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Placebo Records and the Story of Phoenix's Wild Early Punk Scene: An Oral History

Placebo Records and the Story of Phoenix's Wild Early Punk Scene: An Oral History
Tom Carlson

If you were a punk in Phoenix (or anywhere, really) in the ’70s — a simpler era, before the music world was rife with labels like “alternative music” and “pop-punk” and “grunge” — you were ahead of your time. To be a fan or creator of underground music was often a solitary practice and, at best, something that you had in common with only a few people. In metro Phoenix, just a few short-lived options existed for gathering with like-minded folks to watch the new bands that were popping up.

Occasionally local bar owners would throw the “weirdos” a bone and let punk and New Wave bands play at places like Star System in Tempe, Whiskers West (on the west side, naturally), and even the old Dizzy’s at Seventh Street and Glendale Avenue. Infamous local DIY shows like Trout-O-Rama and X-O-Rama occurred, and there were happenings at the Hate House in central Phoenix. But on the whole, the Phoenix punk scene was so subterranean as to be barely detectable.

Then, 40 years ago, 19-year-old Tony “Tony Victor” Beram put on his first “Industrial Dance” at the old Jaycees Hall on Seventh Street and Indian School Road, and the punk landscape in the city changed forever. The foundation Beram helped create through Mersey Productions —which put on underground punk, noise, and weirdo shows at places like Mad Gardens (a.k.a. the Madison Square Garden boxing and wrestling venue), Vivians, and the Metro — would live on in the live music scene for several decades to come.

As would Placebo Records, which Beram founded in 1981. Over its almost-nine-year run, the label put out records by mostly Phoenix-based bands. Many of these records became sought-after jewels for music fans and record collectors all over the world. Some of the roster acts, like Jodie Foster’s Army (JFA) and the Sun City Girls, became legends here in town and on a national and international level. Other bands like Mighty Sphincter, Zany Guys, and the Harvest inspired countless other bands and fans.

Though the label didn’t outlast the decade it was founded in, its influence is evident on later DIY local labels — AZPX Records, Gilgongo Records, Onus, and Slope Records, among others — that are currently funneling music into our local stores and playlists.

What follows is an oral history of the Phoenix underground music scene that revolved around Placebo Records. It’s a story of friendship, but it’s also a story of how Beram, along with partners Greg Hynes and Mark Bycroft, shaped the weirdly theatrical world of Phoenix punk rock in the early and mid-1980s.

The story begins sometime around 1973, in a park in Maryvale.

Greg Hynes, a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful (Placebo Records partner/member of Teds and Mighty Sphincter): The first time I met Tony [Beram], I could not stand him. I think it was eighth grade. I was walking through the park with my next-door neighbor, who was one of those guys that was taller and bigger than most kids. I was smaller than most kids and Tony was very small, too.

Tony comes up to my friend, the big guy, and just starts ripping his ass. Telling him he was a pussy and just egging him on, trying to get him to fight. I said to my friend, “You going to take this from this guy?” And Tony turned on me and said, “Oh yeah? You want some of this, motherfucker? You want some?”

I thought, “Wow, look at the balls on this guy,” because he was smaller than me. My first impression of him was that I hated his guts, and then we became best friends.

Placebo Records co-founder Tony “Tony Victor” Beram at the Phoenix locker where he stores the label’s memorabilia.
Placebo Records co-founder Tony “Tony Victor” Beram at the Phoenix locker where he stores the label’s memorabilia.
Jim Louvau

Tony Beram, a.k.a. Tony Victor (Placebo Records partner/manager of Teds and JFA/founder of Mersey Productions): I was a teenager during the ’70s, and I grew up influenced by The Beatles and the Grateful Dead. I wasn’t a musician, and I thought somebody has got to notice the guys who were behind the scenes looking at the business side.

Hynes got into a band really early when we were in high school, and I started hanging out and watching them rehearse. They asked me to manage them when I was about 16 years old. Originally, that band was called Détente. A couple of years later, we changed the name to the Teds.

