Thoughts on Punk and Ska

Growing up, my favorite band was Five Iron Frenzy. Their EP, Quantity is Job 1 was one of the first albums I ever bought, and still is one of my favorites, especially from FIF. Never heard of them, you say? Congratulations -- you're normal! Five Iron Frenzy, along with the O.C. Supertones, the Insyderz, Bunch of Believers (B.O.B.), The Dingees and a few others were part of the 90s ska movement, but on the Christian record labels. Back then, Christian music is all I listened to, and so these guys were some of my favorites.

Later on, my good friend Korey introduced me to all the secular punk and ska I had missed during that time period -- Goldfinger, Lagwagon, Save Ferris, Rancid, and others -- and though I was a late-bloomer, it's all good stuff. Well, a couple weekends ago, Korey and I were lucky enough to attend the Back to the Beach Festival, which featured so many of the bands from that era, a modest $65 ticket felt a little like stealing.

I love music festivals. One of them changed my life forever. Though not life-changing, Back to the Beach was one for the record books. And luckily for you, I had some thoughts and realizations about the genre that I felt compelled to share. If you don't care about that, then you can stop reading now. (Punk rock!)

Streetlight Manifesto, my favorite from the day
First up was Save Ferris. Actually, there were two bands in front of them that we missed because we wanted to try out a hippie vegan restaurant beforehand (more on that later); plus we're kind of old and standing up for 7-8 hours already seemed like a lot without seeing two bands we hadn't heard of. I don't have a lot of comments here, except that it was a pretty good show, but not very child friendly. There was a children zone at the festival, and a bunch of little punker kids running around with their parents, which I thought was cool. "Maybe next year I'll bring my kids," I told Korey, but after the first show, I was reminded that punk and ska are only kid-friendly when they're Christian bands.

And then I was proven wrong when The Aquabats! took the stage. I've never been a fan of their ridiculous, childlike ska music about pizza, pool parties and silly comedic tales. By the end of their show, however, everyone was dancing and having a good time, and so I moved them up a few notches in my book of band classifications.

Next was Streetlight Manifesto, my favorite of the day. Musically, they were amazingly talented, but you could feel their humility from the stage. Horn players are marginalized in about half of the ska bands out there, often set to the side or dancing in the back -- like most bands, it's usually about the lead singer. However, these guys lined up in a visually equal space and just played great song after great song, with gusto, talent and a passion that let us know they cared about the music. These guys are worth checking out if you get the chance.

Korey is way more punk than me
Afterwards was Reel Big Fish, another band I never really loved because their message is typically pretty negative -- case and point. They put on a good show though, but it wasn't my favorite. Goldfinger followed and was similar, though they lined the set with special guests that made it totally worth watching. The lead singer of 311 joined for their hit "Amber." The lead singer of Sublime with Rome showed up for "Date Rape." The lead singer of English Beat (apparently credited with bringing two-tone ska to the US) played one of their hits. The lead singer of Save Ferris, a horn player of Reel Big Fish, the bass player/singer of MxPx (one of my favorites), and singer of some other band I have heard of but can't remember the name (and Wikipedia isn't helping me figure out who it is), also joined them. Anyway, it was a great show, but still kind of negative and vulgar. Oh well, such is punk...

And finally was Blink-182, who I had never seen. Thankfully, they played their entire album Enema of the State, which was the one I listened to the most in middle school. That's an understatement -- it was in my CD player non-stop for the better part of a year. To be honest, however, they were my least favorite show! That humility that Streetlight Manifesto brought? Didn't really pick up on it from Blink-182. It was more of a, "We made our money and now we're just playing shows sometimes to probably make a little more money," attitude. The show was okay, pretty entertaining, though I was impressed that a three-piece could command such a stage presence.

I kept asking myself why these guys had made it so big though, and I think I figured out at least a piece of it: they captured the cynical angst that many teenagers felt in the early-2000s. It's music for kids who sort of fit in, could get girls some of the time, but realized that all of the rigmarole of middle and high school is basically meaningless, which left them with a confused body of negative feelings that was medicated by a little cynical humor and some occasional intensity. I had friends like that, and maybe felt it myself, but believing in Jesus kind of brings you past most of that, so in hindsight, it's difficult to be a big fan. Of course, mine is a limited view of only a couple of their albums, so maybe they grew as a band. Personally I always preferred bands that went a little deeper, like Less Than Jake, that managed to capture a similar feeling, but transcend it with some truth as well.

Blink-182 can afford pyrotechnics
Overall, it was such a fun day with a cool dude on the beach. But as I processed everything, I discovered some generalizations about punk and ska I hadn't realized before. First, I think punk and ska are both a response to the typically negative point of view most teenagers feel in their angst and confusion at that age. Punks think, "The world sucks, so let's get mad and start a revolution!" Ska enthusiasts, however, think, "The world sucks, so let's just say 'screw it' and have some fun anyway." I always sided with ska and its happier tone, personally, which says something about me I think.

Second, a hearty vegan meal is excellent fuel for a music festival. We stood still, danced and moshed for about eight hours, followed by a couple mile walk for an easier Uber home, all without any sustenance except for water and a couple Rockstar drinks that they were handing out for free. Even then, we weren't terribly hungry, but hit a Taco Bell by the freeway to occupy our bellies for the moderately long ride home.

Last, all of these bands are kind of past their "glory days," so I saw the gambit of responses to that as well, from seemingly re-living the glory of it, to still being stoked on the music and presenting in the highest manner they could. The whole thing was a pretty good chance to examine something I loved in high school with fifteen more years of life experience, which is always fun. Since a lot of what I write about is hanging onto to things I loved back in my own "glory days" (skateboarding, surfing, punk music, Taco Bell), it felt appropriate to document this whole experience, whether or not you really wanted to read all of that. If you did, consider yourself a true fan. I'm not sure I would have even read this much about a bunch of bands no one has ever heard of...