Type "criticism of ska music" into Google and you'll likely come across webpages such as "10 Things You Hate About Ska" or "Everyone Hates Ska." Of course, it's not true. Tons of people love the relentless upbeat nature of ska, yet it's a very divisive genre.
- Book Cover Courtesy Of Cam Evans
- IN DEFENSE OF SKA Over the course of more than 300 pages, Aaron Carnes explains why ska music deserves your respect through countless interviews, personal essays, and obscure anecdotes.
Enter In Defense of Ska, a new book by Santa Cruz Good Times music editor Aaron Carnes, which came out May 4 on Clash Books. Though it's aimed at ska haters, hoping to change their minds, the book is essential reading for ska lovers.
"I wrote my book so that it would appeal both to ska lovers and haters, or rather people that have dismissed the genre as something not worth their time," Carnes explained in an email interview. "Obviously the angle of the book is to push back on popular culture's narrative around ska, that it's a punchline and doesn't really deserve critical respect the way other genres do. I hope that non-ska fans and ska haters take the challenge and read it and see if I can get them to change some of their opinions, stereotypes, and preconceived notions about ska.
"It's not my goal to get people to like ska," Carnes continued. "I want them to regard it as a worthwhile genre. It's my opinion that if they give it more regard, they'll probably find some songs they like, but that's beside the point. Like I said, I also wrote this book with ska fans in mind. There's tons of stories I dug up that even hardcore ska fans probably haven't heard yet. I think the journey through the different ska stories will be a lot of fun for the fans of the genre to read. I also think people who don't like ska will enjoy the stories too. But I had to challenge them to give it a shot because—since they don't take the music seriously—they would never consider reading it."
Despite being a big ska fan, reading Carnes' book made me feel ignorant of the genre. His knowledge runs deep! On a scale of 1 to 10, just how obsessed with ska is he?
- Photo Courtesy Of Amy Bee
- UNABASHED SKA LOVER Santa Cruz Good Times music editor Aaron Carnes loves ska music and he's not afraid to show it, which is why he wrote a book about it.
"I think considering the fact that I spent seven years working on a ska book, the only correct answer is 10," he quipped. "Either I'm obsessed with ska or being a thorough music journalist. Probably both. Honestly, ska was my absolute favorite style of music in the '90s. And it really bummed me out as I got older and became a professional music journalist that this style of music that I love and that has meant so much to me was treated as a punchline. So I probably went overboard in making sure this book was jam-packed with compelling stories."
One story he takes a deep dive into is Propagandhi's classic 1993 song "Ska Sucks," which at the time was very controversial, and then Carnes proceeds to segue into an obscure prior event at the time—a brawl between punks and Nazis at a 1989 Green Day, Samiam, and Econochrist show in Sacramento. Then he circles back around to explain "Ska Sucks" was really in response to Nazi skinheads infiltrating the ska scene. How in the world did he dig up all these amazing stories?
"Understanding the history behind 'Ska Sucks' was challenging because [Propagandhi frontman] Chris Hannah doesn't talk about 'Ska Sucks' much and he didn't respond to my interview requests. I had heard rumors about the song's history but couldn't confirm them. It turns out, Chris did open up about the song on [podcast] Turned Out A Punk, which a friend told me about. That gave me my primary source. For the Green Day story, I learned about that because it was a cut scene from the documentary Turn It Around. Great movie by the way. A friend of mine directed it.
"In conversation once, he told me about the infamous Green Day show," Carnes continued. "I took particular interest in the story because I currently live in Sacramento, the city where it happened, and I'd never heard about the show. I filed that away in my memory. As I was working on the 'Ska Sucks' chapter, it got me thinking about how Nazis were a common problem at shows back in the '80s and '90s, and I thought I could illustrate that point by bringing up the Green Day show. The Nazi problems at all these shows also demonstrates pretty clearly that the alt-right didn't pop up out of nowhere in 2015. It's been here for a long time."
For those who aren't familiar, the song goes, "Ska sucks/ Ska revival isn't cool you stupid fuck/ The bands are only in it for the bucks/ And if you don't believe me you're a schmuck/ But the trend will die out with any luck." I always found the line "the bands are only in it for the bucks" ironic because most ska bands have, like, eight people playing a four-hour show for 200 bucks. Plus you've got to haul all the equipment around, and Carnes being a drummer knows that pain better than anyone. How can anyone think people play ska to get rich?
"I guess people assume if you're on MTV you're probably rich. Not true for most of the musicians. And yeah, being in a ska band is probably the dumbest way to try to get rich. There's way too many people in the band!"
Reading through his book, it seems Carnes' favorite of the three ska periods is the 2 Tone ska revival of the '70s and '80s. The third wave had some great bands but also a lot of shallow novelty bands that I think led to the backlash against ska. Am I right?
- Photo Courtesy Of Aaron Carnes
- AH, YOUTH Author Aaron Carnes (second from left) with his former ska band, Flat Earth, somewhere in Texas circa 1996.
"I think the 2 Tone period is probably the best time for ska," Carnes agreed, "but it was a short period and there weren't many bands. It was over so fast. What came after 2 Tone isn't a single period. Thousands of bands all over the world came as a result of 2 Tone ska. I don't even think in terms of 'third wave ska' because it's an inaccurate descriptor of ska's journey. There were some bands that got viewed as novelty acts that got big, but there were a lot of bands doing totally different things with ska at the same time. I don't have any issue with Reel Big Fish or Aquabats. They're great bands. Every band in the '90s did their own thing, and it was awesome. The problem was that mainstream culture didn't understand ska and assumed that whatever few bands got famous somehow defined ska. It didn't. And none of those bands would have told you that. Some of my favorite records were released while ska was mainstream, but they were off the radar. MU330 released Crab Rangoon in 1997. It deals with heartbreak and religious trauma. It's influenced by Weezer as much as by ska. It was a flop, but I think one of the best '90s ska albums. There's hundreds of great, underrated '90s ska albums like that."
Carnes' former band, Flat Planet, was part of the third wave, inspired by Skankin' Pickle, a band that used to tour through San Luis Obispo on the regular. Carnes hailed from Gilroy at the time. Did Flat Planet ever tour through SLO Town?
"We never did make it to SLO. We played SoCal a few times, but other than a show in Pomona, they were always in the Inland Empire. Not sure why. I think they were just easier to book. I would have loved to play in SLO."
Carnes' book is available locally at Boo Boo Records—shop local!—but also online at amazon.com. Δ
Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at firstname.lastname@example.org.