David Hillyard: His Story of U.S. Ska Part 2

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 I

His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 2
Originally Published on February 12, 2008 by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog – Republished here with permission.

So thus continues my ramblings about the secret history of American ska.

untouchables 80s gig flyer

Photo Courtesy of South Bay Scooter Club

So it was Two Tone that was the initial inspiration of the first American ska bands. Now I don’t claim to know which of these bands came first so I’m not going to pretend. I’m just going to write about what I know.

In southern California, where I was growing up, the early-to-mid 80’s were the time of the “mod-ska” craze. Ska was part of a mini-universe of vintage scooters, parkas, suits, and penny loafers. It was listened alongside the Jam, the Who, and the Style Council.

In a bizarre fashion twist, fans would create placards of band buttons completely covering trench coats.

Shows were often connected to scooter rallies and would have rows of Vespas and Lambrettas parked out front.

The flagship band for this scene was the Untouchables from Los Angeles. Their first 45’s and “Free Yourself” EP gave fuel to this scene which thrived from about 1982 to 1985 or so. In retrospect, their writing leaves a lot to be desired but I remember seeing them in 1985 and being blown away by their Specials-like stage show.

Being from LA and being ambitious with the music industry, they soon lost their way with their horrible LP, Wild Child. Victims of the funk virus. More on that later.

Also from Los Angeles, was probably the most influential “Ska” band from the early 80s, Fishbone. Because they mixed together heavy metal, funk, punk and other “junk” they were not at the center of the scene at the time but in terms of sounds that would later pop up in Reel Big Fish, No Doubt, Skankin’ Pickle, MU330, Mustard Plug et al, They are the originators. They were creating the template for was going to become “third wave ska” although no one was calling it that at the time.

In addition to their first EP that was massively influential they had these series of demos that got all over LA. Songs like “Alcoholic” and “Skanking to the Beat” are prototypes for the third wave ska cliches that were gonna get all over the country.

I think Fishbone was ambivalent about the ska fans they attracted. They didn’t want to be pigeonholed as being one of “those” bands. They also got signed to a major label early so they probably had a lot of “crossover” discussions. As the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Living Color blew up, they probably figured they should go that way too! Unfortunately, that meant that by the time ska came around in popularity in the 90s they were out of the loop. So they missed out on 2 counts.

There

were also a lot of bands that would play some ska on the local level. In San Diego, I remember NE1 (anyone – clever right?). They would play some light ska influenced stuff in addition to more straight ahead 80s pop. In the early/mid 80s it wasn’t that rare to run into cover bands that would play some ska bands. I remember a college dance at UCSD that I got into even though I didn’t go to school there being that I was 15. This band, Limbo Slam, that was absolutely horrible stumbled their way through a horrible cover of the Specials’ “Concrete Jungle.”

If you’ve ever seen an 80’s teen movie you have a pretty good idea of how these bands looked and sounded. San Diego’s a weird town. Back in the 80’s it was dominated by 80’s cover bands. Now 25 years later, its dominated by 80’s cover bands. And people wonder why it doesn’t have a music scene commensurate with its population?

Also, big in California was the movie Dance Craze. It would travel around different independent theaters and be shown, often as part of a double bill with a punk movie like Decline of Western Civilization. People would gather at the theater and dress up for dance craze like it was a show. Go up front and dance. It was really quite something.

Dance craze was so popular that most of the ska covers you heard from local bands were off the soundtrack.

The mid-80s were a tough time for Ska in California. It was often seen as something from the early 80’s and “passe.” The mods who stayed in the scene rejected Ska as “kiddie” music and went for more of the 60’s R ‘n’ B and rock. I spent the year of 1986 not seeing a single Ska band play. Pretty pathetic.

It was during the mid-80’s that I found out that there were other Ska scenes happening in the USA (and Canada). Through Bleeker Bob’s record store which had branches in both LA and NYC, the first records by the Toasters, Bim Skala Bim, and the Boilers (on cassette) started to make it out to LA.

