Jamaica’s revolutionary back-to-front beat developed as a fresh and frantic take on US R&B and has been filling dancefloors with sweaty herberts ever since. Gary Tipp is in the mood for ska…

ska

In the early 1950s, Jamaicans were busy listening in to American music via radio stations in New Orleans and Miami, in particular, the R&B and jump blues of artists such as Fats Domino and Louis Jordan. Inspired by these sounds, Jamaican producers started to record versions of those records by local artists.

While still in the ballpark of R&B, these recordings also incorporated influences from traditional styles such as mento, also known as Jamaican folk music, and calypso, an Afro-Caribbean style. This fresh take on American music gradually developed into a new uniquely Jamaican genre, namely ska.

Its distinctive sound incorporated a scratchy guitar chop that stressed the off-beat, rhythmically propelling the music forward in unison with the horns; all the while, a walking bassline and on-tempo drums were holding things together. Ska pioneer Ernest Ranglin, who lays claim to inventing the guitar chop, was famously quoted as saying that the point of difference between R&B and ska beats is that the former goes ‘chink-ka’, while the latter goes ‘ka-chink’.

By the early 1960s, ska was the most popular musical genre in Jamaica, and 45s were being released rapidly by the owners of the mobile sound systems to blast at revellers at the multitude of street parties held on the island. Two such owners, Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd and Duke Reid, along with producer Leslie Kong, were hugely important in ska’s development, forming their own labels and acting as producers for local artists.

The Skatalites, led by trombonist Don Drummond, and featuring an all-star cast of musicians, including Roland Alphonso, Tommy McCook and Jackie Mitoo, were the top instrumental group, and also served as the Studio 1 session band.

KA-CHINK, KA-CHINK

The first wave of ska superstar vocalists included Laurel Aitken, Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker and Toots Hibbert. Ska’s popularity was not confined to Jamaica and the music crossed over into the mainstream charts in both the UK and US in the mid-60s. Blazing a trail was Millie Small with My Boy Lollipop, which was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ska was eventually superseded by rocksteady, its more soulful, less frantic close relation, and several of the 45s we have chosen here fall into the transition period between the two genres when lines were blurred. Ska enjoyed a spectacular renaissance in the UK during the late 70s and early 80s thanks both to punk’s affinity with the music of Jamaica and the rise of 2 Tone bands, such as The Specials, Madness and The Selecter.

A third wave saw a rock-orientated, un-Jamaican version of ska become popular in the US during the 90s, with bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone and The Toasters.

Our Essential collection sensibly avoids the minefield that is Jamaican pressings and concentrates on UK releases.


20 Lord Tanamo

Lord TanamoIn The Mood For Ska (1965)
Written by prolific tunesmith Jimmy McHugh way back in 1935, everyone from Vera Lynn to Cliff Richard has recorded a version of this romantic standard, but nobody committed a version to vinyl quite like Lord Tanamo. The ska legend cut his teeth on calypso and mento before joining the mighty Skatalites. An advert for Paxo, of all things, enabled the 45 to chart in the UK in 1990.
Rarest 1965 Ska Beat £150
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19 FishboneFishbone

Ma And Pa (1989)
LA residents Fishbone were one of the major players associated with the US ska scene of the mid 80s. The band’s hyperactive live shows established a strong following and an early break saw them touring as support to the Beastie Boys, but mainstream success was never forthcoming. The maniacal Ma And Pa scraped the outer reaches of the charts in the UK in 1989.
Rarest Epic £5

 

18 Andy & Joey

You're Wondering NowYou’re Wondering Now (1964)
Andy & Joey were, in fact, Reuben Anderson and his vocal partner, Joanne Dennis. This gloriously lo-fi early ska staple is based around a simple, sweet melody and was released in the UK in 1964 on the R&B label. It didn’t come remotely close to charting but made a lasting impact on The Specials, who recorded it as the closing track on their classic debut album.
Rarest 1964 R&B  £40

 

 

17 Roland AlphonsoRoland Alphonso

Pheonix City (1966)
Roland Alphonso was one of the founding members of Studio 1’s house band The Skatalites and was happy to answer to the flattering nickname of The Chief Musician. The Cuban-born tenor saxophonist recorded this scorching jazzy-ska tribute to the sun-baked Arizona state capital as Rolando Al And The Soul Brothers. It was released in the UK on the Doctor Bird label.
Rarest 1966 Doctor Bird £35

