When I was 17, I worked at a skateboard shop in Anchorage, Alaska, called G&B, the first skate shop in the state. Growing up in Alaska doesn't afford one much exposure to underground music -- you have to dig for it. Luckily, beneath the glass front counter at G&B, there was a collection of cassettes that included Thrasher magazine's Skaterock series of compilations, and on several of them there was a band called JFA.
I didn't realize it at the time, but JFA (Jodie Foster's Army) wasn't just the progenitor of skate-rock, punk rock's thrashy little brother. The four band members were Phoenix's hometown heroes of the skate-punk scene, whether on the stage or skating an empty backyard pool. In retrospect, the '80s were the salad days for skating and punk rock in Phoenix, where the scene had its own unique identity borne of social disaffection and isolation from Southern California's dominant skateboarding culture. JFA pumped out five full-length albums and two EPs on the now-defunct local punk label Placebo, and was the figurehead for the desert brand of skate-rock.
Though JFA was the band that left its mark across the country, it wasn't the only Arizona skate-punk band of the era. Now, 20 years later, local skateboard company/record label AZPX is working to resurrect the best of the music that defined Phoenix skate-rock by rereleasing out-of-print records by JFA's peers (and a little from JFA itself). In that same spirit, AZPX is also selling old-school fat skateboards for the older skater looking for a bigger board than is popular now.
Rob Locker, co-owner of AZPX with Tom Lopez (the two are 37 and 34, respectively), was in high school the first time he heard JFA, in 1984, listening to a friend's Valley of the Yakes LP. "They looked just like me, they were riding boards like me," he remembers. Subsequently, he and his friend took off to skate some now-defunct concrete banks, blaring Valley of the Yakes from Locker's Volkswagen Bug.
When they pulled up to the spot, Locker recognized Brian Brannon, singer for JFA, skating by himself, and struck up a conversation. "There was no rock star stuff going on, he was just down to earth, we had a good session," Locker recalls. That encounter two decades ago, which led to a long friendship with Brannon, is part of what inspired Locker and Lopez to launch their skateboard company/record label.
AZPX, now in its second year of operation, is both a tribute to the old school of skateboarding and an attempt to get Phoenix's skateboarding and punk scenes the respect Locker and Lopez believe both deserve. Though AZPX sells the popular Popsicle-stick-shaped small boards (at local shops and www.azpx.com), it's also catering to the needs of old schoolers like the company's owners.
"We're actually putting out some other sizes that aren't so popular, for the older skater," Locker says. "I grew up on the real fat boards, so we found a couple of manufacturers willing to produce larger models. A lot of skaters my age can't find boards big enough for them to ride."
In that same retro spirit, AZPX has just released its first musical offering, the rerelease on CD of Junior Achievement's 1984 LP Fade to Black, with an additional seven tracks recorded live at the Mason Jar that same year. Junior Achievement formed the same year as Jodie Foster's Army and shares much of the same pedigree -- shows with punk legends like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Hüsker Dü, Seven Seconds, and G.B.H.
Fade to Black is surprisingly great for a 20-year-old record. Junior Achievement played mid-tempo punk rock with tinges of goth and glam, like a mix of 45 Grave and G.B.H., with B-movie horror themes about snuff films, schizophrenic surgeons, and bad acid trips.
"There was a major part of skateboarding and punk rock that was born in this town," Lopez says. "Phoenix put out some killer music back then and it went mostly unnoticed."
The question for AZPX is whether the skateboarders and punk rockers of today, who are legion, give a damn about their history and the reminiscences of old skaters.
"We're putting stale shit back out there," Lopez admits. "To us, it's the icons of our youth. It's stale to these kids because it's old school, but when people bring it up in a way where it's got foundation, then they can respect that -- somebody has to put it in a context where they can understand who they are first. We're trying to put it on the map."
So far AZPX has kept its head above water -- although neither co-owner has quit his day job. The company makes enough to pay its bills and make the monthly payment against the small business loan Locker and Lopez took out. Though they say they lost money last year, they're still pulling in enough to move forward with more ambitious endeavors.
Among the future projects AZPX has planned is an ambitious DVD of classic Arizona skate footage, with a soundtrack comprising live tracks from JFA's 1984 North American tour. The company also has a new line of decks coming out soon with graphics by legendary Tucson artist Sam Esmoer. Locker and Lopez are also working on reissues from local '80s hardcore bands Our Neighbors Suck and Insurrection.
"Some people are seeing this as a cause now," Locker says. "It's kind of become a collective or a cooperative of old bros pulling together."
Web-savvy music fans around town probably noticed that AZpunk.com's extremely popular message board disappeared a few weeks back, due to heavy traffic that overwhelmed its host's server. Luckily, the site's administrators have pooled their resources -- with some help from philanthropic fans of the site -- and relaunched the message board with a brand-new, considerably more expensive server.
AZpunk.com celebrated its second birthday on February 1, and recently passed the million-visitor mark. According to site administrator Chris Lawson, the nonprofit Web site has nearly 15,000 registered members. The Web site has become Arizona's premier resource for punk and indie networking and grassroots show promotion, and features one of the best local concert calendars I've seen anywhere.
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The message board on AZpunk.com is the heart and soul of the site, the nexus where fans and bands interact and laptop pundits talk shit -- blowing smoke out their asses on thread subjects like "Worst Five Local Bands." It's also often the locale of thoughtful discourse on important topics like annoying parents, how to get a ride and where to get drunk on Friday night.
The two AZpunk.com compilation CDs have consistently been best sellers among local releases, and provided a lot of the financial resources needed to keep the relatively low-budget site running. With the expanded server capacity it recently purchased, Lawson says that he and his partners are exploring other revenue-generating ideas to stay afloat, but they've also been helped out by donations from AZpunk.com members, nearly $300 thus far.
This Friday night, April 16, a benefit show to help defray AZpunk's newly expanded expenses will go down at Ziggy's in Tempe, featuring Bullet Train to Moscow, Casket Life, Reburn and the Skidmarks, and 80-D, as well as a spanking booth hosted by the girls of Arizona Roller Derby. Admission is only $5, with all proceeds going to AZpunk, and that $5 also gets you a ticket for a free drink at the bar -- so it's nearly free.