Reel Big Fish (hereafter RBF) is one of a few ska bands that became popular in the late '90s. I still find it somewhat amazing that there was a mini ska boom at the time, since the prominent horns and bouncy punk rhythms that most so-called third wave ska acts had going for them was pretty far removed from a lot of the rest of the popular rock (read: alternative (back then, anyways)) scene.1 I was a casual fan of ska; I liked the songs on the radio, and I went and got albums by two of the bands with the biggest hits: the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (Let's Face It) and RBF (Turn the Radio Off). Later, I would branch out and get albums by other ska bands, but during my freshman year of high school those two albums were more or less the extent of my knowledge of the genre.
This means that I've had Turn the Radio Off for close to a decade now (a fact that surprises and somewhat dismays me), and I still listen to it every so often. The songs are are fun and funny. The jokier songs are more immediate, and were my favorites originally. I'm talking about songs like "Beer" (which extols the virtues of beer for smoothing over relationship problems), "She Has a Girlfriend Now", "Say 'Ten'" (which picks on the ever-popular target of vegetarians), and the hit "Sell Out" (which is nothing but the band poking fun at itself). The rest of the album is quite good as well, with the only real weak spots being "Snoop Dogg, Baby" and "S.R.". Still, by the end of any album it's easy to not be paying much attention, and that's why it took me so long to really appreciate the last two tracks, "I'll Never Be" and "Alternative, Baby".
"I'll Never Be" is a mostly understated song wherein the narrator worries that his band will never amount to anything, or worse, that he'll never amount to anything. This is a bit of a recurring theme in the album; "Everything Sucks" covers similar territory. The two are complementary; "Everything Sucks" is brash, bitter and defeated in the face of imminent failure, while "I'll Never Be" is genuinely troubled and striving ('I try I try I try I try/every day, every day'). It would be a bit of a downer to go out like that, so the band moves on to something with a little bit of swagger.
The drummer gives a quick count by hitting his sticks together, and the horns come blasting in, along with the rest of the band. It's a punchy horn line at first, well served by the rock-style guitars that start the song. They quickly shift to a ska rhythm, and the horn part becomes more fluid; it finishes as the guitars vamp a little bit, and the horns drop out to make way for the vocalist, who begins his tale. Like so many guys, our narrator is at a show and finds himself smitten with a girl in the band2 (the 'alternative baby' of the title). But of course someone cool enough to be in a band is probably too cool for him. Things get a little quiet as he admits
'Cuz I know I'd just say something stupid
And I know you've got better things to do
Who can't relate to that? Okay, I'll try not to project and just say I can relate to that. But things don't stay down for long, as the chorus roars in:
Don't you wanna be my friend?
You know I'm singing all my songs to you
and it's all right if you don't understand
And so it becomes clear that our narrator is in a band in part to impress the ladies. I guess that means now is as good a time as any to talk about a band I was in while I was at Case. Two people I knew through the radio station, Matt and Tim, had started a ska band, since they both loved ska.3 Once while talking to Tim I mentioned that I played piano, and he asked if I wanted to play keyboards in his band. This took me back to high school, when one of my friends had been in a ska band called the Evil Geniuses, and I had been jealous because their name was awesome and it sounded like fun and I wanted to be cool and in a band. I had to say yes. It turned out he was still in a bit of a recruitment phase, as we were adding and dropping members for a month or two after I joined, but we eventually stabilized at 9 members (I think). We got a name (Stop Laughing), played 2 shows on campus and in general had a good time.
The summer after the first year we were together everybody went home or otherwise dispersed, but we knew we wanted to play together more when we got back. Then in August, we got some exciting news. Once a semester, Case got a semi-well-known band to play a big show on campus.4 The upcoming fall, they had decided to bring RBF to campus. Even better, since we were known as the campus ska band, we were asked to open. Since I was at home I tried to explain to my mom why this was sort of amazing (not to mention perhaps a little undeserved), but she had never heard of RBF (unsurprisingly). "I guess we have to actually write some songs," Tim said. When we started nearly all the songs we played were covers, so we needed to write enough songs that we could do a set that was mostly our own stuff. As soon as we got back to Case we got cracking, and we managed to put together a new song just about every week for the first month and a half of the semester. During our practices it became a running joke that the keyboards were a marginal part of the band, and if I wanted to have any sort of prominence (such as a solo), I'd have to write a song myself. So I did, whence the song "Goth Baby".
I didn't realize it at the time, but "Goth Baby" is heavily influenced by "Alternative, Baby"5. The song is structured similarly, and lyrically fits into the mold described above, meaning the two songs resemble each other at times (especially the choruses6). It was fun to write and fun to play, and I probably owe a lot of that to "Alternative, Baby".
And what about the rest of "Alternative, Baby"? After the first chorus, things move forward. It seems like the narrator has made some attempt at starting a relationship, but things don't quite work out. With the couplet 'I said I was cool/but I can't lie to you' he seems to cave in to his own misgivings, an impression which the final pre-chorus reinforces:
'Cuz I know it'll be the same in the end
I didn't like it the first time anyway
Things don't end on a down note, however. The chorus reappears a couple of times, there's a zippy trumpet solo, and the horn line from the beginning reappears to help close out the song. There's a final blast and things end on a literal and figurative high note.
1. While writing this I realized that Green Day at least had the bouncy punk going for them, and they were big then.
2. Seriously, if one were ranking attractiveness on a scale from 1-10 (which of course is horribly reductive and objectifying, but, um. Everybody does it?) being in a band adds at least 1 point to one's score, possibly 2 or 3 if the band is good. Perhaps this was a contributing factor to my joining a band (about which more is coming later), but I doubt it.
3. In fact, Tim's favorite band was RBF. This is important not just because it helps make this seem like less of a digression than it is, but also for how it ties into the story of the band.
4. e.g. Jurassic 5 did a show in Fall '04.
5. My song was originally titled "My Goth Baby", which is obviously totally different. Well, it's at least not the exact same.
6. For comparison, the chorus of "Goth Baby":
I'm a happy ska guy
but when she passes me by
I wanna be sad
I want her so bad
My goth baby
I know that this can never be