Interviews: Read a Chapter from Aaron Carnes ‘In Defense of Ska’ about Propagandhi’s “Ska Sucks”
In April 2021, Clash books will release Aaron Carnes’ In Defense of Ska. The book is an astounding piece of music history. The book explores the history of ska, ruminates on modern ska, and takes, deep, deep, deep dives into obscure ska factoids. Via hundreds and hundreds of interviews with musicians, Carnes weaves the stories involving the big name hotters (Less than Jake, Reel Big Fish, Fishbone) with the medium size ska-champs (Skankin’ Pickle, MU330, Bomb the music Inudustry!), with the forgotten bands that only Carnes knows. Carnes himself played in the post two-tone/pre-3rd wave band Flat Planet, Roadied for Skankin’ Pickle, and also worked at Asian Man Records. Today, we’re excited to debut a chapter from the book. The chapter looks at how the local ska scene received Propagandhi’s controversal tune “Ska Sucks” and how Propagandhi responded to criticism of the tune. Punknews’ John Gentile also interviewed Carnes about the book. You can pre-order In Defense of Skaright here!. Meanwhile, you can read the excerpt below, right now!
In 1993, Winnipeg ska band Whole Lotta Milka was so strapped for cash, Geoff Crowe, couldn’t afford a baritone saxophone to play in the group. Baritone saxophones are expensive. Fortunately, the band’s tenor sax player bought one at a garage sale for $50 and let him use it. It was completely out of tune. The band referred to it as a “gibble sax.” A little later, one of Geoff’s friends, a fellow music major at the University of Manitoba, took pity on him and his gibble sax and lent him one of the University’s baritone saxes. Geoff was so glad to be able to use it for Whole Lotta Milka that he never gave it back. How else was he going to play in the group? This horn was an improvement, but not much better than the gibble sax, which explains why the University never put much energy into finding it. When all was said and done, in 2000, when Whole Lotta Milka broke up, Geoff donated the horn to a middle school in need, a “7-year loan,” so no biggie.
Guitarist Greg Crowe (not Geoff’s brother as some lazy Canadian journalists have speculated) tells me this anecdote to illustrate exactly how broke his band was. “There was no money to be had. We had eight people in the band. Nothing was ever cheap.” We’re on the topic of Propagandhi’s infamous “Ska Sucks,” and Greg is especially honed-in on the most irksome of lines about how ska bands were only in it for the bucks.
Propagandhi was infamous in the DIY scene as confrontational left-leaning, anarchist punk rockers who railed against capitalism, sexism, and racism. And, apparently, ska. To make it sting a little more, “Ska Sucks” is a ska song; the only one in their catalog. And it’s a ruthless jab. Lead singer Chris Hannah sings all about how uncool the ska revival is and how he hopes it will die out with any luck.
For Greg, it took three years of festering annoyance after the song appeared on Propagandhi’s debut record How To Clean Everything to formulate his official response. He called the song “A Message to you, Chris.” Would you have guessed/that we would be so goddamn in debt/playing for peanuts every show/forced to steal our saxophone. Greg wasn’t mad per se; He just needed to stand up for ska. Greg was a huge Propagandhi fan. Still is. In Winnipeg, they’re hometown punk rock heroes.
Everyone a part of the ska scene in the ’90s knew about “Ska Sucks,” but no one could decide what the best way to react to it was. Some ska kids were pissed off that the almighty punk rock overlords were viciously slamming their music; others embraced it as their own. “Ska bands would get up on stage in Winnipeg and play that song,” Greg says. “Almost a point of reclamation.”
Greg’s rebuttal also got mixed reactions. He shares with me a letter he got in the mail shortly after releasing “A Message To You, Chris.” It was from a fan, suspiciously named Chris. “Chris” claimed to like Whole Lotta Milka’s music, but wouldn’t be dancing to “A Message to You, Chris” anytime soon: “Your song is just an insult to the intelligence of Propagandhi fans, not to mention a waste of one of your best dance riffs,” the letter goes. “…Just because Chris says ‘Ska Sucks’ doesn’t mean we aren’t going to support ska bands anymore. We aren’t that dumb (most of the time).”
Strangely, of everything Propagandhi took a stand against in their career, ska became one of the most talked about. The band mostly stopped playing the song, even though fans continued to request it. On a live version of the song from the 1998 album, Where Quantity is Job #1, Chris mutters: “I hate this song. We hate this song,” repeatedly during the opening bass line.
I reached out to Chris on several occasions to chat about “Ska Sucks,” and got no reply. I even sent him a physical letter at the advice of a knowledgeable punk friend. Punks like physical mail, he suggested—still nothing.
Fortunately, Chris opened up to Damian Abraham about the song on his podcast, Turned Out a Punk. During the interview, Damian referred to “Ska Sucks” as the song that has “plagued you so much,” eliciting a knowing laugh out of Chris. “That song wasn’t meant to be heard by anybody but skins at the Albert,” he explained. “Everything we wrote back then was meant to be played at the Albert. We had no idea that anybody besides the ten people that came to see us at the Albert, which included nine skinheads, would ever fucking hear it.” It should be noted that he did record the song on the band’s debut Fat Wreck Chords album, which was sure to be heard by more than 10 people.
He offered the song’s official backstory. Nazi skinheads promulgated within the late ’80s and early ’90s Winnipeg punk scene, becoming a serious problem no one knew how to handle. “They would march into a show and start kicking ass—inside and out of the shows,” Chris tells Damian.
The Winnipeg Nazis walked around aggressively espousing white power ideology in spaces nobody wanted them at while co-opting Jamaican fashion and wanting to dance to ska music and rocksteady. And for some reason, felt inclined to destroy this tolerant punk rock subculture as they did so. Not the brightest bunch. When Toronto hardcore band Bunchofuckinggoofs came to town, they told Chris the best way to deal with Nazis was to kick their asses. The band presented their evidence: Toronto’s scene wasn’t overrun by Nazis because asses were kicked. Nazis were cowards once someone stood up to them.
Nazi-scene-invaders weren’t something unique to Winnipeg. Punk scenes all over the US and Canada in the ’80s and ’90s found Nazis infiltrators in their midst. Director Corbett Redford showed me and my friend Keith Lowell Jensen a cut scene from his film Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk about such an incident that became legendary among east bay punks. On September 16, 1989, Green Day, Samiam, Econochrist, and other east bay punk bands drove out to Clunie Community Center in Sacramento and were greeted by an audience of 80 punk rock nerds. Among them, a handful of skinheads. Were they good skinheads or Nazis? Nobody was quite sure.
Things went fine at first. Green Day and Samiam didn’t want to choose a headliner, so they played two songs apiece and went back and forth. The skinheads proved to be the not-good type and were tripping people and pulling the oh so clever move of deliberately going the opposite direction in the pit with fists swinging. Everyone hoped the skinheads would get bored and leave, but it only escalated. During one of Green Day’s 2-song sets, a dozen more skinheads entered, these bigger, and more aggressive. They shoved punks down on the floor and made a big show of themselves. Filth guitarist Len Rokk tried to stop them. A Nazi clocked him in the face. That was it. The venue brought the house lights up. A full-on brawl ensued, with the object being to remove the skinheads as quickly as possible. Samiam guitarist James Brogan and Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt hopped off the stage and joined in.
“They were probably just kids from Rancho Cordova that shaved their heads. They weren’t the really scary kind of skinheads we would encounter in San Francisco, which were hardened criminal skinheads—murderers that were in skinhead gangs,” Samiam guitarist Sergie Loobkoff tells me. “These guys were suburban dudes that probably lived in tract homes. They didn’t expect everybody in the room would turn on them.” Econocrhist singer Ben Sizemore grabbed a large oak chair inside the venue and broke it over the back of a large skinhead who was seig heiling. East Bay scenester James Washburn single-handedly beat up 3 skinheads—at once. Econochrist roadie Shammy broke a bottle on stage intending a makeshift knife, instead cutting up his own hand.