Mark Bycroft, a.k.a. Mark Bekin (early Placebo Partner/ member of Teds/soundman at early Mersey Productions shows): When I was in high school, a rock band moved in next door. I made friends with the guitarist and he formed a band with Greg Hynes and Bob Peterson. I met Tony [Beram] when I would go over and watch the band practice and drink beer. When that band [broke up], I said I would play bass and that band [eventually] became the Teds.

We were doing almost country rock at the time. Tony, Greg, and I went to the Mason Jar [now Rebel Lounge] and saw Billy Clone and the Same. At the time, I didn’t know what punk was, and I heard them, and it was fresh and sounded good and we really liked it.

At one point, we decided, “Hey, we can do a record.” That was the formation of Placebo. Greg, myself, and Tony were behind that.

The influence of managers and promoters like [Brian] Epstein [The Beatles], Shep Gordon (Alice Cooper), and [Bill] Graham (Grateful Dead, Wonderland Ballroom, and Fillmore East and West Ballrooms) was something Beram would look to consistently as he realized that if something was going to get done for the Teds or to make this new, underground music more accessible to people, he was going to have to do it himself.

In 1979 and 1980, there were a few gigs happening around town at various event spaces that could be rented out, but these shows were often fraught with a significant risk of the police showing up and shutting it down or less-than-appreciative groups of non-underground music fans who would show up and start fights. Bill Yanok and the late George Dillon put on several well-attended “Industrial Dances” as a way to make money and provide a place for their band, International Language, to play.

Bill Yanok, a.k.a. Bill Bored (The Nervous/International Language/Mighty Sphincter): The first one was in 1979. We figured we would put a show on of our own and make some money. We booked this hall and we told him we were going to do a wedding. We were selling alcohol to anyone because they had a bar. We thought, “This must be okay.” By the skin of our asses, we got it all cleaned up before the guy came back to get his keys the next morning. We realized this was a lot of work.

Tony picked up that this was going on and he saw the opportunity and he seized it. He’s a doer. He doesn’t just talk about it, he does it. We were more than happy to pass [the idea of doing the shows] on to Tony.

Sun City Girls members Alan Bishop and Richard Bishop remember meeting Beram and Hynes in 1981. The band became an integral part of the Placebo Records story and played many shows for Beram’s production company over the years. Sun City Girls would go on to have a storied career before the death of drummer Charlie Goucher in 2007.

Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls/JFA/Maybe Mental): You may think I’m exaggerating, but it was like a scene out of a Scorsese film. They arrived at the crazy open mic night I was hosting at a bar in a Tempe pizza parlor sometime in 1981. Tony and his brother Mike, Greg, and a few other people in their crew drifted in and immediately transformed the room with their presence. They looked different — like young psycho hippies with an attitude and air of confidence who didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought of them. Tony was smoking clove cigarettes and kind of resembled a young Charles Manson, Greg looked like a hustler punk Jack Nicholson joking like the Riddler from Batman, and Mike carried a Dylan vibe with his guitar and pants with the stars and stripes of the American flag a la Abbie Hoffman circa 1968. I thought to myself, “Who the fuck are these guys?”

Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls): Tony and Greg were just cool cats with a good attitude and easy to get along with. Tony seemed kind of laid-back but very confident. Greg was just plain funny and could play many roles like the actor that he was, though I didn’t know it at the time. He was unpredictable and sometimes, even quite frightening. Both were straight shooters [and] they wouldn’t take shit from anybody! We all became good friends right away.

In summer 1981, Beram started putting on now-legendary shows at a venue called Madison Square Gardens (which would become known as “Mad Gardens”) at 37th and Van Buren streets in Phoenix.

