Kenneth Partridge’s Hell of a Hat connects the checkered line between ska and swing
Kenneth Partridge’s Hell of a Hat: The Rise of ’90s Ska and Swing is the third book on ska to release this summer, following Aaron Carnes‘ In Defense of Ska and Ska Boom: An American Ska & Reggae Oral History by Marc Wasserman. Whereas those two books focus primarily on the music which evolved out of the Jamaican sounds of the ’60s and ’70s, Partridge looks at both ’90s ska acts and the jump blues and swing acts which came up alongside them. It’s a musical history that hasn’t yet been explored in this detail and results in a great read which might make the reader reevaluate some otherwise maligned performers.
I spoke via Zoom with Partridge ahead of the release of Hell of a Hat, which is out next week from Penn State University Press.
The Pitch: Given the fact that there are two other ska books that came out this summer, I have to ask: when did the idea for this book first come up for you?
Kenneth Partridge: I think I had been kind of thinking about it on and off, over the years, just in the back of my mind as I’ve been writing for different publications. Ska was a very sort of formative thing for me in high school and to a lesser extent, the swing thing, but more so the ska. It was always kind of in the back of my mind.
I think the idea really came together in the winter of 2017. That’s when I had the idea and I put together a sample chapter and tried to find an agent. It took me about a year to find an agent, and then it took about a year for the agent to actually find a home for the book, and then I wrote it in 2019 over about a six or seven-month period.
Who was the subject of that first sample chapter or was it just an overview?
The first one I did was the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Royal Crown Revue chapter, only because I was definitely more familiar with the ska side of it and it was like, “If I’m going to write this book, I’m going to have to get more up to speed on swing,” and I thought both of those bands are pretty compelling stories–and parallel stories, in a way. I interviewed all the people for those chapters and then I wrote a sample chapter, an early version of what is now the intro chapter. It went through a lot of iterations after that.
What I really appreciated about this book was the blending of the ska and swing subject matter because I think a lot of people see them as being sort of standalone movements but, as somebody who was there and going to all those shows, they just seem to overlap for me. A show I think is exemplary of the height of both movements was the Pietasters opening for Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.
There you go. That’s exactly it in a nutshell. I always thought the same thing too. There were people who, when I was talking about this idea, were like, “Why did you want to bring, swing into it, too?” but I think most people understood that these things got popular right around the same time and aside from the sort of superficial elements of guys in suits with horns, there was the whole dancing aspect of it. I think it was pretty integral to the swing movement. It was obviously more, but you had to learn the dances. There was more effort in terms of that, but whereas, ska? You could just go and flail around however you saw fit.
They just always struck me as just coming out of what had been popular just before that with grunge and things like that. It was a major sea change and I was just really glad that I was coming of age at that time, because like this music really kind of spoke to me, and the dancing aspect of going to ska shows was certainly a huge part of it.
The thing that comes up frequently among all of the swing artists you speak with is the fact that dancing was both a blessing and a curse, in that it started out originally as “We can go out, we can have drinks, we can dress up, and we can dance,” and then the swing dancers like came in and made it un-fun for the general audience.
Almost all the bands that I spoke to for the book talked about that on some level. These are people who would come to shows and not buy alcohol. They would bring their own bottles of water, in some cases, and if you’re a bar owner trying to keep this whole scene going, that’s not a good thing for your receipts.
I think it was probably less of a thing in the ska movement although with the more traditional ska bands, dancing a certain way was maybe a little bit more. There’s a story about Hepcat when they toured through the Midwest in the early ’90s, all the fans didn’t really know how to dance to traditional ska. They were used to moshing to MU330.
The thing that has come up in other books, as well as the Pick It Up ska doc that came out a couple of years ago, is the embarrassment that came post-ska being popular. Was there ever any of that for you? When you were pitching this book, were you embarrassed about the topic at all or did you have a reticence to admit your “ska past?”
No. I think I’d sort of gotten past it by that point. If I’m honest, there’s probably a time in like the early ’00s where I didn’t talk about it as much, which coincided with me going to college. I started school in the fall of ’99, so that was kind of right after everything sort of hit the skids, although I did go to some ska shows when I was in college.
I went to school in Boston and I would always go see the Slackers when they came through or the Bosstones, ’cause obviously they were there a lot. I don’t think I was ever that embarrassed by it. I think as I started to get into music journalism and there weren’t as many opportunities to write about ska and it just coincided with my getting into other kinds of music and broadening my horizons that way.
