L.A. Retrospective: Mod and Skinhead Scenes. Part One

headstrong

Being from the Midwest, for me, the early L.A. mod and skinhead scenes were like an item in a curio shop; I was always well-versed in the east coast scene, it’s lore, it’s contributions to the hardcore, skinhead, punk and mod genres, but being so far away from the west coast, all I’d ever really heard of the happenings out there were fourth hand stories and legends.

As far as scenes go, it doesn’t seem as though there exists the amount of serious study (as serious as a study can get on subcultures) dedicated to the west coast’s historical scene as there does of material from the east coast  and this article attempts, if only in a small way, to set the record straight.

The director’s cut of this interview is mammoth (I appreciate every word of Greg’s amazing detail) which dictates that this interview runs in two (perhaps three) parts.

The players:

Greg Narvas: Drummer for oi! band Lion’s Pride, as well as the legendary Hepcat. Early mod/skinhead/face on the scene.  Author of the comic “I Was a Teenage Filipino Skinhead” which was reviewed on this very blog.

Martin Ruane: Guitar player for Lion’s Pride, as well as singer for Headstrong.  Still a skinhead to this day.

Greg Narvas around 1988
Greg Narvas around 1988

Part One Awaits……

SATURDAY NIGHT: Could you tell us a little bit about how and when you each got involved in the mod/skinhead scene in L.A? What factors led to this?

MARTIN: I dabbled in punk in grade school, got more into two-tone ska and punk in jr high, then got full speed into punk in high-school. Found the skinhead scene in around 85-86 which was a great mix, with oi! for my punk side and rocksteady for my ska side.

GREG: My involvement with the scene actually started way back in ’83 (7th Grade), with my first sighting of a Rude Boy in my junior high school. I was totally fascinated with his whole get-up, as he was decked out in a complete 2-Tone outfit, from a stingy brim to big wraparound shades, a huge black trench coat and loafers with white socks—all on a blazing hot day. He completely stood out from everyone else and I admired his daring to be different. I was especially taken, though, by this huge patch he had on the back of his coat—one with screaming loud day-glo pink and white checkers and the “skanking joe” figure in the middle (is that what they call that thing?). On either side of him was the word SKA. I literally lost sleep that night wondering what the hell “SKA” was. It was such a strange sounding word and I thought it may have been an acronym for a secret society where everyone dressed like that. Well, I wasn’t too far off, I guess…except for the acronym part right?

Two years later, I happened to run into my “cousin” Rob (Bobby), a close family friend whom I’d grown up with as a kid. At that time in ’85, I was a total “Nu-Waver”, as trendy as can be, wearing the latest in mall fashion. Rob was wearing these vintage, second-hand thrift store duds that I’d never seen anyone wear before. I couldn’t get over how completely opposite he was from the norm, and asked him about it. He explained that he was a Rude Boy and that he listened to “Ska.” I instantly remembered the word from years before and made the connection. Bobby was a cool kid, and the whole idea of being a part of a subculture intrigued me, so I took a chance and asked him if I could be one too.

My comic, entitled I Was A Teenage Filipino Skinhead, traces this story all the way from this same beginning. I started out initially as a Rude Boy, with the Dance Craze soundtrack being my very first Ska album (freakin’ excellent album). Shortly after, I ran into a pack of Mods on these ultra-slick decked out scooters in Pasadena, CA and knew for sure I wanted to be a Mod. After a few months of soul-strutting and parka-wearing, I grew tired of the Mod scene and noticed the skinheads were a lot more rowdy and fun to be around—maintaining a sharp appearance but with aggressiveness to boot (no pun intended). After discovering “traditionalist” skinheads, who were the fiercest aficionados for the old Trojan/Studio One/Treasure Isle sound (which I’d also become a huge fan of), I made the conversion almost overnight.

SATURDAY NIGHT: L.A. during those days – paint a picture….what was it like? What bands were active? Crews? Was there a lot of gang activity going on back then?

