The First 5 (or so) Ska Albums That Changed My Life

Welcome to Top 5 Fun Friday, a regularly-occurring blog feature where I give you a list of extremely specific pointless shit from my life no one asked for. Why? Because the internet is STILL incredibly un-fun in 2021 and I enjoy blogging. It’s Friday and these will be fun! This week’s list…

The First 5 (or so) Ska Albums That Changed My Life

Chuck Robertson, lead singer of the Mad Caddies, is guest on Ep. 190 of the Jon of All Trades Podcast, debuting September 26, 2018.
Chuck Robertson, lead singer of the Mad Caddies, is guest on Ep. 190 of the Jon of All Trades Podcast, debuting September 26, 2018.

I don’t give a shit about anything Star Wars, and never have. I used to be PROUD of this, which made me a colossal ass.

We’ll get to that, but first a little more. I’m not into comics, have seen less than half of the MCU movies and don’t really have a desire to see the rest, couldn’t care less about video games (the last console I bought was an original Xbox in 2004), have never played D&D or any tabletop game, and think Star Trek is pretty okay despite the idea of watching the weekly shows mostly boring me to tears.

It’s not that I’m above nerd shit, quite the contrary, actually. My nerd flag just flies a different color. First, and most obviously, I’m a professional wrestling superfreak. Loved it since I was 5, have tried like hell to quit it multiple times, and I always get pulled back in. I’ve read books about comedy, biographies of old comedians, and consumed documentaries about the history of comedy at a clip usually reserved for talentless Hollywood fringe hangers-on. In terms of craft beer, I have a favorite hop (Amarillo) and a least favorite hop (Simcoe).

It wasn’t until recently watching the documentary Pick It Up! – Ska in the ‘90s that I realized just what a fucking dork I actually am. And this threw my previous obnoxious posturing about not liking Star Wars into very sharp relief. Pick It Up! is exquisitely made offering ample historical context about the origins of ska music, its evolution, and its cultural impact around the world. It’s a loving-but-honest assessment and analysis of everything from the fashion to the DIY nature of the scene (and its subsequent evolution into commercialization which led to its downfall) to its diehard fans and requisite transient poseurs.

What struck me most was two things: 1) Pretty much everyone interviewed in this thing acknowledged how dorky this genre is/was/became/always has been, and 2) Just how closely me and the two friends I bought copies for identified with every single aspect of it.

It was in this realization that I bummed myself out considering how much misplaced nerd-on-nerd violence I perpetuated preening about my lack of traditional nerd trappings and sometimes outright shitting on others’ passions. I have always unironically and full-throatedly loved ska music, and rarely considered how out of touch that fondness might have made me. I frankly didn’t care. I still don’t. No one who loves Star Wars in 2020 should give a rat’s ass about my opinion about it, and that’s as it should be.

Ska music changed my life for the better. Getting introduced to it represents an inflection point in the entire arc of my life, believe it or not. We’ll get there, but every story needs an origin – just ask the documentarians behind Pick It Up! So here are the five (or so) albums that best embody that inflection point.

Evildoers Beware! by Mustard Plug

I’ve told this story before, but here it comes again because rarely has such a seemingly inconsequential moment meant so much to me writ large. First year of high school, I’m one of three freshmen on the swim team. All it means from a practical standpoint is that the practices kick my 15 year-old ass and that I have to bum rides off of whoever will give them to me to get to the pool after school.

On one such trip I’m in the back of my friend’s minivan, and he’s a burgeoning rudeboy. I owned No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, which is sort of ska-adjacent, loved the hell out of it, and even saw them open for Bush at Red Rocks at the KBPI Birthday Bash. (Quick aside: Before the concert I actually practiced what I thought moshing was in my bedroom alone while listening to “Just a Girl.” This is perhaps the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever admitted publicly.) What I realized during that show was that I needed my music uptempo, I needed it less dour, and I needed it weird.

I’m in the back of my friend’s minivan, and the frantic tempo, lunatic horns and madcap vibe crash into me like a freight train. What IS this? I asked. Mustard Plug, he replied. I had no idea at the time if that was the band, the song, or the album, but I was damn sure gonna find out.

Some time later, I marched my ass down to Budget Tapes & CDs (our local music shop that shared a parking lot with the grocery store and a giant ass liquor store) and asked about it. The helpful clerk pointed me to it, and to my surprise and delight, it was cordoned off in its own little section called “Ska.” I looked at those CDs, memorized the names of the other bands, and picked up a couple of them just based on how I thought they looked. Some of them you’ll find in the list below. I proceeded to listen to this somewhere between 25 and 300 times straight.

