VARIOUS ARTISTS – Staring At The Rude Boys: The British Ska Revival 1979-89

In the summer of 1979, several young bands with a political conscience and an ear for the Jamaican sounds of the late 60s began to storm the UK charts. The British music scene subsequently experienced one of its most exciting post-punk movements when bands like The Specials and The Selecter became the “new cool” with their brand of energetic ska music. By October, the new movement had reached fever pitch when no fewer than three bands associated with the 2-Tone label appeared on a single edition of Top of The Pops. Decades on, it’s still possible to understand the incendiary effect these bands had when revisiting that footage. Much has been said about Madness’ abilities to give the studio a party atmosphere, but it’s The Selecter’s first appearance playing ‘On My Radio’ which, perhaps, best sums up the pure energy of ska’s second wave in a little over two minutes, with Pauline Black, Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson and Charley Anderson giving it the full on skank throughout.

The movement offered a lot more than the charting heavyweights and other hit making stars, of course, and ska’s rebirth stretched far further than the 2-Tone and Go-Feet labels’ all-too-brief life-spans. This three disc set from Pressure Drop records bravely attempts to bring together many aspects of the era; not just as a record of some great ska bands, but to also show how ska’s influence continued to reverberate throughout the second half of the 80s, long after most of its revivalists stopped being regular faces on Thursday night’s best loved TV pop show. In taking its name from a Ruts hit, it immediately advertises the fact that it has occasional musical interests beyond those of the purist, taking in ska based experiments from punk-ish and mod styled bands, and even daring to chuck in a wildcard with a pop star’s flirtation along the way (Kim Wilde’s ‘2-6-5-8-0’ is somewhat of a mis-step on her otherwise excellent debut, but fits this musical package more naturally). Most importantly, this collection helps to give a huge platform to several largely unknown and forgotten acts from the decade.

There are several obvious names scattered throughout the three discs, but these tracks from the 2-Tone legends won’t necessarily be enough to reel in the casual fan, especially since the picks from the scene’s biggest names shy away from the obvious hits. The Specials’ misogynistic knees up ‘Little Bitch’ and The Selecter’s straight up ska banger ‘Street Feeling’ capture the genre’s core sound in a pure way, with the trebly edge of the Specials’ recording especially paying tribute to both the Jamaican Blue Beat recordings of the 60s and the buzz of punk and new wave. Bad Manners’ politically charged ‘Inner London Violence’ shows how they were far more than a silly cabaret act and the good time ‘Bed & Breakfast Man’ by Madness provides a great showcase for gifted musicians via the greatest hit single that never was. Each still gives a brilliant representation of the second wave’s big guns, while the Bodysnatchers’ ‘Let’s Do Rock Steady’ casts and eye and ear back to the core influences for the scene with a fantastic cover of Dandy Livingstone’s ‘Let’s Do Rocksteady’. With only two 7” singles released at the time, The Bodysnatchers remain one of the 2-Tone labels biggest “what if’s”, and although Rhoda Dakar’s retrospective re-recording ‘Sings The Bodysnatchers’ (Cherry Red Records, 2015) gives some idea of how the band’s planned album might have turned out, it’s fair to say the album sometimes lacked the necessary youthful energy that would have surely made the material fly thirty five years earlier.

A regular collaborator to both the Jamaican scene in the late 60s and the British revival, Rico Rodriguez’s version of ‘Sea Cruise’ is presented in its original studio take from 1980, where the 50s hit is subjected to a hefty Jamaican rhythm and a meaty trombone. Rico’s performances rarely suggested energy, but even more than most, this is one recording that suggests a lazy afternoon in the sun with its easy rhythm and languorous brass. Rodriguez pretty much achieved the impossible when he made the trombone melodic, so it’s easy to see how he became a legend in his field. Although this particular recording might be from the MOR end of the ska spectrum, his tone remains so distinctive, it’s almost impossible not to love it. It’s also worth noting that this is a radically different recording to the Peel Session take with The Specials – finding a mint 7” of this track will cost you twice the original RRP of this whole set! There’s even time to explore recordings by first wave artists, Desmond Dekker and Laurel Aitken, both still making new music long after their sixties hits. Dekker’s ‘Rude Boy Train’ has a great spirit and an incessant musical hook and even though it doesn’t quite reach the classic status of his well-loved hits, there’s more than enough sparkle and warmth from the ska veteran to make the track a welcome inclusion. Aitken’s 1980 single ‘Big Fat Man’ is far superior, to the point where everything about the recording sounds contemporary for the time of release. The backing vocal and sax arrangements are enough to make you think he’d actually hired The Beat as his session band (all saxophones are actually supplied by future Pink Floyd sideman Gary Barnacle) and his lead presence has the kind of confidence that suggests he felt as if he could take on both the new decade and new breed of ska stars and win. He didn’t – the single failed to even trouble the lowest reaches of the top 75 – but it’s inclusion here deserves to win the love of a new generation of listeners.

