Ska Wars: the life and death of a UK underground
- Capdown »
- Lightyear »
- Five Knuckle »
- Captain Everything! »
- No Comply »
- Adequate Seven »
- YE WILES »
- Sonic Boom Six »
In May 2000 a band from Milton Keynes called Capdown released their debut album, Civil Disobedients, on London’s Household Name Records. They’d so far only released one EP, Time For Change, and not much was expected of them; after all, a band that used to be called Soap playing a ludicrously unfashionable style of music (a still-unique mash-up of ska, hardcore and dub) was hardly going to take over the world.
And yet this one album kick-started an invisible scene that, at its peak, resulted in dozens of bands being able to flourish, even though they were playing resolutely non-commercial music and received virtually zero coverage, except from a few loyal fanzines and webzines. And what’s more, the musical boldness of the scene was unparalleled – while it may have ostensibly been termed a ‘punk’ scene, the number of styles that were effortlessly assimilated by a few daring bands was breathtaking.
Alongside the obvious punk rock and ska influences, there was hardcore, reggae, dub, strutting funk, indie-rock, hip-hop, the odd bit of bhangra and lashings, lashings of pop. But because of bands like Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish hitting the mainstream and being marginalised as the wacky music that your younger sister might like, any band with a horn section was equally and unfairly written off.
So, back to Capdown. Civil Disobedients was a raucous clusterfuck of an album, and one that made it clear that bands could speak out about political and social happenings, mix up whatever sort of music they wanted and tour relentlessly around the country. While bands such as King Prawn and Asian Dub Foundation laid foundations of sorts, it was this album that really catalysed the movement as a whole. After releasing it, it’s impossible to overstate the impact of Household Name on the UK punk scene as, buoyed by the continuing success of Capdown they were able to move away from the vicious if not-exactly-progressive hardcore that had characterised the early days of the label and towards more experimental bands that really did push things forward for the admittedly limited number of people that heard them.
Take the short-lived but legendary Ye Wiles. Without following anything even remotely resembling any kind of punk/ska/hardcore template, this quartet of musicians released an album, Smoothing Away The Horrors Of Indigestion, that combined some of the most original songwriting to come out of this country in a decade with a gorgeously esoteric sound. They existed for a relatively brief period of time before disappearing (apparently, half of them are in Australia) but if the scene produced an album that deserves to be listened to not as a cultural artefact (as Civil Disobedients is) but as a lost masterpiece, it’s this one.
In the months immediately following the release of Civil Disobedients, Capdown’s touring schedule got heavier and heavier, and the likes of Lightyear, Five Knuckle, Adequate Seven and Captain Everything! began to gain prominence. The most beautiful aspect of their slow rise was that they were united by DIY ethics and raw, naked enthusiasm for music, just like HHN. Lightyear were, frankly, one of the most ludicrous bands around (their posters advertised “Ska – Punk – Chaos” as gigs became known for a lot of nakedness and various shenanigans including a variation on morris dancing), and even though closed-minded punters wrote them off as wacky bullshit, the heart and soul that permeated each one of their songs was hugely infectious, and they would go on to write a true masterpiece in their second album; 2003’s Chris Gentleman’s Hairdresser and Railway Bookshop.
Lightyear - 'Kid Dynamite' @ Wedgwood Rooms, Portsmouth; July '03
2002 saw debut full-lengths from Five Knuckle and Captain Everything!, two of the hardest-touring bands on the roster – and that’s saying something. Despite being personally selected by The Distillers (remember them?) to support them on numerous occasions, 5K never quite managed to make much progress beyond the toilet circuit. As is a common theme in this tale, their second album Balance was a startlingly assured piece of work that, had it been released by a more zeitgeist-courting band would probably be hailed as a modern classic. As it is, it sank almost without trace and they split up in 2005.
Cardiff’s Adequate Seven released their debut, Songs of Innocence and Experience, on HHN in 2003, a record that was unfortunately underwhelming to say the least. Best known for their stunning live shows, they were unable to capture that blinding energy but their gigs remained some of the best this writer has ever seen. Seamlessly blending funk (not just a bit of wah but some truly fine musicianship and songwriting) and punk rock, they managed to break new musical ground almost with each gig. Various difficulties arose, and they left HHN for the release of their second album, Here On Earth. It didn’t catapult them into the big leagues. They too split up in 2006.
Deck Cheese, Golf, Moon Ska and, to a lesser extent, Good Clean Fun were other labels that contributed a comparable amount of influential bands that were also significant in the story, although differently. It’s fair to say that Moon Ska benefited most from the mainstream ska boom, but also took a relative risk in providing the incendiary Sonic Boom Six with their first deal and shot at a wider exposure. Deck Cheese gave No Comply (more on both bands later) a platform and loyally stayed with them throughout their mutation into one of the most exciting live bands in the county. GCF acted as launch pads for, among others, Fireapple Red and Howards Alias (later to move to Visible Noise and HHN respectively), and whose final release was from a band called My Dad Joe, containing future Gallows member Lags. Out of these larger labels, Golf has now taken to licensing larger bands for UK releases (including Hell Is For Heroes and, um, Underoath), while Deck Cheese’s most notable release of recent years has been the astonishing Failsafe’s debut, What We Are Today.
While, as with any burgeoning scene, smaller bands clung to the coat tails of the leading lights, the difference here was that, for the most part, the only competition was friendly and relationships between various bands, as well as those of their fans, were nothing but positive. Civil Disobedients was heralded as a classic in its own time, and bands who supported Capdown certainly weren’t shy about their adoration for the album/band onstage. The constant evolution of bands like No Comply, Howards Alias, Sonic Boom Six, Lightyear and Captain Everything! on a month-by-month basis as their music grew meant that even though only a relatively small number of people were actually bearing witness to the scene, it was consistently exciting.
