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A collage of early Phoenix punk.
A collage of early Phoenix punk.
Robin Grotjan

'Know The Rules Before You Break 'Em:' A History of Phoenix Punk in the '80s

Crack open the upper crust of Arizona and you won’t find mere copper. There’s a deep vein of rebellious energy and creative vigor underneath the red rocks. Punk music may not have been born in the desert, but there’s a rich history of artists adding to the cacophony with a unique, sunburned style. Phoenix New Times has told much of this story over the years, but there are still more riches to be uncovered. Here is another dive into ’80s punk rock in the Valley with those who lived it, talking about the people, places, and music that were the pillars of the scene. Now, dig in.

(Editor’s note: Some quotes have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)

Robin Grotjan, Fan and Archivist, on Ron ReXless of Mighty Sphincter

A Rocky Road: “We were friends for a long time [before marrying], but I didn’t want to meet him. He was 6’3” and looked like a monster; a friend of mine dove into a bush on Mill Avenue to avoid him.”
More Than Meets the Eye: “I was stunned because he was so smart and articulate. He was a real avid reader, and his heroes were guys like Timothy Leary and Marquis de Sade. He loved Aleister Crowley. Frank Discussion [of Feederz] would ask him, ‘Why are all your heroes fags or junkies?’ Ron would say, ‘You gotta know the rules before you break ’em.’”
The Ringmaster: “He totally took control of everything, and you either loved him or hated him. He wanted to make people uncomfortable, and he wanted to put together the full package with the music. You had to watch and see what came next.”
A Trendsetter: “A lot of the U.K. guys loved him ’cause they knew he was the real deal. He was friends with guys in Alice Cooper. Marilyn Manson pulled a lot of big things from him.”
A Mountain of a Man: “He was a Leo and just had a big presence. Everyone knew who he was. One time, Ron invited two people from the Mason Jar, and 300 people came out. He went out to talk to the police and broke it up peacefully.”
More Art, Please: “He went back to school and became a graphic designer, even did a logo for a plumbing company. But he went on making art and music and did everything, even play drums. Placebo [Records] wasn’t paying a lot, but Ron was happy to have a product out there.”
Till the End: “He definitely said some outrageous and shocking things, but he wanted people to leave feeling like they’d seen something. There were lots of odd people out there, and he was one of them.”

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John Dixon, Radio DJ/Local Music Historian, on K-15 Radio Station

The Wanderer: “The station ran for maybe six months into the first half of 1980. I’d hosted radio shows before I left to the U.K., and when I came back from working at Capitol, the station manager at KDKB asked if I’d wanted to do a completely different format.”
The Cutting Edge: “A station in Seattle was doing the 'Edge Format,’ which was a lot of punkier and harder stuff, and so we had an idea of the music, but we were maybe the second station in the country to try the format.”
A League of Their Own: “A lot of bands, the first time they were heard was on K-15. There were all these groups and a scene was establishing itself. People didn’t want to hear their parents or sibling’s music. We weren’t on air to prove ourselves.”
The Culture Emerges: "K-15 would go from 10 in the morning to six most nights. We'd shut off by sunset because the signal bounced further during the day. I had this trunk full of 45s, like Elvis Costello and The Police and Blondie and Boomtown Rats. But also local stuff like The Nervous and The Jetzons and Billy Clone & the Same. Plasmatics shot videos here and for the album cover, and we're on part of that cover."
Breaking Ground: "We did the yearly album with KDKB, but also an EP, a 7-inch, two-by-two with [songs from] The Nervous and X-Streams. Dave Albert had a studio where most of the bands recorded, and it was cheap. [Brad Singer, owner of] Zia was a big supporter, and he sell tickets of all the bands."
Too Much Too Soon: "I think the expectations were too high, though, and we were ahead of the scene. Just a few years later, places like [KUKQ] would take the same attitude and music and make it work for years. KUKQ was where the music proved its points. It was perceivable ratings wise and kept going."
A Fond Farewell: "It was not a big success, but I programmed the way I wanted to. I wished it lasted longer, but it's all a nice memory of a place in history. It was a scene ahead of its time."

Bil Yanok, Co-Founder, on The Nervous

Smashing the Gates: “I used to play pro ball, and then I got injured, and so [music] became this perfect outlet for my aggression. But at that time it was all covers. If you tried anything original, people looked at you like you had seven heads. So we lied about it, but we didn’t have any covers. Half of that was this noble idea, but it’s also like, how are you gonna do better than the SOB who wrote it?”
A Memorable Debut: “Our first show was within a week after Mike Corte [singer of Billy Clone and the Same] had OD’d, so our show became a memorial. But every one of their fans plugged into ours. It wasn’t necessarily stealing them. It was just the atmosphere.”
A Sound Like No Other: “We were never on this crusade to showcase music. The songs were good and relevant. Our stuff was more dissonant. Bands like Wire and The Fall were inspirations. We also had this noise thing that other bands didn’t have. We did a show with X once and it’s like we both found out we had invented the light bulb.”
Break the Walls Down: “The Meat Puppets were maybe [still teens] at the time, and I could get them on stage and give them an outlet. What we did was give [that band] a platform. It was hard to have this cult of people in spread-out Phoenix; it’s not like it was today. Our text message was slapping a flyer on a windshield and hoping that person liked the music.”
The Brightest Idea: “There were bands who wouldn’t even record until they got a deal. They needed permission. That DIY thing is what we brought. We were one of the first bands with a four-track, which we got with a loan from the bank for $800. We were a pretty good band who got credibility, which got us sway. We could say [to a promoter], ‘You don’t want that? We’ll go someplace else.’ We actually walked out and take a few hundred people with us.”
A True Legacy: “[L.A. and New York] certainly had their [shadows]. But that doesn’t matter. What did this city [Phoenix] make and what’s its relevancy? The Meat Puppets are still out there doing their thing.”
Nothing But Love: “There’s not a month that doesn’t go by that I don’t think what could have been. We were on the rise, and the music just started to get accepted. I loved that band. It was like my first girlfriend.”

