Like the one that got away, Kevin Riggs remembers the gig that got shut down. In 2006, Riggs, fresh out of high school, had launched the ska punk band IED and moved into a house with his bandmates that they and their friends dubbed The Commonwealth House, named for the neighborhood it sat in.
“We had … absolutely insane DIY shows at our band’s house,” Riggs says. “There would be nights [with] 100-plus kids occupying the yard and the church parking lot across the street.”
Then one night, someone called the cops.
“All the underage kids in the backyard started scaling the fence.” In 20 seconds, the backyard was empty and IED’s audience had flooded into the abandoned Morningside apartments behind the house.
Jon Lock cherishes the concert his band Bums Lie played at the Neighborhood Theatre in October 2007. Lock’s ska punk four-piece had the honor of opening for one of the genre’s legends, Toots and the Maytals. The Maytals, fronted by Toots Hibbert until his death in 2020, started cutting records in the early 1960s in Jamaica, including the enduring ska classic, “Pressure Drop,” which was covered by The Clash in 1978.
Kevin Gavagan recalls a gig that his ska-influenced band Broken Napoleons played in the late 2000s at Growlers Pourhouse in NoDa. While rain fell steadily that afternoon, it did little to dampen the crowd’s spirits.
“Everyone was really into the groove,” Gavagan says. “You could watch the tents bob along to the music.”
Partying, dancing, community and transgression were all part of the vibe during Charlotte’s ska boom. IED, Bums Lie, Broken Napoleons and other bands were playing ska, or music informed by ska, at a time when the genre was experiencing unprecedented popularity. From the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, bands featuring charging horns, chopping upcut guitars and herky-jerky rhythms dominated radio and MTV.
Billboard’s Jessica Lipsky reports that in September 1997, four ska songs entered Billboard’s Alternative top 20. Sublime’s “Wrong Way” debuted at no. 3, Reel Big Fish’s “Sell Out” hit no. 12, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones scored two chart-toppers, “The Impression That I Get,” at no. 17 and “The Rascal King” at no. 11.
Locally, Charlotte bands like IED and Bums Lie got audiences on their feet and skanking, the term for the genre’s signature dance move. Meanwhile, groups like Broken Napoleons and Bakalao Stars incorporated ska into their mélange of influences, playing to packed houses.
By the 2010s, however, ska dropped off the national charts, perhaps never to return, as popular musical tastes turned to rap, emo, R&B, hip-hop and nu-metal. The genre didn’t disappear though. Bands still filled dance floors with devoted fans, but the genre’s peak profile seemed a thing of the past. Today, fans and musicians wonder if the genre’s commercial apex will ever return. Can a ska wave hit the Queen City again?
Surfing ska’s waves in Charlotte
Ska’s popularity has peaked in a series of three waves, genre fans and practitioners say. The first wave crested in Jamaica in the late 1950s, as the merging of American R&B and island mento — also known as Jamaican calypso — became an expression of national pride. Ska’s second wave engulfed Britain when the music of Caribbean immigrants fused with the angry and defiant chords struck by punk rock. Groups like The Specials and The Selector pushed back against racism and the oppressive policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, while bands like Madness and The English Beat inspired audiences to get on their feet, move to the beat and dance all over their troubles.
Ska’s second wave, also called 2 Tone after an influential record label founded by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers, never hit big in America, but its influence bubbled under. Americans fused the British ska punk they loved with louder faster hardcore punk. Bands like Southern California’s Operation Ivy — which included future members of hard core punk outfit Rancid — spearheaded one of several local scenes that sprouted up across the country. Those scenes gave rise to ska’s third wave, a commercial juggernaut that burst upon the mainstream in the mid-’90s.
Given that ska has been a shape-shifting hybrid since the days of Toots Hibbert, passing on new influences to each new iteration, it’s difficult to pin down what is and what is not ska. Is a band like Rancid punk, ska, or something in between?
“Ska is defined by its upbeat guitar skank, the walking bass, and the drum beat that accentuates the off-beat,” Aaron Carnes tells Queen City Nerve. “Since ska has evolved over the years … it’s not necessarily required that a ska song contains all these elements.”
Carnes, who formed his own ska band Flat Earth in the ’90s, is an expert on the genre. A journalist and music editor at the Santa Cruz alt-weekly Good Times, Carnes has written a book about the genre, In Defense of Ska, published by Clash Books on May 4. In his book, Carnes pushes back at the genre’s detractors, who claim that third wave bands like Voodoo Glow Skulls and The Aquabats are sophomoric and inconsequential, and that therefore, the entire genre is passe.
