Marc Wasserman’s Skaboom! chronicles the untold story of early American ska & reggae
Writer and musician Marc Wasserman’s new book, Skaboom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History, is “an exhaustive, extensive tale of the pioneers of the American ska and reggae movement as told by the people who lived it.” Wasserman interviewed literally hundreds of musicians and players from the titular boom in underground ska and reggae music which began in the ’70s and ran through the late ’80s. Be it long-running favorites like New York’s the Toasters or California’s Let’s Go Bowling, or underground influences such as The Uptones and Gangster Fun, the tale of each of these bands is told in the words of the people who lived it.
Wasserman’s research and ability to get these folks to speak honestly and openly on the record make Skaboom a fascinating read, and offers up a history of many bands whose stories have heretofore been untold. I hopped on Zoom to speak with the author about the process of bringing this book to life.
The Pitch: Given the fact that it is massive and comprehensive, how do you even begin to start a project of this scope?
Marc Wasserman: With great fear and trepidation, actually [laughs]. The process of getting DiWulf Publishing to agree to put this book out was very simple: I know them, actually. They did a book about City Gardens, which is a famous punk rock club in New Jersey that I used to go to a lot and my band played at. When they posted something on New Year’s Day 2018, Steve DiLodovico said they were looking for first time authors or books about musical subculture. I was like, “It’s a New Year’s resolution. I’ll write a book.” I sent them a response and he got back to me and 15 minutes later, we were on the phone and he said, “Yeah, let’s do this.”
The excitement wore off a couple of days later when I realized, “I actually have to do this.” I didn’t really know how to write a book. I’m writing a blog. I don’t know if you’re a blogger yourself, but writing a blog is a very different animal. You have short, concise posts about something you’re interested in and you do some research on it and boom, it’s up and you have immediate response to it.
For the first three months, I just sat here at my desk and I fretted it. I had no idea what to do. I went back to my blog and thought, “I’ll just repurpose my blog,” but that wasn’t happening. I remember, at one point, my wife was sitting next to me at her desk and she said, “Are you writing an encyclopedia about ska?” and I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
She just said, “Well, why don’t you just keep it simple?” and frankly, that bit of advice from her opened up a whole pathway forward for me, because at that point I said, “Oh yeah: simple. Right. The bands that I think are the most important from this specific period of time, I will just focus on them.”
When that happened, I was able to sort of kick it into gear and start the work. I had no idea how hard it was going to be, but at least I had a path forward at that point.
I know some of the book takes from past interviews that you featured on the Marco on the Bass blog, but given the fact that there’s something like an average of a dozen people that you interviewed for every section of this book, how did you track them down? Do you have a general idea of how many hours you spent on the phone and on Zoom talking to folks?
Too many to actually keep track of. Writing this book was my life—other than work and family—for three and a half years. I have a very understanding wife who, when she saw that I was committed to this, said, “Do what you gotta do.” Nights and weekends were really spent on being a ska and reggae detective. So it really was finding somebody, getting them to agree to speak to me, interviewing them, and then at the end of the interview saying, “Do you have contact information for your bandmates from back then?”
It was like a spider web from there. I would give myself three months, give or take, to do a chapter. It was really immersive. I’m joking that I’ve got like a Ph.D. in each of these 19 different bands in these chapters because it was that detailed and thorough. I really felt a lot of pressure to tell the story correctly and to get it right. I’m sure that there’ll be some things that people will disagree with, but the beauty of oral history is it’s not my perspective. It’s not filtered through my experience. It’s the actual words of the people who lived it themselves.
And so, because this is an era that’s not documented very much so pre-internet, I felt that people sharing their stories in their own words was the best way to do that. That took time. A lot of time and a lot of care was put into making sure that I got it right. My job was more like a producer in a music studio where I had all of this great content and the goal was “How do I winnow it down into a narrative that will hopefully be interesting to someone who either is a fan or isn’t a fan, but just wants to learn more about that period of time?”
It was equally as entertaining for me to read about the bands that I knew and loved already, like the Toasters and Let’s Go Bowling, as getting to read about the unknown unsung heroes—in some cases, that was even more fascinating, as well as the fact that you can see the genesis of the next generation of bands filtering through in the stories, which is a really like excellent way to show just how influential these groups really were.
100%. To speak to Norwood Fisher of Fishbone, and have him wax poetic about The Untouchables and how important The Untouchables were to the formation of Fishbone, and the reverence they have for members of The Untouchables was mindblowing. I hope it’s helpful to newer fans of ska or younger fans that there are key bands that without, you would not have other bands.
