I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Long, one of the original singers of Los Angeles Mod/Ska band The Untouchables. In the course of doing research for that post, I also came across a great blog called California Mod Scene written by Mike Page, who was part of the scene that grew around the O.N Klub and The Untouchables. His site documents the LA mod scene through amazing pictures, old news articles and original show flyer's and it was there that I came across an early version of an essay that Long had written called 'Epicenter of a Scene' that provides an engaging and thorough historical perspective on the LA mod/ska scene. The essay also memorializes the shrine of a club that started it all, a small, hole in the wall called the O.N Klub. I asked Long about the essay and he said he had just revised and updated it and offered to share with with me to post here on my blog. I wanted to post it in its entirety as a follow-up to the interview and also to use it as a jumping off point for future posts focused on the U.S. ska scenes of the late 70's and early 80's.
The essay is a true thing of beauty. First, because Long is an eloquent and passionate writer and he illustrates the scene vividly with his prose. More importantly though, he provides his unique vantage point as a member of The Untouchables, while placing LA's love affair with mod, ska, soul and RnB into into sociological and historical context. Long's essay, combined with pictures and flyer's from Page's California Mod Scene blog provide the be all and end all look at the U.S. version of 2-Tone that flourished very briefly in sunny California from 1980-1984.
Epicenter of a Scene
By Kevin Long
In the early 1980s, on a less than glittering strip of Sunset Boulevard, was a tiny and unremarkable dive called the O.N. Klub. The O.N. Klub, or simply “the ON” to its habitués, was located at 3037 W. Sunset in Silver Lake, then a down-at-the-heel commercial and residential area located just east of Hollywood.
It was at the O.N. Klub that the spark of a brief, but magical, alternative music scene first caught fire in 1980. The scene was an odd amalgamation of sorts, combining the sound and style of 1960’s swinging London with the music of original and second-wave Jamaican and English ska, the danceable grooves of American Sixties soul and R&B, while tapping into the DIY spirit and independence of late Seventies punk rock.
Unlike punk rock, however, this scene made no claims of political or social upheaval; revolution was not on the agenda. Nevertheless, it was not entirely apolitical either, for if this music scene had a manifesto it was simply one of inclusion, where African-American kids dressed as sharply as their Latino brethren, where Asian-American girls were as coolly detached as their white sisters, where kids from South Central and La Cãnada amicably (and endlessly) debated the merits of Vespa v. Lambretta, not unlike white English boys did half-a-world away and a generation earlier.
Hardly the building blocks of revolution, this scene was never about tearing things down but rather building them up. So while the media often focused myopically on the apparent anomaly of American kids driving vintage Italian scooters and listening to British and Jamaican music, they often missed entirely the bridging of cultural and ethnic divides taking place before them. In years to come, no less than local, state, and federal agencies, with corporate America bringing up the rear, would spend tens of millions of dollars on the challenges of incorporating cultural and ethnic diversity into public institutions and the American workplace. In early eighties Silver Lake, however, dancers found it effortlessly between the vinyl grooves of Booker T and the MGs and the Specials while workin’ it on the dance floor at the ON Klub.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this scene -- more than the music and bands it spawned – was the emergence of an amazingly broad diversity of youth, arguably unlike any other music scene L.A. had witnessed before.
Measured by most standards, including race, gender, socio-economic standing, education, or sexual orientation, this scene was broader, deeper and more expansive than any other local music scene at the time. What united these otherwise disparate forces was its passion for R&B, soul, and ska music. This was the colorful and wildly popular L.A. mod scene, circa 1980-1984. It all began at a dingy little club in a once dingy corner of the city.
I. Charlie Don’t Surf, but Surf Punks Do
The dominant alternative music scene in the city prior to the rise of the mod movement was punk rock. While the roots of the L.A. punk scene went back to at least 1976 (many cite the Ramones show that year at the Whiskey A Go-Go as the watershed punk event), the pivotal moment in the rise of the L.A. punk scene occurred in 1977 when the legendary Masque club first opened its doors.
