“I Spy (For the F.B.I.)”: L.A.’s the Untouchables were a bi-racial 2-Tone-inspired mod-ska combo

By on August 14, 2018

Night Flight Goes Off the Wall” — which originally aired in 1993, during our cable TV show’s syndication era — featured music videos that were considered to be “off the wall,” which is certainly one way to describe this entry by the Untouchables, a bi-racial 2-Tone-inspired mod-ska combo from Los Angeles.

Watch their “I Spy (For the F.B.I.)” video — lensed by director Jeff Baynes in Hamburg, Germany’s “red light district,” the Reeperbahn — on Night Flight Plus.

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The “I Spy” single (#59 UK) seems like the perfect song title for a band whose name harkens back to the popular 1950s TV show based on Special Agent Eliot Ness and his battles with Chicago mobster Al Capone (not to mention foreshadowing the 1987 movie, The Untouchables, which we told you about here).

Led by vocalist Kevin Long, the Untouchables were formed in 1981, inspired by the success of a local ska-punk band, the Boxboys, who had themselves been inspired by Britain’s 2-Tone ska revival.

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Their original lineup — Long (lead vocals), Chuck Askerneese (vocals), Terry Ellsworth (rhythm guitar), Clyde Grimes (guitar), Rob Lampron (drums), Herman Askerneese (bass) and Jerry Miller (vocals, timbales) — were all obsessed with mod, ska (original ska bands like the Skatalites, as well as the 2-Tone revival bands), and reggae music.

These black & white rude boys were seen so frequently in the clubs and riding around town on Vespas and Lambretta scooters — wearing three-button suits, military-issue parkas, dark sunglasses and pork pie hats — that many believed they were already a band.

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They considered themselves mods who played ska music, although they mixed in their early-to-mid ’80s influences with lots of Sixties-era pop hits like the Blues Magoos’ “We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet,” the Small Faces’ “Whatcha Gonna Do About It,” and the Monkees‘ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” which was also covered by the Sex Pistols in their prime.

It was Long who came up with their name, an ironic take on the previous generation’s bands putting themselves up on a pedestal, out of reach from their fans, which quickly changed after punk and new wave acts began to ridicule the idea of any band or its members being “untouchable.”

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Soon, the Untouchables (who called themselves “the UT’s”) had their own following who were showing up to see them play at a Silverlake-area dive called the O.N. Klub, where they became regulars.

They also eventually became the house band at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood, enjoying a Thursday night residency that lasted for months. The Roxy was just down the street from the Whisky a Go Go, where they’d also played to huge crowds.

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Terry Ellsworth would end up leaving the group in the summer of 1983, but there were soon new additions to the Untouchables lineup: keyboardist Josh Harris and sax player Will Donato.

Read more about the Untouchables below.

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The success of the Untouchables’ first few self-released singles and EPs — including “The General,” which they also performed in the 1984 low-budget comedy The Party Animal on a Malibu beach — led to them being able to raise $15,000 from private investors in 1984 for the release of a new 12″ EP on the Twist label (picked up for distribution by Enigma), scoring them a lot of local KROQ airplay.

Despite the heavy FM airplay, great local press and a low-budget video for “Free Yourself” — which won Billboard‘s 1984 award for best indie video — their 12-inch EP was still pretty difficult to find in their hometown record stores because of their label’s limited distribution (it sold more than 40,000 units anyway).

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Despite all the exposure, the Untouchables were struggling to get to the next level in their careers and wanting to go in different musical directions, which may be one reason Kevin Long left that band in 1984, turning over the lead vocals to guitarist Clyde Grimes.

Then, their manager Dave Lumien got a call from ex-Island Records president David Robinson, who was now at Stiff Records UK., who were enjoying success with Madness at the time.

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He’d seen their “Free Yourself” video and ended up signing them to Stiff UK,  who licensed their recordings for U.S. distribution to MCA.

The re-issued “Free Yourself” was a big hit (#26) in the United Kingdom in April 1985.

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The Untouchables recorded their debut album — which saw them finally moving away from their original 2-Tone revival sound, and more towards Motown-ish soul, reggae, pop and other musical genres — in Ireland.

The band toured endlessly, supporting UB40, the English Beat, Black Uhuru, the B-52s (opening for them during three sold-out shows at the Hollywood Palladium), Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Psychedelic Furs, Bow Wow Wow, Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., X, the Blasters, Fishbone, No Doubt and many, many others.

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In addition to being a great live act, and recording a handful of great singles and albums, the Untouchables also made a few more memorable movie cameos.

Because actor Emilio Estevez was a fan, they ended up appearing as a Vespa-riding scooter gang in the 1984 cult hit, Repo Man, and were credited onscreen by director Alex Cox.

You can also see them performing their tune “Dance Beat” in Surf II, and years later, in 1987, they also appeared in No Man’s Land, performing their popular hit song, “What’s Gone Wrong.”

Watch “Night Flight Goes Off the Wall” — which also features music videos by more “off the wall” artists like the Residents, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Divine, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads the Blow Monkeys and more — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, 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.