Aaron Carnes can pinpoint the exact moment he fell in love with ska. It was summer, 1992, five bands deep at a show in a dingy club in industrial Santa Clara.
“The buzz of the opening bass line rang out and the curtains whooshed apart to reveal Skankin’ Pickle, a group of six misfits staring defiantly into the crowd,” Carnes recalls.
What comes next sounds like a fever dream. There are fake butts and Jessica Rabbit impressions, “Hair Club for Men” commercial quotes, and impromptu devil stick performances, all of them happening either simultaneously or in rapid succession, all while the ragtag band tore through a strange, diverse, relentlessly upbeat set.
Carnes was hooked. Having grown up in Gilroy — a town best known for its annual garlic festival — he had a disposition naturally distanced from the mainstream. Pickle’s infectious melodicism and anarchic outré positivity spoke to him deeply. That same night, he wrote the band a rambling fan letter. Soon, he got a response in the mail.
“Aaron,” it began, “Read your letter! Here’s a piece of tape for you.” An arrow pointed at a triangular scrap of scotch tape stuck beneath, and a lifelong friendship began.
The story of Carnes’ encounter with Skankin’ Pickle is an early chapter in his new book, In Defense of Ska, out this week from Clash Books. In it, the music journalist explores this most-unfairly-maligned of genres from a variety of angles, building out a convincing argument that ska, in fact, does not suck.
“People don’t need to like ska,” Carnes tells SF Weekly. “I just want people to have regard for it as a legitimate genre and be able to have critical discussions about it.”
One of the book’s major accomplishments is a coherent argument against the traditional notion of ska as something which occurred in a series of “waves.” Typically, the story goes that ska music started in Jamaica (traditional ska, or First Wave) where it was a precursor to reggae, then went to England in the ’70s (2 Tone, or Second Wave), then, in the mid-to-late ’90s, had a brief moment of popularity in America (the dreaded, pop-punkish Third Wave). That story, In Defense of Ska suggests, is severely lacking.
“Ska did start in Jamaica, that part is true,” Carnes says. “And it did get revived in England in the late ’70s (i.e. the Second Wave). That part is true, as well.”
The issue has more to do with the narrative around the so-called “Third Wave” and everything since.
“When people talk about ‘Third Wave,’ it sounds like it was popular in the late ’70s in England, and then it got revived in the late ’90s in the U.S. But it was the 15 to 16 uninterrupted years of ska in the underground that catapulted a lot of the ‘Third Wave’ that happened here.”
A significant chunk of In Defense of Ska documents these years between the so-called Second and Third waves, edifying the unsung work of bands like The Untouchables, MU330, Skankin’ Pickle, and Channel 59, and reconnecting them to contemporary ska movements like Nu Tone, Skatune Network, and the massive ska festival scene in Latin America. Spanning roughly 30 essays, some stories are fundamental to the development of ska and its reputation (Carson Daly’s MTV special “Skaturday” gets some hefty blame in the latter department). Others, like a surreal hotel confrontation with 311, or the time Let’s Go Bowling’s van got shot up, are just interesting tales from the edges of one of music’s most besmirched genres. Throughout, Carnes maintains a playful and energetic voice honed from his dozen-plus years writing for Bay Area alt-weeklies.
The Bay Area itself also plays a notable role in the book, home not just to Skankin’ Pickle and Asian Man Records, but also a healthy ska scene.
“The formation of Operation Ivy and the role that Gilman St. played was incredibly important,” Carnes says. “The idea of straight-up punk rockers playing ska as though it were punk I don’t think existed before Operation Ivy.”
Whether or not readers find Carnes’ argument convincing (some, after all, may still find ska somehow guilty), In Defense of Ska is a welcome contribution to this checkered discourse — elucidating and constructively reshaping the narrative around a genre that many of us never thought sucked at all.
“If you grew up loving ska, embrace it,” Carnes writes. “And if you look closely, you’ll see that it probably impacted your life for the better.”
In Defense of Ska
Aaron Carnes | Clash Books
Publishes May 4
Mike Huguenor is a contributing writer. Twitter @mikehuguenor