There’s so much good stuff packed into this anthology, from ska themed singles from mods The Lambrettas and Merton Parkas; a well known jibe at Elvis Costello by Graduate (featuring a pre-fame Tears For Fears Orzabal and Smith) and even an inoffensive contribution from Snodland’s Judge Dread, whose ‘Ska Fever’ appears stick the guts of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Egyptian Reggae’ through a Dave & Ansel Collins filter and add a disco drum sound, purely because it could. …And all of that is before we get to the deeper cuts, oddities and rarities that make ‘Staring At The Rude Boys’ a genuinely interesting prospect.

A tune best played at maximum volume, The Akrylyks’ ‘Spyderman’ mixes a straight ska rhythm, ugly kazoo-like saxes and a shouty refrain, creating something that should’ve stood alongside Bad Manners. It doesn’t try to be clever or add new twists to the genre; instead, its chief concern is to rouse the listener and enable a full-scale skank. It’s more than successful in that remit, even if – clocking in at almost four minutes – it feels a little drawn out. From a collector’s perspective, the original 7” isn’t worth a fortune, but finding a copy is difficult, so something by this band making it’s CD debut is certainly something to celebrate. Keen music buffs will be interested to note that The Akrylyks featured a young Roland Gift, making a name for himself on the ska circuit while his future Fine Young Cannibals bandmates, Andy Cox and David Steele, were scoring hits with The (English) Beat [represented on this set by their excellent ‘Whine & Grine/Stand Down Margaret.]

The Thrillers’ ‘Shootin’’ could be one of the greatest ska tracks you’ve never heard. The rhythms are so tightly wound, they present themselves almost as if they’ve been drawn from the US third wave, sounding far more ballsy and energetic than most of 1980s finest, while its flipside, The Gangsters’ ‘We Are The Gangsters’, fuses the good time sounds of ska’s first wave with gang vocals that are more sympathetic to the early 80s, all the while cranking an intensive rhythm across three minutes. It almost sounds like a Jamaican equivalent of a South London football chant. These two tracks approach ska from very different angles, and yet came together to form half of one of the greatest 12”s in the early 80s. It would have been great to have that release’s other tracks (The Gangsters’ cover of ‘Wooly Bully’ and The Thrillers’ ‘To The Top’) included as well, but you can’t have everything, as they say…

A lot of the real interest in this set – specifically if you own various 2-Tone/ska and other alternative stuff from the 80s already – comes from its selection of rare 7” sides, several of which make their debut on CD along with a few LP cuts that time forgot.

An essential selection, The Resistors’ ‘Jeanie’ (1980) has one of the busiest basslines ever, which might’ve been enough alone to make it stand out. The fact that the band use that to deliver something with all of the energy of the later third wave ska bands, while carrying a core melody that sounds like a souped up ‘Love of The Common People’ and still manage to wedge in a few cool harmonies en route certainly makes it something of a lost classic. Almost as cool, The RB’s ‘Explain’ (Phoenix Records, 1980) fuses classic ska sounds with a very 60s vibe on a track where a simple hook and big harmonies are only matched by an even bigger horn section. Musically, it often sounds as if it’s poised and ready to burst into a Bad Manners classic at any second. Stewart Campbell-Clark’s lead vocals display a broad sense of melody, but he has the kind of voice that’s more suited to a slick pop band than a hard and fast ska troupe. Once you’ve attuned to that, though, his performance is absolutely stellar. In the hands of a label with decent distribution, this could have been massive. Going for something much quirkier, The Rimshots’ ‘I Was Wrong’ is one of this set’s most speed oriented tracks, and despite flaunting a very new wave vocal style there’s a lot about their weird Devo meets 2-Tone hybrid sound that will appeal to most ska fans. The bass work is absolutely stunning: it shifts from a meaty Jah Wobble-ish sound, into a flurry of punchy notes that could have been lifted from the Selecter debut, but doesn’t let up for a second. The vocal bleats and grumbles throughout, but a refrain that works the title into a massive earworm allays any misgivings you might have about the performance. When a box set contains unexpected gems as great as these, it becomes much easier to forgive material like the JJ Allstars’ ‘Dambusters March’, which is as grim as you’d expect – almost as if the musicians had clocked the Madness version of ‘Swan Lake’ and decided that reworking well-known arrangements was easy (when something that sounds like an out of tune Mike Barson performance becomes a recording’s strong point, you’re in trouble) – or ‘Never Gonna Lose Me’ by The Sax Maniax, which certainly isn’t terrible, but by applying a ska mood to a song that would seem far better suited to an easy 80s soul sound, it seems a little cheesy and quite dated. Thankfully, though, the misses across these three discs are surprisingly few, and with most tracks clocking in around the three minute mark or less, any unfortunate listening experiences are short-lived.

