The ’80s ska boom of SoCal, the ON Klub and Laurence Fishburne


You could say that the ska music scene in Southern California was born in part because the long-haired dude behind the soundboard at Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip was playing too much classic rock.

“It was a great club, don’t get me wrong, but if you were going to go there to see the Specials or Elvis Costello, you would have a hippie sound guy playing the Doobie Brothers on the sound system,” says Howard Paar, who 1980, he founded the ON Klub, an early ’60s ska, mod and soul spot, seven miles east on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, which burned for four years. “It was so incongruous, especially in these hip and fast-paced days.”

The ON Klub and the vital West Coast ska-punk scene it helped spark are featured in a number of new books and podcasts that bring a unique moment of culture shock to LA to the present. On October 23, the Grammy Museum marked the convergence with an in-person panel focused on the roots of Southern California ska.

Clyde Grimes and Herman Askerneese of the Untouchables performed at the ON Klub around 1980.

(Carla Braswell)

The conversation brought together nearly a dozen insiders, fans and academics, including Paar, whose new book “Best rankingIs a self-proclaimed “black punk / ska novel” that uses the ON Klub and the scene that gave birth to it as a backdrop. Writer and musician Marc Wasserman’s new book and accompanying podcast, “Ska boom! An American Oral History of Ska and ReggaeHas chapters on Los Angeles and Orange County ska. The event was hosted by DJ and reggae specialist Junor Francis, co-host of the “History of LA Ska“Podcast.

Members of the local ska-focused bands Fishbone, the Untouchables and the Boxboys offered memorabilia of their work, and actor Laurence Fishburne recounted his early years in LA as a self-proclaimed “skankster”.

“I had a big radio and looked like I was coming out of Brixton in London. I was playing the Specials and going up and down Hollywood Boulevard, ”Fishburne told the crowd.

As central to Southern California as Dodger dogs and skateboarding, ska, an upbeat reggae precursor born in Jamaica in the early ’60s, has seen revivals almost every decade since the early’ 80s, but here – and here – and all over the Golden State – it’s never really gone. More than 50,000 fans follow the Alameda-based Ska Punk Daily Facebook page, and the Long Beach-based record label International City Recordings recently published “4th Wave Ska”, A compilation bringing together 25 bands from all over the world.

A black and white photo of people dancing

The dance floor at the ON Klub.

(Brian Fox)

The original SoCal ska wave was sparked by the British ska craze in the late 1970s, when 2 Tone Records artists, including the Promotions, Madness, the English beat and the selector made its way out of the working class of London and onto the charts by injecting punk energy into the music first performed by the Skatalites, Prince Buster and the Wailers. outfits from LA including Boxboys, Untouchables and Fish bone amplified that uniquely Jamaican beat with teen-driven energy.

Unlike the predominantly white punk scene, the ska was an integrated movement, a trait that remains a crucial distinction. In Southern California, this sense of purpose helped spawn the ska-informed bands that stormed the charts in the 1990s, including No Doubt, Save Ferris, and Sublime.

Paar, who over the following decades became a successful music director and music supervisor, was a young British expatriate living in Los Angeles. He had obtained the keys to a former Vietnamese restaurant, Oriental Nights, near the intersection of Silverlake and Sunset Boulevards after its owner discussed opening a punk club. “I got into a passionate rant,” Paar recalls. “It was the dawn of hardcore and punk was getting very heady and misogynistic. Children who were playing football in high school suddenly found themselves in the mosh pit. ”

Paar’s pitch: Unlike crowded punk club lines, the ON Klub “would only do one band per night – ska, soul or reggae – and then I would DJ the rest of the night and play records that corresponded to him “. Through a combination of what Paar calls “passion and despair” the owner signed on. Among the most popular acts were the Boxboys, widely regarded as Southern California’s first ska band, and The Untouchables, LA’s first ska band to sign on a label, Stiff Records.