But there were probably times and certain people that I met over the years that I wouldn’t have been volunteering that sort of information about my ska past quite as readily but by the time that I had the idea of doing the book, I knew that I was going to–if the book ever actually came out–have to kind of own it. By then, the embarrassment was kind of gone.
The thing about ’90s ska–and ska in general– is that there are so many bands that you could cover. There are so many different subsets or sub-sub-genres that you can cover. Was the book’s content dictated by a plan in terms of wanting to focus on specific artists or was it also dictated by whom you could speak with?
Both of those things, although more the first one. I was sort of interested in ska and swing as a mainstream phenomenon and so, I really tried to focus on bands that either had a video that got onto MTV, were in a movie, were signed to a major, or had some kind of national presence, just because I really wanted it to have a broad appeal to kids who like grew up in the ’90s and might’ve just had some kind of an awareness of ska or swing or both. Maybe they just heard “Jump, Jive, and Wail” on the radio and liked it.
There were quite a few bands that I wish I could have gotten into because there were smaller bands that meant a lot to me, but I just tried to keep the focus on the ones that really had the biggest national impact and, in terms of ones that I could get for the book, I got pretty much everybody that I tried to talk to, with the exception of Dance Hall Crashers, who–for some reason–I couldn’t get hold of, so I mentioned them in the California chapter. That wasn’t meant to be any kind of a slight that they’re not like featured more. I really love that band.
I didn’t talk to Brian Setzer for the chapter on Brian Setzer Orchestra, although I interviewed him for Billboard about the Stray Cats reunion not too long before I started working on the book, so I was bummed that didn’t come through.
Trying to find people who were in moderately successful bands which put out a couple of albums in the 90s, especially in the ska and punk genres–it’s almost like they’ve disappeared off the face of the planet. In some cases, they were in bands that were successful and I saw on multiple tours, and just have no online presence whatsoever. I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on that, just as a fellow writer.
That does happen sometimes. It’s just the people are a bit older now, and maybe they just never got into social media or maybe that’s more of a young man’s game. The bands that have tried to stay relevant are certainly for the most part still on social media to some extent, but it’s a bummer when you have to try to track folks down. Facebook is good for that. Sometimes you can find someone and message them.
I think I found a few people for the book that way. But some people still have publicists. It’s always nice with bands still playing to an extent where they can still have a publicist or a manager to get stuff, so that’s that’s always helpful.
The interesting thing is, there’s always talk about “the ska revival.” It pops up every couple of years, but these days, there are so many of these bands from that time that are popping up and–while maybe not doing tours–are definitely doing shows here and there.
All the new crop of bands? It’s really inspiring to see them, too. 2021, so far, has been probably the best year for ska since 1997, in some ways.
Do you see the ska revival that’s happening now–and revival probably isn’t even the correct term, it’s more of a resurgence of interest–to what do you attribute that? Do you see it as nostalgia? I personally find it fascinating that TikTok can take a song and just make it a hit again now.
I think it’s a combination of things. I would have said that it was more of a nostalgia thing about two or three years ago when you saw the Back to the Beach festival in California and it seemed like resurgence was focused on the same bands that this book looks at. Within the last year or two, it’s been really cool to see this whole new crop of bands that weren’t active in the ’90s. These are all bands that formed in the years since.
One thing about all the new bands, compared to the ’90s bands is the songs are more topical and, in some cases, are political. There’s not the same–I sorta hate to say goofiness, but it’s not as goofy, in some cases, as some ska that people tend to imagine. I think people have a tendency to just think of ska in the ’90s as being a really carefree and goofy sound, whereas some of these new bands, like We Are the Union or Bad Operation, they’re speaking to the moment in a way that Two-Tone did.
This is not to say that ’90s bands weren’t speaking to their time and place, as well: I say in the first chapter that I think that the reason that these things got popular, when they did, was that it was a relatively carefree time in American history–which is not to say that it was perfect by any means, or that America overcame all of its problems in the mid-to-late 90s because that is not the case at all.
There were a lot of awful things going on and this is not to deify Bill Clinton either, because I don’t think that he was the best guy in the world, but I think that the ska coming out nowadays has a lot more on its plate. The sort of ska and musicians who are making songs now are coming out of the Trump years and there’s Black Lives Matter and there’s just a lot more going on right now that, if you’re a young person in the world, how can you not talk about this stuff? I think that the ska that’s been coming out recently really resonates with the younger people, because it really speaks to what’s going on right now.
Kenneth Partridge’s Hell of a Hat: The Rise of ’90s Ska and Swing is out September 21 from Penn State University Press.