Thursday, February 5, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Kevin Long of Los Angeles Mod/Ska band The Untouchables

The influence of 2-Tone outside of the UK remains one of its most enduring legacies. In fact, the speed with which the sounds born and made in Coventry, Birmingham and London made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S. is astounding. In the matter of just a few short months in early 1980, like minded groups of people in New York, Chicago, LA as well as places as far afield as Portland, Oregon and Arizona heard these records and were moved to start their own bands. These new bands used the 2-Tone sound, look and ethic to kick-start a purely American version of ska which featured a combination of 60's mod, R&B, power pop, rock and reggae.

One of the goals of this blog is to pay respects to and highlight the various 2-Tone ska influenced bands and music scenes that sprouted up around the US in the early 80's. Our first stop will be Los Angeles and a look at the rise of a scene centered around The Untouchables and the tribes of scooter riding mods who followed the band and who for a time in the early and mid-80's made Southern California a uniquely American cousin to the UK Mod's of the 60's and the 2-Tone Rude Boys of the late 70's.

Living on the East Coast of the U.S. in New Jersey I was drawn into the New York Ska scene of the mid-80's which coalesced around Sunday matinee shows at CBGB's and The Continental featuring The Toasters, Urban Blight and The New York Citizens. However, I was always fascinated with the scene in Los Angeles and The Untouchables. For a number of reasons, Los Angeles just seemed to have the kind of scene I wished I could be a part of it. There were large numbers of nattily dressed kids on scooters who lived the mod and 2-Tone lifestyle, while I was struggling to find a real pork-pie hat and creepers. What I did have was The Untouchables first LP "Live & Let Dance" which became a staple on my turntable. When I finally did see the band open a show for UB40 at Fordham University in New York in 1985 I was blown away. They embodied all I had hoped for in a truly American ska band and they were soon on their way to recording with Jerry Dammers in the UK. I had hopes they would become the American face of 2-Tone.

While I loved all the 2-Tone bands and their take on UK life and politics, I was proud to have an American band featuring American themes and accents that I could connect with and look up to. According to an interview that Kevin Long, the lead singer of The Untouchables, conducted with BAM Magazine in late 1983, he placed the band squarely into an American context. "We're American. We don't sing in English accents. I have no particular affection for Union Jacks. We used to put up an American flag behind us onstage to let people know we're here, this is where we're from and this is where we want to make it."

While it was not uncommon for working class blacks and whites to live, work and play music together in the Midlands of the UK, this was not true of the U.S. and particularly not the case in Los Angeles which was clearly divided into the black city neighborhoods like Watts and white suburbs of Orange County. As Long has noted in his excellent essay "Epicenter of a Scene" which chronicles the Los Angeles mod and ska scene, " 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." This really made the rise of The Untouchables, who featured a majority of black members, a significant social phenomemnon in Los Angeles and the U.S.

As a quick musical history, The Untouchables first record that was Twist-n-Shake b/w Dance Beat, released on their own Dancebeat label in 1982. Then came 1983's Tropical Bird b/w The General. Tropical Bird was a pretty traditional ska number with jungle overtones.The General was a classic two-tone sounding dance tune. Their first 12" was a six song EP('84) -- Live & Let Dance, that included originals like Free Yourself, Lebanon, Whiplash and What's Gone Wrong -- all of which got some local play on KROQ during the mid-80s. Their early singles and records were eagerly bought up by mods and have become rarities. It was in '84 that the Untouchables started to get recognition, becoming the posterboys for the Los Angeles mod scene appearing in movies like Repo Man and Surf II.

I was lucky to connect with Kevin Long recently. Long was one of the founding members of The Untouchables and he agreed to conduct and interview with me to put the band's early days into perspective and to share his memories of how they helped to spawn a music scene and movement that remains a highpoint in how clubs, fans and bands can come together to make something special. In addition, Long has agreed to share a copy of his essay "Epicenter of a Scene" which I will post as part of a separate blog post. It originally appeared on the California Mod Scene blog which does a great job of providing an insiders view of the Mod scene that rose up around The Untouchables in Los Angeles in the 1980's.

Without further ado, here is the interview with Kevin Long:

Can you tell me about your introduction to music and ska music in particular?
I first got into music through radio. As a young kid I always had a small radio in my bedroom. I spent my allowance on two things: 45 rpm singles and candy. Some early stuff that really influenced me – things I now have on my iPod – were the Staple Singers, Spinners, Gladys Knight (still my favorite singer) and the Pips, Stevie Wonder and other early seventies black pop. The pre-disco period of seventies soul music remains vastly underrated in my opinion. In high school I was into the Stones and Zeppelin, of course. Like a million other pubescent boys I took guitar lessons largely because of “Stairway to Heaven.” Groan.

