When Robert “Bucket” Hingley emigrated from England to America in the early ’80s, the 2 Tone ska craze had already peaked back home. But his love for the music had not, and in New York he managed to find a sufficient number of enthusiasts to form a band and eventually start his own record label. The Toasters proved as responsible as any other band for initiating the third wave of ska, bringing the music to a much wider audience in America. And Moon Records (quickly renamed Moon Ska because of a conflict) provided a launching pad for dozens of ska acts from all over the world, as well as a new home for a handful of 2 Tone veterans.
Bucket has endured just about every kind of trouble that can beset a working musician. He has been the Toasters’ sole constant member; as of early 2009, nearly three dozen players have come and gone from the ranks. He has faced all the financial and legal challenges of running an independent label — including shutting it down and starting a new one. The ups and downs in ska’s popularity haven’t helped either. Through it all, though, Buck’s generosity of spirit, his refusal to bow to adversity and his genuine love for ska have kept the Toasters going for an uninterrupted quarter-century, still releasing albums of new material and playing to enthusiastic audiences around the globe. For all the acclaim that fairly accrued to the 2 Tone bands, none of them can say the same.
A fellow expat, Joe Jackson, produced the Toasters’ debut, Recriminations. Although the rhythmic basis is clearly ska, the EP’s music owes more to new wave — a bit more Oingo Boingo than the Specials. The Pool Shark LP, briefly released on a British label, is more distinctly 2 Toned, and its silly shout-along jam “Matt Davis” would become an audience favorite.
By the time he recorded Skaboom!, Bucket had ten musicians on board, including two additional vocalists, two keyboardists and a full horn section — all the better to deliver the classic ska sound. There are dub effects on “ABC’s” and the percussion break in “Shocker!” A reprise of the preceding LP’s title track improves significantly on the original, but foreshadows a habit: several of the album’s best songs (“Talk Is Cheap,” “East Side Beat,” “Weekend in L.A.,” “Shocker!”) became live staples but also candidates for re-recordings on subsequent albums. The sound quality on Skaboom! is a bit amateurish, and the rhythms seem rather stiff, but it’s a good showcase for the up-and-coming band. (Skaboom! has been reissued numerous times. The Moon Ska edition appends the Recriminations EP in its entirety. Those four tracks also show up on the Megalith reissue, along with four tracks from the long-out-of-print Pool Shark and the otherwise unrecorded original “Calling All the Rude Boys,” recorded onstage at CBGB in 1985 with Joe Jackson on melodica.)
The band slimmed down to an octet by the time of its next album, but thinning the ranks didn’t adversely affect the music. Thrill Me Up is more confident than its predecessor, with much fuller sound (thanks to Joe Jackson’s return to the board). “Go Girl,” “Don’t Blame Me,” the organ-driven “Decision at Midnight” and “Keep on Going” benefit from more soulful grooves. The Toasters try explicitly reggae styles on “Haitian Frustration” and the intro and outro to “Go Girl” and close the album by recasting Gershwin on “Rhapsody in Bluebeat.” (The Moon Ska reissue adds four tracks, including a remix of “Haitian Frustration.” Ska Killers pairs Thrill Me Up with Skaboom! on a single CD.)
By the end of the ’80s, the Toasters’ core instrumental line-up was in place: Hingley on guitar and lead vocals, bassist Matt Malles, drummer Johnathan McCain, saxophonist Fred Reiter, trumpeter Brian Sledge, trombonist Rick Faulkner and keyboardist Dave Barry. Other musicians (mostly additional vocalists) would come and go, but this principal line-up would stay together through the ’90s. With This Gun for Hire (co-produced by Hingley and Malles), the Toasters made the big step to an identifiable sound and style. The group plays with an improved sense of dynamics, including the tempo changes in “Worry” and the rhythmic breaks in “Paralyzed” and “Havana (This Gun for Hire).” The Toasters’ grasp of classic ska is stronger than ever, but they blend it more seamlessly with other styles, from the Motown-inflected “Choose” to the calypso groove of “Paralyzed” and the disco-tinged rhythm and rap vocal line of “Roseanne.” From start to finish, there simply isn’t a weak song in the bunch. Bucket is in fine voice throughout, and Cash Myles’ airy, soulful tenor provides an excellent foil. The album peaks with a rowdy live version of “East Side Beat” before winding down with the instrumental “T-Time.”
The T-Time album is a compilation drawing from the band’s releases up through This Gun for Hire. Frankenska is a live album recorded during the Toasters’ first UK tour, behind This Gun for Hire.
New York Fever gets off to a tremendous start with the tight, energetic title track and the swaggering groove and social commentary of “Ploughshares Into Guns.” After that one-two punch, though, tight musicianship takes the place of solid songwriting. The Toasters deliver the goods on “Too Hip to Be Cool” and “Johnny Forsake Her” and show off their instrumental chops on the cover of the R&B standard “Night Train.” But “Social Security” sounds like a re-write of “Decision at Midnight,” and “Shebeen” lifts its main hook from War’s “Low Rider.” And not only do the Toasters include yet another studio recording of “Pool Shark,” they incorporate the “Low Rider” hook into that track too. The album concludes with reprises of “Ploughshares” and “Shebeen,” with Cash Myles adding ragamuffin-style vocals to both. For all the repetition, though, the band’s playing is never less than impressive, and the top-drawer tracks on New York Fever make the album worth a listen.
