TRANSCRIPT IS BELOW THE PODCAST LINK
On this episode, Mark Simon talks to Ken Partridge, a music journalist and author of Hell of a Hat, The Best of 90s Ska and Swing.
Ken talked about how his interests in journalism and music began and evolved, some of the prominent musicians he’s interviewed and how he finds little tidbits to make stories on everything he does (including Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer) distinct. He also shared his favorite question-answer moment, when he got Joni Mitchell to refer to herself as a genius.
Ken also explained why he wrote this book, what the experience and process was like. He gave tips on how to get good answers to questions and how to handle the volume of work in a book project. He also discussed his journalistic influences and picked a music journalist he wanted to salute.
Mark Simon: Hi, and welcome to The Journalism Salute. I’m Mark Simon. In each episode, we’ll talk to, or about an interesting person or organization related to journalism. The intent is to show that journalists are not the enemy of the people. Thank you for listening.
On today’s show, we’re joined by Kenneth Partridge.
We’ve done some heavy topics. Today, we talk music journalism, which Wikipedia says includes reviews of songs, albums, and live concerts, profiles of recording artists and reporting of artists news and music events. Ken does all of that. Ken’s the managing editor for Genius and the author of the new book, Hell of a Hat, the rise of 90s Ska and Swing, published by Penn State University Press as part of a series of books about music. Ken, thanks for joining us.
Ken Partridge: Hey mark. Thanks very much for having me.
Mark Simon: So Ken’s done a lot of music writing. He’s done it from different outlets online. In addition to this book, he’s written for Billboard, The Atlantic, The AV club, and Mental Floss.
So first of all, as we ask, every guest here, share the story of your journalism path.
Ken Partridge: I had kind of an odd journalism path. I didn’t study it in college. I was up at Boston University as an economics major actually and was doing that all through my four years.
And then with about two or three months left in the school year, I was out for a walk with my roommate and we happened to bump into a friend of his, who was the arts editor at the, at the school newspaper up at Boston University. Oh yeah, this is Ken. he loves music
And she said, Oh you should come to the meeting for this semester, do some writing for us. And then I was like eh, okay, cool. So I went and, I discovered that you could go to shows for free and you could get free records and stuff. And I was like, oh man, this is amazing.
And, so I wrote a bunch for the BU paper in my final semester of my senior year. And kind of realized that I didn’t actually want to go into the economic stuff so much after that. So after I graduated college, I just kind of started sending out pitches to different places to start doing a little freelancing.
I think the first place that I really started to write for was I was at the Hartford Courant, which is kind of the big paper and up in the Connecticut where I’m from. I had, moved back home after graduating was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. And yeah, luckily I just, I sent, I sent some clips from the school paper to, the music editor at the current, and he gave me some assignments to start writing album reviews and, concert reviews and, just kind of gone from there.
Mark Simon: All right. So how did your upbringing influence your journalistic interests?
Ken Partridge: I guess I’d always been a big, a big music fan. I think ever since I got, I got MTV in the mid eighties, it was, come home from school and watch MTV. And, at first it was the metal bands in the eighties, and then probably Vanilla Ice at one point in the early nineties and MC Hammer and all that stuff.
And then all the different progressions, I just kind of was always, always paying attention to the radio and MTV and. I think by the time I got to, to high school, it kind of became, I guess even more of a passion. When I kind of got into these bands that I write about in my book, that was when, music became more than just, a thing that I kind of played on the radio.
It became almost a lifestyle that kind of who I was, defined my personality more than it had before. Yeah, I guess from that point on, it’s just been one of the biggest parts of my life.
Mark Simon: When was the moment for you where it turned from? Oh, cool. I get these albums and it’s really hip and cool and super fun to being someone who’s now such a devotee of the history, the historical aspect of it, and the kind of the careful writing of it.
Ken Partridge: I guess, I don’t know if somewhere along the way, I guess I just figured out that I could sort of keep doing it. It was always you go from one assignment to the next and there’s been times when it’s been my full-time job. My first job out of college, I was a grant writer.
So, I, I was, I was doing music journalism on the side, and then I worked as a beat reporter for a small newspaper, for a while. So, it’s, yeah, there’s been times when it’s been my main gig and there’s been times where it’s just thing I do on the weekends or nights, just because I love it so much.
