was born at a Ska Brewing anniversary party in 2017 that featured Jump Up's Chuck Wren on the decks. Wren suggested that he and one of Ska Brewing's co-founders Dave Thibodeau put together a compilation featuring acts who have played Ska Brewing parties in the past, as well a healthy selection of choice bands from Jump Up's current roster. The result--unsurprisingly--is a really great mix of new, lesser-known, and solidly established ska bands from across the USA (many from the heartland) playing a variety of ska styles to please every taste.

The lead-off track is The Toasters' stellar tribute to Motown, "House of Soul (Whirly Gig Mix)," which, if you can believe it, is from 2013 (!) and represents the most recent bit of recorded music from them; surely another 45 must be forthcoming soon (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of the "House of Soul" 7" single here)! Of course, The Toasters have had a long association with Ska Brewing, which even released the limited-edition Sheebeen IPA Black in celebration of The Toasters' 30th anniversary. Top tracks to help you catch up on other well-known bands include Monty Neysmith and The Bishops' hilarious "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Skinheads" (from their Jump Up record Monty Neysmith Meets The Bishops, which we reviewed here); The Crombies' spot-on ska cover of Billy Bragg's heartbreaking "Levi Stubbs Tears" (from their Jump Up Dance Crazee LP, which we reviewed here); The Dendrites' awesome ska-jazz "Booty Lu's Canoe" (from their recent Jump Up album Damn Right); The Prizefighters' very Skatalites-sounding "The Accolade"; the Bandulus' righteous ska-soul-early rock cover of James Brown's "Good Lovin'"; Green Room Rocker's hot version of Montell Jordan's '90s New Jack Swing cut "This Is How We Do It" (from their Jump Up release Sweat Steady); the grooving reggae "Dogs" by 2 Tone Lizard Kings (with Alex Desert of Hepcat); and Chris Murray and Caps Lock's sweet acoustic ode to consent in "50 Shades of Okay."

Many of the newer/lesser-known bands on Drink the Ska are a revelation and you'll be thankful for the intro. Boss Riot's "Hearts and Hands" ("...they tend to wander") is a terrific, catchy 2 Tone cut with female vocals; Boomtown United's "Work It Out" reminds me of a lot of the excellent modern ska coming out of Europe in the early '90s; there's ska-punk from Buster's Ghost with "Horn Show"; Blue Hornets' "Boom Ska" is top-shelf vintage ska with Dick Dale guitar break; The Breachers' rocksteady-ish (and kind of melancholy) "Walking to the Train" is on a loop in my head; and The Fuss' lovely rocksteady cut "So Many Times" (more female vocals!) is a treat!

Ska fans from all over should be sure to check out this dynamite comp! (Wish I could say the same for Ska Brew's beers, as they're only in distribution in certain states--I'd love to be able to sample their products! Drink the Ska, indeed!).

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Duff Review: V/A "Recutting the Crap, Volume 2" and "The Future Was Unwritten" (RSD 2018 Release)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Editor's note: Before delving into my review of "Recutting the Crap, Volume 2" and its companion piece "The Future Was Unwritten," a read through of The Duff Guide to Ska write up of last year's "Recutting the Crap, Volume 1" is in order, as it provides vital background and context for these releases...

