Saturday 27 January 2018

UNTOUCHABLES: Two Interviews


They’re in Alex Cox’s classic cult ‘Repo Man’ 
movie. They look like an illegal assembly. 
 They’re One Step Beyond, by being one step behind. 
They are Stiff-records Ska-band Untouchables from L.A. ...


First thing I knew about Ska was Prince Buster, Ezz Reco & The Launchers, the Ethiopians, late-sixties Mod, the Bluebeat label, parka…

Then it was Special aka, Selecter, Madness, Two-Tone records, late-seventies, Coventry Ghost Town…

Now it’s Untouchables… Silver Lake Los Angles… and Surf-Mods?

‘It kinda caught on after ‘Quadrophenia’ (1979) came out’ explains bassist Caine Carruthers. ‘Actually, members of this band were the first cluster of Mods to ever happen in LA. We were devoted to the stuff (Ska) – and we started a movement pretty much in California that was based around that type of music. We helped spur it on. Of course, the bands that came from the UK were VERY influential as far as live shows were concerned, getting it to LIVE out there. They took plants and roots of it out there…’

We’re sat backstage at the Leeds Uni sampling the Students Ents hospitality – neat triangle-cut wholemeal sandwiches, and a bottle of Liebfraumilch poured into polystyrene cups. But Caine’s full of barely-suppressed energy and the confidence that charting a first single brings. “Free Yourself” is no.31 as we speak – with ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ and ‘Top Of The Pops’ TV-slots already behind them, and a Stiff-records album all tied up and primed to GO! He’s telling me about playing American support-spots with UB40 and General Public while I’m trying to reconcile contradictions. The Rude Boy/ Gangster Pork Pie hat aligns with stereotype – but how does the ‘ROCK OUT WITH YOUR COCK OUT’ T-shirt square the Mod sartorial eloquence?

Whatever… ‘a lot of the Mod scene is ‘underground’ because of the way the American media is. It’s really hard to get anything that’s diverse or this-side-of-left on the radio, or to the people’s ears. That’s what happened with Two-Tone. If those bands had hung in one more year they would’ve been phenomenal in the States. One more tour and they would’ve been, like, over the top. But they just quit right before then. The Beat and the Specials both stopped right when they were reaching their…’ he leans forward to emphasise his near-disbelief, ‘but they just… Aaawwww! In many ways, this band picks up where they left off. We know there’s a hunger for it in the States as long as people can get exposed to it.’

All of which seems effortlessly logical as far as market-penetration Stateside goes – but this is LEEDS. Do we NEED a new Two-Tone already? I mean – do we REALLY need it? The answer is already charting. The answer is already stood milling around waiting outside for the gig to begin. I never imagined so many Two-Tone badges and so much Mod regalia was still in circulation. Largely on word of mouth, Untouchables have filled the venue, across the boards. Caine shrugs, ‘everyone loves to dance – all over the world.’

Josh Harris plays ubiquitous Roland keyboards. He’s blonde but sun-bleached white, with a long flexible face and a penchant for spontaneous work-outs during soundchecks. He pours me some more Liebfraumilch and offers ‘the Mods in California are also kinda taking on their own identity. There really are… like, Surf Mods out there!’ A concept to make Brian Wilson spin in his sandbox.

Caine rejoins the dialogue enthusiastically. ‘They have to adapt to our climate. So you get a lot of Mods going around in Surfer shorts and shirt-sleeves, or no shirts at all riding their scooters…’

‘…with their Surf boards,’ from Josh.

‘Sure. With their Surf boards tied on them!’

--- 0 --- 

Untouchables are ethnically mixed (four black/ two white). ‘We can be considered ‘two-tone’ in that respect, in that we have white AND black members. But when the band was set up we weren’t LOOKING for that balance. We didn’t say ‘well, we’ve got four black guys so we’d better get a coupla white guys.’ It was never like that. It’s just how it is, just being able to work together without even thinking about it. We don’t even see colours, y’know.’

