Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?
by Bob Pomeroy
In the cavernous old Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are on stage playing their hearts out. The show is part of the Sarasota Film Festival and judging by the turn out, promotions seems to have been an afterthought. Despite free beer, the crowd is small. Ted Leo doesn’t seem concerned that he’s playing to a less than packed house. The crowd sings along as Leo sings “Me and Mia.” Fans shout out requests and Ted plays what he feels like playing. Ted takes the audience into a trance singing “it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright,” over and over as “Little Dawn” winds down.
I’m a slow adopter when it comes to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. It wasn’t until his fourth CD, Shake the Sheets started gathering glowing reviews that I actually noticed the band. The disc has gathered favorable comparisons to the Clash, being tagged “punk rock for thinking people.” The hype is pretty well on target. Watching Ted Leo passionately sing and play in Sarasota, I found myself getting caught up in the moment. Bits of the Jam and Thin Lizzy seemed to weave through the music. Wednesday, I hunkered down in the WMNF library catching up on the Ted Leo discography. What do you know; there are Jam and Thin Lizzy covers in the catalogue!
About half way though the set, Ted played a song that got me thinking in an entirely different direction. From the stage, Ted sang “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” with a catchy chorus name-dropping the principal vocalists from the Specials. The song is a lament to the collapse of Third Wave Ska and it is a reasonable questions. Where have all the rude boys gone?
Thursday night at the State Theatre, I found part of the answer. We all know that ska isn’t anywhere near as popular as it was in the mid-’90s, but a few hundred believers came to skank the night away with the Toasters. Florida ska bands Supervillains, Rude Squad and the Cohorts warmed up the audience with their passionate sets. The Toasters are still going strong after all these years and all the changes they’ve been through. Bucket and Jack Ruby are still tag-teaming on lead vocals. In the rhythm section is a familiar face; Jason Nwagbaraocha of Sarasota’s the Strangeways, is now a full-fledged member of the band. The set included the expected stage invasion by pretty girls, the unexpected invitation of two local toasters to freesyle on stage and a encore which saw the Toasters and Supervillains swapping instruments over and over again. It was a night of good sweaty fun for the Tampa ska kids.
Playing with the Toasters has given Jason a chance to play his way across the US, Canada and Europe. He won’t be on a Toasters CD until late in the year. They’re planning on recording the next Toasters disc in Spain, where Bucket now lives. So the answer to Ted’s question is the rude boys are still with us and the fans are still skanking, they’re just doing it with a lower profile these days.
While the rude boys profile is lower, the ska infrastructure is regenerating. At the merch table, I discovered quite a few new ska discs on a label called Megalith. During the ska boom of the ’90s, Moon Ska NYC was the flagship label. Of course, Moon Ska is just a memory here (there are still Moon Ska imprints in Europe and Brazil).
Megalith is the new flagship ska label headed up by Rob Hingley (aka Bucket when he’s on stage with the Toasters). Moon was based in New York, but Megalith is based in the college town of Norman, Oklahoma. So far, the label has reissued some back catalogue by the Toasters and new releases from King Django, Victor Rice, Eastern Standard Time, the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, Westbound Train and Desorden Publico. The most impressive release is a co-release with Jump Up Records called Still Standing, a four CD compilation of American ska bands who are still active. The compilation includes a lot of surviving Third Wave bands, but there are also quite a few new names.
One lesson I hope the rudies learned from the collapse of the Third Wave is sort of illustrated by the circular logic of this column. It was a thinking man’s punk that got me thinking about ska this week. Bands like the Slackers and Mustard Plug survived the ska bust because they had strong ties outside the insular ska world. Jump Up Records survived the crash because they were a diversified label. I hope Megalith makes common cause with like minded musicians and fans. It’s good for the music, good for the fans and it’s good business.