Ska punk gets a bad rap – it all too frequently gets lumped together into this samey amorphous mass of Vans, trombones, silly/great sunglasses, novelty covers and what may or may not be upstrokes. While, admittedly, about 80% of it falls into that camp (which is not a bad thing – that’s the soundtrack to a good-ass time), ska punk is a lot more varied than it’s given credit for. There’s a world of difference between, say, Citizen Fish and Reel Big Fish. (Citizen Fish could eat Reel Big Fish.)
It’s a confusing moniker really, and one that gets used incredibly inconsistently. There are a handful of huge names in ska punk – Less Than Jake, the aforementioned RBF, Goldfinger, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones – and of course No Doubt, one of the biggest bands on the planet, started out in that world. But the genre’s weird credibility problem means the ska bit gets scrubbed out when more ‘legit’ bands are discussed. Operation Ivy, Rancid, Choking Victim, Leftover Crack and so on end up getting referred to just as punk, which seems kind of unjust and adds to the idea that it all sounds the same.
Ska punk is unfairly maligned and should be much more celebrated. There’s very little cynicism in ska punk – bad nu metal bands, for instance, tried to combine two things they were crap at to try and make a million dollars, while nobody has ever thought they could trombone their way into the majors. If you’re the trumpet player in an eight-piece, you’re in it for the love, because you’re going to make about thirty quid a year. (Nobody has ever run the numbers on this, but it definitely feels like the genre with the most teachers in it, running out of school trumpet in hand to drive for three hours to play to sixteen people.)
Ska punk deserves more love, and with that in mind, here is a bunch of the best the genre had to offer – bands buried at the back of your mind just waiting to be re-skanked to.
The Aquabats! – Super Rad! (1997)
These days The Aquabats! – a band who never missed a chance to place an exclamation mark anywhere – are better known for their other projects. Frontman Christian Jacobs has done loads of excellent, award-laden work in kids’ TV, including creating Yo Gabba Gabba!, which is legitimately one of the greatest shows ever made, as well as an Aquabats show. They also briefly counted a young Travis Barker among their number, who found himself filling in with tourmates Blink-182 when they needed a drummer at short notice, and the rest is history. But they’re much more than a silly-costumed footnote on journeys to superstardom – they’re a big, ridiculous, fun, joyous band guaranteed to bring a smile to the stoniest of faces. Brilliant stuff. They also once fought GWAR.
Capdown – Ska Wars (2000)
Beloved Buckinghamshire boys Capdown kick-started something of a movement here in the UK, a short-lived but raucous few years at the beginning of this century that wasn’t the same as the third-wave ska of the 90s but didn’t quite get big enough to be its own thing. Post-third wave? Either way, it was a massive laugh, and if a few things had gone slightly differently we’d be living in a world where ska punk was the biggest genre on Earth and saxophone sales were through the roof. Capdown are playing Slam Dunk later this year, which will be excellent.
Dance Hall Crashers – Lost Again (1997)
Originally formed by Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman after Operation Ivy but before Rancid, Dance Hall Crashers ended up very different, fronted by the pop-perfect harmonies of dual vocalists Elyse Rogers and Karina Deniké. Catchy as anything and near-impossible to listen to without dancing at least a little bit – that bit where it slows down, your head just automatically does a bit of a sweeping nod, it’s a medical certainty that science just can’t explain – Lost Again is full-on day-improver.
King Prawn – Survive (1998)
Genre-colliders King Prawn – who call their particular blend of ska, punk and hip-hop ‘wildstyle’ – combined the political messaging of more underground bands with the big-ass tunes of more commercial ska punk, but decided to call it a day in 2003, arguably at the peak of their popularity. Singer Al Rumjen went on to front Asian Dub Foundation for a few years, but has now rejoined, and the band have been busy recording new music during the pandemic.
Mad Caddies – Monkeys (1998)
Guaranteed to cause complete mayhem when performed live, Monkeys is just joyous, packed with whatever the brass section equivalent of shredding is and channeling 1930s New Orleans speakeasy vibes. Mad Caddies are still going strong and tour almost constantly – odds are you’ve seen them about a dozen times at festivals, drunk as anything and having a wonderful time.
Mustard Plug – Beer (Song) (1997)
Unlucky enough to all but share a title with probably the best ska punk song ever written (Beer, by Reel Big Fish, obviously), Mustard Plug’s Beer (Song) presents the tale of a man trying to keep hold of what makes him him, even as his life falls apart, accompanied by the most singalongable “oh-whoa-oh-oh”s ever recorded.
Save Ferris – The World Is New (1997)
Best known for their cover of Come On Eileen – pretty much guaranteed to be played about 45 minutes before kicking-out time at any punk club night – and their appearance in 10 Things I Hate About You, Save Ferris were almost, almost, massive. The World Is New is two minutes of upbeat, poppy fun, its none-more-90s video a technicoloured time capsule from a simpler era. Save Ferris are still going, albeit in an almost entirely new version, with only singer Monique Powell remaining from the 1990s lineup, the result of internal struggles and fallings-out.
Skankin’ Pickle – I’m In Love With A Girl Named Spike (1994)
Does it get more ‘90s than a ska punk song about Degrassi Junior High? Skankin’ Pickle penned this ode to the Canadian teen soap’s pregnant punk character in 1994, doing a pretty impressive job of relaying the plot of the show’s first few years. Frontman Mike Park went on to form Asian Man records, a massively influential label both in terms of bands it supported (including Less Than Jake and Alkaline Trio) and campaigning against racism. Park still performs now and then, releasing music both under his own name and as The Bruce Lee Band.
[spunge] – Kicking Pigeons (1998)
The band that put Tewkesbury on the map also somehow made psychopathic behaviour extraordinarily catchy (the psychopathic behaviour thing isn’t an exaggeration btw – ‘intentional animal torture and cruelty’ is the psychological term for wilfully harming animals, and studies have found a lot of people who go on to commit murder start off by harming animals. Links to ska punk remain unknown). [spunge] should almost certainly have been bigger, but had a series of label disputes and run of bad luck. However, they are also playing Slam Dunk this September and Kicking Pigeons remains brilliant and almost impossible not to go bonkers to.
Voodoo Glow Skulls – El Coo Cooi (1995)
Good luck getting Alexa to play this, but it’s worth the effort. Fast, frantic, oddly dramatic and exhausting in the best possible way, it’s two and a half minutes of brilliant more-is-more insanity complete with all-laughing choruses and foreboding brass breaks. Interestingly, El Coo Cooi is the only track on the original version of the album Firme sung in Spanish, but when it was reissued as Firme (En Espanol) a year later, this song was re-recorded in English. The Spanish version edges it, it’s just more fun. Voodoo Glow Skulls are still going, now fronted by the dude from Death By Stereo.