“The beat that originated in Jamaica in the ’50s has carried over … from country to country and blended with every other genre,” Carnes writes. “It has a special place in our hearts because it so intrinsically [captures] us at a time when we [are] young, unpretentious and vulnerable.”
Riggs fell in love with ska’s unpretentious beats as an eighth-grader when he caught a show by third-wave ska band Catch-22 at Tremont Music Hall. As a band kid in school, he was captivated by a punk rock group that played upbeat music you could dance to.
“It was mind-blowing,” Riggs says. “It was so fun and positive yet still aggressive.”
At age 18, Riggs launched IED, which stands for Intelligence, Equality And Debauchery.
With Joe Leonard on drums, Aaron Monger on bass, Justin Mulcahy on vocals and trumpet and Tay Trew and Riggs on guitar, IED played what Riggs calls “Queen City hardcore ska,” a danceable mix of aggressive punk and melodic ska. In its five-year run, the band released a full length album, Whole-Hearted…Yet Half-Assed in 2009 and The Jive Turkey EP in 2011, before calling it quits that same year.
“IED was around at a point in Charlotte’s punk history that was insane,” Riggs offers. “[There were] shows every night, and [an] influx of young outcasts all looking for a place to fit in.”
Lock credits long-defunct Charlotte music store The Record Exchange for turning him onto The Specials, Toots and the Maytals and the ska label Moon Records.
Bums Lie began as a music-making collective at Appalachian State University in Boone. As members graduated and moved to Charlotte, the band gradually winnowed down to four members, Cullen West on vocals and guitar, Randy Ward on trumpet, keyboards and backing vocals, Colin Welch-McLoy on drums and Lock on bass. After recording an unofficial demo EP First Time Offender, the slimmed-down four-piece dropped Why Lie It’s for Beer in 2007. Lock calls the band’s official debut its most punk and ska-heavy release. For Stumbling and Mumbling in 2008, Rob Tavaglione of Catalyst Recordings captured the energy of a Bums Lie live set at Visulite Theatre. Lock feels that by the band’s final album It’s an Infection, Not a Disease in 2012, Bums Lie had evolved into something beyond ska.
Lock’s assessment is borne out by the band’s 2011 single “Uptown,” which gives the song’s loping ska beat a pop polish topped by silvery spiraling guitar. The tune’s lyrics, however, display the cutting and incisive side of socially conscious ska:
“There’s a fire still burning in the city tonight/Like a beacon of hope in the dark … Uptown’s burning down/ And I’m laughing like a clown/The walls between us are coming down.”
Wilmington’s The Madd Hatters, fronted by Josh Trent Petty, play Charlotte often. The band recorded its 2006 album Burn Out Road in the living room of a Dilworth home on East Boulevard.
Like Riggs, Petty was a school band kid before joining the punk band The Relentless Bastards. He was eventually seduced by ska’s upbeat tunes, which invited everyone to get on the dance floor. The Madd Hatters played its first gig at a well-attended talent show, and after that the band was off and running.
The band adheres to one common ska stereotype — there are a hell of a lot of people onstage at a Hatters show, including Adam McBrayer on vocals, Chris Riggs Jr. on trumpet, Nash Fraylick on drums, Daniel Prymock on saxophone, Bethany J. Allen on violin, Brent Stott on bass and accordion and Maaike B. Brandis and Trenton Jackson on trombones.
“The Madd Hatters got a review way back that said we were the angry side of ska,” Petty says. “I’m still not sure what that means.”
A tireless advocate for the genre, Petty champions North Carolina bands on his podcast GrayMatterz Chatter.
Ska or nah?
Although ska aficionados cite Broken Napoleons as a genre stalwart, Gavagan says the group, which folded in 2015, only sounded ska because his drumming style had the pop and feel of ska-punk percussionists he emulated.
Gavagan’s lifelong love affair with ska started in the ’90s when he, like Lock, heard albums released by Moon Records. After hearing the label’s Skarmaggedon compilation, Gavagan started collecting records from groups on the collection — third-wave ska bands like Mustard Plug and The Toasters.
Broken Napoleons, comprised of Joe Henderson on guitar and vocals, Eric Heinzman on bass, off-and-on member Russ Betenbaugh on keyboards and Gavagan on drums, released one album, Dead for Days, in 2011. An unreleased record tracked at Old House Studio in Charlotte can be found on SoundCloud under the title On the Verge of Believable.
Rock En Español juggernaut Bakalao Stars is one of the last bands standing from Charlotte’s Latin-rock boom of the early 2000s. Although not strictly a ska band, Bakalao Stars members have counted both ska and reggae among their musical arsenal since the band’s inception in 2003.
