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Black and White: The History of Ska and Punk

The history of ska, punk and their anti-racist collaborations

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Rock Against Racism concert which took place in Victoria Park, London in 1978. Whilst a predominantly punk affair, it is worth remembering the role that British ska/ 2 Tone bands played in fighting prejudice in the UK.


Ska. It’s the musical equivalent of “that cousin” everyone has.  A bit of a handful at family parties… has a reputation for being a good laugh… but no one really realizes that they also have a PhD in Physics and volunteer at a cat sanctuary on Sundays. Their ‘good time’ persona sometimes masks the substance underneath. Ska sometimes falls victim to this very thinking – it’s all trumpets and monochrome jackets and Suggs doing a silly walk. It’s a bit of fun; good to dance to (particularly when drunk), a bit goofy in many ways. And whilst all of the former is true, it also has a vibrant, adaptive and ever-changing history that has played an absolutely pivotal role in challenging racism in society. It doesn’t always get the credit it deserves, often falling through the cracks of all ‘serious’ discussions on music.


But the fate of punk and ska in the UK are inextricably linked and some of punk’s major triumphs have been a shared victory with the early pioneers of the punk/ska fusion. Their biggest joint victory was surely the raising of awareness of racial strife in the UK and using music to combat it both overtly and insidiously.


What is ska? Did it start with Madness in a Camden pub?

Photo Credit: The Specials

Well, not exactly. The original roots of ska music can be traced back to its homeland of Jamaica. It originated there in the late 1950s, combining elements of music that were already flourishing in the Caribbean- mainly calypso; mento, jazz, and R&B. Prince Buster explicitly stated that American R&B was the main source for ska music- music that was played by Jamaicans by using their radios and tuning into American radio stations. However, it really started to develop [into the music we would recognize as ska] in the 1960s and throughout that decade became a dominant cultural phenomenon in Jamaica and the West Indies.


Early pioneers such as the aforementioned Prince Buster- along with Clement Dodd- experimented with building their own makeshift epic ‘soundsystems’ so they could blast out R&B songs around the island to a growing number of enthusiasts. This eventually led to them penning their own songs which better-reflected life in their part of the world, replacing the US-centric songs that were readily available up until then. Ska is characterized by off-beat guitar chops, similar to the American ‘shuffle blues’ style made famous by artists such as Fats Domino. The term ‘skank’ (used in modern times to refer to the jerky dance that accompanies ska songs) actually comes from the term that was originally used to refer to the guitar chop on the off-beat. Horns took a central part of these early ska songs, whilst a piano emphasized the bass line.


The Ska Explosion

In Britain this was considered its own distinct ‘wave’ of development- referred to as ‘2 Tone’ (named after the record label of the same name started by Jerry Dammers of The Specials). 2 Tone initially sprung up in Coventry and gained popularity amongst young people across the ethnic divide and over county lines. It took the laid back off-beat pattern of Caribbean ska and fused it with the faster pace of punk.

Punk and 2 Tone had many political similarities, particularly in their lyrical themes. Both genres held up a mirror to life in the UK and reflected the hopelessness of life on the dole; the brutality of state negligence and (for the black community) it chronicled the experience of racial harassment and violence that was part of everyday life. This was a particularly British phenomenon- the early ska of Jamaica was jubilant and celebratory in nature, Jamaica having gained independence from UK in 1962. Ska is Britain was a grittier, confrontational affair- more compatible with the mood of the youth at the time.

Ska was introduced to Britain by the Caribbean immigrants who lived in enclaves in the big cities and for whom music was a big part of their community identity. DJs like Don Letts spun Jamaican ska and dub records at punk shows before the bands took the stage and so the dulcet tones of this laid back genre were pumped into the background of the punk scene since its inception. Punk icons such as John Lydon became such big fans of this musical import that they were considered local experts on it. So much so in fact, that after Sex Pistols disbanded, Richard Branson sent Rotten to Jamaica to talent scout for the new reggae division of Virgin Records.


How did it co-exist with punk?

2-Tone was probably the first example of intersectionality in modern UK culture before intersectionality was even considered a thing. The camaraderie between punk and ska fans came from a shared sense of oppression and opposition to right-wing or conservative ideals. Whilst punk was primarily concerned (at least in the beginning) with working-class liberation, 2 Tone was more interested in racial inequality. However, the two issues were not mutually exclusive and both movements were united by a common sense of injustice.  Both punk and ska gave a voice to the disenfranchised youth that was feeling increasingly neglected and victimized by the British state.


