PUNK'S FOR THE MEMORIESA FRANK DISCUSSION ON PHOENIX'S GRAND SLAM SCENE
When Mad Gardens closed its doors in early 1984, the Valley's punk community was up in arms. Many slam-dancing teens had spent some of their happiest hours in the wrestling arena-cum-punk club in the previous three years. Promoter Tony Victor, who ran the grimy Van Buren venue on Saturday nights, was besieged with former patrons who wanted to hack off chunks of the club's wooden bleachers as keepsakes. Victor considered letting the sentimental punks claim their mementos, but the new owner tore the bleachers out before anyone had the chance.
The closure of Mad Gardens signaled the end of what many consider to be the golden age of the Phoenix punk scene. Talk to anyone who was going to shows from the period of 1980 to 1984, and they'll tell you there never was a more happening time for bands, clubs or local music in general.
There's more to this than just idle nostalgia. Even local folks who aren't prone to reminisce over old club fliers probably know that this year is the tenth anniversary of seminal punk acts like the Meat Puppets and Killer Pussy. Or that 1990 marks the desNN:é&ééC~.]Üer Tony Victor. To longtime Valley clubgoers, these facts aren't just tidbits of music trivia. They're the stuff of historic record.
THE VALLEY MUSIC SCENE wasn't exactly quick to pick up on punk. As early as 1975, for instance, New Yorkers can remember signs tacked up on street corners that carried the cryptic message "Punk Is Coming." By just the next year, the city's punk scene was in full flower. In contrast, Phoenix in the mid-to-late Seventies was still in the strangle hold of bands that offered mostly imitation SoCal soft-rock.
Then, sometime around 1978, a strange new band emerged, seemingly determined to drop-kick the local music scene into the Eighties. "The Consumers were the first band I ever saw that just sort of banged around and made a lot of screaming, loud noise and claimed it was their music," recalls Killer Pussy keyboardist Robert X. Planet. "I was fascinated."
The Consumers are widely regarded as the Valley's first punk band--that is, if you discount commercial-minded new-wavers like Billy Clone and the Same, who came along at roughly the same time. Once the Consumers proved there was, in fact, a market for something other than warmed-over Eagles covers, a slew of other punk bands sprang up: the Nervous, the Junior Chemists, the Feederz, and Killer Pussy, which featured singer Lucy LaMode's infamous "Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage" shtick.
"Punk" back then meant almost any new music outside the country or metal norm, from the new-wave burlesque of Killer Pussy to the skate-punk of Jodie Foster's Army. You'd have been hard-pressed to find any two of these early punk bands that sounded even remotely alike, and that included groups that shared some of the same members, like avant-noise act International Language and power-punk quartet the Nervous.
"Bands in Phoenix had obviously heard punk rock, but I don't think they were so dogmatic about the influence," theorizes former Junior Chemists guitarist Brendan de Vallance. "I think at first people were more just taken by the whole creative aspect of it. People were interested in doing their own thing, which, I think, was the whole point of punk rock in the first place."
If the early Phoenix punk bands had anything in common, it was that most were a tad more theatrical than your average bar band. Killer Pussy, for example, was known to treat audiences to such homespun entertainment as tying a man in drag to a wheelchair and beating him with a whip. At the opposite end of the spectrum was demented kiddie-show band the Junior Chemists, which featured future JFA-Housequake bassist Michael Cornelius. Chemist Brendan de Vallance never let his complete ignorance of the technical side of music--i.e., chords and stuff--keep him from beating out tunes like "Spooky Cooties" and "Monster Island" on his two-string guitar.
But the most flamboyant punk had to be Feederz vocalist Frank Discussion. "He'd wear a see-through raincoat on-stage with nothing underneath," remembers LaMode with a shudder. "And, believe me, he had nothing to show." Discussion, however, was most notorious for on-stage rat abuse--including smashing some of the little creatures to death with a hammer--that would make him animal rights activists' Public Enemy No. 1 today.