Martin: Very few oi! bands in the greater LA area during the 87-88 time frame, it was The Bootboys, Last Soldiers (w/Gramps of Bovver Wonderland), Cross (Christian oi!), and Headstrong (my band that I sang for), and Lion’s Pride, and that was it. Most of the gang activity was associated with fighting with non-skinhead gangs (Suicidals’, Nazis’ and such), a bit different than later on in the scene.

Greg: Ah…paint you a picture, eh? Okay. Imagine a cold, brisk Hollywood Friday night on Santa Monica and Vine, amidst the din of passing taxi cabs, buses and the clatter of clunky old cars. The air smells of Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, high-mileage exhaust, gutter water, and detergent from the nearby laundromat whose machines whir away in cadence. You’re standing in a rundown strip mall littered here and there with bottles, trash and torn pages of the “L.A. Star,” a free porn newspaper. But in the dark corner of this mall is where it’s at—Gino’s night club—the place to be for the scene. Before you know it, the air is shredded to pieces by the roar of a gang of two-stroke, chrome-laden terrors, their distinct motors signaling the arrival of cool…mods in suits and parkas, their shoes reflecting the flicker of the old street lights and neon of the liquor store sign, their girlfriends in shameless mini-skirts, hiked high to reveal fleshy, white-stockinged thighs ready to strut their stuff to the sound of soul…

The crowd continues to build as skinheads and rudies make their way into the lot, with the heavy steps of polished air soles, loafers and brogues, accented with the glint of ska buttons and a checkered array of 2-Tone patches…it’s the ska crowd, ready to skank to whatever the DJ has to spin. In awhile the lot bustles with the hub-bub of conversation, laughter and the clinking and swigging of Mickey’s big mouth bottles, Guinness glass and whatever other poison these under-aged utters carefully collected from L.A. liquor stores who didn’t care to card (believe me, you had to know the spots).
Some stay in the lot, comfy amongst the scene, scooters and swigs, while the rest go upstairs to where the real action is, on a dance floor of smoke and sweat. The DJ swings into the soul shift, laying down Motown and R&B while mods—and only mods—strut their stuff in front of huge, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, dancing in all the serious sophistication that only they could pull off. After a few numbers, the mods clear out as the signature drum fill of Selecter’s On My Radio signals the ska set, and within moments the floor buckles and bounces under a crowd of stomping, skanking feet, belonging to none other than the fiercely faithful rudies and skins who have only shown up for just that purpose.

…and that was what I lived for, every week, every Friday, when I first got into the scene as a mod. The cool thing about the scene back then was that it was totally underground, but once you were in it, you discovered a whole new, thriving world that seemingly nobody else knew about. One wouldn’t even think there was a scene, ‘coz it was pretty hard to spot mods and such out and about on a regular day…but when there was a show, everyone came out to play, in big numbers. One of the greatest things was to see fleets of decked out mods and rudies arrive noisily on their scoots, amidst the welcoming nods of other mods (gee, it rhymes) and the wide-eyed “whoa what the hell is that?” wonder of the unknowing public. The scene was always dressed to impress, turning heads wherever we went. There was a real sense of pride in everyone, and when we all got together, the unity was unmistakable, no matter what side of town you were from.

From ’86-’88 the scooter clubs I knew of were almost purely mods, with a few rudies here and there. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten most of the scooter club names, but there were a bunch. I remember Top Gear because I knew most of them;  San Diego had a huge one called Secret Society, and I think Pasadena had one called A Thousand Faces. The Mighty Mod Mafia wasn’t necessarily a scooter club, but a big, united clique of kids that made their presence known, garnering a reputation as the ones to deal with should anyone have a beef with the scene.

Skinheads had a few crews that I remember, though they kept a pretty low profile unless some action (fights, etc.) came about, then everyone knew who tore it up. There were The South Bay Skins, Mickey Mouse Club and Toehead Army for starters. Then SHARP (Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice) came around in ’88, in direct response to the media hype/blitz on the so-called “nazi skins”, who made a bad rep for the rest of us. I remember the Ghost Town crew being a big SHARP police force on the Nazi element, scouring every show for swastikas.

