Reel Big Fish’s 1996 release, Turn the Radio Off (TTRO), was a success for two reasons, “Sell Out” and “Beer.” These two songs hit the mainstream. The album also benefitted from being released at a time when ska-punk music was in. Bands like Less Than Jake, Sublime, and Goldfinger, were all thriving at this time. So when Reel Big Fish released their second record on a major label, maybe it was doomed to fail with ska being past it’s prime. Whatever the reason may be, 1998’s Why Do They Rock So Hard (WDTRSH), failed to live up to the standards set by its predecessor. This is tragic, as this album is one of the greatest of all time, and one that, without being hyperbolic, changed my life.
With Turn the Radio Off, Reel Big Fish played it safe. Every track is a typical ska-punk tune. Leaning on frequent upstrokes and horn lines.
This is not a bad thing by any means, on the contrary, Turn the Radio Off is one of my favorite albums. However, on Why Do They Rock So Hard, Reel Big Fish, and specifically frontman, and the brains of the operation, Aaron Barrett, began to take risks musically. Some songs are typical ska-punk songs akin to what we heard on Turn the Radio Off (“The Kids Don’t Like It.”) Some are more rock-focused (“We Care” “The Set-Up (You Need This)”), some are in the reggae style (“I’m Cool”) and others are just plain weird, in the best way possible (“Everything is Cool.”) This diversity is part of what makes WDTRSH so great. One of the best songs on the album, “Big Star,” is part soft, acoustic, melodic music, and part loud, fast rock song. As much as I love ska-punk music, it can get repetitive after a short while. WDTRSH remedies this problem by blending so many different styles while still retaining the ska roots that made Reel Big Fish what they are.
As with Turn the Radio Off, a few of the songs on Why Do They Rock So Hard, are re-recordings of songs from Reel Big Fish’s first release, Everything Sucks. The difference is that with WDTRSH, Reel Big Fish changed the re-recorded songs drastically. “Big Star” went from a mellow ska song to a slow, melodic, acoustic song and “I’m Cool” went from a fast-paced ska-punk song to a slow reggae jam. In my opinion, all of these changes are for the better. After all, if one wanted to listen to the songs in their original form, they are all accessible via Everything Sucks. Instead of just re-recording the songs with better equipment, Reel Big Fish went the extra mile and changed the songs up to breath some fresh air into them. These songs ended up being some of the best on the entire album.
Reel Big Fish has never been a band known for their poignant or thought-provoking lyrics, but on Why Do They Rock So Hard, songwriter Aaron Barrett delivers lyrics with passion and meaning behind them on many tracks. My personal favorite song on the album, “Down in Flames,” focuses on the success of Reel Big Fish’s previous album, and the failure to live up to it, with ska being phased out of the mainstream. A song with similar themes is “We Care.” This slow rock song is simultaneously a love letter to their most devoted fans, as well as diss to those who bashed Reel Big Fish as “sell-outs,” due to their mainstream success. Another one of my favorite songs on the record is “Big Star.” This track is a re-recording of a song off of their independently released Everything Sucks in 1995. Although the song was written before Reel Big Fish achieved any success, the lyrics are very fitting for the state Reel Big Fish was in in 1998. Lyrics like, “Now that I’m a big star, what am I gonna do?” and “I’m so cool, no one wants to look at me. I’m so cool, no one wants to talk to me,” fit the tone of the album perfectly and go excellently alongside songs like “Down in Flames” and “We Care.” Besides these lyrics about being a jaded rock star, the album also features light-hearted humorous songs, like “She’s Famous Now,” which tells the story of a man losing his girlfriend because of her celebrity status, as well as “Scott’s A Dork,” in which lead singer Aaron Barrett calls his bandmate, trumpeter and back-up vocalist Scott Klopfenstein, a dork.
Not only is Why Do They Rock So Hard one of the best albums ever released, it also impacted me in a very important way. I was born in 2002, so I am not at all the right age to be a huge third wave ska fan, but somehow bands like Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake found their way into my Spotify library. The first ska album that I listened to in full was Reel Big Fish’s Turn the Radio Off. I, like many, was enamored by the eclectic horns and ska rhythms of songs like “Sell Out,” “Join the Club,” and “Everything Sucks.” But most of all, what captivated me was the energy that Reel Big Fish produced with every track. Naturally, because of my love for their first major release, my next ska album was Why Do They Rock So Hard. Right off the bat, I was hooked by the opening guitar of “Somebody Hates Me,” which seamlessly transitions into ska upstrokes and a horn. The classic Reel Big Fish energy had been cranked up to 11, and the songs became more rock-oriented, while still maintaining the ska roots that made Turn the Radio Off a success.
Why Do They Rock So Hard, has impacted my life in a number of ways. The most basic of these is simply fostering my love for music. The amount of times that I sat with my headphones on, doing nothing but listening to this album in full, is innumerable. Before this album, I would listen to music on long car rides or airplanes, but it was never a large part of my life. After hearing this album, anytime that I was able, I would be listening to music. I created dozens of different playlists with different styles of music. Each with over one hundred songs. I was playing guitar before hearing this album, but this album has influenced me so much musically. One of biggest dreams now is starting a band and being as lively of a frontman as Aaron Barrett is for Reel Big Fish.
I have gone through a lot of difficult situations since discovering WDTRSH, but this album has always brightened my mood. I don’t know who I would be without Why Do They Rock So Hard. This album has changed my life. I urge you to give this album a listen. I promise you won’t be let down.