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By Lauren Wise
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By Amanda Savage
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It's doubtful Yanks ever heard the word "ska" until the late Seventies, when punk peaked in Britain and the Specials spearheaded a ska revival there. The band's leader, Jerry Dammers, started up the phenomenally successful indie label Two Tone, home to the Specials, Madness, the Bodysnatchers, the Selecter and the English Beat. By 1983, only Madness remained to carry the Two Tone torch. Although the nutty boys in baggy trousers did reach the Top 10 in the States that year with "Our House," they, too, were viewed as a novelty act, with few fans ever connecting the group to the larger musical movement from which it sprang.
Last year, after Green Day went multiplatinum and the industry tagged it a "punk revival," many reconciled themselves that, true to the cycle of repetition, we'd soon be giving Two Tone a second glance. Yet ska music never really disappeared from the American club scene, especially in the Midwest. Bands like the Toasters and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones have been championing ska for the better part of two decades, inspiring legions of ska bands in every city. Bucket, lead singer of the Toasters, also started up Moon Records, which quickly became the main outlet for ska in this country, sort of a stateside Two Tone.
Moon is constantly releasing compilations, or "ska-mpilations" as the label prefers to call them. A recent one featured all Latin ska bands. Another one, called The California Ska Quake, had all California ska bands on it. Following up last year's successful Skarmageddon collection, the label is currently preparing an ambitious, two-CD set called Spawn of Skarmageddon, which will feature 40 skanking wonders from this great land of ours. One of those bands just played to a packed house at the Electric Ballroom on June 10, opening up for the Toasters: Phoenix's own, and practically only, ska band, Kongo Shock.
Things have been accelerating quite rapidly for the septet since it finalized its lineup in January of 1994. Three months ago, the men from Kongo recorded their own CD for the grand sum of four grand. Three weeks ago, that CD, Dick Triple Flip, turned up in local stores and has already sold 400 copies. Its leadoff track, "Ska Vs. Spy," was added in heavy rotation to KUKQ's regular playlist on a recent edition of the Monday Morning Music Meeting program. If that isn't enough, the band's founder and guitarist Bob Noxious received word recently that Kongo Shock would be playing on the third stage at this year's Lollapalooza.
And make no mistake about it, this is a band that does things as a band. All seven members (plus roadie Johnny Duct Tape) gathered together at the Kongo rehearsal space for this interview, huddled in the studio's combination lounge/crawlspace area. Not since the Von Trapp Family Singers hid themselves in a nunnery has a musical group seemed this tightly knit. Wildly different as individuals, this seven-headed organism is of one mind concerning all things Kongo Shock. Everyone is comfortable enough to finish each other's sentences, but thankfully, no two members have that eerie Donny and Marie telepathy where they blurt out the same words at the same time. What you get here is sort of like a Robert Altman film with everyone cross-talking. A lot.
Bob Noxious is the band's main public relations liaison, as well as its most cautious conversationalist, predisposed to steering the group away from controversy or negative topics like ex-members or minor infractions with the law. Once the group gets the hang of answering questions "off the record," the tape recorder gets shut off no less than four times, a luxury Newt Gingrich's mom was never afforded by Connie Chung.
Five years ago, Bob left sleepy Maine for the more desirable desert lifestyle (read: cheap standard o' livin'). In those days, he fronted a thrash band called Big Dog, which followed his lead out west. Eventually, the band splintered, and Bob, unsure of what direction to take next, placed a few ads looking for musicians to jam with. One player who turned up was Shadrach Powell, a.k.a. Dr. Skankalitus, Kongo Shock's bassist/percussionist/singer and elder ska statesman at 37. He is said to have played with Toots and the Maytals in some capacity a long time ago and was in the Effects, a local Phoenix ska band of long standing.
"We've been called so many different things," notes the Trinidad-born singer. "Ska funk alternative, ska punk, ska reggae. Last year, New Times named us best reggae band, and we don't play anything that sounds vaguely like Big Mountain."
Not that anyone's complaining. "On the strength of that [mention], we went from being a no-paying-gig band to playing the Roxy and the Balboa Cafe," grins drummer Jimmy Boom Ska Boom. With more than 100 shows under its belt since then, the band also went from being a musically loose but fairly stationary aggregation onstage to the manic, near-psychotic live act you see now. Within the first few horn blasts, the six guys out front are wiggling wildly, running in place and shuffling like vaudevillians trying to shake bugs out of their trousers. "Sometimes it's mass chaos," admits Bob of the occupational hazards. "Somebody either gets a guitar in the face or somebody gets stepped on."