Most Influential Arizona Punk Records -- #4, JFA, Valley of the Yakes
Jodie Foster's Army (JFA) recorded Valley of the Yakes and broke the mold for anyone else coming after them.
Valley of the Yakes easily could be the most influential record on this list except for one thing: Nobody else could have recorded it.
There was no other band on the planet at the time who could have matched JFA's intensity, its blend of influences, and the sheer skate-punk genius the group created with Sandy Lamont at Phoenix's Desert Sounds, on Placebo Records' dime. Because of this, there have been few bands who have even tried to emulate JFA's unique style and sound, unlike many of its equally famous punk rock peers around the world.
Full disclosure: I play in a band with one of the founding members of JFA, Michael Cornelius, who played bass on Valley of the Yakes. Cornelius truly is one of my heroes when it comes to not only music, but life in general, but this has nothing to do with my selection. Even if he was an untalented prick (which he is definitely not) who just happened to get lucky and write a bunch of killer songs with his skate buddies, I still would love this record. When I purchased Valley of the Yakes, used at Zia for $2.99, I had never met Cornelius or even seen JFA perform, but I still loved every single minute of it.
This record is so good that after its purchase, I don't think I went a day without listening to it for at least a year. It comes in at right about 10 minutes for each side, so it's not as though it takes too long to get through the whole thing, but the length of the album has nothing to do with why I listened so much. For a 14- or 15-year-old with a skateboard, there isn't a single slab of punk rock better to listen to, especially if you are filled with Phoenix pride. Thirty-two years after it was released, Valley of the Yakes hasn't aged a bit, still sounding just as good as it did back then.
The original lineup of the band came together just two short years before the record was recorded. Bassist Cornelius had played guitar in Jr. Chemists and guitar player Don Redondo (Pendleton) was in the Deez, so they knew each other through playing shows around town, as well as through skateboarding.
Redondo wanted to put together an all skater band and recruited Cornelius. According to Redondo, "My Hate House [notorious Phoenix punk rock party house and sometime venue] band, the Deez, imploded, plus they thought I played too fast, calling me 'surf punk' ... I had been bugging Cornelius for months to start something [since] he ruled on bass and I was trying to build a Who-type band. He won't remember, but he finally agreed after seeing DOA's hardcore '81 tour at the Solid Gold."
Redondo found Mike "Bam Bam" Sversvold, a 14-year-old wunderkind drummer, so all the band needed to do was find a singer. Brian Brannon, also just 14 at the time, was their man. Brannon had met Cornelius while skating at a Scottsdale ramp and then crossed paths again about a month later at a Deez show at Hate House.
"Michael came up to me and remembered me from the ramp and said, 'Hey, we're putting a band together of all skaters and we need a lead singer. Can you scream?' So I motioned him to come closer and screamed my friggin' head off into is ear. Obviously, I cut through all the loud music going on at the time because next thing I knew, I was in! Plus, it helped that I had a garage we could practice in," Brannon says.
Within a short period of time, JFA had built a destructive reputation and was banned from numerous local venues.
"For a while, we were getting booted for life from every place we played because no one knew what slam dancing was," Brannon says. "And at the time, punk rockers were targets of pretty much everyone else from hippies to shit kickers to jocks to cops to little old ladies on the way to the supermarket. Add being a punk rocker to skateboarding in empty swimming pools and the cards were pretty much stacked up against us."
One person who took notice, though, in a positive light was Tony Victor, local promoter and partner in Placebo Records, which would become JFA's first label.
"I started managing JFA after seeing them at a dance in 1981," Victor says. "I think Don saw some value in a business relationship between us and invited me to see the Deez practice at the Hate House and then to a JFA show some time later. I was impressed with the dedicated, small following they had."
Says Cornelius: "Tony Victor [Beram] and Greg Hines got shit done. If it wasn't for Tony, JFA may have never gotten farther than playing house parties. He booked most of the Phoenix punk shows, ran Mad Gardens, got the records out, and booked our tours. Tony and Greg have strong personalities and could rub people the wrong way sometimes, but they treated bands well."
With the support of Placebo and Victor as its manager, JFA made a name for itself on the local and national punk rock stage. Since all the members were active in skateboarding, they had a built-in crowd in almost any city, as word spread through the tight-knit skating community.
JFA was (and still is) a hard-working band that prided itself on putting on a great show for its audience. The band's attitude and tenacity led to playing a ton of shows over its first few years of existence and led to the band's extreme tightness. It was fully prepared upon entering Desert Sound to record its first full-length.
