Mustard Plug with the Planet Smashers, et al
May 31, 2003, Metro, Chicago
How come ska gets no respect? Why is it?
Is it the matching outfits? Can’t be. The Hives wear matching outfits and everybody loves them. So I don’t know.
But I do know that on a Saturday night at the Metro in Chicago, about 1,200 kids were totally getting off on the music of the Planet Smashers and Mustard Plug. These kids were going nuts. It was exhilarating to watch from the relative safety and calm of the balcony with the rest of the people too old or just too exhausted to be involved in the mosh pit that consumed the entire floor.
Full disclosure: I am friends with the guys in Mustard Plug. They are from my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we’ve thrown back plenty of Old Styles together, listening to Black Sabbath at Mulligan’s, a neighborhood dive in G-Rap’s only cool part of town.
I was a little shocked when we arrived. This was one of those all-day, multi-band ska-fests and we showed up at that very end to catch the one band I know I like. I had been told that Mustard Plug was going on at 8:45 sharp. (They were the headliners; you’ve got to love all-ages shows.) The Planet Smashers were still playing so I walked to the bar and bought a couple beers. No line, no waiting. I looked around the bar and the handful of people there were hanging out patiently, looking somewhat bemused, wearing Mom jeans. Oh my god, I realized, I’m in the Parents Section! I looked out onto the floor at a moshing sea of teenagers, all pierced and spiky-haired, but obviously clean and mostly sober. Do they think I’m somebody’s dad? In an alternate universe, I guess I could have a teenage kid by now; I mean, I was biologically capable fifteen years ago to impregnate someone. Jesus Christ, I’d better down this beer and order another one quick! Thankfully, I was the bartender’s only customer.
After I recovered from my mid-life crisis—don’t worry, I have them all the time—I started to notice how much fun the crowd was having. How into it they were. I looked around for the sure-fire signs of the ska fashion scene: vintage suits and ties – check; checkered suspenders – check; wallet chains – check; big old mohawks – check; big old baggy shorts – check; little girls in little pleated skirts – check. So yeah, there’s a uniform. But what scene’s crowd doesn’t have a uniform? Ever been to an alt-country show? Western shirts – check; thick-framed glasses – check; old school sneakers – check; Pabst Blue Ribbon – check; lack of girls – well, you get the idea.
And the music. It was great. I’m not that hip to current ska, but the Planet Smashers (from Canada) played a bunch of really good songs. Yes, they had typical horn parts played by typical horn guys who jumped around entirely too much. Or was it too much? I’ve got to admit I couldn’t take my eyes off them as they ran around the stage like nerds at band camp who’d just finished off that six-pack of Jolt. The crunchy guitar parts, the sing-along choruses, the dopey lyrics about girls… What more do you want in your pop music? This stuff was great.
And Mustard Plug is just awesome. They’ve got their shit together. It’s hard to believe they’ve been around for over 10 years. I remember hearing one of their first songs on the local alternative radio show, and absolutely hating it. I was all into the Smiths and the Stone Roses at the time so hearing a bunch of goofballs chanting, “We want the mustard, we want the mustard… PLUG,” wasn’t going to win me over. It was a few years later, seeing them live, when it started to make sense. Their songwriting had improved by then, and just watching them work the crowd was incredible. It was as if the music somehow forced you to dance. Or at least bounce up and down. Or at least smile.
And by 1997’s Evildoers Beware (Hopeless), Mustard Plug was no longer just a goofy local band. They had actually become good, solid songwriters and musicians. They were even recording with the guys from the Descendents/All. Unfortunately, this was the same time that ska was getting some action on mainstream radio and MTV. Remember the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get”? This was also right when the whole “swing” thing was going on, so bands with horns were the next big thing. This little blip in pop music history didn’t last long, of course, but every band even remotely related to that scene was deemed a bandwagoneer, some justifiably (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies), some not (the Squirrel Nut Zippers actually recorded some really interesting music but were ignorantly lumped in with the “swing” scene). Pretty soon, all the ska bands started kicking out their horn players and calling themselves emo, whatever the hell that is, or just “punk.” Apparently, Blink 182 and Sum 41 were the next next big thing.
But not Mustard Plug, baby. They kept their horn players. And when the few remaining bands who still actually played ska were asked to describe their music, they’d invariably have demure and evasive responses alluding to punk rock and heavy metal and all kinds of crap that didn’t really identify what they sounded like. But not Mustard Plug. When they were asked what kind of music they played, they’d defiantly say, “Ska.”
So fuck you to the snobs who scoff at kids who love music that doesn’t meet your standards of coolness. Fuck you and your killjoy attitude that attempts to make people feel stupid about themselves and the things they enjoy. Fuck you for trying to sound smarter and cooler than you really are. Fuck you because I know you’re going to reply to this article with some smartass comment intended to show how witty and clever you are. Fuck you and take your bullshit hipster attitude and shove it up your ass. Because Mustard Plug is a good band, and they write good songs, and they make good records, and they play great concerts. (The guys in the band are far too nice to tell you to fuck off like that, but I am bound by no such constraints.)
This was a great show and the crowd was loving it. Going apeshit. Losing their minds. It felt like these 1,200 people were seeing their favorite band ever—a band that never gets played on the radio, never gets videos on MTV, never gets mentioned in Rolling Stone, Spin or even Magnet. And yet they still draw 1,200 rabid fans to come dance their asses off with them.
Before they played their final encore, guitarist Colin Clive looked out over the sweaty crowd and thanked them for coming out and supporting the scene. “And as you get older,” he said, “don’t forget how much you love this music.” It’s just insane that he should have to remind them of that.
There are tons of mp3s on the band’s multimedia page, including their hilarious take on the Verve Poop’s “The Freshman” (fellow Grand Rapidians, you know).