Two-Tone Army

The Toasters: America's greatest ambassadors of ska (courtesy photo)

The Toasters keep the ska faith for 23 years and counting

For a cultural nano-second, ska music was hot. Between 1995 and 1998, a so-called Third Wave explosion of American ska resulted in bands scurrying to hire trombone players, and record companies throwing contracts at every musician decked out in a pork-pie hat.

But like the swing revival of the same period, the ska boom had to go bust. For one thing, the genre has always been the underground province of true believers who never tire of hearing it, while the MTV audience embraced it as a trendy novelty and quickly burned out on it. More problematic was the fact that many of the bands lumped into the category (No Doubt, that means you) had only the most superficial connection to the form.

The Toasters, a New York City group formed by a transplanted Brit named Rob "Bucket" Hingley, were widely regarded to be part of the Third Wave phenomenon. In a way, they fit the bill. An American collective inspired such by British masters as the Specials, Madness, and Selecter, they were equal parts punk attack and reggae skank. Unlike most of their peers, however, the Toasters not only paid homage to ska's history, they were a big part of it.

As ska's most dedicated ambassador, Hingley has done more than anyone to bring ska rhythms to American audiences. In a way, the Toasters are like the Fugazi of ska, maintaining a hard-line indie philosophy, with Hingley tirelessly running his own record label, Moon Ska, for nearly two decades.

"I just like playing ska music so much, I guess it's like our own particular quest for the Holy Grail."
- Rob Hingley
Formed in the early 1980s, after Hingley immigrated from London to NYC to manage a comic book store called Forbidden Planet, the early Toasters were actually peers - as well as protégés - of England's great 2-Tone titans. Hingley recalls the heady late '70s, when new music seemed to be exploding in every direction.

"I saw the `Sex Pistols'` 'Anarchy in the U.K.' tour one weekend, and the next weekend there was Selecter, the English Beat, and the Body Snatchers, all for like three bucks," Hingley says. "There was so much great music going on at that time it was unbelievable. You had the whole punk-rock movement, with the Clash, Damned, Sex Pistols, the whole ska thing, but then you also had guys like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, and at the same time you had Gary Numan, Human League, and that whole computer-pop crowd."

Hingley had spent much of his early childhood in Africa, and in 1964 his family settled in the provincial naval seaport town of Plymouth, England. At that point, the 9-year-old Hingley heard his future.

"The first ska music I heard was Millie Small's 'My Boy Lollipop,'" Hingley says. "Here's this brand-new music which is really completely different to anything that's on the radio or TV at the time, I mean it was all British Invasion stuff. But all of a sudden, here's a glimpse into this huge ska underground that existed in Britain at the time. But because it was Jamaican music, it wasn't really getting played on the radio to white people.

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"It was very close to what I'd been hearing from the African bands with my dad, who was a big music buff. So I bought that record, which I still have - 7-inch vinyl, about the size of a dinner plate."

When Hingley arrived in New York in 1980, eager to form a band, he found most Yanks to be blissfully unaware of the ska craze sweeping England at the time. "It was a nightmare," he says. "I couldn't find anyone, so I started teaching people those beats. As the band progressed and we played out more and more, it became a magnet for guys, so a lot of people came out of the woodwork. First off, it was a little difficult teaching people to play on the off-beat."

With remarkable tenacity, the Toasters have stuck to their original sonic blueprint, with the notable exception of the vaguely slick pop found on 1995's This Gun For Hire. With classic anthems like "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down," Hingley has also established a no-nonsense, working-class persona which he applies to his big obsessions: ska music and New York street life.

In the wake of the Third Wave crash, Hingley reluctantly decided to close down Moon Ska. While he frets about how the label's closing has affected young ska bands, he also seems to enjoy the luxury of putting down his record-exec cap.

"It's been a double-edged sword in a sense," Hingley says. "It's definitely worked for me as an artist, because I'm able to get away from chasing people around for pennies and just go back to being a guy playing guitar in a band, which is something that I've always really enjoyed. I think it's given the Toasters a new lease of life and made it more refreshing for me.

"But, of course, the backswing from that is that all of a sudden there's not really a support system for a lot of the bands out there. It kind of made it difficult for ska bands in general and the Toasters in particular. So it's kind of gone back to individual bands making their way on the road. Which is not always a bad thing, of course."

Asked if he's ever considered dabbling in other musical forms, Hingley quickly rejects the notion. "I just like playing ska music so much, I guess it's like our own particular quest for the Holy Grail. With ska, once you get it in you, you never get it out - kind of like malaria." •


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