Return to the Valley of the Yakes

Skate-punk pioneers JFA make their long-overdue return home

By the time the punk-rock revolution finally arrived in the Valley around 1978, the music quickly began to become filtered through the overheated minds of its desert practitioners. Groups like the Consumers, the Nervous and the Chemists offered up a uniquely Arizonan take on the anarchic sounds coming from New York and the U.K. Unlike the rigid, dogmatic style emerging from the ranks of L.A. punk, the Valley scene was much more open, running the gamut from the "New Wave burlesque" of Killer Pussy to the more commercial sound of Billy Clone and the Same. While most of those groups have faded from memory (or passed from this mortal coil entirely), one band -- Jodie Foster's Army (or JFA) -- has managed to stay alive and active.

This week, the group returns to Phoenix with its first new CD in nearly a decade and a pair of homecoming shows that will mark the band's first local performance in more than five years.

Formed in 1981, JFA's original members -- singer Brian Brannon, guitarist Don Redondo, bassist Mike Cornelius and drummer Mike "Bam-Bam" Sversvold -- made a lasting mark as one of the few Arizona punk bands from the era to achieve something more than local notoriety. But the group Rolling Stone once deemed "the premier skate rock band of all-time" had a much more practical reason for making music. "The idea was that everybody skated and they wanted to make music to skate to," recalls front man Brian Brannon from his Huntington Beach, California, home. "At the time, Don was influenced by a lot of the early Orange County slam-dance music -- T.S.O.L., the Adolescents, the Crowd -- stuff like that," says Brannon.

Only Live Once: The group's present-day lineup.
Only Live Once: The group's present-day lineup.
Mad Gardens memories: JFA's original lineup during its early '80s heyday.
Mad Gardens memories: JFA's original lineup during its early '80s heyday.

Merging the fast, aggressive Southern California sound with its own unique desert perspective, JFA went on to record a string of successful albums for Placebo Records as well as appearing on countless compilations. But the group's identity and reputation has always been most closely associated with the near-cultlike religion surrounding the art of skateboarding. "Oh, yeah," says Brannon. "For us that's what it was really all about." The band was so linked to the skateboarding scene that it even developed its own line of boards, which are now highly sought-after collectors' items.

Despite being the group's mouthpiece, Brannon was actually the last member to join the band. He says the group, then using the name the Breakers, had already formed and was looking for a singer when he met Cornelius at a Scottsdale skate ramp. "Then I met him again when I snuck out to go to a party at the Hate House, which was a big punk-rock gathering place in downtown Phoenix."

That night Redondo's other band, the Deez, was playing onstage when Cornelius recognized Brannon in the crowd and approached him with an offer. "He said, 'Hey I remember you, you're a skater from the ramp. We're putting together a band and we need a singer. Can you scream?' So I got right up next to his ear and went, 'Yeeeaaahhh!!!' I guess it was pretty loud because he looked at me and said, 'Yeah, man, you're in.'"

JFA and the Arizona punk scene of the early '80s were able to thrive in large part because of the existence of a number of hospitable venues. Clubs like the Salty Dog, the Solid Gold and the Star System played welcome host to roving bands of sun-stroked punk loonies. Myriad stories abound about the inspired craziness that went on both on and offstage during those chaotic years. But if there was one club that truly symbolized the wild and woolly attitude of early Phoenix punk, it was Madison Square Gardens. Originally a wrestling club, Mad Gardens (as it was affectionately known) was a charming dive located on Van Buren. Some of the best and most notorious moments in Phoenix music history happened inside its chain-link-fence-enclosed ring.

It was a time and place central to JFA's development, and Brannon looks back fondly on those years with equal parts nostalgia and bewilderment. "Mad Gardens was a great place as long as it lasted. I just remember some really crazy nights that were like scenes out of Fellini films," he says, laughing.

"One night someone had stolen a tank of nitrous oxide from a dentist's office. They had these bleachers there. So the band was playing and the guy with the nitrous would just pop up from beneath the bleachers and hand out free hits of the stuff. I remember everyone was lunging, jumping and rushing over to where he was, just going crazy trying to get at the stuff."

Although JFA's hard and fast sound (and its physical fans) put it squarely in line with the So-Cal hard-core scene, for his part, Brannon considers the Phoenix punk bands of that period to have been a much more creative and open-minded breed. "I just loved a lot of the bands. The Arizona scene was more quirky than California's. That's what I liked about it. It wasn't as defined. You could just do what you wanted to do, and we were glad to be a part of that."

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