Various Artists, Recutting the Crap, Volume 1 (Heavyweight vinyl LP, Crooked Beat Records, 2017): I first heard The Clash's Cut the Crap back in 1985 after devouring Big Audio Dynamite's This is Big Audio Dynamite (both were released within months of each other) and was profoundly disappointed to find that while Jones and company had taken the Sandinista and Combat Rock musical gumbo (punk, hip-hop, dance rock, reggae/dub) to the next evolutionary level, Strummer had made u-turn back toward 1977 punk (at manager Bernie Rhodes' urging), but had been t-boned by Rhodes' god-awful musical direction/production (replete with session musicians, synthesizers, programmed drums, and football terrace-like shouted choruses) and several profound life experiences Joe was dealing with at the time that distracted him from the task at hand (the deaths of both of his parents and the birth of his first child). History has not been kind to Cut the Crap (generally it's not considered canonical by fans and band members alike), but in many cases the acts on Recutting the Crap have revealed in their versions that there were some seriously decent-to-great songs buried under Rhodes' dreck--Strummer's tunes were solid at the core. The Scotch Bonnets' terrific, stripped-down reggae take on the anti-nuclear war cut "Are You Red...Y" alone is worth the cost of this LP. Other notable tracks (all from DC-area bands, where Crooked Beat Records--named after that Sandinista track--is based) include The Violets' ska-ified "Cool Under Heat," Dom Casual's ska-jazz-punkabilly "Sex Mad Roar," Basnji's "Dirty Punk" is loads more faithful to the Clash's '77 sound than the original (Too Much Joy's version of the cringe-y "We Are The Clash" is a valiant effort in this category, too), and Winterdrinks' "Play to Win" sounds like a deep cut from Sandinista. There are even a few covers of demos for Cut the Crap (which was originally titled Out of Control before Rhodes unilaterally renamed it)--I particularly liked Sussed Out with Sol Roots' raucous cover of "Backwoods Drive." A second volume of Recutting the Crap is slated for 2018, which presumably will include the last good and legit Clash single, "This Is England."

Various Artists, Recutting the Crap, Volume 2 and The Future Was Unwritten (2 x heavyweight, color vinyl LPs, Crooked Beat Records, 2018): Volume 2 continues to mine/reclaim the post-Mick Jones/Topper Headon Clash legacy (namely, the Out of Control demo and Cut the Crap album), while The Future Was Unwritten explores the "would have been Clash songs" had things worked out differently--the Strummer/Jones collaborations on Big Audio Dynamite's No. 10, Upping Street, as well as several Strummer cuts written for several film soundtracks in the late 1980s.

The original intent of The Clash Mark II (Strummer, Paul Simonon, Nick Sheppard, Vince White, and Pete Howard) was to revert to a back-to-basics '77 punk sound (unfortunately shedding much of the reggae influence in the process)--as evident on their 1983 Out of Control demo and 1984 tour--and had Clash manager Bernie Rhodes not perverted it all (and instead paired the band with the right producer in the studio, instead of doing an atrocious job himself), the final Clash album might have been pretty damn good.

All of the DC bands on Recutting the Crap, Volume 2 further strengthen this series' case that Strummer could still deliver the goods. Highlights inspired by the Out of Control demo include Indio Bravo's four-on-the-floor, straight-up rock take on "In the Pouring Rain" (a great live version of the original from 1984 can be found on the Julien Temple documentary The Future is Unwritten soundtrack); Space Giants' fantastically rollicking "Rock n Roll City"; Tall Ship's brash, punker-than-the-original "Glue Zombie"; and The Delarcos' nice rockabilly-ish take on "Jericho" (also known as "Ammunition"). Other notable Clash II-era cuts versioned here are Geisha Hit Squad's excellent XTC-sounding "Shouting Street" (eventually released on Strummer's disappointingly meh Earthquake Weather); Ignore Alien Orders' awesome sound collage using Strummer's pre-Clash nickname "Woody," as in Guthrie, for its title (with snippets of The Clash II playing "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and "White Riot" while busking, a bit of "Street Parade" from Sandinista, Strummer from his show on the BBC World Service, and more); Daly Combat (one of Crooked Beat owner Bill Daly's two bands here) does a bang-up job on this superb reggae instrumental cut "Astroturf" (from a Jones/Headon demo, naturally); and Basenji's faithfully ace, but somewhat muted (appropriate, given the economic inequality of our times) "Bottom Line" (which Mick Jones had been working on as a Clash tune when he was fired from the band). Silveradio transforms the Cut the Crap opener "Dictator" into a much better ska-rockabilly track and, in what may be the best cover on the album, Insurgence DC (the other Bill Daly band) unleashes a phenomenally powerful and majestic "This Is England," a truly great Clash song made even better here--whose lyrics still pack a wallop:

"I hear a gang fight on a human factory farm
Are they howling out, or doing somebody harm?
On a catwalk jungle, somebody grabbed my arm
A voice spoke so cold, it matched the weapon in her palm

This is England
This knife of Sheffield steel
This is England
This is how we feel

Time on his hands, the freezing mohawk strolls
He won't go for the carrots
Been beaten by the pole
Some sunny day confronted by his soul
His eye will see how fast you can grow old

This is England
That I'm supposed to die for

This is England
Never gonna cry no more

Black shadow of the Vincent
Falls on a Triumph line
I got my motorcycle jacket
But I'm walking all the time

South Atlantic wind blows
Ice from a dying creed
I see no glory
And when will we get free?