Favorite tracks: “Go,” “You,” “Box.” (and yes, those are the actual song titles, as weird as that looks listed out)

Let’s Face It by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

This fuckin’ album, man. This thing was EVERYTHING to me. Released in March 1997, I was in exactly the right time, place, and mindset for this thing to hit me harder than any album hit me before or since. I had just gotten turned on to Mustard Plug and the bands I discovered just by gawking at the ska section of the music store, and then The Mighty Mighty Bosstones kicked down the goddamn door and proceeded to own our collective consciousness for the rest of the year. My brain is swirling trying to write about this album, so I just need to go numbered list here.

  1. “The Impression That I Get” is a perfect pop song. It’s propulsive, sunny, and built on an deliciously ironic construction (The narrator hopes he never has to knock on wood because he’s heard it isn’t good and hopes he never has to). It deserves all the success and ubiquity it’s earned. I listened to it again just now, and I still love it. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.
  2. I got my driver’s license in August 1997, and on my first solo trip, this is the album I put in. It was in my mom’s Jeep Cherokee. I had a Discman with an attachment that plugged into the tape player, and that felt like some real space age shit.
  3. If you were to ask me who the coolest guy on earth is, the picture my brain STILL conjures first is Dicky Barrett in 1997, and there’s not even a close second. The Bosstones were the musical guest on Saturday Night Live when Chris Farley hosted about two months before his death (October 1997). Dicky was up there with his raspy growl in his black suit, dark sunglasses, and, most notably, spiky black hair. Prepare for a cavalcade of outmoded technology here. I had taped that episode on VHS. I paused the tape to take Polaroid photos of Dicky in closeup. I then took those photos to Supercuts and asked the stylist there to make my hair look like his. It took me about 10 haircuts to finally get it right (Supercuts is awful), but this is how I wore my hair exclusively for the next decade-plus.
  4. The DU Pioneers played for a National Championship in 2004. The night of that game, my friend Jason called me to tell me he and Keith were in the C.B. & Potts Clubhouse in Fort Collins watching it. I left to meet them. I pushed open the double doors to find a basically empty bar that was weirdly silent and my two friends sitting near the back straight ahead in my line of sight. As soon as I pushed those doors open and took one step into the bar, “The Impression That I Get” fired up as if perfectly on cue for my entrance. I will never enter anywhere in a cooler way ever again. DU went on to win that game 1-0 and fended off a 6-on-3 attack in the last 90 seconds to seal it.

Favorite tracks: “The Impression That I Get,” “Numbered Days,” “Noise Brigade”

Turn the Radio Off by Reel Big Fish

Forever linked in my mind with The Bosstones is Reel Big Fish. The two ascended in popularity simultaneously, but with the benefit of hindsight, these bands were extremely different from one another. The Bosstones’ sound was inflected with East Coast hardcore while Reel Big Fish dialed up Southern California silliness. The Bosstones wore suits, Reel Big Fish wore shorts and Hawaiian shirts. The Bosstones’ sound was muscular and assaultive. Reel Big Fish was zany and ebullient.

At the time I didn’t notice any of those differences and couldn’t care less about them. All I knew was SKA! GIVE ME MORE SKA! My mom, bless her heart, seized on my new love and kept her eye out for things I might find interesting. Case in point: Reel Big Fish was one of the headliners of Warped Tour in 1997 (which swung through Colorado in July), and she cut out a long article written about them in the Rocky Mountain News for me. She still cuts out articles she thinks I’ll find interesting and gives them to me. She hasn’t fully mastered copy and pasting links to email me, and I kind of don’t want her to because I look forward to the Ziploc bag with articles printed on actual dead tree paper.

Anyway, Reel Big Fish is a fascinating band because underneath that goofy façade are songs about real pain, insecurity, longing and disappointment. The songs work on two very different but equally important levels. They chip away at further understanding that which makes us most human; and they’re just plain, wild, pogo sticking, fucking fun. One of my favorite songs of all-time is “Hey Ya” by Outkast because I like to call it the greatest Reel Big Fish song that Reel Big Fish didn’t actually write. Andre is dealing with some shit in that song, but most people don’t bother to notice. That’s beautifully and mildly tragic.

