Did you miss part one of Justin’s series? Check it out here.
It was the summer of 1995. Aerosmith was enjoying a revival in their sagging career, much thanks to a trilogy of music videos that featured the fictional adventures of a pouty schoolgirl played by an actress by the name of Alicia Silverstone. All teenage boys, myself included, could not help themselves but to sit in an enraptured state of attention through the videos for “Crazy,” “Cryin’,” and “Amazing,” every time they aired, in spite of the single-word-title soft-pop-rock mediocrity that Aerosmith had resigned themselves to flaunting without shame. The American-male is officially captivated by Ms. Silverstone, and she is cast in the starring role of that summer’s teen-comedy, “Clueless.” Like my peers, I happily forked over six dollars to catch a matinee that featured a full 1 hour 37 minutes of our dear Alicia.
During the requisite party scene that is featured in every teen-comedy that has ever been made, the party band is none other than the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whom I’d heard of but had not heard. Their featured song was “Someday I Suppose,” and upon leaving the theater I went on a hunt to find my own copy of it.
Within a week or so I found it on their EP, “Ska-Core, The Devil, and More,” on which “Someday I Suppose” was the only original studio track. The rest of the tracks were live or cover songs. One song that was noticeably less frenetic than the others was “Simmer Down,” written by a “R. Marley,” per the liner notes.
I owned Marley’s album “Rebel Music” on tape, and I had heard “Legend”, but despite that being a representative sample of Bob Marley’s music, I had never heard the song “Simmer Down.” Further down the rabbit hole I go…
I have a theory that every record store, no matter how homogenized and vanilla a record store it may be, has at least one thing contained within it that is worth having. Living in rural North Carolina at the time, all the “cool” record stores were over an hour away, but we did have one mall-store. [NOTE TO THE KIDS: Before the internet was a household tool and WELL before broadband or MP3’s, most people bought their music from STORES in MALLS.]
During one of my hunting trips to find something interesting where my entire environment declared that there was nothing interesting to be found, I placed myself in front of the cassette wall of the mall record shop and flipped through every single cassette. True to my theory, I struck gold when I found a tape called, “The Wailing Wailers at Studio One,” which featured on the cover three sharply dressed, short-haired black fellas, of which one of whom looked like it might have been Bob Marley. On this tape was a track titled, “Simmer Down.” I bought it.
I later learned that the two guys on Might-be-Bob’s flanks were none other than Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, and although the songs resembled the reggae that I had heard on “Rebel Music” and “Legend,” it was somehow both more and less-rootsy than reggae. Many of the songs had simple two-chord verse arrangements with a sharp up-stroke guitar driving the beat, and the vocal arrangements themselves sounded much more like 1960’s R&B than the soulful folk-stylings that Bob Marley was identified with. Much of this was due to two things: First of all, Bob, Bunny, and Peter fancied themselves an R&B singing group in the stylings of early Beatles, as further evidenced by their cover of the Beatles “And I Love Her,” which was also included on the tape. Second of all, unlike their future recordings, The Wailing Wailers were not manning their own instrumentation; that task was left to the Studio One house band, The Skatalites, who played on many of the recordings to come out of Jamaica during the 1960’s.
The Skatalites, plain and simple, invented ska. Bob Marley, plain and simple, popularized it.
Guitarist and founding member of The Skatalites, Jerome “Jah Jerry” Hynes (1927-2007), became known for his authentic “upward strumming” style of playing guitar in the late 1950’s, and although the etymology of the word is disputed, it is often attributed to Hynes trying to explain to studio session piano and guitar players, “Play it ‘ska, ska, ska.” Eventually the music itself, when played in that style, simply became known as “Ska.”
The genre itself combined Caribbean elements with jazz and American rhythm and blues, and it eventually became the dominant music genre of Jamaica. Due to increasing immigration trends, ska was introduced to the UK and by the 1970’s it became popular with the British mod and skinhead subcultures.
“’Skinheads’, Justin? Really? I saw ‘American History X’ twice and I’m pretty sure those guys weren’t getting down to any ska…”
That, friends, is a story to be continued another day…