It was June 28, 1992, and my friends and I were at the nightclub One Step Beyond in Santa Clara, where the foul odor of booze and vomit wafted through the muggy, pressure-cooked air. We’d danced through four bands already, including a young, awkward, and poorly dressed Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. Now it was time for the headliner. We stood by the stage, sweaty and shaking, willing the heavy theatre curtains to open.
The wait felt unbearably long. Finally, the lights went dim; everyone hushed. The buzz of the opening bass line rang out and the curtains whooshed apart to reveal San Jose ska band Skankin’ Pickle, a group of six misfits staring defiantly out into the crowd. The bass line continued to build slowly, each instrument joining in until the walls reverberated with eerie upbeats. Chills ran up my neck. The song reached peak volume and winded back down, each instrument dropping out one by one. The crowd roared.
Skankin’ Pickle went right into their next song. The tall Korean American sax player sang about missing the bus to work. He wore a karate uniform and jump kicked between each line. The song ended with the sing-along: “I love Three’s Company, but that’s no excuse for missing the bus.”
The remaining horn section pulled my focus away. They occupied the stage like two drunk frat guys. The slide trombonist lurched back and forth, pausing between blats to wave his arms like a windmill; he grabbed some devil sticks and did a short one-minute performance, while the valve trombonist leapt up and down with his arms glued to his side. He grabbed the mic and yelled, “pick it up pick it up pick it up,” and glided into an ear-splitting ’70s metal scream.
At the end of the song, the bass player approached the front of the stage. He pushed his bushy blonde hair from his face and turned to the side, posing like Jessica Rabbit. An obviously fake ass of cartoonish proportions bulged under his Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. Scattered applause from the audience. He pranced back and forth with a shit-eating grin.
Once he had our full regard, he said in a lousy talk-show voice, “Not only am I the president of the hair club for men…but I’m also a client.” He pushed off all his hair—a wig!—and slapped his bass right into a punky ska song twice as fast as the previous tune. It inspired a raging mosh pit. A friend and I leapt in, possessed by brutal punk rock demons. Our limbs flailed like broken marionettes as we ran in circles. The few lyrics I understood cracked me up. There was one line where he took an aggressive stance against blow dryers.
At last, the song ended and I caught my breath. Sweat dripped off me in rivulets. I’d never had this kind of fun at a live show before. I looked up just as the now-bald bass player mounted a unicycle and haphazardly pedaled across the stage. He dangled a moment precariously over the crowd but stumbled off and landed on his feet like a trained circus performer. Everyone cheered. An older, hairy, shirtless guy patted me on the back. “They rule!” he shouted. I threw my hand up and slapped his hand. We were brothers for life.
The sax player took the mic back and ordered all the Asians in the audience to join him on stage. He looked out and pointed at a guy near the back and said, “Get up here.” A few other Asian people followed suit.
A bald, not-Asian guy shouted, “Albinos too?”
The sax player laughed and motioned him up. “Come on up before I change my mind.” He ran up and paced around with the others, arms raised like he’d won the lottery. The sax player looked back at the drummer, a stone-faced classic rocker with long stringy hair, and nodded. “This song is called ‘Asian Man,’” the sax player said. The drummer counted off and broke into speed metal. The on-stage crew went ballistic.
Fifteen seconds in, and suddenly the song pulled back into a mid-tempo hip-hop beat. The spiky haired guitarist hung her tongue out the side of her mouth like a dopey dog and hopped up and down on the off-beats. The sax player slipped into a mock rap pose and began: “I’m sick of people always telling me that dogs shouldn’t be eaten as a delicacy. Yo, it tastes good, as a sandwich meat. Heck, I like it and it’s low in calories!”
The newly anointed stage dancers did their best wannabe rapper impressions. We all did. After the first verse, the sax player dove headfirst into the audience, flipping around mid-air. The albino guy screamed and followed after him. They floated on the crowd’s hands, returning to the stage in time for verse two.
I danced hard. Everyone around me danced just as hard. Punks with red mohawks, guys in loose-fitting suits, girls in polka dot dresses, long-haired hippies with tie-dye peace symbols, nerds with tucked in Atari sweaters, goths with painted black lipstick, metalheads draped in oversized Danzig shirts, and plain, old, fashion-free dorks like me. We were all dissimilar. Yet here we were, all moving together as one giant, heaving beast.
When I thought I’d pass out, the mood slowed into a down-tempo reggae song. The guitarist stepped forward to sing: “We live in a racist world/Where the colors of the land/Won’t keep us hand in hand.” People embraced each other, swayed back and forth, and sang along.
As I watched Skankin’ Pickle from a sea of mismatched people, I felt a deep comfort. They were bizarre and flaunting it. And if they could, so could we.
Later that night I wrote the band a long, bizarre fan letter. I made it extra weird to get their attention. It worked. The Korean American saxophonist turned out to be Mike Park, who would found the hugely successful Monte Sereno-based indie label Asian Man Records in 1996; he sent me an orange peel and told me to call him. I became friends with the band, toured with them as a roadie, and had my band Flat Planet open for them.
I’d found my music. And it changed everything.
