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Crash Worship 

The good-time ska of Berkeley's Dance Hall Crashers

Wednesday, Sep 27 1995
"I've been imitated so well, I've heard people copy my mistakes," Jimi Hendrix once said. It's impossible to pick up a music rag these days without being assailed by tracts on the perils of the "revival." Despite the critical hoopla over "posts" (see postmodern, post-punk, post-rock), it's clear that pop will continue to eat itself, to recycle seminal influences and doll them up as something new until the distinction between original and copy seems to collapse altogether. But before knocking rock revivalism, remember that many of our contemporary pop icons are really good under the influence. Such is the case with several of the East Bay's torchbearers of punk and ska: Dance Hall Crashers, Rancid, and Screw 32.

A city that continually resurrects its past, Berkeley could well be the Graceland of the west. In 1987, natives Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman were just two pit regulars at Gilman Street, the now notorious West Berkeley co-op and house of hardcore. One year later, they formed Operation Ivy and Dance Hall Crashers, both bands crossbreeding punk's louder, faster, harder riffs and the peppy 2-tone tempos of ska. It was an infectious, rollicking sound, one that propelled skate rats and mods alike into a pogoing frenzy.

We've heard an earful about what happened next. In short, Matt and Tim (along with Lars Frederiksen and Brett Reed) became Rancid and got famous. What was left in their wake? The late Operation Ivy became enshrined in punk circles, and Dance Hall Crashers survived a revolving-door lineup to release their third album, Lockjaw, on the new 510 label -- and are fast becoming the flavor of the month.

Unlike Rancid, DHC have managed to avoid the factionalism and petty disputes that tend to breed in what DHC guitarist Scott Goodell calls the "incestual" Bay Area music scene. Blood runs thick here (many of these Berkeley musicians had the same grade-school teachers), and DHC are the first to toast Rancid's success.

"We still have strong ties with them," says guitarist Jason Hammon. "With Tim especially. He wrote a song for our new record and a couple of songs on our first CD. [Matt and Tim] have definitely been a big influence."

DHC are also big fans of Screw 32, yet another punk band from Berkeley, which recently released its debut Unresolved Childhood Issues, and not just because vocalist Andrew Ataie and guitarist Grant McIntire are DHC alumni. "We all just love each other soooo much," quips DHC lead singer Karina Denike.

Lockjaw owes more of a debt to ska's taut harmonies than to hardcore's spleen. But what sets DHC apart from the machismo of rude-boy ska tradition are the band's two female vocalists. DHC race to the finish like their sputtering British cousins the Specials, and the cherry-girl counterpoint lends the songs a pop sensibility that approaches the slickest of ska's popular descendants (the English Beat, General Public, and Madness).

Both Denike and co-vocalist Elyse Rogers became skankers at an early age. "I grew up in England until I was 12, and [ska] was all I listened to," Denike says of her Birmingham youth. On the flip side, some of their fellow band members didn't even know what ska was until they joined the DHC roster. But is DHC's music to be filed under ska simply because it has that sprightly 2-tone ring to it? This is, after all, a revival of a revival, and critics' claims that a fusion of punk and ska is a novelty is to ignore the context from which ska arose.

Raised in Jamaica during the late '50s and early '60s, ska was resurrected in the U.K. during the latter years of the '70s. British ska was forged out of an alliance between punk and reggae, a seemingly incompatible fusion that recognized a common agenda of resistance to the parent culture. While the Clash set "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" and "The Guns of Brixton" to a reggae pulse, ska was conceived as the mulatto progeny of West Indian immigrants and working-class skins. The genre's themes undercut the racial tension that erupted into riots throughout the '70s, symbolized by the black-and-white checkered cover of the English Beat's unforgettable Wha'ppen?.

DHC's white, liberal college-town background begs the question: Is it inevitable that repeated washes will see even the most colorfast of garments fade? DHC aren't making any lofty claims; their link in the chain is that they grew up in a place that listens globally and jams locally. I remember vividly the immaculate working-class aesthetic that Berkeley High mods emulated down to an art, from the shiny Doc Martens and crew cuts to the button-down oxfords. DHC members grew up sympathetic to the kind of interracial liaisons that ska brought to bear, and even if they weren't aware of its involved cultural heritage, they took its brash, jubilant energy to heart. "In an era where rock 'n' roll is dominated by purveyors of angst and 'why me'," their bio reads, "Dance Hall Crashers have something to say: Lighten the hell up."

The DHC dictum reflects Jamaican ska's winsome don't-worry-be-happy stance, which, along with Rastafarianism, helped allay the insulting legacy of racist colonialism once the British left the island in 1959. DHC's lyrics evince the usual pop complaints about asshole boyfriends and dull day jobs, but still signify a return to the overamped, bubbling dance halls of Kingston, where the young could go and sweat out the diurnal gloom of a stunted economy that promised little hope of the good life. DHC's breed of ska may have sailed far afield of the port of its origins, but its hook-laden, danceable groove and lack of generational woe make for some irresistible music.

Dance Hall Crashers play Fri, Oct. 13, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.

About The Author

Shoshana Berger


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