Local Wire

Mighty Sphincter and the Hammersmith Hoax

When Slope Records began releasing vintage Phoenix punk records toward the end of 2015, there were a few jewels in the crown for the fledgling label. One of those jewels was a 1987 live recording by the infamous Mighty Sphincter, which was released under the title Undead at Hammersmith Odeon
on March 7.

Many Phoenicians familiar with local music history, especially of the underground variety, will remember Mighty Sphincter, as it’s not exactly a band name one easily can forget. Formed by guitarist (and self-proclaimed vampire) Doug Clark in 1982, Mighty Sphincter has existed off and on for the past 34 years in one form or another. The band has released almost a dozen records, CDs, and cassettes over the years, and had nearly as many different lineups of musicians around Clark, who has been the only constant.

In the mid-’80s, after enigmatic lead singer Ron Reckless left the band, Mighty Sphincter trudged on as a three-piece. Clark assumed vocal duties, with the late Joe Albanese on bass and Greg Hynes in his familiar seat behind the drums. After releasing The New Manson Family on the premier local punk and noise-rock label at the time, Placebo Records, in 1986, the band decided to reach out to Bil Yanok to help round out the lineup.

“He’s [Yanok] the only person that we asked. We, Doug and I, didn’t know if he’d say yes. The Ron [Reckless] stuff is highly psychotic. Bil added a whole other element and made it cohesive, but not as psychotic,” Hynes remembers.

Yanok’s background was a perfect fit for Mighty Sphincter at the time. He brought with him the tight, highly structured songwriting from his time in the exceptional Valley band The Nervous. He also offered a knack for theatrical improvisation he showed during his time in International Language. More importantly, Yanok brought a little direction to the organized chaos that swirled around the band he was joining. At 6-foot-5, Yanok also brought a huge presence to the band’s stage persona, looming over the crowd and unafraid to lock eyes with anyone.

In 1987, when the recording in question was made, the lineup for Mighty Sphincter also included Wayne “Sleepy” Frost on bass, who had taken over for Albanese around the time Yanok joined the band, making the pedigree of this lineup pretty exceptional. Clark and Frost had played together prior to Mighty Sphincter in the short-lived Phoenix band The Brainz, whose eponymously titled 1978 seven-inch record goes for a pretty penny these days. Hynes was in another late-’70s/early-’80s local band, The Teds, a band that appeared on the 1982 Placebo Records compilation, Amuck, with Yanok’s International Language.

The story of Mighty Sphincter is crazy enough, but the thought of Mighty Sphincter playing at a venerable old venue in London like Hammersmith Odeon is nothing short of mindboggling. Even more so is the fact that there exists a good-quality cassette recording of the show lost for almost 30 years.

“I heard the cassette the night after the show on a little boom box and thought, ‘Fuck, this sounds great,’ so I bugged him for years,” Hynes shares. “This was the best live recording we’d ever done.”

“Back then, it was rare to get a recording this good off a cassette,” Yanok adds.
According to the band, the nine tracks that made it off of the cassette, which was recorded straight from the board on August 11, 1987, are only a portion of the actual show, but it sounds nothing short of killer. Undead at Hammersmith Odeon includes several tracks from the proper studio recording the band had done earlier in 1987 for an EP called In the Kingdom of Heaven (Placebo). “Hollywood Goes to Hell” and “Kingdom of Heaven” sound fantastic, as does the earlier track “Ghost Walking” (from the 1985 Ghost Walking double EP) and covers of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” which Hynes and Yanok both found incredibly ironic to be playing in a historic London venue.

Hynes and Yanok were in agreement that the show itself happened almost by accident. The band had gotten some attention in Spin magazine earlier in the summer of 1987.

“There was a guy from the BBC at the show in Atlanta,” Hynes recalls. “He said, ‘You guys are getting a lot of airplay in London. You guys should play.’ So we put him in contact with Tony [Victor, the band’s manager and part owner of Placebo Records] and Tony set up the show. If I remember right, it’s hard to say exactly what happened.”

Yanok: “The Hammersmith show opened up. I think we played the night after Guns N’ Roses. Their PA was set and their equipment was set; we didn’t have to bring anything. We were playing the show in Atlanta, and the next minute basically, we had …”

Hynes: “We had a free trip to London. We didn’t get paid. They just brought us over and we were tripped out. We thought, ‘This is what happens when you get airplay?’”

Yanok: “It was good. That was like the culmination of our little adventure as a band, looking back on it. We had shows to get back to because we blew off a couple of shows to do [London].”

Hynes: “Looking back on it now, it was really strange and hilarious.”

What’s even more hilarious is that none of this actually happened.

Clark, who was reluctant to release the record, blew the doors off the hoax during a discussion a few weeks ago when pressed about why he was not very happy with such a great-sounding recording.

“It’s all a big lie. It’s really a show from Atlanta,” Clark says.

While a certain level of misdirection has been a Mighty Sphincter staple, this was not one Clark could get behind. For 1986’s The New Manson Family, for example, Mighty Sphincter had put on the record sleeve that Alice Cooper had produced the record, even though he had never seen or met the band. For In The Kingdom of Heaven, the band had announced that former lead singer Ron Reckless had died in a car accident, also a hoax. Undead at Hammersmith Odeon follows in the same tradition.

Yanok shared later that it was all in good fun, and that he left clues all over the album art to let the cat out of the bag.

“Publicity of any kind is always bullshit half of the time,” Yanok says.

Either way, the record is definitely a must for any Phoenix punk-rock archivist or Mighty Sphincter fan. The band probably should have clued in the Slope Records owner, local punk rock archivist and swimming pool impresario Thomas Lopez. Lopez says he was completely unaware of the hoax until after the second printing, bringing the number of copies of Undead at Hammersmith Odeon out there to 2,000. The Slope Records owner declined comment at this time, but his disappointment was more than apparent during a brief conversation.

“Mighty Sphincter has always been a band of lies,” Hynes says. “That’s what you get when you create music for the criminally insane ... I had hoped it [the Hammersmith hoax] would have had more time to develop, though. Ron Reckless didn’t die in a car crash, Joe Albanese didn’t die from AIDS, I’m not really Mr. Wonderful, and Doug Clark isn’t really a vampire.”
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon