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If today's rock 'n' roll philosophy of sight over sound and style over substance has taught bands anything, it's the art of shocking symbolism. Heavy-metal bands like Iron Maiden define their identities with slobbering, monstrous mascots, and rap groups like Public Enemy hire henchmen to parade about sporting combat fatigues and fake automatic assault rifles.
But MTV or no MTV, it is possible to throw the ghouls and guns in the garbage and still make a visual impact on audiences. Take Southern Cal's Untouchables, for instance. The ska/funk/reggae/rock band represents itself with a cat of a much cooler caliber--a smooth, stylish secret service man named Agent 00 Soul, a.k.a the Agent of Love.
"He just wants everybody to be cool," says guitarist Clyde Grimes, whose lifetime love of espionage intrigues prompted the group to choose a spy above the countless skulls, dragons and weapons that pervade rock imagery today.
00 Soul's mission, Grimes says, is to "dress sharp and blow people away, and have a martini after it." The guitarist adds that the character "kills people that don't like music."
The spy obsession doesn't stop there for the Untouchables, a product of the early Eighties SoCal ska/mod revival. Grimes himself is quite an authority on the subject. He claims to have seen the classic spy spoof Our Man Flint over a hundred times.
Both the Untouchables' main undercover man and their latest album on Restless Records take their names from the smooth hipster-hero of Edwin Starr's 1965 ode to a soulful secret agent man. (The record features a hip-hop remake of "Agent Double-0 Soul.") The Untouchables even merchandise their concept, selling tee shirts featuring spy vs. spy cartoons and comic books describing 00 Soul's exploits.
Last Saturday, the band played true to form when it opened its show at the Sun Club with a few keyboard chords borrowed from the Bond theme before busting into a spirited cover of the theme from I Spy.
Fortunately, though, the Untouchables spent more time playing music that packed the dance floor than it did indulging itself in spy fantasies. Accompanied by the clean-blowing sounds of the Unity Horns, the Untouchables kept the house sweaty and shaking. The band cut loose on a set of originals that stretched from the fast-grooving skank of "Shama Lama," with its boy-chases-girl-boy-finally-gets-girl storyline, to the uptown reggae of "Education," a politically inspired cry for more learning and less burning.
"Education" is an indication that the band has more to offer than just spy romance.
"You wanna educate your audiences as you go, and that's what we need," explains bassist Derek Breakfield. "I mean, education will make our nation. Only the youth are going to carry us. If they're not educated, we're in soup. We're already in soup. That's what `Education' is about."
The Untouchables try to balance their message songs with love songs so listeners don't get bored, but still go home with something to think about, says Grimes.
"We don't shove it down their throats," he says. "But, at the same time, we're serious about what we're saying."
Breakfield doesn't seem to care that the campy spy stuff is a contradiction to the band's save-the-world attitude. "We can be socially conscious, have fun, do anything we want to do. And that's the great thing about being an Untouchable."
Guitarist Clyde Grimes claims to have seen the classic spy spoof Our Man Flint over a hundred times.