Doug Clark of Mighty Sphincter plays guitar at Mad Gardens in Phoenix in the early 1980s. A young Michael Cornelius is taking pictures in the background.EXPAND
Doug Clark of Mighty Sphincter plays guitar at Mad Gardens in Phoenix in the early 1980s. A young Michael Cornelius is taking pictures in the background.
Joseph Cultice

Beram: If it weren’t for wrestling, there wouldn’t have been a Mad Gardens for punk shows. My uncle, Barry Bernsten, started doing the wrestling shows [there] every Friday night. I was the announcer at the ring. It dawned on me at a certain point that maybe this was the venue I was looking for. I asked my uncle to rent it to me on Saturday nights. He threw out a number and I said, “I’ll take it every Saturday night.”

Jesse Srogoncik (The Larkspurs, Destruction, Paris 1942): At the time, when Tony came, things were so disparate and I kind of liked it like that. Certainly, though, because of Mad Gardens, they were able to expose people to a lot of great music.

Yanok: Mad Gardens was so important to this town. By having a solid place to play, by having semi-security — because back then it was a little sketchy because things would get a little hairy from time to time — it was a place to go where you could be left alone. And all ages ... It had a real value for kids in this town. It was somewhere for kids to go and do stuff.

When I met Tony, he was still a teenager. We were dicking around for money after the show, and I could tell he was making money off this place, but I didn’t know who he was. I’m like 3 feet taller than Tony, and I’m looking down at him. He was wearing a Grateful Dead shirt. At the time, I despised the Grateful Dead. So, I’m looking at him and I say, “How old are you?” He might have said 19. I’m like 23 or 24, an old guy.

I look him in the eye and say, “Fuck you.” That was our first meeting and we’ve been dear friends ever since.

Don Pendleton (JFA/Roll Ons/The Deez): [At Mad Gardens], there were so many bands coming from out of town on a regular basis and there were so many slots for opening bands. [In] the old days in Phoenix, you couldn’t even get a show. I thought these bands like Junior Achievement and the Nova Boys were so lucky because all you had to do was sign up and you get to open for whoever at the Mad Gardens. They didn’t realize how hard these shows were to come by before Mad Gardens. Most of those early Phoenix bands wouldn’t even have existed because there was nowhere to play.

Beram: Now, there was this place that was open every weekend. Feederz played early on with JFA, and that was an infamous show because those two crowds didn’t really care for each other very much. They both put out their own flyers that were pretty funny. It was kind of like watching Democrats and Republicans now. JFA’s flyer said something like, “Anyone can kill a rat, but can you skate?” (This was JFA poking fun at Feederz’ singer/guitar player Frank Discussion’s penchant for killing rats on stage.)

Everybody wanted to play Mad Gardens, and all of a sudden there was a record label, too, and bands wanted me to put out their records. I had my hands full.

W. David Oliphant (Happy Dead Man/Maybe Mental/Destruction/Dali’s Daughter): The shows at the Garden would have lineups with Eddy Detroit and the Meat Puppets and the Sun City Girls opening for the Minutemen, and between sets you’d have an emcee between the groups telling jokes or maybe doing poetry. It was a very inclusive scene for everything that didn’t fit in within the world of normalcy. That was my big, huge attraction to it. I could kind of fit in there.

Brian Brannon (JFA/Racer X): At Mad Gardens, we had all these different bands and the touring bands, rightfully, would get the money. That’s just how it works. It still is that way. With Tony, pretty much any band could open for the big bands coming through town. He made sure people got heard and [it was often] $3 for a show that anybody today would pay $30 for, and gladly.

JFA’s Live 1984 album cover.
JFA’s Live 1984 album cover.
Placebo Records, photographed by Jim Louvau

Beram and Hynes saw JFA perform early in 1981 and saw potential in the new and relatively young band that featured Brannon [who was 14] on vocals, Mike “Bam Bam” Sversvold [also 14] on drums, Michael Cornelius [who was 21] on bass, and Don Pendleton [also 21] on guitar. The band came with a built-in crowd of skateboarders who were loyal to their hometown band.

