I won't beat around the bush: I don't really like the music of Reel Big Fish. I don't like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones either, and found No Doubt a giggly waste of my time. In fact, while as a music critic I respect these bands for what they are trying to accomplish and the fact that they all have ardent fan bases, I find these and most other the so-called "Third Wave Ska" bands belittling to the original ska concept.
Ska shouldn't even be part of the movement's name. "Horn punk" is more what I think of when these bands roll around with their aggressive styles. Look back to the genre's roots, and you'll find ska was never intended to be a brash, loud, and in-your-face music.
While tracks like Desmond Dekker's "Shanty Town" could be somewhat rowdy, most original ska (never call it first wave) was laidback and groovin' with a bubbly undercurrent. The horns might pop on occasion, but that was more a nod to rhythm and blues as accentuation, and never grandstanding. Generally the music was more subdued, and frequently instrumental. And the guitars typically existed not to lead and scream and provoke, but simply provide the riddim and set the pace.
Ska is a predecessor to reggae and originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s. It was an integration of numerous musical styles: Native mento and bluebeat, and American idioms like rhythm and blues, swing jazz, and jump blues. This stylistic conglomeration, with plenty of tweaking, was manipulated into the island beat and brought an important change to shifting musical landscape, namely ska, dubbed such for the genre's founding fathers The Skatalites. The music adopted a happy, carefree style, avoiding (for the most part) politics for songs about love, romance and island life.
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By the late '70s punk rockers became passionate fans of ska and reggae music, typically piping the music out to audiences during concert set breaks. The Clash even sing about Jamaican music drifting in over late night radio in "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," namedropping early ska (and later roots reggae) artist Delroy Wilson. In fact, the reggae riddim was prevalent in the band's sound. Mod-punks The Police exploited this sound as well.
Coming out of the same London scene, however, was a full-on ska revival now known as the 2-Tone movement. Bands such as The Specials, Madness and The Selector represented this Second Wave, which took classic ska, but pumped up the intensity to compete with the burgeoning punk scene. London was a pretty bleak place, especially for the disenfranchised youth at the time, and the musical edge and political lyrics, beginning with The Specials "Ghost Town," perfectly fit the time and tempo.
Call 2-Tone the bridge, if you will, into today's Third Wave, which is often called Ska-Punk. But while The Specials and Madness gave a solid nod to ska's original intent while reshaping the ska sound and esthetic only slightly, for today's bands those deep roots appeared severed at 1979 in the glory days of punk. This has become the staging ground for many Third Wave bands that probably relate better to the Sex Pistols (ska and reggae fans, they were) than they do the Skatalites.
So this is where I have problems with today's bands. As a ska fan, I find only a hint of ska beneath the surface of Reel Big Fish and their brethren. Maybe the horns push me back, or the stinging guitars, or the mosh pits (which for a "ska" band is like an oxymoron), but whatever it is, it doesn't feel irie to me.
Simply put: I'd rather sport the crooked grin pure ska provides than worry about losing some teeth to flying elbows at a third rate, I mean Third Wave, affair.
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(Feel free to disagree -- after all, Reel Big Fish is scheduled to perform Thursday, September 6, at Marquee Theatre in Tempe.)