In defense of ska music

Huge news from Bill de Blasio this week. The New York City mayor and 843rd declared candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination “loves ska.”  So while he’s likely not to be the nominee, we can all feel well assured that he is special.

I wasn’t surprised to see some snickering and derision about de Blasio entering the 2020 fray (people… don’t like him very much) but I was surprised to see some anti-ska sentiment tossed in when this mini-moment (mini-meme?) went down.

For example, Brian Koppelman, co-creator of Billions and a really thoughtful and interesting guy (his podcast, The Moment, is great), surprised me by proclaiming the following:

  • I love ska is bro talk for “i don’t really like or understand music very much.”

I was a little miffed when I read this, and started to think about why I love ska so much myself, and why ska sometimes gets a really unfair wrap.

A little background. Ska can mean all kinds of things, which can lead to some confusion. The style dates way back to the Jamaica of the 1960s, capturing a mix of “Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues.”  Most Americans likely associate ska with “thrid-wave” ska and particularly the stuff that came out when ska became kind of trendy for a little while in the mid-’90s. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones appeared in the movie Clueless at the peak of this period, for example. Reel Big Fish capture the moment nicely too with a song that ironically/not ironically became a hit, called “Sell Out.”

The signature sound of ska is the “ska upstroke“:

  • Most ska music is played in 4/4 time, and a big part of getting the ska groove right is playing on the off- beats – this creates that bouncing rhythm that ska is famous for. This rhythmic pattern is also known as the ska upstroke.

A lot of times you get horns with ska music, but not always. The ska upstroke works really well with all kinds of styles, and typically upbeat or aggressive music ranging from jazz to rock to punk to hardcore. I’ve always loved its energy and ebullient spirit when applied correctly. While the Pixies are credited with bringing a signature quiet-loud-quiet sound to alternative rock, the Bosstones brought a fabulous hardcore-grooving ska sound, particularly on their early records (tons of examples right from the jump on their debut LP, Devil’s Night Out).

I came up with a ska starter kit, and admittedly went a little nutso with it, but why not?

  • “54-46 Was My Number” – Toots and the Maytals
  • “Too Much Too Young” – The Specials
  • “Skankin’ to the Beat” – Fishbone
  • “Rudie Can’t Fail” – The Clash
  • “Recimination(s)” – The Toasters
  • “Draw Your Breaks” – Scotty
  • “William Shatner” – Scofflaws
  • “Sound System” – Operation Ivy
  • “Drunks and Children” – Mighty Mighty Bosstones
  • “Got the Time?” – Perfect Thyroid
  • “Super Rad” – Aquabats
  • “On Mercury” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • “Walking Contradiction” – Voodoo Glow Skulls
  • “Pyramid Scheme” – Mad Caddies
  • “Keasby Nights” – Streetlight Manifesto
  • “How’s My Driving, Doug Hastings?” – Less Than Jake
  • “I Wanna Riot” – Rancid
  • “Dry Spell” – Pepper
  • “Tight” – Murphy’s Law

I think ska gets a bad wrap because being “into ska” became associated with being a poseur during its brief trendy phase. In theory, such a person wasn’t really into a highly expansive style that covers laid back Jamaican ska to the brilliant ska punk of the Flatliners to the eclectic innovation of a Perfect Thyroid (an incredible band that I had the privilege of seeing many times during my college years).  And I guess the stereotype would enjoy talking about being “into ska” while really just enjoying wearing a pork pie hat and skinny tie or something.

I think the first time I heard anything related to ska was by way of a show I saw in Albany, New York in late 1992 or early 1993. The lineup was pretty incredible, including such acts as Cracker and They Might Be Giants. The headliner was the Bosstones themselves, and at that time in my life it was the loudest and hardest rocking band I had ever seen live. I’ve seen them many times subsequently, and they are always insanely good (Live From the Middle East is one of my favorite live albums of all time).

That spring, another live show forever altered my outlook on music. This time it was in Ithaca, New York at a small venue called The Nines. The Skaoovee Tour featured three legendary ska bands: Scofflaws (from my homeland of Long Island, New York), The Pietasters, and The Toasters. Those experiences, coupled with my friend Dave Birnbaum later turning me onto bands such as Voodoo Glow Skulls and Sublime, made me a card carrying member of the “I’m into ska” club.

