Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Duff Guide to The Untouchables!

(By Steve Shafer)

The recent passing of The Untouchables' founding member, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Clyde Grimes, Jr. (pictured in an iconic publicity shot at right), led me to revisit all of their releases, as The Untouchables were unbelievably influential on a whole generation of ska fans and bands in the 1980s. For all of us in the USA who had fallen in love with 2 Tone at a distance (many of us even after it had flamed out), we finally had a ska band of our very own that had hit it big! (I was in my freshman year in college in Ohio when Wild Child was released and remember listening to Cleveland's top commercial rock station WMMS play the hell out of "Wild Child" and "What's Gone Wrong"--and my Wild Child cassette--which I still have and treasure over 30 years later!--was in heavy rotation in my personal playlist for the next several years.)

Since there's very little information about The Untouchables and their releases on the internet (with the exception of the Marco on the Bass blog, which has posted several great interviews with various members of the band), I thought it might be a good idea to put together an overview of their releases to honor Grimes' and The Untouchables' considerable musical legacy. So, below for your consideration, please find The Duff Guide to The Untouchables.

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Live and Let Dance (1984, Twist/Enigma Records): After releasing two DIY singles ("Dance Beat," b/w "Twist 'n Shake" in 1982 and "Tropical Bird" b/w "The General" in 1983), honing their chops and building up a massive LA-area following, and going through some personnel changes, The UTs borrowed $15k and recorded an EP's worth of material released on their own Twist imprint (which was picked up for distribution by Enigma). But things didn't take off until they scrounged up an additional $7k to make an incredibly creative and dynamic video for their could-have-been-a-2-Tone-hit "Free Yourself," which grabbed the attention of Stiff Records label head Dave Robinson in the UK, who flew in for one of their LA gigs and signed the band (which then garnered them a deal with a major label in the US--MCA licensed Stiff releases at the time)--and won them a Billboard award for best independent music video of 1984. The EP also includes the first version of "What's Gone Wrong" and their phenomenal live cover of The Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone." Of note: "Free Yourself" wasn't re-recorded for Wild Child. There was no need--it's perfect.

Wild Child (1985, Stiff/MCA Records): Even though there were two other domestic ska releases that year which would eventually prove to be as wildly influential on the development of the US ska scene--Fishbone's self-titled debut EP on Columbia (a few years earlier, members of that band were in the crowd at The UT's shows at the O.N. Klub in Silver Lake, Los Angeles), and The Toasters' self-titled debut EP on Moon Records (subsequently reissued as Recriminations)--it was The Untouchables' debut album Wild Child that had the biggest and most immediate and significant impact. While The UTs had been heavily influenced by 2 Tone and everything mod after seeing Quadrophenia, they also had been blown away by the all-black, Birmingham ska band The Equators (they formed before fellow Brummies The Beat!), who had performed in LA in 1981 (UT singer Jerry Miller said, "We were very big fans of 2 Tone, but with The Equators, that’s where it was at with us because it was so groovin’ and soulful. Their recordings were sacred to us."). So, whereas The Specials and Selecter injected their ska with punk fury and The Equators incorporated elements of rock and reggae to their sound, The Untouchables largely went for American '60s soul in their ska mix (perhaps best represented by The Specials' Jerry Dammers producing The UT's cover of Jamo Thomas' 1966 soul track, "I Spy (for the FBI)"--a big mod/Northern Soul hit in the UK in 1969), which certainly broadened their appeal far beyond the ska scene in the US and beyond. "Wild Child," "I Spy (for the FBI)," "What's Gone Wrong," and "Free Yourself" are unequivocal American ska classics and the rest of the album is pretty fantastic, too--not a bum track among them.

Dance Party (1986, MCA/Stiff Records): Not absolutely essential, but there are extended, remixed versions (ubiquitous in the 1980s!) of key tracks from Wild Child ("I Spy (for the FBI) National Security Mix-Up" and "What's Gone Wrong Lover's Rock Mix" are both excellent and hardcore UTs fans should have them) and live cuts from Spring Break at Daytona Beach (another take of their fantastic cover of The Monkees' "(I'm Not Your") Stepping Stone"--also on Live and Let Dance--and the funky "Hey UTs"). Of course, the ska cuts are relegated to side two. One suspects that this is a bit of a stopgap release, as a follow-up to Wild Child wasn't immediately in the pipeline, but the quality control remains pretty high here.

Agent OO Soul (1988, Twist/Restless Records): Like Fishbone's incredible Truth and Soul (also released that year), this album was seriously hobbled by poor sequencing that buried most of the really ace ska material on side two ("Cold City," "Shama Lama," "Sudden Attack") in favor of less compelling soul and funk up front (with the exception of "Airplay" and "World Gone Crazy," and maybe "Let's Get Together"). Having said that, I caught the UT's Agent OO Soul tour in NYC at Joey Ramone's Downtown Club in April of '89 and all of the songs they played off this album--including the title track--sounded completely amazing live (decades later, this gig still stands out as one of the best shows I've ever experienced). Fun facts: LP copies of this album came with a poster and UT comic/lyric book--and this was their first release on compact disc!

A Decade of Dance Live (1990, Restless Records): Recorded at the height of their powers before a hometown LA crowd at the Roxy in December 1989, The UTs ripped through a career-spanning set that documented just how incredible they were in performance (this is also one of the best sounding/produced concert albums I've ever heard). Great renditions of all their well-known hits are captured here--plus "Twist and Shake" (their 1982 debut single) and "The General" (from their second single in 1983)--as well as excellent previously unrecorded tracks like "Live and Let Dance," "Amateurs Ranking," and "Johnny." Of all The Untouchables releases, this one deserves the deluxe reissue treatment on vinyl! It's simply brilliant.

Cool Beginnings: Rare and Unreleased, 1981-1983 (1992, Stellar Records): A collection of studio and live recordings from when the band was finding their footing and figuring out their sound (they then considered themselves mods who played ska), which gains power as it moves forward in time. Some of early material is a bit rough, but there are some really promising songs here, like the ska tracks "Gov't Don't Need Nobody" and "Overcrowded Hell," the moody reggae/dub cut "Who Do They Think They're Fooling?," and the cool mod throwbacks "Cuz She's Mine" and "Motion Like Hers." Best of all, of course, are the gems from their first two singles, "Dance Beat," b/w "Twist 'n Shake" and "Tropical Bird" b/w "The General." This comp was never widely released, so the few existing used copies are expensive, but it's a must for UT completists.

Greatest and Latest: Ghetto Stout (2000, Cleopatra): By the early 90s, The Untouchables had gone dark (missing out on the massive ska revival in the USA later that decade--d'oh!), so it was a shock when I stumbled upon this album at the Virgin Records store in Union Square in 2000 on a lunch break (was there any promotional push for this?). New songs like "Be Alright," "Jade," "Bond, "Keep on Pushing," and "Movin' 'n' Grooving" are good to great additions to The UT's repertoire, but the rest of the album consists of (admittedly well done, but unnecessary) re-recordings of many of their popular tracks from the 80s. One wishes that they hadn't split the difference between forging ahead and the pull of nostalgia, but gone with all new tunes (or songs that were never recorded in the studio, but were part of their live set, like "Live and Let Dance"). Still, there's good stuff here for the diehard UT fan. Note: Cleopatra re-released this album on green vinyl and CD in 2015 as Free Yourself Ska Hits.

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francisco h Ciriza said...

Nice work here. There are a few of us who really do know a lot about the Ut's and you have done yourself, the band, and its music justice. Thanks for putting this together and for sharing it with us.

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks for your kind words, Francisco! Glad you think I got it right!