As much as SHARP stood for a good cause, things would get out of hand sometimes, as those even suspected of being a racist in the least bit were confronted…like the witch hunts of the old days. Then as soon as the media caught onto their deal, the public started thinking that if you weren’t a Nazi skin, then you were a SHARP, which my crew and I thought was bullshit. That’s not what the skinhead scene was about…whether one was racist or not. But that’s what it was all turning into.
So my crew and I never cared to join SHARP…we didn’t like boneheads and racists but didn’t feel the need to hunt them down…nor did we want to be political in any way and spend time proclaiming that we were “against racial prejudice.” We were too busy dancing, drinking and having a great time…if anyone had a problem with it, they could talk to us between songs or swigs. That’s what the scene meant to us—good friends, good clothes, and good music.

If there was one main characteristic of the scene back then—it was dedication and loyalty. There were no “in-betweens” and “sort-ofs” and what not. Mods were mods, rudies were rudies and skins were skins. Period. We were all so proud of our identities that there was no dilution or mixing of fashion. Mods would never wear skinhead gear (docs, braces, etc.), and skins would never wear desert boots nor parkas. That was all part of a certain set of unwritten rules that true members of the scene abided by…break the rules or take them lightly, and you’d be called a poseur, which was the absolute worst thing anyone could be called—in any scene, for that matter.

Same thing happened on the dance floor—mods strutted to soul, rudies skanked to ska, and the skinheads stomped to reggae. In this aspect, one might’ve seen some crossover, but many scenesters were as loyal to their music as they were to the fashion. It was like, the image had to be thorough and untainted.

Greg and crew. l to r: Brian Martin, Greg, Raul Calaguas, Bobby Liwanag
Greg and crew. l to r: Brian Martin, Greg, Raul Calaguas, Bobby Liwanag

Saturday: What about you guys personally? What shows did you catch back then? Did you run with or were members of certain crews?

Martin: Plenty of shows, mostly punk, then later lots of ska shows and such during the late 80’s revival. Best skinhead show was probably when I graduated from high school in 1987 and went to England and stayed with Condemned 84 for a week or so and caught one of their shows is a small pub in some small town I don’t recall.  I used to like to run with trouble makers, but the gang/crew life never really appealed to me.

Greg: After Bobby got me into the scene, I was soon after adopted into his crew, which were a close-knit group of friends that had all grown up together since childhood in L.A.’s Miracle Mile District. They’d all gotten into the scene at the same time, so they normally hung out as a group. Informally known as The 8-Ball Clan (which seemed more of a novelty tag than any real clique we ever had to claim), we hit every scene hot spot en masse—from clubs to shows—and always had a really good time.

For the few years that I was in the scene (’85-’88), we definitely made the most of it, going out virtually every weekend. We had it down to a routine: My mom would bring me to Bobby’s house Friday afternoon after school (or I’d take the bus); we’d all go to Gino’s (the Hollywood mod/ska hot spot) and dance all night, get home at 2-3a.m. and crash out until 11a.m. Saturday, then get dressed and go to Melrose Avenue to shop for records and clothes and try to find something to do for Saturday night (a show, party, etc.). If there wasn’t anything going on we’d just find somewhere to booze up, crash again and wake up Sunday to go to Rhino Records and Aaron’s for even more record shopping. Later, after Gino’s shut down, there was Grand Central Station in downtown Long Beach that actually had one room for soul and the other for reggae/ska. By that time we were traditionalist skinheads, and it was terrific—we no longer had to wait for mods to clear the floor for us to go out and stomp to reggae. Pure bliss.

