There will always be artists that, no matter the merit of their creative efforts, praise is heaped upon. There’s a free pass that certain artists receive from their fans, critics and even fellow artists.
There’s also a flip side to that phenomenon. No matter how great their efforts, no matter how hard they hit the road, no matter how long they’ve plied their trade — when some artists, much like Rodney Dangerfield, just can’t seem to get any respect.
Perhaps this has never been truer then for the Orange County, California, ska stalwart Reel Big Fish; and that lack of proper adulation is directly connected to the rise and fall of ska itself.
Originating in Jamaica in the late 1950s, ska was a precursor to reggae (though many mistakenly think it’s the other way around). Ska’s roots are a mix of calypso and rhythm and blues with a consistent walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat. There’s often a variety of brass instruments involved as well.
Nearly forgotten as a fad, the genre received what is historically referred to as a “second wave” in the late 1970s in Britain. That period, known as the English Two Tone Revival, was spearheaded by bands like The Specials and Madness, but was quickly reduced to being a fringe cult genre by the mid 1980s.
By the mid 1990s, though, as a generation’s ears had grown tired of the melancholy sound and lyrical direction of grunge and alternative bands, the pendulum swung dramatically, and once again the door opened for a “third wave” of ska, which had now traded in the R&B aspect for a touch of punk rock and distortion often referred to as ska-core.
Ska bands were suddenly everywhere. Names like Less Than Jake, Buck-0-Nine, The Hippos, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Voodoo Glow Skulls, RX Bandits, Save Ferris were just a few bands that found themselves on major labels and on mainstream radio. Even No Doubt was a bona fide ska band until it abandoned the up strokes for the superstardom of straight commercial rock.
If there was one band, though, that seemed to come to represent ska’s rebirth, it was Reel Big Fish. Hailing from Huntington Beach, the band timed the third wave perfectly and, after a few self-releases, became the poster boy for feel-good, super-catchy Southern California ska with a heavy dose of sarcastic and clever lyrics courtesy of charasmatic lead singer Aaron Barrett.
The song, “Sell Out,” off the gold-selling Turn the Radio Off, became a staple of modern rock radio, and the band’s raucous live shows found a massive audience, even having future superstars like Blink 182 and Maroon 5 opening for them, favors which were not duely returned down the road when those bands exploded.
With appearances in feature films like the South Park creator’s cult comedy classic Basketball and numerous TV and soundtrack appearances, it seemed as if Reel Big Fish’s popularity knew no bounds.
But just as in the first two times around, as quickly as ska’s popularity rose in the late ’90s, it fell just as fast by the year 2000, as angry frat boy metal and rap took over the airwaves. By the time of RBF’s second record, the absolutely stellar Why Do They Rock So Hard?, which should have been fielding Grammy nominations not snide reviews and radio abandonment, ska had become practically a dirty word overnight.
While most ska bands eventually broke up or left the genre in droves, Reel Big Fish, in many ways alone ,forged ahead undeterred, proudly waving the ska banner and paying little attention to what anyone, besides their still-loyal fan base, thinks.
Though a staggering number of members have come and gone over the years, and now, with the recent departure of longtime trumpet player and resident musical genius Scott Klopfenstein, only frontman Aaron Barrett remains from the original lineup, still the band has become the gold standard of nose-to-the grindstone touring, routinely playing more than 200 shows a year and closing in on 20 years as an active band.
Now, at a time when celebrity is the most heralded aspect of an artist, and loyalty to a genre is virtually unheard of, we could all learn a lot from Reel Big Fish, which regardless of the genre, is one of the world’s hardest-working and most underappreciated bands.
Reel Big Fish performs with Streetlight Manifesto at the Ventura Theater on Tuesday, Dec. 20. For more information, visit www.venturatheater.net.