It’s been ten years since this album’s quiet release. I picked it out of a bargain bin at a Christian bookstore for six dollars. I was sixteen, yet within the first five seconds, I could tell this album was a nightmare to market for Tooth and Nail Records, whose bread was (is…?) mostly buttered by the youth of evangelical America. In those first five seconds, I heard a can of spray paint shaken and sprayed—aural evidence of vandalism.
Suffice it to say, it was the last album the Dingees (g pronounced like a j) released on Tooth & Nail—although they had two previous on BEC, another branch of the same company—and judging from the lyrics, things didn’t end well. And, while I don’t have any insider information, I can reasonably guess at generalities to say that the Dingees, a ska-punk band, were dropped for—heaven forfend!—behaving like punks.
The genre “ska-punk” is a generality at best. They dabbled in a bit of everything, from straight-up reggae, to dub, to hardcore, to rock ‘n roll, in addition to ska and punk. Indeed, HM Magazine wrote that they were but “a fading memory” of third wave ska. But let’s not argue over semantics. Let’s get down to brass tacks about why they were dropped. The Dingees were dropped for at least one, but perhaps up to all four, of the following reasons:
- Anti-record company / not profitable
- Not Christian enough
- Paranoid about the government
- Ska was on the way out, anyway
From track one, this band tries to walk the line between speaking their minds and cloaking their intent in possibly Christian, yet possibly subversive, positions (at least, to neo-con America) both spiritual and political. If only the reviewers could understand the lyrics—lyrics which, according to Dan Bell, didn’t come with the promo CD. Which is a bummer, because the lyrics are one of this album’s strengths. My copy has something else that the promo CD didn’t have: a hidden track. Bell declared that there were no hidden tracks, but there most definitely is one, not at the very end of the album—as is customary—rather, in the middle. More on that in a moment. Without the lyrics, Bell was at a severe disadvantage and couldn’t give this album the shrift it deserved.
This absence wasn’t an accident. The album cover looks like Soviet propaganda, and that wasn’t an accident either. The title reads “Work! for the Crucial Conspiracy,” and at first glance, one might imagine that the band had a free-market-friendly stance on politics. The marketers tried to sneaky-Pete this album into conservative homes, hoping the conservative father would nod his head in approval and never think about the album again, his dividends being more pressing.
But ’tis a ruse. This album has a liberal, pro-proletariat stance all the way. Let’s just examine a few tracks and their lyrics.
“Moving Underground” plainly announces their subterranean plans, and could possibly tell their story with T&N, although that is speculation about clandestine events. It could have been some other label. Nevertheless, the Dingees washed onto California beaches in 1998 in a swell of ska-punk bands, only to be washed back out to sea in a riptide of corporate paroxysms as mentioned. Most ska bands are now working like every other schmuck. And so with the Dingees. In 2001, the Dingees went underground and most people forgot about them, but they’ve been together ever since. The song “Moving Underground” may tell their story.
They came on up and take their place in my face
There talkin big and they got so much to say
They say ‘I’m really digging on that sound that you play.
Whattya say lets take it to another level today?
How’d ya like to be on the radio, Magazine, and movie and the TV show?
I’m a go getter got to get up and go. Meet me uptown this time tomorrow.’
So then we wonder should we do this thing.
We go on down to hear them promising
We’ll be living like the kings on all the money we’ll bring
Your every whim that you want, catered to every need
‘We could move ya out of the underground.
There’s just one thing it’s about your sound.
Even though we love it, it’s a little run down.
Let’s meet ya in the middle, let’s move ya uptown.’
So that tore it, they explain:
And that’s the last we never saw of them.
Domino keeps falling like a chain reaction.
You cannot beat em. If you think of joining,
Come back the back door is open.
We will be here in the underground, etc.
And that is the last we never saw of the Dingees until last year’s ambitious Rebel Soul Sound System.
On “Moving Underground,” there is a hidden track, as I indicated. It is a hardcore track, and I believe it is a middle finger raised to this record company, whoever it is.
CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE YOUTH
You try to shake me to the ground Jah strike fire and burn!
You think I haven’t been around?
Jah strike fire and burn!
Don’t let the deal be.
Jah will bury you!
It’s a big conspiracy. They hate youth and they hate me!
Dems fightin’ words, and I love it (and I’m a pacifist!). The balls, man.
But from another point of view, imagine the A&R guy who has gotta drop these guys. How does he market this stuff? He knows reggae and dub ain’t too many signifiers away from signifyin’ ganj’ to his market. What’s more, the Dingees weren’t too horn heavy, and they weren’t saturating their guitar tone with the requisite amount of distortion—and that’s what he’s paying them to do. In the end, he’s gotta be like, alright, fuck it, ska’s dead anyway. Let’s cut our losses and sell it for six bucks. I’m surprised T&N actually released it, frankly. Contracts, I guess…
Another red flag for this album comes during “Latchkey Kids,” when Pegleg sings, “I’m full of fire, never better never been higher.” Not necessarily a drug reference, but again, think of who this is marketed to and what it must sound like to mom who went to that reggae-fest in her twenties. They also call God Jah, and they didn’t have the same mission that their Christian ska contemporaries had, such as the Ws, whose doctrinal stance in “The Devil is Bad” is palpable to the average two-year-old. Or consider the O.C. Supertones mission: “The Supertones’ main message is Christ and Him crucified. We want to help people understand certain doctrinal truths.” The Supertones, for the record, also wanted to “get dumb like Beavis.”
The Dingees seem less concerned about doctrinal truths than actual truths about the world and the people running it. They also sing for and about real people, living and suffering both at home and abroad. In “Dear Sister, Dear Brother,” the singer encourages us that “For every hardship, there’s a reason, but you’re not seein’ so you’re not believin’,” the line referencing Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas. “World’s Last Night” is my favorite track, being both apocalyptic and hopeful at once, as they sing, “We don’t want the end. We want the beginning. We don’t want destruction, but we know it comes before a new creation.” The Dingees weren’t obviously Christian, but the message remains. Nevertheless, the Christian music market wants obvious songs that repeat the name Jesus to leave no doubts about the singer’s ecumenical leanings.
The Dingees seem to take a stance against witchcraft and voodoo from a seemingly Christian standpoint. But it may be more complicated than that. In my teens, I remember liking “We Rot the Voodoo” for its eerie dub and spooky Theremin, but I thought it was about actual voodoo. As I creep closer to thirty, however, I’m inclined to think it really pertains to trickle-down economics, ever-maligned by liberals as “Voodoo economics.” It’s not particularly evident from the lyrics, which could also concern real voodoo—and there again, voodoo is not even a hop, let alone a skip or a jump, from Rastafarianism, another kiss of death for Christian music marketing. But since the track comes right after a song called “Ronnie Raygun,” it’s reasonable to assume that Reaganomics is what they’re really rotting. (I don’t know if they really even believe in voodoo. They are Christian, after all, and not Rastas, only one member being of the African American persuasion.) If one understands “rotting the Voodoo” as opposing the principals of trickle-down economics, it takes on a quasi-liberation theological bent, basing their ideals for organizing society as the earliest Christians, who shared everything, and considered the rich rich, not “job creators.” Jumping from Reagan’s economics to foreign policy, “Ronnie Raygun” deals directly with clandestine CIA ops conducted under his presidency, subjects ranging from Star Wars missile defense to extraordinary rendition (doublespeak for outsourced torture) and mind control.
They don’t call me this for nothing.
Clueless to the fact I know something.
Clueless are the masses.
They’re better off staying paranoid.
They don’t know how true this really is
Pull my string, but no, I’m not talking
The polygraph I guarantee won’t be on the record
Ronnie raygun Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run
My brain is frozen numb from debriefing
Ignore the transmissions I was receiving
Does SDI have lasers beaming saucers in the sky?