So, yeah, I guess it just kind of slowly kind of crept into just be a constant part of my life, I guess.
Mark Simon: And what were some of the lessons that you learned kind of as you went along, particularly
Ken Partridge: in the early part of your career that you’re not going to make a ton of money? Yeah, I mean, I think it’s one of the things that it’s, it’s a hustle.
I think with any kind of, writing that you might do on a freelance basis, Or I think that with, music journalism, there’s a lot of people that want to do it. So, it’s hard to break into, hard to, make an editor care about your pitch, hard to, once you land your first assignment somewhere, it’s hard to get the second one.
I guess I just learned some degree of, persistence and. I don’t know foolishness, I guess, to try to keep on pursuing it.
Mark Simon: So, what characterizes your writing? And I preface that by, by saying- you’ve done news, you’ve done reviews, you’ve done interviews, you’ve done some kooky stuff that we’re going to get into too.
And now you’ve done this encyclopedic book, which is very impressive, which we’ll also get to. What characterizes the way that you write?
Ken Partridge: I would say that I to think that a certain degree of enthusiasm comes across. I always think that your writing should kind of reflect the topic.
So, if you’re writing about rock and roll or pop music, these are fun, exciting topics. It’s not, reporting on the stock market. So the text should be lively and it should be evident that you care about it and that you respect it. You’re not looking down on it.
Back when I used to do more of, of the album reviews and stuff. I don’t, I don’t do those so much anymore, but I would always come into it kind of wanting to enjoy the record. I never come in, yeah, this better be good, with a kind of a scowl on my face.
I think a lot of people do that and it’s, I want to have a good experience. Why wouldn’t I want to come and have a good experience? Obviously that is not always the case. Sometimes things aren’t good or the role of criticism is to sort of, not necessarily say this is good or this is bad, but to sort of put things in context and try to, explain what the artist is trying to do.
And, is it successful on those grounds? It’s a certain, [00:07:00] open-mindedness, I guess is what I try to bring to stuff.
Mark Simon: What journalists influenced you?
Ken Partridge: I read all the Lester Bangs stuff that everybody reads when they’re first starting out.
Obviously, I don’t write him at all. He would stay up all night drinking, cough syrup and write, 5,000 word things about Lou Reed or Van Morrison or whatever. That’s not my style, my style at all. I’m not a crazy Gonzo journalist.
There’s a Rolling Stone writer, Rob Sheffield, I would say he’s my, my sort of idol in terms of a music journalist and he is very enthusiastic about his subjects. He always comes at things from really sort of interesting angles. It’s always really heartfelt.
I don’t always like people when they sort of insert themselves into things. But I think that whenever, Rob Sheffield, does insert himself into things it’s always really, tastefully done and as a lot of the piece. I think he’s the best.
Mark Simon: So, you’ve interviewed some pretty notable people.
I’m looking at a list here. Rob Thomas, Annie Lennox, Joni Mitchell, Juliana Hatfield. We spent a day with Blondie. There are dozens and dozens of others, Elvis Costello. Some of these are older pieces. Some of them are more recent. Do you have a favorite question-answer sequence?
Ken Partridge: I think I do, actually, it was, it was actually part of the Joni Mitchell interview, which was just a weird, that came out of the blue. I never thought in, in a billion years that I would ever talk to a Joni Mitchell, I don’t even know how I got the assignment. I had been kind of writing for this magazine called M. the editor just called me up one day and he asked do you want to talk to talk to Joni Mitchell?
And I was, yeah, that would be amazing. I was terrified and, cause she’s] an absolute legend and, and. I know he’s been a fan of her stuff, but I wasn’t, I wasn’t necessarily a hardcore fan of her. So, I, I sort of binged on her stuff for however long I had before the interview and really tried to get up to speed on everything.
And anyway, long story short is, we were talking, and I was asking her about some song where she had done something in a really spectacular, or this really sort of innovative thing she had done in a song. And I was kind of asking her, I guess, how she came up with those kinds of ideas.
And she was just like, ‘Well, I’m a genius.’
John Lennon, he wasn’t a genius, but I’m a genius.
What are you going to say? I mean, she is a genius.