The punks removed the Nazis from the venue and chased them off into the sunset. Once everything seemed safe, most of the bands packed up and left. But Green Day and a few other folks lingered around the venue, slowly loading their gear. They were pulled out of their blissful lollygagging state by the rumble of what sounded like an army of doc marten-wearing soldiers sprinting down the street. The Nazis returned, now 30 of them and ready to fight. They had bats, knives, 2x4s, and chains. This larger crew of Nazis chased Green Day and anyone else still around. Fortunately, these punk rockers were fast; they ran for their lives. When they managed to ditch the skinheads and circle back, they found their van windows broken and tires slashed.
Green Day released the Slappy 7” shortly after this epic rumble. The liner notes said: Green Day Won’t Play Sacto. They kept their word, that is until their Dookie tour when they were able to play larger venues. On the spine of the group’s debut album 39/Smooth, they wrote “James, put down that skinhead,” in honor of the skinhead slayer, James Washburn.
Back in Winnipeg, Chris wasn’t prepared to fight Nazis with fisticuffs, but he wanted them to know they weren’t welcome. In 1991, “Ska Sucks” was born as a way to publicly ridicule the skinheads who were causing problems at their shows. It was a message the Nazis understood. “As pencil neck geeks, what we could do was mock them. It got under their skin,” Chris tells Damian. Nazis stopped showing up to Winnipeg punk shows. In retrospect, it’s hard to determine the actual effect the song had because around the same time, several Winnipeg Nazis murdered a gay man in what became a high-profile hate crime. The remaining Nazis weren’t so publicly bold about their hateful ideology once four were implicated for the murder. They hid from public spaces.
“Ska Sucks” may have been written to annoy Nazis, but once it got out of Winnipeg, it mutated into an anthem of ska mockery. By the mid-90s, ska became commercially viable, and with the song floating around, everyone who hated ska—and there were plenty—found a theme song. Chris has gone on record multiple times stating he doesn’t hate ska. So he claims.
When Greg wrote his rebuttal, he was well aware of the complex history behind “Ska Sucks” and Winnipeg’s Nazi problem. His band wrote their own song (“Intense”) about Winnipeg Nazis, which appeared on Whole Lotta Milka’s Al’s Diner. Still, it got on his nerves that even when something as fucked up as Nazis was being discussed, somehow ska still ends the butt end of the joke.
In case you’re wondering, Chris knows about Greg’s song and has a better sense of humor about it than he does for his own ska-hating propaganda piece. Greg saw Chris at a Public Enemy show in Winnipeg shortly after releasing “A Message To You, Chris.” He introduced himself as Greg from Whole Lotta Milka.
“He went, ‘Oh you,’” Greg says. They talked about their respective songs and had a good laugh. There’s a clear-as-day reference to the song on the Where Quantity is Job #1’s liner notes. Next to the song “Ska Sucks,” it says: See ‘How to Clean’ for the brilliant lyrics to the opus that inspired ska bands to write songs about Chris, oh dear.
“I left honored,” Greg says of the liner note shoutout. “They’re one of my favorite bands of all time.”
Interview with Aaron Carnes
John G: To “defend ska” admits that it needs defending and has some sort of flaw. No one feels the need to defend “hardcore” or “hip hop” or “thrash metal.” What has ska done to need defending? Aaron Carnes: John, as a practicing attorney, you know this argument is invalid. When you stand in court and defend a client, that doesn’t admit their guilt. Nice try. You almost got me to take the bait! It isn’t that ska needs defending. The music is fine on its own. The problem is that popular culture and a lot of people have an entirely false idea about what ska is and who ska fans are. Someone needs to set them straight. I call it a “defense,” but it’s an “education.” In my experience, the people mocking ska the loudest, know the least about it. They think that the small handful of bands that were on MTV and the Tony Hawk soundtrack are ska. Case closed. I’m sick to death of reading the same goddamn tweets about rude boys being nerds in fedoras and checkered pants, or that ska is just hyper happy music for silly kids. People! Do better. Read my book so you can at least get some better material for all your dumb ska jokes. And hopefully, you might check out some of the lesser-known ska bands and fall in love with the genre. Remember John, when I gave you that speech outside of that Gnarboots show that forever turned you into a ska fan? Now I’m trying to do that for all your Punknews readers.
