Formed in 1981 in Berkeley, while they were still in high school. The Uptones were the first band devoted to playing Ska on the West Coast. The Uptones played to skanking crowds all over the West. Several of their recordings were regional hits, and for a time they were the most popular band in the Bay Area.
Major publications of the time raved about them:
“It is a sight to behold, The Uptones tearing up the stage and the audience tearing up the dance floor.” – San Francisco Chronicle
“The Uptones… without a doubt the best show in Berkeley.” – Berkeley Free Press
“Sitting down at an Uptones show is like keeping your eyes shut at a movie.” – Rolling Stone
The Uptones “Live at Gilman Street” (SOB CD 0058) is a living proof of the raw power the band delivered every show.
“Best live Ska record ever” – Crawdaddy Magazine
“***** Five Stars “This record rocks from beginning to end.” – Rolling Stone
“The Uptones, the Bay Area’s best ska band of all time.”
— Pacific Sun
Several tracks from this legendary recording are offered for free in the mp3 format at www.uptones.com
Members of the original band, Eric Din, Paul Jackson, and Bennie Wood have been playing music together since then. First as Hobo and then as Stiff Richards
The ska bug never left these lads. And now Eric, Paul, Bennie, and Adam Beach are joined by Mike Stevens, Jeanne Geiger, Scott Bertrand, Emily Jayne, and Moose Lethridge to form the current lineup of The Uptones.
The Uptones have completed their first CD “Skankin’ Foolz Unite” for Fun Fun Fun Recordings containing new original material with producers Matthew King Kaufman and Michael Rosen.
UPTONES GET DOWN
–by Joel Selvin, San Francisco Chronicle March 23, 2008
The Uptones broke up more than 20 years ago, although Eric Dinwiddie, Paul Jackson and Ben Eastwood never stopped playing music together. The pioneer Berkeley ska band that started when its members were in high school had been an instant success. But it ended its run four years later.
“It just sort of dissipated,” says Dinwiddie, who goes by Din, sitting in his Oakland bachelor pad. “It didn’t make any sense to continue. But it was always unfinished business to me.”
The Uptones left it to East Bay ska disciples such as Rancid, whose members used to regularly attend Uptones performances, to take the ska beat into the punk world. Other former Uptones players drifted into the fertile jazz scene in Berkeley and made names for themselves there. But the Uptones never really died; they just went away for a while.
Dinwiddie, Jackson and Eastwood continued, first as Hobo, a pop-rock outfit, and later as Stiff Richards, a more hard-rocking band, and they never stopped playing club gigs. But the inner Uptones kept struggling to get out.
When original Uptones guitarist Charles Stella came back to town after years in New York, the ska infection resurfaced and, shortly thereafter, the Uptones were back on the boards, two decades later, with a new horn section and a brilliant new album that resounds with the strength of the lifelong creative collaboration at its center.
Dinwiddie, 42, lives in a one-room cottage tucked behind a house on a quiet street near the bustling Rockridge shopping district. While relatively tidy, the quarters, which Dinwiddie shares with his cat, Buster, are crammed with musical gear and computer equipment. Guitarist Musashi Lethridge, 40, a longtime friend and fan who took Stella’s place in the permanent reunion and is known as Moose – steps outside the open French doors to smoke a cigarette, but the patio is almost like part of the room.
Dinwiddie’s little warren is the unofficial headquarters of the band’s creative core, where the songs are written and the band’s music begins. Jackson, 40, eats a burrito at the card table holding Dinwiddie’s recording setup with the ease of someone who has spent many hours in the room.
“It haunted me for a long time that we didn’t live up to our potential,” Dinwiddie says. “That’s what we’re doing now. It’s all about the dancing. There’s so much fun to be had dancing to ska.”
Ska began in Jamaica in the late ’50s, long before the advent of reggae, the music’s more modern cousin. Unlike reggae, often known for social and political content, ska is dance music, plain and simple. When the music spread to England in the mid-’60s, it was adopted by Mod youth of the day and reprised in the ’80s New Wave era by 2-Tone record label bands such as Madness, the English Beat and the Specials. The English, as they always do, translated the musical style into a fashion, complete with requisite dance steps, haircuts and wardrobes.