Mark Simon: Yeah. But that’s one of those when you get that kind of quote, you’ve got to just feel it speaks for itself.
Ken Partridge: It probably sounds she was being, super tooting your own horn and being really boastful. But I think honestly, the kind of spirit of how she said it was more, I can’t really tell you why I did this on that song.
I’m just, my brain works in this weird way and that’s what we call people who function on that level. We call them geniuses; I think she was just trying to this question. She was trying to answer my question honestly.
Mark Simon: That’s awesome. I that. I can relate to that with certain athletes that you speak to that have a hard time explaining their baseball excellence.
Mark Simon: Okay. How, you talked about, heartfelt and again, I want to revisit that, and I think it kind of comes into play here. Music is so important to people.
The soundtrack of my life is something that you often hear. How do you consider the person that’s on the other end of the article and who do you imagine that you’re writing for?
Ken Partridge: I guess it sort of depends on the piece. because I guess you don’t always want to assume that they’re as passionate about the artist as you are, that they know all this stuff. So, it’s a combination of, putting in the background, putting in all the information that you need, but also trying to communicate, get some of your own feelings in there too.
I guess I just, sort of assume of the audience in most cases that they’re kind of coming into to music with the same kind of spirit that I am, where if they’re going to sit down and read this whole article, it’s important to them. they’re enthusiastic about it. They want to know more about it.
And, yeah, I mean, I guess I want to enhance their, their, their appreciation for the artist or for the song that I’m writing about or the album.
Mark Simon: That applies even when we talk about songs like Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer, which five years ago, you did a full-fledged feature for Mental Floss on the origin and history of the song.
You’ve written a lot for the site This is very much a fun introduction to history with the song. Explain how that story came about and explain, what you learned about.
Ken Partridge: Yeah, so that was one where that was actually not my pitch. I had done some other stuff for mental floss and one day the editor, I think dropped me an email – Hey, do you want to just kind of do an article? Just kind of all about the history of Grandma got Run Over by a Reindeer.
And I think the way it was kind of presented, I could have just kind of done the research on it and sort of told the story of the song. I didn’t have to kind of reach out to Dr. Elmo, who, who is the guy who sings the song. But I went to his website, and I discovered these actually pretty easy to track down.
it wasn’t like trying to get ahold of Bruce Springsteen or something. If you want to talk to Dr. Elmo, you can probably talk to him. So, I was like, might as well. I’ve got an opportunity to talk to this guy, might as well do it. Right. so yeah, we had a great chat.
It turns out he’s a runner and I’m a runner as well. So, we kind of bonded over that and I sort of tried to ask him some stuff that maybe people hadn’t asked him about the song before. Beause he’s been talking about this every Christmas for whatever, 40 years at this point, whatever it is.
I think I actually did kind of find something that was at the end of the piece. there’s a part in the second verse of the song where after grandma does get run over by the reindeer, it talks about how grandpa just, I think he just he’s in his chair drinking, he doesn’t really care.
He just kind of goes on with his business. So I asked, – yeah is that just kind of his way of grieving or do you think maybe he didn’t really care about her anymore or whatever?
Yeah. I think he’s wanting to, I think he was just kind of tired of the old ladies wanted to, watch football and drink beer, but it’s just kind of this one little nuance part of that song that, probably nobody even picks up on it.
Because there’s there’s so many other weird things going on in that song, but there
Mark Simon: How do you get great quotes?
Ken Partridge: Yeah, I guess you just sort of, do your homework a little bit and try to think of questions. If I’m going to do an interview with someone, I to read a bunch of interviews that they’ve done and just try to get a sense of what they haven’t been asked, which, can be tough sometimes for people that have done a ton of press or.
if an artist is, plugging a new record that’s out and they’re just talking about this record all over the place, they probably get the same kind of questions, but yeah, if you can come up with something. This guy has been talking about Grandma for, for 40 years.
You can find a new question about this one. I think that’s a good start to, getting someone to kind of open up and say something funny
Mark Simon: We haven’t really talked about the mechanics of writing a book. So I wanted to do that. Here, the book is Hell of a Hat, The Rise of 90’s Ska and Swing.
And I played a little bit about it on YouTube. The last couple of days. I was entertained. It’s a little different, I want to zip ahead. In the origin story, we got your music background. How does a book like this happen?