Alongside Josh and Caine there’s vocalist Chuck Askerneese in neat dreadlocks, percussionist Jerry Miller – who snatches vocals for “Free Yourself”, Clyde Grimes whose high-kick guitar pose forms the band’s logo, and drummer Glenn Symmonds. On stage tonight they augment with sharp horn-fills from a three-piece brass section punching out their contagious ‘One Step Beyond’-mutation of Herb Alpert’s antique hit “Lonely Bull”. Their frantic “Lovers Again” – next single?, also comes with more than a modicum of the fast-pace Beat-beat. But although they wear their influences on their collective sleeve – a new band needs a high-profile image to latch on, sure – they already show signs of growing beyond the restrictions of that box-jacket.

On the twelve-inch mix of the single they do a live “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, an old Monkees B-side, but – as Josh is quick to acknowledge, a Sex Pistols stalwart too, and that’s another input. ‘The Sex Pistols, yes. I’m influenced very much by their version of that song. Their version is very coarse, I like that.’ While the forthcoming album – cut in Amsterdam with American Soul veteran Stewart Levine producing, flirts with Rap-tracks and Stax riffing. But what sounds an odd mix on paper works a seamless dream tonight on stage.

--- 0 --- 

California Mod-ism has yet to produce its own celluloid manifesto. It took Britain fifteen years to get around to making ‘Quadrophenia’ – and then they cast Sting! But those who’ve caught ‘Repo Man’ (1984), Alex Cox’s inventive spoof sci-fi – oft over-the-top movie version of Los Angeles, will know that the movement’s already been documented.

‘Yeah, we get to beat up the star’ laughs Caine. ‘We do a scooter rally on the way to the guy’s house, and…’

‘He (Harry Dean Stanton) comes to repossess our car’ explains Josh more patiently. ‘The band has a car, right – in the movie, it’s all fictional of course! The band has a car, and he comes to repossess it. Unbeknown to us he’s trying to hotwire the engine, but WE have it suspended on jacks. So he’s got the engine going, but the car’s not moving. And we pull him out of the car and beat him up.’

Yes, it’s a laugh-out-loud sequence in a cult classic movie.

‘Man, it’s a GREAT movie’ confirms Caine.

Tickets for THE Last Train To Skaville, anyone…?


The bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall… 

Josh Lawrence Harris dives into my bag, resurfaces with the ‘City Lights’ pocketbook edition of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. ‘Hey, when I was in ‘Frisco I’d hang out around the ‘City Lights Bookstore’, it’s still there y’know’ he informs. ‘I love all that old Beat stuff!’ We get into dissecting the trivia of fifties Beatnik minutia while the bass-riff gets to shake-out the plaster…

A warm night at Leeds University, and direct from L.A. USA – and the UK Top Forty, it’s Untouchables. Progenitors of the latest Mod renaissance, tying Ska and Two-Tone Blue Beat into a package acceptable for the eighties.

– but Beatniks?

There’s more to this band than fancy poses. Josh plays keyboards and adds vocals to “What’s Gone Wrong”, his malleable mobile face illustrating the lyrics. At soundcheck he turns in a fiery cool rerun of Booker T’s “Green Onions”, grinning across at bouncing guitarist Clyde Grimes who’s filling in Steve Cropper’s little guitar licks. Then Josh goes into aerobics – swivels from the hips, touch-toes, deep-bends, as the three-piece horn-section start jamming around the Stan Getz/ Astrud Gilberto “Girl From Ipanema” while practicing their neatly-rehearsed choreography.

There are but six Untouchables: dreadlocked Chuck ‘Pokie’ Askerneese (vocals), Jerry ‘EQ’ Miller who is all sharp-pressed suits, Pork-pie hat and sartorial Rude Boy-ism (percussion plus vocals on hit single “Free Yourself”), Josh, Clyde, Cain Carruthers filling bass-space, and resident drum-head Glenn Symonds. Their Stiff-label Press release proclaims them ‘L.A.’s coolest club act, signed to the world’s neatest label – the HiFi affair.’ They look like an illegal assembly. They’re One Step Beyond, by being one step behind. Their rhythms draw on reggae and non-stop Ska, the style is Two-Tone and Mod, the horns are Stax and Northern Soulboy, the keyboards are 1960s.