That the opening of a small underground night club would directly correlate to the rise of a local music movement is of little surprise; such phenomenon has played out countless times before, from Liverpool to London, from New York to Detroit. In L.A., bands such as X, the Dickies, the Germs, the Weirdos, the Go-Go’s and others found a home at the Masque, and the local punk scene was underway.
Around these bands developed a dynamic scene that not only challenged, but even altered the perception of the laid-back southern California rock sound then defined by such loathsome MOR stalwarts as the Eagles, Jackson Brown, and others. By 1981, however, the original L.A. punk scene was foundering; with a few notable exceptions, bands were stagnating and the scene had by then developed a well-earned reputation for violence.
There was no clearer sign that punk had reached a state of irrelevancy in L.A. than the rise of the absurd surf punk movement. A truly “only in L.A.” musical moment whose only redeeming quality was its short life, surf punks simply did not get it. The brilliance and uniqueness inherent in the likes of the Ramones, Clash, and X were discarded for a tribal mentality that regularly manifested itself at gigs in the form of indiscriminate and often brutal violence.
Further, surf punks not only created their own stereotype, they gleefully enforced it: to wit, predominantly white male lunkheads from the beaches and the hinterlands of L.A. and Orange counties who, as when in the water (if in fact they surfed at all), forced out any non-locals (i.e., anyone “different than us”). On the L.A. alternative music scene, homogeneity and narrow mindedness ruled the day, while the New Party Army sported sun-block.
The result was that many young people who were otherwise inspired by the alternative sounds of first wave L.A. punk bands now turned away from the likes of local bands that were too closely aligned with the goon squads that principally defined their audiences. Besides, what was it that one found attractive about paying hard-earned scratch to see a third-rate outfit at the Starwood or Florentine Gardens, all the while under the threat of violence for not conforming to the enforced status quo? Wasn’t new music and style then based at least in part on a rejection of the status quo? This irony was laughable in a scene that lacked humor. Disillusioned by violence and the same three chords, many potential newcomers turned away from this in-bred scene as if to say, “let them eat Oki-Dogs.”
The mod movement wasn’t the sole beneficiary of the fall of punk. Kids flocked to other forms of alternative music then afoot, including the neo-psychedelia of the “Paisley Underground,” a brilliant rockabilly revival, a genuine and developing interest in American roots music (the terribly named “cow punk” scene comes to mind), and both funk and the seeds of rap. The end of punk was the well-spring of an incredibly active and flourishing time in the city as numerous avenues of music were simultaneously explored, with many sub-genres of alternative music developing their own legion of passionate followers and new clubs opening seemingly every week.
Nevertheless, one factor that separated the mod scene from all others was that it drew kids from every corner of the city and the Valley. Whereas punks were typically white males in their late teens and early 20s, from the get-go the mod scene at the ON Klub was a fresh and colorful palette of ethnicities and cultures.
However, even before the seeds of the L.A. mod scene took root, the ON Klub was already on the city’s alternative music map.
II. The Rise of the ON Klub: Roots, Rock, Reggae
The transformation of the building at 3037 W. Sunset from failing property investment into one of the most diverse independent nightclubs in the city is one of those rare instances where it is possible to identify the work of an individual who was singularly responsible for both vision and implementation of a small business that soon proved wildly successful.
Howard Paar was a young Englishman who early in life developed a love of music. While growing up listening to rock and pop music in all its forms, Paar soon developed a passion for bluebeat and ska, the upbeat Jamaican precursors to reggae that even into the mid-1970s continued to circulate beyond the West Indian communities of south London and into the clubs and consciousness of those willing to listen.
Paar cites the Specials first single, “Gangsters”, as his motivation to open and manage a nightclub. “The catalyst, musically speaking, for what would become the ON Klub was undeniably the day “Gangsters” was released,” Paar recently said. While the Two-Tone movement unleashed a huge ska phenomenon in Britain, Paar had by then relocated to Los Angeles. Still, he was so smitten with this song and the energetic and youthful ska revival taking place in the U.K. that he knew immediately he had to open a club, never mind that he had never before managed one or that ska registered nary a blip then on American music radar.