Aside from the routine clubbing, there were the shows…
Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach was by far the most infamous club for all of L.A.’s subcultures, especially the punk and hardcore s there. My very first ska show was Bad Manners w/ Fishbone at Fender’s…I remember it specifically being February 1986. I’ll never forget the date—the following school day I put the flier up on my wall. I have that flier still somewhere. If I ever dig it up I’ll be sure to copy it for you. I went to pretty much every show there afterwards through ’88, ‘cause Fender’s simply was the place to be for the scene. I even saw No Doubt’s first show at Fender’s too; if it wasn’t mid-’87, then I think it was November of  ’87, a Thanksgiving show. The flier showed a skanking cooked turkey. This was when they were a killer ska band with Gwen Stefani and John Spence on vocals. Pure energy. I recall seeing Spence going absolute nuts on stage, doing backflips and everything—in a full-on ‘60s sharkskin suit! And Gwen being a total blonde-bobbed fox and all of us drooling over her, wondering if she was dating a mod, rudie or skin—she walked off with a total trendy dood, to our surprise. On a tragic side note, John Spence committed suicide a month later, in December of that year.

Once in awhile some other heavyweights came to town. Madness came over in ’86 and played at the Hollywood Palladium with Fishbone and The Pandoras. Fishbone was really popular at that time, and the pit for them that night was the rowdiest pit I’d ever been in. I got kicked in the balls by some parka-clad modette with her pointed winklepinker shoes (ouch!!) after being thrown into her from the pit, and this huge, buff black dood who was at least three times my size landed on top of me at one point, crushing me underneath him. But I had a blast nonetheless. That was the great thing about being young…taking a thrashing and bouncing right back.

As soon as we discovered the Trojan/Studio One sounds of old ska and reggae, we kept an eye out for any legends that happened to hit the town. The Skatalites made their first California appearance in 1987 at the Irvine Spectrum. I remember seeing them arrive backstage while the opening band played. We all went nuts. “There’s Tommy McCook! Roland Alphonso! Holy shit!!” I couldn’t believe we were actually seeing them in person…I mean, the pioneers of reggae music; the creators of ska music…an emotional moment indeed. Yet not quite as emotional as when I saw them at UC San Diego not long afterwards—their set was so heavy, it was virtually the Stretching Out album reborn. I was literally driven to tears. To this day, that still remains the best performance I’d ever seen by them.

Toots & The Maytals also came to town a few times. We went to see them play somewhere up in Ventura, and Bobby, our pal Brian and I (all of us skins at the time) all rushed up front to yell out all these old, obscure reggae tunes for Toots to sing: “Don’t Trouble Trouble!” “Never Grow Old!” etc. We were totally busting his balls. Then Bobby and I waited for a pristine, silent moment between songs, and yelled in unison, “SIX AND SEVEN BOOKS!” Toots immediately shot us a look with this big, embarrassed smile, like, “Dang! You know I can’t play that right now!!” Classic.

One day I in ’87 I found a small day-glo pink flyer which announced Stranger Cole playing at The Kingston 12 in Santa Monica—a total reggae club which was 21 and over (we were all under 18). My friends and I decided to go anyway to see if we could get in…we didn’t want to miss Stranger Cole for the world. I remember being at Bobby’s house earlier that evening, as we all decided to wear our Adidas Samba trainers instead of boots, as Kingston 12 was full of hardcore rastas who would probably not appreciate the appearance of boots and baldheads.

We got to the door and the bouncer asked for ID…we obviously didn’t have any, but he looked around for cops and just ushered us in anyway. What a relief! It was actually totally dead that night (I was literally the only one skanking), but it turned out to be a real fateful evening—not only because I saw Stranger Cole play, but 20 years later I met and shared the stage with him. When I told Mr. Cole that story, he had the widest, heartwarming smile I’d ever seen. We both couldn’t believe it.

Saturday: Tell me about your involvement with bands – Martin, you were in both Headstrong and Lion’s Pride? Was it the idea to do straight oi! and keep it separate from the punk scene? Who were your influences? Greg, you were in both Lion’s Pride and Hepcat? Tell me about the goals involved in each of those bands as well as your influences.

hepcat

Martin: At the time, I kind of thought we were doing oi, but  listening to it now, it is pretty clear we were influenced by our punk roots. I grew up listening to early 80s American punk, which comes out in Headstrong with oi! influenced lyrics. Lion’s Pride was our bass players brainchild, so he wrote all the  music and I think most of the lyrics, I just played guitar, not sure what his influences were.

