All Aboard the “Party Train”: Here’s The Gap Band partyin’ down on Venice Beach in ’83

By on June 21, 2017

It’s been hellaciously hot as Hades here at Night Flight HQ West this week, which reminded us of going to the beach on sticky summer days, and then we were reminded of this video for the Gap Band’s “Party Train” — it’s included in our “Take Off to Street Music,” which originally aired back on May 14, 1985 — which was filmed the famous boardwalk on Venice Beach in 1983. Have another look at this cool slice of California fun in the sun, it’s streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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Pat Prescott introduces the video thusly: “‘Party Train’ shows us that break-dancing and hip-hop culture has found enthusiastic supporters, even on the beaches of Southern California.”

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This musical freakshow captures all the craziness you used to be able to see on Venice Beach’s Ocean Front Walk on a hot summer day, including itty bitty bikini-clad biddies, bicep-flexin’ an iron-pumpin’ muscleheads, break dancers and pop-lockers battling it out inside a makeshift boxing ring, and flamboyant rollerskaters, including the legendary Harry Perry, playing his guitar through a battery-powered Pignose amplifier that’s strapped to his back.

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Tulsa, Oklahoma-born-and-raised brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson had begun singing and making music together early on, taking music lessons — each of them excelled on various instruments, primarily the piano — and practicing both at home and at their father’s Pentecostal church, playing for the congregation on Sunday mornings.

Ronnie, the oldest, formed his own band at age fourteen, while middle brother Charlie joined a rival band a few years later.

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One night, when the bands were performing across the street from each other, Ronnie stopped in to watch Charlie, who was playing hot-shit organ that night, and realized that he wanted to make music professionally with his brother Charlie.

He offered his younger brother fifty dollars more than what he was making, but then the rival band doubled the offer, because they didn’t want to lose him, but Charlie decided to take up his brother’s offer anyway.

Then, when Ronnie’s bass player quit, their younger brother Robert — he was just fourteen at the time — joined their band.

In was 1967, and they decided to start over, naming themselves the Greenwood, Archer and Pine Street Band, after three prestigious city blocks in their hometown where many black businesses were located.

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Not too much later, they noticed that it was difficult to get their entire band name listed on advertisements and posters, and so they shortened the name to the G A P Band, with spaces between each of the letters, but when they saw a typo in a newspaper ad listing the band as the Gap Band, they decided to stick with the name as is.

The Gap Band played just about anywhere they could get booked in Tulsa and the surrounding area — including country & western honky-tonks, rock ‘n’ roll bars, even tennis clubs — and it wasn’t too long before the Wilson brothers were discovered by the late, great Leon Russell, who turned them into backing band, taking them on the road with him while he toured with the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and other early ‘70s rock ‘n’ rollers.

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They released their debut album, Magician’s Holiday, in 1974, on Russell’s own Shelter Records, which was also the label who issued records by blues guitarist Freddie King, folk singer Phoebe Snow, and Florida country-rockers Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

They followed it up three years later with a self-titled sophomore album, for the Tattoo label, featuring guest appearances from D.J. Rogers, Reverend James Cleveland, Chaka Khan, Leon Russell, and jazz man Les McCann, the album managed to score a couple of minor hits, “Out of the Blue (Can You Feel It)” and “Little Bit of Love.”

By now, Charlie had decided he wanted to explore the musical possibilities out in L.A. and he left his brothers behind in Tulsa sometime in the mid-70s.

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Once out on the left coast, though, Charlie realized that he wanted to experience whatever was going to happen with hs two brothers, and he convinced them to join him, putting together a new Gap Band in L.A., with Charlie’s black velvet vocals layin’ down lots of smooth soulful lyrics on top of songs with ragin’ house-on-fire riffs.

It wasn’t until 1978 when they met entertainment businessman Lonnie Simmons through their friend, singer/songwriter/musician D.J. Rogers.

Simmons owned a recording studio and nightclub, located on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central L.A., both of which were dubbed Total Experience — it was later the name of their record label for releases during the ’80s too — and he signed the Wilson brothers, along with their nine bandmates. Yep, nine.

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Mercury Records came around with a recording contract offer after that, leading to another self-titled album, 1979’s The Gap Band, which shot up the Billboard R&B charts, propelled by a #4 R&B hit, “Shake,” and a #13 hit, “Open Up Your Mind.”

They hit the road, playing with Funkadelic, Kool & the Gang, and Maze, and in no time at all they were showing off their show-stopping dance steps on TV shows like “Soul Train” and Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

More hits followed with future albums, each of them consecutively titled, somewhat uninspired, with the band’s name and a Roman numeral, The Gap Band II — their second album in 1979 — producing two more Top Ten R&B smashes.

1980’s The Gap Band III became their first #1 R&B album, and landed them on the R&B singles hit charts two more times, and by now the hits were almost guaranteed.

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There were fifteen Top Ten R&B singles in all, ranging from uptown disco-funk rollers, to sexy slow jams, mixing memorable fat synth and bass lines that got lots of booties up and shakin’ on the dancefloors all across the country.

We’re sure you’ve probably heard a lot of their 80s hits over the years, like “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me),” “Yearning for Your Love” (a ballad), “Early in the Morning” (#1 R&B), “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” (#2 R&B), and “Outstanding” (#1 R&B).