Ken Partridge: I guess it has sort of been in the back of my mind for a long time. This was the music that I loved when I was a teenager, really, a ska music.
I discovered it just before I went to high school and it sort of defined my four years in high school and, to a lesser extent, the swing stuff, but I always felt it was kind of related. so, I’d always been kind of thinking about how I’d love, to write a book about this one day.
As time went by, I sort of realized that there were kind of no books about this time period. there’s been, Ska books. but sky’s got a rich history going all the way back to Jamaica in the late fifties. So, there’s been a lot of books that have kind of focused on the long history of sky or what they call the second wave of Ska, which was in the UK, in the seventies.
But there really hadn’t been anything that just kind of focused on this that I was listening to in the mid to late nineties, it really changed my life. so it was kind of that. And then also I had said earlier that I was going to never actually sort of, use my degree in economics, but I actually kind of did a little bit with this book because I remember thinking about how, when I was taking classes back in college, I had this one professor who would talk about how during the Clinton era, it was a sort of, kind of an optimistic time.
And things are, the, the sort of a GDP growth was over 4% for a while. And there were no major wars with other countries. It was kind of a brief little window before 9/11, where things were really kind of upbeat. And the economy kind of showed that and Ska music of that time was the sort of happy music with a lot of horns and it’s very danceable and I guess over time, I just started to think more and more about how well, this music was kind of a reflection of the culture at that time in the same way that grunge and gangster rap, which had been popular in the early nineties was kind of a reflection of the Gulf War and the LA riots and all these, a much darker time in 92 than it was in 98.
So. That’s kind of the underlying idea of the book. I mean, it doesn’t really drive it to the extent that it, every chapter is about that. I sort of talk about it in the intro and a few spots in the book. I would say the book is more about the bands and just kind of telling their stories, but if there is kind of a thesis to it, it’s that I think the reason why all these bands who had been kind of underground before, I think the reason why they were able to get.
so major airplay and the MTV airplay was just because of what was going on, sort of outside of music at that time, it was very upbeat.
Mark Simon: It was a very upbeat music for the time.
So, the book’s supremely comprehensive, and I say supremely, with, full endorsement.
It’s a definitive history, it’s encyclopedic and it applies a lot of different skills. You review songs, you provide chronology, you quote people, every chapter, three to four interviews with very prominent people in the field. I’m curious, what are the advantages and disadvantages of taking on a project that is somewhat of niche?
Ken Partridge: Well, the advantages are that if it’s, if it’s a subject that you care about, it’s, fantastic to kind of immerse yourself in it. And I guess a disadvantages would be a potentially smaller audience, nowhere near as much money as if you’ve read something about something else it’s always going to be sort of a passion project that you’re going to be trying to find your audience for it.
And I think once you find people that are of a like mind, they’ll hopefully really enjoy it and kind of flock to it. But, yeah, it’s not a general interest book, I guess. Although I did really in the kind of in the bands that I chose to focus on, I really tried to focus on the bands that had the biggest national presence either they were on major labels, or they were on MTV or, they were movies maybe, ’cause I really wanted this book to possibly appeal to just any kid who, I, I graduated high school in 99. So any kid that was listening to alternative music in, 1999, you’ve probably heard about a lot of these bands.
So you don’t, you don’t necessarily have to be sort of a hardcore Ska kid or know how to swing dance. I talk about Brian Setzer Orchestra and Cherry Popping Daddies, these were groups that had huge hits. So, these songs I think are implanted in the minds of kids.
Well, not, not at kids anymore. People my age, 40 year olds.
Mark Simon: Yep. so you talked to Mighty, Mighty Bosstones. You talked about the genres connection to Gwen Stefani. You explained the genre shaping in different parts of the country. You explain the difference between the Ska that you would see on MTV and other types of Ska.
What’s some of your favorite reporting from the book?
Ken Partridge: I really enjoy talking to the Bosstones. They were a band that. I’m from New England. They’re from Boston, obviously from their name, so they were sort of one of the formative groups for me growing up.