Ode to Taco Bravo
But believe it or not, there was a time when being in a ska band was considered embarrassing. I know, crazy, huh? You should’ve heard the wild accusations people made: Every song sounds the same! Out of tune marching band horns over pop-punk riffs! Nothing but silly songs about food!
Ok, that last one is sort of true, at least for Flat Planet. We had a song that was an ode to cheese, but sung in Spanish. (“Queso en el dia, Queso en el Noche! Queso! Queso! Dame Mas!”)
We also had a song about Taco Bravo, our favorite late-night dive in San Jose. It was the go-to place for bands of every genre. And jocks. And just plain ol’ drunks. Many fights ensued alongside absurdly heaping Super Nachos and refried bean-stuffed Taco Delights. The Taco Bravo staff served everything with a superabundance of cheese and treated you like garbage, which was a major part of the appeal. Whenever Flat Planet showed up after a gig or band practice, the late-night manager would shake his head and say, “You guys again…don’t you have lives?” “No,” we’d proclaim, shoving crumpled dollar bills in the tip jar, asking for even more cheese, as the ashes from the staff’s cigarettes fell into the beans. We were so obsessed with Taco Bravo—and always talking about it—my mom decided to go there to see what all the hubbub was. She ordered a decaf coffee with her meal. When they handed it to her, she confirmed, “This is decaf, right?” The guy told her, “Yes…it’s coffee.” She couldn’t sleep that night, wired from having caffeine for the first time in a decade.
Our songs were influenced by the general silliness that defined a lot of the ’90s ska scene, which I know people hate. Let’s defend “ska silliness” for a minute and describe what it was like to be in a ’90s ska band.
In 1993, our local San Jose music scene consisted of bands playing grunge, dreary alt-rock and, worse, rap-metal. There were maybe three ska bands in the whole city. This scene took itself seriously. Too seriously. I can’t tell you how many times some shitty rock band was on stage at the local eighteen-and-older venue Cactus Club, acting like disaffected rock stars to a crowd of 20 people who cared more about their ice-cold beer than the cool poses of random local bands.
For us, getting on stage and giving our set a considerable dose of silliness was a fuck you to the self-indulgent, pretentious rock star bullshit we saw at the Cactus Club and on MTV. When we played in front of 20 people, we weren’t trying to be cool or get signed. We wanted to make everyone in the venue smile despite themselves. Yes, it was also an outlet for all our crazy, awkward energy, but we were trying to get people to join us and have a fun night, not admire our cool threads and perfectly disheveled hairdos.
Ashamed To Be Ska
In the early ’90s, most ska bands weren’t riding the silly-train. The priority was to play danceable music with creative hooks and unique song structures that kept things interesting. People in this era liked the clothing, the dancing and usually understood basic ska history, like how 2 Tone was born from British punks and Caribbean immigrants combining forces to make an exciting new musical style with a strong anti-racist message.
The Pacers formed in 1990 and built an impressive scene in Milwaukee, their hometown, and later Minneapolis, where they would relocate, as well as several nearby Midwest cities where they regularly gigged. They weren’t Milwaukee’s first ska band. Bands that predated them were International Jet Set, Invaders, Wild Kingdom, all of whom started in the late ’80s. These were popular local bands, but the Pacers applied some business smarts by pushing shows to be all-ages. They went to the Unicorn, a local twenty-one-and-older club, and told the venue owner if they let them play an all-ages show, they would draw three-hundred kids. The club owner agreed to it reluctantly. It was a success, but due to some disagreements, the relationship didn’t last. The Pacers took the same deal over to Peter Jest at the Shank Hall, and that started a three-to-four year run of really packed, successful shows. It was a captive and consistent audience. The band was making a couple thousand dollars a show just because they recognized how eager kids were to go out and dance.
“We never wanted to be a group where everybody showed up in Fred Perrys. We also weren’t skate punks either. We wanted to be popular with kids our age,” Pacers bassist Andy Noble says. The Pacers didn’t play punky sounding ska songs or dress in wacky costumes. They were closer to a 2 Tone sound, with mid-tempo upbeats and Specials’ style grooves that were mixed with subtle rock and soul beats and some New Wave melodies influencing the group’s intricate sound.
By the mid-90s, the Pacers were witnessing a shift happen as younger bands joined the scene. It wasn’t a shift they liked.
“We were extremely ashamed to be a ska band,” Noble says. “When we started, we were really proud of it. We thought we were the only motherfuckers on to that stuff. We had this pride of ownership. By the time we were done, we perceived the music to be jazz band nerds wearing mismatched suits, recruited by one guy who realized he could have a popular group.”
They weren’t too stoked by the growing number of ska bands in the Midwest, either. Or how those bands were making the genre look like nothing but a bunch of kids spazzing out at Chuck E. Cheese on a permanent sugar high.
“The first time we saw Skankin’ Pickle, we all thought it was really funny. Two years later, it was like every ska band was a joke novelty band. We were not proud to be part of that scene anymore. We thought it was nerdy,” Noble says. By 1994, because of this and some other internal band factors, the band lost steam and broke up.
