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The ska revival is here, but ska never really went away

We Are the Union is, clockwise from top, Ricky Weber, Reade Wolcott, Brandon Benson, Jer Hunter and Brent Friedman. (Rae Mystic)

The evidence that we are in the midst of a ska revival is plentiful. ­Indie-punk phenomenon Jeff Rosenstock managed a critical hit with “Ska Dream,” a reimagining of his 2020 album “No Dream.” The genre thrives online, where the Ska Tune Network has more than 200,000 subscribers and ska cover versions rake in the views, including a version of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” by Los Angeles band the Interrupters that has 5 million and counting. This year sees the release of two major books, one a 400-page oral history of American ska and the other a spirited defense of the often-maligned genre. And with We Are the Union, there’s a band with genuine breakout potential; the group’s new album focuses on singer Reade Wolcott coming out as a trans woman.

There’s only one argument against the idea that we’re in the midst of a ska revival, and it’s a simple one — ska never went away.

The classic British ska outfits that first brought upstroke guitar playing to the Billboard charts have existed in various stages of restoration, anniversary celebration and short-lived hiatuses since the first George Bush was in the White House. Bands like Less Than Jake, Fishbone and the Slackers found varying levels of success in the ’90s and never stopped touring and never fired their horn sections. Ska disappeared from the radio in the ’90s, giving way to the much less upbeat sounds of nu-metal, but right on cue 20 or so years after that, we’re all rushing to catch up with what the rude boys, rude girls and rude non-binaries have known all along.

“I see it as a continuation. I mean, rock continues — nobody talks about rock revivals, do they?” says Pauline Black, singer of the Selecter, the British ska band that recorded the early classic “Too Much Pressure” in 1980 and the equally trenchant album “Daylight” almost 40 years later. “Nobody really talks about any other revivals, particularly, because it just carries on. But everybody thinks that ska has got to have a revival, and it almost makes it sound religious.”

Ska was born as Jamaican dance music, first played in the 1950s, that combined the Caribbean sounds of mento and calypso with the imported R&B that was popular in Black America at the time. Its popularity in Jamaica was eventually eclipsed by the genres that evolved from it: reggae (Bob Marley and the Wailers initially were a ska band) and rocksteady. Post-World War II mass migration brought the up-tempo Rude Boy rhythm from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom, where it was embraced by both working-class mods and skinheads. By the late 1970s, the youth’s love for Jamaican music and punk resulted in the 2-Tone movement. Although only on the charts for a brief period, for the following decade, this “second wave” of ska (the Specials, the Selecter, the English Beat), with its multiethnic musicians, dressed to the nines, singing in cool accents about romance and Nelson Mandela, was what people thought of when they thought of ska.

Then No Doubt happened. And Sublime. And the Hawaiian shirts and wallet chains attached to oversize shorts and unfortunate facial hair. The “third wave’’ of ska began respectably enough in the ’80s with great bands who never got their due and peaked in popularity with Reel Big Fish, whose “Sell Out” was one of many ska songs to dominate alternative radio in the late-’90s. And then . . .

“When swing music started, I was like ‘uh oh,’ ” says Peter “JR” Wasilewski, who saw the rise and fall of the third wave as a member of both JC Superska and Spring Heeled Jack before finding his home as the saxophonist for Less Than Jake. This era of ska music’s devolving into a sort of zoot-suit cartoon certainly contributed to the treatment of ska as a punchline over the next couple of decades.

Moving past whatever stereotypes are associated with ska, it’s easy to see what compels such devotion to the genre. “It sounded simultaneously joyous and pissed; hopeless and idealistic, nostalgic and innovative,” is how Marc Wasserman describes it in his introduction to “Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History,” out in July. “It was everything I was feeling as a bullied teen searching for an identity,” he writes. While the other major work of ska studies that’s out this year, “In Defense of Ska,” by Aaron Carnes, is (somewhat) lighthearted in its polemical defense, the book’s very existence speaks to the passion inspired by what Carnes calls “this beat — this simple, beautiful beat.”