I got into ska, reggae and punk when I worked at a record store in L.A. This was in the late seventies, in fact, I believe it was 1979 that I started at Music Odyssey, a new and used record store in West LA. This was just after Two-Tone broke in England and also when the Who film “Quadrophenia” came out, so it was a great and impressionable time to be 19 or so and working at a record store. The record store employees got to take turns playing records while working, and I wore out the first albums from the Specials, Selecter and the English Beat. I also rotated heavily “London Calling” by the Clash when it was released in late ’79 or early ’80, plus the soundtrack to the film “Quadrophenia.” Oh, man, it was like being a deejay. Good times. I should add that the store manager was a guy named Jerry, a white dude, who imported reggae records directly from JA; this guy was off the hook with reggae when few others were…he would play nothing but reggae in the store. Maybe because it was 1979, 1980, I don’t know, but when he put on the dub-stylee, customers and even fellow employees could not handle was so different then. If he knew the music bugged you, he turned it up. He found out about my love of Two-Tone and said I needed to learn about the original wave of ska and rocksteady, thus pointing me in the direction of Alton Ellis, the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker and other greats.

What prompted you to start the band? Did you know the other members of the band before you started the band? Why did you decide to call the band The Untouchables?
The band came together first as friends, then as musicians. Both Clyde and Jerry have told this story in print too. They grew up as neighbors in the Crenshaw area of LA, not too far from where Chuck and Herman lived. This was the nucleus of the band, and without those friendships there would have been no UTs. I was friends with Chuck before the band started, and he introduced me to the other guys. Chuck and Herm met Terry Elsworth while dancing to Phast Phreddie’s soul scene at the Starwood. While we were into ska and mod music then, Terry was mod to the nth degree. He single-handedly upped the mod ante and we followed his lead. One of the cool things about Terry was that while he was a hardcore mod, he never limited his music tastes to just mod. He was a massive Clash fan, big into Stiff Little Fingers, ska, Dexys, reggae, dub, and on and on. He was critical to our identity and what the band would become. Anyway, all of us hung out together, going to clubs, dancing, riding scooters. Because we were always together many people at clubs thought we were already a band. We got lots of encouragement to get one started, and soon we were hard at it.

I liked the name the Untouchables because it was a play on words. So many bands, especially prior to punk and new wave, put themselves on a pedestal above their fans, both literally and figuratively out of reach. Other rock bands were untouchable because they were extraordinary (and often flamboyant) musicians, musicians the rest of us would never become. But punk was brilliant because it ridiculed this notion, the idea that in order to be onstage you had to be some blazing guitarist or a multi-octave ranged singer. The do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos that punk rock spawned said, “Fuck it, we can do it too.” You would be hard-pressed to find a guitar solo in a Ramones song, but Johnny Ramone is a brilliant guitar player. Patti Smith likely never won a singing competition, but my God, what an artist and songwriter she is! So the name was a stab at satire, really, because we were of the people, by the people, and for the people. The name mocked those bands that were not.

A few of you had never played an instrument before you started the band. How did you decide who would sing and who would play instruments? Did you have any singing experience?
Everyone brought some level of experience to the band. I was probably the least proficient musician in the band, but even so had some guitar lessons as a kid. I had little or no experience singing in front of people though. As our lead guitarist, Clyde was our musical Gibraltar; he could play anything. Terry held down a solid rhythm guitar, skanking and chicken-scratching through it all. Rob Lampron (drums) and Herm Askerneese (bass) held down our rhythm section. Chuck Askerneese sang most leads, though Jerry Miller held his own too, both on vocals and percussion. For most, if not all of us, it was our first band. We were pretty na├»ve about the whole thing, but it didn’t matter because we were best friends and loving what we did. It just happened very naturally for us, even from day one.

What kind of influence did The Boxboys have on the band? What kind of influence did Mod vs 2-Tone have your look and sound?
The Boxboys were a massive influence on us. Terry Elsworth hipped us to the Boxboys, who played regularly at the O.N. Klub, a small divey club in Silver Lake. They were a fun ska/pop band that people loved to dance to. They put out a single or two but never quite got the momentum going career-wise. They were important to us because they encouraged us to start our own band and thought that we would have fun in the process..

For the Untouchables, it was never mod versus ska. I guess we were different that way than the UK bands, where bands into those scenes were either mod or ska, but not both. We were mods that loved ska music. We wore three-button suits, military-issue parkas, always drove Vespas and Lambrettas, etc. Some of the guys wore pork-pie hats. That was our look and it was who we were; we did not change into “gig clothes” or anything absurd like that. When we started gigging no one in LA looked like us.