It was after attending a concert by the English Beat at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, in November 1981, that these three Berkeley High School students vowed to form a ska band. Within six months, their nine-piece band was packing clubs such as Berkeley’s La Peña and opening concerts for hot out-of-town acts, including the Go Go’s and Billy Idol. Local radio stations were playing the band’s demo tape, “Out to Sea,” all while keyboardist Jackson was still too young to get a driver’s license.
“There weren’t any other ska bands at the time,” Jackson says. “There were bands trying to sound like the Police, let’s put it that way, but there weren’t any ska bands. A lot of people came and went.”
Jackson ticks off the names of the hot young jazzmen who swiftly passed through the Uptones’ ranks: Dave Ellis, Kenny Brooks, Jay Lane, Joshua Redman.
“It was like a school,” he says.
The Uptones may have folded when Ronald Reagan was still president, but ska never went away. Absorbed into the punk-rock culture, the Jamaican rhythms took on new life in the hands of young musicians such as the Uptones disciples in Rancid and Long Beach’s million-selling punk-ska band Sublime. No Doubt, the multiplatinum Orange County band that produced Gwen Stefani, started life as a ska band (although “it didn’t sound like ska to me,” says Jackson, who co-wrote songs and played keyboards on the first three Rancid albums).
Meanwhile, the three original Uptones experienced life as an alternative indie rock band, with all the attendant indignities, such as a Clear Lake gig where the audience was so small and quiet the band could hear the crickets chirping outside between numbers. But they always kept a practice hall, and they kept making music together.
“There was always a gig,” Dinwiddie says. “We never went more than two months without a gig. They weren’t like Uptones gigs. They were like …”
“… any gig,” Jackson says.
As the pop-flavored Hobo gave way to the more raucous Stiff Richards, more of the old Uptones material started slipping back in.
“By the time we started the Uptones again, Stiff Richards was a ska band waiting for a ska rhythm section and horns,” Dinwiddie says.
Never forgot the band
Dinwiddie never gave up the spirit of the Uptones, even when he and his comrades were playing under the other band names.
“I was never that comfortable with those names,” he says. “I had a lot of fun and all that, but the Uptones – that’s my band. These other bands, they were just keeping the heart of the Uptones alive.”
The musicians have worked with producer Matthew King Kaufman since before the 1992 Hobo record. Kaufman was the founder and “reigning loony” of Beserkley Records, the maverick East Bay independent label of the ’70s and ’80s where he produced records by the Greg Kihn Band, Jonathan Richman and the Rubinoos. At the final stage of both the band and the label, Kaufman released a lone Uptones single.
“They’re easily the most musically talented bunch I’ve worked with,” says Kaufman, who has spent four years putting together the new Uptones album, “Skankin’ Foolz Unite,” and releasing it on his own Fun Fun Fun Recordings label. “The power of them playing together all those years is what I find stupefying. And with Eric, Paul and Ben playing the key positions, it’s easy for them to drive everything.”
The musicians show up for a recent dress rehearsal at Soundwaves Studio in industrial West Oakland with their ska wardrobe – Jackson a ball of light in a silver-sequined suit – ready to have their photograph taken. Hat boxes and street shoes litter the floor as the band, in full costume, runs over a new original, “Keep Pushing.” The rhythm players are crisply efficient, the three-piece brass section tight as a lug nut.
Not shy people
Even before the photographer arrives, Dinwiddie, dressed head to toe in black-and-white checks, and Lethridge dance around madly, bumping into each other. These are not shy people. The band members stay in constant motion, long-legged trombonist Jeanne Geiger silently mouthing the lyrics when she’s not playing. Eastwood, Dinwiddie and Jackson stay on one side of the stage around Jackson’s keyboard stack, the engine room of the band, and, after the horns offer a lazy, sonorous introduction, they stoke the fire like madmen. Dinwiddie careens around the stage, flashing his checkerboard shoes.
“That’s why I liked the Uptones,” he had said earlier. “It’s because you can dance to it. I like pretty songs as much as anybody, but I don’t want to play them.”
American ska is far less celebrated than its Jamaican and English counterparts. Yet the up-tempo, dance-friendly genre has had considerable impact on pop culture, having influenced everyone from Sublime to No Doubt to Green Day. One of the first (and greatest) American ska outfits, however, was raised right here in the East Bay — the Uptones. Products of Berkeley High School and Cazadero music camp, the Uptones became a force to be reckoned with on the local live music scene in the early ’80s, skanking onto radio airwaves with their powerful anti-war jingle, “Out to Sea.” which led to a deal with now-defunct I.R.S. records (one of the tastemaking indie labels of that era). Despite massive amounts of critical acclaim — Crawdaddy called their Live at Gilman Street album the “best live ska record ever” while Rolling Stone exclaimed “this record rocks from beginning to end” — their I.R.S. debut K.U.S.A. failed to capture their live show. The band broke up more than two decades ago, although members continued on in Stiff Richards and Hobo. But the ska jones never left their bones. Earlier this year, the newly reunited Uptones released Skankin’ Foolz Unite on Fun Fun Fun Records and have been playing shows ever since, as if to make up for lost time. The Uptones’ philosophy is probably best summed up by the lyrics of “Skanking Fool,” which state: So don’t be surprised if you feel the beat/Don’t be ashamed if you move your feet/In an East Bay style that’s doctor approved/Nobody bounce back like a skanking fool.
09.02.08 – KFOG Local Scene Concert The Uptones @ Slims
I got to talk them before the show. It was nice to catch up. In 1984 they were on a KQAK local band LP. Back then they had some young guys in the band like Joshua Redman, and Dave Ellis (pre jazz world fame of course). They all came from the really really strong music program at Berkeley High.
The band are still awesome musicians, and write great songs. The did well chosen crowd sing-along covers of The Specials “Ghost Town”, The Heptones “Book of Rules”, and The Selector’s “Too Much Pressure” as well as the song from that 84 local band lp “Get Outta My Way.” Always a crowd favorite.
Lots of young ska kids at Slims were skankin’ around that were not born way back in da day. Being young and liking ska was really weird back then, and it is again today. Hoorah weird kids!
They thanked KFOG a few times during the non stop set, and plugged Music In Schools too. I’ve seen them a gazillion times in 25 years, all different lineups, and kind of took them for granted, but no more and never again last night they rocked it.
Hoorah for The Uptones.
~ Big Rick Stuart’s KFOG Blog
At the Uptones’ Skanking Fools Dance Contest, Ska Reigns Supreme
Ska’s the limit.
Two minutes into the first song by the opening act, forty teenagers and a few adults spontaneously erupt into a single skanking mass in the center of the dance floor. Just a moment ago they stood mostly still while sizing up the band, a ska outfit from Sacramento called the Street Vendors, and now they’ve transformed as if through an inexorable scientific reaction into a writhing jumble of knees and elbows. That’s what they’re here for, after all. With $500 on the line during a ska dancing competition later in the evening, they may as well get warmed up.
Here at Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center, local ska band the Uptones are holding their third Skankin’ Fools Dance Contest. During the Uptones’ upcoming set, contestants with numbers pinned to their backs will dance their hearts out for a chance at the $500 prize. Two previous Skankin’ Fools contests held in the East Bay in 2007 and 2008 offered prizes of $100 and drew hundreds of kids from around the Bay Area. This year, with the addition of sponsor SonicSwap.com, the increased award has only intensified the competition.
“Are there any rude girls in the house?” the Street Vendors’ lead singer asks into the mic, and although men outnumber women at least two-to-one, a big cheer goes up. The reaction bears out a sense that the crowd tonight is truly unlike any other: a tight-knit, proudly geeky subculture that celebrates its cultishness and unique language even within the insular independent music world.
The prize money is nice, but the real draw tonight, and likewise at all ska shows, is simply having a good time with like-minded fans. Ska developed out of jazz, R&B, and Caribbean rhythms in Jamaica in the late 1950s, predating both rocksteady and reggae by a decade. It was the dominant form of music in Jamaica for years before spreading to England in the late 1970s and across the United States during the short-lived revival of the mid-’90s through bands such as No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. All along, ska remained primarily a dance genre, with lyrics either secondary or absent altogether. It’s the up-tempo, syncopated rhythm that matters most: a beat that inspires the carefree, energetic, almost irresistible move known as the skank.
One of skanking’s greatest attractions is there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Over the past five decades, ska dancing has evolved along with ska music so that myriad styles now mingle under the same tent. The basic form is a full swing of the elbow paired with a high-knee skip, shifting from one side to the other every second beat. At La Peña, some dancers lift their legs then kick back their feet, while others point their toes or stomp the floor. Some raise their hands high, while others stoop over and punch closed fists toward the ground. This freedom of expression and lack of rules explains why otherwise self-conscious teens often find skanking therapeutic.