Jer Hunter’s Ska Tunes Network cannot be overlooked when discussing the ska resurgence. The YouTube-TikTok channel consists largely of ska versions of radio pop hits and emo rock classics, with all instruments played almost exclusively by the host, with the occasional sprinkling of video essays that provide bite-size and longform musical histories. While Hunter themselves argue that ska has both never gone away and will never be huge again (“There’s not going to be a huge mainstream revival of any genre, because we just live in a completely different age of media consumption”), there’s no denying Ska Tunes’ reach. Hunter’s “History of Ska in 59 Seconds” TikTok video has probably done more to educate hundreds of thousands of people on the genre’s origins and nuances than any music journalism of the last half century.

The other person credited with the continued/growing interest in ska is Mike Park. As a label owner (Asian Man Records, the label he founded to release his music and to be “the West Coast Dischord Records . . . but with more ska”) and ex-member of Skankin’ Pickle, Park has lived through multiple ebbs and flows of interest in the genre. He saw firsthand the oversaturation of the market that, he says, “happens with anything. . . . Like, when Green Day got massive, every high school in America had five three-piece pop-punk bands. And all five were horrible.” When MTV decided to embrace horn sections, it was, according to Park, like Green Day’s ascension, but “every kid in America in a marching band started a ska band.”

Park is representative of ska’s many layers. On the one hand, he did make his way through ska’s third wave playing in a band with both “ska” and a food type in its name, two tropes that have given ska haters plenty of grist for jokes. In a deeper way though, Park’s career draws a line directly from the anti-racist punky roots of 2-Tone to the community-focused libertines of contemporary ska. With his bands and label, Park helped set a standard of DIY/punk idealism grounded in action that serves as inspiration for those who expect more from their ska than just a party (but also would like to party).

One of those inspired by Asian Man is Mike Sosinski, the owner of Bad Time Records. Last year, Bad Time released “Ska Against Racism,” a compilation that compellingly argued for ska’s relevance within the cultural landscape by showcasing bands from the past 30 years of the genre and raising $75,000 for anti-racist organizations. Bad Time also serves both as a bridge to ska’s past (the label just announced a singles series pairing ska bands of different eras) and an entry point for new listeners by being the home of some of the most popular of the new breed.

While respectful of the history, bands like Bad Operation, Catbite and Sosinski’s Kill Lincoln play variations of ska as true to the genre’s Jamaican roots as can be expected of a genre that’s entire history is a melding of influences. (It can be argued that it’s this historical receptivity to outside influences, without ever being entirely subsumed by them, that has led to the genre being embraced by new generations who prefer their pop culture both anti-imperialist and polyglot. “Of all the genres that you can say that were not whitewashed,” Hunter says, “ska might be the only one that has an actual history of culture exchange and not appropriation.”) In the way ska bands have historically combined older sounds with what was the teen heat of the time (be it R&B, pop, punk or new wave), Bad Time musicians take ska and combine it with pop-punk, emo, metal and other genres particularly popular among young listeners.

“I’m from Jamaica and I brought that sound with me . . . and we took Toots and the Maytals and the Skatalites and English sounds and we blended it,” says Lynval Golding, guitarist for U.K. legends the Specials, who are finishing work on a new album. “So to see young lads or young bands crashing it with hip-hop or, you know, just being creative, I think it’s wonderful.”

“The palette from which we’re painting,” is how Wolcott describes ska’s inherent pliability. Wolcott is the singer of We Are the Union, the Bad Time Records band whose just-released album, “Ordinary Life,” is the current face of both crossover ska and ska crossing over. Wolcott is also a ska lifer who, with only a brief retreat into calling We Are the Union a “melodic punk band with horns” is, like her bandmate Hunter, a loquacious evangelist for the genre. Wolcott’s commitment to ska runs so deep that she’ll vociferously argue for the ska merits of the entire No Doubt catalogue (“They are the biggest influence not only on my approach to songwriting, but on my approach to what the band is”).

Wolcott’s transition is the ostensible topic of “Ordinary Life,” but the songwriter aims to balance the personal with a universality that she feels is inherent to ska’s nature as “struggle music.” In that vein, she wrote the joyously anthemic single “Boys Will Be Girls” which she hopes can become “ ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ for all the queers.”

It’s also in this spirit that We Are the Union takes the notion of a ska revival. “In the grander scheme of things, there’s absolutely a huge surge of interest that you can call a revival,” Wolcott says. “And to me, that’s really special, that there has been this scene that’s been there this entire time that we can now go back to all these new people and say ‘Welcome. We’re on Season 6. Here’s Seasons 1 to 5, if you want to watch them too.’ I think that’s cool.”