JTF’s HS Jams Review — 8) Less Than Jake “Anthem”

Released May 20, 2003; Produced by Rob Cavallo

Imagine you’re 11 years old, in the 6th grade and on vacation in Myrtle Beach with your parents. All you want to do is go to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!! again and talk to a bunch of girls on the beach but … your parents won’t let you go to Ripley’s because it “never changes” and you’re too chickenshit to speak to girls you even know, let alone girls on the beach. Nope, you’re stuck wearing clothes you don’t really like and you’re playing a game you don’t want to play in the backseat with your six-year-old sister.

In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, this was me in 1996. I rip on our regular vacations in Myrtle Beach to this day but really, they weren’t terrible. Sure the tourists were trashy, the ocean was dirty and it was becoming considerably more slummy with each passing summer, but it was our spot for a long time. I liked bodyboarding in the ocean for as much as eight hours a day and there’s something about eating a cold ham sandwich with chips while you’re wrapped up in a towel and feeling the cold breeze of your room’s air conditioning against your salt-water-saturated skin. 

The height of that summer in 1996 for me, however, was riding down the road to go to dinner in the evenings. We were listening to the local modern-rock radio station (something we didn’t even have in Kingsport at the time) and at 5:00pm every weekday, a sound byte came across the airwaves screaming “IT’S FIVE O’CLOCK!!!!!” followed by the crushing horn-heavy intro to Reel Big Fish’s only radio hit Sell Out

Everything about Sell Out was perfect to my middle-school ears. I’d never heard music with horns like this before, it was definitely rock and roll but it wasn’t metal … it was definitely palatable but it wasn’t mainstream … and why did the up-stroked guitar style make me want to dance so much? I was obsessed with this song. To further date this story, nobody in the car owned a cell phone and while the internet was real, we didn’t have a connection at home. At 11 years old, I didn’t exactly have a vast network of music-savvy friends to ask and couldn’t drive myself to the local record stores to ask them either … So I had to sit on the memory of this song until school started in the fall. 

We did have internet access (though very limited) in my middle school and I used my internet time to research this song. I didn’t know the song’s name, didn’t know the band’s name, didn’t know the music style’s name … so I searched in circles for a very long time before I landed on it — Sell Out, a song by Reel Big Fish from their record Turn the Radio Off. Thanks to a snappy music video and a good marketing plan, Reel Big Fish took their single and became MTV’s sweethearts for a brief amount of time. While the bigger-box record stores in the Tri-Cities showed no acknowledgement of their existence, I was able to — very randomly — find Turn the Radio Off at a Wal-Mart in Johnson City. The album’s cover art infamously depicts an enraged woman pointing a comically large gun in the face of a radio DJ in his studio. I guess retailers like Wal-Mart thought it was too graphic because the copy I got had a cover that was plain white, said REEL BIG FISH in black letters and was followed by the first amendment of the constitution. A little aggressive for such a fun sounding band but I didn’t care, I was just happy to have my hands on it. 

That was 1997 and every year since then (even to this day), I’ve spun Sell Out, Trendy, Join the Club, She Has a Girlfriend Now, Snoop Dog Baby, Beer, 241, Everything Sucks, S.R., Skatanic, All I Want Is More, Nothin’, Say ‘Ten, I’ll Never Be …, and Alternative Baby over and over probably more than any other album I’ve ever owned. I’d never heard anything like this music — a musical genre without a name — like this before in my life. 

Well, without a name until I heard them say it on their song Everything Sucks.

There’s a ska band on my street; A little ska band, everybody thinks that they’re so fucking neat

SKA!? Is that what I’ve been hearing? Once I had a genre on my tongue, my world exploded. I was driven to discover Less Than Jake, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Goldfinger, The Voodoo Glow Skulls, Mustard Plug and Buck-O-Nine just to name a few. But then what? Those are all Third-Wave Ska bands? Was there a second wave? 

You betcha, and it’s my favorite genre of music above all others. While Third-Wave Ska hit in the late 80s, peaked in the 90s and fizzled out in the early 2000s, 2-Tone Ska boasted the likes of the Specials, Madness, The Selecter, the Beat, Bad Manners and the Bodysnatchers. The genre was built in 1970’s Great Britain and was a dominating force in British popular music. But if there was a second wave, that means there’s a first, right? 

Trad Ska originated in Jamaica in late 1959, was hugely inspired by American R&B and Jazz radio staples and released upon the world such powerhouses as the Skatallites, Desmond Dekker, Derrick Morgan, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Prince Buster and the Wailers. 