And, I was fortunate enough to, speak to two of the members of the band and. yeah, the book is named for one of their songs. A hell of a hat is sort of a lesser known, I guess, kind of a deep cut. Actually, it was a single, but it didn’t go anywhere.
it was sort of before Ska caught on, but, yeah, so to kind of talk to them and, delve into a little bit, their song, the impression that I get, which w which was a giant hit, probably the biggest hit of the 90 Ska era, to kind of unpack that song a little bit and kind of talk about what about what it meant.
I talked to Reel Big Fish. I’ve talked to people that are maybe more famous than some of these bands, but because these bands meant so much to me when I was 17 that, to talk to the guy from Mustard Plug on the phone, It was Paul McCartney to me, what I mean?
Mark Simon: What was your oh, crap. I’m writing a book moment?
Ken Partridge: Probably the day that I sent the contract back to the because it was actually a really short turnaround.
I had, six or seven months to actually write it. And at that point I had written an intro chapter and I finished one of the chapters that, that had actual band interviews in it. Cause I just wanted to I think that was part of the reason why I, I got the deal was a proof of concept.
But that still left a lot of a lot of interviewing and a lot of writing to do. So, yeah, I would say right off the bat, I had that moment.
Mark Simon: Was there any moment that happened, where you got someone to really open up
Ken Partridge: Monique Powell from the band Save Ferris.
We spoke for two hours or something and she really kind of opened up a lot about her time with the band and kind of what it meant to her. This was the big, punk rock kind of touring festival back in the, well, I mean, actually went for a long time. It didn’t, it didn’t end until very recently, but it was, it just started out in the nineties and she kind of talks about, being one of the only women on their tour and how she kind of looks back on it now.
And it’s like wow, that was cool. That I was able to kind of get up there and do my thing and this, kind of in a sea of dudes basically. And, yeah, she was very candid about some of the stuff that she went through during the making of their second album. She had some real tough times with it, with a breakup and some other things.
And, yeah, I mean, I talked to her one time before actually I interviewed her for one other story about two years prior. So maybe it was because we had talked before and we kind of had had a good rapport, but, yeah, she was very frank and honest and, yeah, it was, it was fun talking to her.
Mark Simon: Looking back on it now, if you were going to give someone advice on how to go about it?
Ken Partridge: Don’t write about Ska music. You’re going to have a tough time finding an agent cause that took me about, I think, almost a year to find an agent and then that agent is going to have a hard time selling it.
I think that took almost a year also. So, all told, this thing had already been kind of going on for two years. By the time that I got the deal and it was okay, now you’ve got, six or seven months.
But no, I guess I would say. Obviously write about something that you really care about because you’re going to be pretty immersed in it for the duration of the writing process, I guess, make sure that your spouse can tolerate it.
I played so much Ska and Swing music around my wife.
Mark Simon: We should mention your wife’s a journalist too.
Ken Partridge: She actually wrote a book that Lindsey Stanberry is, is her name. And she wrote Money Diaries. I think, it was a part of the inspiration for me writing.
My wife wrote a book, it was great. I want to try that too. It always seemed it was this kind of mystifying thing you could never do it in a million years, but I think watching her do it and, watching her do it so well, it’s like wow, this actually seems maybe the kind of thing that if you kind of put your mind to it, you could, you could maybe do it.
Mark Simon: What do you want people to take away from reading it?
Ken Partridge: Well, I think, I think both of these genres Ska and Swing, especially of the nineties, I think they get a kind of a bad name these days. I think people think of it as being in this goofy kind of frivolous music that didn’t really mean anything. And it’s often mocked in the pop culture. There’s a lot of sitcom jokes about, being a Ska person back in the nineties or whatever. And there’s plenty of memes on the internet that kind of make fun of Ska fans.
And, so I guess I want to sort of all, all the bands that I talk about in the book, I want people to kind of take them seriously and, let’s talk about their records in the same way that we would talk about bands from any other genre and let’s, give them that respect at least. And then, I was mentioning earlier with some of the stuff about, I guess my kind of overarching theory about why the stuff got so popular when it did.
I had people that I guess kind of consider that and, think about the late nineties in a different way because I never really heard anybody kind of talk about that. You always hear people talk about the kind of angsty, Gen X, nineties, and that kind of accounts for Nirvana and some of the stuff that was popular before this stuff, this kind of in my book. But I don’t often hear people talk about the sort of upbeat nineties and kind of what that meant for the culture.
