Friday, May 2, 2008

The Untouchables - America's First Ska Band

The Untouchables really deserve the credit for being the very first U.S. ska band. They almost singlehandedly created the U.S. ska scene and I want to make sure they get the credit they should. I also saw them play a memorable show in the early 80's at Fordham University opening for Fishbone that was one of the sweatiest shows I ever saw. They also had small parts in several 80's movies (any one remember the mod scooter gang in Repo Man who kicks the crap out of Emilio Estevez for trying to repossess their grandma's car??). They were like a ska version of Captain Gooch and The Shrimp Shack Shooters in the movie "That Thing You Do. "

For the uninitiated, The UT's formed in 1981 as part of the embryonic L.A. mod revival, after being inspired by the ska revival. Since some couldn't play instruments, they either hastily learned, or became vocalists. The original lineup included: Kevin Long (vocals), Chuck Askerneese (vocals), Terry Ellsworth (rhythm guitar), Clyde Grimes (guitar), Rob Lampron (drums), Herman Askerneese (bass) and Jerry Miller (vocals, timbales).

After a shaky start playing at parties, the integrated septet were eventually booked at the O.N. Klub (known as the On to regulars). The band had guaranteed the club that they would pack the venue, and they did not disappoint. In middle of that year, they released their first 7" single, copies of which were snapped up by local mods. The Untouchables originally played covers such as "We Ain't Got Nothing Yet" (Blues Magoos), "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" (Small Faces) and "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" (Monkees) in addition to their own songs. Late in 1982, the band began a stint as the house band at the Roxy Theatre. Terry Ellsworth left the band in the summer of 1983, at the height of the California mod revival. Josh Harris was added on keyboards, and Will Donato (who became a successful smooth jazz artist) started on sax.

Their second single, "The General," became a minor local hit, despite poor distribution. The band performed "The General" in the 1984 comedy The Party Animal, and they appeared as a scooter gang in the movie Repo Man. In early 1984, they were signed to Stiff Records. Concerts with The B-52's, Black Uhuru, Bow Wow Wow, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, No Doubt and X all over California gave the group a disparate following of whites, blacks, mods, punks, surfers and rockabilly fans, with the local performances drawing up to 1,500 people. The band also appeared in the 1984 film Surf II, performing "Dance Beat", and 1987's No Man's Land, performing "What's Gone Wrong".

Vocalist Kevin Long (who had named the band) left in 1984. Guitarist Clyde Grimes took on more vocal leads, and in 1984 the band recorded "Free Yourself", which became very popular, especially in the United Kingdom. The band has gone through many lineup changes since then, and as of 2006, only vocalist Jerry Miller remains from the original lineup.

Here is the famous scene from Repo Man:

Check out this news story from LA in the 80's warning people about the Mods that features The UT's:

Finally here is the classic video for "Free Yourself" that threatened to put the UT's into the charts.


Steve from Moon said...

I was stuck at a small college about an hour south of Cleveland in the fall of '85--and one of the few things that redeemed that bleak experience was that the huge commercial modern rock station (Z100 something) in Cleveland played the hell out of "Wild Child" and "What's Gone Wrong."

The UT's second album, "Agent 00 Soul" wasn't as good, but their NYC gig in support of the show blew me away...

Brian Kertin said...

The Untouchables are one of those bands that you need to see live to get the full scope of their music. I first saw them in 1983 and have been seeing them regularly ever since.