10 Most Influential Punk Records of Arizona: #8: Mighty Sphincter's Untitled 1984 EP
Arizona has no shortage of offensive band names. One might even say we're right up there with Texas in having the most offensive band names per capita. Mighty Sphincter is no exception.
The band itself is something of an enigma. Known, perhaps, by fans of the dark and spooky worldwide, Mighty Sphincter's odd time signatures and punk/metal riffage make them an utterly unique band, not only in their home state, but in the music world. Led by guitarist Doug Clark, who has in many ways been Mr. Everything for the band over the entire span of their career, Sphincter (as fans and Phoenix music folks typically refer to the band) has never really officially ended its significant run.
Clark's brother Dan (The Feederz, Victory Acres, and Joke Flower) said, "You know, my favorite record from that era [early Arizona punk records] is my brother's record. The one with 'Heat House' and 'Fag Bar' really stood out for me."
High praise indeed, even if it might be drenched in some Clark brotherly love. The untitled first seven-inch EP the elder Clark talks about features four songs you will not soon forget. "Heat House," and "Fag Bar" make up the A side and "Exterminator" and "Electric Hose Bag" make up the B side of this hard-to-find Placebo Records gem. Equal parts prog rock and scathing attack on hardcore punk, which had become either too tame or too regimented for the likes of Doug Clark, Greg Hynes (drums), Joe Albanese (bass), and Ron Reckless (aka Ron Grotjan, vocals).
One thing is certain: The gentlemen who made up this incarnation (and all incarnations, really) of Mighty Sphincter could really play. The late Albanese (also of Godwads, Victory Acres, the Brainz) was one of the best bass players to ever come from Arizona. Hynes, who is a master of the odd time signature, had been in the Teds prior to joining Sphincter and replaced Mike "Bam Bam" Sversvold (JFA, The Harvest, Rabid Rabbit, and so many others). Reckless (who was also in the incredibly named The Very Idea of Fucking Hitler) was probably the weak link, musically, but was still a commanding stage presence and not afraid to let his freak flag fly to nail any live performance. While the production quality of their 1984 debut release is indicative of the time, the session accurately caught the energy and tension that were apparent in live Mighty Sphincter performances in their prime.
Hynes joined Mighty Sphincter in late 1983.
"I was in the Teds, and Bam Bam was in Sphincter at the time. Bam had trouble with the odd time signatures with the Sphincter music and suggested to Ron Reckless that they try me. I loved Sphincter because I thought they had the right idea about the absurdity of the Phoenix music scene at the time," stated Hynes.
This seems to be an increasingly common feeling from folks who were part of the early Arizona punk rock scene who were growing weary of the lack of originality coming from a lot of the third- and fourth-wave bands who came through town.
As for the recording process, Hynes remembers, "I was half-owner of Placebo [Records] and Tony [Victor, Placebo partner] and I thought it would be worthwhile to record Sphincter in a studio. We recorded at Cerius studio on Scottsdale Road with Allen Moore. We recorded and mixed the entire seven-inch in a few hours. I love that seven-inch."
"Heat House" comes right in and packs a punch. Clark and Albanese, backed by Hynes' driving backbeat, pummel the listener with prog-metal punk rock weirdness, which became synonymous with the Phoenix weirdo sound. There is something so unhinged going on, right from the beginning, that allows this three-minute Sphincter song to reel you in and not let go. Reckless repeats the chorus, "Fight or die to live in the Heat House, fight or die, it's always the same. Fuck or fight, it's still so hot out, fuck or fight, your butt's on the line." According to Hynes, this song is about prison, ironic considering that Reckless penned the lyrics and now resides behind bars himself. The song is a highly incendiary way to kick off this influential seven-inch.
When speaking of old Arizona punk bands, one of the first songs mentioned is typically "Fag Bar," one of the most memorable of all Arizona punk rock songs. The bass line is reminiscent of something Dan Clark might have played in one of his bands, and the song sort of meanders along like a pill- or cough syrup-induced ramble. Reckless throws out about every stereotypical homophobic image in this song, which is probably way more shocking in 2014 than it was in 1984, when many of Mighty Sphincter's biggest fans were also part of Phoenix's gay scene. Kudos to Doug Clark on this one for the delay-drenched guitar.
