Monday, January 9, 2017

What's The Story Behind The Jumping Rude Boy Emoji?

If you are a regular user of emoji -- a Japanese words meaning picture (e) and character (moji) -- then you might be familiar with the little fellow above, who officially goes by “Man in business suit levitating” (MIBSL) in digital circles.  Amazingly, the little guy has sown confusion about his meaning and origins since it was released in late 2014 with a large batch of other new emoji.  One news story mistakenly and condescendingly described him as "a rich kid who’s just aced his LSATs—a simpering, dubiously pompadoured fella in polarized glasses and a natty suit. His tapered silhouette hangs above a blip of a shadow. He’s a superhuman exclamation point. He’s the floating face of capitalism. And if literature has taught us anything, it’s that he brings nothing but bad news wherever he roams."  But, if you are a ska fan and an emoji user, then the chances are that you might have assumed he was a rude boy. If so, you would be correct!

According to an incredibly detailed article in Newsweek, MIBSL is indeed an homage to Walt Jabsco, better known as the iconic logo for The Specials, which itself was based on a photo of a young Peter Tosh when he was in The Wailers (read more about the art design of 2-Tone here and an interview with the graphic designer who helped create Walt Jabsco and 2-Tone art here).

The origins of MIBSL can be traced back to the late 1990's when Microsoft was developing Internet Explorer 4.0 which for the first time included a new font called Webdings that enabled users to swap letters on the computer keyboard for tiny proto-emoji. One of them, which was paired with the letter M (perhaps it was a take on the Madness logo?) looked like the images below:

According to the Newsweek story, MIBSL was created by Vincent Connare who was working in the Microsoft typography department:
"After deciding to incorporate Webdings in the browser, the Internet Explorer team and Connare’s manager, Simon Daniels, drew up a list of symbols to design, mostly stuff that might look good on a website in 1997. Connare went down the list, selecting the ones he was interested in. One option immediately stood out.“I had a Specials Japanese import LP, and I saw one of the keywords was ‘jump’ so thought it would be good to make a jumping, pogoing man,” he said. “The style of the 2 Tone guy was black on white, and it was graphic, so it was easy to make something like it into a font.”
And so 17 years later, in late 2014, the Unicode Consortium (which determines which emoji are approved for use), announced that Version 7.0 would include adaptations of the original Webdings characters.  And that my friends is how the pogoing rude boy emoji somehow got stuck with the silly levitating businessman moniker!

Friday, January 6, 2017


Freelance journalist and ska aficionado Middagh Goodwin has created every ska music fan's fantasy Coachella bill!   While the Indio, California-based festival has booked a number of high profile ska acts over the years-- The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, Jimmy Cliff and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra have all performed and Toots & The Maytals are booked for this year's edition --Coachella tends to focus on booking popular indie rock and electronic bands.

I have to confess that when I first saw Goodwin's design on the interwebs earlier today, I was completely caught off guard.  Coachella always announces their line-up in early January.  So, for about 5 seconds I thought this was a real show, until I noticed that bands like the New York Citizens, The Crazy 8's and The Dead 60's were all on the bill!  Or that The Specials and their rogue guitarist Roddy Radiation and The Skabilly Rebels were performing on the same day! If only the space time continuum would allow us to defy time or help us to patch up bands that broke up years ago!

But Goodwin's design and ska imagination (he's booked bands in Northern California for 30 years) are intriguing and it does make me think.  How do we convince Goldenvoice (the company that manages and books Coachella) or another deep pocketed promoter to consider booking an all ska and reggae festival line-up?  I bet if they held a Skachella festival in San Diego or in Tijuana, Mexico (to take advantage of the burgeoning Mexican ska scene) they might be surprised at how fast it would sell out.  To be fair to Goldenvoice, they have booked "The Devil's 3 Way" 2017 tour featuring Voodoo Glow Skulls, Buck-O-Nine and The Porkers.

Well, until this fantasy ska festival happens, enjoy some recent ska bands performing at the real Coachella including The Selecter's entire set from Coachella 2013!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Young Gwen Stefani Gets Stings Autograph Circa 1983!