Ska had a moment in the mainstream a few years later, which softened the “nerd” vibe temporarily. It also validated the wackiness. Suddenly, bands on TV were wearing colorful shirts, checkered shorts, and pork pie hats. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones showed off their plaid suits in Clueless; Reel Big Fish sported cabbie hats and colorful, tucked-in button-up shirts in BASEketball. Save Ferris represented the rainbow’s full spectrum with their members’ bold single-color t-shirts and laid-back skater shorts in their “Come On Eileen” video. When ska fell out of its short-lived favor, all those offbeat checkered V-neck sweaters and bowling suspenders were as mortifying as MC Hammer parachute pants.
The Lamest Guys Around
James Rickman of Santa Cruz band Slow Gherkin, tells me about his experience living through the peculiar era of ska during the late ’90s.
“We felt like we were just the lamest guys around all of a sudden,” he says.
Slow Gherkin formed in 1993 and were an underrated band that never reached a large audience outside of their hometown, where they would sell out the largest venues. On tour, they’d draw anywhere between 50-150 people. Not bad, but not enough to give them the satisfaction of quitting their day jobs. As they pushed forward, they were handicapped by ska’s rise and fall in the mainstream.
In 1998, they released their brilliant Squeeze-meets-Nick Lowe-infused, peppy, rock-ska sophomore album, Shed Some Skin. It still holds up as a unique record during a year when one thousand ska records were released. They’d gone on multiple tours that year and were rehearsing daily to make something happen.
Mike Park, of Asian Man Records, the label that released Gherkin’s first album and already agreed to release its second, was already feeling ska trepidation by early 1998 as Slow Gherkin was recording Shed Some Skin. It was clear to Park the ska boom was not going to last much longer. But the band was already set to record in the lovely twenty-four-track studio SoundTek and had a thick twenty-four-page booklet planned for the album release. Rickman tells me that Park would show up in the studio as they were recording, pace back and forth and say, “No one is going to buy this record” and then leave.
Park’s nervous foresight turned out to be correct. The album sold less than the band’s debut record. The tides were changing in pop culture, and Slow Gherkin looked on, suffering a band identity crisis. By the end of the century, post-Shed Some Skin, they were writing songs deliberately lacking upbeats, as if to signal to the world they, too, were no longer part of that horrid ska scene. Other bands did the same. Orange County ska band the Hippos released their major label debut Heads Are Gonna Roll in 1999, now as a ska-free, synth-rock band, with an album cover fabricated to look like a hip ’60s rock ’n’ roll group, a la the Kinks. In subsequent years, the Hippos singer/guitarist Ariel Rechtshaid furthered his cold-hearted ska abandonment by carving out a hipster producer career, working with artists like Vampire Weekend, HAIM, Adele, and Charli XCX
“We did what so many other ska bands did, which was suddenly get totally self-conscious. That was the real sell out moment, I think. All ska bands got mocked all of a sudden, and we were like, ‘Abandon ship!’” Rickman says. “I like Run Screaming [the band’s third album]. We wrote great songs, but it’s not a ska album. It’s a pretty chicken shit move. On one hand, we were getting to be a better band, but we were having a total identity meltdown right in the middle of that.”
Ska may have dropped in popularity, but trying to pretend you never were a ska band only brought on greater ridicule. 2002’s Run Screaming was Slow Gherkin’s lowest-selling album. Only 2,000 copies were pressed, and not all of them sold.
Ska’s never been as hated as it was in the early 2000s, but since then it’s never lost its stigma. Even now if you tell people you like ska, you must do so with a big fat asterisk, acknowledging all the bad, bad ska bands out there before admitting to the ones you like. Ska seems more than any other genre to be defined by its worst bands and least creative tendencies.
The problem with ska in the ’90s is only a few bands reached mainstream audiences, so the general music-loving population never received proper exposure to the genre. Trying to explain to the average music listener why ska is one of the most diverse musical styles out there requires a couple of pie charts, a lengthy powerpoint presentation, and a history lesson that spans several decades. To most people, all ska sounds the same.
“I hope at our best we shined through that [third wave] and sounded different,” Noble says, reflecting on his time in the ska scene with the Pacers. “Now the huge bulk of what people think of as ’90s ska is background music for Food Network shows. We did not want to sound like that. That’s for sure. But we probably did sometimes.”
It’s so entrenched in culture to make fun of ska as wacky nerd music that no one questions why nerdy music is such a bad thing. Are we also throwing They Might Be Giants, Weird Al, and Devo under the bus, because last time I checked, they were some of the best artists to come out in the past 40 years. Besides, if I had to choose between some douchebag rock star flexing his muscles on stage while playing an uninspired guitar solo to woo groupies to his hotel room later that night, or some silly kids who spent hours discussing the pentatonic scale and all the tacos they want to eat after the show, I say long live band nerds and pass me a taco.
Excerpted from Aaron Carnes’ new book ‘In Defense of Ska,’ published May 4 by Clash Books. Carnes will be signing copies of In Defense of Ska at Streetlight Records, 980 S Bascom Ave., San Jose on Saturday, May 8, from 1pm-3pm.