‘We play a lot of Soul,’ agrees Caine. ‘We hang onto our American roots. “Free Yourself” is basically a Stax-type of thing, but we put our own flavour onto it as well. We don’t just try to revive anything.’ But when they do “City Gent” – one of the eleven tracks offa their ‘Wild Child’ elpee (1985, Stiff SEEZ 57), they drop in references, quotes, from Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”… and the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”. Same with their second single, they revamp Jamo Thomas’ “(I Spy For The) FBI”, given a London production job by the very-Special Jerry Dammers.

It could be argued that in the current disposable remake/remodel scene their knowledge of the prehysterical leviathans who Rocked the Earth before the world was formed – works to their advantage clear up the scale. They played the drenched-out Glastonbury CND Fest where they kick ass and kick HARD, winning all the arguments. They played the Hammersmith Palais, they played ‘Dingwalls’ – where Caine met Jedda Roskilly, and wed her three weeks after, they played Dublin’s TV-Club where they encore with Paul McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”, and now they’re playing Leeds!

America has a lot to answer for – John Travolta’s feet, Ronald Reagan’s morality, the Coca-colonisation of the world. But it’s all redeemed in the irresistible Ska‘n’B of the Untouchables’ contagious “Lovers Again”, or the Rapping “Mandingo”. Their set runs seamlessly, each song threaded on warm linking Rap-rapport from Jerry and Chuck…

The bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall… first time I see Untouchables they’re playing catch-ball around the equipment-stacks and speaker cabinets that have yet to be positioned on the stage behind them. These guys are no-nonsense friendly and direct, no trace of the heavy political angst that accompanied the original Coventry Two-Tone wave. So, with the soundcheck beginning, me, Josh and Caine, cut out to the dressing room to document further…

Andrew Darlington: This is your first trip to Europe?

Caine Carruthers: Yes. As a band, and it’s really exciting.

Josh Harris: We’ve had some really wild times, it’s been really good…

CC: …and that’s before we’d even played! We’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. We’ve played all over California, we kinda have that really sewed up, so we were eager to try it out on a new crowd. And it’s been going over really well.

JH: We’re surprised to be here. Three months ago we had no idea we were going to be in Britain AT ALL! It was all so sudden. It was our video that made the break for us (the promo for “Free Yourself”, which the band made themselves, and was voted top independent video of 1984 by America’s ‘Billboard’ magazine). That’s really how we got our break with Stiff Records. The President of Stiff had seen it here and was specially impressed. He went over and signed us! We were touring with UB40, and had no expectation of coming over here. It was kinda like a wild dream of some sort. And time has just slipped by so quick too. It’s been like… six-and-a-half weeks or so, and it’s like a day. It’s a blur.

AD: The Long Ryders from LA were also in Leeds recently. Do you know them?

CC: The Long Ryders? Oh sure, we know them. Actually it’s a really tight scene in LA. We know ALL the bands that are playing up there, and they all know us. We play with them. We have to share some stages and stuff. We share a certain amount of each other’s crowds too.

AD: Your styles are very different.

CC: Oh yeah. Which is the neat thing about LA bands. We’ve all got our own styles, it’s not very much like, maybe a lot of European bands get things going and a lot of bands’ll be playing the same thing – but LA, it’s the diversity of the people and the diversity of the musicians we have out there – so comes your diversity of bands. Every band has its own bag. It’s really neat.

AD: Whereas your style is Mod? Ska? Rocksteady?

JH: I think we’re closer to the new European bands than we are to the American bands. We’re closer to Northern Soul – we don’t sound American. Normally people are very surprised when they find out we’re from California. They don’t quite understand how we can do the music we do with California accents. But Northern Soul, we love it!

AD: Is there a Blue Beat/ Ska following in the States?

CC: Not really – other than us. We had to kinda start on our own.

AD: Do you go back beyond Two-Tone to the original Prince Buster-era stuff?