Anyway, if you have never sampled ska or haven’t given it a listen in a while, check out The Specials, technically a “second wave” ska band. Their self-titled album, which you can listen to in full on the YouTube, kicks off with something of a ska anthem, “A Message To You Rudy.” The album in full holds up incredibly and may well be your gateway drug into sounds further afield.

So if that makes me a “ska bro,” then fine. There are worse things!

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

RZA and Wu-Tang Clan (again and again and again)

RZA is one of the more fascinating figures in American culture. Rapper and member of the iconic hip hop collective known as the Wu-Tang Clan, actor, author, and filmmaker, his most impressive work of all may be as a record producer.

And on top of all that, he’s just a really interesting dude. Check out the way he answers a pretty broad question in an interview (“What are the most important rules that you live by?”) with passionate specificity:

  • The most important rule is just keeping it 100 percent with myself, preparing myself for what’s in front of me and making sure that I complete my goals. First you set your goal, right? Identify what it is, envision it and then I prepare. If my goal was simply to climb a tree, I’m gonna study a tree-climbing book, understand the tools and equipment that I need to do it, understand that if I gotta go up, you know, that may be easy. But what about coming back down, right?

If you’re ever of a mind, sample a book called The Tao of Wu (by “The RZA”), which digs into his personal philosophy, a combination of deep humanism and compassion matched with an aggressive attitude and hustler’s spirit that came out of his growing up in the projects in Staten Island, New York (neighborhoods that would later get mythologized by the Wu-Tang Clan as the “slums of Shaolin”).

If you’re down for a mixture of Buddhist philosophy and spiritualism, hardcore underground hip hop influence, and samurai culture, you’re just starting to get an inkling of what RZA brings to the table.

And then he shows up for character arcs on shows like Californication and you’re like, what?

RZA and Wu-Tang are back in the news recently on a number of fronts. They were given a street sign and honored with a Wu-Tang Clan Day in Staten Islandfor one, and later this year there will be “a 10-part scripted series co-written by RZA detailing the clan’s history and formation” that will be released on Hulu.

And if that’s not enough, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a four-hour documentary miniseries now available on Showtime, is here to remind us of even more of the RZA and Wu-Tang legacy.  For example, there’s the part where the large and rambunctious Wu-Tang crew were given the ability to go off and do solo projects while still maintaining allegiance to the Wu-Tang collective. Method Man recalls:

  • We had labels that would usually be competing against each other actually working with each other, for our cause. Insane. Unheard of. RZA had the plan, but who knew? And, uh, I guess I got lucky. I guess we all did.

This move set the table for hip hop masterpieces such as GZA’s (not to be confused with RZA) Liquid Swords

If you’re into hip hop music at all and you haven’t given it a listen in some time, get your ears in front of Wu-Tang’s debut album from 1993, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)right now. It’s a shockingly good album and still sounds fresh and rambunctious as ever. It’s somehow raw, rocking, groovy, jarring, and ear pleasing all at the same time, the lyrics at turns unsettling and hilarious, weird and weirdly profound. And if you had to pick an album that was The Most NYC Album Ever, you could do worse than this one.

When I was discussing Wu-Tang with my man Dave recently, he also advised including the greatness that is Wu-Tang Forever.

I must also include this work of pure ebullient genius, a Wu-Tang vs. The Beatles mash-up, called Enter the Magical Mystery Chambers.  I don’t know how this masterwork entered our plane of existence, but I think it’s best to not question such things.

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

Re-visiting The Doors movie

I find myself revisiting some of the more important or influential pop culture artifacts from my youth-type days of late. I’m re-reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, for example, the still astoundingly good first chapter of The Dark Tower epic.

I re-watched the Oliver Stone-directed The Doors recently as well. I saw the movie in the theater when it came out in 1991, and I was at just the right age for that movie — and more importantly for me at the time, the music — to punch me in the metaphorical gut. The music has stayed with me over the years (even though my wife has forever maintained that the talent of Jim Morrison is akin to the character Michael Bolton’s take on the real life Michael Bolton in Office Space), but I had not re-visited the movie since at least the late 1990s.

It holds up in many ways — it’s visually striking and screams 1960s stylized excess and “loving your neighbor until it hurts.” And the music concert scenes are great, fronted by Val Kilmer’s scary good performance as the Lizard King himself. But as with many biopics, it falls apart mid-way through and gets dull and dreary as Morrison descends into addiction and is a non-stop a-hole to everyone around him.

As is my wont, I then went down the YouTube rabbit hole a bit, landing on an early 1990s Ray Manzarak interview in which he pans the movie and the portrayal of Morrison, saying that the singer was a genuinely nice and non-abusive guy, with the caveat that he did have his demons. Manzarark then pitched a documentary that he had just put out at the time, called The Soft Parade (which is also the name of a really good if pretty long song off a Doors album of the same name). The documentary is very under produced by modern standards, but as Manzarak notes it does show a different side to the band, both offstage and on versus the general persona and image that the Stone movie in part helped to impart as the singer and band’s legacy.

I’m lucky enough to have seen Manzarak perform live twice, and once with fellow Doors alums John Densmore and Robby Krieger. That latter performance was an anniversary show at West Hollywood’s famous Whiskey a Go Go, the venue where The Doors honed their craft before launching into super stardom. Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction fame stood in as the band’s front man. It was a pretty wild night. Slash from Guns n’ Roses walked right by me at one point, and then I got to speak with Manzarak very briefly. It was very much a “don’t meet your idols” moment, the story of which I’ll hold for another installment.

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

On the 50 greatest grunge albums and the “Seattle scene”

I know what you’re thinking. “Eric, please give us more of your thoughts on music dating back to the late ’80s and early ’90s. We need yet more of your wisdom here.”

Okay, okay, I hear you!

I’ve spent a few weeks slowly making my way through Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Grunge AlbumsI won’t go deep level nerd out and re-rank fest as I’ve done with things like Nirvana’s 102 songs recently, but just wanted to note that it’s fun to look back and see the diversity of sounds and styles that roughly make up what would come to be known as to  the “grunge” music style. Shout out here to Mad Season, featuring “Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and bassist John Baker Saunders,” for showing off the jazzy side(!) of grunge, and quite well at that.

It seems like by today’s standards, grunge is a little bit of a catch all term, a way to describe a culture of a quarter century ago that comprised music of course, but also a certain now dated Gen X-y slacker/ironic attitude and even “grunge fashion.”

Browsing through and listening to songs from many of the albums on the list, I was particularly struck by some things I hadn’t heard in a long time, such as Seattle’s The Gits and 7 Year Bitch. Both sound incredible.

Even though I live in Seattle these days, the “Seattle scene” was a mysterious and exotic thing to me, growing up on the east coast. Ironically, it was not until I was living in England with my good friend Nirav after graduating from college that I “discovered” a bunch of bands, ranging from the aforementioned to Tad, The U-Men, Green River, and a particular favorite, Fastbacks (who I finally got to catch live last year, right in my neighborhood of West Seattle).

The reason? A documentary that documented the exploitation of the Seattle scene, called Hype!. One of us had picked up an alternative music magazine (Kerrang!) sometime in the rainy early winter of 1996, and noticed that there was a contest to attend the premiere of the documentary. As a gas, we decided to enter the contest (note: this was pre-Internet access in our world, and pubs close weirdly early in the UK), and as fate would have it, we won. What’s hilarious to me now is that we had a notion that this would be a star-studded red carpet event in London, with perhaps the likes of Dave Grohl or Courtney Love in attendance. Instead, it was a bunch of scruffy folks like us, along with some people who worked for the magazine.

Anyway, the point being that the soundtrack to Hype! was a gateway drug to what was a relatively new world to me at the time. As much as we talk about the backlash against technology and the Internet these days, it’s important sometimes to take a step back to recognize that we’re all forever a few clicks away from an ocean filled with endless hidden treasures in its depths.

Finally: I may or may not have compiled a Spotify playlist (called The Grunge Years, a name I stole from a compilation album I owned back in the day) comprising 1,158 songs while going through this list.

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

Nerding out on Nirvana’s 102 song catalog

I saw Nirvana live just once, during the In Utero tour in Buffalo, New York on November 5th, 1993. It’s one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen — the band was focused, crisp, and ferocious from front to back. A super loud noise rock band called Boredoms, from Osaka, Japan opened for them, and at the end of the show both bands took the stage for an extended feedback-filled jam that almost blew my eardrums out. Kurt Cobain kicked over a bunch of the set design at one point. My friends and I concurred that Nirvana’s decision to not perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was both wise and bad ass.