Soon, however, he was pitching his idea for a nightclub to a friend of a friend, Bob Selva, who owned a small building in Silver Lake. Selva’s property was primarily used as an Asian restaurant, but as the proprietors struggled to meet their lease Selva was on the lookout for other opportunities. Desperate to make the property profitable, Selva agreed to meet Paar over drinks at Filthy McNasty’s (later the Central, today the Viper Room) on Sunset. He sat transfixed as he listened to this young Englishman speak passionately about music he had never before heard.
The combination of financial desperation, musical intrigue, Paar’s charm, and strong drinks was enough to seal the deal: Selva would give the young, would-be impresario a chance. 3037 W. Sunset would be made over as a night club, and Bob Selva and Howard Paar were soon partners in the entertainment business. Given the Silver Lake location was an Asian restaurant and bar named “Oriental Nights”, coupled with the fact that Selva refused to pay to alter the business license, Paar simply abbreviated the restaurant name and called his venue the “ON Klub.” While Paar envisioned the ON as a “ska and soul” hotspot (the club billed itself as such in its earliest promotions), he soon discovered there were two fundamental flaws with this plan: there were virtually no ska bands in L.A. at the time the club opened and where he envisioned his place full of club-goers sharing his love of Sixties soul music, the L.A. club scene was then dominated by punk, new wave, heavy metal, and MOR bands, while disco – then in its death throes – still held sway among the dance crowd (to wit, Flipper’s Roller Disco in West Hollywood, among others).
Until a ska scene developed in L.A., of which Paar’s certitude had convinced Selva to bet the house, he was pressed to fill his club. Fortunately he had another ace up his sleeve, this time in the form of reggae music.
The O.N. Klub was one of the first clubs in southern California to regularly showcase reggae music. Like punk rock during the same period, reggae was well outside the musical mainstream; it was an outsider’s sound, or, as many in the genre called it, rebel music.
In fact, reggae music in America then was so far outside the mainstream that in 1980, the year the ON Klub opened, Bob Marley and the Wailers – arguably the most popular act in the world outside of America – briefly toured the U.S. as the opening act for Lionel Ritchie’s band the Commodores in a desperate bid to reach an African-American audience that up to that point had both largely ignored it and had little idea what to make of it.
Paar had more than passing familiarity with reggae given his exposure to it while living in London, and thus he was well-positioned to establish his club as the place in L.A. to listen and dance to it. Paar also capitalized on the fact that few L.A. clubs then spun reggae records, while simultaneously benefiting from the “outsider” nexus that existed between reggae and punk/new wave at the time. This combination, he hoped, would generate sufficient revenue to keep the lights on at least until his unshakable belief in a homegrown ska and reggae scene was realized.
In addition to the outsiders’ view that reggae and punk shared, a brothers-in-arms like solidarity was strengthened when a few punk bands began incorporating reggae rhythms into their own material, perhaps no better expressed than the Clash’s version of Junior Murvin’s reggae classic “Police and Thieves”. Conversely, a few reggae bands flirted with a punkier sound and in some cases, as with Washington D.C.’s brilliant Bad Brains, reggae and punk often were explored within the context of the same song.
This loose punk-rasta alliance began to show its colors early at the ON Klub, and Paar, as club manager and house deejay, had the satisfaction of being on hand nightly to see his vision unfold. The club had found its footing.
III. South Central to La Canada: We Are the Mods
In England, the rise of Two-Tone in 1979 coincided with a potent mod revival movement. For better or worse, the Who-produced film “Quadrophenia” was the touchstone that galvanized kids there to look back to the original mod movement of the early 1960s. Typical of the fickle nature of English pop culture, many there felt punk had had its day in the sun and it was time to move on to something different. In 1979, Mod and Two-Tone simultaneously planted their respective flags and staked their youthful claim.
The lone exception was the Starwood, a club located on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, where one night a week a deejay named Phast Phreddie (nee Fred Patterson) spun soul records in one of its back rooms. Outside of the rare house party and prior to the “mod”-ification of the ON Klub, Phreddie’s soul sets on Monday nights represented all that L.A. clubland had to offer the neophyte modernist.