CC: Oh yeah. We dig everything we can find. Josh has got an AMAZING record collection.

JH: Yes, I’ve been collecting Reggae – Reggae particularly, for quite a while. I’m a connoisseur of Prince Buster – he’s great. The King of the Dirty Guys!

AD: That was happening in the UK in the mid-sixties.

JH: Sure, but the Mod scene didn’t happen in the States. There wasn’t an original Mod scene like it was in England, I guess.

CC: There was just a handful. And after that, we started the band and brought more people to it.

JH: There IS a strong Mod scene now though. It hasn’t been like a passing trend or anything. In California especially, they really love the British music scene.

AD: What kind of venues do you play over there?

CC: We play all kinds of Clubs. We’ve actually moved up into a higher ring of Clubs in LA because of our large following. We couldn’t even play a small Club now if we wanted to – unless it was REALLY outta town! Now we’re playing in the ‘Palace’ – what’s the seating there… 1,300? We sell out that place every time.

JH: Travelling British groups would play there once every six months or whatever, once a year. We play there regularly, that’s our home turf. But we’ve pretty-much penetrated the West Coast of the United States. We’ve opened up for quite a few acts – UB40, General Public, Black Uhuru.

CC: We’ve worked our way up from small Clubs. We started at the ‘O.N. Klub’ – a REAL dive. A small club out somewhere in Silver Lake, right outside of Hollywood. From there, we’ve worked our way up.

AD: Are you Los Angeles born?

CC: Well – no, we’re not all born in LA, but that’s home. I was born in New York but I’ve been in Hollywood for seventeen years now. I mean, it’s home.

JH: I’m from San Francisco.

AD: Who is most responsible for writing the group’s original material?

CC: We have Josh, and Clyde.

JH: Yes, as primary writers. Then the group as a whole, because we compose as a group as well. More of our compositions are leaning towards group efforts and less of individual efforts.

AD: Are you happy with the way the album (‘Wild Child’) has turned out?

JH: It sounds great, terribly good.

CC: We have Soul on it. We have Reggae. We have Ska tracks on it, and some good Rock ‘n’ Roll – actually, some high-tech New Wave Rock ‘n’ Roll with “Lovers Again”. That’s going to be a very very important song. We’re not shy or scared to try ANYTHING and make it work. There’s “Wild Child” itself, maybe our next single, and “Soul Together” which is a MONSTER as well. We tried a Rap-Funk on a song called “Freak From The Street” which is really good too. There’s actually no songs we haven’t been pleased with. It’s quite hard to say one over another.

JH: It’s consistency from the top to the end. We dabble a little bit in different styles, and they were successful, it works – but still, because it works it makes it a little more difficult for them to formatise us. We’re so versatile within the one album.

AD: You feature in the movie ‘Repo Man’ (starring Harry Dean Stanton), produced by Alex Cox – who is known for promo-video work with the Pogues! The ‘Repo Man’ soundtrack also includes such luminaries as Iggy Pop.

JH: We’ve actually been in two prior movies.

CC: But ‘Repo Man’ is the one to see – alright? We were in ‘The Party Animal’ (December 1984, a gross-out comedy directed by David Beaird, the Untouchables play “The General”) and ‘Surf II’ (January 1984, Beach-Zombies directed by Randall M Badat, the Untouchables play “Dancebeat”) as well, but those movies are kinda DOGS you know. They called us in to try and SAVE those movies. Hope this doesn’t bounce back at us but – I mean, we’re the best part of BOTH those movies. They were real low-budget B-movies.

JH: ‘Repo Man’ is pretty good though.

AD: I haven’t seen the movie yet (I have since, and I love it, check out my review at ). Do you play a Club-scene or something?

JH: No. We beat up the star!

CC: It’s a really good movie. ‘Cos we’re in it we feel good about it. Man – it’s a great movie. It’s gonna be a cult classic very much like ‘Clockwork Orange’ (1971) and those types of movies. It’s always gonna be around.

JH: I don’t think Alex Cox is your next Stanley Kubrick, but ‘Clockwork Orange’ – we see it all the time in LA.

