Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Story Of The Untouchables 'Wild Child' LP: From DIY L.A. Label To Stiff Records

The Untouchables (The UTs) 'Wild Child' album was released 26 years ago during the spring of 1985.  It remains one of the earliest and most popular examples of purely American-styled ska mixing in soul, pop and funk. The success of The Untouchables and their giant step from local Los Angeles ska/mod heroes to a major label deal with Stiff Records in the U.K. is a classic story about how old fashioned DIY marketing, self-promotion and good luck used to work in the music business (now all you need is a YouTube video!).

The band were a huge inspiration to me as a young ska and 2-Tone obsessed teen and a show I saw them play opening for UB40 at Fordham University here in New York City in 1985 helped convince me to start my own ska band.  I've had the honor and pleasure of interviewing both original band vocalist Kevin Long and keyboardist/organist Josh 'Acetone' Harris who both played key roles in the initial success of the band in Los Angeles (Long) and its later international success for Stiff Records (Harris).

As background, The UTs exploded out of the O.N. Klub in Los Angeles in 1981 and soon provided the soundtrack for the ska/mod revival that spread like wild fire across Southern California in the late 70's and early 80's.  The band quickly outgrew the small confines of the O.N. Klub as word of their live show grew and they sold out several self-released 7" singles. According to a 1985 Billboard story, the band raised $15,000 from private investors (who were paid back with interest!) and recorded the well-received 'Live & Let Dance' EP on the indie Twist Records label. Next they invested an additional $7,000 to produce a video for the song 'Free Yourself' which started to generate television airplay. As a result the EP sold 40,000 copies and the video won the 1985 award for best independent video from Billboard Magazine.  The band also made memorable movie cameos in 'Repo Man' and 'Party Animal'.

Though the EP was selling and The UTs were getting great reviews, none of major record labels located on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles were interested in signing the band.  Undeterred, the band's management kept them busy on the road serving as support act for UB40, The Psychedelic Furs and Frankie Goes To Hollywood which ensured they were seen by a diverse audience of new wave obsessed teens and young adults.  It was then that the band got their big break.

It was during this time in 1983 that Harris joined the band. He was originally hired to engineer sessions for the band's two indie singles "The General" and"Tropical Bird." The session producer suggested to the band that Harris add an organ part. Since the band lacked a keyboard player, they approved. The only organ available was an old Acetone, which is much smaller than a Farfisa (hence Harris' nickname). Later,  Harris was brought in as a replacement for one of the original members, guitarist, Terry Ellsworth. Eventually other members were replaced and the band evolved into the group that recorded 'Wild Child'.

In a series of detailed messages he posted over two years on a Mod message board  Harris has shared the fascinating details of the fast moving chain of events from 1983-1985 that lead to the band getting signed to Stiff Records and the 'UT Mania' in the U.K. and Europe that followed (which ironically happened just as 2-Tone had finally been declared dead and buried ). Part travelogue, part diary, part 'That Thing You Do' music movie whirlwind, Harris' memories are priceless in their detail and provide anyone who has ever wondered what its like to be signed to a label, record an album and hit the road to tour. This is a long post but the payoff at the end is worth it for any fans of The UTs and American ska.

Harris picks up the story as the band's growing popularity in California was expanding and tells the tale of their surprise signing to Stiff Records in late 1984.
It was March 1985 that The Untouchables first arrived on British shores. We were signed to Stiff Records in late October, 1984.  The night we were signed wasn't anything too glamorous. We were very popular on college campuses. This Saturday night in October, we were performing in the theatre at the University of Southern California. I seem to remember that our performance that night was below par and there may have even been some tension in the dressing room, right after the show. It just made Dave Robinson's first appearance all the more startling.
The Untouchables had been performing and recording for quite awhile and were very popular. Yet, none of the record companies in Los Angeles would give us a chance. It was very frustrating. We released records on our own (Twist Records) and eventually signed a distribution deal with Enigma Records. "Live and Let Dance" was released through the Twist/Enigma arrangement. We released two singles from this EP: "Free Yourself" and "What's Gone Wrong". Both songs became very successful for us. "What's Gone Wrong" was a song that I primarily wrote and sang. It was in the "lover's rock" style, which the band was more than able to play. I was sometimes told that the song sounded like UB40, which, to me, was the ultimate compliment. The band always received tremendous support from local radio station KROQ. They played "What's Gone Wrong" to death. It was an amazing feeling, really beyond description. To be a struggling musician, then suddenly, you're listening to yourself being played over the car radio, one of my all-time favorite memories.
Anyway, in 1984, What's Gone Wrong was #4 for KROQ's Top Ten Songs of the year. I was very honored."Free Yourself" was a different story. We shot our first video to "Free Yourself."  The song and video were really special. The video was very groundbreaking in it's usage of black and white imagery shifting into bright color and then back to B&W. It was produced by Tina Henry and John Lee and eventually won honors as Billboard Magazine's 1985 "Best Indy Video Of The Year"... "Indy", as in: "we weren't signed."...nobody wanted to take a chance with us. Except Dave Robinson.

