Looking back on alternative music of the late '90s, it's really easy to conflate "S" words like Sugar Ray, swing, Smash Mouth, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and ska. On the surface, these shiny-happy genres and stupidly named bands symbolize the frivolity of the Clinton years -- a time when bowling shirts and frosted tips were totally acceptable and the biggest issue dividing the nation was Dawson vs. Pacey.
But not all '90s ska was silly and escapist, and at least one popular album from this period deserves the retrospective treatment: Let's Face It by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Released 20 years ago today (March 11, 1996), the fifth full-length from Boston's finest purveyors of ferociously bastardized Jamaican music is a record about racism, substance abuse, violence, and the numbing effects of mass media. You just couldn't tell because of all the horns.
The album's big and bouncy smash single, "The Impression That I Get" (No. 1 on Alternative Songs), might've struck listeners as more meaningful had Bosstones frontman Dicky Barrett managed to communicate punctuation. In the chorus, when he growls, "I've never had to knock on wood," the phrase "knock on wood" should be offset with commas, parentheses, or em dashes. He's not saying he's never needed to rap his knuckles on a wooden surface -- that superstitious thing you do to avoid jinxing yourself. Rather, he's saying he's never had to face all of the "pain" and "tragedy" he mentions in the verses. He's been lucky, so he'd like to keep the good times rolling.
To paraphrase Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony concerning Monica Lewinsky, the key to another Let's Face It song is understanding what the meaning of what "it" is. On the album's title track, the "it" that Dicky thinks we ought to be facing is racism, sexism, and bigotry -- a connection he makes at the end of the song: "Let's try to erase it, it's time that we face it / Let's face it, the time is upon us."
By 1997, the Bosstones had already been a band for more than 10 years. They'd never really taken on political songwriting, but they were heavily influenced by The Clash and 2 Tone ska heroes the Specials and the Selecter, who made opposing racism their primary mission. Not for nothing, the Bosstones had a mixed-race lineup featuring two black members - something of a rarity on lilywhite '90s alternative radio. Curiously, the only group with more diversity might have been the Dave Matthews Band.
Let's Face It was actually the Bosstones third major-label album. They'd been signed by Mercury in the early '90s, at the dawn of the alternative era. As grungy guitar bands ruled the scene, the Bosstones bided their time until ska was ready for its close-up. This happened around 1996, when No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris, and Sublime started gaining MTV airplay. While some of the groups that flew the ska banner had genuine scene cred (No Doubt had been holding it down since the mid-'80s), the Bosstones were the most legit ska band to really blow up.
On Let's Face It, the group tamps down its punk, hardcore, and metal influences and ups the ratio of springy ska guitar to thundering power chords. The knucklehead self-mythologizing of opener "Noise Brigade" and closer "1-2-8" suggest the Bosstones were fully aware of what they were doing. Their wardrobe also told the tale. After years in the alt-rock trenches -- tours, radio festivals, seldom-aired MTV videos, the whole rigmarole -- they swapped their trademark ugly plaid suits for snazzier black and grey numbers. It all helped them ride a wave they'd helped to generate. And they did it without looking like sellouts.
That was another big "S" word in the '90s: sellout. It was even the name of Reel Big Fish's biggest single. As the Bosstones started playing to bigger audiences, they used the opportunity to promote younger bands and support organizations like Anti-Racist Action, which would set up tables in the back of gigs.
All of this at a time when plenty of ska bands would've gladly compromised their sound and principles for a chance to rock the MTV Beach House. The Bosstones never had to. Knock on wood.