Favorite tracks: “Sell Out,” “Nothin’,” “I’ll Never Be”

Losing Streak by Less Than Jake

This is the old dude, Howard J. Reynolds, and you’re listening to Less Than Jake.

Those are the very first words on the album Losing Streak, and I still get excited every single time I hear them because I know for the next 35 minutes one of my very favorite bands is going to rock my face off. This album is so frenetic, so relentless, so caffeinated that when I first got into it I was worried I had bitten off more than I could chew with this genre. But then I got to “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts” with its creeping baseline and gradually increasing tempo and I felt equal parts dread and excitement. This song was DOING SOMETHING, MAN and I had to be there for it. Sure enough, it EXPLODES into a positively anthemic chorus.

I couldn’t turn it off. I couldn’t stop listening to it. I simply couldn’t fucking get enough of it. This was my bridge to punk rock. I knew I didn’t need to be afraid of this new shit, and that this was my whole life now. It took me like 5 fucking years to see them live, and when I finally did at the Magness Arena in Denver co-headlining with Bad Religion (Hot Water Music was supporting), up to that point I had never been more excited for a show in my life. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to get to see these guys that I idolized play live right in front of my face.

It’s a feeling I’ve not forgotten, and one I still experience pretty much every time I’m crammed into the Gothic, the Bluebird, the Ogden or the Marquis with hundreds of other punks, rudeboys, and other assorted goofballs shouting along with the words, forgetting all the problems of the world, and living in THIS MOMENT for a few fleeting minutes. Outside of my own house with my family, the place in which I am most at ease in this world is inside a rock club seeing one of my favorite bands. I’m home there. And I miss it desperately.

Favorite tracks: “Sugar In Your Gas Tank,” “Automatic,” “Rock-N-Roll Pizzeria”

(tie) It Means Everything by Save Ferris, Sing Along with Skankin’ Pickle by Skankin’ Pickle, and Duck and Cover by Mad Caddies

I’m cheating here with these three, but it’s my feature so I’ll break the rules when I damn well feel like it. We’ll make it quick though since this thing is already 2,200 words long.

* Look, I’m not totally proud of this, but 15 year-old boys aren’t exactly the most enlightened citizens among us. I largely bought Save Ferris’s first album because the picture of the band on the back featured a smokin’ hot lead singer in Monique Powell. What’s a horny boy to do? Listen to this album and get blown away by the crafty musicianship and her incredible pipes, that’s what! This album is pure sunshine and I used to wake up to “The World Is New” every morning. Always put a pep in my step.

Favorite tracks: “The World Is New,” “Superspy,” “Under 21”

* If you’re looking to exacerbate the generation gap with your Boomer parents tell them you want a Skankin’ Pickle album for Christmas. That’ll do the trick! They won’t know what the fuck to do with that band name. Equal parts goofy and message-oriented, there’s so much going on in Skankin’ Pickle’s music that’s at once immediately addictive as all hell, and subversive in a way that rewards multiple listens. I always pick up something new when I listen to Skankin’ Pickle, even now 23 years later. And when I start listening, it’s so fucking hard to stop. My friend Stephen and I listened to this driving around our Stepford-like Houston suburb so much that if listening to them were a war crime, we’d be executed on the White House lawn to cheering throngs of people.

Favorite tracks: “Rotten Banana Legs,” “I’m In Love With a Girl Named Spike,” “Smorgasborgnine”

* And finally, the Mad Caddies. My very first real concert (they sub-headlined under Mustard Plug at a Houston club called Fitzgerald’s). The first time I borrowed a CD from a friend and then refused to give it back. My first ever band t-shirt. My first ever purchase on eBay (a Duck and Cover poster). The band I’ve seen more times than any other. The band most emblematic of my friendship with my great buddy Keith. And now, Duck and Cover is the inspiration for my first tattoo which sits proudly and boss-looking on my left shoulder. Wait, what?

The Mad Caddies are almost certainly first among equals on this list, and while each band represents a significant moment in shaping the ways in which I wanted to interact with the world, the Mad Caddies were the clincher. I still get goosebumps when I think about listening to Duck and Cover. That’s a feeling that’s irreplaceable and unerasable. And I hope when you look back on your own life, whatever music speaks most to you gives you that same feeling.

Favorite tracks: “Road Rash,” “The Gentleman,” “No Hope.” (That’s right, 1-2-3, baby. Never has an album kicked off better)

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