England in the 1970s was not a particularly welcoming or safe place for those with a different colour skin, particularly in big cities like London. Gangs like the National Front and politicians like Enoch Powell were sowing the seeds of racism through their actions and language, and attacks on minority communities were commonplace. Equality legislation was yet to really take hold in the psyche of the public and therefore open displays of hostility flourished in front of a disinterested and sometimes complicit Police force. Promoting racial equality was one of the core tenets of 2 Tone and to this end, the punk community (who were overwhelmingly left wing) supported this.


Rock Against Racism

Rock Against Racism was founded in 1976 and was at least partly prompted by a rather drunken and offensive rant by beardy guitar botherer Eric Clapton at a gig in Birmingham. At that gig, Clapton made several offensive remarks whilst expressing his support for Enoch Powell (the man who delivered the famous ‘rivers of blood’ speech) including ‘keep Britain white’ (a popular National Front slogan at the time) and stop Britain becoming a ‘Black colony’.  Irony aside (Clapton made his name by covering Bob Marley’s song ‘I Shot the Sheriff’), the inflammatory nature of the comments led to a deluge of angry letters to various music magazines from the offended record-buying public. A plea went out for music fans to join together and use music to combat racism and a campaign was born. It was an impressive display of the true punk DIY ethic.


One of the most iconic and public displays of this joint task force around anti-racism was the ‘Rock Against Racism’ concert in Victoria Park in 1978. Approximately 100,000 people marched through London in the Spring of ’78 to attend this event which was jointly organised by the Rock Against Racism group and the Anti-Nazi League. The line-up was illustrious and now reads as a ‘who’s who’ of punk personalities- The Clash; X-Ray Spex, The Ruts and Sham 69 (keen to shift their undeserved image of being a right-wing band) all took the main stage. The march itself was led by reggae outfit Misty In Roots who went out front in a lorry with thousands of people behind them (literally and figuratively). Further concerts occurred around the UK- most notably in Manchester- with Elvis Costello; Buzzcocks and Stiff Little Fingers lending their support. It was a true show of solidarity and collective action.


This campaign established a legacy that still serves as inspiration for various other anti-racist movements; collaborations and activists today. RAR re-launched itself in 2002 as ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’ which puts on fundraising concerts across the country. Using music to support social issues is a common idea now, however, the coordination and mass participation in the original RAR concert was a revelation in the 1970s.


So where’s ska now? Is it all over?

Ska never went away- as a genre, it has retained some level of popularity across the globe, from Japan to Spain, from Australia to Russia. Like punk, its major impact came early on and since the early 80s, it has lost some of its political courage.

Photo ©The Huston Press

Ska took a more commercially popular route in the 1990s with the ‘brass band’ sound catching people’s imaginations. This more commercial sound benefitted from the mainstream proliferation of pop punk which brought popularity to anything that was upbeat, riffy and ‘all-American’ sounding. There were countless bands that became popular in this time- Mighty Mighty Bosstones; Smash Mouth; No Doubt; Reel Big Fish; Goldfinger; Less Than Jake, The Aquabats………the list is endless. By 1996, this incarnation of ska(pop/punk/ska) was one of the most popular genres of alternative music in North America. These bands play a fusion of ska and punk that relies more heavily on the ‘rock’ influence and has all but done away with the original R&B aspects- it’s all faster tempos and guitar riffs with a few ‘skanks’ thrown in for good measure. As fun to listen to as these bands are (and they are fun), there is not necessarily any remnants left of the strong socio-political commentary that was present during ska’s infancy. At least not in the mainstream.


Like all things that are pure, true, and good in this world, it got a bit corrupted. Ironically, you would actually be hard pressed to find a black ska band nowadays, it having been co-opted by California ‘horn section’ crowd. That’s not to say it’s not still good; that it can’t still be a relevant interpretation of the genre. But does it have the same political and cultural significance? Possibly not. Modern ska seems to be in a permanent punk hybrid.  As such it’s a rather fast, very trumpet-heavy affair which is somewhat a distortion of its origins and implies it is widely misunderstood. Are Reel Big Fish a ska band? Some would certainly say so…. I’m not too sure. Does the presence of a trumpet make a band ska or at least ska-adjacent? Well, it certainly seems to help nowadays.

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