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By Mark Deming
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Steve Shelton plays with his cell phone between sips of English tea at the George and Dragon on Central. He checks the blue display screen for his call log, and then answers a quick call from a friend.
Shelton, guitarist for Phoenix punk band Glass Heroes, looks amused by the technology, like it's a recent discovery.
"Last week, we left rehearsal, and three of us pulled out our cell phones," the laconic, mutton-chopped Shelton says. "That was kind of weird for guys like us, I guess."
Perhaps it was. Glass Heroes, a quartet of middle-aged Valley music veterans who've played together off and on for 12 years, make rock 'n' roll extracted from 1970s Britannia -- punk, glam, lo-fi, middle-finger-wagging metal. In fact, the band opened for the Paleozoic punk pioneers the Sex Pistols at the Marquee Theatre on September 8.
The Heroes wear spiked belts, archaic tattoos and coiffures that went out of style in 1978, if not sooner. Bassist Steve Davis, with his feathered look, resembles a shorter Sid Vicious. Band front man Keith Jackson wears one of those surfboard rockabilly hairdos. Hell, he even manages the George and Dragon, an old-style English pub loaded with Clash and Who songs on the jukebox. Together, the three longtime mates are a soccer riot.
Yet the bandmates have befriended technology to a degree far beyond cool LCD displays. Glass Heroes spent the better part of the last year recording songs, shopping for distribution and negotiating for independent record label deals that never materialized. Two months ago, Jackson took a step that might make the men behind the record-label machinery cringe. Younger musicians should take notice.
Hey, RIAA, shove those lawsuits on your customers up your arse! The artists may not need you anymore to make a decent buck.
"I just said, What the hell! Let's go out on a limb,'" Jackson says. "Let's take the material we've been playing for years and get it recorded and put it up for release on the Web site, and be done with it."
Jackson started the process last week by posting two songs to GlassHeroes.com. He chose the snarling "American Muscle" and a two-minute power-pop tune called "Turn It Off." Jackson says he plans to post two songs a week until an entire album's worth of material -- new songs, old standards, a Dead Boys cover -- is available. For download. Recorded with the digital studio software Nuendo and compressed through tubes into 24-bit, CD-quality MP3 files. For free.
"They're gonna dig it or they won't," Shelton offers. Later, he says, "We can always rerecord and release a regular album."
Or they can replace the MP3 files with updated ones and sell them using a PayPal account or some other method of recording financial transactions online.
"It's getting too difficult and too wacky now to rely on distribution companies and smaller labels to do all your PR for you and all of the footwork that's been done in the past," Jackson says.
He would know. These days recording contracts routinely call for multiyear commitments and include provisions that claim label ownership of intellectual property, including Web site domain names. The band rejected several offers of that variety. At one point, Jackson, through his acquaintance with late Clash leader Joe Strummer, came in contact with Hellcat Records, among the more prominent U.S. punk labels. While a friendship with label employees blossomed, the excruciating wait times for anything to happen deal-wise repulsed Jackson.
So now, the way Jackson figures, he can serve as his own marketing wing.
"That means I could call Milwaukee -- call the record stores there -- and say, Hey, are you the buyer for this store?'" he says. "[Then] hit our Web site and download some of our music.'
"And then, if I wanted to book a show in San Diego, I could call the club and say hit the Web site."
So the Heroes say their goal is to be able to book their first real tour themselves by this time next year -- and to reach as many new ears as possible meantime. If it seems far-fetched for such a niche band, it's not, really. Jackson says the market for punk -- old and new -- is solid. The second-tier British punk bands of a generation ago still tour the United States regularly. In the next two months, the Heroes will be opening for three of them: the Adicts this Sunday at the Bash on Ash in Tempe; the Vibrators on October 15 at the Rogue in Scottsdale; and the U.K. Subs on November 13 at the Mason Jar in Phoenix.
"I've seen all these guys coming to town making 200, 300 dollars . . . all these old bands," Jackson says. "I'm thinking, My God! If these guys are living on eating baloney and driving around in a van making a couple hundred bucks a night . . .'"
Then yes, anything is possible with the right attitude, which, for a long time, Jackson admits, wasn't the case. They could never get four guys together on one page to accomplish much. Until now. They've recruited area drum instructor and killer timekeeper A.D. Adams, Jackson's bandmate in the now-defunct Beat Angels. Adams' enthusiasm and general stability -- drummers with personal problems have plagued the band in the past -- has emboldened them to finally get off their butts and carve a legacy that includes more than the Rogue.
That brings us to the Sex Pistols saga. Jackson found out the Pistols had booked a last-second Tempe show on their reunion tour. He contacted Tom LaPenna and Will Anderson, who own and book the Marquee Theatre, respectively, about the possibility of the Heroes opening for their heroes. Those guys referred him to the publicist who referred him to the manager who referred them back to the Marquee guys -- until eventually they found out they had to track down the Pistols' road manager Skip.
With no decision rendered by the afternoon of the show, Shelton made a last desperate trip to the Marquee. There, he encountered the sardonic Mr. Rotten and friends.
"I say, I saw you guys in Vegas,'" Shelton says. "He goes, [using his best snotty Johnny Rotten impersonation] Lucky for you!'"
After a few minutes, Shelton struck up a conversation with Rotten's buddy Rocco, who finally got Rotten to say yes to getting the Glass Heroes on board.
"Once we did sound check, they knew we were professional. They knew there was no bullshit. And then it was great," Jackson says.
And the audience apparently agreed. Jackson says he received 124 e-mails the next day from people claiming to have seen the show.
That's 124 potential users of the downloads, and more proof the Internet these days can be extraordinarily powerful, even for old-school dinosaurs. -- By Christopher O'Connor
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