’90s Ska Doc PICK IT UP! Is For All the Checkerboard-Clad Kids Out There

I feel like it’s safe to assume that most folks reading Cinepunx have some sort of musical subculture in their background. Liam and Josh obviously have their love and history with hardcore, and all of us who write here have some sort of punk influence in their past. However, I am here today to say that my name is Nick, and *deep sigh* I used to be a ska kid.

Hi, Nick!

Despite having the coordination of someone with a twisted ankle and the musical ability of a cat walking across a piano, I’ve always been into ska, thanks to a well-timed adolescence and the happenstance of living dead-smack in the middle of the ska-loving Midwest. One of the local radio stations played a lot of local bands, and some of those artists were ska bands, because it was the mid ’90s and of course there were. So, thanks to that and some older kids in high school playing the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Ska-Core, the Devil, and More EP as we cleaned up after a forensics tournament, I was fucking hooked from the get-go.

Director Taylor Morden’s new documentary for PopMotion Pictures, Pick It Up!: Ska in the ’90s, is, for me, simultaneously a lovingly nostalgic trip down memory lane and a slightly embarrassing reminder of everything I did from about 16 to 22. Video of kids skanking, dressed in ill-fitting suits and porkpie hats, brings me to a place where I knew that I’d maybe be going all by myself, but definitely running into a good dozen folks I knew. I wasn’t drinking, wasn’t doing drugs. I was maybe smoking too many cigarettes, and my biggest worry of the night was whether or not my wallet chain would hit someone while I was dancing.

Pick It Up! is an independent documentary film about the rise in popularity of ska music in the 1990s often referred to as the third wave of ska. The film showcases the underground/DIY nature of the scene all over the world and how the push into the spotlight in the mid-to-late ’90s changed everything. The film was made by ska fans, for ska fans.”

If there’s a ska band from the ’90s, they’re represented in Pick It Up!, some way or another: Reel Big Fish, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake, No Doubt, MU330, the Pietasters, the Toasters, Kemuri, Goldfinger, Save Ferris, Smash Mouth, Big D & the Kids Table, Skankin’ Pickle, Five Iron Frenzy, the Impossibles, Hepcat, the Slackers, Buck-O-Nine, Mephiskapheles, Dance Hall Crashers, the Voodoo Glow Skulls, the Aquabats, the Hippos, Spring Heeled Jack, the Pilfers, Suicide Machines, Sublime, My Superhero…and I’m probably leaving out a billion and a half. It’s even narrated by Tim Armstrong from Operation Ivy and Rancid.

They also manage to rope in the likes of Pauleen Black from The Selecter, The Specials’ Roddy Radiation, Angelo Moore of Fishbone, and even Doreen Schaefer from The Skatalites, to give the film some perspective on how the predecessors of these ’90s bands viewed the whole trend. A section on the importance of bands appearing in ’90s teen films will further bring back memories and demonstrate just how pervasive ska was during its heyday.

What’s great about Pick It Up! is the way they manage to tie into every single aspect of the ska subculture. Compilation CDs? Yep. Checkerboard everything? Yup. That one dude at the show in a Hawaiian shirt? Yes. Skanking? Uh-huh. Band geeks in bands? Yeah. And, obviously, the whole suit thing. They even touch ever-so-briefly on the propensity for terrible puns, not the least of which is Pick It Up!‘s tagline, “a third wave SKAcumentary.”

The only thing that gets missed is the brief portion of the ska boom where non-ska bands had ska songs on the radio. Think NOFX’s “All Outta Angst,” Wank’s “Unforgiven,” or Schleprock’s “Suburbia” for solid examples of 4/4 upstroke-driven punk that managed to get some airplay during the brief passion for all things upbeat.

While there’s a certain tinge of regret from some of the folks featured (the guys from Rx Bandits seem particularly defensive during the section wherein the film gets into the aspect of bands dropping the horns and changing to a more rock sound), the majority of the people interviewed seem to be really happy to have been a part of this scene. They remember the joy that the music brought to folks, and the bands still playing seem to be really happy to be able to get out there and bring ska to the people.

For all of the discussion from bands, booking agents, and even a few journalists (what up, Matt Pinfield?), Pick It Up! seems to be the rare documentary where the absence of fans seems to be noticeable. Reel Big Fish’s Scott Klopfenstein does a “man on the street” interview where he asks random New York City passers by whether they know ska, and the few folks who have stories about going to shows are really the highlight, rather than the awkwardness of explaining what ska music is (“fast reggae”) to those who are ignorant.

While I’d have loved to have seen a little more fan interaction, maybe vis-à-vis tracking down some of the folks behind the various ‘zines shown on screen, Pick It Up! definitely captures the heart and soul of ’90s ska, as well as giving the whole ska scene some hope, thanks to footage from the Back to the Beach festival, along with interviewing members of the Interrupters, whose “She’s Kerosine” managed to bring ska back to the radio for the first time in years when it was released last year. Glimpses of the massive fandom in places like Mexico and Japan give a little hope, as well.

Was the ’90s ska boom as important or world-changing as, say, Queercore? No. Definitely not. However, it did provide a scene for kids who felt like oddities elsewhere, as well as a soundtrack to that awkwardness. If everyone is dancing, who cares if you are? If everyone’s singing, who cares if you can? Do you look dumb in that suit? Probably, but so does everyone else, and you’re having fun, so who cares? Get out there, do the ska, jump up and down, and bring the horn section back.

Pick It Up!: Ska in the ’90s premieres Friday, April 26, at the Newport Beach Film Fest. Details and tickets at the doc’s website.

Special thanks to all the local ska bands I saw over the years: Ruskabank, the Norman 360, the Ray-Guns, O’Phil, the Gadjits, CrackMo, the Daily Grind, the Rowskabouts, the Bishops, the Lowbrows, the Secondhands, Shocks of Mighty, Phat Albert, the Late Shows, Brothers from Different Mothers, One Fan Band, the Sloppy Popsicles, the Uprights, the B-Team, the New Foes, et al.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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