David Hillyard & His Story of U.S. Ska Part 10

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 | PART 8 | PART 9

His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 10
Originally Published on by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.

So between 1983 and 1998, in the United States, Ska had gone from being a fringe genre known only to a handful to a medium sized youth movement.

It was small compared to Punk, which it was often regarded as a poor relation of.

Ska was largest on the washington-boston east coast and the san francisco-san diego west coast, but they were significant pockets of popularity in Florida, the midwest, and throughout the inland western cities. Almost every american city of any size could boast a reasonably popular local ska band.

It had enough popularity that occasionaly in the mid-90s a song by a band would get propelled into the lower and mid level of the charts.

After starting out as an english inspired style, American ska had developed its own sub-genres. For better or worse. Punk-ska. Skacore. Third wave ska. ska jazz. trad ska. and a million more names Im sure.

American ska bands had put out 100s if not more than a thousand albums. For an up and coming American band by 1995-6 or so, you were probably much more aware of American ska bands than English or Jamaican ones. God forbid other European, Asian, or Latin American ska bands. Your immediate inspiration to play “ska” was 90plus percent American.

In 1998, it seemed almost overnight ska went from being somewhat popular to being reviled once again.

I always find it funny that in Ska bands you often find lots of derision of ska. I guess part of it its the nature of bands. You usually have part of a band that has the original creative impulse that sets the musical direction. They start the band. But then they have to find the musicians to fill out the ranks so they end up grabbing people with all kinds of musical backgrounds.

Horn players are amongst the worst. So many of them would rather be playing some sort of jazz. A bunch of effette sophisticates. Guitar players chafe at playing upbeats. Drummers hate hitting rimshots. Bass players want to know why they can’t slap…just a little bit!

Of course, ska bands have always had inferiority complexes. Friends say, “hey, your songs are pretty good, why dont you play one normal?” “If you change your style just a little bit you could really get a lot more popular.” “you know, you got too many guys in the band? you’re never gonna make any money.”

A lot of it just feeds into a special strain of middle american suburban low self-esteem. The guy who gets on stage and goes, “yeah…um…um…we really aren’t that good y’know…like totally not good.” Who the fuck wants to hear what he has to say after that?

In the best cases, the different styles different players bring into a band come to a harmonious whole, at least for a time, and the band grows stronger. Innovations are made. Bands end up developing an unique style. Ideas from diffferent genres complement each other. Look at the specials or the skatalites as examples of this.

In the worst case, it can just lead to sloppy, indifferent playing and the everything but the kitchen sink eclectism of most American Ska bands. One minute they’re playing a police style rock-reggae thing, the next fishbone style fast skank, next a distorted heavy metal solo, then football pep band style horns, then back to a rock-reggae thing with a jump around neo-hip hop moment. Oh yeah.

American ska musicians are hardly the only ones to feel hostility towards the genre. I remember reading interviews with Madness, former members of the Specials, and the Beat where they talked about “limiting” it was to be part of the 2 Tone movement. Various members saying “I was never that into ska”, “it was just what was happening at the time”, “I think my music is much more about that.” Of course being that these interviews were done while these same members were hawking such fine music as General Public, Fun Boy 3, the Colour Field, or Voice of the Beehive. I mean who can forget those bands? What talent.

Anyways, I guess my point was that as ska got popular a good chunk of the musical subculture had conflicting allegiances about whether what they were doing is ska and whether they should promote themselves as such. Bands that had the big “ska” hits like Rancid were a punk band that was ambivalent that their biggest hit was a ska song. No Doubt wanted to promote themselves as a pop band.

So when things began to turn against ska bands, there wasnt anyone with any sort of stature to buck the tide. Not that it would have really mattered.

Part of the problem was that trends change. Ska was counted as being “in” for some vague way from 1995 to 1997, by 1998 it was out. 1998 was the year of swing. to be followed by 1999 the year of the “latin” craze. So ska was just one of the “crazes” that happened somewhere between grunge and the boy bands. Going down is inevitable.

But I think a lot of it was more than that. At some point in the 90s, the infrastructure of the whole music business changed. The major record labels decisively moved from a model where scouts and a&r guys would find bands with promise and then put money into promoting them. The new model was that the record company would create the group, usually what was known as a “boy band”, and then write the music, market the image. They would control everything. The “band” would be employees of the record company/management. They would be eminently replaceable in the same way that you can replace a secretary or a vice president of operations.

This was connected with a generational shift. The indie music of the 80s and 90s was the result of “generation x” which was demographically smaller than the next demographic group coming up. So it made sense to market stuff to a bigger group and more easily malleable group of 12-15 year olds than to a trickier, more fickle 18-21 market.

The result were record sales of cds in the mid-late 90s and then the sacking of most record companies A&R departments.

But this probably only affected the indie bands that were on the ‘edge’ of making it.

Ska had built up its own d.i.y. circuit and shared a larger one with a lot of the punk scene. The internet had enabled bands to share information through websites and email lists of gigs.

With the rise of ska in the mid-90s these circuit had gotten clogged and bloated. Too many ska shows by not enough good bands is the quickest way to kill a scene. The uninitiated show up to see what “ska” is and hear bad punk/metal with horns. They immediately lose interest and think poorly of the genre. Multiply that times 100,000 and you have a problem.

As ska got bigger, labels like Moon ska kept on pumping out the cds. The quality control that had been weak before went to being non-existent. I’ve heard that in the mid-90s Bucket had been offered a pile of money by a major label to buy the moon catalog and he refused them. He should have taken the offer because in a couple of years, Moon couldn’t give its cds away. A couple of years after that they were bankrupt.

A lot of American ska from fishbone to op ivy to the bosstones had flirted around with the punk scene. After 1998, it became decidedly less cool in the punk scene to play some sort of ska.

Live shows have always been the most important part of the genre but here too, ska took a hit.

The small and mid-size venues that had been making money promoting ska concerts began tto shy away as too many bands began dividing up and oversaturating the audience. If only 1 in 4 ska shows does well, clubs tend to go, “well all ska shows are…”

Suffering the most were the big ska package tours and the bands that depended on them. As I’ve said before, to the best of my knowledge, the last successful ska package tour of the 90s was Hepcat/Slackers/Gadjits in 1998. It ended in March I think. The spring and summer ska package tours that went out after that all ate shit.

For me, the ‘fall” of ska wasnt necessarily a bad thing. I didn’t like most of what people had been calling ‘ska’ for a long time.

I also had come up in California in the mid-80s when ska was out of favor. I had seen several ups and downs. So this just seemed like another one.

More on this to come.

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.