Greg: I went to school with Eric (Lions Pride bass) in Westchester. I originally met him when I was a mod, but when I turned skinhead we hung out a lot more. Then he got excited when he found out that I played drums, so he wanted to start a band. I was into it, so we tried jamming a few Oi! and ska tunes. After a few songs, he said, “Why don’t we just play Oi? I’m not really digging the ska stuff.” So I reluctantly agreed; I was a so-called “traditional” skin while Eric was a full-on “Oi!” skin. I was more excited about just playing music rather than the type of music we were going to play, but at the same time, I’d just learned how to play old ska and wanted to get my groove on in that too.

Eric pretty much wrote all the music and lyrics for Lions Pride. I did write music and lyrics for one song, We Will Win. We got Martin and Sean for guitar and lead vocals and got things going. We used to practice in Eric’s garage. Lions Pride clearly was striving to be an Oi! Band, and Eric insisted that practices were purely focused on it. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist dropping some ska rhythms in between songs, and that used to piss Eric off bigtime. At one point he pointed at me and yelled, “Look man, we’re a fuckin’ Oi! Band. We don’t play any of that ska shit. I don’t wanna hear you doing any of that shit here, you got it?” I couldn’t believe how mad he got; then again, he did have a point.

That was back in ’88. Little did I know that my little ska-beat spasms would get me the gig with Hepcat. Greg Lee (Hepcat lead) saw us play our one and only real “show” at Madame Wong’s out in Santa Monica. He could probably tell this in better detail, but I guess he was out on the floor while I was setting up my drums. At the time, he was looking to form a ska band and was in desperate need of a drummer who knew how to play the old style. When my drums were all set, I sat down and tapped my toms, and then snuck in just one or two measures of an old ska beat. I really didn’t think anyone was paying attention, but Greg heard it instantly, and insists that it was that tiny little smidgen of ska that convinced him that I was the one. Crazy, huh? Of all dang places.

After Lions Pride dissolved, Martin later asked me if I’d be interested in joining a ska band; the one that Greg Lee was forming. I said sure, I’d talk to Greg about it. We met after a Skatalites show at the Whiskey in Hollywood, sometime mid-‘89. I was kind of skeptical as to what kind of ska band it would be. I was looking to play some seriously old stuff, and didn’t want to waste time playing any 2-Tone or typical 3rd Wave stuff. I remember him leaning up against a car in front of the club…

“So, you want to join a ska band, huh?” Greg said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“I’m starting one up…wanna be in it?” he smiled.
“Well, that depends…” I said. “What are your influences?” I was expecting him to say something like “The English Beat” or “The Specials.” I was prepared to decline, when he smiled and blew out some smoke from his cigarette…

“The Gaylads…” Greg looked up at the smoke as it drifted upwards.
I was shocked. Of all bands…The Gaylads?! He continued with “The Ethiopians, The Paragons…” he didn’t even mention a ska band until he said “The Skatalites.” So needless to say, I was interested…and history was made.

Now because Hepcat’s been around a long time, I’ll try to keep this short—basically in the beginning we tried to emulate the “old sound” as much as possible. Each and every one of us studied our parts really hard and listened to all the old stuff to hear how it was done back then. It wasn’t until after our first album, Out of Nowhere, that we began to realize that music, like art, really was a sign of the times, and that no matter how hard we tried to sound “old,” there would always be a certain aspect missing…simply because we weren’t living in that era. Besides, as we progressed, we learned that it was more important to find our own sound…at one point someone said, “Do we want people to remember us as a band that sounds like The Skatalites, or as a band that sounds like Hepcat?” It all made sense. From that point on, we decided to let our influences and our own natural instincts flow together, laying the notes and progressions down like bricks and mortar until we felt we built something solid…and sweet.