Dave Robinson (hereafter referred to as" Rob-o" or "Robo") was the Owner/President of Stiff Records. Dave had seen a copy of the Free Yourself video and apparently was fairly impressed. Without any notice, Robo flew from London to L.A. and suddenly shows up at our USC gig. After our performance, he comes backstage, is introduced and tells us he wants to sign us to Stiff.  How do you spell flabbergasted? Because that's what we were. All those great shows at the Hollywood Palace or opening concerts for major headliners and nothing...zilch... then, some bad show at USC, and voila!...instant success. We were on cloud nine. Our confidence zoomed beyond bounds.  Robo asked us where we'd like to record our first album, and we all wanted to go straight to England. We were convinced that we couldn't get the right producer in the States. So it was arranged that we'd fly over in March, 1985 to begin recording "Wild Child" and start our first tour of the U.K.
Harris shared the excitement of arriving in London and the band's very first U.K. show at London's Dingwall's:
So, the Untouchables arrive in London in late March, 1985. This was the first of 3 tours we made of the U.K. and Europe during the Spring and Summer of 1985. My first impressions upon arrival in London, was astonishment in seeing the massive numbers of posters promoting the U.T.'s. first Stiff single, "Free Yourself". Here we hadn't even recorded a note for Stiff and there was already wide exposure. Needless to say, my fellow band mates were very impressed with that.
I believe the first order of business upon our arrival, was introductions to everyone at the Stiff headquarters. I remember being inundated with promotional materials, provided by the Stiff staff. My first thought was, "How am I gonna get all the Stiff's staff's stuff home? (I somehow did, and still have alot of it packed into the garage.) 
After the reception, we were escorted to an industrial area of the city, for our first (of many) promotional photos. We then were taken to the Grosvenor Hotel, which I'll always love, but never be able to pronouce. The Grosvy had every thing a travelling musician could want. The tube across the street. Kings Road just up the road. Europa Foods on one corner. A fine pub on the other. I had a cozy single at the Grosvy. Breakfast buffet downstairs. Great stuff. 
Our first show in England was scheduled later that week for Dingwall's. This show was to be our introduction to English press Now mind you, The Untouchables had never played outside of California, except for a few college and university dates. We were truly on foreign soil. One of my first observations about the British, was how much more quicker everything operated. People walked, talked, and generally lived faster than I did. Maybe it has to do with coming from a warmer climate in California.
Anyway, one of the first lessons the band learned, was that it was unacceptable to linger between songs, while performing onstage. This was a bad habit the band enjoyed, and was thoroughly acceptable back home. Not here. A 50 minute set was expected to be comprised of no less than 45 minutes of music. Individual songs turned into medleys. We learned that lesson onstage at Dingwall's. 
As I recall, Dingwall's stage (at the time) was rather small. I believe we performed like sardines recently wrestled from a tin can. I remember being extraordinarily warm on the cramped stage, and a bit frazzled with my meager attempts to master a new keyboard (my Acetone organ remained safely at home in California). There were several record producers that Robo had asked to attend our show at Dingwall's. One objective of this first, brief tour, was to select a producer, studio and proper material for our upcoming Stiff album, "Wild Child." I personally was hoping to work with Steve Lillywhite, whom I'd always respected. I believe he may have been in attendance that night, but I'm not sure. I also hoped to work with either Steven Hague or even Brian Eno, but I don't think that either of them were ever in the running.
As it turns out, the selection of producer and studio were made independently of the band. You know, made by the higher ups. Stewart Levine (Hugh Masakela, Simply Red) was selected as producer and Sound Push Studios in Blaricum, Holland is where we were to record the LP. So, next we were off to Holland to record "Wild Child"
