Why should ska be written off as the butt of every joke? This question is at the heart of Aaron Carnes’ In Defense of Ska, published by CLASH Books. He sets out a convincing stall, demonstrating that the genre is more than a brief ’90s fad to be mocked by the mainstream: it is a musical subculture with deep roots, a diverse history of reinvention and experimentation, and an irresistible appeal that persists across the globe to this day.
The book is a collection of short essays, themselves comprised of anecdotes, interviews, bios, and historical markers and nuggets, sometimes pinned to a loose, steadily-progressing narrative, sometimes not. This may sound disjointed, but it doesn’t read as such. In fact, it adds to its allure. For one can open it on any page and learn something—and then struggle to put it down. To a ska fan, it’s a sizeable and enjoyable resource to get lost in; to someone unfamiliar with ska, it’s an accessible assortment of primers. Above all else, it’s addictive.
The deeper one reads into the text, the clearer it becomes that the format is well-suited to the genre. Like jazz, punk or the studio bands of ’60s Jamaica, there are names which pop up time and time again, and so it’s fitting to crisscross in the way that Carnes does. No musical history is ever linear, so it doesn’t make sense to try and force the book into such a narrative. In Defense of Ska is all the stronger for this lack of trying.
A roadie for Skankin’ Pickle, Carnes also played drums in his own (Pickle-influenced) band, Flat Planet, and we learn much about his time on the road. He paints a chaotic and affectionate portrait of a Pickle merch guy named Kevin. The recalling of pranks, conversations and the bond between them is reminiscent of Kevin Booth’s biography of his childhood friend, comedian Bill Hicks, and this first-hand experience and friendship adds another dynamic to the book.
Whether using Hepcat drummer Greg Narvas as a stepping stone into the history of skinhead subculture, or moving on from Mille Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” into the history of ska in ’60s America, the book not only covers a lot of social and historical ground, but in doing so features endless names from the world of ska. However, being a music journalist and first-time author, Carnes writes in such an unpretentious and enthusiastic way, that it’s not at all overwhelming. Rather, making one’s way through the book is like being carried along by a current as one takes in countless sounds and sights. In effect, this symbolizes the organic development of ska as a seemingly inevitable series of ripples.
For instance, Carnes quotes Rhoda Dakar, singer of 2 Tone group the Bodysnatchers, who says that “2 Tone was the next obvious step after punk.” Thus, by the time we arrive at the legendary East Bay ska-punk quartet Operation Ivy, we learn that guitarist Tim Armstrong instructed the rest of the band to study four specific 2 Tone records (“he just said those four,” recalls drummer Dave Mello), after ska had crept into what was initially conceived as a straight-up punk band. It’s crucial, therefore, that—as Carnes comments—Op Ivy would’ve fit into neither the mid-80s ska scene, nor the earlier hardcore punk scene. He also makes the important observation that 924 Gilman Street—the venue and scene which spawned (among others) Crimpshrine, Green Day, Operation Ivy, and (in the early ’90s) AFI and Link 80—influenced not just the punk scene, but also the ska scene.
Most welcome of all is the effort to constantly contextualize Op Ivy, so as not to fall into the trap of merely regurgitating their oft-recounted history—in the very same spirit of how (he argues) the band themselves were “recontextualizing ska within the punk genre.”
Carnes could easily have devoted his entire defense to Operation Ivy and the decade that followed. Instead, he sheds light on American bands of the early- and mid-80s, such as Bim Skala Bim, the Crazy 8s, the Uptones and the Untouchables, and it’s enlightening to learn how much attention these bands achieved. A good deal of time is spent exploring the rise and fall of the New York scene and, by the time Fishbone have been added to the mix, Carnes has fleshed out America’s ’80s scene nicely.
On top of all this is a deep dive into the Midwest, with particular attention paid to Gangster Fun of Detroit, adding another layer to this account of American ska. Throughout, history is laced with analysis explaining when things worked and why things didn’t. Interviews are used to strong effect and the thoughts of Slow Gherkin drummer James Rickman on the unpopularity of ska during the early 2000s, are particularly illuminating.
As mentioned above, In Defense of Ska isn’t pretentious, but it’s full of opinions—as any defense of art probably should be—which break up the anecdotes and keep the format fresh. The chapters on Millie Small and “The Fourth Wave” are noteworthy examples, whilst elsewhere “the story of American ska” is described as being “filled with incredible bands” but nonetheless “dominated by a series of miserable failures.”
The success of a bunch of wacky ’90s bands, meanwhile, “was built off the graves of a thousand failed rude boys.” “Everyone who loves ska has an opinion on [it],” writes Carnes, and some will disagree with his, with those of interviewees, and with the choice of bands covered and those unmentioned. Some may even wish for a more explicit and specific defense. By the time one reaches’ Carnes’ concluding remarks though, so much culture and so many memories have been shared that—as a fan—they resonate deeply. The weight of evidence—every anecdote, ambition and accolade—is the defense.
To anyone familiar with ’90s punk and ska, the graffiti on the cover may give the impression that the book is primarily concerned with that decade. In Defense of Ska is so much more than that, however, as the above should demonstrate. It is a well-researched and dedicated exploration of the genre, from its Jamaican origins to the flourishing Mexican scene that exists today. Carnes’ passion for ska is as plain to see as the reasons for it. As a fellow fan, I’m grateful that this book exists. If I wasn’t a fan, it would be impossible for me to read it and not come away curious. He has done ska a service. Pick it up—and pass him a taco.