TO BE CONTINUED…….

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11 Responses to “L.A. Retrospective: Mod and Skinhead Scenes. Part One”

  1. I say that the new way is now here and the men of S.H.A.R.P. are Mods and they are all trying to be right about the way we see the Skins and the Skins are all too good. But the men are of Mods and the men need to get all right and they all have a good time with the F.S.U. because they are on the East Coast and they want to remain Skin and they are from not only Mod and Suedeheads and Scooter Boys and too true!

  2. […] other bit of Greg Narvas memorabilia that hit at the same time is this interview with Greg discussing his early pre-Hepcat days as drummer for the oi! band Lion’s Pride and his […]

  3. […] L.A. Story: A Retrospective On The L.A. Mod and Skinhead Scenes […]

  4. R there any groups in LA that r still around?

  5. Hootie Hoyme Says:

    Toe Head Army is celebrating their 30 year reunion at Griffith Park
    Saturday August 3, 2013. THA was founded actually earlier but this is the date we set.

  6. Lord Sinclair Says:

    Hi, thought you might like to check this out:

    http://www.amazon.com/Top-Fellas-Story-Melbournes-Sharpie/dp/0987412272

    Top Fellas a 2004 book on Australia’s ‘Sharpie’ cult (our version of Mods and Skinheads) is out again through Amazon and Book Depository. Nicer printing than the second edition and very cheap!

  7. Long live the south bay skins

  8. Chris potter Says:

    Good write up! From the guy who put the Last Soldiers
    Together one band I would like mention is The Subway
    Played oi punk to perfection who the lead man singer and guitar
    Player Mike Snow known for generators had great times seeing
    The subway I’n the 80’s great cock sparrer covers!
    Any ways need to write a book or documentary on those
    Never in a scene in la was ignored by society than
    Those days cheers to everyone for not forgetting keep the faith
    Cheers Martin your old top gear Klub mate and friend since86
    thanks Chris potter

  9. Gina Davis MODGINA Says:

    This article was beautiful! I always hear stories from older guys and girl from their 80s and 90s skinhead and mod days! I’ve been faithfully mod day in day out since I was 15. That was 2000! So I can’t call myself 90s mod but I learned from the best! My elders! And I was always taught to respect. I even respect the generation younger than me because they are passing it on. I’m proud to be a mod Latina, born and raised in LOS ANGELES!

  10. if you like both types of music, mod rock, and ska, there’s no problem with representing a lil of both in your style, especially since skinhead derived as much from hard mod as it did from rude boy.News flash, ain’t no such thing as a poser, unless you’re talking about those who faithfully copy the scene’s image. Originality cannot be called Posing. It’s quite the opposite actually. 90s punk from East LA/SGV. by then everyone rocked a chilled out skater punk look, as much hip hop as punk, again the hybrid LA style. We would always laugh at young “hard core” punks who try and revive the mohawk leather and studs look….Those are the posers, music is music, if you’re overly concerned with image, you’re a poser, period. Now for the working class skinhead scene. The clothes should be different in the US. We have american equivalents. Dickies and tank tops is the working class look adopted by all youth gang culture in los angeles, black, latino, old greaser gangs, and yes LA skinheads, that shit is the new working class. You ain’t british, stop posing. Lastly true working class 10-15 bucks an hour, cannot afford these fucking expensive British clothes. That which is supposedly working class can only be afforded by upper middle class.

  11. Casey Cantrell Says:

    To anyone interested…Myself and a few Old School S.H.A.R.P.S ( when I say old school I’m 44 and claimed skinhead in 1986 here in Atlanta, Georgia) are talking about trying to make a trip to Brighton England in the next year or two to the Great Skinhead Reunion there. There’s not many of us left in Atlanta and we’d really like to find other States that have decent scenes to meet like minded people and hopefully get others who’d like to join us on the trip to go as well and represent our culture old and new in the USA in the birth place of the skinhead culture. If anyone is interested or has any feed back let me know…cdc.adfos@yahoo.com

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