One other quick anecdote from that night was that at as we entered the venue (Alumni Arena at the University of Buffalo), the security guys enjoyed telling everyone to “open your flannels” so that they could pat you down for metal or weapons. This was an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference to the “grunge fashion” that was in vogue for a time in that far flung era. The ironic thing to me, though, was that living in central (Binghamton, for me, my college town of the time) or western (Buffalo) New York, wearing a flannel jacket was the perfect attire to both battle the cold and then tie around your waist once you get inside highly heated interiors.

That’s all preamble to the fact that I recently nerded out big time on Rolling Stone‘s “All 102 Nirvana Songs, Ranked.”

If you don’t care about Nirvana, feel wildly free to skip over this lengthy section, but if you’re willing to let your Nerd Flag fly proudly, I offer my reaction to various songs and rankings:

  • #92 – “Black and White Blues” – This is one of a small handful of songs on this list that I had never heard before. It’s cool as hell — as the piece alludes to, it’s like Kurt Cobain summoning Jack White-meets-legendary blues guitarists here.
  • #83 – “Old Age” – So great, one of the catchiest songs in Nirvana’s catalog, I’d wager.
  • #81 – “Seasons in the Sun” – Gorgeous and haunting. Has the feeling of an elegy.
  • #68 – “Do Re Mi” – “The last known composition by Kurt Cobain” is musically ear pleasing and points the way to a post-grunge, post-art rock style for Nirvana that would never fully come to pass.
  • #69 – “Verse Chorus Verse” (not the one that appears on No Alternative, a compilation album that I owned and listened to endlessly back in the day as an aside, but the “Neither side is sacred” one) – This is probably my favorite Nirvana song that did not appear on a studio album. It’s way, way up there for me overall. The lyrics are Cobain at his opaque, alienated, hollowed out best (“You’re the reason I feel pain / Feels so good to feel again”). And the drums on this song alone, man… good stuff.

All five of the above should be way, way higher on the list in my view… though I would have likely had a very different take 25 years ago.

  • #61 – “Marigold” – A pop gem. I didn’t know that this song did not involve Cobain; it’s written by Dave Grohl and performed with Krist Novoselic. This of course points the way to a bright future for Grohl with Foo Fighters. It also gets into a topic I love to annoy people with, which is that the first Foo Fighters album is absolute magic in my view, but while there are solid efforts and a few great songs after, Foo and crew never again matched the level of its earliest offering.
  • #46 – “Very Ape” – One of my favorite songs on In Utero. Surprised that it’s ranked this low, relatively speaking, on the list and is the lowest ranked song from that album.
  • #45 – “Oh, the Guilt” – This is one of my favorite loud-and-raucous Nirvana songs. So great for when you’re stressed and just want something loud, relentless, and thud-tastic.
  • #44 – “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” – The song title takes away some from the fact of how great a hard rock song this.
  • #34 – “Stay Away”/”Pay to Play” – Love that it’s referred to in the piece as “still a perfect song to slam your bedroom door to.”
  • #32 – “Sappy” – If you had to choose one song that represents the band, you could do worse than this song. It’s described as a “lament against the expectations of others,” which kind of symbolizes Nirvana’s universal appeal (particularly to the adolescent youth folk of the era) and Cobain’s personal appeal as well. Also another great bit, from writer Grayson Haver Currin, with regard to the No Alternative version (see above, where I explain how I listened to that comp album to pieces): “…with a guitar solo that dips and climbs and vocals that suggest irritation morphing into emancipation.”
  • #30 – “Aneurysm” – I might have once spent a solid amount of time figuring out my favorite version of this song among those that I had access to. I think I landed on the caustic yet joyous live version on From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah.
  • #19 – “Territorial Pissings” – This is probably the one loud/punk-y song that I like a lot more now than I did when it was first released on Nevermind. I never disliked it really, but there was something about seeing it weaved expertly into an early scene of the Montage of Heck documentary that gave it new life for me.
  • #18 – “Love Buzz” and #17 – “Come As You Are” – These are good examples of songs that I would rank much, much lower. They’re not bad songs, and I honestly can’t figure out if I just heard them so often during the ’90s that they don’t particularly do much for me when I listen to them today. They’re kind of fine, they’re good, but I still find so much of the other stuff more exciting and more interesting.
  • #2 – “In Bloom” – Great song, fantastic music video (remember those?). Don’t think I would have it nearly this high on the list though.
  • #1 – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – It’s a great song and an important song for the band and the era and pop culture and all, but putting it as their number one song of all time? “About a Girl,” “Drain You,” “Aneurysm,” even an “Oh, the Guilt” — that’s the stuff I’d have in contention for the number one song.