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“Party Train” — written by Charlie Wilson and Ronnie Wilson and Gap Band producer Lonnie Simmons and sound mixer Rudy Taylor, who often contributed to the songwriting, penning hits like “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” — was a track off the group’s seventh album, Gap Band V: Jammin’.

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The track was originally the b-side of the single “I’m Ready (If You’re Ready),” but after deejays flipped over the flipside, it was re-released, with a special dance mix of the track on the b-side.

The album — released on their Polygram-distributed Total Experience label — went gold, and the single peaked at #3 on Billboard‘s R&B charts.

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For the video, the Wilsons turned to director Don Letts, who had directed videos for the Clash, Big Audio Dynamite, and Musical Youth, among more than two dozen others. He also made several films, including Punk: Attitude, and The Punk Rock Movie.

We told a little about Letts in this post.

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According to Letts — who was interviewed for Rob Tannenbaum’s and Craig Marks’ I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution — the Gap Band were, in his words, a “handful.”

Letts: “They turned up on the set of ‘Party Train’ in a white limo. They stumbled out of the limo, then one of the dudes bit the makeup woman on the ass. I got them to walk fifteen feet twice, did a tracking shot, and then got them the hell out of there.”

Simon Fields, the video’s field producer — who likely had his hands full, setting up the Venice Beach video shoot — adds: “The Gap Band wanted to be wheeled onto the sand by white guys. Not in the video, but on the set.”

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If you look closely (it’s not onscreen very long), you’ll note that Letts has inserted footage of Ratha-yatra, the Festival of the Chariots, a religious festival observed annually for thousands of years in India, which takes place annually (the next one, in case you’re planning a trip to L.A. this summer, is on August 6th).

We’ve seen it up close and personal, and it’s a blast. More here.

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There’s a lot to check out in the video, and we hope you will, but we liked that it ends with someone filling out a big piece of yellow paper made up to look like a ballot.

The lady with the pen in her hand ignores Democratic Party and Republican Party (smart move) and selects “Gap Party.” Now that’s a party!

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One of the nice results of this video — which received a lot of airplay on MTV and other shows that played R&B and rap videos in the mid-80s, including “Night Flight,” was the fact that it exposed how L.A.’s Venice Beach scene was very integrated, and harmonious, with all kinds of semi-clad black, brown and pink-shaded people cavorting around together and having fun on the boardwalk.

The boardwalk scene became even more popular, especially among African-American visitors coming to the left coast, who made Venice Beach a top sightseeing request.

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Regular 1980s-era Venice Beach visitors will no doubt recognize that the guy with the dreads who rolls up on skates at the beginning of the video, miming the intro to the song, “All aboard!,” is none other than Harry Perry, who you can still see rollerskating and playing his electric guitar on Ocean Front Walk.

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Harry — also known by known by his Sikh name Har Nar Singh Khalsa  (he often performs wearing a traditional Sikh turban) — also performs under a stage name, the Kama Kosmic Krusader.

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He’s one of the most recognizable faces in Venice, and has been playing guitar on the boardwalk since 1973, and that’s actually led to him being cast in movies like White Men Can’t Jump (starring Woody Harrelson), Point of No Return (starring Bridget Fonda), and Dragnet (co-starring Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd), among many others.

In addition to the Gap Band’s video, he can be seen in videos by Janet Jackson, Jane’s Addiction, the Monkees and others.

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He’s so famous you can see murals in the Venice Beach area featuring his painted likeness, like artist Rip Cronk’s re-interpretation of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, called Venice Kinesis, which is the most recent mural he’s painted in this same space (that’s Harry Perry in the right-hand corner down below, see?).

A twenty foot figurine of Harry Perry is still paraded at Disneyland, California Adventure theme park on a regular basis.

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If you’ve got a sharp eye you may have also noted that among the break dancers battlin’ it out in the ring is none other than Michael Chambers, a.k.a. “Boogaloo Shrimp,” star of the movies Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

We told you about how, back in the early ’80s, we used to see him pop lock, break dance, and do the moonwalk all the time in one of our very first Night Flight blog posts, right here.

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You may also recognize Lil’ Coco (also seen in Breakin’/Breakin’ 2), Daryl Stokes of legendary dance group The Pomona Poplockers, and Lil’ Tuff, all of them well-known for payin’ regular visits to Venice Beach where they danced for tourists and passed the hat.

Alas, sometime during the early 1990s, at a time when real estate developers wanted to gentrify Venice, California, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance banning people from public performance on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.

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The LAPD began cracking down and harassing the street performers who showed up on a regular basis to entertain and panhandle for loose change, and the performers counter-claimed that various constitutional principles provided for their freedom of expression, commerce, and congregation.

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Harry Perry ended up being named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Los Angeles Police Department and the ordinance.

After many years of litigation, The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Perry and his co-plaintiffs.

However, their victory was short lived. The Los Angeles City Council created new legislation that severely restricted performance on the Venice Beach Boardwalk rather than banning it altogether.

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Today, he and his girl Andrea Tenaglia, who he met on the boardwalk, are the new musician couple in Venice Beach, although regular hassles from the Venice Beach Police have pretty much destroyed a lot of the original, very cool and harmonious vibe that made Venice Beach the social mecca for which it is famous.

But hey, if you do come to L.A. this summer, check out the scene at the Venice Beach boardwalk anyway, it’s still lotsa fun.

Anybody want to take this ride, you can catch the Gap Band’s “Party Train” and other cool videos in our “Take Off to Street Music,” it’s headin’ outta town right now, but you can still catch it streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.