Do you feel that ska has had some sort of a resurgence with young people over the past few years? There’s always been a plethora of young people into ska. But what’s unique right now is that lots of the bands leading the scene right now are these new, young groups. It’s awesome. As cool as it was that Reel Big Fish never stopped touring in the 2000s and the 2010s, and gave kids an entry point into the genre, they were still a band that their parents used to skank to and were famous for appearing in some movie the South Park dudes made. These new bands are singing about stuff that Gen Z kids can relate to. I’m all for it. Young ska musicians are finally taking advantage of social media. Jeremy Hunter (SkaTune Network) is bringing so many kids into the ska fold that otherwise wouldn’t have found the genre. Bad Time Records has become the go-to ska record label. There hasn’t been a new ska label with a catalog this good and captured the moment quite the way they have in a while
Ska, or at least third-wave ska, is stereotypically thought of as the domain of goofy nerds, as opposed to genres such as industrial, college rock, and hardcore, which most people consider to be “cool.” Did you find this stereotype to be true? I think this stereotype is overblown. Sure, some goofy nerds like ska, but some goofy nerds love Iron Maiden. Or scary nerds. This whole nerd image is a byproduct of ska’s place in mainstream culture in the late ’90s. When ska-punk was still an underground genre, there were so many different kinds of fans. Weirdos, stoners, hippies, goths, metalheads, punks. And the folks that liked trad ska—the rude boys and skinheads—they were kind of elitist hipsters. They knew how to dress, they had cool scooters, they would start fights with random people, they held the entire history of Jamaican music in their heads at all times.
When labels and MTV embraced ska, they did it the way they do everything: as a trend. And trends need style. Since the music sounded fun, and we had just left the era of dreary grunge and Kurt Cobain offing himself, it only makes sense that the pendulum swung towards the silly end of the spectrum. But ska wasn’t some trend. It had been a healthy, vibrant scene since the late ’70s. It attracted a wide range of people that liked good dance music by bands that had something important to say. And not to contradict everything I just said, but why is everyone so down on goofy nerds, anyway? I’ve met a lot of great nerds in my lifetime. Good people.
Tell us a little bit about your first ska band, Flat Planet. I started Flat Planet in the early ’90s. We were based out of Gilroy, California, the garlic capital of the world. We originally played a blend of Rush, The Police, and Pink Floyd, and sounded way too adult for our ages. After discovering Skankin’ Pickle in 1992, I fell in love with ska. All I wanted from that point on was to play ska. It took almost a year to convince my band. We went from writing dramatic, progressive rock songs about being lost at sea to singing upbeat ska anthems about getting lice and needing to shave our heads. Admittedly, some of the ’90s ska stereotypes applied to us, mainly the one about writing songs about food. But we weren’t nerds. We aimed to put on a crazy, chaotic show and overload people’s minds with insanity. Basically, we wanted to be Skankin’ Pickle.
Our biggest claim to fame was, “Mr. Goodbuddy,” a song that Asian Man Records released on the Misfits of Ska II compilation. It’s one of the few songs I sang lead vocals on. It’s about being a meathead and lifting hella weights. Originally the plan at shows was for me to leave my drum set and rip off my shirt, revealing one of those fake muscle man outfits. And then I would lift weights while I sang the song (“How much can you bench? Can you bench as much as me?”) In reality, I would leave my drum set, and just start punching myself in the forehead the entire song while running in place. I was always a little dizzy by the end of the song.