While I was interviewing Derv Gordon of The Equals, I mentioned that I was a fan of the band and he laughed and shared that the first record he ever bought growing up was Johnny & The Hurricanes "Red River Rock" saying "You're not the only one who's a fan!" He went on to say he finally got to meet Johnny Paris some years later in Hamburg where both bands were performing.

The idea of fandom has always fascinated me.  As a fan of ska and a ska musician, I've been privy to a unique musical subculture with its own dress code, rules and structures. I recently scanned "Popular Music Fandom: Identities, roles, and practices" which is a collection of essays on what it means to be a fan of popular music (yes, this is actually an area of legitimate scholarly research!).  It made me reflect on my own experiences as a music fan and to consider that an early love of music via the radio, records, concerts and shows is the starting point for what becomes a strange but enjoyable process of building both a personal fan identity (I'm a rude boy) and a shared community fandom experience of seeing a concert (I'm a ska fan).

One of the best examples of this comes from Suggs of Madness, who was quoted in an oral history about 2-Tone in Spin Magazine:
"Going around school with a record under your arm sort of said who you were. You’d go to school with a Bob Marley record under your arm all day. We listened to vintage music and wore vintage clothes. It was our own thing, our own identity. Amongst the wrath of Fleetwood Mac and all this global corporate rock music, punk was starting to happen. At the Roxy, they were playing reggae as they were playing punk."
To that end, I recently came across the wonderful photo of a young Gwen Stefani getting her Synchronicity poster signed by Sting before a concert by The Police at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles on September 6,1983, which included openers The Fixx, Thompson Twins and Berlin.  It's a great visual depiction of fandom. A young girl is getting an autograph for a musical hero.  But then an amazing thing happens.  That young girl goes on to start her own successful band.  And then twenty years later, she has the honor of inducting one of her favorite bands into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Watch Stefani's speech and hear her tell the story of the photo and then watch her sing "Message In A Bottle" during a sound check with Sting!

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Conversation With Derv Gordon of The Equals

I'm excited to be back to blogging again after a long hiatus!  As such, I want to make the blogging experience more interactive and immediate, so I'm going to do a lot more podcast interviews.  To that end, my first live interview is with Derv Gordon, who was the lead singer of The Equals!  While Eddy Grant tends to get the lion share of attention about The Equals,  Derv deserves more credit for the band's sound and for his contribution to their success.  I recently connected with Derv and interviewed him about what it was like to move to England from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation and his experiences and stories about being in The Equals, who as the very first multi-racial band, went on to change British music, society and culture.  The best news is that after a long break, Derv is back to performing the music of The Equals and will be playing his American debut at The Elbo Room in San Francisco on Friday January 27, 2017.  Its hard to believe that for all their success in the U.K. and Europe, The Equals never performed in the U.S.

As a young ska music fan, I was first introduced to The Equals when I picked up a copy of "Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys" at a record convention where I was scouring for hard to find ska and reggae records.  I had never heard of the band, but the sticker on the sleeve said "The Very First 2-Tone Band!"  Of course, I was intrigued and bought it.  When I got home and put it on my turntable, what I heard blew my mind.  The song wasn't ska and it certainly wasn't reggae.  But it was mesmerizing! Derv belted liked James Brown and the band (Eddy Grant, Derv's brother Lincoln, John Hall and Pat Lloyd) mixed fuzzy garage rock and funky R'n B that combined a bi-racial is beautiful message to an anti-Vietnam war call to action ("Black skin blue eyed boys/Ain't gonna fight no wars").  I was smitten. As I did my homework, I learned that Eddy Grant (who at the time was stepping off his sofa into a pool of water in the 'Electric Avenue' video on MTV) was the band's guitarist.