Bim Skala Bim from Boston? Without them, there is no Mighty Mighty Bosstones, right? Without The Untouchables, there’s no Fishbone, but even beyond Fishbone, there’s no Reel Big Fish. There’s no Save Ferris and so on and so forth. Even the Suicide Machines and Mustard Plug from Michigan say that seeing Gangster Fun from Detroit–who I’m sure is a band many people are not familiar with–was life-changing and completely influential.
I’m hoping that I can help people draw the lines from these bands that are unsung but had such a massive influence on bands that a lot of people are much more familiar with.
I’m speaking to you from Lawrence, Kansas and I write for a paper in Kansas City, so the Blue Riddim Band chapter was fascinating because, as many articles have been written over the years about that band in and around Kansas City, I had never heard the full story about them playing at Reggae Sunsplash. Getting to hear it top to bottom illuminates how a band from Kansas City, Missouri can go on to be the first American band to play this international festival and once again, speaks to the talent and research capabilities of some of these bands, just in terms of how deep they were willing to dig in a pre-internet era.
Probably one of my favorite chapters to work on in the book. I’ve always been a huge fan of Blue Riddim Band. I remember walking into the local record store where I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. There was this massive record store there called Princeton Record Exchange, which catered to a huge student population.
I got to know some of the clerks that worked there when I was in high school so they knew what I was into. I remember walking in there one day and one of them said, “Hey, I put something aside for you,” and it was Alive in Jamaica. And he said, “I think you’re gonna like this.” I took it home and it blew my mind.
I hate to keep repeating this, but pre-internet, it was impossible to find anything out about bands. You just had to keep going to record stores. This was around the time when they did a song with Ranking Roger. I was a huge fan of The English Beat and I made the connection: “Ranking Roger did something with Blue Riddim Band?” It just blew my mind.
Honestly, there should be a Netflix documentary about Blue Riddim Band because their story is so utterly astounding: these incredibly talented—essentially jazz and soul—musicians from Kansas City fell in love with reggae. “Duck” McLane, the one I got to speak with the most, decided to go to Jamaica. Like, which white guys from Kansas City, Missouri hopped on planes to Kingston, Jamaica in the early ’70s? This is pretty amazing.
It was there that they met the cream of the crop of ’70s reggae, and there was a mentorship relationship that developed, and they took the craft of playing reggae incredibly seriously. Reggae bands were popping up around the country, but they weren’t looking at it or approaching it in an authentic way.
What Duck really made clear to me was that they took seriously the authenticity of how it was played—really, the minutiae of it—how a drum part in reggae was played and how a bassline was played so that a couple of years later, when they were invited to go to play in front of a predominantly Jamaican crowd, they wowed that audience. If you closed your eyes, you didn’t know what color skin they had, but they sounded like what a Jamaican audience expected reggae music should sound like.
There’s this wonderful story that a couple people have told me, and I think it was just beautiful: where they went on at dawn, right? Everyone is asleep and they are asked to go on around 5:00 a.m. and the sun was just coming up in Montego Bay and they start to play and people’s heads are just popping up. They decided to play a ska and rocksteady set, which was kind of unusual when dancehall was just starting to be popular then. People just started standing up and they’re completely confused by what they see because they hear reggae and they see—frankly, at times the Blue Riddim Band looked like they could have been members of the Grateful Dead, honestly—but it was these white guys knocking it out of the park and people just start to lose their minds.
Duck told me that when they were on operating on all four cylinders that Jamaican audiences or Caribbean audiences, in general, would get caught up in it and they would just start to freak out because they were playing it the way it’s supposed to be played. So to me, their story is the most unsung story of all of the bands.
I’m so glad you bring up the travel to Jamaica, because I was frankly awestruck by the number of times college kids essentially are just like, “Yeah, I’m a big fan of reggae, so I just went down to Jamaica.” They just booked a flight.
I mean, you have some people who had gone down there on family vacations and stuff like that and that’s how they became part of it. But there are three or four folks who were just like, “Oh yeah, we went down there and that’s how we learned about this.” That’s dedication. That is just impressive.
I would—at least from the research I did and the stories that several people I interviewed told me—attribute some of that to the movie The Harder They Come. It might be hard to understand the cultural significance of it when it came out in the early ’70s, but it was life-changing for folks who saw that movie and immediately left the movie theater and went to their closest record store and bought the soundtrack, and then listened to that soundtrack over and over again.
The first three bands in the book—I try to put them in chronological order. All three of those bands—The Shakers, Blue Riddim Band, and The Hooters from Philadelphia all had immediate visceral reactions to seeing that film and hearing that soundtrack and in many ways that inspired them to say, “We want to try and play reggae music.” That, to me, was one of those things, at least in the early-to-mid-’70s that had such an impact.
Marc Wasserman’s new book, Skaboom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History, is out July 4 from DiWulf Publishing.