Peter Tessensohn, Bassist, on The X-Streams

Humble Origins: “We started out with Lorraine [Springer], who was our singer, and the four of us [including drummer Bob Steinhilber, guitarist Kurt Mayberry, and guitarist Steve Kriol]. We wanted to build the band around her, ’cause she was a real good front-person. But she wanted to build around the band. We wanted to do something big, but we kind of blew it as you can see.”
Get Up: “Reggae and ska were mostly new to Phoenix, and we were one of the first to do that kind of music here. It’s really fun and different. It’s got a really cool groove. When I heard ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ I thought it was by ‘you-know-who,’ but it was just Bob Marley.”
The Relocation Shuffle: “We moved out to L.A. and we knew a fella named Roger Steffens. He’s basically the Dick Clark of reggae. He got us a lot of shows and helped us get an agent. We’d play at places like The Enclave in Silver Lake, where people could dance and see bands like us.”
The Big Time: “That [first night in L.A.] we thought we’d get signed right away. Paul Wexler, son of Jerry Wexler [the producer/promoter behind Bob Dylan and Dusty Springfield], almost signed us to a record deal after we did a demo. But Lorraine was doing the negotiations, and they wanted to sign us to a five-year development deal ’cause that’s how it worked. But Lorraine didn’t want that and she went her own way [circa 1982]. There was nothing like Lorraine, but I had that little taste and wanted to keep going.”
On and On: “Kurt and I kept playing together as X-Streams right around 1995. Kurt and I actually got signed by [a label], but then he passed away maybe a month later.”
The Return: “Lorraine and I hadn’t spoken until 2009. She said, ‘Peter, I’m so sorry.’ We were supposed to do some shows, but nothing ever came from it. A lot of people said we should’ve made it, and it would have been nice to.”
Cause and Effect: “It’s our own fault. This is America. If you watch yourself you can make it, but we didn’t. It didn’t help there was such a drug epidemic. If more bands had been diligent and rehearsed, they could’ve made it. So many bands were happy being the big fish in a small pond of Tempe and Phoenix.”
In the End: “Someone asked me once [about our legacy]. We put out good music, but beyond that, we’re putting ourselves into a place we don’t deserve.”

Brendan deVallance, Drummer/Guitarist, on Jr. CHemists

Artists Unite: “Michael [Cornelius] and Dawn Kelly and I met at ASU. Dawn and I were in the art department, and Michael was taking an art class. Michael could actually play, and I was in a few bands, like Advo-Cats, but it was Dawn who really got us together [in September 1980].”
Break Down the Door: “The Ramones gave us permission. Until I found out about them, I was listening to Southern California rock, like Neil Young. The first time I heard The Ramones, it blew my mind. But then I found out it was all so simple. Punk rock is folk music: it’s people who don’t know what they’re doing [making] music.”
Release Date: “We went to L.A. and then drove to San Francisco, where we recorded songs at Subterranean Records. We had maybe three or four songs recorded. We played maybe one gig while we were there. Those songs came out after we’d broken up [around mid-1981], but we had a good time.”
Phoenix Stood Alone: “In L.A., there was the uniform, and you’d go to a show and see 50 to 60 people dressed like that. In L.A., there was a difference between hardcore and bands like X. It was like they were warring factions. Out here [in Phoenix], we were just trying to express ourselves. It felt like a real scene.”
Deliberate Noise: “Someone told me once we sounded like Young Marble Giants, who I hadn’t heard back then, but I can hear it now. [There’s a reason] we named ourselves Jr. CHemists: We wanted to play this kind of innocent music. You have to remember, we were inventing [everything] back then. You can have something taking in that energy without all the violence and aggression.”
Your Heroes Love You: “Meat Puppets came through my town [in New Jersey] maybe 10 years ago, and they played at Maxwell’s. So I went to the show and got backstage and was talking to Curt and Cris [Kirkwood], and [someone] was playing this Jr. CHemists song ‘Customer Service’ they used to play when they were goofing around. And then they went out on stage to play [the song]. They pulled it from their subconscious ‘cause they knew I was there. It made my night, and my decade, and my life.”
A Slow Dissolve: “It wasn’t like some typical rock ’n’ roll breakup. I moved to Chicago for art school. And soon after, Michael got JFA together. They actually had their first practice at my house, before they had a name. It’s very difficult to be married for a long time. Now imagine being married to two or three people.”
The Base Remains: “We had all the elements. Dawn was very ambitious and Michael had the musical chops. We just weren’t really dedicated. Even though no one knew us nationally, we were still inventing punk rock. We were all part of laying that foundation, that building-block platform.”

The second part of our story on Phoenix's punk past, which focuses on the city's venues, can be found here.

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