The following is a presentation I delivered at the Pop Culture Association conference last month in Indianapolis:
“Like a cultural barometer, the rise of ska indicates when and where social, political, and economic institutions disappoint their people and push them to reinvent the process for making meaning out of life. When a group embarks on this process, it becomes even more necessary to embrace expressive, liberating forms of art for help during the struggle. In its history as a music of freedom, ska has flowed freely to wherever people are celebrating the rhythms and sounds of hope,” wrote Editor Scott Calhoun in the foreword to my book, Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation. Perhaps no social, political, and economic condition better prepared America for their rise of ska in the 1980s and 1990s more than the Cold War.
The Cold War began on August 6, 1945 — the day that nuclear terror was introduced to the world when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, according to Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert, editors of the book, Rethinking Cold War Culture. Though the fear of nuclear annihilation was present in the decades that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that fear reached a new height in 1980 with election of Ronald Reagan who declared the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” and took the Cold War to space with Star Wars, or the Strategic Defense Initiative. Kuznick and Gilbert suggest that the Cold War ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union but state, “What is usually thought of as Cold War culture outlasted the Cold War itself and likely will be with us for a long time.” The effect was a culture of vulnerability, suspicion, and subversion.
This was the culture that welcomed the upbeat tempo, lively horns, and energy of dance and entertainment that was ska. It was the same respite from struggle and tension that had produced ska in Jamaica in the early 1960s, in England in the late 1970s, and now in America in the 1980s and ’90s. Though each country reinvented the genre of ska through their own lenses, blending it with other familiar musical forms and elements of the culture, threads remained the same. The ska beat, with the stress on the upbeat, the beat on the two and the four, instead of the one and the three in a quarter note measure, remained the same. The horns — trumpet, saxophone, trombone — remained the same. The fast tempo remained the same. In addition to the music itself, ska culture from Jamaica to England to America also shared commonalities, such as dance, dress, and attitude. These commonalities bound together fans of ska into a subculture with a shared identity. Central to this ska identity was the rude boy with origins in Jamaica, and the spy, with origins in America.
The Cold War spy character that emerged in American ska and culture was, in part, an evolution of the rude boy character of Jamaican ska and culture that appeared decades earlier. Jamaican Ethnomusicologist Clinton Hutton situated the rude boy as a manifestation of Kingston gangs and lumpenproletariat. The rude boy was a scofflaw, a criminal, one who defied authority. They were aligned with gangs and identified themselves as part of this subculture through their dress — sharp suits, sunglasses, porkpie hats, and pants hemmed high on the ankle. They carried German ratchet knives and were known to break up the dances where ska music played, since gangs aligned themselves with the soundsystem operators who ran the dances. It was a competition of soundsystem against soundsystem, and the one who drew the largest crowd was crowned the king. Rude boys were the henchmen who ensured their soundsystem operator would win that title, by mashing up the competitor’s dance — breaking needles from the turntable, starting fights in the audience, or worse.
The prowess of the rude boy or “rudie” was glorified by some vocalists, as well as used as a warning for others. Songs like, ”007 (Shanty Town)” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, “Tougher Than Tough (Rudies Don’t Fear)” by Derrick Morgan, “Rude Boy” by the Wailing Wailers, and “Johnny Too Bad” by the Slickers, among dozens of others, chronicled rude boy badness. “Symbols of his culture are appearing everywhere,” wrote Jamaican music historian Garth White in 1967. White identified that, “Rudie culture items such as shoes, hats, music . . .” were means of identification for this subculture, a “lower class youth” that is “totally disenchanted with the ruling system.”
The image of the rude boy and rudeboy style carried over the ocean to England as West Indian immigrants populated neighborhoods of Coventry and London. The rude boy appeared in the lyrics of British artists like The Specials, Madness, and even The Clash. But the style of the rude boy became iconic when Jerry Dammers, leader of The Specials, drew a stylized version of Peter Tosh’s rude boy portrayal on the cover of the Wailing Wailers album. The result was Walt Jabsco, a character used to represent the 2Tone label that recorded most British ska during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This character, wearing sunglasses, porkpie hat, sharp suit, and cropped pants became, quite literally, a cartoon, an animation. The character/logo appeared on more than just record labels — it was a way to identify the subculture of ska fans, the self-proclaimed rude boys and rude girls, who belonged to this group. And it is this character, both the rude boy and Walt Jabsco, who influenced the character of the spy in American ska — a character wearing sunglasses, porkpie hat, suit, and possessing the same amount of mystery, intrigue, and badness.
