I was recently approached to work on a project about Orange County’s involvement in the third wave of ska. A genre of music that quietly started taking shape in 1985 when Fishbone released a self-titled EP, and ended unceremoniously in the spring of 2000 with No Doubt’s “Ex-Girlfriend.”
I suppose I was asked to work on the project because I wrote about the arts and culture for the OC Weekly during the third wave of ska’s commercial peak. During the late ‘90s, ska bands were Orange County’s main export, and brother, business was booming.
One week, I was interviewing one Epitaph band after another, and contemplating how many fashion casualties Dexter Holland was responsible for. The next week, I was writing features on the new Orange County ska bands that had emerged from the soft suburbs, fully formed with horn sections and fedoras.
But is the third wave of ska worth documenting? The subgenre hung around for roughly 15 years (almost three times as long as 2 Tone lasted), yet it didn’t leave anything behind. When the aliens come down and ask us, “What’s this third wave ska we’ve been told about?,” we’ll play them those scenes in Clueless where the Bosstones play “the band” at the high school dance.
Did any third wave ska band leave a lasting impression that validates documentation? Did any of its songwriters come up with anything resembling an anthem? Is this production company willing to compensate me in cash?
What could I add to a documentary about Orange County’s contribution to the third wave of ska? I only have one personal anecdote about those days, but it gives you an idea of the level Orange County ska bands were operating at...
Late in the day on Friday, August 1, 1997, someone at KUCI called me at the Weekly offices, asking me if I wanted to stop by their campus studio, and sit in on a couple of on-air sets by Dave Wakeling and The Specials the following day. Although I usually scheduled my hangovers for Saturday morning, I accepted the 10 am invitation.
Walking towards the campus’ radio station the following morning with throbbing temples and the weight of the August sun already seeping through my denim jacket, it was evident to me that there is no glamour in college radio, despite what the CMJ New Music Monthly led me to believe.
KUCI’s studio wasn’t so much of a building as it was a double-wide trailer. By the time I enter studio, The Specials’ lone roadie (a pasty, skinny Brittish kid with acne and Billy Idol’s peroxide spikes) is double-checking amps, securing cords with gaffer’s tape, and shooting people bloodshot daggers whenever anyone gets near Roddy Radiation’s two waiting Gibson Les Paul Customs.
The roadie tells me the session isn’t starting for another 10 minutes so I leave the stuffy trailer in search of a campus store for aspirin or a cool towel, as KUCI doesn’t have the budget for extras.
While I’m looking for provisions, I bump into Neville Staple flirting with a co-worker I invited along, Leslie -- the OC Weekly’s layout designer. We haven’t been here 5 minutes. I do a double-take, say hello, and continue across the soft asphalt of UCI’s parking lot.
The band thrash through a 30-minute set. The double-wide has no windows, no ventilation, and if there were any fans, they couldn’t be turned on because this is a live broadcast. Between me, the 8-piece band, their crew, and about 10 local contest winners, the atmosphere is like a soup. My vision is wavy at one point.
As the band finishes, everyone except the roadie races for the door. As I run through the double-wide’s vestibule, Dave Wakeling walks in carrying a teardrop-shaped guitar case. He’s in thin white jeans, smart black loafers, and the kind of short-sleeved striped knit shirt old skins used to wear in the ‘70s. He’s 41, but he looks 21, yet at the time, it seemed like he’d been around forever.
As the roadie pushes the band’s amps back to their cargo truck, we observe the rest of the band just sort of standing around, smoking cigarettes (Silk Cut), and chatting with each other about everything other than music. They could have been any group of people talking about the breakfast they had that morning. (Horace Panter likes his eggs runny and his bread toasted, medium.)
Then Nevile Staple, shirtless and sweaty, mumbles to himself, “Damn, it’s hot, isn’t it?”
“My apartment complex has a pool,” Leslie blurts out.
Thirty minutes later, I’m sitting on a deck chair by the Irvine Village Estates’ community pool, drinking beer with Lynval Golding. The 12-inch scar across his throat comes up in conversation.
“A few punks attacked me when I was a kid,” he says as he casually lifts his chin, tracing his finger over the scar that perfectly separates his bearded chin from his bare throat.
The afternoon wends its way into early evening and the conversation’s pretty cool. We talk about the tour**, he asks me about my job, and I’m surprised how normal it all is. At one point we’re met at the pool by a leading light on the local ska scene. “Who’s this guy?” He asks megesturing at Staple. I suppose Staple’s thick northern accent raised suspicions.
“It’s Neville Staple,” I answered. “The singer for The Specials.”
“Really? Cool...” he trailed off. “Who are they again?”
Normally, I wouldn’t have reacted, but I responded by getting a little uppity, saying something like, “How do you not know who The Specials are? Your band wouldn’t exist without them.” I probably bit off more than I could chew. But the sense of false confidence brought on by an afternoon of drinking took over.
Two things raced through my mind as Staple raised an eyebrow...
I couldn't believe that a successful and signed Orange County ska band musician didn’t know who Neville Staple or The Specials were.
I couldn’t believe that for all his talk of gold records, his bigger boast that afternoon, was his nefarious and let’s leave unspoken, sideline. Oh well.
So that’s why I couldn’t offer much in terms of supporting a case for the importance of Orange County’s contribution to the third-wave of ska, other than explaining how the county’s bands homogenized it, then snuffed it out. If the guitarist and songwriter of one of the biggest ska bands in Orange County couldn’t identify The Specials, how serious could the movement have been?
* The musican’s identity has been concealed… Buy me a drink and I’ll fill in the gaps -- I think all parties involved are beyond the statute of limitations.
** I appreciate that the only reason why I got to have my Almost Famous weekend with The Specials was because of the third wave of ska. Suddenly, in 1997, The Specials were relevant again. They released a new studio LP, and they were enjoying great reviews of what was a legitimate reunion tour, all thanks to the third wave of ska. Maybe Orange County had something to do with that.
Alarcon co-founded outsideleft with lamontpaul in 2004. His work for o/l has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of readers, oh and probably the fbi too.