Jerry Miller of the Untouchables told the panel: “Through word of mouth people from LA County and Orange County converged on the ON Klub. I was like, ‘Where are all these people from?’ I thought we were the only ones doing it, and lo and behold, we weren’t.

The Untouchables, a group founded by Miller, Chuck Askerneese, the late Clyde Grimes and others, captured their most prominent attention when they appeared with their Vespas in a scene from the 1984 sci-fi comedy “Repo Man “, where they prevent, with a few quick kicks to the stomach, the character of Emilio Estevez from regaining possession of a parent’s station wagon. The band’s most popular songs, “I Spy for the FBI” and “what’s wrong”, Were regional hits but failed to break the charts.

Although Boston, Chicago, and New York had their own variations in the ’80s, writer Wasserman says that in LA, “you have a coming together not just of music but of style in a way that doesn’t happen. in many other ska towns. The weather is nice, so you can get a scooter, ride it and look cool.

Four people on a panel talking about ska music

Author Karena Sundaram Marcum, former publicist Bill Bentley, actor Laurence Fishburne and ON Klub founder Howard Paar at the Grammy Museum on October 23, 2021.

(Timothy Norris / Getty Images for the Recording Academy)

Fishburne described the Silver Lake ska scene as “straight out of ‘Quadrophenia”, “referring to the Who’s cult 1979 film about turf wars between mods and rockers in the working class of Brighton, England. . The film highlighted the Vespa scooter culture that powered the mods, and young people in Southern California embraced this distinctive mode of transportation. As with lowrider culture, Vespa obsessives tricked their scooters with sleek accents. A local LA news segment from the early 1980s noted that scooter sales in Orange County had jumped over 20% due to the “mod scene.”

The movement also co-opted the “Quadrophenia” fashion. Stylistic prerequisites included surplus army trench coats adorned with pins and badges, pork pie hats, and anything that had a checkerboard pattern. Unlike sloppy punks, the crowd preferred short, crisp haircuts and tight suits.

The style driving the city’s ska and mod movement was remarkable enough at the time to merit an article in The Times fashion section. “Mods: Stylish Code Makes a Movement” described its members as “a new breed of well-bred youngsters whose hallmarks are brilliant Vespa scooters”. A participant from the ON Klub, asked if the scene was more than just a passing fad, answered with certainty.

“I know I’ll still be in it when I’m older,” replied the teenager. “I’m just starting to have a lot of lights on my scooter.”

Two men sing into a microphone

The Boxboys’ Ivan Wong and Scott Sigman perform at the ON Klub.

(From Scott Sigman)

Along the way, the ON Klub has attracted its share of big name names. Parr remembers the night Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones paid their blanket fees, started to come in “and pulled the shabby curtain. [Jones] looked at the madness on the dance floor and stabbed in the throat and they got into a huge argument about it. She left, he stayed. Paar added that members of bands such as Blondie, The English Beat and The Clash have come down after their Palladium concerts to go out. Years later, Jodie Foster told Paar that she used to dance there.

“It was fun. It was cowardly,” Paar said.

By 1984 Paar had met so many music professionals that his own opportunities multiplied. After booking a few other clubs, he turned to advertising in the 1980s. Paar has since become an award-winning music supervisor, acclaimed for his work for films and series such as “20th Century Women,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood ”and“ The L Word ”.

In doing so, the sound he helped promote at the ON Klub grew into a multi-million dollar business, spawning festivals, clothing lines, and record labels. And although the reign of third wave ska in the late 1990s calmed down within a few years, a backyard concert scene in Orange County and the San Fernando Valley practically continued. relentlessly until the pandemic, fueled by a renewed interest in Berkeley’s ska-punk legends, Operation Ivy and Rance.

“A lot of this is driven by Mexican and Central American children,” Wasserman says, adding that Mexico itself is one of the major countries for ska in the world.

“The beauty of ska is that it’s always been rebellious music,” he adds. “And it’s still appealing to these kids, who have heard it from their parents or even their grandparents at this point.”

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