Our sound was inspired by what we like to listen and dance to. We loved sixties soul and RnB, sixties mod bands (Small Faces, Kinks, etc), original ska (particularly the Skatalites) and of course all the Two-Tone bands from England, though of all those bands I think the Equators may have had the biggest influence on us. From those influences we developed our own sound and style.

What was your first show in September 1981 at the ON Klub like? How important were your early shows at the ON Klub to the success of the band?
That first-ever club gig was an amazing experience for us, though in many ways it was not a typical first gig. What made it different was that tons of people turned out for a gig and by and large they were there to see us, even though we were the support act for one or two other bands on a week night. We had no idea that lots of mod and ska kids were out there waiting for something like us to come along in L.A. It really took off from the get-go. Howard Paar, ON Klub manager and deejay, was delighted and soon placed on the opening slot on weekend nights. That went well and in short order we were headlining weeknights, then headlining weekends, then selling out weekends, then playing back-to-back shows, etc. The band and the mod scene really took off like wildfire in LA, all starting at the ON Klub.

That same gigging hierarchy later played out at the Whiskey a Go Go and, after a successful run there, then at the Roxy. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. I felt like we had really accomplished something when we were asked to headline the Roxy on Christmas Eve and Christmas night one year, doing separate back-to-back shows each night. All four shows sold out almost immediately. We felt like the kings of Sunset Boulevard, and, however briefly, perhaps we were. After that, Mario (one of the Roxy owners) treated us like sons and would let us drop in anytime for a drink and free show. Soon thereafter Roxy management invited us to a Thursday night residency, which ran for many months. Along with the Doors, we became the only other house band at that club.

Would you describe The UT's as a ska band, a mod band?
I guess we were mods that played ska music. A lot of people thought of us as a ska band, but in addition to ska we had other things going as well. Out of the many bands that included themselves in the greater L.A. mod scene in the mid-eighties, though, the Untouchables were one of the few bands to play ska.

Here is a Los Angeles TV news story from the early 80's about the California mod movement that features interview footage of Kevin Long and the band performing:

Tell me a bit about the early song writing process. Who wrote the songs on your first two singles?
Terry and Chuck wrote “Dance Beat,” and I believe Clyde and Chuck wrote “Twist and Shake.” Clyde wrote “The General” and ‘Tropical Bird.” Clyde was our primary songwriter, but most of us contributed lyrics and song ideas to varying degrees.

Below are videos of the band's first single 'Twist N' Shake' b/w 'Dance Beat' featuring Kevin Long on vocals:

Below are videos of the band's second single 'The General' b/w 'Tropical Bird' also featuring Kevin Long on vocals:

The UTs were one of the first racially mixed bands I can remember (not including Booker T & The MGs and Sly & The Family Stone). Did you realize how culturally important this was in city like LA which tended to be segregated?
What is great about the UTs is that even prior to the band forming, we were friends that were bound together by our mutual love of ska and mod music. Some of us were black and some of us were white, but that had no bearing on why we were friends or what music we chose to listen to, or even why we formed a band. Later, once the band got started, we may have realized that there were no other bands in LA like us; that is, no other bands playing either ska or mod music that was racially integrated. What impressed us was that we drew a really diverse audience: men, women, all races, rich, poor, you name it. That empowered us because we recognized that we could effect positive change through our music, namely that we could be a unifying force in bridging ethnic and cultural divides. Music is amazing in that respect.

Tell me what it was like to be in the movies "The Party Animal" and "Repo Man"
I only vaguely remember “The Party Animal” shoot. I think we shot our scene on a beach in Malibu, though not certain. I do remember pushing some dipshit off the stage in the middle of our performance. It turned out that he was one of the lead actors. Oops, my bad. I’ve never seen that movie to this day, so maybe I’ll check to see if Netflix carries it. “Repo Man” was cool because we got the gig through a friend and fan of ours, Emilio Estevez. It was great that the director, Alex Cox, included our scooters in a scene too. Nice of him to give us individual screen credits as well. I have to say, though, that doing extra work like that is terrible. Lots of waiting around and little creativity spells boredom in my book. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Here is the scene from the movie 'Repo Man' featuring The Untouchables:

You played with band like the B-52’s, Black Uhuru, Bow Wow Wow and X. Do you have any unusual stories or memories from those shows?
We opened three nights for the B-52s at the Hollywood Palladium; all shows were sold out. Up to that point the only venue we had played was the O.N. Klub, whose capacity was around 150. Thus we experienced a “deer in the headlights” moment when we were thrust out onto that huge stage and the 4000 people standing in front of it. Just a few years later the UTs would sell-out the Palladium as headliners in their own right, which is pretty cool turnaround.

