In 1997 a group of grizzled, unabashedly alcoholic and fun-loving musicians hit the scene with a horn-fueled juking single the likes of which mainstream radio hadn’t heard in years. Known colloquially as the “knock on wood” song, “The Impression that I Get,” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones from their breakthrough Let’s Face It, was a ska anthem reminiscent of the relatively unknown Specials and punk/ska lords, the Clash.
Let’s Face It saw an average run on the charts and housed a respectable number of singles, but The Mighty Mighty Bosstones fell off the map after the record eventually fizzled. Their next studio release, Pay Attention, saw limited success as they quickly fell into anonymity. But what most aren’t aware of is the stockpile of ska classics The Bosstones had released prior to Let’s Face It that garnered no critical acclaim or widespread airplay – Don’t Know How to Party being their best.
An album that revels in the dynamic power of an expansive horn section – and the gravelly, strained screams of lead singer Dicky Barrett – Don’t Know How is an explosively defiant middle finger to mainstream radio. Dripping with originality, the record is a mass of swinging left-hook instrumentation and uppercut choruses.
The disc’s lynchpin, “Someday I Suppose,” is an incredible single that slipped under the mainstream radar. Its slowly crescendoing horn intro is simple and enthralling, but when the group unleashes the feedback and distorted guitars, the track jolts back and forth between a hummable chorus and a call-and-response from Barrett’s faithful backing. When the barrage of horns comes to a breakneck end, you’re blasted with the poisonously aggressive “A Man Without.” A song that exemplifies the mainstream’s discontent with The Bosstones, the track is a jarring cut only longtime Bosstones fans will appreciate: Barrett screaming bloody murder, sounding as if he’s smoked four packs of cigarettes in as many minutes and shredding metal guitar lines.
But the hooks and joyous melodies aren’t finished with the aforementioned single. “Holy Smoke” – a track with the fastest guitars this side of “Guitar Hero” – is an immediately playful cut, and “Almost Anything Goes” – the best song about mindless dissenting you’ve ever heard – pound through your speakers with the same excitement as “Someday I Suppose.”
With such an expansive, impressive catalog, one wonders why it took so long for the mainstream to catch on. But with a little investigation, the answer becomes obvious: In 1996, one year before The Bosstones hit the big time, Sublime’s epic self-titled album finally hit the airwaves. The Bosstones couldn’t start a movement but they were undoubtedly one of the forefathers – the Pearl Jam to Sublime’s Nirvana.
And because of this shortcoming, The Bosstones are left with an impressively lengthy cast of albums but little to show for it. Why more people didn’t pick up Don’t Know How after the group’s eventual breakthrough is still a mystery, though. By all accounts, it’s a significantly better album than any of their mainstream successes: It’s more composed, more boisterous and more innovative. Plus, Barrett’s voice never sounded more inspired and filled with vitriol than it did on Don’t Know How – a voice that will go down alongside Tom Waits as one of the all-time best growlers.
But maybe that’s another reason the mainstream didn’t take to The Bosstones: The group’s unshaven and, frankly, morally bankrupt image was too much for the MTV churn. They cleaned up, put on suits and consequently made it to the bigs. But with this sort of material, they’re bound to pop up again. Someday, I suppose.