The Equals didn't play ska, but as the very first band featuring both black and white members and native and immigrant musicians, they brought a Caribbean flavor, courtesy of Derv, Lincoln and Eddy to British music of the 60's, adding hints of rocksteady bass lines, upbeat ska guitar and occasional shouts of "Rude Boy!" to their bubble gum pop meets garage punk meets skinhead soul.  Best known for the original versions of "Baby Come Back" and "Police On My Back" they were huge across the U.K. Europe and later Africa. The riff for "Baby Come Back" is Hall of Fame worthy in my book (check out the video below of the band performing the song live -  its a musical explosion!). And if that's not impressive enough, the band also penned "Rough Rider" (as The Four Gee's) which was famously covered by both Prince Buster and The Beat!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Marco On The Bass Is Back For 2017!

Greetings and Happy New Year! After a two year break, I'm happy to announce that I will be back to blogging about ska and reggae in 2017!

I want to thank everyone who has visited my blog during the last two years while I was away and supported what I do here, which is to share my love and passion for ska and reggae music. The reason that I haven't been as active as I would like to be is that I started two new musical projects in 2013 and 2015 -- Rude Boy George (a band that performs ska and reggae versions of 80's new wave songs) and Heavensbee (an original dub pop band)-- and helped launch a digital ska label called Trilby Records.

I was lucky enough to see The Specials and The Selecter in 2016 and enjoyed new albums from Ranking Roger's version of The Beat and The Selecter, proving the 2-Tone music lives on! I have a sense that 2017 could be a watershed year for ska and I want to be able to document all the great ska related music and stories that deserve a wider audience.  I plan to utilize more multi-media including more in-person video interviews and phone interviews as podcasts and may try to use Facebook Live from shows I attend or play to interview musicians and capture performances.

To that end, I wanted to start by sharing a few videos of a show that Rude Boy George played with The Skints at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, New York.  Opening for The Skints, who are a four-piece London-based band that mixes reggae with ska, dub, punk, rock, dancehall, soul, grime and hip-hop, was the culmination of a creatively satisfying year for me as a musician.  It gave me hope that ska and reggae is poised to break out in a big way in 2017! I hope you'll join me for the ride and continue to visit!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

How The Beat's Go-Feet Label Rejection Sparked Wham!'s Pop Career

The untimely passing of George Michael reminded me that the pop superstar actively pursued a career as a ska musician before going on to find success in Wham and later as a solo artist.

Michael and his best friend Andrew Ridgely formed their 2-Tone influenced band The Executive (rare band photo above) along with Paul Ridgely and David Austin in 1979.  The band banged out happy, sunny syncopated 2-Tone styled ska and later entered a a sixteen-track studio to cut a demo tape, recording an original titled "Rude Boy" plus a ska cover of the old Andy Williams' classic "Can't Get Used To Losing You"and a ska version of Beethoven's "Für Elise."

According to a George Michael fan web site, the band played local gigs close to where they lived and spent a lot of time hawking their demo tape around the A&R departments of London-based record companies.  Rumor has it that a copy even made its way to The Beat who were running their own Go Feet label in Birmingham.
"George and Andrew would take time off from school and college, travel to the capital and then sit around in the waiting rooms of the music business until some lethargic talent-spotter finally agreed to see them. But even when they were granted an audience, the A&R man who lolled in his chair on the other side of the desk invariably pressed the STOP button before their tape had gone very far. 'Come back in the next millennium,' seemed to be the general consensus among the major labels, thought Andrew, and even those sympathetic to the ska cause failed to offer them anything resembling a deal. Andrew was cocky enough to attribute the negative response of the record companies to the advanced ages and modest IQs of the men who staffed the industry's A&R departments. George was confident enough to think that perhaps "Rude Boy" was sufficiently derivative to deserve all the rejection it had heaped upon it. He would do better next time..."
Though they lasted only 18 months, Michael and Ridgely ended up using the constant A&R rejection of The Executive to start over with Wham.  The truth is that The Executive was part of the many copycat ska bands that popped up all over the U.K. during 1979-1980 in the wake of The Specials, Madness, The Selecter and The Beat's ascent into the charts and on Top Of The Pops.  And while many of those bands are forgotten to the sands of time, the fact that Michael made it big as a pop star has fueled interest among ska enthusiasts to locate and hear the songs on the elusive and impossible to find demo tape.