I feel like there’s a weird divide in the ska community where some feel you’re only allowed to like a certain flavor of ska. Trad Ska purists stay true to the OG sounds and are frequently more elitist than any other sub-genre fan. I love it but 2-Tone Ska does the trick for me because it took that Trad sound and added a punk-rock element to it, making it a little rowdier. Fans of 2-Tone do love to dance but it’s downside is its highly misunderstood connection to skinhead culture (2-Tone bands of that era aligned with non-violent, non-racist skinheads and frequently clashed with the racist assholes on the other side of the fence). Third-Wave Ska was the most popular version in the United States thanks to the likes of Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake but the punk influence that permeates its sound makes it sometimes incredibly difficult to hear the ska anymore. Plus, I go to ska shows to dance because that’s what you do at ska shows … but most Third-Wave Ska shows turn into mosh pits and are frequently not very enjoyable. 

Regardless, anyone who knows me knows I love punk rock so very much and like it or not, it was Third-Wave that introduced me to the genre in the first place. In the following year or two, I added to my ska collection (that was just that single Reel Big Fish album) The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ 1997 record Let’s Face It, Goldfinger’s 1997 album Hang-Ups and 2000 album Stomping Ground, and two records by Less Than Jake — 1995’s Pezcore and 1998’s Hello Rockview

I became a huge fan of Less Than Jake primarily because they had that upbeat ska influence I was so hungry for at the time but I also loved that their songs had a certain depth that the other bands didn’t seem to have.  

And you know they’ve always had, always had big plans for you; 

Just to walk you through and cloud your views;

And I’ll never say everything’s okay;

Don’t wanna say that you’re giving up right now;

Just hold your ground and don’t give up in what you believe;

Big plans, big crash; Don’t be different when you can’t be yourself

  • Less Than Jake “Big Crash” from Hello Rockview, 1998

Sure, they had a lot of other, more fun songs about getting drunk and hanging with friends with weird nicknames but they were anything but one-note in this regard. They sang about things that I identified with or wanted to believe in at that young age and they just sounded like FUN. Because they were. And in 2003 they released a record that was so much fun, it was the soundtrack to the summer after my senior year.

8) Less Than Jake — Anthem

Up until this point in their career, Less Than Jake was a quintessential third-wave ska band with equal parts punk rock and ska elements to make a cohesive explosion of thrashing, danceable goodness. A problem with getting major-label attention, however, is that ska is apparently very hard to promote. Despite a desperate attempt to promote the ska sound in the 60s, Jamaica’s biggest stars were epic flops in the United States and 2-Tone flavors from the UK failed in America’s 1970s largely due to radio stations not knowing if it was white music or black music (true story).

Reel Big Fish had this problem with their major-label debut Cheer Up! (2002) and follow-up We’re Not Happy ‘til You’re Not Happy (2005). Mojo records, a subsidiary of major label Universal / BMG, had trouble figuring out who to make Reel Big Fish tour with because their sound wasn’t like anyone else on a major label, and the suits frequently requested singles that didn’t feature the band’s horn section, a major element of ska music. 

Less Than Jake had released some non-ska, non-horn songs before, but Anthem is primarily a pop-punk record with some ska, reggae, funk and even heavy metal elements peppered throughout. While the band is certainly capable of growing at whatever pace and in whatever direction they choose, I wouldn’t be surprised if their major label Warner Brothers Records had something to do with that.

With that said, a ska band at the core though they may be, Anthem is not really a ska record and that’s okay. Let’s talk about why:

Strong Points

The album starts out with Welcome to the New South, a punk-rock thrasher welcoming the outcasts of the world to unite under their own little freak flag. Being suicidal and a hormonal hurricane as a teenager is something everyone on the planet can identify with, but some of us had to take it to a different level and be total outcasts from the rest of “polite” teenage society. The lyric Welcome home outcast because I know how you have felt over the years; the truth is that looking at me is like looking in the mirror is very self-aware expression by the band as they acknowledge their fanbase is those less-fortunate souls (myself included) who flocked to the band’s sound simply because they felt they “get it.” Less Than Jake totally gets it.

Short Fuse Burning begins with a heavy-metal guitar shredding intro over a punk-rock chord progression and classic punker drums. While listening again in preparation to write this post, I realize that here we are, almost 20 years later, and I identify with this song more now than ever. Slowly beginning to lose hope, Short Fuse Burning accurately describes what it’s like to go through burnout to the point that you forget who you are, have no idea where you’re going and frequently run out of gas.