Al Penzone (Nova Boys/Sticky Thang): Once JFA came out, all the skater kids glommed on to them. They were our friends and we supported them. JFA was our band. We couldn’t follow TSOL or Dead Kennedys or Social D because we didn’t fucking live in California. Tony saw us all supporting JFA and he put out the first single.

Pendleton: Tony called me and Mike Cornelius to his house in Maryvale and said, “Hey, I want to put out a record by you guys.” ... It just fell out of that meeting where he said, “You guys got something going here, why don’t we put out a record?”

Hynes: Our attitude toward contracts at the time, you know, Tony and I didn’t have any money, but we weren’t going to sign any contracts with anybody. Our feeling was that we were putting our money on the line and if you don’t trust us, we don’t trust you. We’re probably not going to make anything off of this, and if you’re going to hound us for money, then it’s not going to work.

Beram: The amount of time I had, financially, to record JFA’s first record was about three or four hours. I was focused on simple things like, “We have this much money, period. You’re not going to be able to spend more than this, so you have to get it done.”

The storied 1982 Placebo compilation, Amuck.EXPAND
The storied 1982 Placebo compilation, Amuck.
Placebo Records, photographed by Jim Louvau

With Placebo Records officially up and running toward the end of 1981 and Mersey Productions using Mad Gardens to provide a stable place to stage punk and underground shows, Beram, Hynes, and Bycroft were all working full time to support the efforts of the businesses. Officially, Blatant Localism’s Placebo catalog number is PLA101 and the Teds’ The Eighties Are Over EP is PLA201, but there are differing opinions among the key players about which came out first. (They were being recorded around the same time, with the Teds session happening in Los Angeles with Beram’s brother, Eddie Beram, acting as a producer.)

In 1982, the trio managed to put out a third record — the first of three compilation records to feature Phoenix bands — with Amuck, a comp that featured 17 tracks by 17 different local bands. It included Killer Pussy, Meat Puppets, JFA, Paris 1942 (which featured Mo Tucker of the Velvet Underground and Alan Bishop of Sun City Girls), Sun City Girls, and many more. Most agree that the record captured something special and enduring about the Phoenix underground music scene.

John “Johnny D” Dixon, Phoenix music history expert, DJ, and record and memorabilia collector: Amuck was just a great record. It really encapsulated a moment in time, which a lot things don’t do. These [Placebo compilation] records were audio pictures of the times.

Derrick Bostrom (Meat Puppets/Victory Acres): For the Placebo “Unpleasant” song, we went into another really nice little session which was hyper as fuck. We did an early version of “Magic Toy Missing” which ended up on Meat Puppets II. The “Unpleasant” track sounds really good. I wish it were a better song. The lyrics were fucking stupid. Some stupid shit that I wrote. Happily, Curt [Kirkwood] didn’t enunciate them.

Srogoncik: I think Tony was interested in catching a snapshot of Phoenix with Amuck. The fact that it is as diverse as it is kind of illustrates the adversity that the scene really dealt with the whole time. I’ve always been proud of the Phoenix scene — and I think it has been criminally underrated — because of its diversity. Tony was the curator of that material and I think he did a good job.

Oliphant: That was my first time on vinyl. At that point, everybody was just a few years into it. There wasn’t a set bunch of groups that were established. It was all so fresh and new and exciting. To get it onto a record was really exciting. Looking back on it now, that was a monumental thing, especially when you look at the lineup on the record.

Lucy Lamode (Killer Pussy): We were on a lot of compilations, but I do remember Amuck and I’m pretty sure I had a couple copies of it. It was a great album.