REM opened for us at some club in Orange County. Few people knew of them then, but Peter Buck and his black Rickenbacker were a hit with the mods. His Townsend-esque windmills were cool too. Just a week later the Untouchables, REM and the English Beat (see Clyde Grimes with Ranking Roger above) shared the stage at the Country Club in Reseda. This must have been late 1983 or so, probably the Beat’s “Special Beat Service” tour. That was a great and memorable show for me and many others. (Side note: According to an REM web site that tracks every show the band ever played here is a short review of the show Long mentions above from one fan's memory: "Following the upbeat Untouchables, R.E.M. came on and played some weird slow psychadelic music. The boos started by the 2nd song, when the crowd realized it wasn't just an opener, it was the act itself, and Michael Stipe was onstage acting rather gay. At first it was boos, but then in the third song it started with cups of beer and then various small objects were thrown at Stipe on the stage, with some striking him square on the cheek. Ouch! R.E.M. quickly left the stage, and shortly thereafter The English Beat came on and restored dance music to the hall")

X were always kind to us, and helped us get our first-ever gig at the Roxy. Not sure that the punk crowd ever cared for us that much, but we were in X’s corner to be sure. We had a brilliant show in Santa Barbara once, opening for X and the Blasters. It was a great and energetic lineup; the Blasters had never heard or seen anything like us before. Ska was new to them and they all watched our set from just off the stage, wondering what we were all about. Later they genuinely wanted to do a “Mods v. Rockers” show with us for years, but we were unable to pull it off. I cannot say enough kind things about those guys. We once played a crazy show in support of X in Sacramento. Some redneck-type of rocker dudes showed up in numbers and started fighting with the punks and others there to see X. Several plate glass doors to this beautiful ornate theater were shattered, many bottles and punches thrown. There was an intense and heavy vibe in the crowd and we tore it up. People were diving on the stage, getting thrown off and then coming back for more. It was pure adrenaline. X got halfway through their set when John Doe finally tired of some guy pawing at Exene, so he fired a beer can off the guy’s forehead. Several songs later the same guy was front and center again, this time toting an industrial strength fire extinguisher which he unleashed on the band, the roadies and the band’s equipment. The show ended just like that. I watched it all unfold from behind DJ Bonebrake’s drum kit.

Why did you leave the band in 1984?
The band was looking to go into another direction at the time. I may have lacked the singing chops that they were looking for then, too, though numerous interpersonal issues had by then surfaced. As you know, when you are in a band going 24/7, it can be difficult for the best of friends, even when things are rolling. It is like a family, and sometimes families go dysfunctional.

I started another band, Stone Soul Picnic, with Chuck’s girlfriend at the time, Jill Richmond, a great lead guitar player. I played rhythm guitar and sang backing vocals. Unfortunately, the band lasted only a year or so before falling apart.

Are you still in touch with any of your band mates?
Clyde and I exchange calls each year, but I’ve fallen out of touch with the rest of the guys. I moved back to Seattle many years ago, so there is little opportunity to see them now. I understand Jerry still has the UTs going, though he is the last of the original members. I’m happy that he still has the drive.

What are you doing these days?
I’m married and living in Seattle, my hometown. My wife and I have two sons, ages 12 and 9. Following college I went to law school. I’ve been working primarily in the financial services industry since. I play guitar nearly everyday and still work at the frustrating art of songwriting. If I find the time (and courage) I may look into recording some of what I have written thus far. Hmm. “Thus Far” – sounds like a good record title.


Anonymous said...

Awesome interview and even more awesome archival video footage. I've always wondered what the early '80s mod scene in L.A. was like. And The UTs "Live and Let Dance" album was one of the first Ska albums I bought when I got into the scene in late '85.

If you're interested, I've shared my own experience in the L.A. mod/ska scene ('86-'89) in a recent interview posted online. Check it out if you get a chance.

L.A. Story: A retrospective on the L.A. Mod and Skinhead Scenes

Keep up the good work!

Yours truly,

Anonymous said...

Aces on the interview...I was there in the early days with Kevin and all the Boys... Great times ...Still talk to Kevin and we laugh and talk story about our youth...Those gigs at the O.N. were the best , hanging out at Clydes moms house , parties at Chuck & Herm's ...House parties, scooter rides thru LA and down to San Diego... thanks for trip back Marco...Victor C. Villescas aka Big Vic , from Huntington Beach Ca.

Anonymous said...

Great interview. I too was around in the early days. ON club was awesome, I remember Terry leaving the band and i became tight with Sue ( his wife at the time ). She was great. Rob, Jerry, Kevin, Clyde of course. I remember when Herman left.

The parties in Venice at Chris Cahills house. LA scooters boys with Rudy. After Kevin left they did some shows at the Roxy that were so memorable. I'll never forget this era.

Clyde passed last week and i just had me searching around and i came upon this page.