David Hillyard & His Story of U.S. Ska Part 8

A little intro. David Hillyard is well known to general readers of this blog. He’s a very long standing OG member of The Slackers, founded his own Rocksteady 7, played on the now classic Hepcat album Out of Nowhere and even before that he was playing in San Diego as a founding member of the Donkey Show. It’s an understatement to say he’s had a long music career let alone one devoted to the likes of Ska. He of course has a distinct and passionate perspective on music in general and pointed thoughts on the state of Ska in the U.S. having toured here for over 20 years.

So it was a couple of years ago he decided to write down those thoughts and publish them to his Myspace blog for the world to read. As that social network has fallen out of favor and the feeling that his discussion should be read by more people than might see it now I reached out to him with a question. Would he be interested in having those comments being republished on our blog? Did he want to change or update anything? Nope – still holds true.

EDITORS NOTE: Nothing was changed except a little clean up on punctuation and such.

READ: PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7

His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 8
Originally Published on by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.

So now we have reached the halcyon years of 1995 through 1998, the years when Ska was “big” in America.

There are so many misconceptions about these years. There is a popular perception that during this time all ska bands were playing stadiums and having gold records.

The truth is ska’s successes of the time were unevenly distributed and only a handful of bands had hit records. A lot of other bands flirted with mainstream success and the charts only to see their crossover dreams go ultimately unfulfilled.

I got to play big festival gigs but it was as a sideman with a band that had made their successes without my help. They were doing me a favor in keeping me around. Hehe. more on that later.

It was a funny time because it seemed like no ska bands were breaking up during this period. On the contrary, Bands that had become defunct reformed. English bands from the 2 Tone period reformed and came over. Everyone joined in the frenzy.

Some of the bands that came to have successes in the mid-90s came out of the strong local ska scenes that had been existing since the mid-80s. Yet most of the bands came to success by expanding out of the punk and hardcore scenes.

The most prominent of this movement was Rancid which is primarily a punk band but their ska songs, especially Time Bomb, were more popular and influential than most ska bands out there. Rancid wasn’t completely unknown to ska fans prior to the mid-90s because Tim and Matt had been in Operation Ivy before.

Rancid Time BombTime Bomb is basically an extension of the Specials sound. Straight up. When Rancid plays Jamaican style songs they draw on the Specials, the Clash, and I think also a little bit from the 4 skins when they would play a ska influenced songs. Maybe the last influence is just coincidence and speculation.

I’ve been trying to get a timeline together of when the different “ska” hits happened. Nowadays, it all seems like they happened about the same time. But I’m pretty sure that 2 of the first hits were by Rancid and No Doubt in 1995.

They were followed by Sublime having several single hits in 1996 and 1997. Then the Bosstones, [Fishbone‘s] Reality of My Surrounding was a chart hit in 1997.

To be honest, I’m not gonna stand by any of these dates. Let’s just say there were a string of significant chart hits by a bunch of different bands in the mid-90s.

Both Rancid and Sublime were as popular in the Punk scene as in the Ska scene, if not more so. Their popularity had risen as bands like the Offspring brought punk into the mainstream of American music.

In a funny aside, I had seen Sublime at an early show in either 1990 or 1991. It was when I was in Hepcat. They opened up for us at Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach. Sublime had a little following that was supporting them really vocally.

As usual, my snooty snotty self was under impressed. I just saw a couple punks playing sloppy versions of punk and ska including a cover of the Selecter‘s Danger. It was one of those really local shows, where of course the smart ass in the corner yells, “play freebird.” They noodled a lot in between songs. Corny metal solos. I thought, “goofballs.” I remember Raul [Talavera] and [Greg] Narvas laughing about them saying how “sublime” their set had been.

Imagine my surprise several years later when I saw their video as I was flipping through channels on the tv. it was right after their singer had died because of an od. I was stunned. Was this the same band?

The Bosstones are credited by some as starting “ska core” or at least coming up with the name. I don’t know about that. They were one of those bands that like mixing ska-reggae with American hardcore and metal.

They also were the only band to make it “really big” from the East coast. They were the college party band of their era. Their plaid shtick went from regional to national on the back of the converse commercials and a lot of touring.

No DoubtNo Doubt was the most genuinely pop of the “ska” bands to hit it big and they were the most commercially successufl of the bunch. Ever since I had first seen No Doubt back in the 80s, they were trying to be rock stars. In the mid-90s they turned this into reality.

No Doubt was signed to Interscope? Mighty Bosstones were signed to Mercury. Sublime was with MCA. Rancid was on Epitaph which was one of the biggest “indies” of the time.

So major labels had a hand in breaking these tunes which had previously only been the province of small indie labels.

Another, somewhat ironic commonality of all the “ska” bands that made it big, is that they all had issues with being called “ska” bands. They wanted to be known as alternative rock bands, punk bands, bands with eclectic sounds. Something MORE than a ska band.

And in truth. The most “ska” of the hits in a historic sense was Time Bomb which was by an avowed punk band.

Sublime and Bosstones were somewhere in between.

Dont Speak” which was the biggest hit by No Doubt has NO – NONE – ZIPPO – ZILCH – NADA influence in the ska department. Its a fucking 70’s power ballad complete with the switch between acoustic and electric guitars that could have been on a Led Zeppelin album. I don’t know if I want to sully Led Zep with the comparison.

That always pisses me off. When people tell me ska was big in 1996. I ask which songs? The biggest goddamm hit had nothing to do with SKA.

Right below the bands I’ve been talking about that charted were releases by a pack of bands that hung around the edges of the charts. Songs like “sell out” by Reel Big Fish or “come on Eileen” by Save Ferris. Also flirting with larger success during these times were Buck O Nine, Mephiskafeles, the Pietasters, Less Than Jake, MU330, Mustard Plug, the Suicide Machines, the Aquabats, Hepcat, and countless other bands.

The only traditional band that had any significant popularity on a national scale during this time was Hepcat and their flirtation with the charts with “no worries” came in 1998 just as the mid-90s ska wave was starting to look a little long in the tooth.

So success. Pop the champagne bottle. kudos. good fucking job.

I’ll get into my own experience of this time in the next chapter. Thanks for reading.

I've been involved in the Los Angeles music scene since at least 1995 going to shows, promoting, spinning records and running labels. Ska and Early Reggae are my passion among other things of course.