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The Boston Phoenix Forever Ska

The Skatalites carry on.

By Brett Milano

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  Every form of music hauls its elder statesmen out for a bow sooner or later. You like surf music, you wait for the Ventures to tour; you like rockabilly, you catch Ronnie Dawson; you like garage punk, I hope you saw ? and the Mysterians. They've all stayed around long enough to ride the revivals of music they helped invent. But none of them has matched the achievement of ska originators the Skatalites, who have become a regular part of the contemporary circuit, touring alongside the bands they influenced, hitting town at least once a year, drawing the same audiences who go to Bosstones and Skavoovie shows -- fans who know that the Skatalites were Jamaica's premier studio band in 1964.

Of course the Skatalites are barely a ska band anymore -- they're a jazz band with a ska backbeat. The current line-up has four original members (saxophonists Roland Alphonso and Lester Sterling, and the still-killer rhythm section of Lloyd Knibb and Lloyd Brevett) and plays a lot of the classic repertoire. Indeed, the new studio album Ball of Fire (Island) and the two-CD '60s retrospective Foundation Ska (Rounder) have three songs in common. What the Skatalites of today lack is the discipline of the line-up of old: their recent string of reunion albums (mostly on Shanachie) was filled with six-minute jams. And you have to admire fans for dancing to the even longer, sometimes rambling solos that the band serve up in concert.

Ball of Fire is better edited than the Shanachie albums; the solos are tastier and more varied. The Skatalites have discovered a secret weapon in the contrast between the greasy, R&B-inflected playing of the two veteran saxophonists and the cleaner styles of the newer members (trumpeter Nathan Breedlove and trombonist Will Clark). The studio-only return of original guitarist Ernest Ranglin also livens things up considerably. During his "Confucius" solo he apparently starts thinking he's joined the Meters instead of the Skatalites, and the New Orleans funk licks he sneaks in are just incongruous enough to work. Still, the soloing overshadows the actual tunes. Even the "James Bond Theme" gets its hook tossed aside after one introductory chorus. Neither does it help, when you've so many horn players, to have every player solo on every track.

In contrast, the tracks on Foundation Ska are models of brevity, with only one out of 32 running more than four minutes -- and the exception is necessary, because it takes that long to adjust to the culture shock of a ska band playing the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better." A few songs feature the Skatalites in back-up mode, the best-known being Bob Marley & the Wailers' "Simmer Down," a punkish number that puts across street-fighting tension even while arguing for peace. But most of the tracks are instrumentals, recorded at a time when instrumentals hardly ever got on the radio. So the Skatalites pulled a few tricks for attention, giving their songs provocative titles. Their first single became a hit largely because it was called "Christine Keeler" (after the model implicated in Britain's Profumo sex scandal) -- much the same way a song called "Monica Lewinsky" would be a shoo-in today.

Mostly, though, the old Skatalites had a great sense of musical gimmickry. They'd lift phrases from other people's hits ("Occupation," also redone on Ball of Fire, nicks the horn part from Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire"), cover weighty songs that needed deflating (the film theme "Exodus"), and write witty pastiches of every exotic pop sound that came into fashion. ("Cleopatra," "King Solomon" and "Ska La Parisienne" all live up to their titles). "Killer Diller" and "Naked City" are prime slices of '60s pop culture, heavy on secret-agent imagery. Much of the compositional wit apparently belonged to trombonist Don Drummond, whose own life wasn't as sunny: he was incarcerated in early 1965, after fatally stabbing his girlfriend Marguerita Mahfood, and died in a mental hospital four years later.

The new tribute album Freedom Sounds (Shanachie) is an afterthought, but a pleasant one. The line-up barely scratches the surface of Skatalites-influenced bands (Les Miserables Brass Band represent Boston, but the more obvious Skavoovie & the Epitones aren't here). Most of the covers are respectful copies, one exception being the tongue-in-cheek Satan-ska band Mephiskapheles, who turn "Lucky Seven" into "Lucky 666." But the set proves that modern ska bands emulate the Skatalites charts and chops at least as much as they emulate the Specials' punk energy. Thanks to the enduring Skatalites' influence, ska bands have to work that much harder.

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