Phreddie was a record collector second to none (he was a fixture at the old Capitol Records parking lot swap meets and also founded and edited the seminal L.A. rock fanzine, “Back Door Man”), and while he was on the L.A. punk scene from its earliest days (the legendary all-girl punk band Runaways’ first-ever show was played in the living room of his parents’ Torrance home), his real passion was soul, R&B, bebop jazz, and blues. (He would later effortlessly front Phast Phreddie and Thee Precisions, a short-lived jumpin’ jive jazz and juke-joint R&B act that had many of L.A.’s best musicians – including members of Los Lobos, Blasters, Plimsouls, and X – clamoring to sit in with him).
It was at the height of the original L.A. punk scene that Phreddie persuaded Starwood management to let him spin Sixties soul and R&B records one night a week at the club, never mind that a punk or hard rock band was often raising the rafters at the same time in another room of the large club.
While the dancers at Phreddie’s Starwood gigs never numbered more than a dozen or so, they were as dedicated to that music as the Phast One himself. Among those dancers were future members of the Untouchables, several of whom met for the first time on Phreddie’s dance floor. As the Untouchables were the first overtly mod band during L.A.’s new music heyday, Phast Phreddie played a key role in providing the ideal forum for these and other like-minded musicians to meet.
It was always an experience in those early days when mods and punks crossed paths in L.A., as was often the case at the Starwood. Because there were so few mods then, confrontations were typically one-sided affairs. Many of us wondered why we were fighting in the first place, as punks and mods actually shared the same level of contempt for mainstream rock music and style.
Nevertheless, differences remained and often it took little more than arriving on a scooter or wearing a suit for sparks to fly. Even so, the threat of violence and, not uncommonly, violence itself wasn’t enough to deter the few hardcore mods then from the joy of dancing to Phreddie’s incredible sets of music. Besides, we reasoned, where else could we turn?
Violence or not, mod was always about attitude, style, and music. It was amazing the lengths mods would go to get the “right” look. Years before the commercial rise of Melrose Avenue I remember spending hours upon hours in the Fairfax district rifling through thrift-store shops looking for that perfectly sized three-button jacket, all the while the gracious and patient Jewish ladies never failing to comment how nice it was to see boys wearing suits and ties again.
Or driving with vocalist Chuck Askerneese on scooters to the far reaches (anywhere by scooter is far) of San Fernando Valley in search of some undiscovered used clothing El Dorado we knew in our style-obsessed minds must exist. We tried on and rejected enough clothes to dress an army, all in pursuit of something different, something cool, something definitely mod.
For if the devil is indeed in the details, mods provided him plenty of company. Mod is nothing if not about the details: the remarkable and expansive knowledge of music, often including label, producer, and even studio session facts; the impressive 45 rpm record collection of original soul singles from Stax, Atlantic, Motown, Chess, and a myriad of obscure but no less amazing labels; original ‘60s Italian scooters and scooter accoutrement; and of course finding sharp clothes, purchased used because “new vintage” did not then exist.
L.A. mods wore suits, for example, in tribute to the early ‘60s American soul stars they idolized. But a suit also looked sharp on the dance floor, and that never hurt when looking to meet someone. In a strange fashion paradox, the suit also was embraced as alternative clothing to the largely mainstream couture that punk fashion had by then become; for when it plays in Peoria the rebel is definitely without a clue.
Ask any scooter-less, suit-wearing mod what it was like, for example, to board a bus in L.A. in 1980, and he would likely equate it to being viewed as a visitor from a distant galaxy. RTD bus driver to self: “Three old ladies sitting up front? Check. Leather-clad punk with purple Mohawk and bike chain? Check. Pimply-faced metal dude with big hair and small brain? Check. Clean cut teenager wearing ‘60s suit and tie? Che…what the…? Not on my watch, mister!” And in a cloud of diesel, clang, clang, go the RTD doors. Strange days, indeed.
By 1981, the ON Klub had survived its first year. Howard Paar had stitched together a patchwork calendar of live reggae and new wave acts; this, plus his work as deejay (and that of guest deejays), set the stage for the mod breakout that followed.
IV. Mod(ern) Diversity
It is difficult to pinpoint precisely why the L.A. mod scene was so diverse. While the city was even then a hugely diverse place, that fact alone is an insufficient explanation; for as above, neither the punk scene nor any other scene during the same period exhibited near close the depth of diversity as did the mod scene.
