Anyone who has ever had to argue the cultural merits of third-wave ska is inevitably questioned about the genre’s authenticity. For decades after its mainstream run in the mid-’90s, this kind of snobbery was woefully predictable, as the sunny clash of brass and major-chord punk was thrust back underground by the powers that be. Little did many people know that this is where it thrived the most, especially in Orange County. Ska spent years biding its time, maintaining its diehard fan base while pulling in new generations of band geeks looking for outcast music made just for them.
Throughout third-wave ska’s existence, fans and musicians such as Taylor Morden refused to let it die. The Oregon-based documentary film director and musician grew up emulating such bands as Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris and No Doubt. As he watched new generations discover the music of his youth without any preconceived notions, he decided it was important to share the history of the music that defined the scene that raised him—because somebody had to.
“I’d watched a ton of ska documentaries, but there hadn’t really been one I’d seen about American, ’90s, third-wave ska,” Morden says. “It was such a cultural phenomenon for so many people, but young people today don’t really know about it, so we wanted to do something that could preserve that story and have it told by the people who lived it.”
The result was Pick It Up!, its title an homage to a common phrase among ska bands that generally means to “pick up” the beat of a song. From the simple explanation of ska terminology to the more nuanced reasons why the music vanished from the mainstream as quickly as it exploded, the documentary is a definitive time capsule on the origins of third-wave ska from the mouths of the people who inspired it, originated it and continue to stoke its creative fires. Through interviews with Mike Park of Skankin’ Pickle, Angelo Moore of Fishbone, Goldfinger’s John Feldmann, ska encyclopedia and radio personality Tazy Phyllipz, Tom Dumont of No Doubt, plus dozens of others, the film examines the story behind this genre’s birth in OC and the East Coast and looks at its current home in places such as Mexico, Japan and Europe.
“Ska never went away, but if you’re watching the mainstream, you would’ve thought it did,” Morden says. “We started the movie in 2017, and we never could’ve predicted the Back to the Beach festival [in Huntington Beach] drawing 30,000 people to watch ska music again or the Interrupters hitting No. 1 on Canadian radio.” Since Morden started filming, Reel Big Fish and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones—two of the biggest, longest-lasting ska bands on either coast—have put out new albums. “We had no idea that was gonna be happening,” Morden says.
Narrated by Tim Armstrong of Rancid and iconic ska/punk band Operation Ivy, the film opens with the image of hands popping a mix CD of third-wave ska into a clunky Magnavox Discman. The origins of what it took to become part of the zeitgeist of the ’90s are explained through animation and archival footage, touching on the evolution of original ska music in Jamaica and its migration in to the U.S. via 2-Tone and the cultural factors that led to ska being one of the most racially inclusive genres despite how it’s often characterized after the record industry overmarketed it to the point of the sound becoming a parody of itself. But even after the 2000s hit, people’s affinity for bands such as Voodoo Glow Skulls, Big D and the Kids Table, and Hepcat helped keep ska’s spirit alive.
“The scene was always for the weird kids and the outcasts, and that gave people like me a sense of ownership over it and a sense of belonging,” Morden says. “It’s not for everybody, and I get that, but the people who love it really love it.”
Part of Pick It Up!’s value is in its dedication to showing viewers where the oversaturation of third-wave ska went wrong, as well as how bands outside the U.S., such as Maldita Vecindad in Mexico and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra in Japan, are keeping the torch burning. A member of the band the Pie Tasters, Morden admits he learned a lot about the power of ska and, more important, the strength and connection of the community that still supports it. During the crew’s first road trip to film interviews in Orange County, Morden says, he and his crew were able to crash with ska bands who just wanted to help them out.
“We actually slept on T-Bone Willy and Tahlena [Chikami] from Bite Me Bambi’s floor while we were making this movie. It felt like being a touring band in the ’90s,” Morden says. “I had no idea the ska scene was so connected and thriving, even though I’ve been playing in bands on the East Coast for 10 years.”
On Friday, Pick It Up! premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival, just a few miles from where the second-annual Back to the Beach festival—which celebrates ska, emo and hardcore—will be going off the next day. Morden has already staked out a spot for a Back to the Beach booth, from which he can meet fans, hang out with the Kickstarter backers who helped him finance the film and thank a few of the bands for being part of Morden’s love letter to the genre. There will probably be more than a few recognizable band members whooping it up in the crowd at the Newport Beach Film Fest, as well.
Morden hopes new ska fans will see his documentary and gain some valuable knowledge of the genre, then pick it up for themselves.
“I think the film is a testament to the genre and the fans and the community that [ensure] ska bands will always have a place,,” Morden says. “I imagine if you listen to the Interrupters, and that’s the first thing you’ve heard, you’re probably gonna pick up a Rancid album and go from there.”
The world premiere of Pick It Up! screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Fest at the Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach, (949) 673-8350; newportbeachfilmfest.com. Fri., 8:30 p.m. $16.