This is England
We can chain you to the rail
This is England
We can kill you in a jail

Hey, British boots go kick Bengali in the head
Police sit watching
The newspapers being read
All deaf to protests
And after the attacker fled
Out came the batons and
The biggest one then said...

This is England
The land of illegal dances
This is England
Land of one thousand stances
This is England
This knife of Sheffield steel
This is England
This is how we feel"


Strummer's and Jones' post-Clash songs from the late '80s are (unsurprisingly) looser and freer, as they no longer felt confined/burdened by the mantle and mass of conflicting ideals and expectations that defined The Clash (and, obviously, gave them the space to collaborate again, whenever the mood or Muse struck)--but a lot of them could have been combined to make a great Clash album, had Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon reunited (as The Future Was Unwritten posits). Too Much Joy serve up a stellar hard-edged and ballsy "Trash City" (from the soundtrack to "Permanent Record"; this band, Joe Strummer and The Latino Rockabilly War, featured Joey Altruda and Willie MacNeil from Jump with Joey!); it's hard to imagine that this was a Strummer/Jones outtake from BAD's No. 10, Upping Street, but "Dog in a Satellite" (apparently inspired by The Mighty Sparrow's "Russian Satellite") as interpreted by Don Zientara becomes a lovely, heartfelt rock ballad (really!); and "Euroshima," an eerie, nuclear dread 1983 Mick Jones song for Top Risk Action Company (T.R.A.C.), his pre-BAD band with Topper Headon and Leo Williams from Basement 5, sounds kind of gothy (like latter-day Damned) in Sunshine Feels' cool version. Daly Combat's "Love Kills" (Strummer's title track for the Alex Cox film "Sid and Nancy"; Jones played guitar on the original recording) packs even more crunch than the source; Winterdrinks turn "Dum Dum Dub" ("Dum Dum Club," also from "Sid and Nancy") into intriguingly good, X-sounding reggae-punk; and El Quatro successfully rework the Strummer/Jones BAD track "Sightsee MC" into an amazing cover The Plugz or Circle Jerks might have done (and it's got a great Western reggae break in there, too).

Both volumes of Crooked Beat Records' Recutting the Crap strive hard and largely succeed in redeeming Strummer's Clash II legacy (and all of those lost years in the wilderness before finding his mojo again with the Mescaleros). Fans of The Only Band That Matters will find a lot to like here and can rest easy in knowing that these bands have done Joe proud.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Duff Review: Duke Reid "Judge Sympathy" b/w Roland Alphonso "Never To Be Mine" and Eek-A-Mouse "Ganja Smuggling" b/w "Smuggling Dub" (RSD 2018 Re-Issues)

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

Duke Reid "Judge Sympathy" b/w Roland Alphonso "Never To Be Mine" (Orange vinyl 7" single, Trojan Records, 2018 re-issue): This was the first single Trojan released back on July 28, 1967 (the imprint had been created by Island Records specifically to release Duke Reid's productions in the UK). And as this year marks the label's 50th anniversary (a book and mega box set are forthcoming), it seems more than fitting that this would be re-issued for Record Store Day 2018 (this single was also part of the Judge Sympathy--Birth of Trojan 11 x 7" box set released in 2008).