In other words, a number of competing subcultures drew from the same pool of kids looking to dive into something other than mainstream music, and yet, by and large (though not exclusively), it was the mod scene that a majority of kids of color chose to align themselves with.
So why did mod attract so many different types of kids in numbers that other scenes in L.A. did not? A brief analysis provides some insight. The L.A. punk scene morphed from its origins as an open and creative place for disaffected youth that at one time, for example, attracted more women musicians than perhaps any other music scene during the same period, into one where originality was discarded in favor of a rigid code of male-dominated hardcore bands playing generally unmelodic tunes as fast as possible. As creativity and difference were winnowed out of L.A. punk, it followed that its audience dynamic would change, too, and soon violence seemed to dog it’s every step.
Intimidation made for a less than ideal reception, while aggression all but slammed the door in the face of young newcomers who did not look or act like those who came immediately before them. Thus by 1981 punk held little appeal to kids looking for acceptance into the new music community, but particularly so for anyone not white, male, or both.
Other alternative scenes at the time also failed to attract largely diverse followings, but for reasons other than those listed above. For example, while the neo-psychedelia of L.A.’s Paisley Underground shared the mods love of Sixties music, generally speaking, it was a predominantly white scene led by white musicians. Unlike the last vestiges of the punk scene, however, the Paisley Underground was neither violent nor exclusive; it was a loose affiliation of like-minded musicians who shared a love of Sixties-era garage rock as well as that decade’s move towards psychedelia that resonated strongly with many L.A. club-goers, male and female alike. Nevertheless, its appeal failed to reach very deeply across ethnic lines.
The hard rock scene at the time was well established on Sunset Strip and other L.A. locations, but it and heavy metal have traditionally played poorly in urban areas and, even worse, in the inner-cities. As a result, few minorities then joined the hard rock ranks. Further, for those – whether in the inner-city or not – with alternative tastes in music, the hard rock crowd was viewed as part of the cultural mainstream and, therefore, a worthy target of contempt. This view only hardened with the rise of the cartoonish characters that made up L.A.’s hair-metal bands of the mid-1980s.
It is worth noting that these scenes included varying degrees of diversity. It is difficult to imagine zero diversity within any music scene in a city the size of Los Angeles; that argument is not being made here. What is being examined is why one group was so vastly diverse relative to others that were not, yet all occurring at the same time and place. The foregoing reasons to some degree explain the lack of diversity, whereas what follows is an attempt to understand the basis for the depth of racial diversity within the early Eighties L.A. mod scene.
The link between ON Klub mods and racial diversity was put in place – wittingly or not – when Howard Paar opened the club with a love of reggae and ska unabashedly pinned to his chest. Many of the early reggae acts booked there were comprised entirely of African-Americans (and/or ex-pat Jamaicans) or an integration of local black and white musicians. In turn, these musicians brought with them their own mix of friends and followers to the club.
Paar’s deejay role also contributed to diversity at the ON Klub, as his set lists were wonderful and eminently danceable mixes of reggae, Motown, Jamaican ska, Two-Tone, and Sixties soul. Anyone with a pulse (and cover charge) could not help but dance. These set lists were, at the time in L.A., a unique integration of music and artists that were soon mirrored by the club-goers themselves, but particularly so when mods descended upon the club.
The next influential step occurred when Paar booked on a regular basis the Boxboys, the first genuinely homegrown L.A. ska band. Though an all-white outfit, their brand of “Uptown Yankee Ska” provided a critical link between what Paar had put in place at the club from the outset and that of a younger and even more diverse crowd that followed.
The Boxboys were the DIY bridge that spanned that vast and mythical chasm between dance floor and stage for L.A.’s first mod band, and later heir apparent to the Boxboys’ ON Klub reign, the Untouchables. The Boxboys influence on the Untouchables exceeded that of the far-removed English Two-Tone and mod sets the group admired; whereas the English bands gave shape to the dream, the Boxboys embodied it.
Up to this point, the ON Klub was equal parts reggae club, new wave/ska club, and retro-soul dance club. With the arrival of the Untouchables, however, a new dimension was unleashed at the tiny Silver Lake venue whose repercussions were eventually felt in alternative music communities across the country.