So with their initial introduction to the UK a success and a studio booked and producer chosen, The UT's made their way to Holland record 'Wild Child':
The UT's left for Holland maybe a week after our performance at Dingwall's on March 29, 1985. Another Dingwall's footnote: It's there that we were introduced to Buster (from Bad Manners). One of the guys mentioned to Buster, that during our show, a chant was coming from the audience of: "East Lon-don, East Lon-don." Buster explained the difference between East and West Londoners to us. Dingwall's was located in West London but our show was attended by mostly East Enders, and thus the chant.
Rehearsals for the 'Wild Child' album were conducted in a studio, near us in London. First, we performed most of our material for Robo and members of his staff. After considerations, songs were selected and the UT's began to rehearse (and re-arrange) them in preparation of the recording sessions in Holland. I don't remember if Stewart Levine (our producer) was at these rehearsals. I do recall that many of our songs were reconstructed and new arrangements were made with parts being added or changed.  I remember the new sense of musical confidence the UT's acquired. Our material was being 'groomed.' Our songs were being made stronger and we were getting more polished. One morning, upon arriving at the rehearsal studio, we heard "Free Yourself" on the radio of the reception desk. We were so proud. "Free Yourself" was quickly climbing the UK charts, and was up to #27 in NME. This was very encouraging to Robo, in particular. (In hindsight, I see the tremendous expense his company undertook, in bringing us to England. I am forever grateful.)
For our last night in London, Robo escorted the band to the Hammersmith Odeon to see: Frankie Goes To Hollywood. We had front row seats and they were very big at the moment and I remember being very impressed with the band's theatrics and general stage presence. But they barely had enough material for their show. They had to repeat their hit song: "Relax". Remember how hot they were?
So, at last it was time for The Untouchables to record 'Wild Child'. I think we caught the ferry from Ipswich and sailed overnight to the Hague. We then drove through Amsterdam, eventually arriving in the quaint village of Hilversum. It was charming in Holland. People rode bicycles, more than cars. I'd see young & old couples, all doubled up on single bike frames, heading toward the new McDonald's restaurant that had recently opened in town. The Untouchables were thrilled ("Mickey D's") a small, unhealthy slice of Americana, with cheese, please.
Sound Push Studios was located in Blaricum, which was about a fifteen minute drive from our hotel. Each day for about 3 weeks or so, we'd punch in and out of the studio usually between 11 to 7.  Sound Push was a old country estate that had been converted into two separate recording studios. I think some metal band was in the other studio, maybe Megadeath, I'm not sure. Both Studios featured state of the art equipment. 'Wild Child' was recorded on a Sound Logic console, one of the first computerized recording systems available, which was fairly unusual, at the time. I remember video monitors in the control room that dropped from the ceiling, allowing everyone inside to see what was musically occurring.
The studio was gorgeous, beautiful hardwood floors throughout, fine drum booth, selection of keyboards (including Bosendorfer grand). Great mikes. Full kitchen and lounge. It was really one of the nicest studios I'd ever been in. Producer Stewart Levine and engineer Femi Jiya, handled the production. They had just finished recording Simply Red's debut album, right here at Sound Push. Both men had long impressive track records in the music industry and were more than qualified to handle the UTs.
Things went fairly smoothly during the recording of our basic tracks. It was interesting to watch our songs transition from their original form, into these sculpted tracks. Each song seemed to lay better than the last, as our familiarity with our surroundings increased. After laying our vocal tracks, I believe we were then joined by our horn section. This action made The Untouchables feel whole again. After the horns laid their tracks, we did our overdubs and finally mixing. We played one show in Amsterdam before heading back to England. Then, finally we were heading home, but only for a quick rest.