On Duke Reid's "Judge Sympathy"--which capitalized upon/was an answer record of sorts to Prince Buster's rude boy crackdown "Judge Dread" trilogy (which included "The Appeal" and "Judge Dread Dance")--an uncredited Alton Ellis sings "I stand accused," while Judge Sympathy (Reid himself, one assumes), seeing a couple before him for "maintenance," instructs the husband to treat his wife better: "You must give her enough food to make her comfortable in her kitchen. You must also give her water until her child is old enough to carry her own water." Alphonso's track is a lush and lilting instrumental cover of Elvis Presley's 1960's hit "It's Now or Never" (based on Tony Martin's 1949 "There's No Tomorrow," which itself is based on the classic 1898 Neapolitan song "O solo mio" by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi). Both cuts are ace.

Eek-A-Mouse "Ganja Smuggling" b/w "Smuggling Dub" (Clear green vinyl 7" single, Greensleeves Records, 2018 re-issue): On this Henry "Junjo" Lawes-produced 1982 hit, one might have expected some sort of rebel posturing about dodging the police whilst drug running, but Eek-A-Mouse's tale (a spare, roots reggae lament, really) is about the extremes of capitalism (and results of racism and colonialism in Jamaica). Either one follows the rules and lives in desperate poverty or breaks the law and lives large: "Down dere in the ghetto I go, where sufferation I once know/Mummy and Daddy, all a' we so poor, we all had to sleep on the floor..." versus "One by one, load up de van, all of a ganja it a ram/Put it on a plane, the week gaan a Spain/Money jus' a pour like rain..." Roots Radics are featured on the b side with "Smuggling Dub." This release marks the first time the title cut has been issued on a 7" single outside of JA--and its dub previously was hard to track down, too. Pick it up, while you can.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Duff Review: The Skatalites "Hi Bop Ska" (RSD 2018 Re-Issue)

Jump Up Records
2 x heavyweight LPs
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

When Hi-Bop Ska was originally issued on Shanachie back in 1994, I definitely didn't pay it enough heed, probably because I was unable to imagine a day when so many of these ska originators wouldn't be around. Back then, The Skatalites played in NYC with great frequency; this was their second new album in the 1990s after '93's Ska Voovee; and the so-called Third Wave of ska was blowing up and keeping me busy (I even worked with several band members during my time at Moon Records). Yes, I took them for granted, as ridiculous and callow as it sounds from this vantage point in time.

So, it's fantastic to have another opportunity to rediscover this superb, Grammy-nominated album--and for the first time issued on vinyl (LPs were on the outs in the 1990s). It's a meticulously recorded and produced collection of new tunes (Tommy McCook's "African Freedom," "Nelson's Song," and "Burru Style"; Roland Alphonso's "Everlasting Sound") and Skatalites classics ("Man in the Street" and "Guns of Navarone") with a core of the band (McCook, Alphonso, Lloyd Knibbs, and Lloyd Brevett) in top form and a slew of guest musicians, including ska superstars Toots Hibbert (on "Split Personality"), Prince Buster (on "Ska Ska Ska"), and Doreen Shaeffer (on "You're Wondering Now"), as well as jazz greats Lester Bowie, David Murray, Steve Turre, and Monty Alexander. With so many jazz musicians on board (and contributing arrangements, like Murray's phenomenal ska take on his own 1976 cut "Flowers for Albert" and new songs, such as Alexander's "Renewal"), one might have been concerned that the ska quotient would be diminished, but a wonderful and completely appropriate balance between ska and jazz is struck throughout (and the Skatalites' incredible rhythm section grounds and propels each track with a rock solid ska beat). For fans of traditional Jamaican ska, it doesn't get much better than this. Kudos to Jump Up for re-issuing this truly essential Skatalites release and reminding us all of when we had it so good.

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Monday, April 23, 2018

Duff Review: Hub City Stompers "Haters Dozen"

Altercation Records
CD
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

From the cover art of Haters Dozen--a baker's dozen of cupcakes with hands of various hues and genders giving us the finger--it shouldn't be a shock to know that New Jersey's Hub City Stompers have always clearly relished being the defiant bad boys and girls of ska, taking the piss out of everything and everyone (they refer to their fans as droogs), and letting the chips fall where they may. Their targets on their sixth album Haters Dozen are legion (abusers, cheaters, fakers, leaches, and haters) and they take them on with a mix of sharp humor and deadly seriousness--all delivered in this fantastic collection of catchy ska songs that will end up taking permanent residence in your head.