As it turns out, George's failed career in ska may have been a blessing in disguise. John Mostyn, who was managing The Beat and running their Go-Feet label at the time, shared that he was reminded that he has rejected The Executive when he read a Wham biography:
From an inside the industry position I watched George's career closely in the eighties and always quietly wished that I could manage him. I never felt that his management had the empathy that he needed. It was only a few years ago on reading the 'Wham' biography that I found that he and Andrew were massive 'Beat' fans and had sent a demo of ska tunes that they'd made whilst still at college to the Beat's label 'Go-Feet'. The biography went on to say that it was on receipt of a rejection letter from Go-Feet i.e. me! that George and Andrew decided they should write in a more 'pop' style and set about writing 'Young Guns' and 'Club Tropicana'. George admitted that they didn't write great ska tunes so I couldn't feel too bad when I found out but I always wished they'd have sent 'Young Guns' and 'Club Tropicana' too. Might have been a different story. Very sad to loose such a talented writer far too young.
I connected with my fellow ska blogger Tone & Wave who specializes in rare, odd and hard to find ska music to see if he had any leads on the elusive demo tape.  According to Tone & Wave:
Despite my best efforts, I think it's safe to say that we're never going to hear The Executive demo. My understanding is that it was not actually released and there were less than 10 copies made. Each time George Michael would go to a major record label he would specifically make a copy for that label. The first tape had only three songs -- "Rude Boy," "Can't Get Used to Losing You," and "Fur Elise" -- but subsequent tapes would include a newly added song until there were eventually 6 to 8 songs (depending on who you ask). The song "Rude Boy" was written by George Michael but "Fur Elise" was just a ska version of the classical song, and I'm guessing that they saw The Beat perform "Can't Get Used to Losing You" live and saw the potential for a hit. The Executive recorded it before The Beat did and if they had pressed it to vinyl they might have had a successful career as a ska band. 
I have heard (and I'm not saying it's true) that the first recorded version of "Careless Whisper" was added to one of these tapes. It was recorded with Jerry Wexler at Muscle Shoals studios in 1981. It did have a bit of an upstroke on the guitar. Certainly not a ska song, but it sounds like they were playing in a style comfortable to them.

How much of any of this is true I don't know. I do know that it has never been on eBay. If it ever does end up on eBay it will go for several hundred - if not thousands of dollars. George Michael fans can be unreasonably devoted to all things George.  Ska fans, not so much.

I imagine there is a store bought tape with the words 'The Executive' in faded marker in George Michael's own handwriting sitting in a dusty box in the basement of a failing record company. It will be destroyed in a few years when the business is shut down. Nobody will ever hear it again. And that's just as well. From what I hear it was not very good.
Despite the fact that The Executive may not be very good, hearing their long lost demo tape remains a goal of mine.  If you've heard it or might be one of the very few people who have a copy, please let me know.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Introducing Ben LeRoux: "Fellowship Hall" EP Pays Respects To 2-Tone and Reggae

One month into 2015, I think I have discovered an artist who deserves a wider audience and one that many of us may be talking more about when we write out our Top 10 lists this coming December.

Meet Ben LeRoux, a San Juan, Puerto Rico-based musician and producer (by way of Bridgeport, CT) who has just released a stunning 4-song EP "Fellowship Hall."  The album, which is available for free on Bandcamp, is a terrific mix of Specials-styled 2-Tone ska (with strong hints of The Slackers and Tim Armstrong's ska projects) and old school 60's reggae instrumentals.

LeRoux, a self-admitted child of the 90's who listened to Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden, later discovered ska and reggae, becoming a true convert and disciple.  His EP, which references the space in a church which is used for wedding receptions, family functions and community events, is the perfect metaphor for the music, which is devoted to, dedicated to and inspired by the sounds of artists that form the revered canon of ska and reggae. Even the artwork for the EP, is an homage to 2-Tone. Stream the entire EP below:

Before releasing his new EP, LeRoux has experimented with creating post-modern versions of 2-Tone era classics. Have a listen to his version of The Specials "I Can't Stand It" which contrasts the seething bitterness and bile in the lyrics with sweet synths and keys, as well as his quirky muzak/chip tune take on the Bad Manners gem "Lip Up Fatty."