Sunday, October 7, 2007

Is America ready for the Secondhand Ska Kings?

The other day I saw Suggs advertising fish fingers ("fish sticks" for those of you playing along at home) on television, which elicited a howling response from myself and a sort of roll of the eyes from the child bride. She did this because she knew that no matter what she did, I was going to insist on telling her who Suggs was.

My head is a Rwandan minefield of useless pop culture references -- it is almost impossible to hold a two-minute conversation with me without my working in a joke about some person or band you've never heard of. I don't really have a good reason for doing this. When you think about it, it's a stupid way to hold a conversation. What's the point of a wacky reference to Phyllis Diller (a) if it is no more relevant to the listener than a reference to Valerie Bell (b)? But I can't help myself.

"Dude! Suggs!" I shouted, when I first saw the 2 Tone icon on screen.

After a bit of giggling to myself in such a way as to convey that I was thoroughly amused, but not so thoroughly that I would refuse to field questions about the source of my amusement, I decided that perhaps my wife hadn't heard me, despite her sitting three feet from me.

"I can't believe Suggs is shilling fish fingers," I said, being sure to annunciate.

The child bride knows that I pride myself on retaining useless crap information and I live to share it with other people. After a long pause and an exasperated sigh, she asked: "Who's Suggs?"

"Cultural icon," I said, happily, knowingly. "I suppose you could blame him for Gwen Stefani."

And that's pretty much ska in a nutshell, isn't it? Suggs and Madness took the Jamaican sound, Anglicised it, made it poppy and sold a load of records in the UK. The 2 Tone sound carried over to the United States a few years later and fuelled the early 90s ska revival that gave us No Doubt.

Now Suggs is selling fish fingers and Stefani is No. 4 on my List Of Women I'd Like To Keep In A Shed For Personal Use. Funny how life works.

But the point of this post is that sound: ska. These days it is all too often the sound of concrete basements and cheap beer; the sound of Welsh-language activists who are too untalented to master or develop their own folk music. But occasionally it will show up in an Amy Winehouse or Lily Allen cover and I'll grow all wistful.

Whereas interest in ska had ebbed elsewhere by the late 90s, it was the sound de rigeur of Midwestern college bands. It was easy to play and easy to dance to. The quirky/catchy Midwestern brand of 2 Tone was the soundtrack to my Moorhead years. And whereas I suggest that most modern purveyors of ska are crap, the ska I was listening to in those days was great. It was great because everything is great when it's in the past and because most of my friends were in ska bands. And as we all know, people who are in bands are cool; if you have friends who are in bands, you, too, are cool. So, I was great. Everything was great in Moorhead and I never wanted to leave.

Not really. But the music was good. Long-time friends of the blog will remember my tome to 3 Minute Hero, one of the bands of the time.

Anyway, a few years ago, guys from 3 Minute Hero and Suspect Bill and The Smoking Jackets decided to relive the good old days, when they could jump around on stage all night and not wake up the next morning with aching backs. They formed Secondhand Ska Kings and started playing gigs mostly to their ever-suffering girlfriends and wives.

Things have moved on a bit and these days they occasionally play to crowds of people with whom they have more than one degree of separation. Sometimes these people even give them money to play. As evidence of this big-time success, the band has released an album, Ale to the Kings (iTunes), and I think you should buy it. Here's why:

1) The music is actually good. What they've done for this album is something that's a bit different from what a lot of ska bands do -- they've practiced. You can spot this in the lack of chipped notes.
2) Four of the guys in this band have bought me beer. If you buy this album, they will probably buy me beer again.
3) The guitarist, Matt, once nursed me back to health when I got the flu. If you buy this album, you will be supporting the idea of my being alive. If you are one of my ex-girlfriends, you should buy the album anyway.
4) Trombonist Eric has been my best friend for almost 20 years, is a frequent commenter on my blog, and is the guy that everyone loved in the documentary about me. If you buy this album, you get to hear him implore a woman to "take that, take that skirt off."
5) The cover art is cool.

For the low-low price of $9.99 (less than the cost of a pint in many London pubs), you get 44 minutes of the good-time sound that was in part popularised by a man who now sells fish fingers.

Perhaps one day a strangely impossible-not-to-look-at beautiful girl will be inspired by the Secondhand Ska Kings and will produce music that is at once brilliant and insufferable. It's not that far off an idea. Matt's first band, Ten Cent Fun, is mentioned in the liner notes of one of No Doubt's first albums.

(a) Female stand-up comic whose career peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s
(b) Girl I had a crush on in kindergarten.


Unknown said...

If album sales spike after this post, I might even let you into a show for free, and then let Matt buy you beers. Of course, you'd have to come home to see the show as there has been little to no interest as of yet of anyone flying us to the U.K. and paying us to play. Preferably in front of thousands of people. But if anyone IS interested in doing that, please contact us because, hey, free dummy.

Huw said...

Suggs lived next to the entrance of my former abode, Tufnell Park Towers (where the milk episode occured). We used to bump into each other in the corner shop and the record shop (which I'm pretty sure was the inspiration for Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity) on a fairly frequent basis. I often wanted to say something like "Yo, Suggs", but never did. The closest I came was when I saw him going into his front door, and I nearly shouted "Hey, have FUN in your HOUSE" but I didn't. True story.

Anonymous said...

Dude, picture looks like the Burger King enjoying a refeshing tankard of MUG.