With an intro from Mr. Symarip--Roy Ellis--himself, the album kicks off with "Hub City Stomp," an "East Side Beat" of sorts for the New Brunswick scene ("This is your day of independence/For skinheads, punks, and their descendants/Let that wicked word be spread..."), but then, on a Judge Dread-sounding cut, HCS set their sights on "Mr. McFeely" (about a seemingly anodyne, older character on the scene--like the delivery man on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood"--who's actually a predator: "Mr. McFeely, tell me where you been?/Fallen pied piper of the punks and skins...Mr. McFeely, in ya come to creep/When she's passed out drunk, when she's fast asleep/Mr. McFeely, won't ya come outside?/Or will you stay in and hide?"). Fake friends can't put one over on ever-vigilant singer Travis Nelson (the primary songwriter of the album) on "Keepers": "I see snakes creeping’, I ain't sleepin’ in the poppy field/I see the daggers flying towards, but they don't see my shield/With all the cold that I behold you'd think that I would freeze/But I'm just basking in the heat of all my enemies" (love the "Wizard of Oz" reference!). The always-great King Django guest chats on "Father's Day" (about victims of child abuse falling into similarly abusive relationships as young adults). On "What's She Got?" (a real showcase for Jenny Whiskey), rejection and jealousy have never sounded so good: "What's she got that I ain't got?/She's got you/That's what she's got, that's what she's got/Looking for a place in your will/That silly trick is just a midnight thrill/You'll be thinking of me every night/Once you bust your nut and turn out the light."

With its demented, but hilarious "Send in the Clowns" opening, "Bring Back the Dorks" calls out all of the Slackers wannabes: "Yeah, I hope that you’re ready/For my (pretentious) hipster rocksteady tonight...white noise from white boys"), while the ska-core-ish "Night of the Living" goes after scene hijackers and cultural appropriators with equal fury ("We’re zombies who reclaim this rotted wasteland of a scene/It once was fatty bacon, then you made it Sizzlean/A silly, plastic world of kissing ass and dropping names/We never puckered up and didn’t play your reindeer games/Your head went up your anus when ska went Hollywood...No white, suburban kid came off of the banana boat/And if you went to Kingston they would cut your poseur throat/Remember that next time you’re pushing your skathority").

Two bright topical spots are "Philly, What The Fuck?" ("...why is your accent so fucked up?") and the  kind of sweet, no regrets, love-song-of-sorts "Weeks Worth of Wednesdays" ("Lone Stars at night shine bright/And alter what's in your sight/What a mess, what a mess/There were a week's worth of Wednesdays up in that dress/I confess, I confess/That I couldn't have settled for less"). The centerpiece of the album, though, might be trombonist James Kelly's wonderful tribute to HCS' friend, the late Roy Radics of The Rudie Crew, in "Distance Water" (which was his nickname; a reference to how Radics had traveled across the Atlantic from his hometown of London to his adopted New York City). This largely instrumental track features P-Dub of Predator Dub Assassins, some Radics snippets, and phenomenal toasting by Coolie Ranx: "Hey, Mr. Radics, Mister Hot Topics/The law's on the lamb/No, they just try to stop it/You try to protest/Dem jumping on your chest/They don't want the truth to be told/Him try to shed the light on the black man's plight/When we standing up firm/When fight for your rights/No retribution when dem take a life/They don't want no civil war...Nah, we no love dem games that dem play/And the conversation is lame/We don't care what dem say/'Cause we've been fighting power from back in the days..."

Hub City Stompers bring their ace tunes, their considerable chops, and tons of barbed fun for a first-rate album that might just end up making them kind of respectable, despite it all.

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Duff Interview: Tim Receveur, Organizer of the Supernova International Ska Festival (May 26-27, 2018)!

Derrick Morgan backed by Eastern Standard Time
(photo: James Walker Studios)
Editor's note: Tim Receveur, along with his wife April, are the organizers of the Supernova International Ska Festival, which will be taking place on May 26-27 at the 1781 Brewing Company in Spotsylvania, VA (see the entire bill below). We very much appreciate him taking the time so close to the event to answer our questions about the festival. Please note that Duff Guide to Ska readers can save $10 on a weekend pass to Supernova with the promo code "Duff."