By the time the second group, an Operation Ivy cover band from the North Bay called Hectic, concludes its set, dancing has been going on for two hours. Many kids guzzle water and rest up while waiting for the start of the contest with the arrival of the Uptones, an eight-piece band that formed at Berkeley High in 1981 as one of the West Coast’s first ska groups, disbanded a few years later, and recently reunited. Four friends from Moraga and Orinda are among them, huddled at the edge of the dance floor. “I came for the Uptones and because I love to skank,” said Sunflower Wittenberg, 18. “It’s a really good way to let your energy out.” Kelsey Bergman, 18, and Deena Duffy, 17, prefer reggae and punk music, respectively, but enjoy ska dancing as a safe and friendly way to “let it all out.”
When the Uptones finally appear after 11 p.m., the energy in the room seems to peak. “Y’all ready to skank? ‘Cause that’s what we’re here for,” announces guitarist Musashi “Moose” Lethridge. Fifty-eight people among a couple hundred total have signed up to compete in the dance contest, and no matter how tired, they’re eager to do their best. Again the dance floor is abuzz with energetic young skankers, a flurry of flailing limbs and bobbing bodies.
The three judges will decide a winner largely by style and enthusiasm, and some entrants have tried to improve their odds by wearing ska’s trademark black-and-white checkerboard pattern on shoes, suspenders, or shirts. One of the more devoted skankers wears the traditional ska uniform of a full black suit with a skinny tie. Many also wear fedora or trilby hats. Onstage, the Uptones sport their own array of black, brown, and even sequined suits.
With the contest underway, at floor level it’s a sea of shuffling feet and flying shadows. Even over the music you can hear the sound of one hundred squeaking sneakers on the hardwood dance floor. The temperature in the room begins to rise, and with it the scent of sweat. One teen’s gray T-shirt is entirely soaked. “How you holdin’ up?” another skanker asks his girlfriend after a song ends. Five minutes later, visibly worn out, she takes a seat. The contest may as well be titled “Last Skanker Standing.”
Shortly after midnight, it’s time to announce the winner. A representative of SonicSwap.com appears on stage bearing an oversize check for $500. He calls out #34 and seventeen-year-old Leslie Watson from Pleasanton climbs onstage with a look of complete surprise. “Oh my gosh, thank you so much,” she says backstage as five one-hundred dollar bills are counted out before her. “Now my parents won’t have to bug me about not having any money.”
“I wasn’t expecting that at all!” she exclaims. While eight runners-up skank onstage during two more Uptones songs, Watson explains that she hadn’t even planned to enter the contest. Some of the ten friends with whom she’d caravanned over convinced her to sign up — even after she’d promised her running coach she wouldn’t on account of an injury she was nursing and an upcoming half-marathon. In the end, that long-distance conditioning likely helped secure her victory.
The money would go toward gas, college, and a late-night snack with friends at IHOP, she said. But even without this unexpected windfall, ska offered plenty to keep her coming back. “Ska isn’t very popular at my school, so whenever people want to know what it’s like, I always tell them the same thing: It’s just fun.” She said the last few words as if there was nothing more to say, and judging by tonight’s concert she couldn’t have been more right.
The Uptones, Minks, Tried & True
Every generation has its own ska revival, and for people who went to Bay Area high schools in the ’80s, one of the biggest names in the scene was the UpTones. The band formed while its members were still students at Berkeley High School and quickly became one of the most popular concert attractions around the bay. Three original members of the band have revived the UpTones and are inspiring a new crop of kids to dance. This is an all-ages show.
Last night I went to a ska concert with Fishbone, The Uptones, The Chop Tops and The Gallows… The Uptones – were badass. This was ska-punk the way it should be played: with eight band-members, three horn-players (the trombonist was female!), and some fucking catchy tunes. I will definitely try to get ahold of more of their music.
—sataf’s last fm journal (excerpt)
“It’s a great time of year to get out to Rancho Nicasio and see some of the world-class music they continually bring to Marin. On May 16 check out the long-awaited return of The Uptones, the Bay Area’s best ska band of all time.”
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