And, people talk about, I don’t know, Backstreet boys and teen pop and I, I think that was part of it too. I think that was very much a reflection of the sort of wider culture, but I think Ska and Swing in their own way for the alternative kids kind of serve the same.
Mark Simon: You did something after you wrote the book that I thought was pardon the pun genius. I don’t think we’ve talked to anyone in the, the 49 previous episodes who has a substack and you do, and I’m going to take an educated guess here that at least some of it came about because you wrote too much and didn’t want to leave good work unpublished.
Explain what your newsletter is. That’s kind of supplementing the book.
Ken Partridge: For one article that I published out of the, out of the five or six that I’ve done, yeah, there was a part about a band that I had to cut and I was pretty upset about it and I didn’t want it to just kind of live on my hard drive forever.
So, yeah, I thought that would be a cool way to get it out there, but actually, most of it has been sort of bands that I had that I never talked to you for the book, because I just couldn’t find a way to slot them into any of the chapters. Yeah. They were maybe too underground or they just didn’t fall into one of the categories, but these were bands that I also loved growing up a lot.
So I was just thought this would be a really cool way to sort of tell their story. And some of these are bands that their stories never really been kind of documented. I did this band at a Boston, Thumper who is this sort of Ska Metal, but they had songs about politics and religion, and they were really pretty ahead of their time, and also just really cutting with their lyrics and really kind of smart and sharp.
And, Thumper had never really been kind of covered anywhere with their, with their full story. So, I thought I’ll just take a chance. And, I, I found the singer on YouTube and, he was more than happy to talk. We talked for 90 minutes or two hours and, and it was just going to be for the Substack.
It wasn’t going to be for the book, but he, he wasn’t upset about that. He was just like yeah, that’s cool. And so, yeah, there was a few of these bands that I was just, I was super happy to have the opportunity just to kind of get their story out there..
Mark Simon: And this is, it’s a great way to, to publicize the book, through supplemental work.
So the big takeaways here at be heartfelt document the undocumented, research, the heck out of things, and don’t be afraid to create other ways to show off your content
Mark Simon: Is there a gap in the music, journalism industry that a young person could fill?
Ken Partridge: In the music journalism industry as a whole, the internet sort of democratizes everything ] and anyone can have their own sub stack or their own blog or whatever.
All these sort of, super niche topics, I think, are being covered in a way that they never would have been, certainly when I was in high school, you would just sort of read rolling stone and maybe spin. And that was kind of it, if that was kind of how you found out about music.
So, and podcasting too, it’s it’s cool that so many people are talking about music that way. I mean, I guess what I’m saying is there’s sort of. There’s kind of no limit anymore to if it’s the most obscure thing. I mean, as long as you care about it, you can, you can put it out there and it, thanks to social media, which obviously has its, ups and downs.
You, you can seek out the audience for it. Maybe there’s, at least a hundred people on Twitter that probably care about anything I mean, almost any topic you could think of there’s that Twitter, so yeah I’m not sure that answers the question, but I think the gap is the gap is whatever you sort of perceive it to be and you can, and you can fill it.
That’s a good way to put it. Yeah. I mean, as long as you don’t want to get rich, because you’re not going to have a side job at the same time.
Mark Simon: Is there a journalist you’d like to salute?
Ken Partridge: I’ll give a shout out to one of my fellow Ska book writers this year, Aaron Carnes, who wrote a book called, called him in defensive sky.
It’s a fantastic book. It it’s a sort of a broader look at not just the, 90 stuff that I talk about. He kind of looks at the genre. The whole, 50, 60 year history of it. He has a podcast that’s called In Defense of Ska.
And, he in addition to just sort of getting, people that played in important bands, he’ll have just kind of weird people on, stand-up comedians who just happened to sky or maybe a guy from a metal band who is kind of a secret Ska fan or something. So just, kind of looking at it from different angles and, And then why that pops into my head.
But yeah, I mean, I think he’s doing good work, so I’ll, I’ll throw him in the show.
Mark Simon: That’s definitely an unusual one for us. Ken Partridge. Thank you for taking the time to join us
Ken Partridge:. Oh, thank you so much. I had a lot of fun.