Heavy Manners – “Politics & Pleasure” (1982)

Whenever I travel I try to pick up local music, especially when I go overseas. Even the biggest name acts in other countries are often unknown here in the US, so there’s a ton of great stuff to find. It’s not always as “easy” to do when I travel here in the US, though, since that requires more of a dive into the underground. It’s not like I was going to grab albums by Kanye and The Smashing Pumpkins on my recent trip to Chicago, after all. And unfortunately there was no “local” section over at Reckless Records, so that wasn’t an option either. Lucky for me then that I came across this ska EP by Heavy Manners in the New Arrivals bin, because the State of Illinois sign right on the cover made me stop and look it up. And lo and behold, they’re from Chicago. And it’s ska, which I don’t have a lot of, so for five bucks why not?

There’s definitely a ska undercurrent to the rhythm section on Politics & Pleasure‘s half-dozen songs, though the vocals are more new wave. Some enjoyable stuff, particularly the closer “On The Way Down”, which is probably the most pop song on the record. A tad dated, but still a fun spin.

The English Beat – “I Just Can’t Stop It” (1980)

There are some songs that I automatically associate with a specific movie. And we’re not talking theme songs or instrumentals, I mean songs that I knew before I’d ever heard them in the movie. “Let’s Get It On” will always make me think of High Fidelity; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” Real Genius; “Keep Hope Alive,” the perfect intro to The Replacement Killers.

Well, for “Mirror in the Bathroom” by The English Beat, it’s Grosse Pointe Blank. A scene in which a man gets stabbed to death by a pen. A good 15 years before Jason Bourne used a pen as a weapon in The Bourne Identity. (♠)

Welcome home, Pointers.

It’s a ska song about snorting coke. I mean, seriously, that’s it in a nutshell. But god damn it’s catchy. It’s catchy as hell.

I’ve heard I Just Can’t Stop It a few times here and there, but a few months back my buddy Andy put it on the turntable while we were visiting him and the lovely Angie in Colorado, and it just sounded so… so perfect. Sure, the red wine might have had something to do with it. And the beers. And the wine. It was one of those nights.

As I’m listening to I Just Can’t Stop It, I’m wondering if I haven’t stumbled upon the secret ingredient of some of that amazing early Icelandic punk rock, most notably Þeyr – it’s a hint of ska. Just a touch of it, mind you, not like The English Beat played it. But somewhere off in the distance… among the volcanic rocks and moss… that saxophone-y vibe…

Ska and reggae have something in common, which is I find myself generally liking everything I hear… I just find it hard to identify something that truly sticks out from the pack. So The English Beat is a very fun album to play – it opens with a big kick, and then it’s a pretty fun groove all the way through.

(♠) To be fair Arnold Schwarzenneger stabbed a dude in the back with a pen in The Running Man in 1987. But he didn’t actually kill the dude with it, and neither did Bourne. So there.

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra – “Wake Up! (feat. Asian Kung-Fu Generation)” (2015)

Damn, just the name of the band and title of this thing are almost enough words to be an entire blog on their own. That’s a lot of words for a little 7″ record.

Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane took a business trip to Japan, and when she returned she brought back a few CDs and a couple of Japanese 7″ singles she picked up at Flake Records. When we were out in Colorado a few weeks back visiting some friends they spun some English Beat, which reminded us how much we like ska and prompted her to pick up this record. And that was a good choice. “Wake Up!” is a catchy pop-ska number, while the B side “Work Song” is more of a big band swing tune, which I might actually prefer.

A decent little 7″.

Skatalà – “Fent D’aquí” (1990)

This was one of those unusual “finds,” a Spanish ska record that never had US distribution hidden in the record bin of a used book store. How did Fent D’aquí end up there? I didn’t find any other seemingly similar albums in those bins. Did someone pick it up on a trip to Spain, maybe just having bought some random local records on their vacation? How many sets of hands did it go through on its way to me? I’ll never know.

Skatalà appear to have formed in 1985, but didn’t release their first album (Fent D’aquí) until 1990. Their sound is clearly ska, but there are strong undercurrents of punk rock (“Suant La Panxa”) and Oi! (“Bolingas”) as well, combining for an overall vibe that was well outside the mainstream by time it came out. There’s a lot of energy on this record, with a certain amount of punk rock rawness that they seem to be able to turn on and off based on the dictates of the song – the more ska-ish stuff is cleaner and tighter, while the more punk numbers have a slight sloppy edge that fits the style.

I feel like I lucked out with this one for a lot of reasons. Not only is it a very random find that turned out to have some super cool music on it, but for once I got a bargain as well, only paying about $20 for a record that looks to sell in the $40-60 range (trust me, usually I’m at the other end of the equation…). A few songs off of Fent D’aquí are on YouTube, including the previously mentioned Oi!-like “Bolingas,” and I think they’re worth checking out if you’re into this kind of thing.

The Specials – “The Specials”

The Specials were undoubtedly one of the most popular ska bands ever in the UK. Formed in 1977 while punk was in its heyday, The Specials were heavily influenced by the Jamaican sound that was so important to many of their punk brethren such as Sex Pistol John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) and The Clash, but instead of using it to create a more or less new genre, they took ska and infused it with other elements. And it worked – the band had seven singles in the UK Top 10 between 1979 and 1981.

Their self-titled debut LP came out at the end of 1979, a combination of covers and originals produced by Elvis Costello. The sound is rich and rockin’, with a somewhat faster pace than traditional ska and vocal stylings that have a bit of that punk sneer to them. The message, at least in their originals, like that of many UK bands of the period is at least moderately political, most notably “Concrete Jungle”.

I have to carry a knife
Because there’s people threatening my life
I can’t dress just the way I want
I’m being chased by the National Front.

(The National Front is a white supremacist organization that had reached it’s zenith right around the time The Specials was released)

It’s hard to believe this record is 34 years old. It still sounds great, though ska is a bit like swing to me in that both are relatively timeless genres, perhaps because so many of the contemporary artists who play in those styles true to keep true to the roots. Regardless as to the reasons, The Specials is fantastic and if you’re looking to check out some ska, I think it’s a great starting point.