Black budget unmarked helicopters
Chase me home and drop me off there
They call me in the middle of the night and
Tell me to return
Erase my existence
Hypnosis mind control
SDI stands for Strategic Defense Initiative, the strategic initiator being Reagan. This all must have sounded like a bunch of nonsense to parents, since the song has hardcore vocals. But the message is quite clear in print—that is, if military boilerplate can be considered clear. Moreover, the conspiracy-obsessed skankers also are “outta mind with modern age,” as they declare in the first track, “Spraypaint (We Won’t Carry Over).” They shout,
We won’t carry over. We are the new. We move it on.
I’m outta mind with modern age, ultraviolent syndrome
Beware mad scientists are stealing chromosomes.
Experimental aircraft chemtrails across the sky.
Rain disease down on suburbia, burning lungs stinging eyes
Microcellular breakdown ’cause the cancer couldn’t wait
Early morning at the clinic methadone helps shake the shakes
For another ninety days, mother daughter alanon
Electroshock on blacktop, blown away oblivion.
US Army and the Navy, hovercraft on beachhead.
Anti-tank gun missile, meshing blood and bone and lead.
Past and present combined stress, psychadelic Vietnam.
Paratrooper won’t elaborate about the burning bombs of napalm.
Rust and blood and telecaster helicopter spotlight
Seven-forty-seven shot straight out the sky
National security global emergency
Civilizations unraveled seams
Bionic build titanium broken bones and x-rays
Couple cans of neon spraypaint, half a dozen razorblades
Propaganda posters clinchin’ tight around my brain
No synapse can make connection. No idea can cause change.
The aforementioned reviewer claimed the album would lift people spiritually, and I believe certain tracks do, but this is about as pessimistic—not to mention antagonistic—a view on US foreign policy as any of Fat Mike’s or Mick Jones’. The Dingees released this before, but in the year of, 9-11, and the ensuing ten years have shown this album incredibly relevant. Rather than being informed strictly by the X-Files, which the band openly declares an affinity for, Pegleg’s rants seem informed by academics, such as Dr. Chalmers Johnson, a former Cold-warrior and CIA consultant, turned in his old age a soothsayer of US imperial collapse.
They were relevant then, as now. Americans may be kept in the dark, as “Ronnie Raygun” would have it, but the light burns brightly for those in countries the U.S. occupies—and so for the Dingees. I wonder how this album would have fared had it been released after Wikileaks’ revelations.
The band announced their most recent release would be free online. This decision, I believe, was more influenced by Christian musician Keith Green than to Radiohead, for Pegleg had read No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green. Keith Green advocated giving away music—especially music based on the Gospel—for free. He also had a rather literal view of Jesus’ commandment to sell all of one’s possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, a radical verse that rarely gets underlined in evangelical Bibles.”Dear Sister, Dear Brother” reminds us that
Man, fellowman is not your enemy
The world strikes out on us universally
And do no gasp at death of celebrity
Ours is not a life of futility
Do not stand ahead of each other
Dear sister, dear brother
and “World’s Last Night” directly quotes the Bible, paraphrasing Romans 8:38,
Neither death nor life nor angels, no height of heaven, no depth of hell, and no created thing, now or soon to come, can steal away [the love of God]
This album departed crucially (get it?) from their first couple albums. To look at it, it seems like a concept album, the album artwork featuring the band standing in conspiracy theorist darkroom, UFO pictures on bulletin boards, etc. The idea, from the record company, I think, was that we weren’t supposed to take all that conspiracy theory stuff seriously. But the band really did, and it shows. I dunno if they believe in aliens, either. They make no reference to them in their songs.
Critics marked the Dingees out for fans of Operation Ivy, Rancid, the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers–and all those bands white guys like, but there is plenty of Jamaican evidence all over this album. They could very well have drawn comparisons to Lee “Scratch” Perry or Desmond Dekker as much as any of those punk bands. More on their sound in part 2, a review of The Rebel Soul Sound System.