A few other quick thoughts:

  • I didn’t mention anything about the the stuff from the Unplugged album; but it all holds up magnificently. It’s an all time great album, and the filmed version for MTV captures the band at its absolute best.
  • Apparently, Nirvana did some recording in West Seattle back in the day, which happens to be the neighborhood where I live now.

Nirvana’s an amazing band, to say it as plainly and fan boy-y as I can. If nothing else the Rolling Stone list shows off the eclectic, weird, and broad influences on the band. It’s way more than “Teen Spirit” and “All Apologies,” (the latter of which is probably my least favorite of their better known songs, and certainly their released singles). If you haven’t listened to Nirvana in a while, give the Rolling Stone piece a check out. Every entry has an attached video that includes some version of the song they mention. Go deep, have fun, and then send me your thoughts.

Here’s some deep reporting on Kurt Cobain’s final days, and it’s as dark and depressing as can be imagined. One fascinating and tantalizing tidbit though is that Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. were planning a musical collaboration near the end of the Nirvana front man’s life.

I happened to see a thread on Twitter relating to great female-fronted bands from the ’90s. I’ll have to delve into this topic in another edition, but let’s start here, quoting moi:

  • Nirvana is one of my favorite bands, but there are so many great female-fronted bands out of the ’90s (Hole among them): Distillers, Elastica, Veruca Salt, L7, The Gits, 7 Year Bitch. Such a great era for music

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

Dublin’s traditional music (pub) scene

One of the highlights of my recent Ireland trip was doing a musical pub crawl, which we did in Dublin on our very first and highly jet lagged night.
Our hosts were two incredible (and incredibly hilarious) musicians, one on acoustic guitar (and sometimes an Irish frame drum, or bodhrán, held with one hand), the other on violin. At one point, they gently “roasted” we tourists hailing from various countries. Touching on English versus Irish relations and Brexit, the guitarist noted that an Englishman in attendance needed to relax as the countries are friends these days, and then finished on the punchline, “Welcome to Europe!” 
In between truly wonderful songs and drinks and pub crawling to a selection of non-touristy Dublin pubs, we learned about the culture of song “sessions,” where musicians play to enjoy themselves and where everyone is welcome to join — sessions gets bigger and less professional as the night goes on. Foot stomping is encouraged, which allows you to drink at the same time versus the hassle of clapping. Vocal cues like “hup!” tell the other musicians what’s going on and where changes in the song are happening.  They also displayed how any song can be “made Irish” — Pachelbel’s Canon was used as an example. Overall, a very impressive and enjoyable evening.

Finally, the violinist wore a t-shirt featuring a storm trooper from Star Wars. It read, “It’s Fierce SHTORMY!” That alone, right?

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

Beastie Boys Book: bust out and buy it

I finished the Beastie Boys Book recently. If you’re at all a fan of the group, hip hop history, or 1980s New York City lore, it’s highly recommended. Written with the same energy and verve that boys are famous for (by Michael Diamond AKA Mike D and Adam Horovitz AKA Ad Rock), there’s also a profound reverence and respect paid to the now deceased Adam Yauch (AKA MCA).

I’m in many ways mentioning the book because it’s often flat out, laugh out loud hilarious. For example, there’s a fascinating backstory to the making of Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, the Beastie Boys’ final album, that involves the group creating original music “samples” that are inserted into songs on the “real” album for the purpose of tying those samples to made up songs from fake bands from fake album labels that they could list in the real album’s liner notes. It was done because the band thought it was cool and funny, and so that super fans could dig through the liner notes and speculate about where all of this arcane material was pulled from.

I haven’t laughed so hard as when I read through all of the information about the samples and “fake” backgrounds on all of them. Take, for example, the fake sample from a fake song called “The Coming of the Triumvirate,” which is supposedly pulled from the soundtrack to a fake album called Brutus (the fake cover art of which features a goofy looking dog in a fishing hat). When I first read this, there were multiple table slaps involved. That’s all I’m going to say about it.

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.