A first on CD, The Reluctant Stereotypes’ ‘Lofaska’ casts a blend of pop and ska that very much heralds the dawn of the 80s. Its bright drum sound is now sounds somewhat of its time, but there’s a bounce and a frivolity to this largely instrumental tune that holds up well. In an out in just over two minutes, it’s more than enough to show off the Coventry band’s talents. Their one and only long player, ‘The Label’ (WEA Records, 1980) has never had a full reissue; this short, sharp reminder might just be enough to spark renewed interest, even if the chosen number isn’t entirely representative of the political band’s core work. Fusing ska elements with some shiny new wave pop (and boasting an intro that’s more like Aztec Camera than any ska band you could name), The Hotknives’ ‘Dave & Mary’ is a brilliant tune, loaded with a Paul Weller-esque social commentary. The pensioners’ fear and tale of tower blocks feels like a distant relation to The Jam’s ‘The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong’ and although the ska elements of the track are fairly far removed from Weller’s own mod-pop of ’82, there’s plenty within this late ska revival track’s aggressive vocal stance that would appeal to lovers of the Modfather’s earlier work. In terms of incessant melodies, this is as catchy as hell, regardless of the subject matter.

A blend of ska and reggae, MP’s ‘Housewives Choice’ (Moving Plastic Records, 1980) is a little frustrating in that it sounds like it should be a great track, but is terribly flawed. Opening with a groove that could be The Bodysnatchers, its deep bass and muted guitar counterpoint suggests something timeless. It then uses that brilliantly buoyant sound to underscore a toasting vocal that sounds about seven years ahead of its time. Again, the band gets full marks for innovation here. Unfortunately, its best features are offset by a pre-chorus that sounds like a seaside novelty bolstered by out of tune keyboards. There’s potential here for that to become a mass irritant, but luckily, the brilliant bass continues to punch through at all of the important points. Such a hit and miss approach makes this unlikely to be a favourite track of anyone’s – except, maybe, the band’s families – but it says so much about the compilers’ desires to dig deep to find rarities, and since this appears to be the MP’s only release (and doesn’t appear to have been on CD anywhere previously), it still feels important, somehow… Likewise, Case’s ‘Oh’ isn’t the best ska tune, but represents another fine discovery. The high octane ska and punk hybrid openly rips off The Ruts during its intro before exploring something that sounds like The Beat in super-charged mode. Seemingly sourced from an old needle drop, the vinyl friendly sound only adds to the energy. In and out in under two minutes, this number represents one of the only tracks issued during the band’s original lifespan.

Another familiar name to bigger ska buffs, The Ska-Dows (probably the only ska band to feature an ex-member of Animal Kwackers) were one of those bands that’d occasionally pop up on UK radio in the very early 80s – their ska version of The Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ almost threatened the charts with its presence and their take on The Shadows’ ‘Apache’ offers plenty of bounce to the ounce. By comparison, ‘Ska’d for Life’ (the title track of their sole LP) is a solid if unadventurous number that brings the required amount of horns and chopping rhythms to entertain the more undemanding ska fan. With the CD version of that long player being long out of print, it’s still great that this overlooked band is represented. The more cross-over approach of The Tigers and Max Headroom and The Car Parks – both mixing ska sounds with very punk oriented vocals – shows how far reaching the sounds of ska had become by the early 80s. Even if neither suggests “essential”, these tracks are more than welcome from a collectors’ point of view.

Another obscurity destined for new ears, Ded Birds’ ‘Rich & Nasty’ (1979) fuses a skinny tie power pop sound with the brass of old Piranhas hits creating a shameless ska bounce. Looking back, there’s something about its fusion sound that doesn’t always feel entirely natural and, again, that’s down to an odd vocal, but all signs point towards a record that should’ve been a moderate hit at the time. The performance is tight and even though the vocal comes with an affectation, between some great bass work and strident rhythms, there’s enough energy here to carry it off. In retrospect, however, it’s the band members themselves that give this recording most of its collector’s value: the Ded Bird’s drummer, Jon Moss, passed briefly through the ranks of Adam & The Ants before becoming a full time member of Culture Club, and guitarist Wayne Hussey became second lieutenant of the UK goth scene as a future member of The Sisters of Mercy, Dead or Alive and The Mission. Tears For Fears weren’t the only 80s legends to have trodden on the coat-tails of Coventry’s finest.

Overall, this is a superb set. Even when the last knockings of the scene could be accused of going through the motions by 1989 (as with The Rude Boys’ ‘Rude Boy Shuffle’, a four minute mid-tempo workout that’s big on sax but much lower on energy than The Bodysnatchers or The Selecter) or ‘Come Into My Parlour’ (a 1988 LP cut from Skin Deep that isn’t as effective at fusing ska and pop as The Pirhanas), there’s still a few genuinely strong tracks to be unearthed. It isn’t all aimed at the ska novice: those hoping for a focused retrospective of the era’s greatest ska recordings should probably stick with their vinyl copy of ‘The Two Tone Story’; beginners looking for a broad retrospective of ska from all eras would actually be better served by ‘Ska For Life’, a three disc budget set that places sixties hits alongside 2-Tone classics, while bringing things more up to speed with tracks by The Toasters and Mighty Mighty Bosstones. ‘Staring At The Rude Boys’ always feels very much more like a fan-curated set, something put together with love by the fans for the fans. There are a few tracks worth skipping and a couple that sound a little lacking when heard so many decades after the fact, but mostly, these discs offer a very interesting dip into a period of British history that’s all too often been dominated by two or three best-selling 2-Tone LPs. If you still play those Specials and Selecter albums weekly and would like a guided tour of ska’s forgotten heroes and much more besides, then this collection comes very highly recommended.

December 2020