 

16 Madness

On My RadioThe Prince (1979)
After changing their name from The North London Invaders to Madness, it was only proper the band’s first single should be in acknowledgement of their major influence and whose song title they had duly reappropriated. The affectionate Prince Buster tribute was the second single released on 2 Tone and began the Nutty Boys’ long-lasting love affair with the UK singles chart.
Rarest 1979 2 Tone £40 (paper label)
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15 Prince Buster & The All StarsPrince Buster

Al Capone/One Step Beyond (1965)
Prince Buster may have been christened Cecil Bustamente Campbell, but he was crowned the King of Ska. His recorded output in the 60s on the Blue Beat label is without peer and his hits comp Fabulous is an essential purchase on vinyl. Classic 45 Al Capone played out the Jamaican music scene’s fascination with Hollywood gangster movies. It was recorded in 1964 and released in the UK a year later with One Step Beyond on the flip. The youth of Coventry and Camden were listening.
Rarest 1965 Blue Beat £20 (green label)
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Five Steps Beyond

SkatalitesThe Skatalites

SKA AUTHENTIC
Studio 1 (£25)
A collection of the legendary band’s early Studio 1 recordings, including Tommy McCook’s iconic Freedom Sounds has recently been reissued.
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BusterPrince Buster

I FEEL THE SPIRIT
Bad Joker (£15)
Renowned as the first ska album ever to be released in the UK, this is an excellent introduction into Prince Buster’s early recordings.
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DekkerDesmond Dekker

THIS IS DESMOND DEKKER
Trojan (£20)
Rush released to a waiting UK audience, Dekker’s first album was a singles compilation and includes a ludicrous titular typo on the sleeve.
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DrummondDon Drummond

MEMORIAL ALBUM
Music On Vinyl (£20)
Trombonist Don Drummond was an original member of The Skatalites, who died in prison after the murder of his girlfriend.
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EngineEthiopians

ENGINE 54
Music On Vinyl (£20)
The Train To Skaville hitmakers clearly had a thing for locomotives,  as this recent reissue of their thrilling debut album bears witness.
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The Selector14 The Selecter

On My Radio (1979)
The Selecter followed up the appearance on the flipside of The Specials’ Gangsters single with a smash of their own making. The band were wary that its indecent catchiness and lack of hard edge made it sound like a Eurovision entry, but its rapid climb into the Top Ten softened the blow. It may have been ‘the same old show on my radio’ but the DJs lapped it up.
Rarest 1979 2 Tone £12 (paper label)
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13 Derrick MorganCrab

Moon Hop (1969)
While Morgan may have fallen out big time with his feuding rival Lee Perry, the UK skinhead fraternity were always full of adoration for the Godfather Of Ska. Moon Hop, written to celebrate the Apollo moon landing, was released on the Crab label in 1969 and quickly adopted as an anthem by the boots and braces brethren. It was covered by Symarip and rebadged as Skinhead Moonstomp.
Rarest 1969 Crab £40
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Millie12 Millie

My Boy Lollipop (1964)
My Boy Lollipop was the first ska single to break through into the mainstream, reaching number two in both the UK and the US in 1964. A culturally important 45, it not only injected a much-needed slice of something refreshingly different to the charts on both sides of the pond, but its success gave Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell the financial platform to launch his label. Urban legend wrongly has it that Rod Stewart is responsible for the harmonica solo.
Rarest 1964 Fontana £7
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11 The WailersSka Beat

Simmer Down (1965)
Before becoming roots rock reggae’s global godhead Bob Marley was part of a vocal trio, with ska 45s their stock in trade. Accompanied by the legendary Skatalites and produced by the similarly iconic Coxsone Dodd, Simmer Down saw them sending a syncopated message to the rude boys of Kingston to cool it with the gun crime.
Rarest 1965 Ska Beat £70

 

 

The Upsetters10 The Upsetters

Return Of Django (1969)
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s studio band were originally known as Gladdy’s All Stars, led as they were by pianist Gladstone Anderson. A change of name to The Upsetters, as well as the Perry connection, brought a number five hit on the UK singles chart. It was an AA-side release coupled with spaghetti western companion piece Dollar In The Teeth.
Rarest 1969 Upsetter £15
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9 007  (Shanty Town)Pyramid