The Untouchables were mods who made no apologies for their love of Sixties American soul and British power pop in an era where, at least on the L.A. alternative scene, hardcore punk (i.e., testosterone-driven SST bands) was all the rage. The band also loved to play ska, and Howard Paar, who recognized individual members of the band as young patrons of his club, gave them their first-ever club gig. This move not only set the stage for mod mania at the ON Klub, but it also proved equally critical to the diversity of the scene there and that which grew from it.
It wasn’t just that the Untouchables played a mix of music inspired by black and white artists, but rather that the band itself was racially diverse. And while there was no shortage of racially mixed bands around L.A. at the time, there were very few diverse bands that identified themselves with the alternative crowd and essentially none that brought to bear the same influences as did the Untouchables. As such, the only mod band in L.A. at the time was a young septet of five black and two white musicians, and the ON Klub was the only venue that agreed to give them a shot.
It didn’t take long for word to get out about the band or the club. Soon Paar elevated the band to weekend nights, and the Untouchables’ several Vespas and Lambrettas parked out front were joined by dozens of others. All corners of the city were represented on the dance floor in a crazy quilt of culture, color and style, all dancing to the band and Paar’s inspired sets of vinyl.
The strength of the mod scene’s diversity arose naturally from music that transcended color and class lines. Equally important, it was not imposed by outside influence, i.e., political dogma or culture cops, but instead was, more than anything else, an organic celebration of youth and music. And, finally, because the only mod act in town was simultaneously racially diverse and at the vanguard of the scene, it set the precedent that the mod-scene door would remain open to all. And that is precisely how things played out as many kids of color crossed that threshold at the ON Klub.
Before long the mod scene at the ON Klub took on a life of its own. Scooters were regularly lined up nearly the length of the block in front of the club, which got the attention of the cops, which, in turn, got the attention of the local media. Suddenly, mod was an L.A. buzzword. Inside the club, meanwhile, dancers – seeking relief from the crowded dance floor – regularly bum rushed the tiny stage to dance with the band, all the while Paar yelling – in no uncertain terms, and at the highest registers of his Cockney accent – for them to get off the stage.
Eventually, the band outgrew the limited size of the club, which by then was feeling the heat from LAPD for both over-crowding on the inside and dozens of underage mods loitering on the outside. While the success of the ON Klub was ultimately its undoing, the L.A. mod scene that originated there – in all its beautiful diversity – marched on.
It was estimated that by 1984 the scene had swelled to over 5,000 kids. It grew to include a dozen or more bands in and around L.A. and Orange counties, and many clubs adopted a “mod night” to cater to the ever expanding mod army, while other mod events flourished across the city. No longer an underground scene, the mod phenomenon soon stretched the breadth of California to exceed in numbers any other mod scene in America before or since.
Much like the fate of the ON Klub, though, the scene in L.A. eventually began to crumble under its own weight; many who were on hand from its earliest days either moved on or, fed up with the scene’s immense popularity, simply stayed away. The Untouchables signed a record deal, released several albums, and toured the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Other bands that have roots in the L.A. mod scene include Fishbone (who were under-age regulars at the ON when the Untouchables played there) and No Doubt; both are racially diverse bands.
Common among youth cultures is the inevitable surrender of some level of personal identity in order to conform with a given culture, be it punk, mod, jocks, Sharks, Jets, or whatever the flavor of the month. One manifestation of that surrender typically is the adoption of a style (or anti-style) that identifies one as a member of that class; bandanas, pocket-protectors, mohawks, parkas, and pompadours all come to mind.
Like punk and all others, mod had its uniform, too. But an important difference to potential newcomers then to the mod scene at the ON Klub was not so much what the uniform looked liked, but rather who was wearing it. And in this case, several years before the rise of the Rainbow Coalition and at least a decade before diversity became a cultural buzzword, in a little dive well off the Sunset Strip, the mod uniform was draped on the twin shoulders of tolerance and acceptance.
Special thanks to Kevin Long for giving his permission for me to post his essay and to Mike Page from California Mod Scene for all the amazing pictures and flyers on his blog, many which I included with this post.