An admission: I was a ska kid.
I wasnâ€™t into the sort of ska thatâ€™s at least on the margins of credibility, either. I rocked the third-wave, pop-punk-infused ska of the 90s and early 2000s. I wore checkered Vans and Catch 22 shirts to school. I burned calories with frenetic skanking. I played in a shitty ska-punk band with other band geeks.
A lot of punk fans in their 20s and 30s were ska kids too. But for some reason, we treat our ska-punk phase like some shameful secret, buried in the past. Weâ€™re embarrassed that, before we got our Hot Water Music tattoos and started hyping PEARS, we were humming along to slick horn lines over crisply distorted guitars. We hate on the music we once loved. We roll our eyes and make jokes about the ska-punk bands that are still around. A lot of this punk/hipster rage is directed straight at Reel Big Fish.
Before Reel Big Fish was a source of punk scorn, before they had an ironic radio hit with â€œSelloutâ€, before they played â€œBeerâ€ to sold out crowds around the world, they were a Southern California band making waves around the underground music scene. Like California cohorts No Doubt and Sublime, they played their own distinctive take on the ska format. Where No Doubt leaned heavily on their pop influences, and Sublime took from hip-hop and dub, Reel Big Fish infused their ska with snotty pop-punk and had heavy horn leads. They certainly weren't the first to combine ska with pop-punk (in fact, in the same year, across the country, Less Than Jake was releasing its first album, Pezcore). Reel Big Fish were just the first to do so in a way that appealed to the sensibilities of the immature band geek masses.
In 1995, they self-released their first album, Everything Sucks. The album, in the context of the eight studio albums to come, showed a band already set in its sound. Any distinction between Everything Sucks and everything that followed would be in production value and lineup changes alone (many of the tracks were even rerecorded for later releases). It had the big chorus singalongs of â€œTrendyâ€, â€œJoin the Clubâ€, and â€œBeerâ€. It had the goofy metal riffage of â€œSkatanicâ€. It had the crude high school humor of â€œI Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriendâ€ and â€œFuck Yourselfâ€. All of these elements would play a huge part in what found Reel Big Fish a mainstream following.
Everything Sucks was a display of the self-deprecation and hilarious cynicism that became staples of Reel Big Fish lyricism. Nearly half of the albumâ€™s tracks scoffed at fame, success and rock stardom, a theme they would continue to draw from. It felt self-critical as they achieved major success and began to come off as bitterness as they lost the spotlight. Other songs showcased the scorned, unloved protagonist point-of-view that would invade much of the bandâ€™s later work. â€œCall Herâ€, â€œBeerâ€, and â€œGo Awayâ€ are the sort of bitter love-lost or unrequited love songs that poked fun at the despair in romance. The songs were sad and angry, but given a dash of humor and sarcasm, so they felt more like satire.
The album garnered a huge buzz and eventually led to the band signing with Mojo for their hit follow-up Turn The Radio Off. Ten of its sixteen tracks were rerecorded songs from Everything Sucks, including the fan-favorite and live show staple â€œBeerâ€. For all intents and purposes, Everything Sucks plays like a demo version of Turn the Radio Off, minus a few important tracks. With its release, riding on the wave of ska-punkâ€™s third wave revival and the major rock radio hit, â€œSelloutâ€, Reel Big Fish achieved mainstream success. Soon after, the ska-punk craze died down, and none of the bandâ€™s following albums would reach the heights of Turn the Radio Off. But theyâ€™ve kept a cult following of both ska-punk diehards and a seemingly yearly-refreshed wave of high school fans, drawn to the bandâ€™s sarcastic humor, earworm catchy hooks, and horn-driven energy.
When I started writing this, I hadnâ€™t listened to Reel Big Fish in a few years. Some of the bands you grow up with make the transition into adulthood, finding spots on your playlists and have you eagerly anticipating new releases; others fall by the wayside, into a storage bin in your parentâ€™s basement with copies of Dude Ranch and Hang Ups. Reel Big Fish was one of the latter. But when I played Everything Sucks again, I had to smile. I remembered all the songs, all the stupid and goofy lyrics, all the horn hooks. Ultimately, Everything Sucks, like the rest of the RBF canon, was just fun music. There wasnâ€™t any serious introspection or any political discourse, no slow burners to be found. Itâ€™s easy to see why Reel Big Fish appealed to me so much in high school. It was pop music, but from an acerbic, dirty mind. It was rock music, but with the danceability of ska. It was punk music without too much bite.
Everything Sucks marked the creation of a sound that would win over thousands of kids just like me. We wanted punk music, but we werenâ€™t ready for the rougher stuff. We were immature, and we wanted lyrics that matched our sense of humor. We played brass instruments in school ensembles and wanted our rock stars to have brass players too. We just wanted to skank.
Some of us moved on and some of us became too cool to like this sort of music anymore. But Iâ€™d be lying if I said I donâ€™t still enjoy this album when I hear it. Itâ€™d be unfair to downplay how important Reel Big Fish was to my musical growth and journey. For many of us, the songs on Everything Sucks bridged the gap between the dorky band geeks we were and the music we listen to now.
An admission: I was a ska kid.