As ska’s third wave became nothing more than a small ripple on the musical surface of the late ‘90s, many bands began to water down their sound by relying on power-pop and punk rock gimmicks to stay afloat amid the tumultuous sea of new acts surfacing toward the decade’s end. It was unclear what the next big thing would be, but ska’s popularity seemed to be sinking fast.
The seminal New York ska band the Toasters laid the foundations for the genre’s third wave long before No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones had garnered any national attention. They’ve continued pumping out album after album of gimmick-free, danceable ska.
The band’s first incarnation began as a group of musically inclined comic book store employees, founded by guitarist and British expatriate Rob Hingley, who saw a problem with the American music scene: the 2-Tone ska that was skipping and buzzing its way across the radio waves in the UK was making little, if any, inroads into the American mainstream. Even among the musically enlightened hipsters of the time, ska was often written off as a novelty. But Hingley would make sure that it was a genre that should be taken seriously.
Hingley would later erect the indie-label monolith Moon Ska records to counter the skepticism of the American music industry that ska would ever prove marketable or popular in the U.S., as well as give him a vehicle to distribute the Toasters’ albums. Before his record label folded in 2000, it was the largest ska-only imprint in the world, and put out albums by ‘90s notables Mephiskapheles and Hepcat.
They released their first single, “Beat Up,” in 1983, and played often at the famed and now defunct CBGB’s.
Although usually referred to as a third-wave ska band, the Toasters draw heavily on early ‘80s British influences like the Selecter and the Specials. The main focus of their musical ambition has persisted since the band’s inception, and through its constant, abundant line-up changes. To make fun, energetic ska as it should be: straight up, with a twist. There are splashes of jazz, funk and rock, but these influences don’t overwhelm the band’s sound, they accent it with a distinctive flavor. The guitars are clean and rock steady, accompanied by fat horns that harkens back to the brass of Desmond Dekker and the Skatalites. And then there’s that ever-present skippity, rapid-fire percussion.
Their emphasis on the 2-Tone sound doesn’t mean that the band is mired in musical stagnancy. The band’s often chaotic line-up has gone through more changes over the years than Black Flag, and it’s this evolving roster which is often cited as the reason the band is able to execute its anthems with an element of freshness, even while holding fast to its traditional, unembellished roots.
The Toasters with the Phenomenauts and the Guilty Parties at the Showcase Theatre, 683 S. Main St., Corona. (951) 340-0988. Fri., 7 p.m. $13-$15.