Best Wishes to Your Black Lung is a fun song written for a former member of the band who left the ska/punk world to take on a different career path in Chicago. While this is the actual meaning of the song, it could easily be a fun goodbye style song for anyone in your life who moves on to do something different — an inevitable part of life. The hidden ska elements on this record make themselves apparent in this mostly punk song with upstrokes in the verses and the strong horn section that permeates the intro and throughout the song — appropriate because the song’s subject was a trombone player.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Less Than Jake are known for their cover songs but even people who don’t know them that well know their cover of I Think I Love You thanks in part to its inclusion on the Scream 2 soundtrack. Anthem ends with a fun song I’ll talk about in the next section but they also included a fun surprise for their fans with a hidden track in the form of Surrender — a cover of the classic Cheap Trick song. Everyone loves Surrender and Less Than Jake does the tune justice with a quality cover that’s uniquely LTJ. No ska here, which is a bit of a drag, but it’s not lacking. 

Favorite Songs

One of my favorite Less Than Jake songs of all time is The Ghost of Me and You. A pop-punk song all about remembering a relationship whose ship has sailed. The narrator is a bit hung up on it, which I think anyone who has ever gone through a breakup can identify with. I love the horn section that makes an appearance in the chorus, the palm-muted chugging verses and, of all things, the ride cymbal that leads you into (and through) the breakdown. This song is a blast to play on guitar and sing along with, which is what Less Than Jake are sort of known for.

Roger Lima is a horribly underrated bass player. Look What Happened begins with a magnificently complex bassline as guitarist/vocalist Chris Demakes sings the song’s beautiful chorus. Like so many other Less Than Jake songs, the content is personally identifiable as it’s all about talking about leaving town but never actually doing it. Roger then one-ups his previously shown talent by not only playing the badass bassline but then taking over vocal duties to simultaneously belt out the chorus. Total pro.

The Science of Selling Yourself Short is the biggest single from the record and for good reason. Still not a ska song but definitely a reggae-inspired chune about self-sabotage and being your own worst enemy. So I sit and wait and wonder, does anyone else feel like me? Someone so tired of their routine and disappearing self esteem. That slow up-stroke guitar does the soul some good, the horn section is pure bliss and the gang-vocal-style chorus gives the slow banger some extra singalong steam. This is a Less Than Jake classic for good reason.

In the summer of 2003, I saw Less Than Jake perform live at the Van’s Warped Tour in Charlotte and I’ll never forget them performing Plastic Cup Politics. Roger belts out the opening of the song even faster than it appears on the record while banging out the complex bassline underneath. Lots of ska influence on this song during the verses, third-wave-style horns belting out all over place and another fun-to-sing chorus. Plastic Cup Politics is all about a scene I was never a part of, largely because I saw through the bullshit before having to live through it — coming together with a group of friends to get a sense of belonging when in reality the only thing you have in common is the booze. Without it, nothing else exists. Get out now, if this is you.

Album closer The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out / Screws Fall Out has my vote for strongest track on the entire record. I sometimes hate drawing parallels between songs I like because it seems like I’m saying one exists because of the other. Regardless, this finisher reminds me of Green Day’s Dookie finisher FOD in that it has two distinct parts that give strength to each other. The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out has fans in a tizzy online regarding the meaning — some think it has to do with George W. Bush (which is a reach) but a common thought is the song refers to NOFX frontman Fat Mike’s drug use or singing to someone who’s suicidal. Screws Fall Out returns to Anthem’s larger message of “hey, we’re growing up, we’re becoming better people, we’re not okay with status quo anymore.” What a great message to deliver as the song breaks from a single voice and solo guitar into a full-on punk rock thrasher. 

Anthem is Less Than Jake’s most successful album in the United States (peaking at #45 on the modern rock charts) and the UK (Peaking at #37). The Science of Selling Yourself Short was the only single from the record to chart in the United States, hitting #36 on the Modern Rock charts, again the most successful single in the band’s history. 

Less Than Jake has only continued their trajectory of grown-up ska/punk with their subsequent releases In with the Out Crowd (2006), GNV FLA (2008), See the Light (2014) and Silver Linings (2020). 

In addition to seeing Less Than Jake in Charlotte in 2003 for the Van’s Warped Tour, I caught them in 2007 at the Norva in Norfolk, VA, alongside Reel Big Fish, Streetlight Manifesto and Against All Authority. And if I saw them again this year, if I were to hear anything from Anthem, I’m going to remember being 18 with summer in full effect. One of my best friends cancelled his plans for our senior beach week so he could go with his girlfriend … we never spoke again. Another best friend was uninvited from the trip after he was busted robbing a comic book store … we never spoke again. This left me and my single best friend on the planet (at the time) with not enough money to go.

We still went with my parents that summer and had a blast. Less Than Jake got it right: 

Friends leave as time fades away;

The people and the places along the way;

Without a doubt, yeah screws fall in and screws, they fall out

Two more weeks of this left. Ever onward until next time.

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