Bands and fans were indistinguishable from one another at shows. A handful of dedicated, passionate promoters across the British Isles worked hard to help the scene flourish and local bands were able to cut their teeth by supporting their heroes. And even though they were respected by so many, the curious lack of ego in all the musicians meant the scene was inherently inclusive rather than tarnished by the exclusivity seen in various sectors of the DIY hardcore/punk community. Fans were on personal terms with the bands they loved – it was a regular occurrence for, post-gig, a band to go and crash on a fan’s floor out of sheer convenience and the fact that they couldn’t afford a Travelodge.
But there was also an element of bitchiness that, although marginal, slowly grew. As with any fledgling community the internet played an integral part in its nurturing but this also let the armchair punks exercise their elitism in a manner that was nothing but detrimental. The skacore band Farse played a charity benefit show and, due to an organisational fuck-up and misunderstanding, ended up being paid for it. This got into the hands of a few elitist idiots and the story mutated into the ugly notion that they’d stolen hundreds of pounds from charity and resulted in more than a few holier-than-thou ‘punks’ proclaiming that Farse were blacklisted from events and venues around the country.
Capdown - 'Kained But Able' @ The Peel, Kingston; January '02
In such a multicultural musical environment, one would’ve hoped that social inclusion would be taken for granted, but when it became evident that the singer of one of the most prominent bands doing the circuit was homosexual, the rumour mill churned out stories that he was, in fact, a paedophile. Thanks to the fact that, for better or for worse, the scene was essentially middle class, the fans’ broadband connections both helped and hindered and allowed these rumours to roost in the forums of certain webzines.
The mainstream ska boom led by Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake’s dayglo assault on MTV manifested itself in the underground by yet more resentment towards bands with either a) a reliance on upstrokes or b) a horn section. Two sufferers of this ridiculous stance were Adequate Seven (a fucking funk band) and No Comply. Admittedly, NC’s first EP had a bit of ska, but by the time their debut album, the still-impressive With Windmills Turning Wrong Directions was released on Deck Cheese they’d turned into a quite fabulous metal band that employed a horn section for the more epic, cinematic moments. And yet, certain sectors wrote them off even though they made the pages of Kerrang! and were invited over to Canada for a few Warped Tour dates. The Lock-Up stage at Reading & Leeds regularly played host to one or two UK bands each year (and still features a couple at the beginning of the day, notably Sonic Boom Six who keep gaining huge crowds with relatively no press coverage) and Jesse James flew to the US to record an album with legendary producer Ryan Greene.
Despite, at the peak, bands like [spunge] and Capdown playing relatively huge gigs at venues including London’s Astoria, coverage in the mainstream press was practically non-existent. Save one article covering Capdown’s co-headlining tour with Hundred Reasons, the thousands of fans across the country were left without any external support for their scene. Mike Davies at Radio 1’s The Lock Up provided a weekly snippet of punk goodness, but considering the show was broadcast on a weekday at either midnight or 2am, it was tough to really stay in touch with it.
In 2005 and 2006, No Comply, Five Knuckle, Lightyear, King Prawn, Howards Alias, Freaks Union and Route 215 all split up (Howards Alias and Lightyear later reformed). Capdown’s final tour will finish on the 9th of November and Captain Everything! are currently on hiatus. Jesse James split this year.
So what’s the legacy of this short-lived, practically ignored scene? In terms of music, there are several albums and EPs that can transcend normal boundaries of genre and hold some appeal to more than just fans of noisy punk. Ye Wiles’ Smoothing Away The Horrors Of Indigestion, Adequate Seven’s Here On Earth and Lightyear’s Chris Gentleman’s Hairdresser And Railway Bookshop fall into this category, but are by no means the only examples. And if you’re already partial to a bit of the heavy/fast stuff, then a collection without Captain Everything!’s Buena Vista Bingo Club, No Comply’s With Windmills Turning Wrong Directions, Five Knuckle’s Balance, Adequate Seven’s Songs Of Innocence And Experience, Failsafe’s What We Are Today and Sonic Boom Six’s A Ruff Guide To Genre Terrorism simply isn’t a collection at all.
Sonic Boom Six - 'All In' feat. Coolie Ranx
But perhaps the best legacy is the fact that Failsafe and Sonic Boom Six not only still exist, but are flourishing on their own merits. Without being able to cut their teeth on the live circuit they wouldn’t be able to make their imminent assaults on the mainstream as fully-formed as they are. Failsafe, quite simply, are the sound of youth distilled into short, sharp and tightly-focused punk rock blasts. Their music is never anything less than pure energy, and it certainly helps that they’re ridiculously accomplished songwriters at the same time.
But it’s Sonic Boom Six who have the best chance of breaking through to the public’s wider consciousness. With the second album Arcade Perfect about to drop, appreciable fan support accrued in mainland Europe, Japan and the US all because of their refreshingly scattershot approach to genre, instead concentrating on working out how best to make an audience dance. Like MIA without the nauseating self-consciousness, they sound exactly how you’d imagine The Clash would if they were brought up in Manchester in the ‘90s. With a background as rooted in free party/illegal rave culture as it is in punk rock, they carefully mix ska, reggae, raga, hip-hop, drum ‘n bass and punk seamlessly to create a sound that is unique, inspiring and honest. But they could easily not exist. Without the UK’s punk scene to let them grow into such a mature live band, they’d be written off as a band unable to really coagulate the myriad musical influences that assault us every day. And for that, as well as a truly rich homegrown music scene that almost passed by unnoticed, we’ve got Capdown to thank.