Put a reggae LP on the phono and kick the RPMs up to 78. Push back the furniture to clear a space for dancing, chug a couple bottles of Monster M3 and drop the needle. You just made some ska.
Okay, that’s a gross oversimplification. In fact, ska was actually around before reggae, as musicians in late-’50s Jamaica adapted the sounds of American R&B records, speeding up the blues shuffle beat and adding a “skank” guitar rhythm on the offbeat. That’s the scratchy chink-a sound you hear in most reggae and ska tunes. The electric bass came to the forefront with an insistent line, and the music that would launch the careers of a thousand chiropractors jump-stepped its way into the culture. “My Boy Lollipop” is probably the best known recording from that era.
Jump ahead (on the two and four, please) to the late ‘70s, when the English record label 2Tone started releasing songs from bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The English Beat (known simply as The Beat in their native land, where they’re not big on redundancy). Bands infused the Caribbean rhythms with the energy and attitude of punk, launching a ska resurgence. The Beat’s first single, a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” is one of the most well-known ska songs to come out of the UK.
As the second wave of ska gave way to the New Wave style, The English Beat disbanded. Their two lead vocalists, Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling, worked on separate projects in the ensuing years as they watch a third wave of ska materialize during the neo-swing trend in the ‘90s, led by bands like Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. For the last decade or so, two versions of The Beat—English and U.S.—continue to tour. Wakeling heads up the American version, while Ranking Roger leads the British counterpart, filling clubs with jumpy island beats and that great skank rhythm.