Various – Staring At The Rude Boys
Released 19th February 2021
Subtitled The British Ska Revival (1979-1989), this new set features big hitters The Specials, Madness and The Beat plus far more obscure names like Diversion, Graduate (with members who went on to form Tears For Fears) and The RBs….Ian Canty still dances like a pathetic Chas Smash imitator all these years on…
Being one of thousands “Johnnies on the spot”, there is no doubt in my mind that the Two Tone-fuelled UK ska revival of 1979 was massive, on a par with punk three years previously. Walt Jabsco and checkerboard designs were everywhere at the time and the message of all getting along together regardless of race has been a beacon of hope down the years and as important as any past musical movement’s legacies. Having said that, in a direct comparison to punk/new wave, relatively few bands made a mark nationally. Scene leaders The Specials, The Beat, Bad Manners and The Selecter had a fair few hit singles and albums between them and of course one should not forget the longer running success of Madness.
But away from the big five, few prospered, though hopefuls were legion. Away from the genuine ska bands who formed in response to The Specials’ first single, their ranks included mod and new wave bands hoping a bit of the magic might rub off on them, original reggae legends back for a slice of the scene they helped to create in the first place, plus a whole load of chancers and parodists. There are a few, what I would term, very borderline entries here too. Together all these different aggregations make up the bulk of Staring At The Rude Boys, which also takes in the ska revival revival (!) of the late 80s on the third disc included here.
Staring… begins logically enough with The Specials, but along with Madness who immediately follow, they are represented by an album track and not one of their big hits. We get Little Bitch from the first LP here, not a rare tune as such. But it is a good example of the exhilarating upbeat skank they specialised in early on, with some lovely keys by band mastermind Jerry Dammers. Madness proffer Bed & Breakfast Man, their tribute to one time member/manager John Hasler. He was also involved in brief ska cash-in act Guns For Hire (not featured on this collection), with members who went on to form Department S.
The other two bigger names on this first disc, The Selecter and Bad Manners, also have offerings taken from their debut albums, with the latter’s Inner London Violence being one of their rare more serious efforts. The Bodysnatchers make up the Two Toners on disc one with their hit Let’s Do Rocksteady. Rhoda Dakar released an album of their songs (reviewed here), which showed the band’s potential, which they were sadly not to fulfil when they split after only two singles.
One of those mod bands trying their hand at ska, The Merton Parkas, appear with Give It To Me Now. It failed to make an impact as a single and you can see why The Lambrettas’ attractive and brassy version of Poison Ivy, which crops up not too much later here, won out in the charts. I’ve always liked Arthur Kay’s Originals’ charming Play My Record and We Are The Gangsters by The Gangsters is a simple but satisfying slice of rhythm. The Tigers seemed more edgy new wave from a time when they advertised for Elvis Costello impersonators in the local Job Centre, but they do a decent job on Big Expense, Small Income, which benefits from some “Look Around You” style synths.
Roland Gift of The Fine Young Cannibals shines with his previous outfit The Akrylyxz, who show up with the busy Spyderman and fellow “before they were famous” folk Graduate (their number included Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal aka Tears For Fears) give us a jolly Elvis Costello tribute in Elvis Should Play Ska. Diversion were closely linked to Suns Of Arqa and pulled in Drummie Zeb of Aswad for Rough Rider, a cool version of the Prince Buster tune.
The more jokey contingent are represented by Morgan Fisher’s Hybrid Kids number McArthur Park (released under The Burtons name), the late C.P. Lee hiding under the pseudonym The Charlie Parkas on Ballad Of Robin Hood and the arresting hook of Don’t Panic by Max Headroom & The Car Parks (actually a rockabilly muso called Bob Clifford). Overall this first disc is diverting enough, if a little short on true classics of the era, but I suppose that is the whole point of the set, to delve a little deeper.