What many of the 35 and under crowd might not realize is the close association between the early punk scene in Phoenix and the gay community. For youngsters who were part of the scene in the mid-'80s, it was common knowledge the gay bars rarely carded and the drinks were cheap, so both crowds mingled. Hynes chimed in on the idea of "Fag Bar" actually being homophobic.
"We didn't give any consideration to the ramifications of anything we said or did, but at the time, if you were gay and in the music scene, you liked Mighty Sphincter. We dressed in drag and we pretty much made fun of anything. We gave no thought to that being an anti-gay song at all. The gay scene was part of the underground back then. Gay bars were more accepting of the culture. We did shows at gay bars. We co-mingled. ... This is the first time I've even talked to someone about it being an anti-gay song. The song was, in no way, anti-gay. The gay community was accepting of our brand of entertainment in those days and nobody took it seriously or thought of it as an attack. Lots of gay people knew the song."
Humor aside, it is easy to understand why a song like "Fag Bar" might be easily misunderstood, or worse, misconstrued. Truth be told, there is and was a serious darkness surrounding the band, and each of the members brought their own idiosyncrasies to Sphincter. There are not many folks who were around the Phoenix music scene in the early '80s who do not have (or have heard) an at least mildly disturbing Ron Reckless (true or not) or Doug Clark story (you don't get nicknamed "Count Dougula" by accident). These guys were the real deal, and what you saw on stage was not terribly far from who you might get in a casual conversation.
The B side of Mighty Sphincter's first offering kicks off with "Exterminator" and it's spazzy riffage interlaced with Reckless claiming to be an exterminator. Doug Clark and Joe Albanese, again, interlock the guitar and bass respectively about as tightly as they can be wound. Hynes keeps everything properly herky-jerky here, and one can only imagine how difficult the average mall punk found it to bob his or her head to while explaining to mom
and dad how they came to be in possession of a record by Mighty Sphincter.
"Electric Hose Bag" closes out the record in what might be the most blatant example of early Sphincter. Slowed tempos and creepy vocals mingling with Clark's heavily layered guitar attack, this track reaches a climax of sorts thanks to Hynes driving the song at just about the halfway point through a sped-up, jazzy freakout. This song foreshadowed the direction the band would take on its next several releases. "Electric Hose Bag" never really allows the listener the opportunity to get comfortable, which for many, is one of the most alluring things about punk rock itself.
The longevity of this record is not something the band ever considered.
"We never thought long-term. We were only concerned with being in the moment. We never thought of the future. We thought about what we thought would be cool, and we did it. It's strange now knowing the impact we had both here and abroad. I'm very proud of what we did and I think the important element in it all is that we never over would over think things. We were in the moment and I think that was the magic," says Hynes, who was often credited as "Mr. Wonderful" on Mighty Sphincter releases.
Multiple attempts were made to reach out to Doug Clark for comment, but sadly, none of them bore any fruit. Reckless (Ronald Grotjan), as previously mentioned, is currently incarcerated for negligent homicide and also was unavailable for comment. Joe Albanese was killed at Seattle's Café Racer Espresso on May 30, 2012, when a lone gunman killed five customers before turning the gun on himself. Hynes works in Washington, D.C., but returns to Phoenix on a regular basis. He has fond memories of both his time in Mighty Sphincter and his bandmates.
"It was funny when I went on tour with JFA [while working with Placebo Records]. Whatever town we went to, the wildest, most crazy people in that scene would come up to the tour bus and ask about Sphincter. The guys from GWAR came to the bus asking about Sphincter. Jello Biafra was a huge fan. The Butthole Surfers were very supportive. There were always people who loved us and people who hated our guts. There weren't people in the middle. I liked that," remembers Hynes.
Tom Reardon has been an angry Phoenix punk rocker in four decades now. His highlights include Religious Skid ('80s), Hillbilly Devilspeak ('90s), North Side Kings ('00s), and now The Father Figures. He loves small furry animals, playing soccer with his kids, and skateboarding.
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