The recording itself for Valley of the Yakes, depending on which version of the story you hear, took anywhere from three hours (Sversvold's recollection) to about four days (Redondo's recollection).
"I have to go with what Don said because it was all a blur to me," Brannon says.
Sversvold remembers the engineer and Desert Sound as having a great room to record in. "Sandy Lamont was so great to work with. He had just started his studio back then. That guy was cool. He was really quiet, real mellow dude, and had all these guitars in storage. He had a polished-concrete boxed room with a giant steel plate in the middle of the room. It was huge, over an inch-thick steel plate hanging in the room, which made a great natural reverb." One thing that's certain, the band enjoyed itself and the recording process, which is apparent in the finished project. There is aggression, of course, in JFA's music, but it has always been based more on the group's own frustrations with society discounting the "other." In many of their songs, the "other" is a skateboarder.
It's just part of the band's early charm and obviously was what the teenage Brannon, the band's principal lyricist, faced on a daily basis. This aggression, though, was firmly rooted in fun, and the band clearly has a sense of humor, as well as a keen ear for bringing in strong influences of both surf and funk to round out the sound.
"Kick You" is like a kick in the face as it jumpstarts both the record and your heart. The song changes tempo frequently and is a prime example of how Redondo and Cornelius beautifully and brutally wove their respective guitar and bass parts throughout the album. Sversvold, who will always be one of the great punk rock drummers, provides the Keith Moon part in Redondo's dream band more than admirably. He bashed his way through the seven tracks on side A and eight tracks on side B with the best of them, especially when you take into consideration his age at the time of recording.
Lyrically, "Walk Don't Run" . . . just kidding, and no need to send hate mail. It's an instrumental cover.
Seriously, though, Brannon's lyrics are often unintelligible, and when you pay close attention seem like the ranting of a pissed-off adolescent, but the delivery, timing, and conviction of his message is consistently awesome. "Guess What" will always be my favorite song on the record and it closes a classic record out as strong as you could ask for, especially as Brannon shouts, "Guess what, guess who fucked up . . . " as he tears into "Sally the gossip queen" and typical high school bullshit. Imagine how a 16-year-old Brannon would have torn into Facebook?
Beyond Brannon's lyrics, though, the greatness in songs like "Guess What," which revolves around Cornelius' dexterous bass line, "Preppy," "Skateboard/We Know You Suck," and "Little Big Man" is directly related to how the band had grown into a lean, mean fighting machine in their short tenure before Valley of the Yakes was recorded.
There are no wasted notes on the album or superfluous parts, and the album could have been one or two songs longer than it actually was and no one would have complained. In fact, the band would have liked for there to have been one more song. "There is one outtake we never could get right: 'Lucky Charms' [about the breakfast cereal]," Redondo says. "Played it live a bunch but could not get the timing right in the studio. Oh, well."
Unlike many of its Phoenix-based peers, JFA was really not attempting to obliterate musical boundaries like other highly influential bands Mighty Sphincter and Victory Acres. JFA's contribution presented a dichotomy only a truly special group of musicians can create. JFA was the opposite of subtle, yet the definition of intricate, much like a backside smith grind at a pool with square coping. (Skaters explain it to the non-skaters, but just know it would be a pretty badass skateboard maneuver.)
Instead of falling in with one of the other definitive punk rock sounds evolving in the early '80s, JFA chose to help create an entirely new genre along with bands like Big Boys (Texas) and Agent Orange (California), who make up the "big three" of skate punk.
The current California-based lineup of JFA (Corey Stretz on bass and Carter Bliltch on drums join Brannon and Redondo) has been together for three times as long as the original lineup and definitely delivers the goods.
They continue to crank out music and their live show is as strong as ever. Like Cornelius, Sversvold continues to be active in the Phoenix music scene, recently releasing some music with his current band, Lifesize Monsters.
All things considered, JFA was firing on all cylinders on Valley of the Yakes, and for many longtime Phoenix punk music fans, the original lineup is the classic lineup of the band. The band's unique blend of hardcore punk, surf, funk, and teenage angst was unlike anything people had seen or heard, especially in Phoenix, as this incarnation changed the punk rock scene in Phoenix forever.
Brannon sums it up best as he considers the lasting impression of the album he and his friends created. "We just wanted to make music to hype people up to skate rad, because as far as we were concerned at the time, there was a definite lack of that type of music in the world."
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