Moving on, it is fitting that Laurel Aitken starts the second disc of this set with Big Fat Man, as his 1969 album Scandal In A Brixton Market was arguably a real precursor of the lyrical preoccupations and sounds of Two Tone. In fact it is doubly so as he is backed here by The Ruts on this fine, exceptionally catchy number. That band hit the UK singles chart with their classic Staring At The Rude Boys in the same calendar year, giving this collection its name.
The Beat follow with the sharp Whine & Grine/Stand Down Margaret from their debut LP and Bristol’s The Rimshots impress with a speedy offering in I Was Wrong. The Piranhas were integral to the Brighton scene and dipped their toe in ska waters with their big hit Tom Hark and Desmond Dekker, the original king of reggae, recuts his rocksteady hit from 1967 Rude Boy Train. He’s backed here by The Rumour, best known for their work with the mighty Graham Parker.
Tracks like The Resistors’ Jeanie and Breaking Up New Ground by The Parrots more utilise a ska backbeat as a more exotic setting on which to fashion their new wave type songs, but luckily enough both are nicely infectious and well performed. Ed Ball provides the spoof element on this disc, his Teenage Filmstars’ Odd Man Out being authentic sounding with some great sax. But The AK Band’s Pink Slippers verges on the novelty angle too, as do ex-prog rockers Tich Turner’s Escalator with Are You Wiv and Never Gonna Lose You by Sax Maniax (ex TV kids show Animals Kwackers!). Scotland’s The RBs wrap this disc up with Explain, which is outfitted with a strong, memorable chorus and fine brass playing.
The final platter of Staring At The Rude Boys moves away from the first flush of the ska revival and towards its aftershocks, reaching over a near 10 year period to 1989. These later offerings zigzag from replicating the original ska sound and Two Tone. I like Kim Wilde, but her ska number 2-6-5-8-0 isn’t her finest hour. However the skiffle ska sound of My Favourite Band by The Lemons is really engaging though and Forest Hill Billies’ Forest Hill Ska goes more back to the original sound of ska with verve. The Potato Five are nearly forgotten today, but they kept the UK scene alive through the lean years in the mid-80s and they team up well with Laurel Aitken on the delightful Mad About You.
21 Guns were a combination of Specials roadies Trevor Evans and Johnny Rex, plus ex-Squad vocalist Gus Chambers and their self-titled debut single featured here, produced by Neville Staple, is punchy enough to make you wish they recorded more. There is a fairly large crossover with oi! on this final disc, which I suppose is natural given original skinhead’s roots in reggae music. Splodge, The 4 Skins (under the Plastic Gangsters nom de plume), Burial, Skin Deep, JJ Allstars and Oppressed spin-off Rude Boys all feature, with the latter’s Rude Boy Shuffle dynamic and built for dancing. Croydon’s Case were linked to that scene too, a real dynamite live act that manage bottle some of that on-stage excitement on Oh.
As we approach the second half of the 1980s we have Buster’s Allstars, Bad Manners in all but name, with the catchy Skinhead Love Affair and The Hotknives’ Dave And Mary, a neat character study on a cracking tune. A new breed of ska bands emerged around this time and The Deltones and The Loafers are my picks here. The Deltones render Stay Where You Are with a full sound and fine vocals and The Undertaker by The Loafers is nicely manic. There are a few tracks on this last disc that capture the energy and excitement of ska without giving the listener a truly memorable tune. This made me think I would have enjoyed these bands live, but on record here they seem to struggle. Perhaps they have better to show on further inspection of their catalogue? Might be worth digging, which after all is part of what compilations are all about.
Staring At The Rude Boys deftly steers itself away from the familiar hits that most know backwards and did bring my attention to some bands I missed out on at the time that definitely had something to offer. Though I’m bound to say although the second disc is probably the best of the set, it does slightly sag towards the end of disc three. I can’t argue with the fact this collection adequately portrays the course of the ska revival in the UK however. With informative pen pictures of each band in the accompanying booklet, there’s many stories to be told too and this set does winkle out some dance delights along the way. Clearly this is no time to hang your boots (or loafers) up, Staring At The Rude Boys’ prime selections got the old toes twitching away, itching for the dancefloor denied to us at the present time.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here