CC: It’s something that shows continuously at specialist cinemas, if not on just regular cable television. I’ve seen it on that.

JH: I’ve just found an old ‘Mad’ magazine. They do a parody of it called ‘Clockwork Lemon’.

CC: I bought that the first time it came out. I actually read that before I saw the movie!

JH: And have you read the original Anthony Burgess novel ‘Clockwork Orange’ (1962)? It was WILD, a wild one!

AD: Your single “Free Yourself” was issued in a limited edition gun-shaped picture disc. Was that your idea?

CC: Well, it wasn’t actually our idea. The first picture disc that came out was just us with Clyde doing the kiss-ass symbol on it, right? And that was very nice. Then they offered us the gun – but we’re not really pro-gun and violence or stuff. It’s just one of those things that happened without us really having a hold on it. Hopefully it’s not gonna be a real negative thing. The idea behind it – the guy who did it, Dave Robinson and Stiff’s Art Department, they liked the name Untouchables, and they really tried to parody it…

AD: You mean they tried to parody the idea of the old ‘The Untouchables’ TV series?

CC: Yeah, the original ‘Untouchables’ TV series with Robert Stack (as Eliot Ness), the G-Men Gangster type of POW BANG BANG ‘we’re the good guys’. So – a tommy-gun made of chocolate or something, yeah – but a real Smith-&-Wesson 357 Magnum is kinda like… well, people could easily be misled by that. Because no, we’re not Gangsters or violent at all.

AD: Is the group name really derived from that late-1950s/ early-1960s TV series?

CC: Well – it was, of course, borrowed from that. But what it ACTUALLY means is – it was like a parody of the mid-seventies Supergroups who always walked around like they were mythical giants, y’know, they didn’t really relate to audiences at all, right? they were self-indulgent and wanted to keep away from crowds. But we are always mates and friends with our audiences, we always go out and chat with the crowds, just hang out and be loose. So we kinda made fun of it, I guess. We’re ‘untouchables’ – but it’s quite the reverse, if you get to know us.

JH: There was a Ska-band from the sixties too, the Untouchables from Jamaica.

CC: It’s that too – like Josh says, a lot of those Jamaican bands like rude names, y’know, Dennis Alcapone, Dillinger – ‘Prince Buster’ itself is a pretty rude name. The Untouchables kinda falls into that James Bond slick cool sorta thing. The TV series was a G-Man thing, it’s not shown in LA as much as it used to be, although you can still catch it once in a while. But really, we love English television wherever we can catch it. It’s a funny thing, people here complain you only have four channels – and I tell them ‘but god, look what you GET on your four stations!’ We just love the stuff. I never missed the ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ shows. Same as the Marty Feldman show… even Benny Hill cracks me up. It’s kinda funny – out here it’s ‘Dallas’ and ‘The A-Team’, out here it’s all cops.

AD: Do you intend covering any of the old Ska records?

CC: No. We don’t cover any Two-Tone or older Ska things. Those were all brilliant and I don’t see how we could really do them justice. I mean, us turn around and play a Specials song? We are much stronger in our own ring, you know what I mean? We play our own Ska. We put our own sound to it. We do “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”… we do Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” – our own version of that, we twist and bend that one.

JH: We try to make it more into a ‘Spaghetti Western’!

CC: We camp a little bit on “Green Onions” at the top of the set, to kinda get a groove going. Just to point us in the right direction. But we bring our own flavour to it, we put our own sound to it – which I’ve noticed ALL the Two-Tone bands had. Madness sounded a lot different to Selecter who sounded a lot different to the Specials.

AD: I always liked Selecter. Pauline Black is still around. She hosted a Channel Four chat-show for a while.

