It’s no secret that I love music documentaries. I was a “Behind the Music” junkie back in VH1’s heyday and I find myself combing Netflix for good rock docs. For the most part, I’ve not been disappointed. The people who make these documentaries are often serious fans themselves and take fans deeper into the music. Noisey’s “Under the Influence: 2 Tone Ska” is no exception. The Under the Influence series from Vice magazine’s music column “looks into some of the most important music scenes of our time, exploring the people, bands, and styles that changed the course of music forever.” This 34-minute film narrated by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong takes a close look at what made British ska revival of the late seventies and early eighties so unique. The film then explores just how far the movement reached and the influence it’s had on contemporary music.
If you’ve got any interest in ska music, you need to watch this video. If you’re unfamiliar with the roots of American ska/punk, this film is just as much a great place to start. Like any good documentary, it briefly gives you some historical context, and then dives right in. DJ Don Letts starts by setting the cultural scene in the UK in the late 70s. We then hear from Horace Panter and Lynval Golding of The Specials with Horace explaining some geographic significance and Lynval explaining some of the sounds.
Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger of The (English) Beat talk about the working class movements, racism, and other cultural tensions that existed as they formed their band. Pauline Black of The Selecter spoke of just how it felt not to see any mixed race women in the media, or to see multiracial band line ups at the time. Dave Wakeling refers to The Beat as a “mobile sociology class.” The politics are completely tied to the music as we often forget, or consciously try to ignore.
We get to hear from John Sims, the designer for Two Tone Records, creator of the iconic silhouette, later named Walt Jabsco. Christian Jacobs of The Aquabats explains the state of affairs in Southern California in the late 80s and 90s. Dicky Barrett comes in half-way in to note that Boston had become “ground zero for racial intolerance.” He saw the English Beat and was inspired by their “party with political attitude.” The documentary then explores two-tone’s influence around the world, from China to Mexico, then to Latin America where ska’s influence looks very different than it does in the states.
There is so much crammed into this short documentary it’s startling. I walked away wanting to learn more about so many more bands and with a deeper understanding of what ska–and music for that matter–can do. Don’t expect an in-depth history of ska. As the title implies, this about the influence and reach of a particular movement. The era may have lasted just a few years, but it’s impact is unmeasurable.