Placebo’s 1984 compilation, This Is Phoenix Not the Circle Jerks.
Placebo’s 1984 compilation, This Is Phoenix Not the Circle Jerks.
Placebo Records, photographed by Jim Louvau

1983 and 1984 saw Placebo Records kick things into a higher gear, releasing several stellar releases, including JFA’s classic first full-length LP, Valley of the Yakes, Zany Guys’ EP Party Hits Vol. II, Sun City Girls’ self-titled LP, Mighty Sphincter’s debut 7”, and the second local compilation, This Is Phoenix Not The Circle Jerks. The label also reissued 7” EPs by earlier Phoenix bands, Feederz and The Brainz, and distributed an album by Tucson’s Conflict called Last Hour. Beram also started putting Placebo bands on the road, resulting in odd pairings like JFA and Sun City Girls’ 1984 national tour.

1984 was also the year that Mad Gardens ceased to exist as a venue for Mersey Productions. It morphed into HC Presents and, later, Billyboy Presents (a “tribute” of sorts to local TV reporter William La Jeunesse whose reporting on Beram’s mid-’80s venue, The Metro, played a key role in getting it closed down).

By 1985, Placebo had entered into its most prolific period. The label released two records by New York-based acts: Artless’ self-titled EP in 1985, and Eugene Chadbourne’s Kill Eugene LP in 1987. Beram and Hynes also partnered with New York industrial artist Paul Lemos on the Dry Lungs compilation series, which included Oliphant’s Maybe Mental. The third and final local compilation, More Coffee for the Politicians, came out in 1985 and featured 15 tracks by 15 different local bands, including JFA and Sun City Girls, who were the only bands to appear on all three compilations.

Mike Beck (Response/Chatterbox/Blotter): There was no other label that would put out the music that they put out. If it wasn’t for Tony Victor, there would be a lot of good music that is missing.

Brannon: All the comps I loved because they just showed the diversity of the scene in Phoenix. To me, it really captured what punk rock is supposed to be. Placebo helped all those bands get their stuff out there and connect with people. Look at the Sun City Girls. How do you label that? The first Sun City Girls album is right up there. The Amuck album, the Brainz, Sphincter. [On the ’84 tour] Sun City Girls tormented the narrow-minded punkers. It was great. People were riled up, and then we would come on and all that riled-ness would be directed toward the dance floor.

Eugene Chadbourne (solo artist/Shockabilly): What was appealing and special about the Placebo relationship at the time was they wanted to — and went ahead with — a full-scale release in all the formats: video, CD, LP, cassette. That might be the only time that has happened with one of my works.

Over the years, Placebo Records provided a lot of opportunities for local musicians to not only ply their craft but also hold down a part-time job in the underground music biz, as well.

Elaine Di Falco (Godwads/Kill Everyone/Mighty Sphincter): My first job was working for Tony out of his house where he operated Placebo. Tony was kind to me. He didn’t need to give me a job, but I was in a very bad situation. I was a very young girl living with a bunch of sexist, drunk musicians. I saw a lot of debauchery, abuse, dysfunction, and illness. He helped me see how music could elevate my sense of dignity, worth, and merit.

Andy Lane (ONS/too many local bands to list): I actually did under-the-table cash work at minimum wage helping pack up shirts, JFA skateboards, and records in ’83 or ’84. Tony let ONS (Our Neighbors Suck) open some big shows. I think he liked our weirdness.

The More Coffee for the Politicians compilation was released in 1985.
The More Coffee for the Politicians compilation was released in 1985.
Placebo Records, photographed by Jim Louvau

Beram and Hynes were not financially successful with Placebo (Bycroft left the partnership early on to attend college and is now an engineer working in the aerospace industry), but they worked hard to promote music and artists they cared about. Some people in the scene accused them of hoarding money or not paying people fairly.

Simple math, though, would suggest that it would have been hard to make much money at all doing what they were doing, to say nothing of the considerable expense of renting venues, paying security, purchasing promotional materials, and paying guarantees to touring bands. The majority of Placebo releases did not come close to recouping costs, and were it not for JFA and the JFA skateboards, Beram and Hynes wouldn’t have been able to keep Placebo afloat past 1981.