The toasters were going for a 2-Tone thing mixed with the Beastie Boys (remember Sean and Lionel?). They wore suits so were obviously playing “ska” right?

Bim Skala Bim and the other Boston bands like Plate of Shrimp could easily be classified as “world beat” as well as Ska. Bim didn’t dress up at all but I think they weren’t aiming for a “college” audience. I was really into their sound at the time. The power of Vinny Nobile’s trombone was really exciting.

The Boilers from NYC were also exciting. Oliver Rhee’s voice had this nice gentle quality and the music didn’t have funk or metal influences, it had a “roots” reggae vibe if anything. Me and my friends wore out their cassette from listening to it so much.

Besides these guys I was aware of during the early-mid 80s that there were bands such as the Uptones from San Francisco, the Villians from Vancouver, the Hopping Penguins from Toronto (I think?) plus Urban Blight, the NYC citizens, and Second Step from New York City.

My first band that I was involved in was called “The Saints” (no, not the band from Australia). We lasted a little under a year in 1985 and were a “mod-ska” band. We played some Ska like the Selecter’s “Danger.” We also played “That’s Entertainment” by the Jam I think. Fortunatly, we were torn apart by serious artistic differences and never amounted to much.

I was really hungry to form a Ska band and spent most of 1986 trying to make this happen. Every time I got a lineup together it would fall apart. I even had a gig booked that I had to back out of because we couldn’t keep the same group of people from rehearsal to rehearsal.

Finally, by 1987, the Donkey Show, was ready to start playing. We played our first gigs and immediately had some success in San Diego and soon afterwards played our first LA shows.

We were directly influenced by 2 Tone, occasionally would reach back to 60’s ska like the Skatalites or Prince Buster, and for lack of a better term, world beat. Yeah, I know. Hang my head with shame.

At about the same time as the Donkey Show, a bunch of other bands like the Skeletones, No Doubt, and Let’s Go Bowling hit the scene. Things were booming. Shows at the Country Club in LA, the Variety Arts Theater, and Fender’s Ballroom were packed. Its hard for me to say how many people there were at these shows because I wasn’t as business savvy then…I would guess that the LA shows were doing 300-700 people.

The scene was very underground. Not on the radio. Shows were rarely mentioned in the papers. It went counter to what people were supposed to be listening to at the time. But the shows were big. At least as big as the “Ska” shows in LA are now.

This local success was being duplicated around the country in Boston and New York. So what happened? How come most of these bands broke up, went into obscurity? How come so few of the 80’s bands continued to be active in the 90’s?

One big culprit is the “funk” virus. Once the Red Hot Chili Peppers had their success. At least 50% of the musicians in the United States wanted to follow their lead. Ska band after Ska band turned into funk bands.

Another trend that watered down the ska was world beat. Before you knew it, to be “creative” you had to be combining calypso with rock with hi-life with zouk with…well, you get the idea. Unfortunately, a lot of this dreck sounded similar to the funk stuff! Apparently you mix 12 kinds of ‘ethnic’ music together, you end up with funk. And you must wear tank tops and mullets/rat tails start sprouting.

Ska was so far out of the mainstream through the 80’s that bands were always subjected to pressure. Whispers of “if you want to be popular you should…” “you never are going to be popular if you keep playing ska….” “you got too many guys in your band…” These were the common words of advice you would get from the guy who worked in the mailroom at Warner Brothers and was pretending to be a big shot at your gig.

For some bands, it worked out. No Doubt were always wanting to be rock stars and they ended up doing it. Fishbone ended up being important musically but never achieved the popularity that they probably “should” have. They made the sound and No Doubt ended up selling it.

For other bands like the Untouchables, the funk virus was a disaster. Anyone remember their song,”Freak in the Streets?” Wow. It also broke up my band, the Donkey show. Half the band wanted to play a mix of Bad Brains and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The other half wanted to do a ska/reggae thing. The result is that the band broke up 1990.

Regardless, by the end of the 80s, it was unclear what was going to happen with the Ska scene. New bands were multiplying but it was as underground as ever.

Part 3 Coming Up!

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.