Music News

Army Recruit

As a 17-year-old skateboarder up in Anchorage, Alaska, where I worked at the only skateboard shop in town, I was sprung on the skaterock that was the soundtrack of my crew's four-wheeled adventures. Bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Agent Orange, and especially JFA (Jodie Foster's Army) provided the extra energy we needed when the streets were snow-free and dry enough to roll around. It was fast, screaming, aggro music that perfectly matched our churning stores of adolescent testosterone.

Little did I know at the time that I'd later live in Arizona, where JFA had gotten together and first begun playing shows. JFA is an integral part of the fabric of punk rock history here, as seminal to locals as the Meat Puppets were. Now, almost 15 years after I was first rocking JFA tracks like "Beach Blanket Bong Out" and "Cokes and Snickers," I'm about to finally witness the band that invented the skaterock genre (by nearly all accounts) celebrate its 25th anniversary with two shows this weekend -- and all I can think is, sick! For many stick-wielding locals who missed out on the band's early years, these might be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

JFA is based out of Huntington Beach these days. The band hasn't called Arizona home since about 1990, when the members scattered across California. Singer Brian Brannon and guitarist Don Redondo are the only remaining original members in JFA, and I had the chance to bullshit on the phone with them recently.

The invention of skaterock was almost accidental -- back in 1981, Redondo, 21 at the time, was living here to attend DeVry University. He hooked up with bass player Michael Cornelius, also 21, and Mike "Bam Bam" Sversvold, 14, and they decided to form a band of all skateboarders to make the kind of music they wanted to skate to.

The skateboarding scene was nothing like it is now -- kids don't realize how good they've got it out here with the multitude of government-sponsored skate parks that have opened in the last 10 years or so. Back then, Redondo remembers, "Everything we did was illegal. Backyard pools, desert pipes, and drainage ditches -- all that stuff's a bust."

The threesome ran into Brannon at an old Phoenix underground gathering spot known as the Hate House. Brannon, then 14 years old, had snuck out of his parents' house. As he remembers it, "I ran into Michael [Cornelius], and he said they were starting a band of all skaters, and they needed somebody to scream. 'Can you scream?' I walked up and got right in his ear and just let out the loudest bellow from the bottom of my chest that I could, and he said, 'Yeah, you're in.' I think his ears are probably still ringing to this day."

The band found a benefactor in Tony Victor, who started booking punk acts at the Madison Square Garden venue on Van Buren, and was the impresario behind Placebo Records, which released the two seminal albums that established JFA as the premier skaterock band in the nation. Victor handled the band's booking and marketing, and provided them with a bus for touring. When Placebo Records went under in 1988, JFA lost its organizational coordinator, but while a lot of the world assumed the band was no longer in business, it really just slowed its pace. JFA has never broken up in its quarter-century of existence.

"People think it would have been hard to stay together," Redondo says. "But we've never been one of those bands that live in the same house and believe the same stuff. It was more like Jodie Foster's National Guard -- you do one weekend a month and three weeks a year."

Twenty-five years later, Brannon and Redondo are circumspect about the genre they helped invent and the modern state of punk rock and skateboarding. When the band formed, slam dancing was overtaking pogoing at the punk rock shows, and the danger was palpable. "It was pure chaos with people going every which way, fists flying, legs flying," Brannon tells me. "There was no rhyme or reason to it. It was violent; you had to protect your vital areas.

"Now just about anybody can go buy their punk rock gear at the mall and dance around. It's not like the cops are gonna come crack your head or throw you up against the curb for having a Mohawk. It's not like some beer-bellied hippie in a Camaro is gonna come by and throw a bottle at your head. It's a lot safer now. I think it's lost some of its meaning because of that. A lot of the danger and things that made it special are gone."

Luckily, though, and rather surprisingly, JFA isn't gone, and the band continues to write new material despite not having a label since the Placebo Records heyday. (Alternative Tentacles released a compilation of the old Placebo recordings in 2003, called We Know You Suck.) Brannon and Redondo tell me the band still manages to play about once a month.

I don't skateboard any longer, but I've been to the skate parks and I live with a houseful of skaters, so I, too, can attest to the differences between skating back when I did it and the full slate of amenities that grommets have these days. Also, it's gotten to the point that anything can be skateboarding music, from hip-hop to indie rock to hair metal. JFA's triumphant return to the Valley is a rare chance for those who were there back in the glory days to wax nostalgic and for the younger kids to get a glimpse of what skateboarding and its attendant music were like before the X Games and Tony Hawk video game.

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Brendan Joel Kelley