Collage art from the inside of JFA’s Valley of the Yakes.
Phoenix is rarely identified as one of the great ’80s punk rock scenes — but why not? Though it’s unlikely to topple Los Angeles, New York or Minneapolis in punk cred anytime soon, the capital of the Grand Canyon state was the birthplace of some of the most fascinating underground bands of the decade and totally embodies the do-it-yourself culture that typifies ’80s punk and thriving in a city that wanted nothing to do with them. For our first post in the new school year, METROnome dives into the remarkably diverse and often bizarre sounds of ’80s Arizonan punk.
All My Friends Are Dead (1995) – The Consumers
“All My Friends Are Dead” is neither here nor there for this list—A recording done in 1977 (or ’78, as sources disagree) and released in 1995, completely dodging our decade of discussion. But The Consumers are, as the first in-state punk band, fundamental to the birth of Arizona punk. Depending on which recording year you accept as fact, The Consumers either predated or ran parallel to the first EPs of Black Flag and Misfits and certainly came before such seminal acts as The Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat and Bad Brains. This feat is especially impressive given the unforgiving hardcore sound found on the album: breakneck speeds, screeching guitar solos and full-throated hardcore vocals abound. This is the band that introduced Arizona to punk at their first concert, at — of all places — the Phoenix Zoo, which concluded in the band being forced off the stage but setting the stage for all the acts to follow.
The Eighties Are Over… (1981) – The Teds
Recorded in Los Angeles, Phoenix trio The Teds’ 1981 EP is a prototypically clever, snotty punk release. The 500-copy EP was one of the first releases for Placebo Records, the nucleus of the ’80s punk scene. Teds members Greg Hynes and Mark Bycroft teamed up with Tony Victor to start up the label, leaving this Teds release with a very concrete and lasting influence on the Phoenix scene by providing a home for artists who may have gone unrecorded or unreleased otherwise. But in addition to jumping the infrastructure for a punk scene, The Teds shouldn’t be neglected for their fusion of insistent punk attitude with traditional rock melody.
Blatant Localism EP (1981) – JFA
If a song from your first EP makes it onto the “Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4″ soundtrack more than 20 years later, you know you’re doing something right. Over and done in just shy of seven minutes, JFA’s scorched hardcore clips by at a blistering pace. JFA — Jodie Foster’s Army — pioneered skate punk, a crucial development in West Coast punk music and culture. The reverb-y picked sound of the guitar vaguely betrays a distant echo of surf rock, but JFA are certain not to confuse their audience: “Surf punks, we’re not/ skateboard, we do,” singer Brian Bannon yawps on “Beach Blanket Bong Out.” The band was formed after a meeting between skater Michael Cornelius and Bannon at Hate House, a house in downtown Phoenix used for punk shows and art. Soon, the band made their live debut opening for Black Flag at the same venue. JFA would refine their technique without tempering their energy on their debut album Valley of the Yakes, incorporating a hint of power-pop crunch that aligns them with early Replacements. But with the Blatant Localism EP, JFA captured a skeptical, sardonic attitude that runs through Phoenix culture to this day.
Bikini Wax (1983) – Killer Pussy
Despite boasting the most frankly explicit cover, Killer Pussy’s Bikini Wax may be the most accessible of this ragged bunch, an album of cheeky, breezy new wave. The eponymous opening track sports a riff that shamelessly apes the intro of the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda,” quickly giving a sense of what to expect. Fronted with the vocals of Lucy LeMode, the album is a mix of absurd sexual farce and Zappa-esque performance. Like the B-52s (“Love Shack,” “Rock Lobster”), Killer Pussy frequently veers into territory of becoming too campy or too silly, but manages to balance itself with tight playing and unique instrumentation, including spacey synth riffs and manic sax solos. Depending on your tolerance for kitschy self-aware new wave, Bikini Wax is a fun listen, and it helps to understand the diversity of a scene that would deliberately slot their tacky new wave and skater-punk JFA in a house show on the same night.
This Is Phoenix Not the Circle Jerks (1984) – Various artists
For a one-stop crash course on the early Phoenix punk scene, you couldn’t do better than This Is Phoenix Not the Circle Jerks. Released by Phoenix label Placebo Records, this compilation includes three songs each by Mighty Sphincter, Tucson hardcore band Conflict, Solent Greene and Zany Guys, and two songs from Sun City Girls and JFA. The track list also mixes studio and live recordings, giving a vital peek into the tone of the Phoenix live scene propagated at now-defunct venues like Madison Square Garden on Van Buren and Hate House. This one is regularly traded on record collector websites, so if you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a keeper.
