In 1993, I was a gangly, awkward son of a bitch, like most 13-year-olds. Without my parents’ knowledge, dubiously my first act of teenage rebellion, I ventured to a small all ages venue called The Worldbeat Center in downtown San Diego. A square, dilapidated warehouse, the room featured a diminutive dance floor enclosed by rails and walls. Which became a veritable nightmare during a popular punk show where exiting the pit could only be made via a narrow flight of stairs and a few head butts into the wood railing.
It was the first night I saw Hepcat, but at the time I didn’t care. I had paid ten dollars to see Sublime, who didn’t show up for their opening slot. Half of the crowd left, and I made inquiries to my group regarding a similar idea. Then at some point my inexorable whining made a woman, with some steel-toed shoes, kick me in the shin and offer an expletive laden peroration about patience.
“Do you like ska, I mean real ska?” she vehemently inquired.
“Well I like Madness,” I hesitantly replied.
She then patted me on the back, “Well, then just wait for the last band, okay?”
So I ceased my complaining.
Around ten o’clock, several roadies brought out stage props. When they finished their work, the stage had two tissue paper palm trees and a rather haggard sun hanging from the rafters. Lead vocalist Greg Lee emerged and stepped to the mic to sing “Dance With Me” from the band’s debut release, Out of Nowhere. I found myself dancing with someone as equally awkward as me, with Lee offering plaudits such as “you may not know it, but you surely show it, you can dance”. Doing some haphazard two-tone shuffle in probably my loosest (i.e., stiff as hell) manner as possible.
Recalling those eidetic images now, they come processed with cinematic embellishments. I think of it as something from a pasty pop moment culled from Happy Days, or maybe American Graffiti, with a slow-moving soul band pushing the teenagers through the flummoxing moments of puberty and eventually sex. Of course Greg Lee, upon introducing “Earthquake and Fire”, solidified those thoughts. His voice arrived through a time-displaced vacuum where problems were mundane and could be forgotten during the course of a 60-minute set.
Listening to the reissue of 1993’s Out of Nowhere, part of this comes from the dated motif’s which engender the album with a type of jejune innocence. There are references to “roller skating rings”, trying to get a someone to look and “dance with you”, “crazy tests”, with the refrain of “I’ll go quietly” and “you’re trying to keep a secret” to outline the typical teenager’s life struggles. But these stories come from some place far off, a place where TCM cinematic montages of lovers holding hands are commonplace. Where being lost and yet able to find some a form of visceral solace happens regularly.
Completing the 1950s aura was the music itself. Hepcat found a way to backslide into the past with a remarkable sense of authenticity. They were able to replicate the Melodians (whom they sound the most like) by deftly comprehending the intricate connects between ska records and America’s late 1950’s soul/rock explosion. How the old raunchy L.A. rhythm and blues 45s, stuff by Richard Berry, for example, was a branch of the candelabra for many of the Kingston rock steady records of artists such as the Wailers and Skatalites.
Rather than discovering soul and fusing it into ska, as the Melodians and other Jamaican acts did, Hepcat reversed the starting points by placing the focus more upon their R&B and blues heritage. Tracks such as “Miss Congeniality” and “Policewoman” could be oldies radio staples on a middle-of-the-dial station. A gentleness rocks them along, as they then mention the lack of decorum of a policewoman (a stripper? my aged dyspeptic mind asks) or of an aloof rich princess. Teamed with Paladians-influenced “shoops” and “shoowahs”, the soul qualities are ushered forward with the standard ska beat and a jazz lithe lightness.
The jazz elements, however, could be explained as the result of producer Joey Altruda’s own ska epiphanies. As a leader of the seminal L.A. group Jump with Joey, Altruda stretched the ska framework, revealing how a small ensemble could extemporize with a beatnik blithe brashness. Providing a Duke Ellington sensibility to the then burgeoning ska scene and thus revealing the complexities which could be instilled in what originally looked like nothing more than a simple push-pull beat.
So Hepcat on Out of Nowhere melded all of this together. From their tour with the Skatalites in 1992 to Jump with Joey doing what they were doing right around the corner, they crafted a slyly hip sound where the tissue palm trees became palpable and the fake sun could send out undulating rays of heat. They usurped adjectives like “derivative,” which want to be uttered apropos such revivalist attempts (i.e., the mid- to late 1990s swing revival?) because they found their own moment. They found their own time period. And really, they found their own sound when they wanted to merely recreate the past. Like the album eponym, this came from such a shrouded provenance that even they couldn’t seem to repeat it on their later releases.