One of the highlights of the 'Wild Child' recording experience for Harris was working with Jerry Dammers of The Specials who produced one track on the album -- 'I Spy For The F.B.I' -- which was a inspired cover of a rare 60's northern soul track by Jamo Thomas.
Jerry (Dammers) happened to produce one of our songs for our Stiff release "Wild Child".      Jerry produced the song "I Spy for the FBI". This song was a remake we recorded and made an accompanying video for. We shot the video in Hamburg, Germany. Much of it in a tunnel beneath the River Urbe. I remember bleaching my hair to blonde prior to the video shoot. I had spent some time on Kings Road in London, and this definitely left a physical impression in it's wake.

Harris and the band then undertook a full tour which helped raise their profile all over the U.K.

After laying down the basic tracks & overdubs for Wild Child, the Untouchables returned to England. The Wild Child sessions all went well and Stewart Levine and Femi Jiya were planning on doing the final mixes at Marcadet Studios in Paris. 
After a short break (my wife, Carol joined me and we visited Paris), The Untouchables returned to London where we filmed more T.V. Within a weeks time, we were headed on our first U.K. tour.
We started our journey with shows in Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent and eventually Liverpool. From Liverpool, we ferried over to Dublin. I recall playing in a very dark club, called Television. From Dublin, we drove north to Belfast, (where I don't think we performed). I remember the strange feeling that I had, while passing through Belfast. I remember an armoured vehicle passing us on the roadway. It just seemed so out of character with the natural beauty of the Irish countryside. 
Anyway, from Belfast, we caught a ferry to Scotland. There, we played in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Funny, the things you tend to remember about places. I remember strolling through Aberdeen's city centre and seeing posters promoting a Scottish band, performing American country-western music. I thought how funny it was (a Scottish band playing Country Western music, but probably no funnier than an American band of mods). We played and stayed at the Victoria Hotel, which I thought was absolutely perfect. Tumble out of my room into an elevator, which deposits me in the ballroom directly beneath the lobby. I believe that the train station was adjacent to the hotel. I would have loved to have made a train tour of the U.K. I think Stiff records did such a tour, at one time.
From Aberdeen, we went to Glasgow, where we played the university. I was told that Glasgow resembled the U.S.A, because of it's modern freeway system. Why anyone would want to emulate our freeways is beyond me. Though freeways are efficient, they're a blight on the landscape. While in beautiful Edinburgh, we not only performed, but appeared on the local BBC station. I remember staying at an extraordinary hotel there.
Then, it was Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the road crew tricked me into trying black pudding. Then it was remote Scarborough, where we played The Opera House. We stayed at a fine country manor in Scarborough, very memorable and finally Sheffield. The Untouchables were really getting exhausted. We'd seen more of the Kingdom, than many British had.  We'd now been away from California for about 2 1/2 months. We soon would finish our first UK tour and return home to temporarily gather our wits before the European tour.
Now for a special treat! Below are clips (courtesy of Harris) of The UTs entire show (including most of the tracks from the 'Wild Child' LP -- with Harris on lead vocals for 'What's Gone Wrong') from a performance during their 1985 European tour at the Rockpalast Festival in Lorelai, Germany. Enjoy!


Steve from Moon said...

The UTs were one of my favorites (I caught one of their rare NYC appearances in 1989--they were one of the best live bands I've ever seen)!

I'd never caught the "I Spy for the FBI" video before...thanks for posting it.

ron said...

I'm for Nor Cal /East Bay and I was lucky to see them a Bunch along with Fishbone and the like. It is true the had a ton of energy on stage which made them quite electric. Thanks for the post and videos !!

Anonymous said...

Despite being a child of the 90s ska-boom, I always loved the UT's and could never find anything about them. This post is a real treat and helps explain things about the band. What an amazing band, thanks for the post!!!

Suasoria said...

What a wonderful post. I was part of their LA fan base. In the early 80s I was too young to go to shows, but old enough to squeal when their songs were played on KROQ. Those were the days when we felt no shame in taping songs off the radio. Mom probably still has my old LPs including "Wild Child" and "Live and Let Dance."

flipsolo said...

Wow! I love the special insight provided into UT's European travels! The making and defining of one of LA's finest bands certainly brought me back to a great period in my life. I was a big fan in my youth and remember fondly going to scooter rallys waiting impatiently for the Untouchables to play. But every minute was well worth it. In fact, it's fitting that I would come across this site when I just saw the UT's perform in downtown Los Angeles at a free concert in Pershing Square this past weekend. It was great seeing some old mods, scooter boys, normal folks and rudies dancing the night away! The only sad part was noticing that Jerry is the only original member left but happy nethertheless that the UT's are still no one's steppin stone!!!