Music always has the potential to be a force of merging. It can draw different people from different communities together under the spell of the same sound. Yet it can also draw borders and erect perimeters, and by 1980, musical merging in L.A. was no guarantee.
The radical visions of 1970s punk had descended into the racism and misogyny of hardcore, and the city splintered into musical segments—metal, rockabilly, roots, post-punk, rap—that sometimes overlapped, and often stayed apart.
Once it opened in 1980, the ON Klub in Silver Lake quickly became known as a place to merge. Housed in a former Vietnamese restaurant that earlier in the ‘70s was the influential gay and lesbian bar Butch Gardens, the club was the brainchild of London-born Howard Paar (now a music industry veteran). After he landed in L.A. in the late ‘70s, Paar heard the song “Gangsters” by the Specials and he fell in love with the sound and social philosophy of the British “Two-Tone” scene they were an integral part of: multiracial bands crossing Jamaican ska (the island’s ebullient horn-driven dance music) with punk and new wave in a rebuke of Thatcher-era white racism. The ON Klub took the Two-Tone philosophy and gave it a Sunset remix, right down to its preferred mode of transit (scooters) and its mod fashion signifiers (natty suits, V-neck sweaters, Fred Perry polos, and bowling shoes).
“We wanted to be open to everyone,” Paar told me, comparing the club’s ska-loving crowd to the white-dominated ’80s metal scene that was blossoming further west on Sunset at places like Gazzari’s and Rainbow Bar & Grill. “We were a reaction to the Strip in some ways. We became a place for all of the multiracial kids of L.A. to come to.”
Some of those kids would soon form their own band, the Untouchables, the first breakout stars of the L.A. ska scene. Within the club’s cramped quarters, the band’s black and white members took a crash course in ska and soul, soaking up nightly DJ sets and dancing to visiting acts like England-via-Indiana’s Geno Washington; Phoenix, Arizona’s the X-Streams (led by Trinidadian singer Lorraine Springer); and L.A.’s earliest ska band, the Boxboys (helmed by Betsy Weiss who would later re-emerge as the frontwoman for the metal band Bitch).
As the Untouchables’ Kevin Long has written, the ON Klub was “where African American kids dressed as sharply as their Latino brethren, where Asian American girls were as coolly detached as their white sisters, where kids from South Central and La Cãnada amicably (and endlessly) debated the merits of Vespa v. Lambretta.”
The Untouchables played their first gig on the ON Klub stage in 1981 and released their first single, “Twist N’ Shake,” a year later. “There’s a certain club on the ska side of town,” they sang, “Every time I pass by I hear that certain sound.” A residency at The Roxy followed, as did national hits like “What’s Gone Wrong” and “Free Yourself,” not to mention a scooter-riding cameo in 1984’s Repo Man.
In a 1980 column for LA Weekly, Bill Bentley predicted that the “melting-pot musicality” fostered by the ON Klub would be “the next wave.” In many ways, he was right. Before closing its doors in 1985, the club’s original focus on ska had widened to include anyone unafraid to merge, whether that meant bands as diverse as Los Lobos, Fishbone, the Go-Go’s, the Brat, the Bangles, and Psi Com (Perry Farrell’s alt-rock trip before Jane’s Addiction) or hosting an early open-mic “Rap Night” with Sugar Hill Records.
“The best clubs come from someone creating a place to go when they didn’t have a place to go,” said Paar, whose novel based on his ON Klub days will be published later this year. “And then the club has its moment, and it’s perfect in its moment, and then, you know, you don’t out stay your welcome.”