November 1, 2007

The Mod Sound: The Untouchables

In the early to mid 80s Southern California boasted the USA’s largest mod scene. And no wonder, the weather was such you could ride your scooter virtually rain free over 300 days a year. British mods never had it so good.

In the early 80s in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Orange County and the Inland Empire, the scene was exploding. Relatively speaking. (Never mind San Diego and San Francisco that were also beginning to stir to life as centers of mod activity.) Scooterists were popping up everywhere and scooter clubs were forming, and more importantly young wanna be musicians were thinking that a mod sort of sound was for them. Fortunately for most that passed quickly in the summer of '79, or maybe ’80. But for a few it made an endearing and indelible mark that would haunt them throughout the decade. One of the first bands so branded were The Untouchables.

Rather than tell you their history, which you can find elsewhere, I will tell you my history with the band –such as it is— and how I perceived them, and hope no one steals my story.

I was a sophomore at Upland High School about 30 minutes east of Los Angeles when I first heard the rumblings about The Untouchables. It was 1983. I was a lowly scrub with little social standing at school, but they were already well on their way to local notoriety with the onslaught of their second single. Of course, everyone I knew thought it was their first. So much for marketing.

First, second, no matter. The single was The General and it was a piece of … work. But, if you fancied yourself a mod –and I did, even if it wasn’t always the case at the time– then this was the goddam best fu*king single of the year.

I mean in 1983, The Jam were just recently departed – never mind we in the US were just really getting used to a band named after something we put on bread – and the two-tone ska movement of Britian was already ashes. Here in the states kids were still discovering the sound of the mod revival and pounding it out in their garages (and church multi-purpose rooms mind you) as if it were brand new. And for us it was brand new. The Jam, and the Damned, be damned.

The Untouchables hit Southern California in 1981 amidst the explosion of punk rock – their compatriots in some sense were X, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks – and they tapped into that vibe, but with their own sort of ska and power pop mix that seemed to tap equally 1967 and 1977. They covered the Monkees, and then they covered The Specials. It was a pure mix of power pop and ska that few bands other than perhaps Madness (and they’re mostly a ska band at heart) have ever managed to really grab onto. Mixing soul with ska was one thing, lots of acts had done that. Mixing soul with power pop was becoming more and more common all the time as bands hearkened back to the Who, Yardbirds and early Stones. But precious few bands ever mixed all three of these elements together, let alone successfully. The Jam mixed a lot of soul with power pop. Likewise the Specials or English Beat mixing soul with ska and reggae. Probably only The Clash ever really came close, and they're the exception. As far as I'm concerned, no commercially succesful band ever truly merged all three sounds -- so I'd argue that The Untouchables alone really did so. (Okay, commercially sucesfsul and Untouchables in the same sentence might be a stretch. But, since I remember hearing Free Yourself on the radio in Indianapolis in 1985 and thinking, "DAMN! The UTs have hit the heartland" (I'm willing to argue they were somewhat commercially sucessful - though the band's bank accounts may beg to differ.)

Between 1981 and 1986 The Untouchables were the preeminent mod band, and the preeminent ska band, in southern California. No one mixed the two genres as seamlessly as they did, and with as much passion and resulting in as much enjoyment from their audiences.

I didn’t see the band live until 1984 and many said I missed their best shows -- though I find that hard to believe having seen them do some pretty great sets in some pretty crappy places (Oscar's Cornhusker, The Timbers, etc). From what I remember I would say I saw them at their peak when they had smoothed out the rough edges. Seeing them upwards of 20 times in 1984-1986 I can tell you that band was smooth in that very cool "we know what we’re doing" way. And they also had a certain raw, untempered feel to their shows. These weren’t over-rehearsed sets choreographed by a video producer. These were Untouchables shows with all the intensity the band had ever had, as well as some of the foibles that made them real and raw.

Here then are two of the many great tracks that the band produced. First up is Mod Knights, which no one would remember if it wasn’t for the comp CD ‘Cool Beginnings: Rare and Unreleased 1981- 1983' (even though it was a staple of their live sets through the mid 80s). That CD is excellent and boasts loads of early Untouchables recordings, as well as both their singles. The second track here is the second of those singles The General. I include it not because it is the best, but because it is perhaps most representative of those early years, and one of the most well known tracks of The Untouchable’s formative time. And it's a good track.

The Untouchables - Mod Knights
The Untouchables - The General

The Unctouchables discography
• Twist n Shake b/w Dance Beat (1982)
• The General b/w Tropical Bird (1983)
• Live and Let Dance EP (1984)
• Wild Child (1985)
• Agent Double O Soul (1988)
• Decade of Dance (1991)
• Cool Beginnings - Rare & Unreleased 1981-1983