The Duff Guide to Ska: How did last year's festival turn out? What were some of your personal highlights?

Tim Receveur: "The 2017 Supernova festival accomplished most of the goals that my wife April and I set out to accomplish. We wanted to put ska back on a larger stage and hopefully inspire people to think about it's past and future in a brighter light. On one end, we honored the legendary Derrick Morgan by hosting his 60th anniversary performance with Eastern Standard Time (who absolutely gave a performance of a lifetime), while at the same time mixing the weekend with a ton of young, up-and-coming ska bands who were barely alive when ska was big in the '90s. I didn't see much of the festival to be honest, but I did see The Aggrolites and The Pietasters backing Greg Lee of Hepcat on Night 1 and The Skints and The Pietasters on Night 2, which were all highlights for me. Adam Flymo Birch, who played trumpet for The Specials and The Toasters, also showed up for the weekend not knowing what to expect and he ended up playing on everyone's sets."

DGTS: Without getting too much into the nitty gritty, how are you financing this? Did you break even or turn a profit last year? (Will this always be more a labor of love or would you like seeing it develop into a bigger business venture?)

Greg Lee of Hepcat backed by The Pietasters (photo: James Walker Studios)
TR: "This has always been a labor of love and no one in their right mind would spend this amount of time on a festival if they didn't have a deep affinity for the community and the bands. Last year, we financed the festival through ticket sales, a percentage of the beer money, and a GoFundMe campaign, but it lost money unfortunately. This year, we're trying to do a better job of keeping our costs down and hoping that last year's success will lead to more tickets sales in 2018 (2018supernova.eventbrite.com)."

DGTS: What about putting on the Virginia Ska Festival a few years ago made you want to make the jump to a larger and more ambitious international ska fest?

TR: "Supernova was actually the third try at a name after a stupidly named Brew Fest in 2014 and the Virginia Ska Festival in 2015. The first year was just one day and five bands including The Pietasters, Chris Murray, and The Snails (now The Dull Blue Lights) and we expanded it to two days with the Virginia Ska Fest. The first band we signed in 2017 was The Skints from the UK, so it felt like we needed to think a little bigger about the festival name. NOVA is just shorthand for Northern Virginia, so the name is bigger while recognizing our roots in Virginia."

DGTS: What is your criteria for selecting acts each year?

The Aggrolites (photo: James Walker Studios)
TR: "We have a few that we try to target and lock down early each year. For 2018, I wanted The Suicide Machines, MU330, Western Standard Time and Hepcat, and we were able to lock down three of the four. We couldn't land Hepcat in the end, but Greg Lee is coming in and singing a set with WST this year. For the other bands, it's been a family effort and my son Brody has helped pick the bands, especially the newer bands. For criteria, we spent all summer listening to the tracks that bands sent, we want to have a geographic mix of bands and have some variety to the ska. We've also been coordinating closely with Chuck Wren from Jump Up Records and Matt Flood from Asbestos Records, who have both helped getting the bands and the word out."

DGTS: What's it like juggling your considerable responsibilities at the PeaceTech Lab with organizing a major music festival?

TR: "It's been extremely tough over the last few months. My work for PeaceTech Lab has had me on the road in four continents since December and I recently spent the better part of early 2018 in Niger, mostly without internet, which makes it hard to get the word out for the festival. The upside is that I run into ska fans in unexpected corners of the world."

The Skints (photo: James Walker Studios)
DGTS: What do you think of the ska/punk/reggae "Back to the Beach" festival out in California (and why do think ska festivals out there attract big music industry promoters, while there's not much interest back East)?

TR: The Back to the Beach festival looks like a dream come true and most of my all-time favorite bands are there. When I first saw the bill, I definitely thought it was fake. California is definitely the epicenter of the bands and the promoters, so it makes sense that it would be bigger out there. For selfish reasons, I'm just glad this wasn't announced in New York or Florida or we would be sunk with it so close to Supernova. We obviously don't do ourselves any favors by hosting this in Virginia and we've had offers to move this to New York or Boston, so we'll see how this year goes and explore that in the future."