Desmond Dekker and the Aces (1967)
The narrative thread of Dekker’s landmark 45 was a cautionary tale against the perils of the rude boy lifestyle, but the song was so impossibly cool that the Jamaican street gangs adopted it as their own. Another tribe held in its thrall were the mods, who helped it reach no.17 in the UK charts in 1967. A year later, Dekker bettered that with the chart-topping Israelites.
Rarest 1967 Pyramid £12

 

Rio8 Ethiopians

Train To Skaville (1967)
Ethiopians bridged the gap between ska and its more melodic close relation rocksteady with a string of hits. The locomotive-loving instrumental Last Train To Skaville was the group’s breakthrough smash, but only came about when band leader Leonard Dillon, who was working as a stone mason at the time, persuaded his boss to invest in a recording session.
Rarest 1967 Rio £30

7 The  Special  AKAThe Special AKA

Gangsters (1979)
This reworking of Prince Buster’s ska classic Al Capone was the glorious opening salvo of the UK ska revival of the late 70s/early 80s. The song recounts an incident on tour in France with The Clash when the band’s gear was taken hostage by a disgruntled hotel owner. The opening line “Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue” is a reference to the band’s former manager.
Rarest 1979 2-Tone (stamped white sleeve, paper label) £45
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The Maytals6 The Maytals

54-46 That’s My Number (1968)
The genre-defining classic 54-46 (That’s My Number) was recorded by The Maytals and released in the UK on the Pyramid label in 1968. It alludes to Toots Hibbert’s 12-month incarceration in prison for possession of marijuana. Confusingly, a follow-up version was also released as a single by Trojan a couple of years later, changing the ‘That’s’ to ‘Was’. Both are essential.
Rarest 1968 Pyramid £30
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5 The PioneersThe Pioneers

Long Shot Kick De Bucket (1969)
Vocal trio The Pioneers recorded two songs about the some fateful racehorse. The original Long Shot (Bus Me Bet) was written by Lee Perry and chronicled the struggles of the titular nag to win a race despite years of trying. The infinitely more successful follow-up told the story of its unfortunate death and cracked the UK charts in 1969 while doing so.
Rarest 1969 Trojan £25
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4 The Slickers

PunchJohnny Too Bad (1971)
The Slickers operated on the cusp of the transition from ska to rocksteady. The inclusion of the band’s legendary rude boy 45 on The Harder They Come soundtrack propelled them into the mainstream – something the band weren’t quite ready for with a revolving door of members. The song’s been covered by, naturally enough, UB40 and The Specials, with John Martyn and Steve Earle also having a bash.
Rarest 1971 Punch £15
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3 Dave and Ansil CollinsDave and Ansil

Double Barrel (1970)
The most turning, storming sound of soul, Double Barrel was the second ska single to reach the top of the UK charts, beaten to the summit only by Desmond Dekker’s Israelites. The pair weren’t siblings, as the Dave in question was Dave Barker, a celebrated recording artist in his own right. The track combines his inspired, semi-crazed utterings (“I am the magnificent W-O-O-O”) alongside Collins’ infectious rinky-dink piano.
Rarest 1970 Techniques £8
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Skatalites2 The Skatalites

Guns Of Navarone (1965)
The 1961 epic war movie still remains a good way to waste a Sunday afternoon, but as a piece of cinema it has aged badly, unlike The Skatalites’ inspired takeover of Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, which still sounds as fresh as the proverbial small grassland plant. The 45 was originally released in the UK in 1965 on Island, but didn’t appear in the charts until a couple of years later.
Rarest 1965 Island £25/30
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1 Harry J All-StarsHarry J All-Stars

Liquidator (1969)
The Harry J All-Stars were the in-house backing band of the legendary producer Harry Johnston. The mellow organ instrumental, keyboards courtesy of Winston Wright, was the soundtrack to many a terrace kicking and gained anthem status among skinhead gangs of the early 70s – it’s still played pre-match at Stamford Bridge to this day. Liquidator reached number nine in the UK charts in October 1969.
Rarest 1969 Harry J £10 (green label)
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Gary Tipp

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