Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Betsy Weiss of The Boxboys -- From Lead Singer of L.A.'s First Genuinely Homegrown Ska Band to Heavy Metal Icon

Very little has been written about The Boxboys, yet they deserve credit for being the very first Los Angeles-based ska band and for helping to kick-off the ska mod revival that took L.A. by storm in 1979 and 1980.

According to Kevin Long (lead singer of The Untouchables), The Boxboys were responsible for helping to launch the L.A. ska scene in 1980 at the O.N. Klub and were directly responsible for motivating Long and his band mates to start The Untouchables: The next influential step occurred when Howard Paar (who opened the O.N. Klub) 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.

However, there is more to The Boxboy's story than meets the eye. Amazingly, L.A.'s very first homegrown ska band was fronted for a time by Betsy Weiss who later went on to become Betsy Bitch the lead singer of 80's heavy metal band Bitch. Here in the U.S., Weiss and Bitch became forever linked with music censorship efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) lead by Al Gore's wife Tipper. Bitch became a target of the PMRC and Tipper Gore. Their albums, held in Tipper Gore’s hands, were shown on talk shows and televised congressional hearings. The media coverage did wonders for the band's profile and Gore and the PMRC are thanked in the liner note credits, because the band said the furor gave them some welcome free publicity. But before she became the poster child for censorship efforts against heavy metal and hip hop, Weiss helped to make ska the now sound in LA.

Just how much of an impact did Weiss and The Boxboys make on the L.A. music scene? An article from the July 25, 1980 edition of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reviewed the band's O.N. Klub show and mentioned Weiss and her singing voice: The band that night, the Boxboys, whipped the club into shape by means of a petite singer with a huge voice and a keyboardist who just wouldn't stand still. It got to be difficult at times to distinguish the band from the audience. The cocktail-napkin-sized dance floor was jammed with pork-pie-hattted, big box-coated guys and gals. The Boxboys even abandoned their perches to do the mean ska dance themselves.

So little information exists about the band that I had to rely on the few newspaper articles that have been collected by the California Mod Scene blog. An article from The Daily Titan college newspaper from November 1980 provides a good overview of Weiss's band mates and the band's early days during the emergence of reggae and ska in Los Angeles. The reporter also went to the O.N. Klub to catch the band: At the ON Klub Saturday the Boxboys were in top form, seemingly having as good a time on stage as the crowd was having on the dance floor. The Boxboys play ska, a fast a highly danceable music recently revived by the English Tu-Tone [sic] bands.The Boxboys discovered ska independently of that revival, according to guitarist Monroe Monroe. "About eight years ago I started buying a lot of reggae albums," Monroe said between sets. "Some of the anthologies started off with a few old ska tunes and I thought, 'Hey, this is great' ".He played some for the rest of the band. "We loved it, and started playing around and seeing what we could do with it," drummer Greg Sowders said. The band is adamant about not being a revival band, however."Ska is basically just the rhythmic format we use," said Monroe, who writes most of the group's material. "We are definitely an American band, and we write songs about our own experiences."Sanders [sic] agreed "We don't want to do something that's been done before. Why bother, especially since it was done so great the first time?"The Boxboys have been together for about 1-1/2 years. "Our main objectives in putting this band together were to have a good time ourselves, and to let the audience have a good time," Sowders said. That good time has built a fairly strong following for the Boxboys."I guess if we have a message it's that it's okay to go out and have some fun," Monroe added. "I guess people relate to us because we're just like them - regular people with regular jobs."

Weiss has rarely, if ever, spoken about her days in The Boxboys, so I was very excited when she agreed to an interview with me about her introduction to music and ska music in particular. She has led her band Bitch since leaving The Boxboys in the early 80's and she is one of the few women who have had success in the male dominated heavy metal scene. She shared how she joined The Boxboys, her memories of the LA ska scene, her contribution to the band's two recordings and what led her to leave the band to start Bitch.

Where did you grow up and when did you discover you could sing?

I lived the first ten years of my life on the coast of New Jersey on an island called Brigantine – just over the bridge from Atlantic City. I always had an ear for music and could always carry a tune, and I joined what was called “glee club” in High School (basically a class which had us singing in groups), and discovered I had good projection and good tone.

What was the first record that you ever bought? What was the first concert that you saw? What kind of impact did they have on you deciding to become a singer?
The first vinyl for me was all of the current Beatles albums. My first concert was The Who at The Forum in L.A. Those things, along with hanging with musicians (as a groupie at that point) inspired me to want to be around music, and moreover, gave me the confidence that I knew I could make it as a singer and front person.

What was the first band that you joined? What kind of music did the band play?
The first band for me was a garage band who didn’t even have a name. We played all original basic rock, and played parties and dances.

