"Punk Rock Karaoke," reads the flier, "50 classic punk tunes, 1977-1985. We play. You sing."
When I think karaoke, I hear the Eagles' classic-rock perennial "Take It Easy" getting an unintentional but just pummeling. I see a mike-handling softy with Bud Light-fertile blood wearing a cowboy hat and sporting a pork-butt belly and offering up chix-dig-me winks and nods. I picture him extending finger pistols toward a potential lay. Hanging from the ceiling in front of the courageous crooner is a color TV used as a word prompt. He studies the TV screen for song lyrics. A DJ cues up vocal-free versions of radio ready-mades. Surrounding him are like-dressed men with a stretched look in their eyes -- the look of punishment accepted.
Women, too, are there, successfully drinking the circumstance of single-motherhood out of their night-out minds. Soon they will give all to Gloria Gaynor's Cheez-Whiz classic "I Will Survive," or some '80s Madonna strain.
Of course, my experience with karaoke has been limited to west Phoenix and Tempe working-class bars on blurry nights after myriad beers. On occasion I have even made use of a mike and crucified a Cheap Trick number or two. But never was it much fun, even as a spectator.
Karaoke started out as a business-class phenomenon in Kobe City, Japan, more than 20 years ago. Primarily intended as a simple way for folks to ham it up in front of friends during lunchtime, karaoke soon became a way for average Japanese Joes to exercise pop-star dreaming.
According to Karaoke Scene Magazine, the word "karaoke" is an abbreviated Japanese compound: "kara" comes from "karappo" meaning empty, and "oke" is the abbreviation of "okesutura," or orchestra.
Anyway, never mind that karaoke, here's Punk Rock Karaoke.
Punk Rock Karaoke, as the group is called, is a Phoenix trio that churns out live music. Like the flier says, they play, you sing. And PRK is in-yer-face loud.
Each member of the band is skilled at big noise. Jim Bryant's destructo barre chords recall guitar heroes Ramone and Jones; Scott Bernat's rib-resonating bass notes are like Sid's, but with skill; and Buck Ellis' racket-hatchet drumming effortlessly hammers into place a good ring that takes the better part of a week to fade from your ears.
"You get to play the old songs that you grew up on that you loved playing or that you listened to," says guitarist Bryant over a beer at the Emerald Lounge in Phoenix. Bryant wears black horn-rims and has short, pitch-black hair, well-nigh a pompadour. He moved from Reno three years ago and works as a sales rep at Fender guitars in Scottsdale.
As with the two other PRK members, noisy, three-chord floggers such as Seven Seconds, TSOL and Agent Orange nurtured Bryant throughout high school.
Most of the PRK crowds are punk zealots who have been singing along to many of these tunes for years. And some get up onstage, leap about and spout lyrics with biting-into-lemon countenance. An off-key vocal often sounds right at home, particularly when backed with the typical punk wall of harmonic distortion.
"When I first moved here, I put out an ad saying that I wanted to find people to play punk rock, like Social Distortion and things like that," Bryant says. "Scott was one of the people that called. He was the only normal person that called."
Bassist Bernat interjects, "The main reason was we had an original band that we were starting and it was real slow going."
The self-employed Bernat is verbally unrestrained and peppers his conversation with literary, punk and old movie references. He has close-cropped blond hair and a rough complexion.
"The karaoke is a way for me to continue living my childhood, I guess," he continues. "It's a big rush playing these songs."
Drummer Ellis is a graveyard-shift postal worker and Sunnyslope High grad. He's a spirited skinner regarded by many as one of the best time-keeps in the city. He did time in an early '90s outfit called Boneyard, followed by three years in Sam the Butcher. Currently, Ellis mans the kit in another band, the worthy chick-fronted punk/pop band Balls.
"For me, Punk Rock Karaoke and Balls are equal projects," Ellis says through a mouthful of Bud foam. "That's how much fun this is."
Fun, indeed. A PRK show is a kind of stream-of-consciousness theater. Because it's live, there's plenty to ogle at. They offer no pricey set-ups with DJs who burp up goony patter, no wince-inducing Clint Black role-playing, and none of the dreaded songs we lost our dinner over while watching the Grammys last week. And because the singers are also part of the crowd, the crowd becomes part of the band, thereby removing any crowd/band barriers. Very punk rock.
A typical show features no shortage of tats, creeps, creepers and sweat. Now and then, a zaftig femme-dom type in a crotch-revealing mini will offer her middle finger to the mostly male crowd, then launch into a rousing version of the X standard "Los Angeles."
Like a large portion of their following, the members of PRK are all confirmed beer enthusiasts. The gigs are testament to this. Invariably, before the night is through, more than a few unlucky bastards will wind up hurling 30 bucks' worth of beer in some dark nook of the parking lot.
The idea of punk rock karaoke isn't new, and the local version nicked the idea a few years back from a pioneering L.A. version. There, a band formed that starred members of Black Flag and Bad Religion and former Minuteman Mike Watt.
For aging punk semi-heroes with Peter Pan syndrome, the gig was a means to successfully live in the record collections of their youth while not having to worry about cash between recording and touring.
Punk Rock Karaoke initially formed to write songs, not cover them.
"The number-one thing is we just wanted to play," says Bernat. "And since I'm not really a songwriter, this is it. Besides, the shows are a great excuse to drink."
"The booze is all part of it," agrees Bryant.
The band's colorful between-song banter includes everything from Bukowski quotes to slurs directed at someone who just sang and sucked.
"My favorite songs are the ones that people come up and sing well," says Bryant.
He lists Agent Orange's "Bloodstains" and Misfits songs as crowd faves.
"The Ramones, too. People always come up and sing the Ramones well."
Bernat adds, "We were playing at Hollywood Alley, one guy screeched his tires pulling into the parking lot. He was singing along to 'Bloodstains.' He was practicing all the way to the show! And the same guy sings that song with us all the time. I don't know who he is; he's just some guy.
"It's just so great when we are all in synch and someone is singing well. People have a tendency to get out of control at our shows."
Bryant: "And we like it after a show when the song lists are ripped to shreds and thrown all over the bar."
Punk Rock Karaoke shows are packed, and not with karaoke-minded middle-agers who once took a chance on a Devo record two decades ago and thought it punk rock. PRK is full-on Anheuser-Busch-fueled blue-collar punk. Complete with onstage tuning, crowd mouthing "you fucking suck," unfeasible reworkings of the Clash's "I'm So Bored With the USA" or Circle Jerks' "In My Eyes" and girls airing their mammaries.
And like Joe Strummer minus the rotted gape, Bryant defines a successful gig as "when mayhem has taken over the place."
If you don't believe him, sport, then see for yourself. Punk Rock Karaoke rips punk hell at the Big Fish Pub in Tempe on Saturday, March 4. Sharing the bill is the Hollywood corner-lurking Capitol Radio and local punk lancers Dickie Staboner.
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And to keep you in spirits between sets are the Destroy Your Generation DJs spinning sounds from the golden age of punk rock 'n' roll. Beforehand don't forget to vocalize along with a Dead Boys tune.
A riot of our own, indeed.
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: email@example.com