But I learned the history as well as anyone literate enough to read the FAQs hosted at the Usenet group alt.music.ska, and it dawned on me pretty quickly that the Bosstones weren’t a pure ska band – they were “ska-core” and happily described themselves as such on their EP album Ska-core, the Devil, and More (1993). I was surprised to learn that ska originally emerged from Jamaica in the sixties, and was actually a predecessor to reggae. The genre went through three distinct generations, and the music I was swinging my elbows to was actually part of the third wave.
Even though I was never fully immersed in the ska scene, it never failed to infuriate me to see the media get hopelessly confused over what ska actually was. Bands were often described as “ska” simply because they included a brass instrument or two, or followed ska’s distinctive musical structure of emphasizing the “up” phase of a beat. Bands like Goldfinger (pop/punk) and Sublime (reggae/dub) were haphazardly thrown into the category without recognizing that all true ska bands a) had horn players and b) consisted of at least five people, and usually more. I remember flaming the hell out of Christopher John Farley when he wrote up a brief article on ska for Time, and actually getting a direct response. But nothing upon nothing fueled my ninety-pound keyboard commando rages more than hearing the Southern California rock band No Doubt described as a “ska band.”
The Film: Go
The Song: “New”
The Artist: No Doubt
One of the things about ska that I believe truly confounded the music industry was that it didn’t seem to be scaleable in any sense. Shows were intimate, played in small venues (I remember one unforgettable show at Georgetown University that was held in an actual classroom; the desks were pushed out of the way to make room for a dance floor and the bands were at ground level) and you couldn’t expect to fill a stadium with fans of even the most popular bands like The Pietasters and The Toasters — there just weren’t enough bodies. For the major labels, finding a way to profit from the ska scene, which flourished in basements but floundered when exposed to daylight, was a conundrum that had them perpetually perplexed until the arrival of No Doubt and Gwen Stefani. In No Doubt they found a band that originally held credibility as a representative of the ska scene but was willing to change their music to suit the tastes of a larger audience. And in Gwen Stefani they found what the dominance of MTV had made truly essential for broad appeal – a young, blond, attractive, endlessly marketable teen idol.
No Doubt began as a ska band in Orange County in the early ’90s and their potential for success was recognized by Interscope records, who signed them but watched in dismay as their first self-titled ska album flopped. For their next album, the members of No Doubt were paired with producer Matthew Wilder and much of the band’s original material was rejected, which led one of the band’s founding members, Eric Stefani, to depart and pursue a career in animation on The Simpsons. Their ska sound was discarded for new wave guitar effects and simple rhythms, and the end result of these machinations was the absurdly successful album Tragic Kingdom.
While No Doubt had almost completely disposed of their original ska sound, the horn players were retained as members of the band. A trumpet and a trombone were occasionally glimpsed in the band’s music videos for songs like “Just a Girl” and “Sunday Morning” but they were very seldom heard. The horns that form the basis for most ska bands became little more than props that allowed No Doubt to uphold a pretense of authenticity. And of course, the brass instruments always played a distant second fiddle to Gwen Stefani’s tanned, admirably toned midriff.
While it’s easy to dismiss No Doubt as simply another band who sold out its artistic principles for commercial success, there’s a basic question that interrupts that narrative. Were the horn players kept around out of a sense of loyalty, or was it simply a cynical ploy by the record companies to take advantage of a trend? I never had any doubts about Gwen Stefani’s personal principles; in “Just a Girl” she laments how society treats women as little more than sex objects, and shortly thereafter followed with “Spiderwebs” where the music video consisted of little more than Gwen thrusting her crotch at the fisheye lens of a camera. But it wasn’t until 2004 that Gwen ditched the band and released her first solo project, Love.Angel.Music.Baby., a feat she could have easily accomplished years earlier. I guess only the musicians themselves could tell us, but I have to admit that I’m content to accept the rose-colored conclusion that No Doubt refused to abandon its horn players out of nothing other than a sense of loyalty to the individual musicians themselves.
Go (1999) was a sort of low-calorie version of Pulp Fiction (1994) featuring a cleverly constructed structure of intertwining stories but delivered with a much lighter tone. You can tell there’s no hidden tragedy lurking — people may get threatened, or punched, or even shot, but it’s obvious that by the end everything is going to work out and nobody is actually going to get seriously hurt. The last we hear from Simon, after he’s shot in the arm in a modern application of Hammurabi’s code of justice, is “It’s all right, I’m okay!” And even Manny, after spending an evening huddled beneath a sheet of corrugated metal, shivering and practically overdosing on pharmaceutical grade ecstasy, quips “So what are we doing for New Year’s?” once he has been rescued. “New” is a good song to close off the film; their current adventure is over but there’s no question that these irrepressible characters will be up to the same shenanigans after another week has gone by.