Photo: Adam Dorobiala
It may be hard to believe, but at one time ska was a genre of music loved by many in Utah. During the 1990s, local ska bands like Swim Herschel Swim and Stretch Armstrong were regularly drawing hundreds of people to their shows, and Utah was one of the biggest markets for touring ska bands. But all of the sudden in the late '90s, ska got too big. It transformed from an underground genre of music with a strong following, to an over-exposed mainstream phenomenon. Ska wasn't cool anymore, and for most people it hasn't been since. To many local fans, the glory days of Utah's ska scene have become a mythic time that can never be reclaimed, but with his new film The Up Beat, local director Brandon Smith chronicles the history of ska in Utah and paints a picture of a vibrant underground culture that may currently be in a slump, but will never die.
Brandon Smith has served as the trombonist for local ska act The Upstarts for the past four years, but first became interested in ska music about ten years ago, just as Utah's local scene was dying out and the national ska scene was exploding. "It's the classic story: I was a band nerd and I discovered some third wave bands," Smith recalls, "The first ska record I bought was by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones." As a trombone player, Smith found the inclusion of horns in popular contemporary music appealing and delved deeper into the roots of the music. "All of a sudden I was a fan of bands like The Specials and The Skatalites," and thus Smith became a life-long ska fan. Smith had already worked on a number of local films, but he had always wanted to make a film about the history of Utah's ska scene. As The Upstarts readied their new album for release last year, Smith decided it was time to bring his idea to life. Pre-production for The Up Beat began in April 2007, and according to Smith, collecting old footage, flyers, photos and interviews was easier than he expected. On using footage of his own band in his film, Smith explains: "I wasn't trying to unfairly promote us it's just that I had constant access to these guys. If another band were releasing an album and going through what we were going through, I would've used them instead." Although this may seem like a conflict of interest, it was unavoidable––after all, the Upstart's are one of the few band's involved in the revitalization of the skascene. And who better to tell the history of ska in Utah than someone who is concerned with its future?
The Up Beat focuses on Utah's ska scene, but also explores the history and roots of the genre. For the film, Smith interviewed a number of prominent figures in the ska scene at large to explain the roots of the music, including Toots Hibbert of The Maytals, Buster Bloodvessel of Bad Manners and members of The Slackers. Ska began in Jamaica in the 1960s as a fusion of American jazz and soul and Caribbean styles like calypso and mento. The result was a musical style with an upbeat rhythm, a walking bassline and horn riffs that gave way to improvisation. The second wave of ska occurred in England in the late '70s when the energy of punk rock was infused into the traditional Jamaican style and combined with an emphasis on racial unity. The third wave of ska was born when the genre was brought to America. Originally, it bore a strong resemblance to the second wave, but later incorporated more rock-oriented sounds of the '90s. One aspect of the music many of the interviewees brought up was the spiritual and up-beat nature of ska, which is partly where the film's title comes from. Smith tells us, "I tried to take a positive approach to the film because it focuses on a positive music." Smith believed it was necessary to include a history lesson on ska to clear up misconceptions about the genre, as well as to make it more accessible to those outside of the devoted fan base. Smith says, "I think that the history and the roots are important to why it hit so big in Utah and particularly in Utah county."
Like so many other musical movements, ska in Utah became popular because it gave kids something to do in a place devoid of much culture. Another important factor in the popularity of ska in Utah was that it provided a safe yet rebellious outlet for Mormon kids to get their pentup energy out in a positive way. Smith explains, "They didn't have to go to bars, and there was a style and a culture behind it. They could dress up and make themselves feel like individuals." Ska not only gave kids something to do, but it gave them something to be a part of. Ska bands and fans built the scene from the ground up, creating venues out of aerobic studios and lumber yards and transforming Provo into a ska mecca that national touring acts wanted to play in the early and mid '90s.
With the emergence of early bands, starting with Swim Herschel Swim in 1989, the ska scene grew strong and fast. Footage provided to Smith by old school ska fans documents just how huge ska was in Utah, including footage of a Swim Herschel Swim concert that shows kids going crazy and shaking the stage so hard that they make the power go out before the band can even finish the first song of their set. Ska was so big that even the cool kids who weren't into ska would go to shows. In the film, Provo concert promoter Corey Fox explains: "When there was a Swim Herschel Swim show, everybody in town would go see them because they knew everybody else was gonna be there." When they broke up in 1995, scene leaders Swim Herschel Swim were replaced by Stretch Armstrong, who then passed the torch to My Man Friday before breaking up in 1997. The popularity of ska in Utah county was so huge that it spawned scenes in Logan led by Model Citizen and in Southern Utah by GOGO13.
However, the popularity of ska in Utah would not last. The emergence of ska as a mainstream musical fad, combined with the breakups of longtime local favorites, did a lot to hurt the scene in the late '90s. Ska was no longer something that belonged to kids dedicated to the scene, but something that was being exploited by greedy record labels and opportunistic bands looking to latch onto the latest trend. In the film, Upstarts vocalist Andy Fackrell says: "At the end of the '90s a lot of bands were taking third wave ska and pushing the boundaries of that," creating what he refers to as, "rock with horns." Popular bands with goofy images like Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake soon became the basis for the public's perception of ska. "A lot of these bands that played in the late '90s were ska only because it was a fad. Band kids just decided to start goofy ska bands connected to the fad, but not to the roots of the music," Smith says.
There seems to be a missing chapter of the film that chronicles the fall of ska in Utah as the narrative jumps suddenly from the glory days of Provo in the mid '90s to the scattered, struggling scene that exists today, though there are definitely hints about the current nature of ska in Utah. One of the most interesting parts of the film is when Smith's band The Upstarts discuss how to promote their new album. Drummer Kevin Davis says: "I think the one thing that we've been doing wrong is marketing ourselves as a ska band." The sentiment is later echoed by the members of other current local ska acts seeking to distance themselves from the stigmas of the genre. Erik LeCroix of Fews & Two says: "We tell people that we're a rootsreggae- ska band, that way they'll come to our shows." Other bands like Insatiable who are more closely linked to the third wave defend their brand of ska in an increasingly rootsoriented scene. "If you don't fall into our niche of ska, then whatever," explains Insatiable's Jeff Evans, "We're doing it for us first, and if you like it, follow along." Smith comments that the stigma attached to ska fans and ska musicians is one of the most damaging things the scene most today. "People think you don't take yourself seriously." The ska scene in Utah may not be what it once was, but many are still hopeful that the genre will see a resurgence. Smith says, "I think ska is past the slump. Lots of traditional bands are popping up and sticking to the roots of the music. A lot of people aren't fooled by that third wave stuff anymore." Part of Smith's motivation for making The Up Beat was to correct a lot of the negative misconceptions that people have about ska. "I hope this film changes people's perceptions about the genre and helps them to look past the fad and to understand the history." Utah may never see a ska scene as large as the one that dominated Provo in the '90s, and the world may never again see a ska scene as large as it once was, but the mere existence of this film and the excitement shared by everyone involved prove that ska is still relevant. The future of ska is uncertain, but Smith remains hopeful: "Ska kind of comes and goes. It'll pop up in certain places and then it'll go away, but I don't think ska will ever die."
There will be a screening of The Up Beat July 23rd at 7:00 PM at the Tower Theatre. Fews & Two will be providing live music.