Meat Puppets II (1984) – Meat Puppets
On their second self-titled album, Meat Puppets transitioned from straight-up hardcore to a novel country-punk psychedelia known as “cowpunk.” The ingredients here could hardly have been more unfashionable to some punks at the time, but Meat Puppets opened up the door for Uncle Tupelo, early Beck and hometown heroes Andrew Jackson Jihad. Some of the slowest songs on this list are on this album, but also the most manic and transportive: distorted, shambling country ballads with songwriter and vocalist Curt Kirkwood’s trippy desert-pastoral lyrics. Meat Puppets II was released on legendary independent label SST Records, making Meat Puppets labelmates with seminal ’80s American punks like Hüsker Dü, Minutemen and Sonic Youth and giving them a national exposure rare among Phoenix bands at the time. The album is often found through Nirvana, who covered three of its songs with two members of Meat Puppets for their 1993 “MTV Unplugged” performance, but the album is now recognized as a classic in its own right.
Sun City Girls (1984) – Sun City Girls
Sun City Girls are Phoenix’s — and the world’s — ultimate weirdo rockers. Few bands in rock history funneled their energies so exclusively into the grotesque as Sun City Girls. The trio of Alan Bishop (Alvarius B.), [Sir] Richard Bishop and Charles Gocher — none of them girls, and none of them from Arizona retirement community Sun City — started their long strange trip on this Placebo Records debut. The band is known for mixing punk sensibility with influences as far-ranging as surf rock, Bollywood tunes and Southeast Asian folk. On their debut, Sun City Girls mix in jazzy undertones and oddball spoken word with improvised punkish clattering. On the second track, Alan Bishop, in character as the demented Uncle Jim, promises to “spew a little garbage on you fellas.” It’s a threat that’s followed up on in the course of the druggy, psycho ramblings across the album’s 17 tracks. It’s startling that a band as prolific as Sun City Girls arrived so fully formed on their first album, both a distinct mission statement of oddity and among the best American experimental albums of the decade.
Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss? (1984) – The Feederz
Anarchy and punk rock have always flirted with each other, but The Feederz took the anti-authority leaning further than most. Inspired by the leftist French Situationists, vocalist Frank Discussion, who performed live with cockroaches taped to his shaved head, claims to have learned guitar by listening to Captain Beefheart’s notoriously difficult surrealist-blues epic Trout Mask Replica. Their provocatively titled album Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss? is a dose of willfully blasphemous, subversive punk rock, an album so abrasive that both the original LP and CD reissue come with sandpaper on the cover — surely not good for the rest of your record collection! Without employing much distortion, the album is uncompromisingly hardcore. The band covers a lot of ground in a brief span, from the obscenely anti-religious “Jesus” to a twisted Olivia Newton-John cover. What unites the music more than anything is a refusal of the enforced boredom of capitalist society and an embrace of life through resistance.
Ghost Walking Double EP (1985) – Mighty Sphincter (by Zander Buel)
Even the land of bone-dry summers and blinding afternoons was not immune to the gloom and doom that rose from punk’s catacomb. Goth rockers Mighty Sphincter blackened the Arizona sunset with their Ghost Walking EP in 1985, a blasphemous slab of spooky, sinister hymns lifted straight from a Black Mass in a midnight forest. Mocking religion was only a taste of what these servants of Lucifer practiced: Songs like “Waltz in Hell” and “120 Days of Sodom” assure that nothing was sacred in the eye of the Sphincter. The sardonic and gleefully demented tone of Ghost Walking as a whole lends itself to an atmosphere of horror film campiness and self-aware cheesiness that makes it all the more pleasurable to indulge in.
The Nature of Things (1987) – Caterwaul
Caterwaul is not strictly a punk band, but they have their roots in the Phoenix underground scene. By the late 1980s, the divide between “alternative” bands as a distinct entity from straightforward punk was becoming increasingly apparent. Their shimmering guitars and propulsive rhythm section invite comparisons to bands like The Smiths more readily than most of their Phoenix contemporaries, but with vocals straight out of a riot grrrl act courtesy of singer/lyricist Betsy Martin. Their debut featured the song “A Flower and a Stone,” was promoted with a music video featuring some nifty animation. They were later signed to I.R.S., the independent label famous for releasing R.E.M.’s first albums, and despite their single “The Sheep’s a Wolf” charting on the Billboard Alternative Rock chart, they never picked up enough traction to become a national act. And judging from a Phoenix New Times article from 1990, the band felt pretty alienated from the Phoenix scene, at a time when they could have been one of its biggest bands around. Either way, their sound certainly points, like many releases in the late 1980s, to the decline of the first wave of traditional American punk and hardcore.
So, while Phoenix may never get L.A.’s recognition as a flagship punk city in the ’80s, it’s clear it deserves some credit for the myriad of experimental projects it produced. These bands were just the tip of the iceberg for Arizonan punk, as Meat Puppets and Sun City Girls would lead to commercial punk hits like Jimmy Eat World. Keep your eyes (and ears) open: in the weeks to come, METROnome will be breaking down the most influential records of ’90s and modern punk in the state of Arizona.
With contributions by Jayson Chesler and Zander Buel