One Charlotte band cited as a favorite of local ska fans is punk pranksters Dollar Signs. While vocalist Erik Button doesn’t consider his group a ska band, he says ska influences run deep in Dollar Signs’ music. Those influences can be heard in the band’s use of boisterous horns and occasional jolting rhythms. Button says ska bands like The Specials, Streetlight Manifesto, and Reel Big Fish were his gateway into punk.
“Ska’s use of upbeat music to convey heavy topics really meshes with my world philosophy,” Button says.
“The energy of ska is a huge part of our band, and we love that we get to be at least tangentially connected to that style of music.”
Ska doesn’t suck
Ska’s energy and sense of fun almost became its downfall. While many third-wave bands continued and expanded 2 Tone’s protest and social advocacy, far more followed in the dance steps of Madness, reeling out fun, rowdy and sometimes silly dance tunes. Bands with cartoonish graphics like Less than Jake and Reel Big Fish drew critical scorn, and soon the entire third wave was labeled “cartoon ska” by pop-culture critics.
By the late 2000s, with media outlets like Spin Magazine and Entertainment Weekly shaming musicians for their ‘embarrassing’ ska pasts, ska was being denigrated as a genre best forgotten.
For his part, Carnes posits that music doesn’t always have to be serious to be worthwhile, and that despite mainstream scorn, ska is more popular than ever.
Just as American bands spun off in iterations of 2 Tone in the ’90s, countries across the globe are developing their own scenes after being influenced by America’s third wave. In some countries, such as Mexico, ska bands are protest groups, a potent counterpoint to government oppression.
Like Carnes, Lock pushes back at the assertion that ska has become childish music.
“We all want to be kids at heart,” he says. “If you’re too grown up for ska, you need to look in the mirror and learn to not take yourself so seriously.”
Riggs allows that many third-wave bands can fit into the childish and silly category.
“Ska is upbeat, sometimes cheesy and perfect for kids and teens.” Riggs offers. He notes that a lot of bands were filled with “band kids” such as himself. “Most of those kids are awkward, and dare I say, a bit nerdy.”
Gavagan says that blowback from third-wave ska’s national popularity should have been expected.
“Most of the acts that made it to the mainstream … didn’t exactly put the genre’s best foot forward,” he offers. “Most were fairly silly and not talking about the class strife and racial injustice that a lot of the underground bands were talking about.”
Gavagan moved to Durham in 2018 and in 2019 joined the band Plastic Flamingos, which plays what he describes as “Jimmy Buffet and late-’90s pop punk.”
Riggs plays in eclectic punk band Aloha Broha with founder Adam Griffith and drummer Matt Bloom. Ska is still an arrow in the band’s musical quiver.
Lock says Bums Lie play reunion gigs from time to time. They were slated to open for Mephiskapheles at The Milestone in spring 2020, but the gig was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The fourth wave of ska in Charlotte?
Ska is still alive and well in Charlotte, Riggs insists. He points to current local ska groups he likes, including The Not Likeleys, who share drummer Bloom with Aloha Broha. Regionally, he praises Corporate Fandango from Greensboro and Sibannac out of Chapel Hill.
According to Carnes, ska is resurgent internationally, but the world has changed since third waves’ peak popularity in the ’90s. If ska is to have a fourth wave, it will look very different.
“People think back to the ’90s ska boom on radio and MTV. I seriously doubt we’ll ever see ska return the mainstream like that,” Cranes offers. Instead, he sees ska’s popularity confined largely to a growing independent and alternative market.
“As I release my book defending ska, the world now cares about [the genre],” he says. “Will bands be doing Converse commercials like they were in the ’90s? It’s unlikely.”
The main thing holding back a fourth wave of Queen City ska is the fickle character of the city’s music fans, says Anzola.
“There’s not really a ska scene here,” he says. He recalls seeing local concerts by The Toasters, The Aggrolites, and The Slackers with less than 20 people in the audience. “Bands like that would have sold out a show in other cities or even in South America.”
Lock doesn’t expect a new wave of ska, because he feels ska never really left.
“It’s always been here. Lots of commercials use it,” he says. “But I’m excited to see where [ska] goes next.”
If we’re to divine when and why ska may peak again, Gavagan advises taking a historic look at the social influences that fostered the rise of second- and third-wave ska.
“We’re in a time of uneven economic expansion with a rise in racial tensions and a government that is divided and dysfunctional,” Gavagan offers. “A danceable music that is outspoken about racial and economic equality may, yet again, be what the country is looking for.”