Did you listen to any ska or reggae music when you were growing up? What was your first introduction to ska and reggae music?
I had heard of reggae music and was familiar with artists such as Bob Marley, but was never a fan of it. I prefer my music a lot rockier. I never even heard of ska until The Boxboys introduced me to it and announced they wanted to change their musical genre from new wave to ska.

How did you meet the other members of The Boxboys? When did you join the band?
My mother worked in radio with Greg Sowder’s (The Boxboys’ drummer) father, and he mentioned to my mom that his son had a band and was looking for a female lead singer. We hooked up and when I auditioned, that’s when I met the rest of the band members. I believe this was approximately 1978-79.

How did you end up choosing to call the band The Boxboys?
They already had the name dialed-in when I joined. I wasn’t happy about being a Boxboy, I would’ve rather been a Boxperson

What was the LA music scene like in the early days of The Boxboys? Were there any other ska bands?
Mostly new wave and punk. There were virtually no ska bands at that time. That’s why they guys wanted to go in that direction because no one else was doing the same – especially female-fronted bands.

What was it like to play shows at the O.N. Klub? Do you have any particular memories of shows at the club?
Oh My God! – I completely forgot about playing that club. I would’ve never thought of it had you not mentioned it. I remember it was a really fun gig. Very respectably attended. We got a good response that night.

Can you share any unusual or memorable stories about any shows the band played?
We played with Teri Nunn and Berlin, due to the fact that we had the same management.

Tell me about recording the American Masquerade and Uptown Yankee Ska singles. Did you write any of the songs on the singles?
I contributed to those songs lyrically, however, they were mainly written by the band members. I remember we recorded at a studio in San Diego, I believe. We recorded both songs in one day – including mix-down, and we were there for many hours. And let me correct you – the description of our music was “Uptown Yankee Ska”. The single contained the songs ‘American Masquerade” and “Separate Rooms”

Why did you decide to leave The Boxboys?
That music and stage person was so not me. I’m a rock and roller. My main influence in terms of getting into music as a singer and front person was Alice Cooper. I am all about being flamboyant and playing up my sexuality and image onstage. With all due respect to The Boxboys, they did nothing but encourage me to play-down those aspects. They dressed me up in a suit, tie, porkpie hat, hair in a bun, and taught me how to “skank”. While it was an “interesting” experience, my heart was not in it.

You've gone on to become a iconic and well know lead singer in the heavy metal band Bitch. How do you look back on your days in The Boxboys?
I have fond memories of being a “Boxboy”. The guys were great, it got my feet wet in terms of stage experience and recording, and it was great to finally be a part of a functioning band. But I think I’m a better “bitch” than I was a “Boxboy”….

The Boxboys only recorded two singles with Weiss on lead vocals and both are long out-of-print and nearly impossible to find. However the Tone And Wave blog was kind enough to share copies and they are below for your downloading pleasure. They are definitely worth a listen based on their historical importance to the growth of ska in LA and the U.S.

Uptown Yankee Ska 7" (1979-80)

A - American Masquerade
B - Come See About Me

Skaletones From The Closet 7" (1980)

A - Separate Rooms
B1 - Busy Boy
B2 - Go Go

The Boxboys - Uptown Yankee Ska/Skaletones From The Closet


Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview, Marco! I think I saw them once, but not at the ON Klub. Maybe at the Whiskey A-Go-Go? I had their second single, but lost it years ago. thank you for uploading it! There was another great LA Ska band around the same time, called The Skanksters. They only had a demo cassette, that they sold at shows. I wish I still had it! Len in LA.

Anonymous said...

I was the second singer in the Boxboys, Lisa Bosch and had a great time in the band. Nice interview

Anonymous said...

I wish I had the cassette as well. Great songs.

Busurfnerd said...

Lisa Boschbwas the true Skanster mod
Singer one prpcers tv ad’singer 2 was Betsy and she wanted pat benatar but Ivan and Scott band Gregnnans Monroe wrote for the right woman. Lisa from the DONUTS WAS KEY. I AM CURENNLY TRANSFERRING ALL TAPES TO DIGITAL


Unfortunately Betsy never under stood that we where the SMART PEOPLE EEP ALIVE WITH OUR STYLES. WE OWNED CERTAIN SONGS NO ONW MATCH.

MUNROE IS MY MENTOR INTO SKA/MOD AND I MISS HIM. WHAT A CHARACTER. THE NAME CAME SBOUT FOE SEVARAL REASONS. I LOVED DOING THE stones “I’m Free, NIGHT TRAIN OYR EXPLOSIVE CLOSER, “COME SEE ABOT ME’ the supremes , The simple old tune Solomon Gundy. We had fun. That’s SKA. it’s not dumb it’s a sense of freedom allowing us to explore rhythms. Betsy is not the right person to interview why we stared.

Unknown said...

I saw them at the Roxy opening for 20/20. Back then they played two shows so I stayed and saw both bands play twice!