Victor served as promoter for many of these more outrageous punk shows, although he claims he didn't always condone the band's twisted antics. "Some of the stuff was disgusting," he admits. "I can't say I liked a lot of the shows I put on, but that was part of it. You paid your money, you didn't know what was going to happen, and you didn't know what you were going to get. That's worth the money in itself."
Many of the bands' punk shenanigans took place in Mad Gardens' chain-link-fence-enclosed wrestling ring. There were other local punk niteries as well, such as the Salty Dog, the Solid Gold, and the Star System. Even the Mason Jar, which has since become the domain of metal bands, used to give crazed punk-thespians like Killer Pussy the run of the place.
Shows at rented halls, with their rowdy, private-party atmosphere, were more often the venues of choice for bands and audiences alike. The first of such gigs was the Lucy LaMode-hosted Trout-a-Rama at Sunnyslope's Firefighters Hall, a psycho-bash that featured four punk bands and a fish raffle. In the next couple of years, nearly every available hall in town was rented out for shows, including the Jaycees, the Plumbers Union, the VFW, and the Knights of Pythias. Places that previously had held nothing more wild than a fish-fry or bingo tournament were suddenly invaded by swarms of slam-dancers. Usually when the hall owner got wind that his establishment was being turned into a punk rumpus room, he politely invited the bands to take their business elsewhere.
The crowds that turned up at shows usually reflected the diversity of the bands on the bill. Gigs attracted skateboarders, beatniks, militant punks and even plain old students. "It wasn't like everybody had a mohawk or everybody had short hair or everybody had outrageously colored hair," says de Vallance. "Everyone was different. There was a totally unique feel to the scene."
The grab-bag quality of the early Phoenix punk scene, where you could see bands as different as the Meat Puppets, Killer Pussy, and JFA all on the same bill, didn't last. After a while, the hard-core skinhead faction began to dominate the shows, and the performance-art punk of bands like Killer Pussy and the Feederz became obsolete. To the new crowds, music became secondary to working out pubescent aggressions in the slam pit.
"Later on, it got to the point where the hard-core element just wanted to see hard-core," recalls Victor. "They wanted to slam for four hours. That really wasn't what the early Eighties punk scene in Phoenix was all about, although it did have that element. The JFA kids were always into that Huntington Beach slam-dancing. But later on, it got to be where punk was hard-core and hard-core was punk."
By the time of this hard-core takeover, much of the early punk crowd had become burned out on the scene anyway. "People get jaded so easily," notes Francine Ruley, an inveterate clubgoer and big-time Nervous groupie in the early Eighties. "About '84 or '85, a lot of support was lost. We were all around the same age at a certain time, and by the mid-Eighties, we'd graduated from school and gotten jobs and just kind of moved on."
(For a look at what happened to a a few of these former Phoenix punks, see the accompanying story.)
But don't get the idea that the Valley's punk population dwindled in the mid-Eighties. Actually, the crowds of skate-punks, skinheads and various hard-core kids that flocked to later hangouts like Vivian's, Party Gardens, and the Metro were more than triple the size of the early audiences. "If you're looking at it from a dollars-and-cents point of view, the second half of '84 to late '88 were the big years," claims Victor. "But then it was more of a hard-core scene, and it just wasn't as interesting."
Victor has grown so apathetic about the state of the local punk scene that he recently decided to hang up his hat as a promoter--except for a few bands like JFA--as well as shut down Placebo Records, which has released discs by many a Phoenix punk music pioneer in the past nine years. Many see Victor phasing himself out of local music as the final death blow for the Valley punk scene. But you'll have to excuse Victor if he can't seem to squeeze out any tears over the passing of the punk epoch.
"I think the era that people remember so fondly already ended a long time ago," he shrugs. "These are just some of the repercussions. It's time for us to move on. I mean, how long do people want to flog a dead horse?"
Feederz vocalist Frank Discussion was most notorious for on-stage rat abuse--including smashing some to death with a hammer.
Places that previously had held nothing more wild than a fish-fry or bingo tournament were suddenly invaded by swarms of slam-dancers.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.