The Birth Of Ska In The UK

Some music makes you want to cry, some makes you want to run a marathon, and some music just makes you want to get up and dance. Across clubs and music festivals all over the UK, people are skanking to bands like The Specials, The Clash, Madness and all of the ska classics they created.

When 2-tone records began in 1979, ska was already a much-loved genre among the black and white teens of England. But this was a different kind of ska. This was faster, more aggressive and came with attitude. It was a revival of what was already a much-loved music style to many sub-cultures, none more so than the mods.

With the resurgence of ska to the forefront of the music scene, the classics started to climb the charts again. These were the songs that introduced ska to the United Kingdom in the early 1960s. 

But just how did they get here? And why did this cocktail of Jamaican mento and American rhythm and blues fill dancehalls up and down the country?

Exactly when ska was born is unclear, but what is certain is that it began to be recorded in Jamaica in the 1950s. With the birth of the radio came the opportunity to hear music from all over the world. Soon enough new music was sure to emerge. Songs like ‘Louie Louie’ by Richard Berry and doo-wop classics such as ‘Speedoo’ by the Cadillacs are songs popular in the mid-50s that are sure to have influenced the birth of Ska.

This music, with its unmistakable off-beat guitars and bassline and its upbeat lyrics, was joyous, and the joy was infectious. Listening to it got toes tapping and fingers clicking. It was only a matter of time before it spread all over the world.

Ska entered the UK in the early 60s, where records began to be available in the many record stores across the country. Like many great music genres, this is how ska was spread. It hadn’t quite hit the charts yet, but it did begin to get played on the radio and in dancehalls.  In 1963, Melodisc records created the Blue Beat label. Inspired by the release of Laurel Aitkin’s song ‘Lonesome Lover’, Blue Beat went on to record songs by ska legends such as Prince Buster, The Marvels and Rico Rodrigues.

With the power of Blue Beat behind them, these songs finally had a platform to be heard, and in club nights across the country, the sound of these artists was getting people dancing. One sub-culture who were often seen two-stepping along were the mods. Already lovers of soul and R&B, the love for ska felt just as natural as dancing to it.

Another major label that was key to bringing ska to the UK was island records. Under the influence of Chris Blackwell, the label moved from Jamaica to London in1962. And it was on this label, two years later, that ska hit the big time.The first big hit came in 1964 when Millie Small sang a cover of Barbie Gaye’s 1956 song ‘My Boy Lollipop’. The song hit number 2 and sold over 6 million records worldwide. The song was a major hit, and the music that had been heard only in the clubs was now everywhere. Ska had finally hit the mainstream.

Now people could hear it, they began to love it. It was punk rock but instead of beaten and worn guitars, the rhythm was carried by trumpets. It was music you could nod your head and dance around your room to without fear of offending your mother. No matter who you were, no one could stay in a room listening to ska without feeling a burst of energy that was sure to get their body moving.

The people who so adored the music began to look to its homeland, and the timing couldn’t have been better. In the period from the mid-60s to the beginning of the 70s, some of the most famous ska songs of all time were created. Desmond Dekker recorded ‘Israelites’, Dandy Livingstone released ‘Rudy, a message to you’ and Prince Buster told a whole nation to ‘Enjoy Yourself’.

Another band rising to prominence at this time were the Wailers. Led by Bob Marley, and backed by reggae legends Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, the rise of reggae went hand in hand with the rise of ska. The subtle differences made them a match made in heaven. 

Around the end of the 60s and the early 70s, ska began to drift away, with the slower beats of rocksteady taking its place. But it had already left its mark. Names like Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster still get played 50 years on.

It wasn’t long until ska made a revival. With the creation of 2 tone records by Jerry Dammers in 1979, ska was back. In just that year and the one that followed, Madness released ‘One Step Beyond’, the Specials released ‘Gangsters’, The Clash released ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ and The Beat released ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’. The music was angrier, the lyrics more political, but there was still that unmistakable off-beat rhythm.

With the resurgence in popularity came the flashbacks to the previous decade and the great tunes that were created along the way. Ska had come a long way from the R&B on the radio and the Jamaican mento that forged it. It had taken visionaries like Chris Blackwell to provide these artists with the opportunity to spread their music, and once it was here, there was no stopping it.

To this day ska music has remained a go-to genre for mods. And why wouldn’t it? The grooves are smooth and the beats are infectious. The choruses live in your head for weeks after and if you’re ever feeling down, it’s sure to get you back on your feet and moving. Ska is the perfect combination of soul, jazz, punk and R&B, and it is sure to live forever among the mods and beyond.