In 1993, the Toasters brought all three generations of ska together for “Skavoovie,” a North American concert tour featuring the re-united Selecter and the genre-pioneering Skatalites. Sharing the stage with two of their biggest inspirations clearly had a great impact on Hingley and his bandmates: the subsequent Toasters album, Dub 56, is the best of their studio recordings and, arguably, the peak of ska’s third wave. The group stretches from classic ska into dub, reggae, jazz and soul, yet always retains a distinctive sound. They apply this stylistic reach to a dozen new songs (plus two covers) as consistent and vibrant as those on This Gun for Hire. Best of all, the rhythm section approaches the material with a new-found sense of swing that makes every song jump out of the speakers. “Direction,” “Freedom,” “Mona,” “Little Hidden Secrets” and the title track (with its frenetic toasting by new second vocalist Coolie Ranx) show the band playing with a loose, energetic attack not heard on previous releases. Skatalites saxophonist Lester Sterling guests on the two most explicitly reggae-flavored tracks: “Dancin'” and “Sweet Cherie.” Covers of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tunisia” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” both fit beautifully with the Toasters’ originals. Dub 56 can stand proudly alongside the best work of the preceding two generations of ska artists, and it’s a marvelous addition to any party playlist. (The 1996 reissue adds most of the tracks from Live in L.A., a promotional release from the Skavoovie tour. The 2006 reissue on Megalith appends four studio remixes to the original album, then adds a second CD containing the entire Live in L.A. album and nine more live cuts from a San Diego gig on that tour — admittedly with some overlapping song selections.)
The group started to record a covers album to follow up Dub 56, but that plan changed during the sessions. For half of Hard Band for Dead, the Toasters rely on outside sources, whether covering them or deriving from them. The band applies its touch to classic ska (Prince Buster’s “Hard Man fe’ Dead”), rock and roll from the ’50s (“Chuck Berry,” a history of ska set to the tune of “You Never Can Tell”) and ’60s (Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man”), TV theme music (Get Smart and Mighty Mouse), and its own previous repertoire (“Talk Is Cheap”). The closing number, “Dave Goes Crazy,” is a piano-driven ska interpretation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” As for the new material, “Don’t Come Running,” “I Wasn’t Going to Call You Anyway,” “Skaternity” and the anthemic “2 Tone Army” (“There’s a new bug that’s goin’ around … With a ’90s beat on a ’50s sound / They’re wearing bomber flights and combat boots / Skater pants and ’60s suits / In a lifestyle that’s hard to refute / It’s a modern look, but it’s all about roots”) are among the Toasters’ finest songs. Thanks to the high energy and verve — not to mention cameos by such distinguished guests as Lester Sterling, Laurel Aitken, King Django and Ventures guitarist Gerry McGee — Hard Band for Dead is one of the Toasters’ most satisfying albums.
By comparison, Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down falls short on variety. It includes plenty of good songs; “I’m Running Right Through the World,” “Everything You Said Has Been a Lie,” “Spooky Graveyard,” and the relentlessly energetic title track belong with the Toasters’ best. The crew also experiments with a reggaeton approach on “Woyay.” But most of the tracks hew too closely to standard ska, making the album feel corseted. Perhaps that restrained vibe reflects increasing tension within the band, as well as increasing pressures from the outside. DLTBGYD turned out to be the last studio album recorded by the classic Toasters line-up, as well as the final Toasters release on Moon Ska. The label closed its doors two years later (although its UK affiliate, Moon Ska World, remains in business), and the musicians subsequently drifted apart. The Best of the Toasters (on Moon Ska World) and History Book (on an Australian label) both excerpt generously from the band’s Moon Ska releases.
Two years after Moon Ska closed up shop, Hingley was back with a new label, Megalith, and a new Toasters CD, Enemy of the System. Only Hingley, Brian Sledge and Dave Barry remain from the band’s ’90s core line-up, although several other musicians on the album had played alongside the Toasters in the past. A lot of the lyrics reflect the recent losses Bucket had faced: “Whatever happened to the world I know? / I don’t recognize the scenery / Too many changes, I don’t understand / I liked it better how it used to be.” The music is consistently upbeat, but the playing is even more restrained and predictable than it was on DLTBGYD. The CD does contain several enjoyable tracks, particularly “Modern World America,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Pirate Radio,” the laid-back “Pendulum,” the drinking song “Can I Get Another” and “Skafinger” (a revision of the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger”). On the down side, the remake of the New York Fever track “Social Security” does nothing to improve on the original, and “Sweet Home Town Jamaica,” a blatant (and uncredited) rewrite of “Sweet Home Alabama,” is easily the low point of the Toasters’ entire recording career.
Rare as Toast is a ten-song collection of remixes and other non-album cuts, most of which first appeared on a variety of ska compilations. Live June 28, 2002: The Bowery Collection was recorded on stage at CBGB, just two months after Enemy of the System‘s release. Live in Brazil and Toasters en Caracas were both recorded onstage during a 1993 South American tour.
One More Bullet loosens the groove and puts it in service of a more consistent, confident set of songs. Dave Barry’s organ playing shines , but new bassist Jason Nwagbaraocha turns out to be the MVP, providing a roots-reggae vocal foil to Bucket on the surveillance-lamenting “What a Gwan,” the busy, bubbling “Where’s the Freedom?” and a second take on “Run Rudy Run” (first heard on the Recriminations EP). The band applies its own appealing stamp to covers of the Dave Clark Five’s “Bits and Pieces” and the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved.” A fine return to form. (Megalith released a three-song teaser EP in advance of the album.)
In Retrospect is the most comprehensive overview of the band’s work to date: 21 tracks, ranging from the title song of Recriminations to “Pirate Radio” (from Enemy of the System). The anthology serves as a testament to Bucket’s perseverance and passionate love of ska — qualities that undoubtedly will keep the Toasters in good position to catch (or generate) ska’s inevitable fourth wave.