DGTS: It seems like most of the major scenes from across the US are represented by bands on this year's festival bill--but it's still challenging upping the quotient of international acts, right (what with travel expenses, visas, etc.)? Do you see including a higher number of international acts in the future?

TR: "The downside to international acts is exactly what you mentioned. You can find affordable flights, but the visa issue is the hardest thing for independent performers. We tried to bring in Rhoda Dakar this year unsuccessfully because the visa process is absolutely daunting and even with a lawyer it takes months. A British citizen can come to the U.S. with no problem, but if they want to sing and get paid they need an O visa which is the same thing that Bono and Sting need to tour. We do have international acts coming with Doreen Schaffer from The Skatalites coming in to sing with Western Standard Time, Roddy Radiation from The Specials will be there backed by The Scotch Bonnets from Baltimore, and Dr Ring Ding will be coming in from Germany."

DGTS: Is there anything about this year's festival that you want to pass along to The Duff Guide to Ska readers?

TR: "We will be reuniting The Stubborn All-Stars with an absolutely killer line-up for this year's fest with King Django, Vic Ruggiero, Eddie Ocampo, Agent Jay Nugent, Sheldon Gregg aka Bassista Giamaicano, David Hillyard, and Rich Graiko. This will also be the first time on the East Coast for both Western Standard Time and the Chris Murray Combo.

Help us keep ska alive by buying your tickets and coming down to the festival! It will be held at a beautiful brewery called the 1781 Brewing Company and you can see some photos here (http://april.smugmug.com/1781). Get your tickets at http://2018supernova.eventbrite.com/ and save $10 on a weekend pass with the promo code "Duff." Our website can be found at http://www.supernovaska.com. Thanks!"

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Duff Review: The Dirty Notion "How The Story Goes"

Abbey Productions
Six-track digital EP
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This is the fantastic second EP from Detroit's The Dirty Notion (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of their debut, The Dirty EP), which finds the band continuing to profitably mine late '60s/early 70s skinhead reggae territory (check the phenomenal Glen Adams/Jackie Mittoo-ish "The Boilermaker"), while mixing in choice bits of their hometown's garage rock and soul. The EP roars to a start with a fierce declaration of independence in "Gone" ("Though harsh words/They fight so hard/But my skin is thicker/Than many teeth/So, your words don't mean a thing/A petty mind, it's petty crimes/It's no World War 3 now/I'm out of time/And I won't be turning back..."). "How the Story Goes" is world weary, but wise enough to know what makes the daily grind (more) tolerable (and has a boss rocksteady groove): "Life's stuck on repeat/Every day's the same routine/Something's got to give/Cause this ain't how I want to live/So, give me rhythm/I'll give you rhyme/Put the two together/Makes some days fine/And I know/How the story goes..." (It's another disaffected Gen X anthem, like their superb "Someday" from The Dirty EP.) The Dirty Notion give Aussie proto-punks Radio Birdman's classic "Murder City Nights" their trademark rocksteady treatment, with great results (this track is about being young and bored and "fighting up terminal Seventies stasis" in Detroit--similar in theme to The Selecter's "Out On the Streets" or The Clash's "London's Burning"--and written by RB's Deniz Tek who grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Radio Birdman was heavily influenced by two Detroit bands, The Stooges and MC5). The melodramatic ska track "Devils and Demons" is about being plagued by the manifestation of one's guilt, while the deadly cool and bad ass "Plan B" is a laid-back rocksteady ode to guilt-free (if not hangover free) pursuit of pleasure: "Woke up at 6 this morning/In the middle of the floor/I hear the rain is pouring/I got some sleep, but I want more...Dead men tell no secrets/I brought the Devil to her knees/I hear the preacher preaching/Two deaf ears, no one's listening/We danced the night away/My bones are aching/One, two, three shots, four!"

These are some great tunes from a tremendously good band. The Dirty Notion's How the Story Goes is highly recommended!

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