CC: Selecter were one of my fave favourite bands, and I SAW her on TV. It KILLED me man! It blew my mind – she was so professional and smart. I went ‘god, is that how she REALLY is!’ I saw her in ‘Dance Craze’ (Joe Massot’s 1981 live-tour documentary film, with Selecter doing “Three Minute Hero”, “On My Radio” and “Too Much Pressure”) – and I didn’t even ever get to see Selecter live, which is one of my big heartbreaks. Then there’s the Equators. Have you heard the Equators? They’re a band out of England also. They were almost put into the Two-Tone thing, but didn’t want to be a part of it (also signed to Stiff Records, the Equators backed Desmond Dekker on his July 1980 ‘Black And Dekker’ album – Stiff Records SEEZ26, and later issued a 1980 version of “Baby Come Back” produced by Eddy Grant, Stiff BUYIT95). The Equators just played Ska. They were all West Indians, and that’s the thing – they were all black. They weren’t a ‘two-toned’ band…

AD: Selecter were an all-black band too.

CC: It’s kinda funny, how do you call Madness a ‘two-tone’ band, ‘cos they don’t have any BLACK members? Yet ultimately, I don’t think that’s REAL important, whether you do or you don’t.

AD: Being part of a ‘movement’ like the Two-Tone thing can be an advantage, but it can also be stifling.

CC: Well, yeah. It’s a thing that Radio people and journalists alike have to have – a handle to really grab onto. I know a lot of bands that don’t have a real definite identity, it’s actually worse for them because the press don’t know what to think about them. Those guys are… Folkadelic, or whatever… they have to MAKE UP some other word to describe them…

…the bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall…

Last time I see the Untouchables they’re onstage, triumphantly encoring with the Monkees-Sex Pistols “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”.

It’s been a good fun-time night…


1982 – “Twist ‘n’ Shake” c/w “Dance Beat” (own label, Dance Beat Records DB-101)

1983 – “The General” c/w “Tropical Bird” (Dance Beat Records DB-102) A-side featured in the movie ‘The Party Animal’

1984 – ‘Live And Let Dance’ cassette + mini-album (Twist Records E-1102) with ‘Free Yourself’, ‘Lebanon’, ‘Whiplash’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, ‘What’s Gone (Dub)’, ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’ (live)

April 1985 – “Free Yourself” c/w “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone (Stiff BUY 221), produced by Chris Silyagi and Pat Foley. The B-side recorded live. Issued in limited-edition gun-shaped vinyl March 1985. Reaches no.26 during 11 weeks on the UK chart

July 1985 – “I Spy (For The FBI)” c/w “Whiplash” (Stiff BUY 227), produced by Jerry Dammers. Twelve-inch version also features “Shine On”. Reaches no.59 during five weeks on the UK chart

July 1985 – ‘Wild Child’ LP (Stiff SEEZ 57) produced in ‘Sound Push Studios’ Amsterdam by Stewart Levine (except*) with Side One (1) ‘Wild Child’, (2) ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’*, (3) ‘Freak In The Streets’, (4) ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, (5) ‘Free Yourself’. Side Two (1) ‘Piece Of Your Love’, (2) ‘Soul Together’, (3) ‘Mandingo’, (4) ‘Lasershow’, (5) ‘Lovers Again’, (6) ‘City Gent’

1985 – “What’s Gone Wrong?” c/w “The Lonely Bull” (Stiff BUY 240), the twelve-inch version has an extended version of the A-side plus the album version. They perform the track in party scene in the 1987 crime movie ‘No Man’s Land’ directed by Peter Werner with Charlie Sheen

1986 – ‘Dance Party’ (Twelve-inch EP) (MCA-36016) with remixed versions of ‘Freak In The Street’, ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’, ‘Hey UT’s’ (live), ‘Free Yourself’, ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’

1986 – “Freak In The Street” (five mixes) (US only, MCA Twelve-inch 23690)

1988 – “Agent Double-O Soul” (four different mixes) (US only, Enigma ENCT 11)

2015 – ‘Free Yourself: Ska Hits’ (US, Cleopatra CLP 2127-2) with ‘Be Alright’, ‘Whiplash’, ‘Twist ‘n’ Shake’, ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’, ‘Jade’, ‘Bond’, ‘Mandingo’, ‘Keep On Pushing’, ‘Movin’ ‘n’ Groovin’’, ‘Free Yourself’, ‘Wild Child’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, ‘The Lonely Bull’

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