You used to roadie for Skankin Pickle. What was that like? Technically, I roadied for Skankin’ Pickle one time on a two-week Midwest tour. But it was quite the tour. 7 Seconds were the main support, and Slapstick was the opening act. Boring surf band The Mermen opened one show in Denver. On that tour, Stockton/Modesto show promoter Middagh Goodwin worked merch. Meanwhile, I handled the equipment. When we arrived in a new town, it was up to me to unload the equipment and get it set up for soundcheck. When the band was good to go, I had to strike the equipment and push it to the side of the stage. Then I was free to roam the streets. I always wondered around alone because everyone in Skankin’ Pickle had toured a million times already and weren’t interested in sightseeing
One time, I stumbled into a movie theater in Milwaukee and caught The City of Lost Children. Back at the show, once 7 Seconds were finished, I was on duty again. I had to get the equipment set up, and fast! During the band’s performance, I stood to the side of the stage and gave the band members water, and picked microphone stands up if Gerry happened to knock one over while power-skanking. I signed a few autographs on that tour since I would always be tearing the drums down after the show. Since a lot of people don’t know what a band’s drummer looks like, they just assumed I was Skankin’ Pickle’s drummer. I was happy to indulge in their fantasy.
Did No Doubt sell out and forget their roots or were they ambassadors that took ska to the next level? The first time I saw No Doubt was a couple of years before “Just A Girl” became a hit single. They were mostly a funk-pop band at that point. What’s I’m saying is that No Doubt moved on to a poppy, vaguely ska sound well before they were getting paid the big bucks. Tragic Kingdom was slightly more ska than their self-titled debut. I don’t think they were sell-outs because they were just following where their muse was taking them. I also don’t think they were ambassadors for ska because their music only hinted at the genre. People always want to talk about them as a ska band because they used to play ska, and because they happened to get famous at the same time that ska got on the radio. The same year No Doubt broke, Rancid released “Time Bomb” and Sublime’s three-year-old song “Date Rape” became a hit single. Those two songs were the ones that opened the flood gates in my opinion. Not No Doubt.
Remember that time Gnarboots played Gilman and you all thought someone stole your iPod so you yelled at the audience for 10 minutes, and genuinely scared them, upset them, and freaked them out, and then it turned out that someone just took your iPod outside to charge it up because you forgot to charge it? Tell us about that. Here’s the part of the story you’re leaving out. We had reason to be paranoid about our iPod getting stolen. It happened before! The very first time Gnarboots played Gilman, we opened for Bobbie Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits. During our opening song, we performed an 8-minute muzak medley tribute to all the great punk bands that graced Gilman’s stage in the past: Sex Pistols, Ramones, Black Flag, etc. Then we played several iPod songs. During our final song, Gnarboots guitarist Adam Davis grabbed his acoustic guitar and we escorted the audience to the Gilman shop and I led a joyous sing-along that was perhaps one of the highlights of my entire life. When we were done, Adam went back to the stage to grab our iPod and it was gone. Someone stole it! We went from feeling this incredible sense of togetherness to feeling like someone stabbed us in the back. For a while after that, we were in mourning. We held two funeral ceremonies to process iPod’s death. During one of our ceremonies at Mama Buzz Café in Oakland, everybody in the audience took turns sharing their favorite iPod memories, including the homeless folks that wandered in off the streets. It was something.
Why do you think these questions have been laced with what seems like a vague sense of hostility? I just assumed this was your interview style! I remember the first time you interviewed Gnarboots at Taco Bravo in Campbell, California. You asked us vaguely hostile questions and then attacked us when we tried to give you funny answers. Then when the article went live, it turned into this weird art piece where you accused us of having mind control powers. Interesting premise, but if we had the power to control minds, we would have forced Rolling Stone to interview us, not Punknews.
What are some exciting new-ish ska bands? One of the best ska-punk albums released in the last decade was by this East Bay ska-core band called Omnigone. I think the record was called No Faith. I particularly love the songs “Rewrite History” and “Rather Be Alone.” They have this great punk rock energy, but their drummer brings a strong ska vibe to the mix. Just incredible grooves. Some other new bands I love include Bad Operation, JER and Catbite.
Photo Credit: Amy Bee