The Jellycats. Tight ska fronted by the alluring Emma May
You know of the Liverpool Sound, of course, that “fab” Mersey Sound, spearheaded by the Beatles. It re-wrote and re-booted pop in the early 1960s.
But can anyone remember the Coventry Sound, which emerged in England in the late 1970s, at the tail end of punk?
When ska was sent to Coventry
Spearheaded by two ska bands from Coventry in central England, The Specials and The Selector, the 1970s Coventry Sound attracted a second generation of such 1960s English sub-cultures as rude boys, skinheads and mods. The rock press waxed on about Coventry becoming the new Liverpool.
The Specials in New York City in 1982
The Coventry Sound even had its own record label: 2 Tone Records, set up by the Specials in 1979. The ska-inspired music created by the Specials and label-mates including The Selector, and The Beat from Birmingham, went on to produce a British cultural movement which, too, became known as 2 Tone. Some devotees even sported pork pie hats, black suits, white shirts, white socks, narrow black ties and black shoes, emulating the famous 2 Tone Records logo.
The Blues Brothers wore a similar two-tone get-up in their smash-hit movie that came out about a
The 2 Tone look
year later; but where the Blues Brothers loved blues and rhythm and blues (like most of us, dear reader), the 2 Tone movement lived for ska, its foreunner, bluebeat, and their derivatives, reggae and rocksteady.
Ska’s first wave. R.I.P Count Suckle
2 Tone’s rhythms and melodies echoed the earlier Jamaican ska that took off in London in the 1950s, pioneered by such people as Kingston’s Count Suckle, who died only a few weeks ago, aged 82. In the early 60s, Count Suckle was resident DJ at an Afro-Caribbean club in London’s Carnaby Street. Such top English bands as the Stones, Animals and Who were regulars, as were celebrities and leading UK politicians. One of these was Britain’s Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, the guy who shagged Christine Keeler,
Count Suckle: just died aged 82. Rest In Peace.
resulting in a major Russian spy and sex affair in 1963. Not keeping it in his pants saw the high-flying Profumo’s political career shot down in flames and later spawned the movie, Scandal, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s recent West End musical that’s just folded, Stephen Ward. If nothing else, this bit of irrelevant information demonstrates just how ska can loosen the inhibitions of even the straightest-seeming people.
Count Suckle also once recalled how he used to lend his records, mail-ordered from Tennessee, to the 17-year old Mick Jagger. The Stones always looked “scruffy” the Count (real name Wilbert Campbell) noted.
Ska’s second wave. The Coventry Sound becomes 2 Tone
The Coventry Sound that emerged the following decade mixed ska with punk-like chords and political lyrics, often promoting racial unity. In 1981, the Specials had 2 Tone’s biggest hit, the
Coventry’s The Selector with Pauline Black, centre
unemployment-themed “Ghost Town” in 1981. Ironically, this coincided with major riots in cities like London, Bristol and Oxford. In all, disaffected youths wrecked and set fire to 35 town centres around England that year.
Amidst the hubbub, the sound generated in Coventry became known as 2 Tone, after the record label rather than the city. Perhaps this was when London bands became involved because 2 Tone will also be remembered as the label that launched Madness, probably the most successful of all the genre’s bands. Madness today are probably best known for “Our House” which reached No. 7 on the American charts in 1982, a song they performed on the roof of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee a couple of years ago.
Ska’s third wave. Ska moves to California
In the 1990s, the ska baton was passed to the USA where bands like California’s No Doubt, Reel Big
Blink-182. Influenced the Jellycats, supported by the Jellycats
Fish, and Blink-182, and Less Than Jake from Florida, helped make ska one of the most popular forms of alternative music in mid-90s America.
Since then, ska has faded from the scene. But not in Essex, England, where in 2010, a group of young musicians, influenced by all those iconic ska bands I’ve just mentioned, particularly the more recent US ones, formed the Jellycats. Already, they’ve supported many of their heroes including The Beat (English Beat in USA), Blink-182 and Bad Manners with a support for Reel Big Fish coming up.
Ska’s fourth wave. Can the Jellycats ride it?
The Jellycats certainly have the armoury to help put ska in the mainstream once again.
Fronted by a particularly photogenic little minx called Emma May, the Jellycats seem an accomplished bunch of musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously. Song writing duties are shared by guitarist Ollie Cooper and Emma May, whose expletive-ridden lyrics are spat out in a cockney patois reminiscent of Steve Marriott on The Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday Afternoon”. (Essex is the last refuge for the old East End cockney dialect.) On drums is Ollie’s brother, Stu Cooper. Alex Palach plays the Jellycats’ brass, so integral to ska, and on bass is Rob Allen.
The nature of ska means it’s hard to tell the quality of Emma May’s voice; but she certainly has the charisma, front and, not least, the allure to help this band succeed in a big way. The camera absolutely loves this girl, and it would even more if she could stop
The Jellycats’ Emma May in performance mode
pulling faces at it. The Jellycats need a Malcolm McLaren-style Svengali-figure to promote them, just as McLaren promoted Bow Wow Wow through their own photogenic female singer, Annabella Lwin. Annabella’s still remembered from Bow Wow Wow’s countless appearances during MTV’s early days. Emma May can do the same for the Jellycats and if you’re feeling doubtful, just take a look at this Jellycats clip:
The Jellycats with TWAT
Twat, for those interested, is a British equivalent of American blues’ jelly roll, a synonym for female genitalia.  Meaning dickhead, twat possibly originates from the old Viking for slit. And if you want to sample more of the Jellycats songs, check them out here:
So, can ska re-emerge into the musical mainstream for a fourth time? Well, the Jellycats, I believe, performed at Britain’s famous Isle of Wight Festival last weekend. While the Kings of Leon
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Put on a great show at the Isle of Wight
headlined Saturday, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers topped Sunday’s line-up, putting on a terrific show to close the festival, old ska hands, The Specials and The Selector, were also performing. As one newspaper review on the Specials’ IOW performance put it, “The old masters showed the kids how to do it and got the kids skanking with their plucky politic ska”.
So there may just be a market for ska once again. Over to you Emma May. It’s time to get that Jellycats PR machine purring and the cameras clicking. Just stop pulling funny faces. Show them how good you really look.