Michael Cornelius (JFA/The Father Figures/Housequake/Jr. Chemists): Placebo Records had the audacity to believe that the scene was even worthy of documenting. Without the structure of Placebo and Mad Gardens, I don’t think you would be writing about Phoenix punk 40 years later. Tony wasn’t a punk. He was more of a rebel that transcended whatever the flavor of the rebellion was. He had a huge independent spirit and a lot of hustle at an early age. He’s a guy that could never punch the clock for the man.

Brannon: There were always naysayers saying things like, “They are ripping everybody off!” but when you think about it, how much money are you going to make on an album by Mighty Sphincter? It wasn’t about that; it was really about promoting the scene.

Alan Bishop: Well, let’s see, they released our first three albums and put us on several compilations, booked us at venues they ran, arranged U.S. and regional tours for us, and I worked at Placebo for a couple of years in the office/warehouse in the mid-’80s. Personally, Tony and Greg have been close friends ever since, especially Tony, as I worked for his ticket company for 12 years after Placebo folded up. So, I’d say they’ve had a huge impact on my life.

Rob Locker (AZPX Records/AZPX Skateboards): I was influenced the day I found out about Placebo and never forgot. When we started the AZPX music label, we were hoping to rerelease some of the old Placebo stuff, but they weren’t into that. I totally respect that Tony Victor wanted to keep it very low-key and very sought-after, which they have done a great job of. I thought it was rad that Greg Hynes was in Mighty Sphincter. They did everything themselves. They were instilling us, as teenagers, with the DIY ethic.

Richard Bishop: Just the fact that we were able to put records out was all that mattered. It seemed to give us some sort of validity. And it was great that Tony took a chance on us. Without Tony putting out our records, we may never have had a chance at anything. I don’t think any other record label would have wanted anything to do with us. In fact, I’m sure of that. Without Tony and Greg, a lot of things would have gone undocumented, so it’s important in that respect more than anything else.

JFA's four-song EP, Blatant Localism, was released by Placebo Records.EXPAND
JFA's four-song EP, Blatant Localism, was released by Placebo Records.
Placebo Records

Beram and Hynes shuttered the label in 1988. These days, Beram has a successful career running Western States Ticket Service in Phoenix (although he says the pandemic has severely affected his business). Hynes lives most of the year in Washington, D.C., and is a high-ranking official in the transportation industry, often rubbing elbows with U.S. senators and representatives. According to The Record Room’s John Rose, most everything on Placebo sells quickly after it lands in his Phoenix store. Time, it seems, has not stopped music fans from wanting to hear the music Beram and Hynes worked so hard to share with the world.

Hynes: We wanted a great representation of what was happening in Phoenix through our eyes. We didn’t want to please anyone other than ourselves and the bands we were working with. [At the end] I was ready to be done. I was tired of all the complaining. We had two distributors go out of business, and they stiffed us for a lot of money. It just wasn’t as fun anymore. We were working so hard and people just didn’t appreciate it and just talked shit all the time. We didn’t need it. We could do other things.

Beram: We didn’t actually go out of business or bankrupt or anything. We just closed up because a couple of the major distributors had gone out of business and they owed us money and we just never had that kind of leeway to have that happen [and survive]. Before we really went belly up, I just decided to pack it up.

By that time — by 1988 — I was wearing down. It was a busy eight years or so and the amount of criticism and flak I’d taken for those eight years was starting to wear on me for someone who did so much to not have any money. My older brother said to me, “Look, I’ve been through the music business, and if you get to be 30 and you haven’t cracked it by that time, you might want to think about doing something else.” And he turned out to be right about that.

It was a great life. I loved it. It was my first love. I’m proud of what we did and I had a blast. I was a strange kid from the west side, from Maryvale, and I got to manage a real rock ’n’ roll band, go to places like New York and Toronto, and put out records on my own label, and promote shows for eight years. It was hard, yes, and I never had any money. But it was a lot of fun.

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