Spies had been part of American culture for decades, as Michael Kackman observes in the introduction to his book, Citizen Spy: Television, Espionage, and Cold War Culture. He writes, “Spies were everywhere in 1950s American media culture. Books, magazines, film, radio, and television were filled with the exploits of secret agent, real and imagined.” And I want to be careful to point out here that the spy in American ska was more an offshoot of the rude boy character, as well as a response to the Cold War itself, which I will discuss in a minute, rather than a continuation of the spies that exist in early Jamaican ska. To explain, a number of Jamaican ska songs covered spy movie themes or identified them in their song titles. This is because Jamaican culture during the 1950s and 1960s, and even beyond, shared an affinity for American film and culture. Musicians adapted some spies and other men of mystery into their ska and subsequent musical forms as a sign of that adulation. So Desmond Dekker’s “007,” and Roland Alphonso’s “James Bond Theme,” were more a link to American film — as much so as the Skatalites “Guns of Navarone,” Carlos Malcolm’s “Bonanza Ska,” or King Stitt’s “Lee Van Cleef.”
In American ska in the 1980s and 1990s, the link to bad guys and spies was something different. It was not as much tied to American film and TV, although there was that link, but it was also because spies were very much part of worldwide culture due to the intensity of the Cold War. And American ska treated these characters very differently than British ska because the cultures of these two countries were very different. Whereas British ska popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s treated social and political issues with a somber tone, American ska popular in the 1980s and 1990s addressed these issues with humor, camp, and novelty. Historian William M. Knoblauch writes of the difference between British and American music during periods of political discord. He says there is a “key difference: Whereas American artists remained upbeat during a tense Cold War period, British groups seemed more serious.” The Cold War terror of nuclear annihilation and fear of global destruction were alleviated in American ska through the theatre of the absurd. Martin Esslin, theater critic who coined the term, “Theatre of the Absurd” in 1962 states, “Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” Songs like Fishbone’s “Party At Ground Zero,” recorded in 1985, demonstrate well this absurdity in the face of despair. The music video, the stage in this theatre, is set in a club called the Atomic Underground and partygoers hold up martini glasses against backdrops of Soviet MIGs, newspapers with headlines proclaiming, “Russia has A-Bomb,” and footage of missile tests. The lyrics proclaim, “Time to sing a new war song . . . Just have a good time the stop sign is far away.”
It should be noted that there is a clear distinction between the absurd, and a theater of the absurd and define how American ska used the later. Ska music evolved in Jamaica in the late 1950s, early 1960s as a blend of indigenous mento, American R&B, and jazz. Because Jamaican ska began before the recording industry on the island was largely underway, it had originated as a live form of entertainment, and as such, the entertainment aspect of ska was a key component. So humor and levity as a means of entertainment became intertwined with some artists’ presentation of the music, in Jamaica, but more so in British ska as well as American ska. But the theater of the absurd was different. It was, as Esslin indicates, to liberate in times of despair, so this specific sort of ridiculousness, found largely in American ska in the 1980s and 1990s, was in response to the threats and fears of the Cold War. American ska used the theater of the absurd differently than the playwrights of this original movement whose commentary was more on a meaningless existence. Instead, this concept in American ska was used as a way to critique imperialism and mock the key players in the Cold War in order to bring relief to audiences and demean the power of the authority. The spy in American ska was a key character in this theatre of the absurd.
The spy became central in American ska whose fans were more akin to followers as this particular genre strongly aligned with identity. It was a subculture. Dress, dance, and style were crucial to ska culture as a way to define the self. Philip Gentry in the introduction to his book, What Will I Be: American Music and Cold War Identity, poses the question, “What is the relationship between these waves of new postwar political movements and the musical revolutions that seem to dovetail so neatly? The cultural transformation at work here is more fundamentally the project of self-making called ‘identity.’ It is a project that is at once both psychological and sociological, a process by which an individual knows him or herself in relation to others in a specific historic moment. . .. Music — performing, composing, organizing, listening, and so on — became a space, and perhaps the most important one, for collective articulations of self. . .. In using it we lay contemporary claim to age-old philosophical speculation: Who am I? We similarly invoke the question of social allegiance: With whom do I share my lot?” For the youth who lived in fear of nuclear war during the later Cold War era, that identity was ska.
Michael Kackman writes that the spy in American culture was satirized and parodied by some television and film writers as a way to subvert “norms, narratives, and authoritative truth claims.” He states, “After the 1962 release of the first Bond film, Dr. No,” which incidentally was filmed in Jamaica and featured the ska band Byron Lee & the Dragonaires in a key scene at Pussfeller’s Club, as well as on the entire soundtrack, “many espionage programs quickly incorporated elements of self-referentiality, parody, and humor. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a self-conscious send-up of both the Bond films and earlier espionage dramas, while Get Smart was a spoof created by Mel Brooks.” Kackman continues that the spy in these instance “becomes the principal source of humor and critique.”
It is no wonder then that this is the character who appears in American ska during the Reagan and post-Reagan Cold War years. The Untouchables were perhaps the first to bring together ska and the spy in their recording of “I Spy For the FBI,” whose lyrics use the spy as a device for stalking and a paramour’s infidelity. This song was first recorded in 1966 by American soul artist Luther Ingram, then called Luther Ingram & His G-Men. Ingram later went on to record the classic hit, “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right).” The song had greater success the same year when Jamo Thomas recorded it with more spy style, both in publicity photos, on the record sleeve, and in television appearances. Thomas’s style was also similar to rude boy style as he appeared on dance shows in cropped pants, skinny tie, pork pie hat, and sharp suit. This song was then recorded in 1985 by The Untouchables, a ska band from Los Angeles. The group was named after the television show about Special Agent Eliot Ness, his battles with the Chicago Mob, and the takedown of Al Capone. The Untouchables, who appeared in the movie Repo Man because one of the band’s fans was Emilio Estevez, continued with the spy theme, including the 1988 album “Agent Double O Soul,” and the song “Bond.”
Other American ska bands in the 1980s and 1990s found intrigue with the spy; including Let’s Go Bowling’s song “Spy Market” in 1996; LA’s Goldfinger payed homage to the spy with their name; Save Ferris of Orange County recorded “Superspy” in 1997; Agent 99 formed in 1994, named after Maxwell Smart’s partner in the TV program Get Smart; and Undercover S.K.A. Band of San Francisco recorded the song “Our Man Flint” from a movie of the same name which was a parody of James Bond staring James Coburn, as well as the songs “Conspiracy” and “Agent 13.”
The Interrupters, a ska punk band formed in LA in 2011, continues the Cold War spy theme in their song, “Can’t Be Trusted,” set in the post-Bush/Cheney era of America. The lyrics state, “I don’t trust no one, under my pillow there’s a loaded gun. The CIA, they wanna put me away, the FBI just sent another spy. The FBI, get your hands off me. There’s no judge, no jury — Patriot Act took our liberty.”
American ska bands appropriated the spy in ska music through their lyrics, imagery and style on their albums and in their videos and live shows, and in zines. One zine called Rude Tales in 1997 portrayed the comic book narrative of a spy who doubled as a ska musician. His gun case featured the tools of his trade — six types of guns, swords and knives, and a trombone, saxophone, and trumpet. Another zine, Rude International, published in 1998, featured an order form for t-shirts depicting a rude boy/spy character holding a briefcase.
Now that Cold War culture has subsided, we are at another flashpoint again in our global political climate in many ways with many of the same conditions — growing threats of nuclear war, racism and hate, divisiveness. The Cold War ended when we tore down walls and now we build them back up, so will we see a new interpretation of ska to relieve our suffering spirits? There certainly have still been spies in recent ska bands, like the group Spies Like Us who formed in 2014 in San Antonio, and the Ska Vengers of New Delhi, India formed in 2009 and tour the world, singing their song, “Frank Brazil,” about an assassin. And we have certainly seen spy activities still make global news, as just this month a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent, and intelligence in the U.S. and Russia have been embroiled in investigations over meddling in our most recent election. Perhaps we will we see another character representing badness, like the rude boy or the spy, morph its way into ska — perhaps a superhero or a hacker, who knows? Only time will tell.