Doing some crate digging at Tracks in Wax, I uncovered a rather strange relic: an album showcasing local music. The cover was a faded license plate with the words Arizona Sounds Vol. 1, sponsored by KDKB 93.3 FM. It was printed in 1977.
As a Phoenix native, I've always had an interest in this sprawling metropolitan's weird history, so finding a dusty record with 12 local artists from yesteryear (none of whom I've heard of before) really piqued my interest. Thankfully, short blurbs about each artist were printed on the back of record, as Wikipedia and Google weren't very helpful. It reads, "KDKB radio has always taken an interest in local artists featuring their music both on tape and in live "on the air" broadcasts." I find that strange, since they obviously don't do much of that now. You can read the whole transcription here but otherwise there is little to no information on these bands online. Let's break this album down and dive into a little of vintage Arizona, shall we?
-100 Years of Music That Defined Arizona -Kimber Lanning on Sleepwalker's "Out of Here" (1998) -Howe Gelb on Rainer's "One Man Crusade" (1994), "The Inner Flame" (1997), and "The Farm" (2002) -Sara Cina on the Gin Blossoms' "Found Out About You" (1989)
Early Peas - "Long Day"
This is very Neil Young, with plenty of soothing guitar textures. File this under easy listening. The bio on the back simply says: "From the land of low riders and green chile come Early Peas -- previously known as Chuck Cutter and Mark Meyers."
Custer's Last Band - "Crazy Bass"
This might not surprise you, but there are a lot of country influences on this album and that dichotomy of rock n' roll versus western standards clearly shows. "I had a friend who lost his mind," lead singer Skip Reichert says by, "playing country music all the time." The rest of the story goes that the young, crazy bass player went on to be a successful musician in Nashville, living on a farm, that whole spiel. It's interesting to think how country was once more mainstream and going against that might mean your band didn't succeed.
Shep Cooke - "Roller Coaster Ride"
Let me be flat-out honest with you -- this song is awful, filled with terrible, boastful metaphors, boring guitar, and Shep Cooke's creaky voice. And I actually feel comfortable saying that, because it appears that unlike many other bands included in this list, Cooke had a moderately successful career -- he appeared on Johnny Carson's show, and he lent some guitar, vocal work, and toured with Tom Waits. Most of all, he tenured in the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt, but I had one of Ronstadt's records and hated that too. A few duds were to be expected on a record like this, so let's just move on.
The Bob Meighan Band - "From Who"
The Neil Young impersonations are really thick on this album. That's not such a bad thing. I could listen to this on summer evenings.
Joe Bethancourt - "Snakes and Cactus"
Ol' Joe introduces this song by listing the subject matter: snakes, cactus, 40 miles of bad road, one Gila monster, a sign shot through with holes and other images of the Southwest before it was domesticated into endless suburban sprawl. But before Joe starts his song, he mentions it doesn't have any words. Heh. It bursts into dueling banjoes.
I love how Bethancourt describes his music: "He's mainly into what could be called progressive mountain music, or perhaps " 'The Gonzo' of mountain music." Given that he predated "post-rock" by a few decades, he might have been onto something.
Fairweather - "'46 Plymouth Rag"
This is a song about a car. It's not even a nice car, but some junky old thing that, by the way, the record tells me is currently running. Or was. I doubt it's even in a junkyard anymore. It was probably recycled into an aluminum can or something. It's not a bad song, but I can't think of a lot of vehicle tunes that really move me. It's interesting that Fairweather says "shit" on this song. Not sure how that made it past the censors. Another interesting thing is the language used on these albums, like calling metro Phoenix "Summerland." You don't hear that one very often. Side Two
Duane Davenport - "The North of Arizona"
I lived in Flagstaff for awhile, so I understand how being around those Ponderosa pines and aspens can feel like home. I still think Phoenix is a far better town, however, so I didn't care much for Davenport's descriptions of a "heartless city."
The Normal Brothers - "Fiddler and The Gambler"
Well, this song is normal alright. It sounds like every other fiddler song you can think of, but it warns that if you play music too much, your woman will leave you and take a plane to L.A. Just keep that in mind. Fiddling: Not Even Once.
Hans Olson - "Early in the Morning"
A pretty good attempt at a Muddy Waters -style song, it talks about leaving and ain't comin' back no more. I'm sure you can guess the time of day this exodus occurs. My favorite part is how Olson describes his musical style: "With just his acoustic guitar and harmonica Hans has been playing his folk, blues, and rock n' roll dance music for honkytonk audiences, in Arizona, since 1969." Huh. "Rock n' roll dance music for honkytonk audiences." Must be a lucrative target market, as Olson continues to play out to this day.
Dusty Chaps - "Keep Your Hands Off Her Stranger (She's With Me)"
I misheard the chorus to this song at first and thought it was a tune against one night stands. "Keep your hands off a stranger..." Never mind. This is actually about a guy who takes a girl out and tells these handsy fellows who this woman belongs to. It sounds suspiciously like the Statler Brothers. They formed in the summer of 1969, which immediately made me think these guys dropped acid in San Francisco and had a hallucinatory revelation to start a band. Somehow, I think I'm wrong about that one too.
The Fabulous Air Brothers - "No Regrets"
I swear these fabulous Tucson brothers use the same riff The Who use on "Baba O'Riley." It still sounds good here, especially when they begin noodling their guitars in a gentle, Grateful Dead sorta way. Fun fact: they were the house band at the Pawnbroker Restaurant and Music Hall once upon a time.
Fester Plugg and The Stilt Chickens - "Stilt Chickens Theme Song"
This is my favorite song on the whole album and it made the entire purchase worthwhile. It's definitely the most experimental song, recorded by the band's only member, George Gilman, in his home using a four-track home recorder. He fucks with the tape a little, speeding it up, slowing it down and twisting it all up. It sounds like some demented marching song, but the best part is the lyrics:
"Some folks call us cowboys / in spite of our long hair / some folks just ignore us / pretend that we're that not there / Some folks say we're crazy / I do believe they're right / because we'll sing almost any old song / if it helps us through the night.
We live in Arizona, the land of the desert sun / we don't work too hard and we don't get too much done. The intense heat doesn't bother us / we think that it's alright / 'cuz we sleep all day anyway and party all through the night.
Desert living could make a person crazy, I believe / People around here are the craziest that I could conceive. We have desert parties, that's how we get our kicks / Would you believe the things we do out in the sticks? We all drive pickup trucks and make them go kerspluts? Uh, what?
If we never make it big, we don't really care, / 'cuz we like living here, it's better than anywhere. Don't get us wrong and think that we would pass up the chance to strike it rich and own three good pairs of pants!"
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It seems not much has changed in Arizona's outside reputation or slacker attitude, which was the whole point of reviewing this album, to see what's changed. I doubt most people would listen to most of these songs on a regular basis, but from a historical aspect, it's really enlightening. I wonder how future vinyl archaeologists will look back on compilation discs from the local Phoenix bands of today?
Troy Farah thinks about the present in the past tense at troyfarah.com