When the second wave of ska hit England in the late 1970s and bands like The Specials and The Beat weaponized Jamaican rhythms in their war of words with Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, Englishman Robert “Bucket” Hingley was in the process of moving to New York City to open and manage a Forbidden Planet comic book location.
Hingley witnessed ska’s power firsthand back in London, experiencing its propulsive energy and the implicit political statement of multiracial bands speaking with one voice. But in New York, hardly anyone was paying attention.
“I was really surprised that in the U.S.A., there hadn’t been so much as a whisper,” said Hingley, who performs with The Toasters 8 p.m. Tuesday at 89th Street Collective. “It seemed strange to me that something so big and so widespread — I’m talking No. 1 hits in the U.K. — was relatively unknown here to the point that when I saw the English Beat at Roseland Ballroom in 1981, there were only 150 people there.”
Hingley turned evangelical about ska, and his first move was to form The Toasters with some of his fellow workers at Forbidden Planet. They gigged around New York and recorded a demo produced by post-punk legend Joe Jackson, but the record companies were disinterested to the point of insulting.
“None of the record labels would give me the time of day. In fact, they kind of laughed me out of the office,” Hingley said. “One of them called it ‘circus music.’ They didn’t understand the music in terms of what it was trying to say, the sociopolitical message of it, and they didn’t know how to market it. It was music that was marketed to both black and white people that they really didn’t understand.”
In response, Hingley founded Moon Ska Records, which became the preeminent distributor of ska music in North America. In addition to being the label home for The Toasters, which released its full-length debut, Skaboom!, in 1987, Moon Ska attracted the groups such as Dance Hall Crashers, The Pietasters, Hepcat, The Slackers and Mephiskapheles that would form ska’s third wave. Moon Ska also issued first-rate compilations including Nihon Ska Dansu, a collection of rarely heard Japanese ska bands.
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Meanwhile, The Toasters built a worldwide following. With most of the second-wave groups splintered or dissolved by the late-1980s, Hingley and his group became standard-bearers for the genre, releasing acclaimed albums such as 1994’s Dub 56 and the group’s critical high water mark, 1997’s Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.
In 2003, after dissolving Moon Ska, Hingley founded a new label, Megalith Records, which is based in Norman, home of The Toasters’ webmaster and graphic artist Jeremy Patton. Hingley said the greatest advantage to headquartering Megalith in Norman is its central geography for distribution and logistics. One of the side benefits for Oklahoma City is that it is virtually guaranteed a Toasters visit each year because of the Megalith connection.
Now, over 35 years after their inception, The Toasters are still toasting. Hingley said he credits his decision to go independent with ensuring the band’s impressive longevity.
“The music business isn’t really set up to promote artists over a long period of time,” Hingley said. “It’s a parasitic industry, but I think the fact that the band being set up as a niche market all this time has insulated us against that. Having a hardcore set of fans has really helped. We never had a major label deal, and that’s what kills bands.
“When you sign a deal with a major label, you lose control of your project. You suddenly lose control of your rights on musical composition and you lose control of your distribution and what you want to do to really promote the band. Everything is done according to what accrues benefits for the record label. The artist comes second. The artist comes last.”
The Toasters with The Big News
8 p.m. Tuesday
89th Street Collective
8911 N. Western Ave.
Print headline: Ska kings, The Toasters maintain their impressive longevity through a fierce commitment to independence.